Gertrude, meet Noah.

As one of MM’s elite loyal readers, you probably know that I’m obsessed with the Garden of Eden, and the people who think they can find it on earth. That’s the “ography” part of “mythography”: the quest to map an ethereal myth in an on-the-ground reality.  [Exhibit A: the 1914 map to the left showing Eden in outer Mongolia.] Now, the Mythographer is tracking another set of obscure seekers, the people who look for the remains of Noah’s Ark.  Starting with–surprise!–the British stateswoman Gertrude Bell, 1868-1926

Bell (under the Sphinx's chin) showing Winston Churchill how it's done.

Bell (under the Sphinx's chin) showing Winston Churchill how it's done.

Bell is a near-mythical figure herself: fearless, mountain-climbing, camel-riding, pants-wearing, Arabic-speaking, relic-hunting secret agent of the British Empire. It’s tempting to call her “the female Lawrence of Arabia,” except that she was a role model and former employer to Lawrence himself, so really he should be called “the male Gertrude Bell.”  Now, she’s either credited or blamed for one of her many historic acts: drawing the boundaries of present-day Iraq.  (She also founded and stocked the National Museum in Baghdad–the one that was famously looted after the 2003 U. S. invasion.)

But back in 1920, the borders of half of Europe and Asia seemed up for revision, and Bell at least did so conscientiously, making sure to avoid drawing lines through ancestral tribal groups.  Then she stuck around as advisor to King Feisal, British-appointed monarch of Iraq–and compadre of Lawrence in the movie. In all of these endeavors, Bell was a relentless pragmatist.   A member in good standing of the Church of England, of course, but no need to be fanatical about God, Queen, or anything else. The part of the Bible that describes the location of Eden mentions the Tigris and Euphrates–Iraq’s key rivers–but you’ll never catch Bell referring to her adopted home as “Paradise.” She was all about getting this done: building schools, irrigating fields, mediating disputes.

Picnicking with royalty

Picnicking with royalty

In 1922 however, Bell took a little break from the high-pressure political world of Baghdad to travel the highlands of the Turkish-Armenian mountains, and write one of her famous travelogues about the experience, From Amurath to Amurath. She too drew maps.

Bell was a practical soul, but her account also contained lines like this: “The Babylonians, and after them the Nestorians and the Moslems, held that the Ark of Noah, when the waters subsided, grounded not upon the mountain of Ararat, but upon Mount Judi. ” This was kind of a big deal, as the one source Bell left out of her list was the Bible. The Babylonians are sort of a stand-in, because many sources of the time were proving that much of the Bible originated in Babylonian myth.  But that’s another story.  Bell continues, “To that school of thought I also belong, for I have made the pilgrimage and seen what I have seen.” Mount Judi, which is near Mount Ararat, is today known as the Muslim Noah’s-Ark site.  Ok. So what exactly had Gertrude seen?

Bell set off with her Arab & local guides, Kas Mattai, Selim, and Fattuh. Climbing the flower-covered hillsides, she matter-of-factly announced, “And so we came to Noah’s Ark, which had run aground in a bed of scarlet tulips.” And then she provided a helpful illustration.

Noah's Ark, circa 1922

Noah's Ark, circa 1922

What is it we were actually looking at here? Bell claims there was once a famous Christian monastery, “The Cloister of the Ark” on the mountain’s summit.  Is this it? Nope, that was destroyed by lightning in the year 766.  Then the Muslims, who came next, apparently built a shrine on the spot, but that’s gone too, although people of all major religions still came by on a certain summer day to honor the “Prophet Noah”, or at least they still did in 1922.

And this is the makeshift shrine in the off-season: “a number of roofless chambers…roughly built of unsquared stones, piled together without mortar, and from wall to wall are laid tree-trunks and boughs, so disposed that they may support a roofing of cloths.”

The building, Bell asserted, was recent, and Muslim-built, with a special prayer niche facing east toward Mecca.  But everywhere in the area there were myths about Noah, like the local town named “Thamanin”, the Arabic word for eight, named for the 80 people whom, according to the Qur’an, were saved from the flood and re-founded the world from here.

What’s impressive about Gertrude Bell is that she didn’t need to classify myths like these as “true” or “not true”; for her, the Noah’s Ark site was less about an event that did or did not happen there–the recreation of the world by God after a disastrous Deluge–and more about the various waves of humanity that had commemorated that myth on that spot.  That is to say, it’s about people, not facts.



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