The Screen Search for Noah's Ark

The monthly biblical archeology column

William H. Shea, M.Div., is an assistant professor of Old Testament at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.


FIRST CAME the rash of ark books, and now come the ark movies, namely ,"The Ark of Noah," produced by Bert LaRue, and "In Search of Noah's Ark," a Schick-Sun production (taken from a book by the same title, written by Dave Balsiger and C. Sellier). Both of these films are feature-length, but "The Ark of Noah" is more abbreviated and direct in the topics covered. It has three sections: a dramatization of the Biblical account of the Flood, a depiction of some recent expeditions to Mount Ararat, and an account of the producer's own expedition there. The best part of this film is the central section, which deals with expeditions to Ararat before LaRue, the producer, climbed it. LaRue barely mentions the legendary accounts of elderly Armenians and Russians who claimed to have seen the ark. The movie here includes some film clips taken from Fernand Navarra's 1955 expedition to Ararat, during which he recovered some ancient wood on the mountain. The footage is narrated by quotations read from Navarra's book. This material is handled better in LaRue's film than in the Schick-Sun production.

"The Ark of Noah" also contains film clips from the SEARCH expedition to Ararat in 1969. These sequences give the audience an opportunity to see Harry "Bud" Crawford, the dean of Ararat alpinists, in action. The movie also includes an interview with Harry's father, R. E. Crawford, who was one of the founders of the SEARCH organization and a prime mover in the search for the ark.

I was disturbed by the third section of "The Ark of Noah," dealing with LaRue's own expedition. When entering Turkey he intentionally misrepresented his reasons for coming. Asking for, and receiving, permission to film a travelogue of Turkey, he went directly to Mount Ararat. After arriving in Dogubayazit, he bribed some Kurdish guides to lead him up the mountain. Then he bribed the commander of the Turkish army garrison in the vicinity to let him pass by "unnoticed." Shortly after he arrived at the site of Navarra's find a message reached him that a warrant had been issued for his arrest and that troops were on the way to apprehend him. He escaped arrest, however, by descending the mountain on the other side and fleeing into Iran. This kind of activity makes Middle East governments even more suspicious of archeologists and explorers who ask permission to enter and conduct research in their lands.

The production of "In Search of Noah's Ark" was a more ambitious undertaking. It begins by citing several lines of archeological evidence to substantiate the historicity of Genesis. It then briefly refers to some geological arguments for the Flood. These are fol lowed by a dramatization of the Biblical account. The legendary accounts of some of the early supposed sightings of the ark are then simulated in some detail. The recent expeditions to Ararat are covered next, concluding with the 1974 expedition of the Holy Ground Changing Center from Frankston, Texas.

Errors in Both Films

There are some errors in both films. They identify the site of Noah's antediluvian residence as the ancient Mesopotamian city of Shuruppak. They use traditions contained in the etymologies of the names of the towns around Agri Dagh ("Mount Ararat") to demonstrate that the ark landed there. They confuse the local flood theory in Mesopotamia with the universal Deluge. They wrongly place the site of an ark-shaped geological formation on Ararat when it actually is located in the Tendurek Mountains, southwest of Ararat. They also accuse the Turkish government of holding up the search for the ark.

The idea that the hero of the Flood was a resident of the antediluvian city of Shuruppak comes from Mesopotamian sources, but there is no mention of it in the Bible.

A major defect in "In Search of Noah's Ark" is the number of historical and archeological errors made in it. It is evident that those who produced this film did not know the difference between Egyptian hieroglyphs and cuneiform writing from Mesopotamia. In one place they refer to an "Egyptian cuneiform" account of the Flood, and in another they speak of the Babylonian flood story and show an inscription written in Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Most of the examples cited for archeological support of the Bible are poorly selected. They mention the tower of Babel at Babylon, apparently unaware that Alexander the Great swept its site clean when he prepared to do some building there. The archeologist interviewed in this film cited his excavations at Hebron as lending support to the historicity of the patriarchal narratives in Genesis, although no reports on those excavations have been published. The movie declares that the Flood legends are as old as writing. All of the available written texts of Flood stories from Mesopotamia postdate 2000 B.C., although writing began substantially earlier. Though the tablets recently dis covered at Ebla are said to contain a flood story, and are somewhat older, the scribes at that ancient center borrowed an already-developed script from the Sumerians, who had possibly invented writing.

A basic concern in identifying the ark is finding the right mountain upon which to search for it. The Bible states that the ark landed in the "mountains" of Ararat (Gen 8:4). How do the film producers know that Agri Dagh is the right mountain? They answer: "History and tradition." Kurdish, Turkish, Armenian, and Christian (but not Babylonian or Islamic) traditions identify Agri Dagh as the mountain upon which the ark landed; but none of these antedate the third or fourth centuries A.D.

The film "In Search of Noah's Ark" shows some photographs of the Ararat area taken by a satellite, but unfortunately the resolution is not good enough to permit the delineation of the object supposed to be the ark. The site selected for closer investigation in this scene is the same as that discussed by John Warwick Montgomery, one of the technical advisers to the producers of the film, on page 313 of his book The Quest for Noah's Ark. This site is located on a precipice along the eastern edge of the Ahora Gorge. This gorge is the product of a tremendous eruption of the mountain. Most Creationists would deny that such an eruption occurred in antediluvian times. If it occurred after the ark landed on that spot, the boat would surely have been destroyed. In spite of this logical difficulty, the presentation of the satellite's imagery is still one of the more interesting scenes in this movie.

"In Search of Noah's Ark" concludes with two photographs said to have been taken by the Holy Ground Changing Center. The second of these two photo graphs shows horizontal striations on a surface, which have been interpreted as lines of the planking of the ark. This photograph is supposed to present a telephoto close-up of a more distant scene pictured in another photograph, which may have been taken across the Ahora Gorge. I question whether the two photographs are even related. It is also interesting to note how Balsiger and Sellier changed their comments on this photograph between the writing of their book and the producing of their film. In the book they note, "Many serious Ark researchers question whether the photo is genuine. Some critics contend that the photo has been retouched. Only further expeditions will solve this mystery."—In Search of Noah's Ark, plate 28, following page 106. In their movie, on the other hand, this photograph is interpreted as strongly positive evidence for the presence of the ark.

Dating of Wood Samples

Another crucial issue is the dating of samples of wood brought by Navarra from Ararat in 1955 and by the SEARCH group in 1969. These pieces of wood are obviously handworked and appear very old. In "In Search of Noah's Ark" the filmmakers attempt to dis credit the validity of the radiocarbon method, pointing out that sea shells of modern age may be given radiocarbon dates of great antiquity. A possible explanation for the recent date on the wood (A.D. 500-600) might be contamination, although it is difficult to see how this would have occurred under the circumstances. Lacking indications of such contamination, the argument is rather weak.

"The Ark of Noah" film contains one scene that helps provide a credible explanation for the presence of sixth-century wood. That scene portrays some crosses carved in the mountain at six points, beginning at the 10,000-foot level. These stations are in a line leading up to the rocky platform near which the wood was found. In at least some of these stations there are eight crosses present. Crosses are Christian symbols. In addition, a series of steps was cut in the side of the mountain. These items—the stairs, the stations of the crosses, and the radiocarbon dates on the wood—take on added significance when they are considered with some Armenian Christian inscriptions at the foot of the mountain.

These inscriptions were copied by ark searchers and brought to the United States, where experts have dated one of them at A.D. 586. One might therefore conjecture that some Armenian Christian pilgrims cut these steps and built a shrine honoring Saint Noah. Such practices were common in Byzantine times.

Makers of these two films have violated a fundamental rule in archeology: you must find the object before you tell the world you have it. It is premature to say the ark rests on Agri Dagh, and it is unfair to raise the hopes of the faithful when such expectations may very well be disappointed. There is nothing wrong with making travelogue movies, of course, but these two films seek in rather dogmatic ways to convince the viewer that the ark does indeed rest under the glacier at the 14,000-foot level of Agri Dagh and that the Turkish government is the only hindrance to the virtually immediate recovery of the treasure.

The Turks, of course, have permitted some thirty expeditions to go up that mountain in the past quarter of a century, and none of them have brought back anything more promising than Navarra's wood sample. Many other people have gone up illegally. This mountain is in a militarily sensitive area on the border with Russia. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Turkish government is unenthusiastic about more such expeditions.

Fortunately, the Christian's faith in Christ and Creationism need not depend upon the recovery of the ark from the mountains of eastern Turkey, interesting and significant as such a discovery might be.

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William H. Shea, M.Div., is an assistant professor of Old Testament at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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