This Day in Jewish History |

2014: Noah’s Ark Comes to Rest on Top of Mt. Ararat, Says Chabad

The story of Noah’s Ark is usually accepted as allegorical, but could an ancient catastrophe lie behind the flood myth?

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Interpretation in wood of Noah's Ark.
Interpretation in wood of Noah's Ark.Credit: Reuters

On December 8, 2104 BCE, Noah’s Ark came to rest on the top of Mount Ararat, according to the calculations of the Chabad movement. Chabad says its calculation is based on the opinion of Talmudic sage Rabbi Joshua.

Could there be a kernel of truth in this strange tale, after all? Evidence discovered in the last decade suggests that there could.

As told in the Bible, the story has holes. To recap the Jewish version: Revolted by the iniquity of mankind, God decides to eliminate the lot – and all animals aside from sea creatures, evidently – by a planet-wide flood. Only Noah and his family are spared. Noah is told to build an ark, onto which they board a male and female of every animal, to ride out the flood.

The biggest surprise about the story is that some latter-day archaeologists argue there could have been an actual, catastrophic – if not planet-wide – flood so traumatic that it echoed through oral traditions told over millennia, migrating with terrified survivors and their descendents around the world and culminating in the great “flood myths.” That flood, say some, was the creation of the Black Sea.

The formation of the Black Sea and Noah

Today the Black Sea is a salt sea surrounded by Turkey, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria, connected to the Mediterranean by shallow straits, the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. Geologists generally agree that the Black Sea was formed when the Mediterranean, whose level was rising due to melting glaciation as the Ice Age ended, broke through or spilled over a natural dam, creating the narrow Bosphorus Straits – and overwhelming a landlocked freshwater lake, whose shores had been heavily peopled.

The Black Sea today is deep, at more than 2,200 meters. The oxygen zone is only in the upper layer, 120-150 meters. Remains at the anoxic sea bottom are largely safe from decay. If it was created by inundation of a lake, remains of Neolithic human habitation would be expected at what had been the lake’s shores.

In 1998 and 1999, archaeologists led by maritime explorer Bob Ballard found an ancient shoreline, off the Black Sea shore in Turkey, at a depth of about 100 meters. Freshwater snail shells found there dated to around 5,000 BCE, the team said. The next year Ballard announced indications of human habitation, including wooden beams and stone tools.

In 2004, the Bulgarian oceanographers Pekto and Dimitar Dimitrov published “The Noah Project,” a scientific volume describing the history, geology and chemistry of the Black Sea and concurring that it had been created in Neolithic times by the Mediterranean breaching the Bosphorus some 7,000 to 9,500 years ago.

Other geologists believe the flooding cannot have been that catastrophic and that over the millennia, the Black Sea had been in intermittent touch with the Mediterranean.

Myriad flood myths

Indirect support for the theory that some sort of traumatic flood really happened is the sheer prevalence of flood myths among ancient civilizations, from Sumerian to Greek, Babylonian to Indian, Germanic and Polynesian, many of which feature a god’s wrath, a single survivor and his family, and in some cases, succor for animals.

Greek legend relates that when Zeus became enraged at the hubris of the Pelasgians, he decided to drown them all. Prometheus told his son Deucalion to build a chest or ark to save himself; all other men perished. Irish myth tells that the first inhabitants of Ireland were led there by Noah’s granddaughter Cessair: in one version, when Noah denied her father a place in the ark, Cessair advised him to build an idol, who advised them to escape the Deluge in a ship.

Sumerian myth tells how the god Enki warns of the gods’ decision to destroy mankind in a flood and instructed King Ziusudra to build a large boat. The Babylonian Atrahasis Epic gives human overpopulation, which inconvenienced the gods, as the cause for the great flood.

Aboriginal myths in the Andaman Islands tell that the creator god Puluga, angered by people neglecting his commands, ceased to visit and then sent a devastating flood. Only two men and two women survived. Puluga then recreated the animals and plants but they had to trick him into reinventing fire for them.

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