The story of Noah(as) and his Ark has intrigued people for thousands of years. Here, we explore the differing accounts of the story, possible locations for the flood and catch up on current research.
The story of Noah(as) is familiar to followers of the three major religions—Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The main outline is this: the prophet Noah(as) is instructed by God to build an ark, to save him and his followers from the great flood that will punish the disbelievers. Other cultures have similar flood stories involving different characters. But questions abound. When did the flood take place? What kind of civilisation did Noah(as) live in? Can modern-day archaeological research shed any light on this incident?
While we have little information for the period before the flood, there is much archaeological evidence available from the period after the flood. We have some idea of when the flood may have occurred. The most recent Ice Age is thought to have ended around 10,000 BCE. As the ice melted, there would have been a gradual rise in sea levels. Moreover, academic research into the possibility of such a great deluge suggests that the ice would have taken a long time to fully melt and this would not necessarily have been a gradual process, so that surges of melting ice might have resulted in climatic disasters (Wilson, p.8).
Due to the scarcity of direct historical evidence from that time, while we know the core of the story, it is harder to piece together historical details. It is worth exploring the differing accounts, the environment in which Noah(as) lived and the status of current research.
Various Accounts of the Flood
While there are various accounts of the flood, the two most prominent are those found in the Bible and the Holy Qur’an. These shall be examined in detail, whilst other accounts will also be studied—most of which show a remarkable similarity to these two accounts.
The Biblical account of the flood is contained in the first book of the Torah, Genesis 6:9 – 9:29. According to the Bible, at Noah’s(as) birth, his father Lamech said: ‘Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.’ (Genesis 5:29)
God saw that mankind had become corrupt and violent and had moved away from the worship of God. Therefore, God planned to punish mankind: ‘For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life.’ (Genesis 6:17)
God then advised Noah(as) to build an ark, gave him instructions on how to build it and explained that he should take his family, food, provisions and seven pairs of every kind of living species to preserve them.
Once Noah(as) had done this, the great flood came: ‘… on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.’ (Genesis 7:11-12)
And the story continues:
‘The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered.’ (Genesis 7:17)
The deluge, after swelling for 150 days, eliminated all life on Earth. Eventually God sent a wind and the waters receded, allowing the ark to reach land again: ‘The ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat.’ (Genesis 8:4)
Finally, in order to confirm that the waters had receded and that he could leave the Ark, Noah(as) sent out a raven and then a dove, but the dove returned as it had nowhere to land. A few days later, Noah(as) sent the dove again and this time it returned with an olive leaf. God advised Noah(as) to repopulate the planet, so he built an altar and made sacrificial offerings to God. Then God made a covenant with Noah(as) to protect him and his followers from future global floods.
The Qur’anic account of Noah(as) (Nuh in Arabic) and the flood is described in detail in chapters 11 (Hud) and 71 (Nuh). The Qur’an starts the story with Noah(as) warning his people to reform and to worship the One True God. Following the disdain of the local chiefs, Noah(as) warned them of an impending punishment if they did not change their ways and again offered them a practical way to a better life. But his people rejected him.
The Qur’an refers to the warning of a grievous day as opposed to a grievous punishment, and the Arabic term used, means a day that would be remembered for generations to come as a future warning. (Ahmad, Vol. 3, p.1068)
Noah said, “My Lord, they have disobeyed me, and followed one whose wealth and children have only added to his ruin. And they have planned a mighty plan. And they say to one another, ‘Forsake not your gods under any circumstances. And forsake neither Wadd, nor Suwa, nor Yaghuth and Ya’uq and Nasr.’ And they have led many astray so increase Thou not the wrongdoers but in error.’ (Ch.71: Vs.22-25)
After this, Noah(as) constructed the Ark following Divine guidance, whilst the local chiefs mocked him. Then the deluge arrived: Till, when Our command came and the fountains of the earth gushed forth. (Holy Qur’an, Ch.11:V.41)
Thereupon We opened the gates of heaven, with water pouring down; and We caused the earth to burst forthwith springs, so the two waters met for a purpose that was decreed. (Holy Qur’an, Ch.54:Vs.12-13)
And it (the Ark) moved along with them on waves like mountains. (Holy Qur’an, Ch.11: V.43)
Finally, the deluge subsided: And the water was made to subside and the matter was ended. And the Ark came to rest on al-Judi. And it was said, ‘Cursed be the wrongdoing people. (Holy Qur’an, Ch.11, V.45)
And We left it (the Ark) as a Sign for the coming generations; but is there anyone who would receive admonition? (Holy Qur’an, Ch.54: Vs.16)
We can glean several points from the Qur’anic account. One important point here is the clarification that the deluge came both from the clouds and from the land. Water cascaded from all sources to create the great flood. The above verse describing the waters meeting seems to suggest the coming together of two great rivers or lakes. The significance of this point will become clear later on, when we discuss possible locations for the flood.
Secondly, the Qur’an refers to the resting place of the Ark as al-Judi, which means a high place. Early Muslim commentators, such as Yaqut al-Hamwi, believed the mountains to be the range to the east of Mosul rather than Ararat. (Ahmad, Vol. 3, p.1079)
Third, the Qur’an implies that the deluge was a regional flood which punished the specific tribes who ignored Noah(as). In contrast, the Bible implies that the deluge covered the whole globe, drowning everyone. (Yahya, p.16)
Finally, the Holy Qur’an also seems to imply that in the future, archaeologists will find evidence of the Ark. Indeed, Chapter 54, Verse 16 clearly seems to indicate that the Ark has been preserved as a Sign for future generations.
Other flood accounts
There are many local flood stories from the region between Europe and Asia which record similar events in the same area at around the same time. These include:
Epic of Gilgamesh – This epic was first discovered as a series of tablets in Nineveh; Tablet XI deals with the great deluge. Gilgamesh was a king of the city of Uruk (c. 2500-2800 BCE). Gilgamesh visits the sage Ut-Napishtim, who has survived a great deluge, in order to learn the secret of eternal life, and learns of Ut-Napishtim’s tale. The god Ea threatens a great flood and orders Ut-Napishtim to build a boat of six decks to keep all of the species alive. The storm arrives with thunder and heavy rain, and the flood flattens the land. He releases a dove, then a swallow, and finally a raven, which does not return, signifying that the water has receded, and then he leaves his boat to make a sacrificial offering, just like the Biblical account.
Atrahasis Epic – Atra-Hasis (extremely wise) was a Sumerian King from before the flood in the city of Shuruppak. This account was captured on tablets and dates back to around 1630 BCE. The flood account is very similar to the Gilgamesh epic.
Other similar accounts such as those of Xisuthros (Greek account of the last King of Sumer before the flood) and Deucalion (Greek legendary character from Arcadia who survives the flood brought on by Zeus) exist, but are variations of those cited above. Elsewhere, in Persia, the Zoroastrian account of Yim and the Hindu story of Manu in India also cover the same events though with different details. There does seem to be a core common story which is likely to have some basis in actual historical events.
The Context of Noah(as)
Although we cannot know with certainty when the events surrounding the Ark took place, it is generally accepted by scholars that it must have happened over 5000 years ago, possibly between 5000 – 3000 BCE. At that time, there were several cultures established in Mesopotamia, in the same region where the flood is thought to have occurred. Moreover, these were cultures that had developed enough to have some sort of spiritual understanding (for a Divine warning to have any meaning to them), technology to live in towns and build boats, and almost certainly contact and trade with other tribes. In the general area the flood has thought to have occurred — Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), Mesopotamia (Iraq), and Persia (Iran) — there are settlements from 5000 – 3000 BCE that might correspond to ones that Noah(as) might have had contact with. That roughly 2000-year time frame has been divided by historians into several time periods — the Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Bronze Ages – signifying man’s development in the use of natural resources. A rough guide to cultural developments in various regions through these ages is shown in the following table:
In the Middle East, people began to establish villages and towns from around 8000 BCE, soon after the last Ice Age. Man began working copper around 7000 BCE, farming around 6500 BCE, pottery in 6000 BCE, irrigation around 5000 BCE, bronze casting in 4000 BCE and the first megalithic (stone age) ancient temples and tombs appeared across Europe from 3500 BCE. It is in the early Bronze Age that significant evidence of spirituality begins to emerge in Egypt as well as Persia. Wheels and ploughs began to be used around 3500 BCE (Barraclough, p.16). So during this period, the human race was making gradual progress.
In the period leading up to the epoch being considered before the flood, there were emerging civilisations and towns. Some of these may have been known to Noah(as) (towns that he might have visited and traded with, and which would shed light on his own town) and are summarised here:
Çatal Hüyük – The largest Neolithic settlement in southeast Turkey from 7500 – 5700 BCE was a major settlement of over 8000 people, and technologically very advanced. Recent archaeological digs suggest that the people had a pagan religion rich in symbolism and shrines.
Nagar – This is a site at Tell Brak in northeast Syria, corresponding with the ancient city of Nagar, which was active from around 5500- 1500 BCE. It came to prominence as a city around the same time that Uruk was emerging in Mesopotamia, and was on a trade route from Turkey to Mesopotamia. The site is thought to have shrunk greatly after a climatic event.
Jericho – This is thought to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns on Earth, dating from 9000 BCE to the present day. Although settlements on the site came and went, there were key stages of development around 4500 BCE, 2600 BCE and 1700 BCE. So Jericho would have been a significant town throughout this period.
Ur – The great Sumerian city of Ur went through several phases of development. The 3rd dynasty of the city was established around 2050 BCE by the king Ur-Nammu, who oversaw the building of temples, including the ziggurat of Ur, and a new code of laws. Excavations by Woolley (a British archaeologist active around 1922) in the early 20th century uncovered phases of cultures at the Ur site which were separated by vast mud deposits—it is likely that these mud deposits might have been the result of a flood. Such a flood would have been on a great scale and would probably have involved both the Euphrates and Tigris rivers which run either side of Ur.
Akkadian Empire – This was a significant development in which King Sargon defeated neighbouring tribes to create the first empire from Akkad in central Mesopotamia (c.2334 – 2279 BCE). He established Akkadian (a semitic dialect) as the official imperial language and established a common culture. While he himself was considered a just ruler, those who succeeded him gradually diminished the unity of the empire. Indeed, his grandson Naram-Sin (c.2273 BCE) styled himself ‘God of Akkad’; thereafter the Akkadian empire went into decline. (Hattstein, p.22)
Gudea of Lagash – Following the collapse of the Akkadian empire, a new dynasty was established in Ur, and at the same time, King Gudea established a dynasty in Lagash (c.2122 – 2102 BCE) as a pious ruler who established peace and built temples.
As we have already seen, the story of Noah(as) is about a settled society of towns and cities which had moved from monotheism to the worship of many gods, and hence Noah(as) was sent as a Warner to reform them.
But in order to have needed reformation, these towns must have moved from being righteous societies to ones which had abandoned righteousness. This transformation is more likely to have occurred in the Chalcolithic or Early Bronze Ages. So whilst some of the towns and cities mentioned previously are known to have been technologically advanced, the society that we are searching for would also have been spiritually advanced at one stage, only to regress later.
Potential Ark sites and quests
Given the interest in the Ark story across cultures and faiths, it is no surprise that there has been much active archaeological research into the location of the flood and the final resting place of the Ark. Most work has been done around sites on Turkey’s borders with Iran and Armenia around the Ararat mountain range, and also a site at Durupinar.
Early Arab explorers and historians, such as Al-Masudi, have referred to the Ark story. In his account, the angel Gabriel provided Noah(as) with the Ark containing the bones of Adam(as), and then with eighty people on board, the Ark circumnavigated Makkah before coming to rest at the foot of Mount Judi where they founded a city called Thamanin. (Glasse, p.303)
Even travelers in the middle ages were intrigued by the flood story:
‘In the heart of the Armenian mountain range, the mountain’s peak is shaped like a cube, on which Noah’s ark is said to have rested, whence it is called the Mountain of Noah’s Ark.’ (Marco Polo, 1254-3124 CE)
Even in the modern-day, research is being carried out to try and discover the location of the ark:
Alborz Mountains (Iran) – In 2006, Bob Cornuke and his team from the Bible Archeology Search and Exploration Institute began to explore an area around Takht-e-Suleiman in the Alborz Mountains of Iran, southeast of Tabriz. They claimed to have discovered wooden beams 13,000 feet above sea level, which appeared to be 120 metres long. (Ravilious, 2006)
Ararat (Turkey) – For centuries, explorers including Marco Polo visited this region drawn by Ark myths. Former astronaut James Irwin led two expeditions but failed to find any evidence. On the 27th April 2010, a team of evangelical Christians from China and Turkey claimed to have uncovered remnants of the Ark, 13,000 feet above sea level, on Mount Ararat. They claimed that carbon dating of some of the material had revealed their age as 4800 years old. The documentary film-maker, Mr Yeung Wing-Cheung from Hong Kong, said that Turkish officials were seeking UNESCO World Heritage status for the site to protect it whilst official archaeologists searched the site. These claims are as yet unsubstantiated.
Durupinar (Turkey) – In the 1980s, adventurer Ron Wyatt led expeditions to a site near Mount Tendurek and Dogubeyazit on the Turkey-Iran border, just south of Ararat. According to locals, a combination of earthquakes and heavy rains exposed this mountain formation from surrounding mud plains in May 1948. It created interest as the rock formation was shaped like the hull of a boat, but investigations concluded that it was a freak of nature.
Ain Sifni (Iraq) – There is an account from Al-Masudi (d.956) in his book ‘The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems’ (Muruj Adh-dhahab Wa Ma’adin Al-jawhar) in which he claimed that the Ark started in Kufa (modern Iraq), sailed to the Ka’aba in Makkah and then finished at Mount Judi, identified by a hill near Jazirat ibn Umar, near Mosul. The Mandaeans of southern Iraq who follow John the Baptist(as) also believe that the Ark landed near Ain Sifni.
Black Sea (Turkey) – Ryan and Pitman, two explorers from the USA, did surveys of the sea bed of the Black Sea in 1998 and discovered that around 5600 BCE, a great deluge from the Mediterranean had broken through into the Black Sea, raising its level greatly. Subsequent surveys claimed to have found a coastline and dwellings much lower in the sea, preserved due to the composition of the water in the Black Sea. (Wilson, p.60-71)
There is growing interest among literalists of various persuasions to locate the Ark and to prove their own interpretation of scripture and events. To do the subject justice, we must be open to the evidence that emerges, rather than trying to craft evidence to suit one’s own favourite theory.
Most of the exploration teams and their findings have been discredited, but this has not dampened the enthusiasm of explorers, nor of clever locals who have spotted an opportunity to earn money from gullible foreign explorers.
Recent events have given us a graphic understanding of what such an event would have meant to people at the time. The 2004 Asian tsunami, which struck off the coast of Indonesia killing over 200,000, sent huge waves tens of metres high; washing people, boats, homes, and modern infrastructure away with them (echoed by the more recent tsunami in Japan). Similarly, the floods that struck Pakistan in 2010 took away the central infrastructure of an entire country and affected 21 million people.
The great flood must have been even more intense.
Given the continuous and widespread cultures in Anatolia, Syria, Mesopotamia and Arabia from around 2700 BCE to the present day, it seems more likely that the flood occurred between 5000 – 3000 BCE, and the consensus would suggest that the events took place in an area broadly between Turkey, Armenia, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The Qur’an (Ch.54:Vs.12-13) describes how ‘the two waters met’, and a sensible connotation would be that the two great rivers of Mesopotamia, the Euphrates and Tigris, overflowed to deluge all of the towns and cities on that plain. This is backed up by other accounts such as that of Gilgamesh, who is known to have ruled in Uruk around 2500 BCE, so given that his epic describes the flood in detail, the flood should be before that. Archeological digs in Mesopotamia are finding evidence in ancient cities such as Ur, Kish, Erech and Shuruppak for a great flood around 3000 BCE, seemingly confirming the geography of the flood as being between the two great rivers. (Yahya, p.25)
The Qur’an describes the flood as a punishment for specific tribes visited by Noah(as). So while the flood would not have been global, in its region it would have been catastrophic. The fact that accounts of the great flood are found in myths across the world means that the story was transmitted globally and corrupted forms survive as mythology, but accounts of the flood on different continents do not imply that the entire globe was flooded to such an extent.
If the Ark were discovered, this would prove that the flood account is not just religious parable, but rather a historic event. Indeed, the Holy Qur’an (Ch.54:V.16) seems to indicate that the Ark will someday be found, just as the body of Pharaoh and the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the last two centuries and cast new light on those cultures and their spirituality.
Irrespective of the location or nature of the Ark, the main value of the recording of the account in religious texts is to remind mankind that if they turn away from their Creator and adopt wicked practices, they are prone to punishment through natural disasters despite their knowledge and technology, and this must be as true today as it was 5000 years ago. Conversely, those who behave well benefit from blessings and progress. The Promised Messiah(as) in his book Kishti-e-Nuh (Noah’s Ark) in 1902 related the plague of the time in India as being like the deluge of Noah(as) and invited people to his ‘Ark’ of peace and salvation (Saifi, 1983, p.94-96). So the story and the Ark are preserved for a reason, for mankind to recongise that only through heeding the signs can we benefit and avoid future disasters of the scale of the great flood. It will be interesting to see in the future if a messenger warns people to make preparations for an impending disaster, whether they would mock or ignore him, or would take notice and act on the warning.
Fazal Ahmad has been on the Editorial Board of The Review of Religions since 1993. His special areas of interest are Christianity, comparative religion and archaeology.
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