flood legends

   Some scholars and other observers find it remarkable that the peoples of the ancient Near East had several legends of a great and disastrous flood, all featuring similar events and characters. A notable myth and epic poem, the Atrahasis, for example, tells how the god Enlil decided to rid the world of humans by flooding it. But Enki, god of freshwaters, warned a man named Atraha-sis, whom the Sumerians called Ziusudra, and instructed him to build a large boat and thereby save a few people and animals. A very similar tale, in which the ark builder was called Utnapishtim, appears as a story within a story in the great Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. These tales are surely the bases of the story of Noah and the flood told in the biblical book of Genesis.
   Archaeologists and other scholars who excavated in the Middle East in early modern times were divided about these legendary stories. Some assumed that they were mere fables, perhaps ancient allegories designed to teach moral lessons. Others felt confident that the flood legends were based on a real disaster that had struck prehistoric Mesopotamia and had been remembered, in exaggerated form, in the later literature of the region. In this second group was the great British archaeologist Charles Leonard Woolley. While excavating at Ur in the 1920s, he discovered an 8-foot-thick (2m) layer of alluvial soil embedded between two layers of human habitation debris. The soil layer dated from the fourth millennium B.C., when cities were first starting to appear in Mesopotamia. Woolley concluded that a great flood had deposited the soil layer on top of one human settlement and that a new settlement had been built later atop the flood layer. Other excavators began looking for evidence of this same disaster at other Mesopotamian sites. Some did find flood-borne soil deposits similar to the one Woolley had uncovered at Ur. However, the evidence showed that most of these deposits had been laid down by an assortment of localized floods spanning almost two thousand years of Mesopotamian history. Thus, it appeared that there were many periodic local floods, rather than one huge, universal one, in the region in ancient times. Some scholars theorized that the "great" flood that had inspired the legends of Atrahasis and Noah might have been a major overflow of the Persian Gulf that had occurred eight to ten thousand years ago.
   This is more or less the way the matter rested until 1998. In that year two Columbia University scientists, William Ryan and Walter Pitman, published their original and provocative thesis about the origins of the flood legends. They presented evidence showing that before the sixth millennium B.C. the Black Sea, located to the north of the Fertile Crescent, was a large freshwater lake. Today that sea is joined to the Aegean and Mediterranean seas via two straits, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. In prehistoric times, however, the Bosporus was blocked by a massive earthen dam, and the lake's level was hundreds of feet lower than that of the seas beyond. In about 5600 b.c., Ryan and Pitman claimed, the dam burst and mighty torrents of water rushed into the Black Sea lake, flooding its shores for many miles inland. In all, up to 60,000 square miles (155,000 sq. km) may have been inundated in a matter of only a few weeks or months. "The soil and debris that had once damned the valley were quickly swept away," Ryan and Pitman later wrote,
   and the water, now several tens of feet deep, was a thundering flume twisting and churning with rubble. . . . Ten cubic miles of water poured through each day, two-hundred times what flows over Niagara Falls, enough to cover Manhattan Island each day to a depth of over half a mile. . . . It is hard to imagine the terror of those farmers, forced from their fields by an event they could not understand, a force of such incredible violence that it was as if the collected fury of all the gods was being hurled at them. (Noah's Flood, pp. 234-35)
   Ryan and Pitman also pointed out that the date of this tremendous flood event roughly coincides with that of the initial migrations of peoples from the Fertile crescent southward into Mesopotamia. Perhaps, they said, large numbers of refugees fleeing their lakeside villages and farms fled into the crescent, creating population pressures that induced some people to move onto the alluvial plains. The memories of the great flood would have been passed from generation to generation by word of mouth, until they were written down in the now-famous
   Mesopotamian and biblical texts. Though this scenario remains unproven and some scholars dispute it, many other researchers think there is enough circumstantial evidence to warrant continued research and discussion.
   See also: Bible; Epic of Gilgamesh; Fertile Crescent; Woolley, Charles Leonard

Ancient Mesopotamia dictioary. . 2015.

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