Noah and the much earlier Mesopotamian ark builders

Armesto_02_14Felipe Fernández-Armesto at Literary Review:

In the course of his investigation Finkel sheds much light on philological and literary problems of ancient Mesopotamian cultures, but one revelation dwarfs all others: in the earliest surviving description, the ark was round. The text is unambiguous on this point and includes detailed instructions for building a giant coracle out of more than 300 kilometres of coiled palm fibres, strengthening the structure with wooden ribs and decking, and coating everything in a waterproof mixture of pitch and lard. Finkel's painstaking and lively investigation of coracle-weaving traditions on the Euphrates makes the concept intelligible. He also clears up a puzzle in the flood story that forms part of Gilgamesh, where the gods seem to ordain an obviously unwieldy square ark; a round shape, like a square, is as broad as it is long and really the Gilgamesh scribe intended a circle (or was perhaps himself deceived into squaring it). With a vivid eye for what life was like in the Euphrates valley 4,000 years and more ago, Finkel argues – riskily but plausibly – that his tablet represents a fragment from the script or record of a dramatised version of the story for court performance, and that the arithmetical precision of the calculations involved in determining the ark's dimensions and assembling the materials for its construction derives from ancient Mesopotamian schoolroom exercises. There are other remarkable scholarly insights to admire. Finkel argues convincingly that the British Museum's famous Babylonian world map contains an allusion to the resting place of the ark. His image of Sennacherib, the Assyrian king from 704 to 681 BC, engaged in the first hunt for relics of the foundered vessel is brilliant.

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