The History of Finding (or Building) Noah’s Ark
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it is a story, and a search, that has fascinated nearly every culture and religion worldwide.
Beneath almost every culture, faith tradition and geography, there is a story of a massive flood, and the ship that managed to sail it. The story has gripped generations … so much so that copycats and true believers have spent decades building replicas and even searching for the real thing.
Consider the Noah’s Ark replica in Hong Kong, the first of its kind in modern history, built by the evangelical billionaire brothers Thomas and Raymond Kwok. Their holy mission was marred only by the jailing of Thomas, after a court case showed he had given $4.5 million in bribes to help get his real estate dealings approved.
Which just goes to show that the journey to build, and discover, the ark is filled with more intrigue, adventure and corruption than an Indiana Jones movie. It is full of larger-than-life characters, such as Jim Irwin, the NASA astronaut who landed on the moon before setting out to step foot on the deck of the real-life Noah’s Ark — accused of espionage by Turkish authorities, risking kidnapping by Kurdish authorities and nearly falling off a glacier in his search. “It’s easier to walk on the moon,” he once said, giving up before his death in 1991. “I’ve done all I possibly can, but the ark continues to elude us.”
The fact that [the flood myth] persists through all the ancient cultures gives it more weight, more credence.
B.J. Corbin, ark hunter
While the ark may not have ever existed, its story is represented in as many as 200 “flood myths” from all over the world, including the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.
“The fact that [the flood myth] persists through all the ancient cultures gives it more weight, more credence,” says B.J. Corbin, a 61-year-old Delaware man who works for a pump seal manufacturing company. After reading Noah’s Ark: I Touched It as a high schooler, Corbin has spent three decades searching. “I’ve been into it so seriously, and [for] so long, I just assume that everybody would have found Noah’s Ark fatigue right now.”
Hardly. As recently as February, a scholar made waves by suggesting that translations of a Dead Sea Scroll “proved” that Noah’s Ark was actually the Great Pyramid of Giza. Last November, a biblical researcher claimed 3D scans showed a man-made, boat-shaped structure buried in the depths of the Durupinar site in Mount Tendürek in eastern Turkey. The 20th and 21st centuries are rife with such claims, although none have been independently verified.
“It’s basically fundamentalists going around, trying to prove the Bible right. But they are very sophisticated people — I’m impressed by all of the energy that goes into it,” says Stony Brook University professor Paul Zimansky, a Middle East archaeologist.
Around 290-278 B.C., remains of the vessel were described as being “in the Corcyrean mountains of Armenia,” where locals scraped off its residue to create protective amulets. The Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus (A.D. 93 or 94) references it, and, as late as the third and fourth centuries, bishops were claiming the remains were still preserved and could be seen. In more “recent” history, Marco Polo wrote of “the Mountain of Noah’s Ark” in his book The Travels of Marco Polo (circa 1300), and Sir Walter Raleigh, in his History of the World, also devoted chapters to the concept that the “mountains of Ararat” upon which the ark biblically landed could be anywhere in Asia.
It was only in the 19th century, though, that ark explorations became truly common, and particularly motivated by faith. The Armenian Seventh-Day Adventist Haji Yearam was the earliest to claim having found it, preserved in ice, near the summit of Mount Ararat. And from then until 1989, there have been 40 “eyewitness” accounts, according to Corbin, who wrote the book The Explorers of Ararat. Nowadays, the expeditions are six-figure endeavors, requiring helicopters and advanced scientific equipment.
“At the end of the day, it’s a nothingburger, unfortunately,” says Corbin, who is Christian but prides himself on being a healthy skeptic of dubious discovery claims. “The hard truth is that when you dig into it and research it, none of them have borne anything that I would consider conclusive, concrete evidence.”
Zimansky is not surprised the searches increased as religious skepticism and evolutionary science grew. “There is a real correlation between this and Darwin’s theory of evolution. It’s only when there is a challenge to the idea of the Bible as the truth that people go out looking for archaeological evidence to back it up,” he says.
Although the real thing remains elusive, other replicas have been built in recent years: Johan’s Ark, an ark-themed barge in Dordrecht, the Netherlands, opened in 2012, and the Ark Encounter, a 510-foot full-size facsimile, opened in 2016 in Williamstown, Kentucky. “It’s driven by curiosity. If this is really part of our history, then it should be somewhere,” says Patrick Kanewske, director of media relations for Answers in Genesis, a young-Earth creationist group that operates the Ark Encounter. Interest in the ark is high, with more than a million visitors each year, across “all religions, ethnicities, even atheists,” he says.
The search continues, and may always. Corbin has given up on Turkey, and now believes the ark may be in the Zagros Mountains in Iran. “In 2010, I just said, I don’t think it’s here. It’s a hard thing for somebody who has been there four times, written a book, been on TV talking about it, saying that I’m wrong. To say I spent 20 years on Mount Ararat and admit I was wrong, well, that makes you feel stupid,” he admits. And yet, he remains hopeful, filled with faith that, this time, he could get it right: “It certainly is an alternative to traditional views,” he says.