Dispatch 1: Expedition Prologue

It is an old story But one that still can be told

—Gilgamesh

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ISTANBUL—At daybreak Muslim calls to prayer rouse me from sleep. I open my hotel window and gaze out at the waters that swirl at the feet of this ancient city. From my vantage point the Bosporus Strait appears as a thin ribbon of water. It is a faint but transfixing sight.

Photo of Dr. Robert Ballard Recent evidence suggests that some 7,000 years ago a natural earthen dam spanning the Bosporus was breached, eroded by rising sea levels of the Mediterranean that followed the last ice age. Some say water thundered into the Black Sea basin with an estimated force nine times greater than Niagara Falls, flooding land and a freshwater lake.

Was that violent geologic event the source of the Biblical flood story and even older epic histories? I decide it is too heady a thought to contemplate at such an early hour.

Months of planning and anticipation have finally winnowed to days. Tomorrow the expedition, lead by oceanographer and underwater explorer Dr. Robert Ballard, will begin.

Our mission? To search for evidence of Paleolithic settlements along once-dry lands in the Black Sea basin that preceded its inundation. A second goal is to comb early Black Sea trade routes for ancient shipwrecks. If found, they may be among the best-preserved ships ever discovered.

Ballard is confident there are ships to find. But the quest for “Noah’s house” is more uncertain. One challenge is the scale and nature of what early Paleolithic peoples may have left behind. “What is it that you can find submerged after 7,000 years?” Ballard asks.

But the greater hurdle may lie less with the ravages of the past 7,000 years than with the past 70. Modern-day fishing trawlers, dragging the sea floor with bottom-scraping otterdore nets, may have erased what scant evidence remained. “How efficient have they been at removing any evidence?” Ballard wonders.

The expedition team will soon have their answer.

—Sean Markey

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