Ancient text suggests ‘Noah’s Ark’ was actually round

It is an old and familiar story: A message from on high that reveals explicit instructions for the construction of a large sailing vessel, into which the animals of the world will be placed “two by two.” But the god who has given the instructions is not Yahweh, and the man who receives them is not Noah. This story is apparently much older than the one recounted in the Old Testament book of Genesis and again in Sura 71 of the Qur’an.

Instead, the details for this ark are provided by Enki, a water god from Ancient Mesopotamia, and the grateful Babylonian told to build the boat is Atra-Hasis, an epic hero from Akkadian texts dating back almost 4000 years. Perhaps of even greater importance, the highly specific details – involving wooden ribs coated in bitum and more than 500 km of rope – result in the construction of a circular vessel known as a coracle, rather than the rectangular Ark of the biblical Noah.

This remarkable revisiting of one of the world’s many flood myths is due to almost 20 years of diligent study by Irving Finkel, the Middle Eastern tablet curator at the British Museum. Working from a small cuneiform tablet which first came into his possession in the 1980s, Finkel has deciphered about 60 lines of ancient text which offer striking similarities to the story told in Abrahamic texts.

“I’m sure the story of the flood and a boat to rescue life is a Babylonian invention,” says Finkel, who calls the tablet “one of the most important human documents ever discovered.”  He also suggests that the story of the flood was passed on to ancient Jews during the 6th century B.C. at a time known as the Babylonian captivity or Babylonian exile.

The light-brown tablet, about the size of a modern smartphone, has been put on display at the British Museum, while Irving Finkel is likely to be kept busy promoting his new book on the astonishing discovery, “The Ark Before Noah.” The museum has also announced that a team of boat-builders is planning to follow the instructions from Enki, and a documentary will be filmed detailing their progress. When completed, the coracle is expected to be about two-thirds the size of a soccer field.

The excitement surrounding the decryption of this ancient ark story is understandable as, until now, only a few tantalising details have been revealed about a possible origin for the world’s major flood myths. Comparisons between Babylonian myths and the more familiar biblical Ark story were first identified in the 1870s by George Smith, a British Museum decipherer, who translated a seventh century tablet from Ninevah. Although the Ninevah version was compatible with Noah’s story in several areas, the Finkel tablet has offered scholars a compelling reason to believe that the best-known flood myth of them all originated in Mesopotamia at least 4000 years ago.

For Irving Finkel, the signature moment was when he deciphered the phrase “two by two,” an explicit connection to the tale told in Genesis. “When I deciphered the part of the tablet that described how the animals went in two by two, it was quite an exciting matter because this was a new thing. I got so excited, I nearly had heart failure,” he said.

The timing for this discovery could not be more opportune. In the wake of 9/11 a group of critics known as the New Atheists have been attacking what they consider the baseless dogma of religions such as Christianity and Islam, while fundamentalist and New Earth thinking has found fresh markets in response to this challenge. Indeed, as this article is being written, a highly publicized debate on the merits of creationism and evolution is taking place between Ken Ham and Bill Nye at Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky. The Australian-born biblical literalist hopes the debate will generate funds for his latest project: the construction of a full-sized replica of Noah’s Ark, built according to specifications provided in the Bible.

Have those specifications now been undermined forever, and replaced instead with an Ark that is round? Irving Finkel doesn’t believe so. “I don’t think the Ark existed — but a lot of people do,” he says. “The biblical version is a thing of itself and it has a vitality forever.”