Biblicalism

THE LOST SHIP OF NOAH
By Charles Berlitz
G. P. Putnam’s Sons; 203 pp.

It was during the summer thaw of 1916, the story goes, that Lieut. Roskovitsky of the Russian Imperial Air Force was flying a high-altitude mission around Mount Ararat, observing Turkish troop movements, when he noticed what appeared to be the partially submerged hull of a huge ship in a half-frozen lake high on the side of the mountain – a ship in a place where no ship could be, trapped in a body of water that had been glacial for thousands of years.

A report was dispatched to St. Petersburg, with the result that the Tsar ordered two companies of engineers to Ararat – 150 men – to locate what had to be Noah’s ark, preserved all these centuries in the ice.

It took them two weeks to carve a trail up the lower cliffs, and another two weeks to climb the mountain, but they found it: a survival ship the length of a city block, with hundreds of small chambers, many lined with tiers of cages, and rooms the size of gymnasia, fenced with timbers two feet thick, as though designed to hold a cargo of great beasts.

Mustafa, once a herdsman, now 89, remembers when word reached the Russian Military Railroad Battalion, stationed at the foot of the mountain: “We heard a great noise of shooting and yelling Hourrah! . . . The Russians were drinking bottles of vodka and firing off rifles . . . They found the ark! The team that was sent by the Tsar himself!”

Complete measurements were taken – corresponding nicely with the Biblical dimensions – along with numerous photographs, and couriers were sent to Nicholas II. They never reached him. In the revolutions of 1917, the couriers were silenced, the royal family was executed and the documents disappeared.

There were rumors that Trotsky somehow obtained and suppressed them, but apart from the occasional testimony of a diminishing number of aging White Russians, all record of the event has been erased.

Forget whether there’s a shred of truth in any of its 203 pages, this is a book that makes you want to buy the movie rights. Cue that Twilight Zonetheme music, it gets better:

Rising 14,000 feet off a Turkish plain, towering over the foothills around it, the mountain is a lightning rod. It’s also an active volcano, subject to vigorous seismic rumblings. It’s not only climbers who place themselves at risk – from the avalanches and rockslides, the treacherous fogs and hidden crevasses, the vipers, scorpions and wolves – but whole villages have disappeared in earthquakes and eruptions. The towns at the bottom have names that mean things like “doomsday.”

Ararat is a mountain that guards its secrets jealously. For thousands of years the locals have believed that the original ark is still somewhere on its slopes, just as the legend says, but they’ve had little inclination to go up and take a look. God is apparently a bit touchy on the subject, and isn’t above sending a few reminders to the mortals to mind their own business.

But every 20 years or so there’s a major thaw, and it’s during these periods that the ark supposedly reveals itself. Photographic evidence, however, has a peculiar knack of disappearing. In 1952 an oil engineer named George Jefferson Greene spotted it from a helicopter and shot off an entire roll of film. The developed photographs were detailed enough to show laminated planks on the ship’s hull, and on their strength Greene hoped to raise backing for an expedition to Ararat. Ten years later he was found murdered in British Guyana, and the photographs had vanished.

In fact, it would seem that everything conspires to frustrate attempts to find the ark, from the Kurdish insurgents to the wary nomads (apparently a useful Turkish phrase to know is “Luften kopegi tutun” – Please hold your dogs) to the fact that the Soviet border is just on the other side of the mountain, and the godless Russians tend to look suspiciously on well-financed American expeditions laden with sophisticated equipment.

But of course all this only adds to the allure of the yarn – a whopper older than the Bible and as widespread as human culture itself. All over the world, different peoples have their own variations on the same legend of a great catastrophe in pre-history, when the heavens opened and the seas rose, and all living things died – save the followers of a righteous man, who built a great vessel in which they and their animals survived.

And it develops that the thrust of The Lost Ship of Noah is not to convince the reader that the ark is really on Ararat – maybe it is, maybe it isn’t – but to argue that overall there is sufficient evidence to suggest the legends are true. There was indeed a global disaster; somehow, select individuals all over the world were warned, sufficiently in advance and seriously enough for them to build seaworthy craft the size of battleships.

The author is one Charles Berlitz, grandson of Berlitz the polyglot. His previous books have boasted titles like Mysteries From Forgotten Worlds, and plumbed such subjects as Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle. Berlitz is a master of the exotic anecdote and a devotee of the triple-asterisk school of punctuation.

***

The most recent activity has centred, not on Ararat itself, but at a site 17 miles south, where an odd volcanic formation displays the exact dimensions of the Biblical Ark. Geologists dismiss it as a natural phenomenon, but there are those who wonder whether it might not be the ship, entombed in mud and lava.

He’s helped too by fairly vigorous and ongoing efforts to find the ark – not by scientists so much as by adventurers, former military officers, people with doctorates in odd subjects from unheard of universities. Call them ark-eologists.

In 1985, two Americans lugged a subsurface molecular-frequency scanner up to the site, gave it the once over, and claim to have found evidence of a massive structure buried inside the mound. Call this Radar of the Lost Ark.

Real scientists – and real theologians, for that matter – tend to get a chortle out of these investigations, many of which are undertaken by evangelical Christians intent on proving the Old Testament literally true. The Bible is big on the wrath of God: the wrath of the past, and the wrath yet to come.

Just for the sake of comparison, however, notice what the scientists themselves have been coming up with lately: theories of periodic mass extinction and quantum evolution; and the nuclear winter hypothesis; and the Nemesis postulate – in which it’s supposed that the Sun has a dark companion that sweeps past every 26 million years, bombarding the inner planets with meteorites.

As we slouch toward the millennium, it would seem that even in mainstream science, the Catastrophe Theory is back in fashion.eg

Montreal Gazette March 14, 1987