In Eastern Turkey, near the border with Iran and Armenia, the clouds are pierced by a snow-topped mountain which soars 17,000 feet into the sky. Agri Dagi traditionally known as the Biblical Mount Ararat, rises suddenly from a dusty, rugged plain which emphasizes the mountain’s elegant pyramidal form. Crowning this giant is the zone of perpetual snow “a cap of dazzling silver” which was, according to the Bible, the resting place of Noah’s ark.
For centuries, local Armenians and Persians were convinced that Ararat could not be scaled. This was partly due to its height and daunting snow cap, but also because the mountain had taken on an almost mystical aura. For example, when James Morier, a British diplomat and traveller, visited the Ararat region at the start of the nineteenth century, he heard stories that the mountain was inhabited by “snow worms” small white worms so cold that they could “effectively cool a large bowl of sherbet”.
Apart from mythical creatures, there were dangerous wild ones to contend with, including poisonous snakes and spiders, lynxes, leopards, bears and wild boars. There were also reports that a dragon was threatening travelling merchants, who had also to brave brigands and outlaws. But despite these hazards, Morier describes Ararat in terms that capture its time-honoured beauty and mystique: “It is perfect in all its parts, no hard rugged feature ... everything is in harmony”.
The Cataclysmic Flood
Today, despite dangers from avalanches and wild dogs, it is quite possible to climb Ararat and see the same eternal landscape of valleys, plains and distant mountains that existed in Biblical times. The linking of Ararat with Noah’s ark is made in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. According to this account, God became so dismayed with the wickedness of the human race that he decided to wipe it out with a cataclysmic flood. Only a man named Noah was to be spared. So God warned Noah to build a boat to house his family and the birds and animals of the earth.
Then for 40 days and nights the rains came until the whole earth was flooded. Eventually, the waters began to subside and Noah’s ark landed on the mountains of Ararat. Eventually, Noah and his family and the animals emerged, and began to repopulate the earth.
In fact, the Bible does not specify which mountain of the ancient land of Ararat the ark landed on. But it is unsurprising that the towering Agri Dagi was identified with Noah in local Armenian tradition before the Christian era.
Morier asserted “no one since the flood seems to have been on the summit, for the rapid ascent of its snowy top would appear to render such an attempt impossible”. However, the first man to prove Morier wrong was a 37-year-old German professor named Friedrich Parrot.
In September 1829, accompanied by five others, including a Russian soldier who wore his best dress uniform beneath his cloak out of respect for the venture, the German reached the top at his third attempt. It was a marvellous moment. Speculating on the exact spot where the ark might have landed, Parrot surveyed the awe-inspiring view of the valley of the Araxes, with the town of Erivan a dark spot “no bigger than my hand”. The occasion was marked by the raising of a wooden cross, and a drink of wine to toast Noah, the father of viticulture.
Searchers for the Lost Ark
However, such was Ararat’s reputation that many people refused to believe Parrot’s account of his ascent. In the following years, a handful of other expeditions scaled the heights, including, in 1876, one led by James Bryce, a British historian and statesman. Bryce was one of the first to spot a possible relic of the ark; a piece of wood cut by a tool and found well above the tree line.
Over the years, other visitors to Ararat, including a Nestorian churchman in 1893, a Russian aviator in 1916, and a French industrialist in 1955, have also either seen some thing resembling the ark or brought back intriguing bits of wood. But radiocarbon testing of the wood fragments found so far does not indicate the great antiquity that would place them in the time of Noah. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the pieces of wood may have come from medieval relics (perhaps a model ark) left by monks for whom Ararat was a place of pilgrimage.