Theunis Bates Contributor LONDON (Jan. 8) – Ask any Christian, Jew or Muslim to draw you a picture of Noah’s ark and you’ll probably get a sketch of a regular wooden boat being boarded by a procession of animals – two by two, of course. But that’s all wrong. According to new evidence, the ark wasn’t a pointy-prowed vessel, but a giant round raft. This ship shape discovery was made by Irving Finkel, an expert in ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq) at London’s British Museum. While translating a 3,700-year-old clay tablet inscribed with Babylonian cuneiform script – passed to the museum by the son of a British Air Force man, who picked it up while serving in the Middle East during World War II – he spotted an “extremely exciting” reference to the ark’s “circular design.” This was a revelation, says Finkel, not only because he’d never thought of the ark as round, but because this was the first-ever ancient description of the ark’s shape. Neither the Bible nor other Babylonian documents featuring the great flood offered any guidance of that sort. Getty Images The usual depictions of Noah’s ark, like this one from the 13th century, are all wrong, according to a newly translated Babylonian tablet. “When you see paintings of Noah’s ark, it always has a prow and a stern, and it’s an ocean-going vessel that could get you from A to B,” says Finkel. “But the poet who wrote this version conceived the ark as a giant coracle, which have steep sides and a rounded bottom.” These highly stable boats, he notes, were used to float goods and animals from one side of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers to the other, and are still sometimes used in Iraq today. “I think when the rains came and the waters covered the earth, the idea was that this boat would keep everybody safe,” he says. “They’d bob around on top of the water and then when the waters went down, everyone could get out safely. It didn’t have to go anywhere. It just had to be unsinkable.” The hero of the newly translated tablet – which is slightly bigger than a cell phone, and is inscribed with 60 lines of cuneiform text – isn’t Noah, but a possible historical predecessor named Atram-Hasi. It begins with a mischievous Babylonian god named Enki telling the wise, kind and holy Atram-Hasi how to escape a great deluge planned by his rival deities. (They were apparently fed up with noisy humans, who interfered with their sleep.) “Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall!” says Enki. “Atram-Hasis, pay heed to my advice, that you may live forever! Destroy your house, build a boat; despise possessions and save life! Draw out the boat that you will built with a circular design; Let its length and breadth be the same.” Like an ancient DIY guru, Enki gives his chosen man precise instructions: He’s told to use plaited palm fiber, waterproofed with bitumen, for the hull, and advised on how he should build cabins for the people and wild animals. The episode ends with Atram-Hasis commanding an unfortunate boat builder, who will be left to die on land, to seal the door once everyone is safely inside: “When I shall have gone into the boat, caulk the frame of the door.” The story may only be a work of fiction, built upon folk memories of great river floods long past, but it demonstrates the exceptional storytelling skills of the Babylonians. Finkel believes the tale deliberately ends on a cliffhanger – “You can almost imagine the theme music coming in as the door is closed,” he says – to leave the audience craving the next episode, which would have continued Atram-Hasis’ incredible odyssey. And he believes that ancient Jews living in exile in Babylon at this time would also have been wowed by the tale.

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