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Ark(e)ology for a rainy day

By A.J. Cave

There is an art to writing the beginnings and the endings of stories. But these days most of us are inflicted with an extreme case of busyness, so we just scan the first few lines of a book and if it grabs our attention, we flip to the last page to see if we like how it ends, and if it measures up, we add it to our growing stack of “read someday” books, collecting dust and yellowing on a shelf somewhere.

So we all (should) know at least a few great opening lines to impress our friends. But if you asked me who wrote the best opening line of a book, I would say: “I don’t know.” It is one of those questions that have no answer—or have too many answers (one of those being, “It was a dark and stormy night…”)

But the first line of the bestselling book of all times (in English) is a variation of: “In The Beginning when God created the heaven and the earth…” And that book, of course, is the Bible.

The term Bible is from Greek biblia, meaning books. So bible is more a classification than a title, and the Bible is not a single book but an anthology: a collection of many books. That famous line opens the first biblical Book of Genesis in Hebrew Bible— a term used by scholars to refer to the Jewish Scripture. The proper Hebrew name is Miqra (that which is read) or alternatively TaNaKh (acronym formed from the first Hebrew letters for collection of: laws, prophets, and scripture). It is called the Old Testament by the Christians.

The German Johannes Gutenberg (~1398-1468 CE) printed 150 copies of the Bible with his famous printing press in 1456 and over 6 billion copies (in almost every world language) have been sold since then. So the first brush with our ancient Near Eastern civilizations (other than the Sumerians) in the West is probably through (Judaeo-Christian) religions not history lessons.

Just couple of pages into a modern paper-based book of Bible, and we are knee-deep in the famous story of the biblical Noah and his Ark. In Genesis 6, when God decides to destroy mankind for their “wickedness” by sending the mother-of-all-floods, the almighty commands Noah to build an ark:

Make yourself an ark of cypress wood…This is how you are to make it…

(Genesis 6.14-15, NRSV)

Noah was 600 years-old when that fatal flood finally came, and presumably after the flood, the whole earth (or at least the biblical parts) was peopled from Noah and his three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth. Genesis 9 ends with the death of Noah at the ripe old age of 950.

Bible has always been a favorite of the movie-makers—not out of morality but marketability. The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, Icon Productions, 2004) attracted throngs of Christians and netted over $600 million dollars at the box office.

Hoping to capture the lucrative Christian market (reportedly roughly 33% of the world’s population, about 1.2 billion people), the $130+ million-dollar Noah (Darren Aronofsky, Paramount, 2014, starring the Australian Russell Crowe, will come to a theater near you on 28 March 2014.  

An undated version of the script based on the Noah graphic novel co-written by the director, leaked in 2012 and was promptly panned by the Christian critics. So Paramount Studios has been screen-testing various cuts of the movie with target audiences: in New York (largely Jewish), Arizona (largely Christian) and Orange County (largely anyone), to avoid alienating the target audience, and the results have been mixed. So apparently the studio and the director have been wrangling over the ending of the movie.

The director has called his Noah movie: “a political propaganda piece for environmentalists.” I feel for him. Global warming or not, it hasn’t rained in California for couple of years and we are running out of water. Water is not just a useful thing, it is life—or death.

We will find out soon enough how close (or far) is the final cut of Noah movie to (or from) the Bible, the non-biblical Book of Enoch, the Noah graphic novel, or the leaked script, but the Nemesis of Noah in the old script, an evil warlord, was called: Akkad—the name of the legendary royal city of Sargon the Great (Akkadian: Sarru-Kin, ruled 2340-2285 BCE), the first of the ancient Near Eastern empire builders, his language and his royal house (dynasty).

Those Christians who consider the Bible as absolute, are likely to reject the mostly CGI (computer-generated imagery) movie and its grumpy six-armed fallen angels, while other evangelical denominations have been encouraged to use it as a tool to evangelize their religion with an eye toward gaining new converts.

Ironically, it is an interesting twist that while we can endlessly debate biblical-themed movies, the same cannot be said when it comes to movies based on stories in Qur’an, the holy scripture of Islam. There are none, and any foray in that direction is nothing short of inciting a ghastly global war. So movies like the mostly computer-generated 300 series seen through a religious lens (while they are rooted in classical sources) could be taken as a euphemism for the age-old western political and theological views of Islam, with the ancient Persians conveniently filling in for the modern Muslims—even though the biblical views of the ancient Persians ran from favorable to neutral.  

Another familiar ark story from the Hebrew Bible is the Ark of the Covenant—the golden container for biblical Ten Commandments stone tablets that was lost sometime after the destruction of the First Temple (built by the Judaean King Solomon) in 586 BCE by the Babylonian king known in the Bible as Nebuchadnezzar.

Historical King Nebuchadnezzar II (Akkadian: Nabu-kudurri-usur, ruled 605-562 BCE) got the same dismal treatment in the Hebrew Bible as the historical Great King Xerxes I (Persian: Xšayarša, ruled 486-465 BCE) received in the classical sources.

It was not until the mid-19th century that a European cast of characters collectively deciphered the cuneiform scripts used by the ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Hittites and Elamites (among others), and wrested those ancient civilizations from obscurity, thanks to the trilingual royal inscription of the Persian Great King Darius I (Persian: Darayavauš, 522-486 BCE) carved on the Rock of (Middle Persian) Behestun (Old Persian: Bagastana, modern Persian: Bisutun).

In 1872 George Smith (1840-1876 CE), a brilliant young Englishman who had taught himself how to read the newly deciphered Akkadian cuneiform script, made a startling discovery among the mountain of clay tablets at the British Museum—truly a clay needle in a clay haystack.

Since early 1800s, excavating (mostly haphazard digging) the biblical lands (the known geographical places mentioned in the Bible, including Persia) had become fashionable, and western soldiers and scholars fiercely competed for ancient Near Eastern archives and antiquities, under the sponsorship of the great museums like the British Museum (London), the Musee du Louvre (Paris), and later other museums like the Vorderasiatisches Museum (Berlin).

Mr. Smith deciphered a Babylonian version of the flood story (pre-dating the biblical story of Genesis, later traced back to the older Sumerians) on a broken clay tablet that eventually became the most famous cuneiform inscription in the world: the “Flood Tablet”—a part of the now famous Epic of Gilgames.

The Cyrus Cylinder, written in the (Late) Babylonian dialect of Akkadian language is the second most famous cuneiform inscription in the world.

In the Sumerian story of the flood, Enlil, one of powerful great gods of the Sumerians, decided to unleash a flood on below (earth) to get rid of the noisy humans. Enki, another Sumerian great god who had a divine hand in the creation of those pesky humans, whispered softly in the ears of Ziusudra, the Sumerian king of the city of Suruppak, to build and ark and save himself and mankind from the watery wrath of Enlil.

My favorite line from the Old-Babylonian version of the flood story (dating to around 1700 BCE) starts with: “When gods were men… enuma ilu awilu…” with the Babylonian Atra-hasis replacing the Sumerian Ziusudra.

Now let’s hitch a ride on a magical Persian flying carpet to arrive at roughly 30 years ago, when the Englishman Douglas Simmonds walked into the British Museum and showed a broken clay cuneiform tablet to Irving Finkel, one of the museum’s young Assyriologists (affectionately known as eccentric hermits who play around with illegible, dull and dusty clay tablets all day long) for translation. His father, Leonard Simmonds, had found (or bought) the tablet in the Middle East while he served in the British Royal Air Force after the World War II (from 1945 to 1948).

The roughly 4,000-year-old broken tablet was another one of those illegally scavenged antiquities that bring tears to the eyes of modern scholars for being stripped of their historical context—Holy Grail of archaeology. But this tablet was another one of those clay needles in a clay haystack—a diamond in the rough.

In 2009 that cuneiform tablet was finally given to the British Museum and Dr. Finkel, now Assistant Keeper in charge of cuneiform inscriptions from Ancient Mesopotamia in the Middle East Department at the museum (also keeper of the Cyrus Cylinder), finally got a chance to publish the 60 lines of Akkadian text on the tablet that gives detailed instructions on how to build a titanic round ark (called coracle), using reeds, ropes, and bitumen in The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014), with the American edition to be published by Doubleday later this year. And maybe Dr. Finkel would finally get a chance to visit Iraq as an honored guest one of these years too.

Some engineers will attempt to build a round ark based on this tablet for a British TV documentary and test its water-worthiness.

The stories of these famous arks originated in ancient Near East, rooted in the lore and legends of those ancient people who lived in the “Cradle of Civilization”, between the two great rivers, Euphrates and Tigris (roughly modern Iraq), which could overflow unexpectedly in all directions and unleash destructive forces of floods on mere mortals. So arks were useful things back then.

It was perhaps destiny, as decreed long ago by the Sumerian or Babylonian great gods and goddesses, that a digital ark should also be built by a modern descendant of those ancient ark-builders.

Ben Kacyra, the Mosul-born Iraqi-American engineer and inventor (of portable laser scanners called Cyrax) and his wife Barbara, founded CyArk in 2003.

CyArk (short for Cyber Ark) is a non-profit organization (, based in Oakland, California) dedicated to the digital documentation and preservation of endangered cultural and historical sites—or actually eventually just about any (history & heritage) site that we like to record in all its 3D (three-dimensional) complexity for posterity.

Modern Mosul, now in northern Iraq, was separated by Tigris River from the dirt mound that had accumulated for centuries over the ancient Assyrian royal city of (biblical) Nineveh (Akkadian: Ninua, Arabian: Quyunjiq), after it was sacked and razed by the allied forces of the Babylonians and Medians in 612 BCE, and left for dead.

The lost city of Nineveh, an ancient marvel spanning over 1,700 acres of houses, gardens, and temples, was found around 1845 by the legendary Englishman Austen Henry Layard (later Sir Henry, 1817-1894 CE). It was the site of the legendary library of the last of the great Assyrian kings: Ashurbanipal (Akkadian: Assur-bani-apli, ruled 669-631 BCE), a storehouse of knowledge filled with all sorts of documents that became the greatest source of recovering the Akkadian language that gave a voice to ancient Near Eastern Civilizations long lost and dust.

The genesis of CyArk was the notorious destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues—a UNESCO World Heritage site, dating to 4th century BCE, as idols of a pagan Buddhist world, by the Islamic Afghan Taliban in 2001—an act of cruel ignorant piety. A silver lining in the dark destruction of those massive historical treasures was the discovery of 50 unknown Buddhist caves, 12 with cave paintings dating to between 5th and 9th centuries CE—potentially the oldest known surviving examples of oil painting. The other silver lining was the formation of CyArk.

CyArk uses laser scanning, digital modeling, and photogrammetry (making measurements from photographs) that produce what looks a lot like pretty amazing pictures, but they are actually dense clouds of data, generated by laser beams bouncing off a surface at the rate of 50,000 times per second, creating tens of thousands of data points—an actual digital copy of the original, accurate to a quarter of an inch (roughly 6 millimeters). Each CyArk project generates about 5 terabytes of digital data, and as technology becomes more sophisticated, the amount of collected data increases by roughly 30% per year. In five years, CyArk will generate 2 petabytes of data—2,000,000,000,000.

If the medieval Citadel of Bam in Kerman Province in southeastern Iran, a famed desert rose on the edge of the Iranian high plateau and another UNESCO World Heritage Site, had been “CyArked” before its near destruction in 2003 by a devastating earthquake (6.6 on the Richter scale), the data could have been used by the heritage conservators, builders and restorers as a blueprint to accurately repair and restore the ancient city to (some of) its ancient beauty.

With about 100 sites under their digital belt (among them: Nineveh in Northern Iraq and Merv at the crossroads of the ancient Silk Road in Turkmenistan) available for free on their open access website, CyArk announced CyArk 500 ( in October of 2013, with the ambitious goal of digitalizing 500 cultural and historical sites in 5 years, to be funded by grants from individuals, institutions, and corporations. They asked the world for site nominations for the first round and received close to 60 responses from 29 countries suggesting more than 200 sites.

Among the nominations was the Elymais rock carvings in Iran from the Parthian Period (248 BCE-226 CE), submitted by the Iranian-Italian Joint Expedition in Khuzistan (The Khuzistan Expeditions,, a 5-year project started in 2008, involving a number of Iranian and Italian organizations.

CyArk will sort through the nominations and pick the ones that will move to the next phase of formal application process. The nomination process is continuous and nominees will be evaluated quarterly, with more information at:

Unlike the biblical Ark of Noah that could only support Noah, his wife, their 3 sons and their wives, along with a pair of all the earth creatures, big or small, the virtual CyArk is unbounded by such physical restrictions. The more, the merrier.

If we could cram a few of our favorite (historical) things in a (digital) ark and take it with us, come hell or high water, what would we choose?

I would start with my favorite royal inscription of Darius at Behestun, Persian Achaemenid sites of Pasargadae and Persepolis, and Persian Sasanid site of Ctesiphon near modern Baghdad.

What about you?

About the author: A. J. Cave is a San Francisco Bay-Area Iranian-American writer. Her first novel, Roxana Romance: Roshanak Nameh [Book of Roshanak] was published in 2008 followed by a novel about Cyrus the Great: Cyrus 0.9: Highlander, published in 2013.

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