The Creationist Astronaut Who Tried to Find Noah’s Ark
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because not even the eighth man on the moon could find the elusive ark.
Thirtysomething Ahmet sits and stares out at the soft summer rain. He works at the visitors’ center located up a steep incline off Turkey’s highway E80, roughly 20 miles shy of the Iranian border. Minutes later, we’re scrambling through wet grass and ankle-breaking crevices. “That’s it,” Ahmet says, pointing to a piece of elevated land known as the Durupinar site that some say resembles a ship. “The ark is under that.”
Noah’s ark is fabled to have ended up close to or on the slopes of Turkey’s Mount Ararat, 15 miles north of Durupinar. As the story goes, Noah was warned by God of a great flood and told to shelter a pair of every species before water flooded Earth. The biblical tale is also one of the most contested: Scholars, scientists, explorers and theologians have argued, “proved,” “found” and discounted evidence of the ark’s existence several times. Both the Bible and the Quran, though, mention Ararat as its resting place.
But there was always the chance we would see the old boat hiding in the ice high on Mount Ararat, and when there is a chance, it is worth the effort.
Cue wannabe Indiana Joneses, relic hunters and Christians like American James Irwin and Scotsman Donald Mackenzie who have set out to find it, often at great cost. Mackenzie was caught in a blizzard at 13,000 feet up Ararat in late September 2011. Two years later, a shepherd came across some of his campsite belongings, but the fervent Protestant was never found. Decades earlier, a far higher-profile expedition set off from Colorado in search of the ark.
In 1971, U.S. astronaut James Irwin, on Apollo 15, became the eighth man to walk on the moon and the first to use a lunar rover in space. Eleven years later, fueled by his creationist beliefs, he was on Mount Ararat, hunting for the ark on the first of several missions to eastern Turkey. Irwin was part of what Bob Cornuke, a former SWAT team member who accompanied him on a 1986 ark trip, calls “one of the greatest accomplishments of humankind.” Yet Irwin remained a humble, “gentle and quiet man despite all the fanfare,” Cornuke says.
Cornuke loved the adventure and relished the company. “I was with a living legend looking for the ark, which, if found, would be the most amazing find in all of history,” he says, noting how they fully expected to find the biblical gem. He admits that “emotions often blurred reasoned expectations”; on one occasion, they were detained and accused of espionage by Turkish authorities. “But there was always the chance we would see the old boat hiding in the ice high on Mount Ararat,” he says, “and when there is a chance, it is worth the effort.”
Hope and belief drives many explorers to attempt the dangerous climb. Parts of Mount Ararat are military zones, and government permits are required to climb the 16,853-foot peak. In the summer of 2015, guide companies were banned from taking trekkers up Ararat because of the deteriorating local security situation — Kurdish separatists often hide out on the mountain.
Does the ark even exist? Metin Emlek of Mount Ararat Climbing Tours is certain it does. “It’s usually Christian people who come to search for Noah’s ark,” he says, noting how most are men. Several expeditions, however, have disproved the Durupinar site as the ark’s final resting place with scientific means. Some claiming to have found timber from the ark’s hull on Ararat have since been revealed as elaborate hoaxes.
For some scholars dedicated to studying the ancient civilizations of the region, the ark has never been real. “It is highly unlikely,” says Bob Cargill, an assistant professor of religion at the University of Iowa. “The biblical story of the flood is adapted from earlier, well-known Mesopotamian flood accounts like the story of Atra-Hasis and The Epic of Gilgamesh. Most critical biblical scholars understand the biblical flood story to be a reworking of these earlier flood myths, which were tailored to reflect later Jewish identity, ideology and theology.”
But that hasn’t stopped generations of explorers from looking. Though not a particularly high or technical climb, what makes Ararat dangerous is the large amounts of scree and ice on its steep slopes. In addition to Mackenzie’s disappearance, two Italian climbers died on the mountain in 2006, having lost their footing amid a blizzard.
Irwin himself nearly lost his life on Mount Ararat. After being badly injured by falling rocks in 1982, he was carried to safety by a donkey. A helicopter hired to look more closely at the Ahora Gorge section of the mountain during his 1986 trip failed to uncover clues about the ark’s whereabouts.
By the late 1980s, Irwin stopped his search. He had conquered the moon but couldn’t quite unearth the fabled vessel. “It’s easier to walk on the moon,” he once said about the effort. “I’ve done all I possibly can, but the ark continues to elude us.”