For the past week, this overwhelmingly Moslem nation has been alternately intrigued, scandalized and amused by the efforts of rival teams of American Christian fundamentalists to discover Noah's Ark.
A well-publicized claim by one of the American teams to have established the probable site of the biblical legend 5,200 feet up the slopes of Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey has now been ridiculed by other explorers, including an ex-astronaut, and Turkish officials.
Scientific findings that chunks of rock and wood gathered by Louisiana-based International Expeditions are valueless have defused a press scandal here over reports that the team had smuggled samples of the ark out of the country. Special permission is required in Turkey for the export of archeological specimens.
A frantic search for Noah's Ark began last year after Turkey lifted a ban on explorations in the region of Mount Ararat, which is close to Turkey's militarily sensitive border with the Soviet Union. According to the Bible's book of Genesis, Noah's Ark was washed up on the mountain, with its cargo of two of every kind of animal, after the rest of the Earth was inundated by a great flood.
Other American groups searching for the ark include the High Flight Foundation, led by former astronaut James Irwin, and the Institute of Creation Research.
After two years of disappointments, excitement rose Aug. 25 when International Expeditions leader Marvin Steffins called a press conference in Ankara to announce that his team had discovered a "boat-shaped formation" a mile above sea level on the southwestern face of Mount Ararat. Steffins and his team then disappeared, along with bags of samples.
Suspicions that the team might have made off with priceless relics appeared to be confirmed when a member of the expedition, Ronald Wyatt, produced some of the samples at a press conference in New York. Wyatt said that they would be analyzed at Galbraith Laboratories in Knoxville, Tenn.
The disappearance of the samples swiftly produced angry front-page headlines and editorials about "Turkey's stolen heritage." The English-language Turkish Daily News accused the American explorers of failing to show proper respect for the rules and customs of the host country.
"Without these considerations, we degenerate to the level of uncivilized beings that God sent the flood to destroy," the paper said.
The controversy reached a peak Wednesday when Steffins was detained by police at Istanbul Airport as he was about to board a plane with a bag containing 8.6 pounds of rocks and sand. He was released and allowed to fly out of the country after Turkish archeologists had testified that his "ark samples" had "no archeological value."
At a hastily summoned news conference, Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Mukerrem Tascioglu said that Steffins "must be after press coverage or money."
Steffins was also criticized by the leaders of the rival American expeditions, who fear that the incident might lead the Turkish government to restrict exploration of the 16,854-foot Mount Ararat.
Irwin, who became a born-again Christian after taking part in the Apollo 15 expedition to the Moon in 1971, said that he had visited the alleged site of the ark and had found "only rocks."
"I think that Steffins spent too much time on the mountain over the last two years and may just have been dispirited into making so significant an announcement," he said.
Steffins' claim to have located the probable site of the ark was also disputed by the leader of the Institute of Creation Research team, Prof. John Morris.
"Steffins went to look at a strange geological formation that looks exactly like a boat. He became very excited with what he found there, collected some samples, and then just packed up and left," Morris told journalists. "If he had only waited to consult us, we could have told him that the area has been thoroughly researched before. We know it is simply a very unusual rock formation that is definitely not Noah's Ark."
Steffins, at his press conference, said that the rock formation corresponded to the dimensions of the ark given in Genesis: 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. A cubit is believed to be 18 to 22 inches, which would make the ark at least 450 feet long.
The American efforts to find the ark raised ironic smiles from a prominent Turkish journalist, Ara Guler, who says he became the first person to photograph the "site" of Noah's Ark 25 years ago, following a tip from Turkish military cartographers. His picture of a deep rock formation shaped like a boat appeared in numerous international publications, including Life magazine.
According to Guler, the real site of the ark is not on Mount Ararat -- but about 15 miles away on neighboring Mount Tenduruk, which is lower than Ararat. This conclusion is supported, he said, by the account in Genesis, which records that after the ark washed up on a mountain top, Noah released a dove to search for signs of life.
The dove later returned with an olive branch -- obviously collected from higher ground that had remained above the flood. Calculating the time of the dove's flight, Guler said it can be shown that the ark must have landed about 15 miles from the upper part of Ararat.
"The Americans are all looking in the wrong place," Guler said with a laugh.