Somewhere in the great beyond, if Aaron J. Smith isn’t smiling, he must at least feel satisfaction that so many have followed him up that mountain.
“We have paved the way for other expeditions,” Smith wrote in 1949 after his return to Greensboro – “home sweet home,” as he called it – from remote northeast Turkey.
Sure enough, another expedition will go in search this summer of the ultimate archaeological prize, Noah’s Ark. A 10-member joint Turkish-American team will be on Mt. Ararat from July 15 to Aug. 15.
The 16,945-foot-high mountain seems to be the place where, according to the Book of Genesis, Noah and his boatload of two animals of every kind docked when the Great Deluge ended thousands of years ago.
Others had looked for the ark before Smith organized and led an expedition in August 1949. But his was one of the largest and best- planned endeavors. Since then, at least 100 expeditions have followed, including the one planned for this summer. The search team will use satellite photos and other high-tech gear to search for remains of a vessel that the biblical scholars calculate measured 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet tall.
Smith’s team carried no fancy gear, just maps and a camera. Bad luck accompanied the expedition. When team members arrived in Turkey, the government wasted weeks of their time before granting traveling permits to Mt. Ararat, which was in an area that the Turkish military considered sensitive because of its closeness to the Russian border.
Smith, of course, found no evidence of an ark. In a pamphlet he wrote the next year, Smith mentioned human problems that hurt the mission, including “rebellion” among some party members. Smith said they wouldn’t pool their money to help find a key Turkish figure who had reportedly seen traces of the ark in 1948. Smith accused some members of an “insatiable craving” for publicity.
Smith’s group wound up spending about two weeks on the mountain. Judging from what he wrote later, he knew that some viewed the adventure as a failure. He thought that was unfair.
“To telescope into 12 or 15 days,” he wrote, “a work that ordinarily would consume from 4 to 6 weeks is unreasonable, that such a monumental project should be accomplished in so brief a time, is an insult to human intelligence.”
At the time, A. J. Smith was 61 and taught and served as dean of Peoples Bible in Greensboro. The school later was renamed John Wesley College, which moved to High Point in the late 1970s.
Smith, a South Dakota native, and his wife had been missionaries in China. He later was an independent evangelist and served as president of a Bible college in Florida. In 1947, he came to the Peoples campus on Boulevard Street, just off High Point Road.
Smith had become interested in the ark in the early 1940s and went to Harvard University and the Library of Congress to research maps, documents and photographs from previous expeditions.
According to one Web site, Smith exchanged letters with a mysterious figure named Dr. Philip W. Gooch, who claimed that a written eyewitness account of the flood existed, written by Noah’s daughter-in-law, Amoela. Gooch claimed her diary belonged to a secret society of which he was a member.
Curiosity motivated Smith to look for the ark, but his son, Leon Smith, who lives in Pleasant Garden, says a strong religious purpose drove his father.
“It was just the fact that he felt the world didn’t accept the Bible,” Leon Smith says. “If he could prove the Bible true with something tangible that would be worthwhile. He certainly didn’t need the proof for himself.”
In Greensboro, A.J. Smith met a truck stop owner named E.J. Newton, who “begged to go on the expedition,” says Ardon Smith of Fayetteville, Ga., A.J. Smith’s other son. “Daddy took him along as a photographer.”
The others who accompanied Smith were a scientist from Oak Ridge, Tenn; an engineer from Long Island; a freelance reporter who sent stories back to the Greensboro Daily News; a representative from the Turkish education ministry; two Turkish Army officers; and two interpreters.
Smith had counted on a man identified as a Kurdish mountaineer to take him to the ark. Smith had read in 1948 how a Turkish farmer had gone to Istanbul to report that the Kurd had seen on Mt. Ararat what Smith described as “a large structure … that looked like the prow of a gigantic ship.”
Once the Smith expedition finally was allowed to go to the Mt. Ararat area, search parties spent days riding from village to village looking for the Kurd. Smith seemed surprised that some people had not only never heard of the man but of the ark either.
When the expedition ended, Smith returned to Greensboro, where he talked of organizing another expedition. But not long after that he was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 1960 without returning to Mt. Ararat.
After his death, a man who Smith’s widow trusted asked to borrow the extensive files that Smith had kept. The family never saw the documents again. After the borrower died, Aldon Smith tried to get the files from the man’s widow, but she refused. Smith says he may try to track down the man’s children to see if they have them.
The two sons didn’t follow their father into the ministry or become “ark-eologists.” as ark searchers are known. Aldon Smith is retired from the military. Leon Smith came closest to pursuing an occupation that might have caught his father’s fancy. He’s retired from the marine industry, including a stint with Hatteras Yachts.
“I built boats,” he said.
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