Rocking the Boat; Everybody Knows the Tale of Noah's Ark and the Great Flood - but Did the Bible Really Get the Story First? JULIAN CHAMPKIN Investigates

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The animals went in two by two/ The elephant and the kangaroo/ And they all went into the ark/ For to get out of the rain- We all know the children's song about Noah and his Ark. In the Book Of Genesis in the Bible, the story is told of how God decided to destroy the world and sent a flood.

He saved only Noah, his family and two of every kind of animal - all of whom survived the rains by spending 40 days and 40 nights in the Ark.

So who, then, is speaking here: 'You know the city, Shuruppak, which stands on the banks of the Euphrates? In those days the world teemed, the people multiplied, the world bellowed like a wild bull and the great god was aroused by the clamour. So the gods agreed to exterminate mankind. But the great god warned me in a dream: "O man of Shuruppak in your reedhouse, tear down your house and build a boat, abandon possessions and look for life, despise worldly goods and save your soul alive.

Tear down your house, I say, and build a boat.

These are the measurements of the barque as you shall build her: let her beam equal her length, let her deck be roofed like the vault that covers the abyss; then take into the boat the seed of all living creatures."' Sound familiar? But this is not taken from the Book Of Genesis - it comes from a much older Sumerian poem called The Epic Of Gilgamesh. The earliest biblical stories were written around 1000BC, whereas Gilgamesh was first inscribed on 12 clay tablets in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) around 1700BC; the story itself had been in existence since about 3000BC.

'Where stories come from, the way they begin and develop and grow, is what fascinates me,' says the BBC's former Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen, who goes in search of the historical Noah for the BBC's Noah's Ark.

'And you can't have a better example than this one. It is so old and still so familiar. Go to any toyshop and I guarantee there'll be a Noah's Ark in it. My daughter has one - in fact, children have been playing with them for generations.' The programme uses computer graphics and dramatic reconstructions with actors to explore the Ark story and its possible begetter, the Gilgamesh epic. The story is almost identical to that of Noah: both Noah and the man of Shuruppak, called Ut-napishtim, build an ark and seal it with pitch; both are told to make a window, one cubit square. And both take in all the animals of the Earth. For Noah, it rains for 40 days and nights, but in the Shuruppak story the floods last only seven days and nights, and the ark floats for 40 days. When the rains stop, both Noah and Ut-napishtim send out a dove and a raven to see if there is any land above water level. And both arks come to rest on a mountain.

The Sumerian flood story, which is the climax to the adventures of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, may have different gods and a different ark-builder, but it is essentially the same as Noah's. Could both stories be about the same flood?

For centuries, people have searched for geological evidence to prove that waters covered the entire Earth, and have failed to find it. Some have looked for Noah's Ark on the top of Mount Ararat, in Turkey, and con spiracy theories abound: there have also been claims that CIA spy plane and satellite photographs from the 1950s show the Ark hidden in a fold of the mountain. But shouldn't they be searching for the ark from Shuruppak?

And, since Ut-napishtim started his journey on the River Euphrates and would have drifted downstream, his mountain would be nearer the Persian Gulf than Turkey.

The BBC programme includes a computer reconstruction of Noah's Ark, which, according to the Book Of Genesis, was unfeasibly huge.

A cubit is the length of a man's arm, roughly 18 inches. If the Ark was 300 cubits long by 50 wide, as it says in Genesis, it would be 450ft long - that's twice the length of Nelson's flagship HMS Victory and more than half the length of the Titanic. …