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"Looking for Noah" By Bruce S. Feiler

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Posted 25 December 2003 - 11:48

"Looking for Noah" By Bruce S. Feiler

Looking for Noah

Is the ark still there, nestled in the snows of Mount Ararat?

THE CALL TO PRAYER SOUNDED JUST AFTER THREE O'CLOCK P.m. It came from a minaret, echoed off the storefronts, and stopped me, briefly, in the middle of the street. All around, people halted their hurrying and turned their attention, momentarily, to God. A few old men pulled cloaks around their shoulders and slipped into the back of a shop. Two boys rushed across the road and disap- peared behind a stone wall. A woman picked up her basket of radishes and tiptoed out of sight. Part of me felt odd to be starting a journey into the roots of the Bible in a place so spiritually re- moved from my own. But continuing toward the center of town, I realized my unease might be a reminder of a truth tucked away in the early verses of Genesis: Abraham was not originally the man he became. He was not an Israelite, he was not a Jew. He was not even a believer in God-at least initially. He was a traveler, called by some voice not entirely clear that said: Go, head to this land, walk along this route, and trust what you will find.
Within minutes, the afternoon prayers were complete and peo- ple returned to the streets. Dogubeyazit, in extreme eastern Turkey, was thuddingly bleak, with two asphalt roads intersecting in a ne- glected town of 30,000. just outside of town, hundreds of empty oil tankers were parked in a double-file line waiting to cross the border into Iran. The trucks, the town, as well as most of the sur- rounding countryside, were completely overshadowed by a loom- ing triangular peak with a pristine cap of snow.
Mount Ararat is a perfect volcanic pyramid 16,984 feet high, with a junior volcano, Little Ararat, attached to its hip. The high- est peak in the Middle East (and the second highest in Europe), Big Ararat is holy to everyone around it. The Turks call it Agri Dagi, the Mountain of Pain. The Kurds call it the Mountain of Fire. Armenians also worship the mountain, which was in their homeland until a brutal war in 1915. 1 later met an Armenian in Jerusalem who took me into his home, where he had at least 150 representations of the mountain, including rugs, cups, coats of arms, bottles of cognac, and stained-glass windows. Mount Ararat is the first thing he thinks of every morning, he said, and the first thing his children drew when they were young.
I had come for a different reason. Genesis, chapter 8, says that Noah's ark, after seven months on the floodwaters, came to rest on "the mountains of Ararat." Mount Ararat is the first place mentioned in the Bible that can be located with any degree of cer- tainty, and it seemed like a fitting place to begin my effort to reac- quaint myself with the biblical stories by retracing the first five books through the desert. The topography of this part of Turkey, which includes the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates, per- meates the early chapters of Genesis. Chaos, Creation, Eden, and Eve are all drawn from the fertile union of Mesopotamia, "the land between the rivers" and the birthplace of the Bible.
In recent years, however, this region has been one of the most volatile-and bloody-in the Middle East. Over 40,000 people have died in a largely overlooked war in which indigenous Kurds have tried to gain autonomy from Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. In every travel book I read about the region the author was at least briefly detained. The Rough Guide I brought actually superim- posed a blank area over the region, saying it was too unsafe for its correspondent. "In our opinion, travel is emphatically not recom- mended." In some cases, it said, security forces respond to the rebelhon by "placing local towns under formal curfew or even shooting up the main streets at random."
Though Dogubeyazit was calm today, the underlying tension was still apparent. Approaching the center of town, I had barely made it past a string of cheap jewelry stores when a man ap- proached me, eagerly.
"Hello," he said, in English. We shook hands. "You just drove into town in that brown car, didn't you? You're staying in the hotel, in room 104 *"
The secret police are working overtime, I thought. "What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Um, I'm here to find out about Noah's ark," I said. "Noah's ark!" he repeated. "Well, if you want to learn about the ark you have to go to the green building at the end of this street. Go inside and up the stairs until you get to a dark room. Inside there's another set of stairs. Go up those and you'll find another dark room. In there you'll find the man who knows everything about Noah's ark"
At first I thought he was joking, or laying a trap. I thanked him and confinued strolling. I had heard enough horror stories-and seen enough tanks on the road into town-to ignore directions Eke these. I walked around for a few minutes, bought some plums in the market, and was heading back to the hotel when I stopped myself. Why exactly had I come here anyway?
Inside the green building I found the sagging staircase and pro- ceeded to the second floor. The room was dark and smelled of dis- carded cigarettes. I hesitated for a minute, took a step forward, then reconsidered. I was just turning back when I heard a noise from above, then steps. Seconds later a figure appeared. It was a man in his early forties, lean, with black hair and an enormous bushy mus- tache that cascaded over his lips. His eyes were concealed by the gloom. He appraised me for a second, before saying, in perfect Oxonian English, "May I help you?"
"I was told you know about Noah's ark," I said. He considered my answer. "But you were supposed to go up the second set of stairs."
I agreed.
"Maybe you don't really want to know."
He retreated as quietly as he had appeared and left me standing in the dark. This time I didn't hesitate.
Upstairs, the man was just settling onto a low chair covered with carpets. He gestured for me to sit next to him. Between us was a table covered with books and a handful of photographs. He poured me a glass of tea and we exchanged niceties. He was a na- tive of Dogubeyazit, a Kurd. Ten years ago he had served time in prison for his role as an insurgent. He refused to talk about the war and when I asked his name, he gestured toward his mustache: "Everyone calls me Parachute." He was wearing a blue and white horizontal-striped t-shirt that, along with his dark hair, made him look like a Venetian gondolier. After a while I asked if it was pos- sible to climb the mountain.
"It is forbidden," he said. "Since 1991, nobody has been to the top."
"Is there anything to see?"
"If you believe something, you can see. If you don't believe, you cannot see."
"What do you believe?"
"We believe. When we are children, we hear things. They tell us that this is Noah's countryside. Even today, when something happens, the people say that it's the luck of Noah."
"Do you have the luck of Noah?" I asked.
"We know that something is there. We find something there." "I'm confused. You're saying that you know something that everybody else does not know?"
"Yes." His eyes were big, with deep bags under them. He didn't move at all when he spoke. "I know it's there. I find some- thing there."
"What is it that you found?" "Ah."
"You won't tell me.9' "Hmm.."
"When will we hear?"
"One day you'll hear."
"And you'll be famous around the world?"
He crossed his arms in front of his chest in a sly-sat- isfied way.
As Parachute well knew, almost since the Bible first ap- peared, stories of sightings of Noah's ark have been a staple of Near Eastern lore, making it, in effect, the world's first UFO. josephus, the first- century historian, wrote of legends that the ark landed "on a mountain in Armenia." In AD 678, Saint Jacob, after asking God to show him the ark, fell asleep on the moun- tain and awoke to find a piece of wood in his arms. By the nineteenth century the sight- ings grew more elaborate. In 1887, two Persian princes wrote that they saw the ark while on top of the moun- tain, which is covered in snow year-round. "The bow and stern were clearly in view, but the center was buried in snow. The wood was peculiar, dark reddish in color,-almost ironcolored in fact, and seemed very thick. I am very positive that we saw the real ark, though it is over 4,000 years old."

Base camp was dug in atop a scraped knuckle of ground; above us, Ararat remained the same, monolithic and undimin- ished. Dinner was set and the field cook stuffed us with a vari- ety of tasteless carbohydrates. I had a beer and was instantly drunk. I lit a cigarette-my sixth of the day, compared with my usual fifty-and was simultane- ously stoned. Ahmet and I sat leg against leg and chatted like two retarded brothers. The sun set and took the world with it. Out in the dusty central plaza of our bivouac, the staff smashed up packing crates and built a modest campfire. The Europeans meditated upon the lambent flames for a minute then burst into beer hall songs. The clock eased back several eons, and the darkness muted our many voices, made every gesture meaningful, and offered us the illusion that we were a tried and tested community, which felt nice, as illusions often do.
-Bob Shacochis, "Bob Versus the Volcano," Outside

In 1916, two Russian pilots claimed they saw the ark from the air, and the following year Czar Nicholas 11 sent two expeditions with over 150 personnel to photograph it. Because of the Bolshevik Revolution, the photographs never reached him, though his daughter Anastasia is said to have worn a cross made of ark wood. Most photographs of the ark have similarly disappeared, including dozens allegedly taken by pilots during World War II and most taken by the CIA using U-2 spy planes in the 1950s. Even Air Force One is said to have spied the ark. During a flight to Tehran on December 31, 1977, while Jimmy Carter was traveling to a New Year's party given by the shah, passengers onboard claimed they saw "a large dark boat." Said UPI photographer Ronald Bennett, who was on the plane: "It's my opinion that the president probably had Air Force One routed over Mt. Ararat and most likely saw the ark too."
Since that time, technology has only heightened interest. Dozens of books have explored the subject, and more than fifty websites track the ongoing chase. In 1988, a stockbroker from San Diego flew a helicopter along the east slope taking photographs. The following year a pilot from Chicago aired footage of an "ark- like object" on CNN. Charles Willis, who was once Charles Manson's psychiatrist, ran four expeditions, and astronaut James Irwin, who once took a Turkish flag to the moon in an attempt to butter up the Ankara government, made five. None have found the prize. As my companion and guide, the Israeli archaeologist Avner Goren, had warned, "Archaeologists won't even take into consid- eration that there are any remains. This story, like Creation, is crys- tallized from many traditions." But that won't stop the pursuit. When I asked Avner if any of the recent expeditions interested him, he said, "As a scientist, no. But as an adventurer, yes."
Which is exactly what Parachute was banking on. With prod- ding he explained that during a trip up the north side of the mountain in 1990, with a colleague from England, he found a piece of black wood one hundred feet long. It was located at 12,000 feet.
"But it could be a hundred years old," I said.
"We tested it."
"And how old is it?"
"When we find out everything, you'll know."
"But why wait? How much money would it take for you to bring me to it?"
He thought for a moment. "It's not the money. It belongs to us. We found the ark. If you gave me a million dollars I won't bring you to it. If you wanted the pictures I wouldn't give them to you."
"You have pictures?" "Yes."
At this point I decided to go back to the hotel and get Avner, who had been napping. Avner had been to the top of the mountain in 1982 on a climbing expedition (no ark sightings, but lots of pure, clean snow). For the rest of the afternoon the three of us sat in Parachute's den. I asked Parachute what explained the ark's appeal.
"The ark is not so interesting to people," he said, "but Noah has meaning, like Mohammed or Jesus."
"If we can prove that any of these stories happened, then peo- ple will believe in God."
"What about you?" I asked. "What did you think when you found it?"
"I was happy. I was walking along"---it was a particularly warm year-when suddenly I fell into this cavern covered by snow and ice. And there it was."
"I would like to believe your story," I said. "But I find it im- possible to believe that in 4,000 years you're the first person to go into this hole."
"Around here there are only five guides licensed to go up the mountain," Parachute said. "Two are in jail, one is ill, one won't go. That leaves me."
"Will you show me the pictures?" He refused.
"What if I tell you that you're being selfish, that there are sev- eral billion people in the world who would like to know if Noah's ark exists?"
He didn't react.
"What if I tell you that you could be the savior of the Kurdish people by bringing millions of tourists to this area?"
He didn't move.
"What if I tell you that my mother is dying"-a lie "and that she could die in peace if she knew that Noah was real?"
I was stunned. "Not even for my mother!?" I said. "Do you un- derstand what you have here? More people believe in this book, more people have died because of this book, more people are in- fluenced by this book .... You could change the world!"
Parachute was silent for a moment and unfolded his arms for the first time in hours. "You can tell your mother that she can be happy, that in the world there is one person who has seen Noah's ark. The Bible is true."
"So if she sees your ark, will she believe in God?"
"She'll have to," he said. "And you will, too. God is real. I have seen the proof."

Bruce S. Feder has writtenjor The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and ConcI6 Nast Traveler, and contributed to NPR@ "All Things Considered. " His books include Learning to Bow, Dreaming Out Loud, and Walking the Bible,from which this story was excerpted.

"Looking for Noah" By Bruce S. Feiler

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