According to Genesis 8:4, after seven months and 17 days afloat in the ark upon the waters of the great deluge that destroyed all life on Earth, Noah, his family, and his massive living cargo of live-stock came to rest upon the mountains of Ararat, near the headwaters of the Euphrates River in what is today eastern Turkey. So prevalent is the belief that Noah's Ark can be located on the slope of the tallest mountain in Turkey, Agri Dagi (Mt. Ararat), that some travel agencies include participation in expeditions to search for the ark as part of tour packages to Turkey. Two thousand years earlier, in the first century b.c.e., native Armenians of the region routinely declared that remnants of the ark could still be seen. The same declaration was made in the thirteenth century, as recorded in the notes of adventurer Marco Polo (1254–1324). Armenians told him of the ark as he crossed through the region during travels that took him as far east as China from his native Venice, Italy. Several claims of sightings of the ark in the twentieth century make it a modern-day mystery as well.
The rugged environment of the area that includes Mt. Ararat makes it difficult to sustain an expedition. Six to eight weeks of favorable weather are the most searchers can hope for as they try to maneuver along the treacherous paths of the 16,000-foot high mountain, where glaciers and deep pockets of snow have little time to begin thawing before the return of cold weather.
Even if the ark can be located on Mt. Ararat, the elements work against being able to reach it and excavate around it. Several years of drought might be needed to melt snow and lower water levels in areas where the ark is most often thought to rest. Meanwhile, some ark researchers believe the vessel landed further east, and others claim the ark came to rest in present-day Ethiopia. Others doubt whether the ark ever existed.
According to the Bible (Genesis, 6–10), God had become angered at the wickedness of humans and was determined "to end all flesh." He called on Noah, whom God deemed a just man, and told him to build a large barge with three interior decks. The barge was to be constructed of wood and sealed with bitumen. Its length was to be 300 cubits (about 450 feet), its width 50 cubits (about 75 feet), and its height 30 cubits (about 45 feet). The ark would be able to survive the deluge through which God would wipe out life.
The ark held Noah's family—his wife, their three sons, and the sons' wives—and at least two animals from every species to populate the earth again. All the food needed for their survival was provided for them. The ark and its inhabitants survived the deluge by sailing on the floodwaters, and all aboard returned to the land to repopulate the earth after the rain stopped and the water receded. What happened to the ark after it came to rest and all those aboard disembarked safely is not mentioned in the Bible.
Questions persist about where the ark finally landed. The Bible cites the mountains of Ararat, which could designate a region (then known as Armenia) or a specific mountain peak. Some biblical scholars locate it in Kurdistan, an area that encompasses Mt. Ararat and parts of present-day Turkey and Iran. The Babylonian account of the Deluge in the Epic of Gilgamesh names Mt. Nisir in that region. After the ark came to rest, according to the Gilgamesh epic, pilgrims would scrape off bitumen (a sealant against water) and make charms of it to guard against witchcraft.
Most evidence and sightings are based on locations on Mt. Ararat. As the Christian religion spread in the first century, the Christians of Apamea, in Phrygia, built the monastery of the ark, where a feast was celebrated annually to commemorate Noah's disembarking. Marco Polo, in journals of his journey to China in 1271, wrote, "In the heart of Greater Armenia is a high mountain, shaped like a cube (or cup), on which Noah's ark is said to have rested, whence it is called the Mountain of Noah's Ark." Identifying the place as Mt. Ararat, Marco Polo wrote, "On the summit the snow lies so deep all the year round that no one can ever climb it; this snow never entirely melts, but new snow is for ever falling on the old, so that the level rises."
Several ark sightings on Mt. Ararat occurred during the twentieth century, though none of them have been documented well enough to satisfy skeptics. During a thaw in the summer of 1916, according to one account, a Russian Imperial Air Force lieutenant noticed a half-frozen lake in a gully on the side of Mt. Ararat. World War I was raging and the Russian pilot was flying high-altitude tests to observe Turkish troop movements. Flying nearer to the lake, he saw half the hull of some sort of ship poking out above the lake surface. He reported it to his captain. The captain was flown over the site. Believing it was Noah's Ark, preserved because it was encased in ice most of the year, the captain sent a report to the Russian tsar at St. Petersburg. The tsar sent two corps of engineers up the mountain. It was nearly a month before the ark was reached.
Measurements by the engineers were allegedly taken and drawings and photographs were made, but none of those were ever officially documented. According to accounts, the photographs and reports were sent by courier to the attention of the tsar, but Nicholas II (1868–1918) apparently never received them. The Russian Revolution was underway in 1917, and the results of the investigation were never reported publicly.
According to another story, the Turkish Air Force in 1959 conducted an aerial survey of the Ararat region. A photograph revealed the outline of a ship on one of the lower slopes of Mt. Ararat (just over 6,000 feet). The ship's dimensions were similar, though somewhat larger, than those of the ark. Another alleged aerial sighting was made in 1960. A Turkish army pilot and a liaison officer reported seeing evidence of an enormous, rectangular barge on the southeast slope at about 13,000 feet altitude.
A photograph taken in 1972 by the Earth Research Technical Satellite (ERTS) revealed an unusual feature at 14,000 feet on Mt. Ararat. It was reported to be the same size as the ark. The existence of the photograph is disputed, however. Even if it does exist in the files of a U.S. government agency, it has apparently been given no special designation to accommodate search requests: a request for "satellite image of ark," for example, brings the reply, "no responsive records."
In the 1980s, former NASA astronaut James Irwin participated in expeditions up the mountain, bringing much publicity to the search for the ark. He found only the remnants of abandoned skis. With the breakup of the former Soviet Union, expeditions up the mountain intensified during the 1990s. Previously, expeditions were considered a security threat by the Soviet government because the region bordered the former Soviet Union.
The search for Noah's Ark continues, as do questions concerning how best to understand the story of Noah and the ark: should the Bible's description of the ark, the extent of the deluge, and the capability of lodging every species of animal and bird be taken literally, or is the message most important? The deluge occurred, according to the Bible, because God had become disgusted with the wickedness of humankind. Those searching for the ark with the hope of making great profits probably missed that most enduring legacy of the story, a moral that persists regardless of whether or not physical remnants of the ark have been, or can be, found.
Fasold, David. The Ark of Noah. New York: Wynwood Press, 1988.
Harpur, James and Jennifer Westwood. The Atlas of Legendary Places. New York: Konecky & Konecky, 1997.
Kite, L. Patricia, ed. Noah's Ark: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1989.
Toumey, Christopher P. "Who's Seen Noah's Ark?" Natural History, l06, no. 9 (October 1997): 14–17.