As so often among Western Europeans, religion had slipped out of Frank Westerman’s life unnoticed - until he became a father and wondered which aspects of his own religious background and upbringing he wanted to pass on to his daughter. Ararat is a piece of highly personal journalism, splendidly combining Westerman’s own questions with the history of religion, political conflict and advances in scientific research.
Westerman returns to the village where he grew up and speaks to his former maths teacher, a man no less well-versed in the Scriptures than he is steeped in the truths of mathematics. He also talks to a geologist, an avowed atheist who is deeply convinced that science will one day be able to fathom all the mysteries of life. But above all his journey takes him to Mount Ararat where, according to biblical tradition, Noah’s ark ran aground and God made his covenant with mankind.
Westerman had seen the mountain once on the horizon. Now he sets out to confront it, a challenge both physical and religious. As such, Ararat becomes a symbol of religion, and in attempting to conquer it, he aims to discover ‘whether I was capable of freeing myself from that inheritance.’
The book is not unambiguous in its answer. During the climb Westerman feels faith steadily recede from him. The questions he poses at the foot of the mountain remain unanswered and he is certainly not converted. Nevertheless he quotes with approval the Russian cosmonaut who for years had to propound the official doctrine of dialectical materialism and now sighs: ‘There is something between heaven and earth about which we humans know nothing.’ For Westerman the nature of that ‘something’ remains inscrutable; it is perhaps the very essence of religious mystery.
Ararat ends, symbolically, just short of the summit, which remains tantalisingly out of reach in a storm of powdery snow on a sloping expanse of ice. Meanwhile he has met some of the innumerable ark-seekers who search for historical traces of the biblical story. At the foot of Ararat, Westerman notes the extent to which the mountain is bound up with the centuries-old history of warfare in this region at the frontier between different cultures.