Lights in the Taurus Mountains

[View From Mt. Nemrut]
View from Nemrut Dağı in the Taurus Mountains east over the Euphrates (Firat) River. Author: Kel Patolog. Creative Commons license.

On 21st July 1900, the famous economist, geographer, and climatologist Ellsworth Huntington sent a report from the Euphrates River valley in modern-day Turkey to the Monthly Weather Review. His report, quoted by Devereux and Corliss, describes a series of mountains that fight one another by exchanging balls of light, in clear weather. This essay reproduces the original report and commentary, attempts to trace the mountains mentioned, and discusses the evidence.

Huntington's Report

The NOAA Central Library Data Imaging Project recently scanned in copies of the Monthly Weather Review (see references at the end of the texts), and with permission from the site I reproduce Huntington's report and the editor's comment here in their entirety:

Electric Phenomena in the Euphrates Valley.
By Ellsworth Huntington, Euphrates College, Harpoot, Turkey, dated July 21, 1900.

During a recent ten days' geological trip through an almost unvisited part of the Taurus Mountains to the south of Harpoot I heard of a phenomenon which I should be glad to have you explain, either by letter or through the columns of the Review. Before leaving Harpoot I was told by a man from Aivose that Keklujek Mountain, near his village, fought with Ziaret Mountain, on the other side of the Euphrates River. The weapons were balls of light, which the mountains threw at each other. As the region was one of volcanic activity in comparatively recent times, and as hot springs and extinct craters are still to be seen, I thought at first that this must be a traditional account of a volcanic eruption. Subsequent investigation, however, showed that the story had its origin in a meteorological phenomenon. At first I was skeptical as to the truth of what follows. After hearing substantially the same story from ten or twelve men whom I saw in five difference places separated by an extreme distance of 40 or more miles, I became thoroughly convinced of its truth. It may be a common occurrence, but I have never heard of it and can find no account of it in the few books at my command.

The facts, upon which all agree, as as follows: A ball of fire is sometimes seen to start from one mountain and go like a flash to another. At the same time there is a sound like thunder. This occurs by day or by night, although by day no light is seen. It always occurs when the sky is clear and never when it is cloudy. It sometimes happens two or three times in a year, and then again is not seen for several years. For the last two years it has not been seen. It is most common (or possibly never happens except) in the fall, at the end of the long, dry season of three months. The mountains show no special features different from other mountains. I visited one of them, Karaoghlon (Black Son) Mountain, and found it to be composed of metamorphic schistose shale of cretaceous age. Its height is 7,350 feet, and the top is comparatively flat. One observer said that a glow remained after the flash, but all the rest contradicted this. Another said that the ball of fire was first small, but grew larger as it passed over, and then grew smaller again. He evidently was between the two mountains.

[Fig. 2.]
Fig. 2.—Showing mountains 1-6, from which flashes are seen to go. The flashes go between Nos. 1 and 2; 2 and 5; 3 and 5; 4 and 5; and 4 and 6. The names of the mountains are: No. 1, Chakchak, altitude 7,400 feet; No. 2, Keklujek, 6,500 feet; No. 3, Karaoghlon, 7,350 feet; No. 4 Hindi Baba, 5,500 feet; No. 5, Ziaret, 7,500 feet; No. 6, no name. [Credit: NOAA.]

The location and course of the flashes may be seen from the accompanying sketch map. In every case the flash crosses the Euphrates River, which here flows through a deep, precipitous valley, at an elevation of 2,000 feet above sea level, or at from 3,500 to 5,500 feet below the tops of the mountains. The valley and the lightning seem to have some connection. I asked about other mountains, e.g., whether the flash ever went from Ziaret to Chakchak (No. 5 to No. 1), and was told that it never went except as indicated on the map. Between any two mountains of those indicated it goes indifferently in either direction. Ziaret Mountain stands out prominently and is said to be visible from all the cities named on the map, viz, Harpoot, Malatia, Arghuni, Choonkoosh, Diarbekir, Severek, and Oorfa.

In several places the people said that this lightning was seen only when Turkey was at war. Later, at Kefferdis, near Mount Ziaret, we heard the origin of this tradition. Once at a time of a war scare lightning flashed from Mount Ziaret. The people in Malatia heard the sound of the thunder. No clouds were in sight and they did not think it could be thunder. So they said: "The Russians are coming; we hear their guns."

If you or your readers have heard of similar phenomena in any part of the world, may I ask for information in regard to the conditions and causes?

—Ellsworth Huntington (1900), "Electric Phenomena in the Euphrates Valley," Monthly Weather Review, vol.28, pp.286-7. Source: mwr-028-07-0286.pdf (

And the editor's comment:

Notes by the Editor.
Electric Phenomena in the Euphrates Valley.

On page 286 we publish an interesting letter from Mr. Ellsworth Huntington relative to lightning flashes passing between several of the mountain peaks bordering the wild gorge of the Euphrates 20 or 30 miles south of Harpoot (Charput). The Editor has endeavoured to find a satisfactory map of this gorge, on which to locate the peaks referred to by Mr. Huntington, but the best that he has access to fails to mention them. He has, therefore, published with Mr. Huntington's article a copy of a portion of Kiepert's map of Asia Minor as reprinted in Petermann's Mitteilungen, Erga:nzu:ngsband 4, 1867, the latest edition of the map being inaccessible to him. On this map (see page 286) the reader will perceive the gorge or canyon, that extends, with many rapids and falls, for 40 miles above Telek and 20 miles below that place. The locations of Mr. Huntington's peaks and of other points given on his sketch have been transferred to this map as well as we were able to do. On either side of the gorge the country is an elevated plateau, 5,000 feet above sea level. The peaks numbered and named by Mr. Huntington are undoubtedly the remnants of the harder rocks left by the river as it cuts its channel deeper and deeper. The Lake Geuljik is believed to have an underground outlet and to be the head water of the great spring north of Telek, at which the river Tigris begins.

We need not apologize for refraining from attempting to find the correct explanation of the mysterious lightnings and thunders here recorded. It is well known that lightning passes between cloud and cloud or cloud and earth, but we have not yet any well authenticated case of its passing from peak to peak, although the poets describe it as "leaping from crag to crag." Byron is quite true to nature when he (in Childe Harolde, Canto III, stanza 92), describing a thunderstorm on Lake Leman, says:

Far along
From peak to peak, the rattling crags among,
Leaps the live thunder.

There are peaks in the Rocky Mountains on which almost continuous electric discharges have been observed, but they pass off into the air quietly, like St. Elmo's fire, never in great flashes from peak to peak. During eruptions of Vesuvius, the lightning passes from the mountain to the clouds of steam that have risen from the volcano, but not between neighboring peaks. In general, the air ordinarily offers such a resistance to the passage of electricity, while the earth is such a good conductor of electricity, that it would be easier to two electrified peaks to discharge through the earth than through the air. We can not, therefore, think of a lightning flash passing between two neighboring peaks. On the other hand, a cloud or a mass of electrified air that has not quite attained the cloudy condition may lie between two peaks, and flashes may proceed from it simultaneously to the two peaks in such a way as to lead a careless observer to say that one peak discharged over to the other. If this is the approximate explanation of the Euphrates phenomenon, then it will happen only when the wind is in certain directions, such as to cause the formation of an incipient cloud and thunderstorm between the two peaks, and this wind direction will depend upon the relation of the peaks to the course of the river valley below. But when we remember how easily myths spread and become common property, so that the same error is believed by everyone, generation after generation, until some scientific investigator probes it to the bottom and dispels the illusion; when we remember that Asia Minor has been the nursery for all the myths and wonders and miracles that fill the literature of Arabia, Greece, Rome, and modern Europe; when we remember that Mr. Huntington has not seen this phenomenon, but describes it on the authority of numerous credible natives, who state that it was seen by others years ago, we must be allowed to express the wish that he will continue his researches in that neighborhood until he has seen it and can describe it from personal experience. If it is a thunderstorm phenomenon, it can not be so very rare; but if it is a myth, based upon some historical event or some misinterpretation of ancient names, the explanation will be most interesting to students of history and philology.

—"Electric Phenomena in the Euphrates Valley," Monthly Weather Review, vol.28, p.290, 1900. Source: mwr-028-07-0290a.pdf (

Tracing the Location

The editor of the Monthly Weather Review found it very difficult to locate the mountains, but with technology it has become a little easier. The mountains are located on the banks of the Euphrates where it cuts a gorge between the provinces of Elazig and Malatya. Doğanyol is the closest town to the mountain that Huntington calls Ziaret.

[Euphrates Canyon]
From Ellsworth Huntington (August 1902), "Through the Great Cañon of the Euphrates River", The Geographical Journal, Vol. 20, No. 2., p.177. Public domain. (Credit: JSTOR).

Ellsworth Huntington later published a sketch of his own of the area in a 1902 volume of The Geographical Journal, depicting the mountains Chakchak and Ziaret, as well as the town of Kefferdis, which appears in the same location as modern day Doğanyol. The width of the excerpt of the map shown here is exactly fifty miles on the scale provided by Huntington. His placement of "Petterge" (presumably modern day Pütürge) is out by perhaps five or ten miles, but the map seems otherwise considerably accurate. I've been unable to link the mountains of Kopli and Bosma to anything on the current map of Turkey.

There's a satellite view of the whole area available, showing that the terrain now doesn't correspond all that closely with the map, but close enough to be able to plot most of the main features. Some change to the geography will presumably have occured since the middle of the 18th century, but it may be more reasonable to suspect cartographic inaccuracy in the original map. There is no mention on the web that I have been able to find apart from Huntington's original that mentions balls of lights flying between these two mountains, but on the other hand it's been extremely difficult just to find out the current name of the mountain refered to as Ziaret.

There is a small town on the Elazig side which is called Hindibaba and seems to correspond to Huntington's "Hindi Baba", mountain No. 4. As well as that, Mountain No. 3, Karaoghlon, seems properly to be called Karaoğlan Dağı, and is located at 38°22' latitude, 39°16' longitude. Its height is given variously as either 2171m (7123ft) or 2422m (7946ft), the former value of which is fairly close to Huntington's value of 7350ft.

Kamışlık Dağı, 38°24' latitude 39°08' longitude, may correspond to Keklujek (No. 2). A satellite map of the location given for the mountain shows that its position roughly correlates with that of Keklujek on the Huntington map, though this is a rather tenuous connection based on name and coordinates alone. On the other hand, there is a Keklicek Dağı said by a page previously on to be, presumably, in Malatya province and at a height of 2727m (8947ft). The height disparity is quite considerable, however. Other mentions of the mountain on Google appear to be that of a separate mountain in Turkey which is 1369m high.

Between 1976 and 1987, the Karakaya Dam was constructed on the bend north of Huntington's Ziaret, flooding the area (creating a 298 km square lake), and changing the geography substantially, with the possible ramification of affecting the mechanism that produced the lights.

Interpretation of the Evidence

The comment from the editor of the Monthly Weather Review is still very pertinent: since Huntington didn't see the effect himself, his report is lacking detail, and may be founded on misinterpretations and false premises. But Huntington himself did the fieldwork and was convinced of the veracity of the reports. He was an economics professor at Yale University, and hence one would suppose not given over to flights of fancy. Moreover, whilst there are no exact parallels to this story known, the phenomenon of Mountain Top Discharge or "Andes Light" as it is sometimes known may well be a related phenomeon.

Further Reading

Sean B. Palmer