The Great Flood is one of those enduring mysteries handed down to us from ancient times. It continues to fascinate – especially those of us interested in the Bible, ancient history and global catastrophism. After all, if we are to believe the Biblical narrative, the Sumerian epic literature and numerous traditional sources from around the world, it was the event to end all events – the cataclysmic finale of the primeval age. Unfortunately, however, little convincing evidence to show that the Flood actually took place has surfaced in nearly two centuries of archaeological endeavour.
It is easy to dismiss the Flood legend simply as a myth, not worthy of investigation from an archaeological or historical standpoint. But then such a view is immediately confronted by literally hundreds of flood stories from disparate cultures scattered across the globe. Deluge traditions can be found in India, South-East Asia, Australia, Central America, Celtic Europe and Greece, as well as the numerous epic tales handed down to us by the ancient civilisations of the Middle East. Are they all the independent invention of fertile minds? Or did a real catastrophic event take place in the distant past which continues to echo through the millennia down to our own time? I believe the answer has to be yes, something did happen. But the nature of that something – its causes, scale and consequences – requires much further research. The tenacity of the Flood traditions demands that scholarship should address these issues and seek out the historical truth which lies behind them.
So, approaching this controversial subject with an open mind, how should one go about looking for evidence and confirmation of the Deluge traditions? As an Egyptologist and historian working in the Middle East, the obvious starting point for me would be my home turf. So, let me transport you to the wide-open plain of Mesopotamia – the 'land between the two rivers' – where the Judaeo-Christian, Islamic and ancient Sumerian flood stories were set.
First, we will need to tackle the archaeological evidence, then the time frame and finally the thorny question of Noah's Ark and its putative whereabouts.
The new Noah (Iran).
Let's begin with what, if anything, archaeology has revealed in the alluvial basin of the two rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, where civilisation began and where the first cities on earth were built before the Flood according to Sumerian legend.
The problem here has always been the ephemeral nature of catastrophes caused by water. At best an archaeologist might expect to find a deep silt deposit overlying an ancient occupation level, above which a new human settlement had been constructed. And, in order to prove that the flood was more than just a local event, several silt deposits of the same date would need to be located, scattered throughout the Mesopotamian alluvial plain. Needless to say, no archaeological discovery has ever been made which fits these criteria, although there have been some tantalising indications of water-borne disaster.
Sir Leonard Woolley at Ur.
Between 1928 and 1934 the famous British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley was excavating the city of Ur (where Abraham originated). In one of his deep soundings he came across a deposit of clean, water-borne silt measuring eleven feet in depth. Below it were houses and pottery dating to the Ubaid Period (c. 5,000-4,000 BC) whilst the silt layer was overlain by occupation levels dating to the Uruk Period (c. 4,000-3,000 BC). The Ur find hit the headlines – proof that the Deluge had been an historical event after all.
But subsequent discoveries in the region soon cast doubt on Woolley's claim. First, a refinement of the pottery dating techniques, combined with the ongoing decipherment of the cuneiform texts from Mesopotamia, began to suggest that the Ur flood was at least a thousand years too early for the Biblical Flood. Then, discoveries of silt layers at Fara (ancient Shuruppak) and Ingharra (ancient Kish) appeared not to match the stratigraphical date of Woolley's flood horizon (c. 4,000 BC). These new flood deposits were clustered around 2,800 BC and therefore much nearer to the date of circa 2,300 BC suggested by the chronology of Genesis. Scholarly opinion shifted and Woolley's Ur flood became nothing more than an archaeological curiosity.
As is often the case in academia, once a theory is abandoned for something more recent, it is rarely re-examined – even when subsequent findings suggest this might prove to be a fruitful exercise. Several new factors indicate that Woolley could have been right all along. Archaeologists now accept that the later flood deposits are unlikely to be the result of a single catastrophic event; they are spread out over at least a century and must represent a series of localised river floods. Moreover, archaeological excavations have shown that the city wall of Uruk, built after the Flood by the legendary Gilgamesh, dates to an archaeological period which comes before the silt deposits from these other archaeological sites. If Gilgamesh post-dated the Flood by at least a couple of centuries (as is the king-list tradition), then these later silt levels have nothing to do with the Great Flood remembered by both the Sumerians and the author of Genesis. Indeed, the only flood deposit which predates Gilgamesh, so far discovered, appears to be that found deep beneath the city of Ur by Leonard Woolley.
Gilgamesh (Louvre Museum).
But what about absolute dating? Isn't the Ur deposit simply too early to fit Noah's Flood? Perhaps not. First, the date assigned to the end of the Ubaid Period has been established principally through relative pottery dating – an inexact science at the best of times. Similarly, the duration of the Uruk Period which followed the Ubaid is based on an estimate that it must have lasted a considerable time due to the huge amount of building activity within its archaeological limits. But this is subjective. The Uruk Period was the age of the first great cities, when the kings of Sumer built platform temples and grandiose religious complexes, all made in mudbrick. It was the era when writing was invented and which, in later times, was to be regarded as the golden age of heroes. This was an epoch of terrific cultural dynamism which could indeed have lasted 1,000 years but equally just 300 years, depending on one's view of historical development. The succeeding historical era, known as the Early Dynastic Period, may also have been shorter than is conventionally believed because, again, there are no clear archaeological dating criteria. As a result, it is possible to argue for a terminus date for the Ubaid Period as low as 3,100 BC – a date which I have put forward (in my book, Legend: The Genesis of Civilisation) as being consistent with most of the textual sources and the limited archaeological dating evidence.
Tablet 11 of the Gilgamesh Epic concerning the Flood.
In the same way that we can shorten the archaeological ages, bringing them down towards the present, scholars have argued that the Biblical date of the Flood can be set back to an earlier period than suggested by a cursory reading of the Genesis narrative. The Greek and Aramaic versions of the Old Testament (both of which are older than the earliest surviving Hebrew copy of the Bible) suggest that the Flood took place up to eight hundred years prior to the date calculable from the Massoretic (Hebrew) text (c. 2,300 BC) from which the Latin and English translations of the Old Testament derive. A date of around 3,100 BC is therefore quite possible if we take into consideration these earlier sources. It is also reassuring to note that the Mayan tradition places the Great Flood in Mesoamerica at precisely 3,113 BC according to their recently deciphered calendar.
Probable dates are all very well, but what would be the real clincher to prove, beyond doubt, that Noah's Flood was a genuine historical event? Of course, the discovery of Noah's Ark, what else? You may think that this is a bit of a joke, but people have been searching for Noah's Ark for decades and have been coming up with all kinds of extraordinary claims, some of which have made headline news or had TV documentaries lavished upon them. Virtually all these 'discoveries' have been focused on or around Mount Ararat in north-eastern Turkey. The problem here is that Mount Ararat was not the original traditional landing site of the Ark. It was only in the 13th century AD, when Vincent de Beauvais, Friar William of Rubruck, Odoric and Marco Polo came this way, that Mount Ararat superseded a much older and widely recognised location for the Place of Descent.
The first thing to note is that the Biblical text itself does not identify Mount Ararat as Noah's mountain. What Genesis 8:4 actually says is that 'the Ark came to rest on the mountains (plural) of Ararat' – in other words somewhere in the mountainous terrain of the land of Ararat. Biblical Ararat is recognised as being identical with the region that the 1st millennium BC Assyrians called Urartu – a land which covered much of the central section of the Zagros range. According to Genesis, therefore, the Ark must be searched for in modern Kurdistan, not hundreds of miles to the north on the volcanic peak we know today as Ararat in Armenia. Ararat is a late Christian name for the mountain; its local name is Agri Dagh. What is more, Jewish Talmudic writings of the 6th century AD consistently interpret the Biblical Ararat to mean Kurdistan and not Armenia [Targums of Genesis 8:4, Isaiah 37-38 and Jeremiah].
Dorés landing of the Ark.
So, where does everybody else, other than post-13th-century Christianity, locate the Place of Descent?
The Koran (8th century AD) calls Noah's landing site Gebel Judi ('Mountain of the Heights') and the 10th-century Muslim writer, Ibn Haukal, observes that 'Judi is a mountain near Nisibis. It is said that the ark of Noah (peace be upon him) rested on the summit of this mountain'. Nisibis is modern Nesibin or Nusaybin, one hundred miles north-west of Mosul on the southern edge of the Zagros foothills.
The early Nestorian Christians (followers of Nestorius, 4th-century patriarch of Constantinople) knew this to be the true landing place of the Ark. The pilgrim saint, Jacob of Nisibis (also 4th century) – note the link with the town claimed to be near Gebel Judi by Ibn Haukal – was the first Christian to look for the mountain of the Ark. His search concentrated in the 'district of Gartouk' which scholars recognise as a late spelling of classical Carduchi which, in turn, derives from Kardu – the ancient name of Kurdistan.
But we can narrow down our search even further. Hippolytus (AD 155-236) informs us that the landing site of the Ark was located in 'those mountains called Ararat which are situated in the country of the Adiabeni'. The Greek and Latin sources place Adiabene in the mountains to the north of Mosul where the Hadhabeni tribe still live today. One hundred miles due north of Mosul, just across the Iraqi border into Turkey and ninety miles to the east of Nesibin, the 7,000-feet peak of Judi Dagh ('Judi Mountain') rises from the Mesopotamian plain. This surely has to be the landing site of Noah's Ark referred to in all the early, Jewish, Christian and Islamic sources.
Judi Dagh is a place of real mystery and fascination for someone like me. Around this holy mountain there are devil-worshipping cults, giant rock-cut reliefs of Assyrian kings, and, near the summit itself, the ruins of a Nestorian monastery called the 'Cloister of the Ark'. Needless to say, I am keen to mount an expedition to investigate but, unfortunately, that isn't possible at the moment. Not only is Judi Dagh on the northern edge of the Kurdish autonomous zone of Iraq (currently a no-go area for British and American nationals) but it is also smack in the middle of the area being fought over by three different Kurdish military factions. Add to this the ongoing 'cleansing' operations by the Turkish army in eastern Anatolia and you have a recipe for potential disaster for any archaeological mission. For the moment, then, we will have to satisfy ourselves with what we know from the writings of earlier travellers to the region.
In the 1920s the Reverend William A. Wigram and his son Edgar spent some time exploring the region around Mosul. In their book, The Cradle of Mankind, they record ascending the ridge beneath the summit of Judi Dagh on the 14th of September to witness a gathering of Muslims (both Sunnis and Shias), Sabaeans, Jews and the Satan-worshipping Yezidis for a great annual religious festival. The English explorers watch each group of pilgrims deliver a sheep for sacrifice as 'the smoke of a hundred offerings goes up once more on the ancient altar' where the Kurds believe Noah made sacrifice to God for his deliverance from the Flood.
The Babylonian chronographer, Berossus (3rd century BC), tells us that in his day Kurdish mountain-folk 'scraping off pieces of bitumen from the ship (i.e. the Ark), bring them back and wear them as talismans'. The practice of local women wearing bitumen talismans was still observed as recently as the beginning of this century according to European travellers' reports. Bitumen is the oil-based 'pitch' with which the Ark was sealed against the seepage of the flood-waters [Genesis 6:14]. The mystery here is that the nearest source of bitumen lies hundreds of miles south of Judi Dagh in the swamps of the Iraqi lowlands. So by what mechanism did quantities of the black tar reach a mountain ridge on Judi Dagh? - unless, that is, it was a genuine survival from the wreck of Noah's floating refuge.
Finally, we have the ancient Jewish legends surrounding the powerful Assyrian ruler, Sennacherib (705-681 BC), who, during his military campaigns against the Kurds, 'found a plank, which he worshipped as an idol, because it was part of the Ark that had saved Noah from the Deluge'. If this tale has some historical truth to it, then knowing the approximate find spot of Sennacherib's sacred relic would be very useful. It is interesting, therefore, to note that giant figures of King Sennacherib were discovered in 1904, carved into the cliffs at the foot of one particular Kurdish mountain. Yes, you've guessed it – Judi Dagh. Aren't you just itching to get out there?
The Satan Worshippers
During his excavation season at Nineveh in 1846, Sir Austen Henry Layard made the short journey into the Zagros mountains to learn what he could about a strange cult known as the Yezidis. This Kurdish tribe lived in the northern Iraqi plain and the foothills around Judi Dagh. Layard had been invited by the high priest of the tribe to witness their most sacred rituals at the tomb of Sheikh Adi, a 12th-century holyman of the Yezidi sect. His tomb was hidden in a narrow valley on the eastern flank of Mount Judi.
The term Yezidi means a 'follower of angels' or 'one who belongs to angels'. They believe that they are directly descended from Noah. But what is extraordinary about these mountain folk is that their most important deity is an archangel they call Lasifarus whom scholars identify as Lucifer. Other names for the high-god of the Yezidis include Azazel (the fallen angel of Islamic tradition), Malek Taus ('peacock angel') and Shaitan (Satan). Within the inner sanctum of Sheikh Adi's tomb Layard came face to face with the Yezidis' dark lord in the form of a bronze statue depicting a bird of prey (probably a representation of the indigenous great bustard) whilst upon the door-jamb of the shrine he noted the carving of a large black serpent which Yezidi pilgrims touched and kissed.
In a previous blog I demonstrated that Eden and the earthly paradise lay just to the north of Judi Dagh in the area around the two great salt lakes of Van and Urumiya. Much of the early Genesis story seems to have been set in this mountainous region. I personally came across the Satan-worshippers through the writings of British ethnographer Andrew Collins. He has produced thought-provoking evidence to show that the Yezidis are a living testament to the tenacious tradition that this was indeed the land of the angelic host. Who or what the malekim (angels), cherubim (winged-creatures) and the nephilim (giants) were may eventually turn out to be more than just a theological issue, once the archaeological remains of this area are studied more closely. Already excavations in the 1950s at the mountain cave of Shanidar, again near Judi Dagh, have unearthed a Neolithic shrine not only containing human burials but also the articulated remains of seventeen pairs of feathered wings belonging to birds of prey such as the griffin vulture, the bearded vulture, the white-tailed eagle and the great bustard. These were believed by the American excavators, anthropologists Ralph and Rose Solecki, to have been worn by prehistoric shaman priests, transforming them into spirits of the air. Are these winged humans from primordial times the anthropological reality behind all the angelic legends and the images of fearsome winged demons found in early Mesopotamian art?
Two well publicised discoveries concerning Noah's Ark and the Flood have been announced in the last few years. First we had the strange boat-shaped formation found by American Ark-searcher, David Fasold. This large feature, located on the slopes of Lesser Ararat, was first photographed by US spy planes in 1949 but kept under wraps by the CIA. An attempt by Fasold to prove that these were the remains of Noah's Ark fell foul of the Turkish authorities when he tried to excavate without the necessary permits. Subsequent (less well publicised) excavations and a geological examination of the site have determined that, in reality, this remarkable boat shape is, in fact, a natural phenomenon.
Much more convincing from both an archaeological and historical point of view is the recent discovery, by marine geologists Bill Ryan and Walter Pitman of Columbia University, that the Black Sea was once a freshwater lake which was flooded by the salt waters of the Mediterranean in around 5,600 BC. This cataclysmic event certainly drowned vast areas bordering on the old lake and may well have forced those living around its shores to flee to higher ground. But could this really have been the basis for the Biblical and Mesopotamian flood tradition? I personally don't think so. First, the date is far too early: it comes before the development of the first cities (towards the end of the Ubaid Period in c. 4,500 BC at the very earliest) – cities which according to both Genesis and the Sumerian King List were in existence when the Flood struck. Second, in the 5,600 BC flood, the area inundated was the flat northern shore of the Black Sea around the outflow of the River Danube: this is nowhere near the Land of Shinar (ancient Sumer) where Noah's descendants settled after they descended from the mountains. Third, all the Near Eastern flood epics describe the Deluge as being caused by a terrible and long-lasting rainstorm: the flooding of the Black Sea, through the narrow straits of the Bosphorus, was a relatively lengthy process lasting several months and giving the inhabitants of the region plenty of time to escape the gradually encroaching waters. Finally, the waters of the Biblical Deluge receded whereas the waters of the Black Sea flood continue to cover the drowned land to this day.