Could Noah's ark really have happened?

A Noah by Any Other Name -- Noah's Prequel

If you read texts predating the Bible, you'll find that the well-known Old Testament Noah did not make his literary debut in the Holy Scriptures. Rather, he made his first appearance about 2,000 years or so earlier in the Sumerian civilization of Mesopotamia. Holding power from roughly 3500 B.C. to 2000 B.C., the Sumerians were the first people to sketch out the story of Noah, except they called him Ziusudra.

Mesopotamia cradle

Later, the Babylonians would record a similar tale in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest book in recorded history. As the Babylonians tell it, a man named Utnapishtim was warned of a great storm and built a boat an acre in size, split into six different divisions. All surrounding lands flooded after six days and nights of rain. Sailing to what may have been modern-day Bahrain [source: Discovery Channel and BBC], Utnapishtim and his wife received immortality for his obedience.

Here's where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers come into play. The two waterways that slice through modern day Iraq served as the main thoroughfares for trade at that time, and were the setting for the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Because both rivers flood each summer, scholars think that Noah's story may be based on that actual event -- a greater than usual flooding of the Tigris or Euphrates. In fact, archeologists have uncovered evidence of such a great flood in Mesopotamia, dating back to around 2900 B.C., that quickly wiped out a number of Sumerian cities [source: Saggs].

The real-life Noah could have been a wealthy merchant who had a strong enough boat to withstand the storm [source: Discovery Channel and BBC]. Passed down through generations of telling and retelling, the story could have evolved over the centuries to integrate the Judeo-Christian and Islamic beliefs.

The Bible portrays Noah as a righteous man in God's eyes, separated from the increasingly sinful world around him. Because of his uprightness, God selects him, along with his sons Shem, Ham and Japheth, to build the ark and survive the incoming deluge.

In the Quran, Noah is referred to as Nuh. He makes up one of the five prophets of Islam alongside Adam, Moses, Abraham and Jesus. The book of Surah tells of Noah speaking as a prophet of God to forewarn his neighbors about the dangers that will happen if they do not turn from their evil ways.


­Aside from this minor difference, the Christian and Islamic records of Noah stand almost identical. Noah builds an ark, enduring the ridicule of people around him, and loads the animals two by two onto the vessel in preparation for the storm. Interestingly, in the Bible, Noah's ark settles on Mount Ararat, while in the Quran it lands on Mount Judi. Because of these two explicit locations, many believe that the ark still exists on a mountaintop. Next, we'll find out whether that belief is fact.