207. Noah’s Ark

Supposedly Mesopotamia, circa 1220
Probably Turkey, early 20th century
Size: 28 × 19.5 cm
Watercolour and ink on paper

And Noah he often said to his wife,
When he sat down to dine,
‘I don’t care where the water goes
If it doesn’t get into the wine.’
G.K. Chesterton

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In the early Babylonian text the god Enlil finds ‘the noise of mankind has become too intense for me / with their uproar I am deprived of sleep.’ In the profusion of their overpopulation mankind is extremely noisy, and being in charge of them Enlil decides to annihilate them. All except Atrahasis and his family, whom he instructs to build an Ark. In the course of the Babylonian Captivity a thousand years later, the Jews incorporated the Flood and other Babylonian stories into the narrative of the Bible, adapting them to their new circumstances. A notable feature in the biblical story of Noah is that the Flood was unleashed as punishment for the wickedness of Man, unlike in the earlier version where such a thing is never mentioned. And yet anyone whose siesta is disturbed by unruly children or devotees of rap, has realized that it is simpler to forgo passing Judgement on the whole of Humanity in favour of obliterating a sufficient number among it within a required vicinity.

The initial instructions from Enlil to Atrahasis, ‘destroy your house, build a boat; spurn property and save life!’ are to be expected in the context of any heroic enterprise. Along with providing technical help about Ark construction, Enlil is on hand to reassure Atrahasis about how to explain what he is doing to the curious observers among the community of which he is the king. So convincing is the cover-story that when Atrahasis gives the keys of his palace and all it contains to Puzur-Enlil, the meticulous head shipwright seals the Ark: it is now ready to sail, complete with its human and animal cargo. This final duty accomplished, Puzur-Enlil rushes headlong to the palace and there orders a great feast, summoning as much of the harem as he feels he can immediately manage. Later, seated sated on the royal cushions and cradling a goblet of wine in his hands, the musicians pause and he hears the first raindrops on the roof above his head… 

There are several versions of Noah’s Ark from various manuscripts of the period, all similar but none identical. The text here recounts the story of Noah, but differs from the standard version.

This miniature has an interesting history. It was part of the collection of a prominent Armenian in Constantinople, along with six other paintings of the same period. He was appointed Legal Counsel to the last Sultan Mehmet VI in 1918, but already alarmed by the massacre of Armenians in 1915, he sent his collection to Besançon where he had family connections, and followed after the Sultan was deposed in 1922. Invited back to Istanbul in 1930, he spent a decade advising the new Republic on legal affairs, and then retired to Besançon. He had one son there who became a prominent dental surgeon, and another in Nice, to whom he forwarded part of his recently formed collection from Istanbul. The seven miniatures and a group of ceramics were eventually sold at auction in Besançon.

If it is a 20th-century fake – tests are ongoing – it is unusually accomplished, and the result of considerable skill and expertise.