In 1970, a 70-year-old Armenian businessman named George Hagopian created headline news across the world by claiming that as a boy, he had visited Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat twice with his uncle, in 1908 and 1910.
Hagopian was from Van, a city located on the eastern shore of Lake Van in what is now eastern Turkey. His grandfather was minister of the Armenian Orthodox church there and frequently told young George stories about the “holy ship” on the “holy mountain”. Mount Ararat is sacred to the Armenians, whose traditions hold they were the first race of humans to appear after the Flood. It has featured on the Armenian national coat of arms since Soviet times, much to the annoyance of the Turks, who protested that it was part of their territory (the Soviets retorted that the crescent on the Turkish flag surely didn’t mean that the Turks laid claim to the Moon).
Mount Ararat is an extinct volcano located in eastern Turkey, overlooking the borders with Armenia and Iran. It is what is known as a stratovolcano – formed from lava and pyroclastic flow. Although its dating is uncertain, it probably forming as a result of vulcanism arising when the Tethys Sea closed, 15 million years ago.
Its northern and eastern slopes rise from the broad alluvial plain of the Aras River, about 3,300 ft (1,000 m) above sea level; its southwestern slopes rise from a plain about 5,000 ft above sea level; and on the west a low pass separates it from a long range of other volcanic ridges extending westward toward the eastern Taurus ranges. The Ararat Massif is about 25 miles (40 km) in diameter. It comprises two peaks, about seven miles apart, known respectively as Great Ararat and Little Ararat. Great Ararat rises 16,854 feet above sea level, and is the highest peak in Turkey; Little Ararat rises to 12,782 feet.
High above the Aras plain the Armenians built a monastery to commemorate St. Jacob, who is said to have tried repeatedly but failed to reach the summit of Great Ararat in search of the Ark. The monastery was destroyed by an earthquake and avalanche in 1840.
Hagopian’s uncle had been forced by a four-year drought to move from Van to a village at the foot of Ararat in search of better grazing for his sheep and young George was staying with him when one day the two of them climbed Mount Ararat in search of the Ark. They believed that the drought conditions might have melted the snow and ice that usually covered it.
On the way, they passed Ahora Gorge and the remains of St. Jacob’s monastery. As the mountain became steeper, Hagopian’s uncle carried the boy on his shoulders. At length, close to the summit, they came to something resembling a giant barge, perched on a rocky ledge and partially covered in snow. At first Hagopian thought it was a stone house, but his uncle showed him the outline of planks, and he realised it was the Ark “just like the other people had described it to him”. His uncle lifted him on to the Ark roof, telling him not to be afraid because “it is a holy ship… the animal and people are not here now. They have all gone away.” Hagopian kissed the surface of the roof, but his uncle rather irreverently fired a gun at the Ark’s hull. The bullets bounced off. He then tried to cut off a piece of wood, but without success.
After two hours, during which they looked at the Ark and ate some food, the pair returned to their village, where Hagopian related his adventure to other boys of his age, only to receive the dismissive reply, “yes, we saw the Ark too”.
Hagopian claimed to have made a second visit two years later, but by that time the Ark was largely buried in snow.
Hagopian was unable to pinpoint his journey on a map, though he claimed that if he could get back on to the mountain he could lead investigators to the Ark. Unfortunately Mount Ararat is sited at what had by that time become one of the most sensitive locations on Earth, right on the border between Turkey and the Soviet Union, and in the middle of activities by Kurdish separatists. Hagopian died in 1972 without getting the chance to lead investigators to the site.
The search for Noah’s Ark has a long history, and expeditions to Mount Ararat for that purpose have been conducted since the early 19th Century. Although there have been many claimed sightings, none are wholly convincing. Ark searchers point to the “Ararat anomaly” – an object near the summit of the mountain that appears on Cold War-era photographs taken from aircraft and spy satellites – but to be candid, these are about as convincing as the so-called Face of Mars, so popular with conspiracy theorists. It seems very strange that well-equipped expeditions and aircraft cannot locate a site reached without undue difficulty by a man and a young boy, and apparently known to many other villagers.
Logically there are only three possibilities: firstly Hagopian was lying and made the whole thing up; secondly he was telling the truth and actually did see the Ark with his uncle; thirdly he genuinely believed he had seen the Ark in his childhood, but was mistaken.
Hagopian underwent lie-detector tests, which suggested that he was telling the truth. Admittedly these tests are notoriously unreliable; and in addition Hagopian was questioned by people who clearly wanted to believe him. It has also been pointed out that in old age Hagopian had no living relatives and few friends; he may have been seeking attention. However he was known by business associates as an honest man, and let us suppose for the sake of argument that he was not lying.
Could he, therefore, have actually seen the Ark? The world-wide prevalence of flood mythology leaves little doubt that these stories do relate to real events. At the end of and in the wake of the last ice age, sea levels rose dramatically around the world. Great Britain and Ireland became separated from Europe; according to one theory the Black Sea was created by a flood occurring around 5600 BC when the Mediterranean broke through the Bosporus; further east the Sunda Peninsula disappeared, leaving only the islands of Sumatra, Java and Borneo above water. It seems highly likely that the origin of the flood mythology is tribal memories of these events, possibly conflated with accounts of more recent and more localised floods.
However this is a far cry from all the landmasses of the Earth being submerged to a depth of in excess of 16,854 feet (the height of Great Ararat): the idea is absurd. Where could all that water have come from and, no less important, where did it go?
Even if we allow some freak condition such as a tsunami to have stranded a ship near the summit of Ararat, we run into the question as to whether a vessel the size of the Ark could have been constructed in late prehistoric times, the presumptive time of the Flood, using Bronze Age technology.
It is entirely possible that Noah’s Ark existed – a watercraft built to carry animals and other goods for trade. Caught up in a flood, it enabled it crew and cargo of animals to survive until the floodwaters receded. However, the Ark is supposed to have been 300 cubits in length – about 450 feet or 135 metres. That is about the size of a present-day cross-channel ferry. For comparison, Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory measures 227 feet, Brunel’s SS Great Britain is 322 feet and the Titanic was 882 feet. The earliest ship to significantly exceed the Ark’s reputed dimensions was Brunel’s SS Great Eastern, a 690 foot leviathan launched in 1858 – after four years in the building, and pushing the envelope of Victorian technology to the very limit. While the achievements of Bronze Age people are impressive – the Pyramids are an obvious example of what they were capable of – it seems unlikely in the extreme that they would have been capable of constructing a vessel of such size – especially in a short space of time. Bear in mind too that armies of slaves were required to build the Pyramids, and even so they required many years of toil to complete.
I feel it is absolutely certain that there is not, and never has been, a 450-foot Bronze Age ship resting close to the summit of Mount Ararat. It is just as likely that the Ark was built with the assistance of one of Erich von Daniken’s alien astronauts.
So if Hagopian was not lying, and he did not see the Ark, then just what did he see? One thing that stands out to me is that the account has a disjointed, dreamlike quality to it. Hagopian initially thinks he is seeing a rock formation, but then his uncle points out the outline of planks. Crucially he has previously had the Ark described to him: only now does he see it just as he was told it would be. His uncle’s behaviour is strange: he speaks of the Ark as a “holy ship”; but then he fires a gun at it and tries to hack off a piece of it with a knife. And what is he doing with a gun in the first place? Finally Hagopian is telling other boys about the Ark, but they reply that they’ve already seen it. If the Ark was so widely known among the villagers, wouldn’t somebody have mentioned it sooner?
I think Hagopian is describing a dream – a dream so vivid he later confused it with reality.
Here is what I believe actually happened:
1.Hagopian learns about the Ark from his grandfather and – like many a boy of that age, develops an obsessive interest (at his age I was obsessively interested in ships and aeroplanes).
2.He goes to stay with his uncle and begs him to take him up the mountain in search of the Ark.
3.To humour the lad, Hagopian’s uncle eventually does take him up the mountain. They see, close to the summit, a rocky outcrop, largely covered by snow. Possibly they see the Ararat Anomaly. Hagopian’s uncle is probably by now keen to end the jaunt and never intended to go so high. He tells the boy that it is the Ark. Hagopian isn’t convinced.
4.This is in fact the only time they ascend the mountain, but in later life Hagopian recalls it as his second visit to the Ark.
5.The account of Hagopian’s first visit to the Ark is actually a vivid dream, occurring shortly after the expedition.
6.The dream recurs in Hagopian’s later life, to the extent that he eventually becomes convinced that he actually did visit the Ark as a young boy.
Many a time he would have awoken from his dream. In the fleeting moments that followed wakening, he would be convinced he knew the location of the Ark, and that he could return there. At first, the dream would fade next day – but in time as he grew old he was unable to distinguish between reality and the first occurrence of the dream.
Inevitably Bible literalists seized on Hagopian’s claims to have seen the Ark, and to this day they can be read on countless creationist websites. Most versions seem to have been simply cut-and-pasted from Bermuda Triangle enthusiast Charles Berlitz’s 1987 book “The Lost Ship of Noah”.
© Christopher Seddon 2008