Noah the engineer

In the annals of MM‘s long-term surveillance of Noah’s Flood and the mythology surrounding it, perhaps no entry is weirder than that of the celebrated British engineer William Willcocks, who seemed at first to be so normal. He built the enormous Aswan Dam across the Nile in 1903, and rebuilt South Africa after the Boer War, and he carried his Bible everywhere. So when in 1908 the Ottoman Empire invited the decorated scientist to survey the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, he accepted immediately.

To learn about the country’s ancient irrigation systems, he simply opened his Bible and investigated everything in it that had to do with water. He spent three years navigating the entire lengths of the Tigris and Euphrates on a steamship, with a topographic map in one hand, and the Bible in the other.

He explained everything in terms of water—the Garden of Eden was just a well-watered town on the northern Euphrates, where date palms could grow without much manipulation of the water sources. The Fall from Paradise happened when the water began to dry up, and Adam and Eve, had to flee about 150 miles south of Eden—to Karbala, Iraq. The country around Karbala was very low, swampy, and Willcocks thought it would make a suitable spot for farming.

And that’s where Noah comes in. Here’s how Willcocks tells the story: Noah was a farmer, just trying to make a living, when the settlers to the north of him, started to split into warring factions. One faction threatened to lay a “massive earthen dike” across the branch of the Tigris upstream of Noah. If they went through with it, Noah and all his fields would be completely inundated. What could he do?

Fortunately, Noah had a lot of time to think about this, because filling the river with earth would have taken 10,000 men and many weeks and could not have been accomplished without anyone noticing. So Noah built a boat out of poplar wood and water-sealed it on the inside and out with  bitumen–naturally occurring petroleum. When the Tigris overflowed its banks Noah scooped up his family and floated to safety.
What happened to the boat? Willcocks didn’t say. All of this was to point out how he could do things better. He was impressed with Noah’s ingenious solution, but, well, he was the pride of the British Empire. As Willcocks liked to say, “If Noah had been an hydraulic engineer, he would have constructed the Pishon River escape instead of an ark, and saved not only his family but his country as well.” Willcocks was a hydraulic engineer, and saving Iraq was exactly what he intended to do.   And he did–sort of.  He did build the Pishon river escape, which irrigated almost enough land to feed the British army that was to have a presence in the country for the next thirty years.

One Response to Noah the engineer

  1. P.S.–now, read the whole story of Willcocks and his search for the Garden of Eden in Iraq, in “The Exquisite Corpse”, Andrei Codrescu’s literary journal:

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