Nova (1974–…): Season 42, Episode 15 - Secrets of Noah's Ark - full transcript

A new version of the biblical flood story includes instructions for assembling an ark.

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First came the rain

Then the flood

When you're telling the story
of the beginnings of humanity,

the flood story is
part of that story

Then, with the rising
waters, a life-saving vessel

In the book of Genesis,
God asks Noah to build an ark

The Noah story serves to
provide a platform of understanding

for all future disasters

It is the ultimate disaster

But where does
the story come from?

An ancient tablet
may hold the answer

I took one look at it, and to
my astonishment I realized

that this was another
retelling of the flood story

Far older than the Bible,

the text describes a vessel
very different from Noah's

Everyone has their
image of the ark,

and then suddenly we have
this one appear that says,

"Hey, it's round!
It's a basket boat!"

I think that's a
fascinating thing to look at

Now, a team of investigators
has set out to build the ark

described in the tablet,

traveling to the once
lush marshlands of Iraq,

near the site of
ancient Babylon...

A land that was
ravaged by regular floods

And to India, where craftspeople
skilled in ancient techniques

will attempt to construct
a vessel large enough

to withstand a major flood

I think if you brought a
Babylonian into the present

to see this boat
when it's finished,

that he would recognize it

as something coming
from his culture

The story of the ark... a
turning point in history,

when the Babylonian
empire collides

with the world of the Bible

This is the moment the history
of the Jewish people begins

Not at the beginning
of time... After the flood

Climb on board to discover

the "Secrets of Noah's
Ark"... Right now, on NOVA.

At the Israel
Museum in Jerusalem,

some of the oldest known
fragments of the Bible

are being recorded and preserved

The 2,000-year-old
Dead Sea Scrolls

contain the first
Biblical reference

to a cataclysmic flood

"The Lord saw how
great the wickedness

"of the human race
had become on the earth

"So the Lord said, 'I will
wipe from the face of the earth

"the human race I have created '

But Noah found favor
in the eyes of the Lord"

Genesis 6:5, 7 and 8

Today, the story of Noah
and the flood is central

to the scriptures of Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam

In the story, God sends a
great flood as punishment

for the sins of humanity

Because it is a
moral, ethical God,

the takeaway lesson, in effect,

is that you better do
what this God wants;

otherwise there
will be big trouble

The righteous Noah is
told by God to build an ark

to save his family and a
pair of every type of animal

When the storm subsides,
Noah offers a sacrifice to God,

who then makes a
covenant with Noah,

promising that humanity
will never again be destroyed

by flood

This pact between man and
God is the foundation of morality

in the biblical book of Genesis

When you're telling the story

of the beginnings of humanity,

the flood story is
part of that story

Without this
moment of the flood,

you have no framework within
which humans can develop

the life that will
permit their perpetuity

You have to have it there

But why is a defining
moral tale in the Bible,

forged in the
desert hills of Judea,

shaped by a flood and a ship?

Where did its
authors get the idea?

The answer lies in the
world's first writing system

At the British Museum,

Dr Irving Finkel is one
of the world's few experts

in the ancient script
called cuneiform

And he shares his
knowledge with all generations

This is an exercise tablet
from an ancient school

It's made of clay,
squashed flat,

and the writing is done
on the surface of the clay

So they never wrote on paper
or papyrus like the Egyptians

Cuneiform evolved in
what is today modern Iraq,

in an ancient area between
the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers:

Mesopotamia, the
cradle of civilization

The earliest examples are
from around 5,000 years ago

Originally used for bookkeeping,

its first marks are
symbols of commodities,

like these ears of barley

But soon this picture-based
system develops

into symbols
representing syllables

Divide the name
up into syllables

Henry will be He-en-ry

It was a tremendously
significant step

for the human race
because it meant suddenly

it became possible to
record language properly

Over the course
of two millennia,

cuneiform tablets
become widespread

throughout Mesopotamia

It's here, during
the 19th century,

that British archaeologists
discover 130,000 of them,

now under Irving's care

One of them told
an explosive story

In 1872, its secret was revealed
by a British museum assistant

named George Smith

George Smith is a
bit of a hero of mine

He turned out to have
an absolute genius

for understanding
cuneiform almost at sight

When Smith read
the story in this tablet,

he read something that no person
had read since remote antiquity

In the tablet from 700 BCE,

Smith was shocked to
read key parts of a flood story

that closely resembled Noah

He discovered there
was going to be a deluge

to destroy the world

The gods choose one
human being as a hero,

and this character
had to build a boat

in order to put life in it
to withstand the waters

so that afterwards everything
could start all over again

I think he had a proper fit

because of the shock
of discovering a text

which he knew from
the Hebrew Bible by heart

was suddenly
there in front of him

in this totally strange medium

Smith found parallels in
even the most obscure details

In both stories, the flood hero
releases three sets of birds

to find dry land

And both offer a sacrifice
that their god smells

The two texts were somehow

strongly wedded together

They had a literary relationship

One derived from the other

Over a thousand years,

several versions of the
Babylonian flood myth emerged

Could the parallels between all
these Mesopotamian flood myths

and Noah's story be
merely coincidence?

There's a borrowing here

They're all different pictures

of the same personage,
the same literary creation

There's an overall parallel

There are a number of very
specific points of parallel,

which suggest that this is
not just a random association

But there is one major
difference: the ark itself

In the Hebrew Bible, Noah
builds a massive rectangular boat

But in one of the earliest
Babylonian stories,

the ark description
is incomplete

It says, "The ark you
are to build be equal"

and then it's broken

Because the tablet
is missing a piece,

features of the Babylonian
ark were a mystery

It would be almost a century
before a key clue would emerge

In 1948, a Royal Air Force
officer named Leonard Simmonds

was serving in the Middle East

One day he went into a market

and bought an interesting
looking piece of clay

with strange inscriptions

The object lay forgotten
in his home for 40 years

until his son took it
to the British Museum

to see if it might
be of interest

Once in a while
manna from heaven

falls just when you need it

The tablet was from the
ancient Mesopotamian kingdom

of Babylonia

This is what the
tablet looks like

Nothing exceptional
until you start to read it

And I took one look at it,
and to my astonishment,

I realized... From
the first lines only...

That this was another
retelling of the flood story

But the inscription was squeezed

onto a 4,000-year old,
badly damaged piece of clay

To confirm his first analysis,

Irving takes the tablet

to the International
Manufacturing Centre

at Warwick University

They produce a perfect 3D model,

allowing him to re-examine
the text in forensic detail

The tablet begins with a
Babylonian god's instructions

to the hero of the
story, named Atra Hasis

He tells him

to tear down the house and
use the materials to build a boat

And then comes a detailed
description of this boat

"Draw it out

with the design of a circle"

As you wade through this
funny script, you cannot deny

that with was the idea...
It was a round boat

You think to yourself,
"How can this be?"

The ark is one of the
most familiar iconic things

in the whole world

But when you start
to think about it,

we know that on the
rivers of Mesopotamia...

The Euphrates and the Tigris
River... they had round boats

On a Mesopotamian seal dated
2500 BCE is the cross-section

of a round vessel

And at the British Museum are
other images of round boats...

Called coracles... from 700
BCE carrying cargoes of stone

So is the tablet
describing a real vessel?

It's supposed to be mythology

But as you go further
down the tablet,

you discover that the
detailed specifications

about how to build
this thing are given us

The tablet lists the ark's
components and proportions

in detail, suggesting real
boat-building knowledge

Instead of it being
made-up facts,

we actually have details
predicated on the idea

of building a real coracle

But the coracle described
in the tablet is enormous...

222 feet across

So Irving wanted to know,

could such an enormous
round boat actually be built?

Quite frankly it seemed to
me the only possible thing

you could do was to
take these instructions

about how to build
a giant coracle

and build a giant coracle

Very few boat builders in
the world have the expertise

to take up Irving's challenge

But if there's one person
who can build such a vessel,

it's maritime archaeologist
Dr Tom Vosmer

Tom has built a career from
resurrecting ancient boats

from literary evidence

Everyone has their
image of the ark,

and then suddenly we have
this one appear that says,

"Hey, it's round!
It's a basket boat!"

I think that's a
fascinating thing to look at

and see if we can make it work

With him is Eric Staples,

maritime historian
and boat builder

And Alessandro Ghidoni,

a world expert in
ancient boat technology

They've taken Irving's
translation of the tablet

and converted the
Babylonian measurements

Right away they see the
problem: the scale of the ark...

So big its structure could
never support its weight

Its size

It's obviously
physically impossible,

but let's try to see
how far we can push it,

how large we can
actually make it

Also, the tablet
lists materials,

but doesn't say
how the Babylonians

would have to put them together

Luckily, there is
more recent evidence

These images from the 1930s
show round Iraqi boats called quffas

ferrying passengers and goods

In 1934, a British boat
historian named James Hornell

carried out detailed
research on quffas

He wrote that they were
made of fibrous plants

found near waterways...
Either reeds or palm leaves...

Bound into ropes and
coiled into a basket-like hull

Wooden ribs held
the shape of the hull,

and a layer of bitumen,
or pitch, made it waterproof

These are the same
materials described

in the 4,000-year-old ark
tablet that Irving Finkel analyzed

If the team is going to build
the kind of round boat described

in the Babylonian myth,

they need to examine
a more modern example

These are the heavily
guarded oilfields of southern Iraq

For any outsider,
traveling here is risky

Coming into

what's described as an
unsecure environment

in order to flesh out the
details of how to build

a Babylonian ark

is definitely a new one
for me, that's for sure

Eric needs to reach
one of the few places

where there is evidence

of Iraq's traditional
boat-building skills:

the great marshes
of southern Iraq

This ancient aquatic
wilderness once covered

12,000 square miles

It was home to hundreds
of thousands of Marsh Arabs

But much of it was drained by
Saddam Hussein in the early '90s

to punish those
resisting his regime

Eric has come to
meet Azzam Alwash

Azzam is an expert in marsh
traditions and boat technology

And he also owns possibly
the last remaining quffa in Iraq

As modern roads, bridges
and river launches were built,

quffas became obsolete

This example exists only
because Azzam had it constructed

Hello, Azzam

Pleasure meeting you Likewise

How are you doing?
Good How are you?

Good, good

So here's our quffa

This is the quffa


The building of this quffa

started with weaving in circles

It's rings upon rings
upon rings woven together

with traditional
weaving techniques

Eric recognizes the components
described in the ark tablet...

The coiled rope of the hull,
made from marsh reeds;

the wooden ribs of its skeleton;

and waterproofing bitumen,
the asphalt-like substance

that's been used to
seal the hulls of boats

since antiquity

Do you think I
could give it a try?

Sure, why not? All right

Hey, nice little sailor!

It's very stable,

which is why it was once
used as an all-purpose ferry boat

But Eric wants to know
if it can be scaled up

And if so, how big can
he build a round boat?

The 20th century
historic record indicates

that the biggest quffas were
up to 18 feet in diameter,

much less than the 222
feet the tablet suggests

Could this be the limit of
the round boat technology,

today and in ancient times?

Azzam takes Eric to
see a building technique

that dates back more than
5,000 years... a reed house

So there it is

The entire rigidity of this
structure comes from the tension

built into these arches

There is no metal in the
building of these structures

It's reeds upon reeds upon reeds

They are brought together by
the tension of these twisted reeds

Could the ancient
Babylonians have used

this house-building technique
as the basis for constructing

their large, round ark?

The circle that runs around here

is one way of basically
holding it all in together

using the natural tension,
the strength of reeds, basically,

because they're flexible,

but there's still strength
within the flexibility,

particularly when you
bundle them like this

But you're saying here that
this is going to be ten, 15 meters?

Ten, 12 meters, yes, yes


Eric arrived with just the
4,000-year-old tablet details

Now he has the
beginnings of a design

for his large Babylonian coracle

But many obstacles remain,
beginning with where to build

I'd love to build it in Iraq,

but considering
the logistical issues

and the security issues as
well, um, it's not realistic here

So the question
is where if not Iraq?

Another question is
how credible is the tablet

in describing the flood?

Today, this region is desert

How likely is it that a great
flood could have inundated

this parched landscape
thousands of years ago

as the Babylonian
myth describes?

This is one of the places
that gave birth to that legend,

home of first the Sumerian,
then Babylonian Empires...

The ancient city of Ur

Just 20 miles from
the great marshes,

Ur dates back more
than 5,000 years

It's here in 1928

that British archaeologist
Sir Charles Leonard Woolley

made a startling discovery

In 1922, Woolley and
his team came in search

of early Mesopotamian

He found remains of
an entire royal dynasty,

a testament to the
sophistication and power

of the Sumerian elite

And then, he made an
equally stunning discovery

A distinctive layer of
river silt ten feet thick

It had been laid down
by a massive flood

The grandson of a
member of Woolley's team

relates how the discovery
evoked the biblical story of Noah

They found layer of
sand to the south of Ur,

north of Ur,

and east and west

That mean that
happen a big flood

and they thought that is

the same flood of
Noah, the great man,

the great prophet at that time

This connection to Noah's flood

made the layer of sand more
famous than Ur's treasures

Especially when other
archaeologists began finding

flood deposits in neighboring
cities like Uruk, Shuruppak,

and Kish

The idea of a single
great flood grew

But there was a problem

When the layers were dated,

they were found to be
caused by different events,

spread over a thousand years

So was there ever
really a single great flood?

Landscape archaeologist
Dr Jenny Pournelle

is looking for the answer

For over a decade, Jenny
has been investigating

how the landscape of Iraq has
changed over thousands of years

Today she is taking
a core sample,

part of a series that
covers a broad area

She's digging 68
miles south of Ur,

in a marshland that was
recently drained for oil exploitation

It's a chance for her to get a
piece of uncontaminated earth,

essential for accurate dating

You can see

this light, light grey
silt, and these little guys

are very typical of freshwater
marshes around here

It means that our core
will have been protected

by this marsh cover until
recently when it was drained

This core will help reveal if
ancient Mesopotamia was impacted

by a cataclysmic flood

This should be
something like year zero

And that may be 1,000 BC

And if we're lucky,

right about here is when
your ark tablet was written

So what does this sample show?

They open it to see

We've got layers,
quite clear ones

See that nice orange sediment?

It would suggest
that there was a river

that periodically flooded
and deposited sediment

Evidence from cores like this
indicates that in ancient times,

Mesopotamia was
criss-crossed by rivers and canals

that flooded constantly

Every year there
are two floods...

One in the spring,
one in the fall

As cities first grew,

floods were part of
not just a natural cycle

but an essential cycle

They were profoundly
dependent on the marshes

and all of the
wealth of products

that came out of them...
Food for themselves,

food for livestock,
trade, commerce

Ur was one of many cities
that arose in this water world

The Euphrates River
was its life source

It delivered fertile
soil, fish, and wildfowl

But it could also bring disaster

The Tigris, the Euphrates

also had super floods every
ten years, every hundred years,

every thousand years

When we have the first
recorded stories of the flood myth,

the cities where these
were being written down

are exactly in that
precarious position

They created around
them fragile environments

With the right amount of water,

they can be
incredibly productive

and incredibly wealthy

But with the wrong
amount of water,

the very irrigation works they
need to produce that wealth

are blown away

Everyone has a vested
interest in this flood story

Everyone knows that it
makes or breaks their careers,

their livelihood

That would be the
power of the flood myth

in this part of the world

So it wasn't a single great
flood that inspired the myths,

but centuries of
periodic flooding

And would a large round boat
have helped these ancient people

to survive these floods?

The boat building team
is trying to figure out

if it could even
have been built at all

They found a place to
build their Babylonian coracle

in southern India,

where they can access the
materials listed in the tablet,

and the skills to
put them together

Construction begins on
the shore of Lake Vembanad

The fibrous plants
they will use for the hull

will be reeds from
a nearby marsh

Some of the 16 5 tons
of wood they will need

arrives at the boatyard

They've settled on
the size of their ark...

About 40 feet in diameter,

just a fifth the size of the
ark described in the tablet

But at 40 feet, it
will weigh 35 tons...

Right at the limit of what
they believe the materials

and the ancient
techniques will stand

Once the ark is in the water,

the bottom will flex,
straining the frame,

possibly causing it to break

The bigger the ark,
the bigger the pressure

The largest quffas
that I'm aware of

may be six meters

This we're pushing beyond that

It's actually eight times
as big as a six-meter one

So we're increasing the forces

we have to contend
with exponentially

To hold the frame
together, they will reinforce it,

combining basic engineering

with known Babylonian
carpentry techniques

The Ark Tablet states that
the flood vessel has 30 ribs

They lock these
ribs in a latticework

Tensioned bands will hold
the tops of the ribs together

The deck layer will
add further rigidity

And a forest of stanchions
will prevent the bottom

from collapsing upwards

Maybe it's all going to
fall apart, who knows?

But maybe it will
succeed and we'll think,

"Ah, we could have
pushed it a little bit more!"

The ark will contain more
than 800 pieces of wood

in 6,000 individual connections,

cut and shaped
using traditional tools

There will be no metal,
modern sealant or adhesive

As instructed by the
tablet, the team also begins

to bind reeds into tightly
packed lengths of rope

They'll need a mile and a
half to cover the entire hull

You have this little coil
that then starts spiraling out

The idea is that you
can gradually create

a gigantic basket,
basically made of grass

As the beginning of the
reed coil is lashed into place,

they turn their attention to
the next major challenge:


The tablet calls for
natural bitumen...

Which doesn't exist in India,

but is found oozing
out of the ground in Iraq

Natural bitumen
has unique impurities,

which make it adhesive
and resistant to heat

Alessandro, the team's expert
in ancient boat technology,

needs to re-create
these properties,

starting with refined
industrial bitumen

He adds animal fat and fish oil

to make it sticky,

and lime powder made
from burnt lake shells

to give it heat tolerance

Getting the balance of these
ingredients right is critical

If you put too much lime
powder it will get very hard,

it will resist at
high temperature,

but it won't stick

If you put too much
fish oil or animal fat,

it will stick easily

It's getting more dense

but it will melt under
the sun basically

Put it down

Alessandro's cooking
skills will determine

whether the ark
will float or not

Up, like this

They've given themselves
six months to build,

the recorded gap
between seasonal floods

in ancient Mesopotamia

Then, they'll face the
greatest challenge of all:

getting the ark into the lake

A boat usually has a keel

that can support it as
it slides into the water

A round boat has no keel

And this one will be covered
in a fragile layer of bitumen

You cannot drag the
boat on the ground,

you cannot pull it

The bitumen layer
is extremely delicate,

it's very soft, and you
don't want it damaged,

because it's the
only, basically, layer

that keeps the
whole boat waterproof

Without the bitumen,
the boat won't float

How would the Babylonians
have launched the boat?

The Ark Tablet doesn't say

The hero, Atra Hasis,
simply waits for the flood

It is one of the big questions,

sort of a burning
question of, you know,

if a boat this large could
actually have been built,

unless there was a
flood it would have been

incredibly difficult to launch

A vessel like this could
have meant survival

in a world of constant flooding

But at some point, those
floods become mythologized

into a single great deluge

and real coracles are turned

into a single
giant ark of legend

And somehow that
legend of the round ark

becomes the familiar boat
shape in the story of Noah

How does such
a transition occur?

The answer lies in a great
innovation of the ancient world:

cuneiform writing

Originally all these
stories circulated orally

And around 2000 BC,

we see for the first
time that these narratives

became reduced to writing

And from that moment
they are fixed rigidly

So you have an established
text which all the scribes copy

And in the process of
copying, errors creep in

Irving Finkel believes
one of these errors

changes the shape of the ark

The Ark Tablet, dated
around 1750 BCE...

4,000 years old...

Places the round
ark inside a square

to help define its dimensions

By 700 BCE, the Atra Hasis
flood tale has been absorbed

into a more famous story,

the exploits of a hero king
in The Epic of Gilgamesh.

But here, scribes omit
the mention of the circle

We have these later
scribes who have an old text

They look at it and they decide,

"Well, all this technical
stuff, we don't need it,"

and they don't read the
thing very carefully at all

because in the description
about how round it was,

they miss the point

As a result,
according to Irving,

the Gilgamesh ark has
a very strange shape

So it's like a
kind of skyscraper

What would happen if
you put that in the sea?

It would sink, wouldn't it?

Especially if it
was full of animals

It's absolutely hopeless

Over time, the
mythical ark loses touch

with the reality
that likely inspired it

It sets off on a
literary journey,

changing with
new interpretations

There is a rather
ironic consequence

You have the possibility of
an error being consolidated,

copied and recopied until
nobody thinks about it anymore

and they just
take it for granted

And that is surely what
happened with the shape of the ark

It eventually adopts
the boat shape we know

in the story of Noah

And the rest of the
story changes too

Almost 2,000 years after
the first Babylonian version,

the flood story is found
outside Mesopotamia,

in the Hebrew Bible

There's just no way
of explaining the story

in Genesis except as a borrowing

The question is,
when, how and why?

It's long been assumed that
trade and cultural exchange

bring the Babylonian
story to ancient Israel

But this doesn't explain why
biblical writers adopt the tale

and give it a moral twist

In the Mesopotamian myth,

pagan gods are
disturbed by human noise

and use the flood to
reduce their numbers

But in the book of Genesis,
the flood is a disaster

that God uses to punish
people for their sins

The Noah story serves

to provide a platform
of understanding

for all future disasters

It is the ultimate disaster

It was not just
natural disasters

that were attributed to God,

it was also historical disasters

The history of the people
to be known as Jews

is filled with disasters that
are reflected in the Bible

But many experts believe
there is one in particular

which provides an
explanation for the story of Noah

The Babylonian destruction
of Jerusalem in 587 BCE

A consequence of the
Judean kingdom's failure

to pay tribute

If somebody is not
paying their taxes,

not paying tribute as
they're supposed to,

you have to make
an example of them,

so you need to come
in and show the world

what your power is
capable of enforcing

Several thousand Judeans...

The educated and the
powerful of ancient Israel...

Were marched about
1,000 miles to Babylon

The Babylonians needed manpower

They had fields that
needed to be cultivated

and craftsmen that
needed to be imported

to make the tremendous
buildings and other things

that they did, so you
imported manpower

to do those kinds of things

I think for a lot of people
there probably was a sense

that this is the end of
the world as we know it

"Our tormentors
demanded songs of joy

"They said, 'Sing us
one of the songs of Zion!'

"But how can we sing
the songs of the Lord

while in a foreign land?"

Psalm 137:3 and 4

Yet this traumatic uprooting
brought the Judeans

into direct contact
with Babylonian culture

And that would shape
the destiny of their scripture

and the story of Noah

One of the greatest
collections of Babylonian relics

in the world is found here,

at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

It includes a reconstruction
of the entrance to Babylon

The newly arrived Judeans
would have walked through this gate

On the other side was a world

they could scarcely
have imagined

In the sixth century BCE,

Babylon was the most
cosmopolitan city on earth

But what was the
Judean experience?

Dr Cornelia Wunsch is an expert

in Neo-Babylonian culture

She has evidence
suggesting exile in Babylon

wasn't as bad as the
Judeans might have feared

They have been allotted land

and they are tilling the
land, building houses

and they are doing
reasonably well there

It may have been
awful at the beginning

and nobody
wanted to be in exile,

but very quickly,
things got good

Judea made it after
one or two generations

They were well ensconced
into the Babylonian economies

They did well

- A - Babylonian-style
personal seal

of a Judean merchant
named Arricam

suggests how assimilated

some Judeans were
in this new society

He certainly led
a dual existence

Arricam is clearly
showing himself

as a person of Judean
descent, but on the other hand

as a typical Babylonian

Many Judeans in Babylon
were well integrated

into Babylonian culture

But they also preserved
their own traditions

This was the case
for Judean scribes,

who were editing
traditional stories and prayers

and writing new ones

that would ultimately
become the Hebrew Bible

These priestly
authors, obviously,

had the exile on their minds

And one of the most
significant aspects of this event

was the formation of the Bible

It began in Babylon

Some of these books were already
in process but seem to have been

shaped by the
experience of the exile

In the center of Babylon
is a giant ziggurat

In the book of Genesis it
becomes the ultimate symbol

of human folly...
The Tower of Babel

For Irving Finkel,

this borrowing is
just one of many

In collaboration with the
Archaeological Institute

in Berlin, he examines
extraordinary evidence

that links some elements
of Babylonian literature

with the beginnings
of the Hebrew Bible

One is the story of King
Sargon, who was cast adrift

by his mother in a round basket

to save him from
being discovered

She made a little ark
out of reeds and bitumen

and she put the baby in this
ark and she put the ark in the river

and away it went

Now, this is a story which has
a certain familiar ring about it

from the book of
Exodus point of view

because Moses was
given the same kind of origin

There's also a list
of Babylonian kings

before the flood,

very similar to Adam's genealogy

described in the book of Genesis

But the most amazing
piece of evidence is written

on a Babylonian school
tablet... A retelling of Gilgamesh,

the epic poem that
contains the flood story

What does it tell us?

It tells us that you have
at this time in Babylonia,

schoolrooms where
the Gilgamesh story,

undoubtedly including the
flood story, was on the curriculum

Could Judean children have
read these same stories?

A detail in the Bible's book
of Daniel suggests they did

According to the story,

Daniel was the son of an
exiled Judean nobleman

In Babylon, the Bible
says, he and his friends

were taught to read cuneiform

Just as these children discover,
learning cuneiform isn't hard

It would have made
Babylonian stories easy to absorb

These kids suddenly
find themselves

learning these very narratives

which seem to us the
essential Babylonian narratives

that ended up embedded
in Judean Hebrew

The idea that it was Judeans

in Babylonian captivity
who learned cuneiform

and adopted the flood story

is to me the only decent
explanation that you can have

If this theory is correct,
stories like Noah and the Flood

were widespread
in Babylonian culture

and absorbed into
Judean scripture

They would eventually
become the moral teaching

for three great faiths

But not until the Judeans
emerged from exile

In India, the Babylonian
ark is almost complete

And unlike the Babylonians...

Who would have just waited
for the floodwaters to rise...

The building team has had
to find a way to launch the ark

without dragging its fragile
hull across the ground

We have two rails running
straight underneath the ark

into the water

So on top of these rails,
we are going to put rollers

And then on top of the rollers,

we're going to have
another set of runners

And then sitting on
top of these runners,

we have the launch platform

And then on top of the platform

Is the ark

Once she's all ready go,

basically just
roll into the lake

It's a traditional boat
launching technique

But they've had to resort
to modern machinery

to build the launch platform

Once in the water,
the platform will sink,

leaving the coracle
to float away

Except, as things stand,

it probably won't

Alessandro's version
of Babylonian bitumen

is melting and dropping off

It's quite catastrophic
at this stage

Once we launch the
boat, the water can push

through the gaps and holes

and then we're going
to have a major leak

Just before launch, the
ark is still not waterproof

In 539 BCE,

over 50 years in exile,

the Judeans were
allowed to return home

They began rebuilding
the Israel of old,

with a new temple and
a single text, the Torah

One of the most
remarkable things

about ancient Israelite
religion is that it survives

The Babylonians
conquered Jerusalem

But the exiles from
Jerusalem did not give up belief

in their God

The Babylonian flood myth is
now retold as a moral lesson

In some ways, it's a
metaphor for the exile

The foreign agent
comes, punishes,

as a tool of God's wrath

There's a cataclysm to
be survived by a select few

And for them, the
promise of a new beginning

is echoed in the Noah story

"God blessed Noah and
his sons, saying to them,

"" Be fruitful and increase
in number and fill the earth

"" I establish my
covenant with you

"" Never again will
all life be destroyed

by the waters of a flood ""

Genesis 9:1 and 11

This covenant defines
man's relationship with God

and marks the birth of Judaism

The great Israeli scholar
Yehezkel Kaufmann said,

"The exile is the watershed

"With the exile, the religion
of Israel comes to an end

and Judaism begins"

This is the moment
at which the history

of the Jewish people begins

Not at the beginning of time,

but after the flood

In India, Irving's theory
that the legend was based

on an authentic
boat-building tradition

is about to be put to the test

The big question is
Alessandro's bitumen recipe

Will it work?

For Irving, the culmination
of years of translation,

study and investigation
is this moment

I can hardly believe my eyes!


After all this imagination,

it's really here in
the flesh so to speak

It's incredible,
it's incredible!

The ark is raised
on inflatable rollers

On its launch platform,

it begins its journey
down to the lake

Alessandro is standing by to
plug any leaks from the outside

But before he can,
a roller slips free,

pitching the ark in the water

Start pulling!

Below decks, it's clear
their non-Babylonian

waterproof mix isn't working

So we are now floating,
which is the good news

The potentially
bad news, however,

is that we have a
heck of a lot of water

coming in at the moment

They had hoped to
get animals on board

But right now they're
consumed with saving the ark

They plug the gaps and put
a collection of pumps to work

By the time Irving
climbs on board,

the problem is under control

Welcome aboard

Thank you!

I'm proud to be here

How wonderful, how
absolutely wonderful!

The boat-building
team never managed

to duplicate Babylonian bitumen,

but the structure
of the ark is sound

At the root of the
story may have been

a flood vessel like this one

Behind the legend
of a great flood

were thousands of real floods

And behind the
myth of a giant ark

is a genuine tradition
of round boat building

All this from a
Babylonian tablet...

A story that emerged
4,000 years ago

It continues to resonate today

as one of the world's
most enduring tales