Since it’s Memorial Day weekend, readership is going to be lower than normal, so I thought that this might be a good time to share some unusual ancient texts that have contributed to fringe history claims. Yesterday, I discussed the mystery of Mt. Baris, the place where Nicolaus of Damascus claimed that Noah’s Ark came to rest, and I outlined the scholarly case for identifying this peak with Mt. Judi, the traditional landing site of Noah’s Ark (and Atrahasis’ or Xisuthrus’ Ark before that) from roughly 1000 BCE to the Middle Ages among Babylonians, Jews, and (later) Western Christians, and down to the present among Muslims.
Mt. Judi is about 70 miles from the ancient city of Nisibis, and it is there that according to legend the famous St. Jacob (or James) of Nisibis became the first Christian to recover a piece of wood from Noah’s Ark. Now, we know from Abydenus, writing around 200 BCE, that there had long been a pagan trade in alleged Ark wood, albeit of Xisithrus’ Ark: “With respect to the vessel, which yet remains in Armenia, it is a custom of the inhabitants to form bracelets and amulets of its wood” (Eusebius, Chronicle 1.10; Syncellus, Chronicle 38; Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 9.12; trans. I. P. Cory). Yes, it’s repeated three times among the authors, with variants—the Armenian Eusebius calls the amulets a reward, while his Praeparatio Evangelica specifies that the wooden amulets counteracted poison, the same thing Berosus reported of amulets made of bitumen from the same Ark, again found preserved in three ancient authors (Eusebius, Chronicle 28; Syncellus, Chronicle 7; Josephus, Antiquities 1.93).
Anyway, by the 300s CE, all of that had been forgotten, and the popular belief was that the Ark was inaccessible and hidden from view. To that end, the Armenian writer passing under the probably fictitious name of Faustus of Byzantium (P’avstos Buzand) presented the first Christian legend of the Ark wood in his History of Armenia 3.10, written sometime in the fifth century CE. It describes the efforts of St. Jacob of Nisibis to find the Ark at some unspecified date between his appointment as Bishop of Nisibis in 309 and his death in 338. If Faustus’ chronology can be trusted (and it often can’t), it would have been in the time of King Xosrov III, who reigned from 330 to 338.
Here is Faustus’s version in my translation, from the French edition of Victor Langolis:
By this time, the great bishop of Mitspin (Nisibis), this admirable old man, tireless in performing works of truth, chosen by God, Jacob by name and Persian in origin, left his city heading toward the mountains of Armenia, which is to say toward the mountain of Sararad, in the territory of the principality of Ayrarat, in the district of Korduk‘. He was a man filled with the graces of Christ and who had the power to do miracles and wonders. Arriving (at this place), he addressed God with the keenest desire to receive the opportunity to see the ark of deliverance built by Noah, which came to rest on this mountain during the flood. Jacob obtained from God all that he asked. As he climbed the stony sides of the inaccessible and arid mountain of Sararad, he and those with him felt thirsty as a result of fatigue. Then the great Jacob bent his knees and prayed before the Lord, and in the place where he laid his head, a spring burst forth in which he and those with him quenched their thirst. To this very day it is still called the “Spring of Jacob.” However it did not reduce his zeal to see the object of his desire, and he never ceased praying to the Lord God.
A few quick notes: First, the ellipses omit a long passage describing Jacob’s holiness. Second, “Sararad” is an elided form of Sar Ararad, Armenian for “the Mountain of Ararat.” Third, Korduk‘ was the Armenian name for Qardu, also known as Gordyene or Corduene, the territory surrounding Mt. Judi. It is the same place where Berosus placed the Ark.
Now here’s a fun fact: About 1,000 years later, the story was still current! Here is the fictitious author Sir John Mandeville reporting the same tale in chapter 16 of his Travels, which I have slightly modernized from the Cotton Manuscript version:
From that city of Erzurum go men to a mountain called Sabissa. And there beside it is another mountain that men call Ararat, but the Jews call it Taneez [or Thano], where Noah’s ship rested, and yet remains upon that mountain. And men may see it from afar in clear weather. And that mountain is fully seven mile high. And some men say that they have seen and touched the ship, and put their fingers in the parts where the Devil went out when Noah said “Benedicite” [i.e., "Bless you."]. But they that say such words say them ignorantly, for a man may not go up the mountain due to the great deal of snow that is always on that mountain both in summer and winter. Thus no man may go up there, and indeed no man ever did, since the time of Noah, save a monk that, by the grace of God, brought one of the planks down, that yet is in the monastery at the foot of the mountain. […] But to go up upon that mountain, this monk had a great desire. And so one day, he went up. And when he was a third of the way up the mountain he was so weary that he could go no further, and so he rested and fell asleep. And when he awoke he found himself lying at the foot of the mountain. And then he prayed devoutly to God that he would allow him to go up. And an angel came to him, and said that he should go up. And so he did. And since that time no other ever has, which is why men should not believe such words.
How do you like that? The author writing as John Mandeville didn’t know the story directly from Faustus. Mandeville borrowed the geographical details directly from the History of the Tartars (1.9) written by the Armenian monk Hayton of Corycus. His material on the mountain’s inaccessibility came from Odoric’s Travels (1), and (slightly later in the text), his separate account of its ascent by the monk (obviously Jacob) came wholesale from Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum Historiale (30.97.440). In fact, a century before Mandeville, an English traveler named William of Rubuck reported the same story in his Travels (387), which he heard directly from a bishop in Armenia, who told him “that there had been a monk who was most desirous [of climbing Mt. Judi], but that an angel appeared to him bearing a piece of wood of the ark and told him to try no more” (trans. William Woodville Rockhill).
How’s that for continuity of tradition?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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