Ararat (eng)

Mount Ararat is a sacred mountain, and it plays an essential role in the history of so many cultures. Its important status gives us reason to believe that from about 1400 to 600 BC, Mount Ararat was thought, at least in Egypt, Babylonia and Persia, to be the world’s tallest mountain. Why Ararat? It seemed majestic with its snowy peak and its inaccessibility, and as the lone peak on the landscape, its relative height made it extremely prominent. In this way it differed from, for example, Mount Elbrus in the Greater Caucasus, whose greater height and majesty weren’t as easily perceived within the mountain range. In those times and for many thousands of years after, the only way to assess the mountain’s height was with a visual estimate.  

The development of exact science in Western Europe in the 17th century made it necessary to register the details of natural landforms. The barometer was also invented around this time (1 643). During the 18th century it was discovered that in addition to measuring atmospheric pressure a barometer could also be used to more exactly determine how high a mountain is above sea level. In 1787 the Swiss naturalist Horace Bénédict de Saussere used it to do just that while ascending Mont Blanc (4 807 m). At that time, the world’s highest mountain was thought to be the apparently unconquerable Chimborazo volcano in South America (6 310 m).

In 1815 the German scientist Adolf Wilhelm Miltenberg estimated in his research that the height of Mount Ararat was 3 900 meters, based on various data. It was complicated for Europeans to measure the actual height of Ararat because the holy mountain was located on Persian territory and only diplomatic missions could go near it. It was only after a peace treaty was signed on 22 February 1828 following the end of the Russo-Persian War that the northern slope of Ararat, which was once the border of Turkish Persia but became the border of Russian Persia, was accessible to scientists. Soon after peace had been achieved, on 30 September 1828, Tartu University geophysics professor Friedrich Parrot proposed a project to the board of the university to conquer Mount Ararat and do naturalist studies there. In 1811 he had unsuccessfully attempted to scale Mount Kazbek (Mkinvari) in the Greater Caucasus (5 033 m). Overcoming Ararat would present a challenge to Parrot similar to that of Kazbek.

As the ascent of Ararat was at least as important to alpinism as it was to science, Parrot decided to fund his excursion using his own private savings. Four university students joined him and only one of them got a stipend from the state for the trip. The group departed from Tartu at the beginning of April in 1829, and they were able to begin scaling the mountain in September of the same year. Their first two attempts failed, but Parrot and his companions took advantage of the beautiful weather on 9 October 1829 to rise to the peak of the mountain. In his letter written to the Tartu University board the next day, Parrot described the rise to peak as such: “… we arrived at the peak of Ararat between three and four in the afternoon, happy but very exhausted. For every step we took on the steep snow-covered – more like ice-covered—mountainside, we had to beat great chunks out of the ice, and we did this some 5 000 to 6 000 times. The height of the mountain above sea level is about 16 200 Parisian feet [5 265 m], and we marked the peak with a 5-foot-high wreath.” Mount Ararat (5 137 m)—the first peak over 5 000 m in the world to be reached—had been conquered.

Friedrich Parrot (1791-1841), one of the world’s first alpinists, was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, and in 1795 moved with his parents to Tartu in the Russian Empire (now on the territory of the Republic of Estonia). After graduating from Tartu University in 1814, Parrot went to Vienna so that he could take excursions into the Alps. On his excursions, he had a particular scientific interest in the height of the snow line in various mountain ranges. He devoted his life to this scientific inquiry, studying in the Greater Caucasus (1811), the Alps (1815-1816), the Pyrenees (1817), the Lesser Caucasus (1829), and North Cape (1837).

Erki Tammiksaar

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