Among the hodgepodge of claims and assertions that pass for "proofs" of creationism, one of the most popular is the alleged preservation of Noah's Ark in the glaciers of Mt. Ararat in eastern Turkey. If indeed a ship is discovered at that improbable location, so the argument runs, it would be undeniable evidence that the story of the deluge in Genesis is trustworthy, and this, in turn, would mean that the historicity of the remainder of the creation narrative is verified and creationism and flood geology stand confirmed.
As John D. Morris of the Institute for Creation Research writes, "The discovery of Noah's Ark would immediately render the current premises of historical geology totally obsolescent. . . . Such a development would apply the final death blow to the already fragile philosophy of Darwinian evolution" (p. 110). Fellow Mt. Ararat climber Larry D. Ikenberry agrees: "Rediscovery of a 450-foot ocean vessel, two and one-half miles high on a mountain would shed new light on popular concepts of origins! . . . The intellectual basis for the theory of organic evolution would crumble" (p. 67).
As creationism is essentially a popular appeal to those lacking scientific expertise, one can readily appreciate the force of such reasoning, especially when it is backed up by exciting mountaineering adventures and feature-length pseudo-documentary movies. Of course, the famous boat has not yet turned up, but that hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of its proponents, who dutifully list a large number of sightings, photographs, wood fragments, and other items that thoroughly convince them and, hopefully, their audiences.
Older Ark Stories
The argument-from-the-ark in its modern form is quite newlittle more than a decade oldbut, in other guises, it has been around a long time. In the early centuries of Christianity, the church fathers occasionally resorted to it in their disputes with the pagans.
For example, John Chrysostom, the famous patriarch of Constantinople, in a fourth-century sermon asked, "Do not the mountains of Armenia testify to it, where the ark rested? And are not the remains of the ark preserved there, to this very day, for our admonition?" (Montgomery, p. 78). Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis (315-403 A.D.) chided unbelievers, "Do you seriously suppose that we are unable to prove our point, when even to this day the remains of Noah's ark are shown in the country of the Kurds?" (Montgomery, p. 77).
The force of these claims was unfortunately blunted by the fact that there was no certain location for the ancient vessel; each nation or tribe with a flood legend believed in its own landing site, often containing remains preserved "to this day." In addition to Agri Dagi (present-day Mt. Ararat), Lloyd R. Bailey lists nine other mountains connected with the biblical-Koranic tradition, of which each has been touted as the true location of the ark (chapter three). Modern apologists are quick to point out that the Genesis story, unlike many others, does not place the ark on a convenient nearby peak, such as Mt. Hebron, but far off to the north in Armeniathis supposedly lending greater credibility to its version. In reality, this feature shows the eclecticism of the ancient Israelites, who, in their nomadic wanderings and forced exiles, borrowed freely from those with whom they came in contact. In this case the donors were the Hurrians, a people who migrated south from Armenia in the third millennium B.C. and who became an important link in the westward spread of Babylonian ideas (Teeple, pp. 26-7, 33). The Babylonian deluge myth was probably related to the Hebrews through the Hurrians, complete with their geographical modifications.
After the triumph of Christianity, ark preservation stories continued to appear from time to time, but they were no longer used apologetically, since everyone believed the Bible. In an era when hundreds of pieces of the cross, vials of the Virgin Mary's tears, and other such marvels abounded, the distant vestiges of the ark would scarcely excite anyone. It says something for the credulity of modern believers that such tales are dutifully recited and tallied up, as if a dozen unfounded myths add up to one solid fact.
The age of exploration and discovery culled another handful of reports, all being mere descriptions of local legends of the same "is-is-said-by-the-natives" nature. Marco Polo, for example, took note of Mt. Ararat's claim to fame and is quoted with approval by ark searchers. Unmentioned are such facts as that, elsewhere during his travels, Polo saw a mountain that had been moved at the command of a local Christian who had "faith as a grain of mustard seed," thereby converting much of the local Moslem population (White, vol. Il, p. 211). Such was the state of affairs until the present century. An unconfirmed report here, a third-hand newspaper account there, and one or two unreliable eyewitnesses round out the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is little wonder that the early battles between Darwinism and biblical literalism were fought without the benefit of this important information.
Most of the orthodox authors never mentioned it, and the few who did did not accept it. Our current crop of creationists look back ruefully on this faux pas of their predecessors. Violet M. Cummings, discussing a sighting which was made in 1856 but went inexplicably unreported for ninety-six years, sighs, "If the truth had been disclosed at the time this event took place . . . the religious history of the entire civilized world would have been altered and . . . the conflict between creationism and the evolutionary theory would have been over before it had fairly begun!" (1975b, p. 111).
The Modem Quest
The modern era of ark searching began in the early 1940s when a number of religious papers in America carried a sensational story about a Russian expedition claiming to have discovered the sacred vessel. In brief it was related how, late in World War I, a Russian pilot flying near Mt. Ararat spotted a shiplike object protruding from a glacier. He reported this enigma to his superiors, who relayed it on up the line until the czar dispatched a large party to investigate. After nearly a month of grueling effort, the ark was found and thoroughly explored by up to 150 men, who confirmed that it perfectly matched the description given in Genesis. A report was prepared and sent back to Moscow, but, as luck would have it, it vanished during the Bolshevik Revolution. Some say Leon Trotsky destroyed it. Now, a quarter of a century later, the truth was out.
However, the ink had barely dried before serious questions and criticisms arose, and the fabric of the tale quickly began unraveling. By 1945, New Eden, where it initially appeared, and at least two other magazines, had printed retractions, and the author, Floyd M. Gurley, confessed that the story was 95 percent fiction. Subsequent examination of the remaining 5 percent "core of truth" has fairly well eliminated even this much (Noorbergen, pp. 95-96), and, in fact, it now appears that the entire episode originated in The Netherlands in 1933 as an April Fool's joke (Parrot, p. 64). Nevertheless, the one hundred plus members of the phantom expedition are still faithfully added up, yielding over half the total number of persons who have seen the ark in modern times.
Recantations notwithstanding, modern ark fever had begun. In 1949, instructed by a "revelation from God," Reverend Aaron J. Smith of Greensboro, North Carolina, set out on the first expedition specifically organized to locate the ark (Parrot, p. 65). His group thoroughly explored the region under ideal conditions and drew a complete blank. Edwin Greenwald, a reporter who accompanied them, concluded:
The ark of Noah, if it ever landed on Mount Ararat, is lost eternally to the ages. It will never be found. . . . The four-man expedition . . . explored every crevice and every clue. It scouted through the villages for one hundred miles around, seeking anyone who might know anything. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was uncovered.... In the villages, the old men and the young had heard the legend that a great boat once rested in the snow way up there. But no one had ever seen it, and they knew of no one who had. (LaHaye and Morris, p. 123)
Smith returned home dejected but with his faith in the ark's existence unshaken.
The next man to trek to eastern Turkey had better results. French industrialist and amateur archaeologist Fernand Navarra made three trips to Mt. Araratin 1952, 1953, and 1955. On the third occasion, he and his son Raphael spotted what appeared to be a shiplike silhouette under the ice, and, climbing down into a deep crevice, he recovered pieces of hand-tooled wood. The two eagerly rushed it back to Europe and had it tested, where it turned out to be approximately five thousand years oldjust the right age to have come from Noah's own carpentry shop. Proof at last? It certainly seemed suggestive, and Navarra exulted, "For me [it] is a certitude: I have found the ark of Noah" (Montgomery, p. 138).
However, two lines of inquiry have thrown a cloud over Navarra's achievement. In the first place, several people, including Colonel Sahap Atalay and J. A. deRiquier, two of Navarra's climbing companions, have accused Navarra of deliberate fraud, of planting the wood in the crevice so that it could later be "discovered." He has, of course, denied this, but the circumstances of his find remain suspicious. And when he led another probe to the same part of the mountain in 1969, wood fragments again turned up, but only after he had had an opportunity to be alone on the glacier. Such problems prompted even true believers such as LaHaye and Morris to comment, "There are certain discrepancies in Navarra's account which cast grave shadows over its authenticity" (p. 133).
Second, the dating of the wood has had to be drastically revised. The earlier tests used highly dubious techniques, such as density, color, and degree of lignitization; since then a number of laboratories have tested it by the radiocarbon method, and the dates derived in this manner all focus around the eighth century A.D., over three thousand years too late for the deluge. Bailey has studied the dating question in some detail, and he shows that the ancient age is quite untenable. So, however the wood came to be in the ice, it did not get there from Noah's ark (pp. 64-80).
Ark reports were thus increasing, but still they were being ignored in creationist argumentation. Alfred M. Rehwinkel, in The Flood in the Light of the Bible, Geology, and Archaeology, devoted an entire chapter to the story of the Russian discovery, debunking it in a manner of which a modern skeptic could be proud.
Even as late as 1961 the standard text of flood geology, The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris, relegated it to a footnote with the comment, "We fear that any hope of its preservation for the thousands of years of post-diluvian history is merely wishful thinking" (pp. 87-88). Perhaps one reason for such disbelief is that creationists regard the earth as tectonically peaceful prior to the flood with volcanic activity virtually unknown. As Whitcomb (1973) states:
Enormously high, snow-capped mountain peaks could not have existed before the flood. "The world that perished" had low-lying mountains, which were probably less than six- or seven-thousand-feet high. . . . Scripture tells us that it was not until after the flood that "the mountains rose" (Psalms 104:8). Their rise to great heights was both sudden and supernatural (p. 40).
Since Agri Dagi is a tremendous, 16,946-foot volcano, it presumably would have been erupting into existence during and shortly after the deluge, forming a severely inhospitable place for Noah and the animals to disembark.
But the pendulum was now swinging hard in the opposite direction. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the remains of the ark emerge as a major anti-evolutionary weapon. The explosion of creationist activity at this time, the trend away from science and toward the occult by the nation's youth, the involvement of the Institute for Creation Research in expeditions in Turkey, and the sophomoric simplicity of the ark as evidence all played a role. Numerous articles and at least ten books rapidly appeared, all pressing the claims of the ark seekers. Lecturers traveled around the country preaching the news; while other groups, ranging from ill-prepared amateurs to well-financed expeditions to illegally trespassing explorers, tromped about Armenia and up and down Mt. Ararat. In 1974, the Turkish government eventually had to close the area, which borders the Soviet Union, to foreigners.
Pundits nicknamed the searchers "arkeologists" and the name stuck, giving us a new pseudoscience alongside UFOlogy, pyramidology, and the like. Now, in addition to biology, geology, and cosmology, creationists could boast that their scientific enterprise included archaeology as well. Reader's Digest and Newsweek carried stories about the sightings, and publications that should have known better, such as Sea Frontiers (Gaunt) and the Standard Encyclopedia of the World's Mountains (Huxley), offered uncritical reports and comments.
The climax was reached in 1976, when, after a couple of minor ark films had appeared, Sun Classics Pictures released The Search for Noah's Ark. This well-made movie, in documentary fashion, gave supposed archaeological proof that the Bible is factual, presented the "scientific" case for flood geology, and surveyed the attempts to find the ark on Mt. Ararat, concluding that the story of Noah is "impeccably true." It was a surprising box-office success and was subsequently shown twice on NBC-TV in 1977. Noah's ark had finally come into its own.
Today, although emphasis on it has diminished a little with no new forays into Turkey, ark theory still remains a substantial piece of ammunition in the creationists' arsenal. As recently as February 1981, a new fifty-five minute movie, Noah's Ark and the Genesis Flood, was released for distribution to churches, conventions, and similar places.
The Science of Ark Searching
Having briefly traced the history of ark hunting from its origins in pious Armenian mythology to its prominent place in modern creationism, it might be instructive to take a look at the techniques employed in gathering evidence of the ark's preservation in contrast to those employed in the practice of less exotic sciences. How does one "do" arkeology? I shall not examine each alleged sighting one by one, which has been adequately done elsewhere (Bailey, 1978; Stiebing, 1976; Teeple, 1978), but shall concentrate on the methodology used.
We have already noticed the process of reciting ancient legends as if they were officially documented reports; this same tactic applies to the more recent sightings, no matter how unsubstantiated. For example, in 1948 news filtered out that a Kurdish peasant named Resit had chanced upon the vessel. Subsequent efforts to confirm this report, even with the incentive of a monetary reward, not only failed to even find anyone named Resit or anyone who knew him but also turned up a complete denial among the local populace near Mt. Ararat of any knowledge whatsoever of the ark's remains. Mr. Resit is nevertheless favorably mentioned in ark literature.
Besides missing witnesses, there is a special class of references: missing documents. In addition to the ill-fated report to the czar, there is a whole battery of lost newspaper articles, magazine accounts, and vanished photographsall of which, if they existed, would offer powerful evidence for the ark. As it is, since there is always someone somewhere who recalls having seen the item in question, they offer to arkeologists powerful evidence for the ark and are cited accordingly. The most famous missing photos were taken from a helicopter in 1953 by George J. Greene, an employee of an American oil company. A number of people claim to have seen them before he was murdered in 1962, at which time they disappeared. At that time they were not convincing enough to persuade anyone to join Greene in an ark-searching expedition; only now, when they are gone, do the photographs serve to "verify" the ark's presence on the mountain. Gaskill suggests that in this wild, rugged, mountain area they were really pictures of a large rock formation.
Another type of unavailable resource that is popular with most fringe sciences is the "government secret." In addition to a collection of wrecked flying saucers and Bermuda Triangle cover-ups, Uncle Sam supposedly has satellite and reconnaissance photographs of the Mt. Ararat region that clearly show the ark. In a section entitled "The Undisputed Facts," Balsiger and Sellier state, "Early in the decade of the seventies, American spy planes [and] weather and military satellites photographed the structure on Mt. Ararat" (p. 2).
Needless to say, the Freedom of Information Act is being diligently pursued in order to obtain these treasures. In this case though we not only have Washington holding back, but Moscow as well, for the Soviets too have decisive documentation, but, being atheists, they are not about to release it. "Little doubt remains," writes LaHaye and Morris, "of Russian knowledge on the subject and their continued suppression of the evidence," since, of course, "godless communism relies on evolution" (pp. 108, 112).
A few photographs do exist, and they are nearly always dramatically displayed. One is openly admitted to be a fake; another, which appeared in Life in 1960, was found by a hastily dispatched party to be an unusual rock formation. A blurred slide, taken from the air in 1966 and showing a "mysterious object" in a remote chasm, has been the subject of much excited speculation, including, since this site is different from others, the theory that the ark is broken into two or more pieces in various locations. Montgomery tells us that "the analysis of the slide makes it plain that whatever the object is in the lower left-hand corner, it is foreign to the material of the mountain" (Balsiger and Sellier, p. 164), but Cummings reveals, "The summer of 1973 saw this controversial object positively identified once and for all. . . . [It is] an immense basaltic rock formation covered with a white leach material resembling, from a distance, a blanket of snow!" (1975a). But it unfortunately was not quite "once and for all," for at least four books written since 1973 have continued suggesting that we may have a photo of the reclusive ship at last. There is a satellite photograph that shows absolutely nothing but a view of Armenia from 450 miles up. Yet no ark book or movie would be complete without its inclusion!
Of some concern to arkeologists is the fact that there are other mountains with arks on them, and these heretical versions must be disposed of. Misquotings, omissions, and ingenious interpretations usually turn the trick (see Bailey, pp. 22-45). The location given in the KoranJabal Judi, a peak in Arabiais probably the toughest of which to dispose, since faithful Moslems have reported seeing the ark there as recently as 1949 (Parrot, p. 65). Cummings (1975b) makes a strained attempt to identify Jabal Judi with Agri Dagi, while Kelly Seagraves goes so far as to pinpoint "Al Judi" to a small, heart-shaped snowfield on the northeast slope of Greater Araratthe precise spot where many arkeologists believe Noah landed. They happily conclude, therefore, that "the Bible and the Koran refer to the same mountain" (Seagraves, p. 15).
In cataloguing the data, a flat-out denial of discovery can be as important as a well-publicized sighting. In 1933 Carveth Wells, a Los Angeles radio commentator, traveled to the Middle East and Russia looking for the ark. The title of his book, Kapoot, summarizes the success he enjoyed. In it he specifically denied even entering Turkey, but arkeologists suspect that he secretly crossed the Soviet border, climbed Mt. Ararat alone, found the ark, and smuggled out a piece of wood. And thus another witness joins the list.
Or take Russian explorer E. de Markoff who climbed the peak in 1888. On the way up he discovered a piece of wood and burned it to boil water for some tea. Twelve years earlier James Bryce of Great Britain had also found wood and, being a good Christian, claimed that it was from the ark, although he admitted that it could have been a remnant from a monument erected by previous climbers. In Markoff's case he never once doubted that it was such a remnant, especially since his stick had Russian initials carved on it, a language presumably unknown to Noah but well known to Colonel J. Khodzko who had reached the summit in 1850 and had erected a monument. Montgomergy nevertheless devotes a chapter entitled "More Tantalizing Wood" to Markoff, suggesting that, in spite of everything, the fragment was a genuine relic from the sacred ship.
Since World War II, nearly forty expeditions have journeyed to the Near East with the specific purpose of finding the ark; but, except for Navarra's dubious wood samples, they have been uniformly unsuccessful. Even though the Holy Spirit revealed the ark's exact location to one seeker in a dream (Teeple, p. 103) and led another to believe that on the morrow he would see it (Morris, p. 55), apparently neither could find it. Teeple summarizes:
Great Ararat has been explored on all sides by ark enthusiasts and must have been explored considerably also by military units. An impressive number of ascents have been made. . . . In the twentieth century, large sums of money have been spent in organized expeditions to find remains of the ark. . . . Surely the mountain has been searched quite extensively by now! (p. 111).
Yet, creationists won't take "no" for an answer; these multiple failures seem only to strengthen their belief that success is just around the corner, if only the uncooperative Turks would let them back in.
Finally, and perhaps most amazingly, one can invent sightings out of whole cloth. In the most recent pro-ark book, Meyer lists a Turkish expedition in 1840 that spotted the ship (p. 80). I can find no other reference to this event anywhere, and Meyer supplies no documentation whatsoever. The only explanation I can think of is that when in 1883 a major earthquake shook the area, a government team, sent to inspect the damage, reported allegedly having seen the ark. Since another even larger earthquake occurred in 1840one which ark enthusiasts believe exposed the vessel, thus inaugurating the modern era of sightingsperhaps the two dates were confused. In any event, it became a "discovery" in its own right, and no doubt in future ark literature this "nonevent" will acquire added details and become a full-fledged incident, thus proving the reliability of the Bible.
Such, then, is the method and madness of creationist arkeology. It is not, in any meaning of the term, science. Starting with the results known in advance, the object is merely to confirm them. Anything contrary is ignored, unless it can be explained away; everything favorable, no matter how devoid of value, is eagerly seized. And, unlike its traditional cousin which begins with an existing artifact and studies it, arkeology has no specimen at all but nevertheless can describe it in intimate detail, including its internal construction, its purpose and date, and its implications, and, with characteristic arrogance, challenges any doubters to give up their hard-headedness. These sorts of tactics could be (and often are) employed with equal success in the quests to discover Atlantis, the Seven Cities of Cibola, or the entrance to the hollow earth. They are typical of that type of people described by Jean-Paul Sartre who, "since they are afraid of reasoning . . . want to adopt a mode of life in which reasoning and research play but a subordinate role, in which one never seeks but that which one has already found" (quoted in Kaufmann, p. 135).
Is there, then, nothing at all on Mt. Ararat? Many bona fide researchers, feeling that with so much smoke there must be some sort of fire, have proposed the theory that medieval monks built a shrine high on the mountain to commemorate the legendary landing of Noah. Dr. A. Dupont-Sommer suggested such a solution as early as 1951 (Parrot, p. 66), and there is some evidence that may point in this direction (Bailey, p. 94). After all, in an era when relics and shrines abounded and piety was proportional to the inhospitality of one's retreat, a sacred site on the ice of Mt. Ararat is not inconceivable. Even so, I believe that the data is so scanty that even this modest solution is unnecessary. When one considers the cases of pious fraud, the utter failure to recover one piece of evidence that can withstand scrutiny, the presence of unusual rock formations in this craggy, volcanic region, and American fundamentalists' unlimited will to believe, it is quite possible that there is nothing whatsoever human-made on the mountain except a few tattered remains from early climbers' monuments. But, whichever view one takes, it can be stated with assurance that there is not now, nor has there ever been a huge ship equipped with cages and stalls for animals and piloted by a man named Noah on the summit of Mt. Ararat or Jabal Judi or any other peak, and the creationist use of this as a definitive refutation of evolution and historical geology merely shows the weakness of their overall case.