Part IV: Egypt, 1989–90
During 1989 and 1990, as I immersed myself ever more deeply in the mysteries of the lost Ark of the Covenant, I became interested not only in where it was but also in what it was. Naturally I turned first to the Bible, where the earliest mention of the Ark occurs during the period of the ‘wilderness wanderings’ immediately after the prophet Moses had led the children of Israel out of their captivity in Egypt (around 1250 BC1). In Chapter 25 of the book of Exodus we read that the precise dimensions of the sacred relic and the materials to be used in its construction were revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai by God Himself:
You are to make me an Ark of acacia wood two and a half cubits long, one and a half cubits wide, and one and a half cubits high [i.e. a rectangular chest measuring three feet nine inches by two feet three inches by two feet three inches2]. You are to plate it, inside and out, with pure gold, and decorate it all around with a gold moulding. You will cast four gold rings for the Ark and fix them to its four supports [or corners3]: two rings on one side and two rings on the other. You will also make shafts of acacia wood plated with gold and pass the shafts through the rings on the sides of the Ark, to carry the Ark by these. The shafts must remain in the rings of the Ark and not be withdrawn … Further you are to make a throne of mercy, of pure gold, two and a half cubits long, and one and a half cubits wide. For the two ends of this throne of mercy you are to make two golden cherubim; you are to make them of beaten gold. Make the first cherub for one end and the second for the other, and fasten them to the two ends of the throne of mercy so that they may make one piece with it. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upwards so that they overshadow the throne of mercy. They must face one another, their faces towards the throne of mercy. You must place the throne of mercy on top of the Ark … There I shall come to meet you: there from above the throne of mercy, from between the two cherubim that are on the Ark.4
This ‘divine blueprint’ is, surely, one of the very strangest passages in the Bible. After receiving it, Moses passed it on verbatim to an artificer named Bezaleel, a man ‘filled with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to devise cunning works.’5 Bezaleel made the Ark exactly as specified.6 Then, when it was ready, Moses placed inside it the two tablets of stone, also given to him on Mount Sinai, on which God had inscribed the Ten Commandments.7 The sacred object, now pregnant with its precious contents, was then installed behind a ‘veil’ in the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle8 – the portable tent-like structure that the Israelites used as their place of worship during their wanderings in the wilderness.
The terrors and the miracles
Soon terrible things began to happen. The first concerned Nadab and Abihu, two of the four sons of Aaron the High Priest, who was Moses’s own brother. As members of the priestly family they enjoyed access to the Holy of Holies, into which they one day advanced carrying metal incense burners in their hands.9 There, according to the book of Leviticus they ‘offered strange fire before the Lord, which He commanded them not’.10 The devastating consequence was that a flame leapt out from the Ark ‘and devoured them and they died.’11
And the Lord spake unto Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered before the Lord and died; And the Lord said unto Moses, Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil before the throne of mercy, which is upon the Ark; that he die not: for I will appear in the cloud upon the throne of mercy.12
The throne of mercy – ‘mercy seat’ in some translations – was the slab of pure gold that served as the Ark’s cover. The reader will recall that mounted on either end of it – and facing each other – were two golden figures of cherubim. ‘The cloud upon the throne of mercy’ which threatened death to Aaron must therefore have been visible between the cherubim. It was not always present, but on those occasions when it did materialize the Israelites believed ‘that the demons held sway’13 – and then even Moses would not dare to approach.14
Other supposedly supernatural phenomena also manifested themselves ‘between the cherubim’ that faced each other across the Ark’s golden lid. For example, just a few days15 after the unfortunate demise of Aaron’s two sons, Moses went into the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle, which was then still pitched in the shadow of Mount Sinai. After he had entered, the prophet ‘heard the voice of one speaking unto him from off the mercy seat that was upon the Ark … from between the two cherubim.’16 Certain very ancient Jewish legends state that this voice came from heaven ‘in the form of a tube of fire’.17 And fire – in one guise or another, with and without the deadly cloud – seems often to have been associated with the cherubim. According to an enduring folk memory, for example, ‘two sparks [elsewhere described as “fiery jets”] issued from the cherubim which shaded the Ark’ – sparks which occasionally burned and destroyed nearby objects.18
Eventually the time came for the Israelites to abandon their camp at the foot of Mount Sinai – also called the ‘Mountain of Yahweh’ (after the name of God):
They set out from the mountain of Yahweh and journeyed for three days. The Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh went at their head for this journey of three days, searching out a camping place for them … And as the Ark set out, Moses would say, ‘Arise Yahweh, may your enemies be scattered and those who hate you run for their lives before you!’ And as it came to rest, he would say, ‘Come back, Yahweh, to the thronging hosts of Israel.’19
Travelling at the head of the Israelite column, the sacred relic was borne on the shoulders of ‘the Kohathites’ (or ‘sons of Kohath’), a sub-clan of the tribe of Levi to which both Moses and Aaron also belonged. According to several legends, and to rabbinical commentaries on the Old Testament, these bearers were occasionally killed by the ‘sparks’ which the Ark emitted20 and, in addition, were lifted bodily off the ground from time to time because ‘the Ark [was] able to carry its carriers as well as itself.’21 Nor is this the only Jewish tradition to suggest that the Ark might have been able to exert a mysterious force that in some way was able to counteract gravity. Several other pieces of learned Midrashic exegesis also testify that it sometimes lifted its bearers off the ground (thus temporarily relieving them of what would otherwise have been a considerable burden).22 In a similar vein a particularly striking Jewish legend reports an incident during which the priests attempting to carry the Ark were ‘tossed by an invisible agency into the air and flung to the ground again and again.’23 Another tradition describes an occasion when ‘the Ark leaped of itself into the air’.24
Imbued as it was with such strange energies it is little wonder, throughout their wanderings in the wilderness, that the Israelites were able to use the Ark as a weapon – a weapon with powers so terrible that it could bring victory even when the odds seemed overwhelming.25 An account of one such battle describes the Ark as first uttering ‘a moaning sound’, then rising up off the ground and rushing towards the enemy26 – who not surprisingly were plunged into disarray and slaughtered on the spot. On another occasion, however – and as though to prove the rule – the Israelites were themselves defeated. This happened, according to the Bible, because they did not have the Ark with them at the time – Moses had withheld it from them after advising them against mounting an assault in that particular area:
They set out presumptuously towards the heights of the highlands. Neither the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh nor Moses left the camp. Then the Amalekites came down … which dwelt in that hill country, and smote them and discomfited them.27
According to the Bible, forty years were spent in the wilderness,28 years during which the Israelites learned that it was in their interests to follow Moses’s advice to the letter. There-after, under his leadership and with the help of the Ark, they successfully subdued the fierce tribes of the Sinai peninsula, conquered Transjordania, spoiled the Midianites,29 and generally laid waste to all those who opposed them. Finally, towards the end of their four decades of wandering, they ‘pitched their camp in the plains of Moab … opposite Jericho.’30
Just across the Jordan river, the Promised Land was now in sight. By this time Moses’s brother Aaron had already died31 and had been replaced in the office of High Priest by Eleazar.32 Meanwhile Moses himself had been forewarned by Yahweh that it was not his destiny to enter Canaan and, accordingly, had invested ‘Joshua, the son of Nun’ as his successor.33
Soon afterwards Moses died,34 but not before he had initiated Joshua into the mysteries of the Ark of the Covenant.35 The new leader therefore had a formidable weapon at his disposal to deploy against the fierce resistance that he was about to encounter in the heavily fortified city of Jericho.
Joshua seemed to know that the Ark was a two-edged sword – that, if not properly handled, it could harm the Israelites as well as their enemies. Early in the campaign, while he was planning the advance across the Jordan river towards Jericho, he sent his officers throughout the camp to tell the people this:
When ye see the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your God, and the priests the Levites bearing it, then ye shall remove from your place and go after it. Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure: come not near unto it …36
Then, when all was prepared:
Joshua spake unto the priests, saying, Take up the Ark of the Covenant, and pass over before the people … And it came to pass … as they that bare the Ark were come unto Jordan … [that] the waters which came from above stood and rose up upon an heap … and those that came down were cut off … and the priests that bare the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the midst of Jordan … And … when the priests … were come up out of the midst of Jordan and the soles of the priests’ feet were lifted up onto the dry land … the waters of Jordan returned unto their place … And [Joshua] spake … saying … the Lord your God dried up the waters of Jordan from before you, until ye were passed over.37
Anyone reared in the Judaeo-Christian tradition will be familiar with the details of the assault on Jericho that followed the triumphal crossing of the Jordan. While the main mass of the people stood back at the obligatory distance of two thousand cubits (more than half a mile), a hand-picked group of priests blowing trumpets marched around the walls of the city bearing the Ark. This procedure was repeated every day for six days. Then:
On the seventh day … they rose early about the dawning of the day, and compassed the city after the same manner … only on that day they compassed the city seven times. And … at the seventh time, when the priests blew with the trumpets, Joshua said unto the people, Shout; for the Lord hath given you the city … So the people shouted when the priests blew with the trumpets: and it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city … and they took the city … and they utterly destroyed all that was in the city.38
In the wilderness, when it was new, the Ark was nigh-on invincible, and during Joshua’s campaigns in the Promised Land the biblical testimony suggests that it continued to play a significant military role long after the fall of Jericho.39 Within about a hundred and fifty years of Joshua’s death, however, a change took place: a close examination of the relevant books of the Old Testament shows that, by this time, the relic was no longer routinely being carried into battle; instead it had been installed (in its Tabernacle) at an important shrine-sanctuary known as Shiloh, where it rested permanently.40
The reason for this change was the increasing power and confidence of the Israelites themselves who, by the eleventh century BC, had managed to capture, settle and control most of the Promised Land and who evidently felt that it was no longer necessary in such circumstances for them to bring out their secret weapon.41
This self-assurance, however, proved misplaced on one significant occasion – the battle of Ebenezer, at which the Israelites were defeated by the Philistines and four thousand of their men were killed.42 After this débâcle:
The troops returned to the camp and the elders of Israel said … ‘Let us fetch the Ark of our God from Shiloh so that it may come among us and rescue us from the power of our enemies.’43
This suggestion was immediately accepted:
So the people sent to Shiloh, that they might bring from thence the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of Hosts, which dwelleth between the cherubim … and when the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout so that the earth rang.44
Hearing this noise, the Philistines exclaimed:
‘What can this great shouting in the Hebrew camp mean?’ And they realized that the Ark of Yahweh had come into the camp. At this the Philistines were afraid; and they said, ‘God has come to the camp’. ‘Alas!’ they cried. ‘This has never happened before. Alas! Who will save us from the power of this mighty God?… But take courage and be men, Philistines, or you will become slaves to the Hebrews … Be men and fight.’45
Battle was joined again and, to the utter astonishment of all concerned:
Israel was smitten, and they fled every man into his tent: and there was a very great slaughter; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen. And the Ark of God was taken.46
This was truly a catastrophe. Never before had the Israelites suffered defeat when they had carried the Ark into battle and never before had the Ark itself been captured. Such an eventuality had been unthinkable, unimaginable – and yet it had happened.
As the Philistines bore the relic triumphantly away, a runner was sent to carry the bad news to Eli, the High Priest, who had remained behind at Shiloh:
And … lo, Eli sat upon a seat by the wayside watching … Now Eli was ninety and eight years old and his eyes were dim that he could not see. And the man said unto Eli, I am he that came out of the army, and I fled today out of the army. And he said, What is there done, my son? And the messenger answered and said, Israel is fled before the Philistines, and there hath been also a great slaughter among the people … and the Ark of God is taken.
When he mentioned the Ark of God, Eli fell backward off his seat … His neck was broken and he died, for he was old and heavy.
[And] his daughter-in-law … was with child and near her time. When she heard the news that the Ark of God had been captured … she crouched down and gave birth, for her labour pains came on.47
The child thus born was called Ichabod meaning ‘where is the glory?’48 This curious name was chosen, the Bible explained, because the mother had given vent to a great cry of grief when she had received the information about the loss of the Ark: ‘And she said, The glory is departed from Israel: for the Ark of God is taken.’49
Even stranger and more alarming events were to follow:
When the Philistines had captured the Ark of God they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. Taking the Ark of God, the Philistines put it in the temple of [their deity] Dagon, setting it down beside [the statue of] Dagon. Next morning the people of Ashdod went to the temple of Dagon and there lay Dagon face down on the ground before the Ark of Yahweh. They picked Dagon up and put him back in his place. But early next morning there lay Dagon face down again upon the ground before the Ark of Yahweh, and Dagon’s head and two hands were lying severed on the threshold; only the trunk of Dagon was left in its place. This is why the priests of Dagon and indeed all who enter Dagon’s temple do not step on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to the present day.
The hand of Yahweh weighed heavily on the people of Ashdod and struck terror into them, afflicting them with tumours, in Ashdod and its territory. When the men of Ashdod saw what was happening they said, ‘The Ark of the God of Israel must not stay here with us, for his hand lies heavy on us and on Dagon our god.’ So they summoned all the Philistine chiefs to them, and said, ‘What shall we do with the Ark of the God of Israel?’ They decided, ‘The Ark of the God of Israel must go to Gath.’ So they took the Ark of the God of Israel to Gath. But after they had taken it there, the hand of Yahweh lay heavy on that town and a great panic broke out; the people of the town, from youngest to oldest, were struck with tumours that he brought out on them. They then sent the Ark of God to Ekron, but when it came to Ekron the Ekronites shouted, ‘They have brought us the Ark of the God of Israel to bring death to us and our people.’ They summoned all the Philistine chiefs and said, ‘Send the Ark of the God of Israel away; let it not bring death to us and our people’ – for there was mortal panic throughout the town; the hand of God was very heavy there. The people who did not die were struck with tumours and the wailing from the town went up to heaven.50
Shattered by the horrible afflictions that they had suffered because of the relic, the Philistines eventually decided – after seven months51 – to ‘send it back to where it belongs’.52 To this end they loaded it onto a ‘new cart’ hauled by ‘two milch kine’53 and set it rumbling on its way towards Bethshemesh, the nearest point inside Israelite territory.54
Another disaster soon followed, and this time the Philistines were not the victims:
They of Bethshemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley: and they lifted up their eyes, and saw the Ark, and rejoiced to see it. And the cart came unto the field of Joshua, a Bethshemite, and stood there, where there was a great stone: and the men of Bethshemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices the same day unto the Lord … [But] he smote the men of Bethshemesh because they had looked into the Ark of the Lord, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men; and the people lamented because the Lord had smitten many of the people with great slaughter.55
The text quoted above is from the King James Authorized Version of the Bible, produced in the early seventeenth century. Other more recent translations agree that certain men of Bethshemesh were smitten or ‘struck down’ by the Ark but put the number slain atseventy rather than fifty thousand and seventy – and it is the consensus of modern scholarship that this figure is the correct one.56
Seventy men, therefore, looked into the Ark of the Covenant after it arrived in the field of Joshua the Bethshemite, and these seventy men died as a result.57 Nowhere is it stated exactly how they died; but there can be no doubt that they were killed by the Ark – and in a manner sufficiently dramatic and horrible to lead the survivors to conclude: ‘No one is safe in the presence of the Lord, this holy God. To whom can we send it to be rid of him?’58 At this point, suddenly and rather mysteriously, a group of Levitical priests appeared, ‘took down the Ark of the Lord,’59 and carried it off – not to its former home at Shiloh but instead to a place called ‘Kiriath-Jearim’ where it was installed in ‘the house of Abinadabon the hill’.60
And on that hill it remained, isolated and guarded,61 for the next half century or so.62 Indeed it was not brought down again until David had become King of Israel. A powerful and headstrong man, he had recently captured the city of Jerusalem. Now it was his intention to consolidate his authority by bringing up to his new capital the most sacred relic of his people.
The date would have been somewhere between 1000 and 990 BC.63 This is what happened:
They placed the Ark of God on a new cart and brought it from Abinadab’s house which is on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio … were leading the cart. Uzzah walked alongside the Ark of God and Ahio went in front … When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah stretched his hand out to the Ark of God and steadied it, as the oxen were making it tilt. Then the anger of Yahweh blazed out against Uzzah, and for this crime God struck him down on the spot, and he died there beside the Ark of God.64
David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, ‘How can I harbour the Ark of the Lord after this?’ He felt he could not take the Ark of the Lord with him to the City of David.65
Instead he ‘turned aside and carried it to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite.’66 At that house, while the Jewish monarch waited to see if it would kill anyone else, the Ark of the Covenant remained for three months. No further disasters occurred, however. On the contrary: ‘Yahweh blessed Obed-edom and his whole family.’67 The Scriptures are not explicit about the nature of this benediction. According to ancient folk traditions, however, ‘it consisted in Obed-edom being blessed with many children … The women in his house gave birth after a pregnancy of two months only and bore six children at one time.’68
The Bible takes up the story again as follows:
It was told King David, saying, the Lord hath blessed the house of Obed-edom and all that pertaineth unto him, because of the Ark of God. So David went and brought the Ark of God from the house of Obed-edom into the City of David with gladness.69
On this journey:
the children of the Levites bare the Ark of God upon their shoulders with the staves thereon, as Moses had commanded according to the word of God.70
Then, finally, David led the joyous procession into Jerusalem ‘with shouting and with the sound of the trumpet’,71 and with music played ‘on all manner of instruments made of fir wood, even on harps, and on psalteries, and on timbrels, and on coronets, and on cymbals.’72
It had been David’s hope that he would be able to build a temple in Jerusalem in which the Ark could be housed. In the event, however, he was not to fulfil this ambition and instead had to content himself with placing the relic in a simple tent of the type that had been used during the desert wanderings.73
The honour (or the conceit?) of erecting the Temple was therefore left to another man. As David himself put it before he died:
As for me, I had it in mine heart to build an house of rest for the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord … and had made ready for the building … But God said unto me, Thou shalt not build an house for my name … Solomon thy son, he shall build my house.74
This prophecy was duly fulfilled. At Solomon’s command, work was started on the Temple around the year 966 BC75 and was completed rather more than a decade later, probably in 955 BC.76 Then, when all was done, the Holy of Holies – a place which the Lord had ordered should be utterly dark – was made ready to receive the precious object that it had been built to contain:
Solomon assembled the elders of Israel, and all the heads of the tribes … that they might bring up the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord … And all the elders of Israel came, and the priests took up the Ark. And they brought up the Ark of the Lord … And King Solomon, and all the congregation of Israel that were assembled unto him, were with him before the Ark, sacrificing sheep and oxen that could not be told nor numbered for multitude. And the priests brought in the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord to its place in the Temple … in the Holy of Holies.77
And there the sacred relic remained, enveloped in ‘thick darkness’, until it mysteriously vanished at some unknown date between the tenth and sixth centuries BC.78 As I have already indicated in Chapter 1, absolutely no explanation exists for its disappearance, which scholars regard as one of the great unsolved riddles of the Bible.79 Almost equally puzzling, however, are the awesome powers that it seems to have possessed in its heyday – powers portrayed in the Old Testament as stemming directly from God.
Deus ex machina
In trying to understand the Ark, I found myself returning again and again to the perplexing issue of these powers. What could have accounted for them? It seemed to me that there were three possible answers:
1 The Old Testament was right. The Ark was indeed a repository of divine energies and these energies were the source of all the ‘miracles’ that it performed.
2 The Old Testament was wrong. The Ark was just an ornate casket and the children of Israel were the victims of a collective mass hallucination that lasted for several hundred years.
3 The Old Testament was both right and wrong at the same time. The Ark possessed genuine powers, but those powers were neither ‘supernatural’ nor divine. On the contrary, they were man-made.
I looked into all three options and concluded that I certainly could not accept the first unless I was also prepared to accept that Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, was a psychopathic killer – or a kind of malign genie who lived in a box. Nor could I accept the second – primarily because the Old Testament, which is a compilation of books codified in widely different periods, was remarkably consistent where the Ark was concerned. Throughout the Scriptures it was the only artefact explicitly and unambiguously portrayed as being imbued with supernatural energies. All other man-made objects were treated quite matter-of-factly. Indeed even exceptionally holy items such as the seven-branched golden candlestick known as the menorah, the so-called ‘table of the showbread’, and the altar upon which sacrifices were performed, were clearly understood to be nothing more than important pieces of ritual furniture.
The Ark was therefore quite unique, unrivalled in the special reverence accorded to it by the scribes, and matchless in the awesome deeds attributed to it throughout the lengthy period in which it completely dominated the biblical story. Moreover its alleged powers showed few signs of having fallen victim to imaginative literary embellishment. On the contrary, from the time of its construction at the foot of Mount Sinai until its sudden and unexplained disappearance hundreds of years later, it continued to exhibit thesame spectacular but limited repertoire. Thus it continued to lift itself, its bearers, and other objects around it off the ground; it continued to emit light; it continued to be associated with a strange ‘cloud’ that materialized ‘between the cherubim’; it continued to afflict people with ailments like ‘leprosy’80 and ‘tumours’; and it continued to kill those who accidentally touched or opened it. Significantly, however, it exhibited none of the other marvellous characteristics that one might have expected if a mass hallucination had been involved or if a great deal of fiction had been allowed to adulterate the record: for example, it did not make rain; it did not turn water into wine; it did not resurrect the dead; it did not drive out devils; and it did not always win the battles into which it was taken (although it usually did).
In other words, throughout its history, it consistently behaved like a powerful machine that had been designed to carry out certain very specific tasks and that only performed effectively within its design parameters – although even then, like all machines, it was fallible because of defects in its construction and because it was subject both to human error and to wear and tear.
I therefore formulated the following hypothesis, in line with the third alternative set out above: the Old Testament had indeed been both right and wrong at the same time. The Ark had possessed genuine powers, but those powers had been neither supernatural nor divine; on the contrary, they must have been the products of human skill and ingenuity.
This, of course, was only a theory – a speculation intended to guide my further research – and it was confronted by a great many legitimate doubts. Most important of all, how could men possibly have manufactured so potent a device more than three thousand years ago, when technology and civilization had supposedly been at a very rudimentary stage?
This question, I felt, lay at the heart of the mystery. In seeking to answer it I found that I had to consider first and foremost the cultural context of the sacred relic – a context that was almost entirely Egyptian. After all, the Ark was built in the wilderness of Sinai within a very few months after Moses had led his people out of their captivity in Egypt – a captivity that had lasted for more than four hundred years.81 It therefore followed that Egypt was the most likely place in which to find clues to the Ark’s true nature.
I became convinced that I was right about this after I had paid a visit to the Cairo Museum. Located in the heart of Egypt’s capital city, close to the east bank of the Nile, this imposing building is an unequalled repository of Pharaonic artefacts dating back as far as the fourth millennium BC. One of the upper floors is given over to a permanent exhibition of objects recovered from the tomb of Tutankhamen, the youthful monarch who ruled Egypt from 1352 to 1343 BC – i.e. about a century before the time of Moses.82 I was entranced by this exhibition and spent several hours wandering amongst the display cases amazed at the beauty, variety and sheer quantity of the relics on view. It did not surprise me to learn that the renowned British archaeologist Howard Carter had taken six full years to empty the great sepulchre that he had found in the Valley of the Kings in 1922.83 However, what interested me most of all about the treasures that he had unearthed was that they included dozens of Ark-like chests or boxes, some with carrying poles, some without, but all of them conceptually similar to the Ark of the Covenant.
By far the most striking of these objects were the four shrines that had been built to contain the sarcophagus of Tutankhamen. These shrines, which I studied closely, took the form of large rectangular caskets that had originally been positioned one inside the other but that were now installed in separate display cases. Since each casket was made of wood, and since each, moreover, was plated ‘inside and out with pure gold’,84 it was difficult to resist the conclusion that the mind that had conceived the Ark of the Covenant must have been familiar with objects like these.
Further support for this inference was provided by the presence on the doors and rear walls of each of the shrines of two mythical figures: tall and terrible winged women, fierce and imperious in stature and visage – like stern angels of vengeance. These powerful and commanding creatures, placed so as to provide ritual protection for the precious contents of the tomb, were thought to be representations of the goddesses Isis and Nephthys.85 While that identification in itself held no special significance for me, I could not help but note that the deities had their ‘wings spread upwards’ just like the cherubim referred to in the biblical description of the Ark. They also faced each other just as the biblical cherubim had done. And although they were shaped in high relief on the flat planes of the doors (rather than being distinct pieces of statuary) they were nevertheless fashioned ‘of beaten gold’ – again very much like the cherubim described in the Bible.86
No scholar, I knew, had ever been able to establish exactly what those cherubim had looked like. There was only consensus that they could in no way have resembled the chubby angelic ‘cherubs’ of much later western art, which were, at best, sanitized and Christianized interpretations of a truly ancient and pagan concept.87 Lost in thought in the Cairo Museum, however, it seemed to me that the formidable winged guardians of Tutankhamen’s inter-nested shrines were the closest models that I was ever likely to find for the two cherubim of the Ark, which indeed had been conceived as standing sentinel over it and which had also frequently served as channels for its immense and deadly power.
The tabotat of Apet
I was subsequently to discover that the Ark’s Egyptian background was wider and deeper even than this. Tutankhamen had also left another legacy which helped me to understand the full significance of that background. During a visit to the great temple at Luxor in Upper Egypt in April 1990, while passing through the elegant colonnade that extends eastwards from the court of Rameses II, I came across a story carved in stone – a permanent and richly illustrated account of the important ‘Festival of Apet’ which had been inscribed here in the fourteenth century BC on Tutankhamen’s direct orders.88
Although now badly eroded by the passage of the millennia, the faded reliefs on the west and east walls of the colonnade were still sufficiently visible for me to grasp the rudiments of the festival, which in Tutankhamen’s time had marked the peak of the annual Nile flood upon which almost all of Egypt’s agriculture depended.89 I already knew that this perennial inundation (today held back by the Aswan High Dam with profoundly unfortunate ecological consequences) had been almost exclusively the product of the long rainy season in the Ethiopian highlands – a deluge that every year roared down out of Lake Tana and along the Blue Nile bestowing hundreds of thousands of tons of rich silt on the farmlands of the Delta and contributing an estimated six-sevenths of the total volume of water in the Nile river system.90 This opened up the possibility that the Apet ceremonials might in some way prove relevant to my quest: after all, they had celebrated a clear link between the life of ancient Egypt and events in far-off Ethiopia. Most probably this link had been no more than a coincidental one to do with climate and geography; nevertheless I regarded it as being of at least prima facie interest.
It turned out to be far more than that.
Studying first the western wall of the colonnade on which the Tutankhamen reliefs were displayed, my eye was caught by what appeared to be an Ark, lifted shoulder high on its carrying poles by a group of priests. Stepping closer I quickly confirmed that this was indeed the case: with the sole proviso that the object being transported took the form of a miniature boat rather than a casket, the scene before me looked like quite a faithful illustration of the passage in the first book of Chronicles which states that the Levitical priests of ancient Israel ‘carried the Ark of God with the shafts on their shoulders as Moses had ordered’.91
Standing back to get perspective I established that the entire western wall of the colonnade was covered with images very similar to the one that had initially attracted my attention. In what seemed to be a massive and joyous procession I was able to make out the shapes of several different Ark-like boats being carried on the shoulders of several different groups of priests, before whom musicians played on sistra and a variety of other instruments, acrobats performed, and people danced and sang, clapping their hands in excitement.
With my pulse quickening I sat down in a patch of shade around the broken base of a column and reflected on the implications of the huge sense of déjà vu that had just overtaken me. It was barely three months since I had attended Timkat in the Ethiopian city of Gondar on 18 and 19 January 1990. The details of the ceremonials that I had witnessed during those two days of religious frenzy were therefore still fresh in my mind – so fresh in fact that I could hardly fail to note the similarities between them and the ecstatic procession portrayed on the time-worn stones of this Egyptian temple. Both events, I realized, focussed around a kind of ‘Ark worship’, with the Arks being borne aloft by groups of priests and adored by hysterical crowds. Nor was this all: Timkat had been characterized by the performance of wild dances and the playing of musical instruments before the Arks. This sort of behaviour, it was now clear, had also been an intrinsic part of the Apet festival, right down to the types of musical instruments used, which in many cases were identical to those that I had seen in Gondar. Of course the flat slabs of the tabotat carried on the heads of the Ethiopian priests were rather different in appearance from the Ark-like boats carried on the shoulders of their long-dead Egyptian counterparts. From my earlier research, however (detailed at some length in Chapter 6), I could hardly forget that according to established etymologies the original meaning of tabot had been ‘ship-like container’. Indeed, as I knew very well, the archaic Hebrew word tebah (from which the Ethiopic term had been derived92) had been used in the Bible to refer specifically to ship-like arks, namely the ark of Noah and the ark of bulrushes in which the infant Moses had been cast adrift on the Nile. Nor, I now realized, could it possibly be irrelevant that the Kebra Nagast had at one point described the Ark of the Covenant as ‘the belly of a ship’93 containing ‘the Two Tables which were written by the finger of God.’94
After catching my breath, I stood up and stepped out from my patch of shade into the fierce mid-day sunlight that bathed the whole of the colonnade area. I then continued my examination of the faded reliefs of the Apet festival which, on the western wall, concerned the bringing of the arks from Karnak to the Temple at Luxor (a distance of about three miles) and, on the eastern wall, showed the procession’s eventual return from Luxor back along the Nile to Karnak again where, with all due ceremony, the sacred vessels were reinstalled in their original resting places. Every detail of these complex and beautifully carved scenes reminded me irresistibly of Timkat in Gondar – which had also involved an outgoing procession (bringing the tabotat from the churches to the ‘baptismal’ lake beside the old castle) and a returning procession (bringing the tabotat back to their home churches again). Moreover, I could now see clearly that the bizarre ceremonies I had witnessed in the early morning of 19 January at the lake itself had also been prefigured in the Apet festival which, at every stage, appeared to have involved a special reverence for water (indeed, the reliefs of the early part of the procession showed that the arks had been carried directly from the temple to the banks of the Nile, where a number of elaborate rituals had then been performed).
After completing my trip to Egypt in April 1990 I took the opportunity to carry out some further research into the evidence that I had stumbled upon there. I discovered that the experts had no quarrel with my various conjectures. At one meeting, for example, Kenneth Kitchen, Professor of Egyptology at Liverpool University, confirmed that the caskets from Tutankhamen’s tomb that I had seen in the Cairo Museum could indeed have been prototypes for the Ark of the Covenant: ‘At the very least,’ he said in his broad and rather emphatic Yorkshire accent, ‘they prove that wooden boxes lined with gold were standard artefacts of the religious furniture of the period and that Moses would therefore have had the technology and skills at his disposal to manufacture the Ark. The methods of construction that he would have employed, and the use of such prefabricated structures for religious purposes, are abundantly attested by actual remains, pictures and texts in Egypt over a long period of time.’95
I also found scholarly corroboration for the link that I believed had existed between the festival of Apet and the early Judaic ceremonies surrounding the Ark of the Covenant. Working through piles of reference materials in the British Library I came across a book published in London in 1884 by the Religious Tract Society and entitled Fresh Light from the Ancient Monuments. I might have ignored this slim and unprepossessing volume entirely had I not noticed that its author was a certain A. H. Sayce (who at the time had been Deputy Professor of Philology at Oxford University). Remembering that E. A. Wallis Budge, one of the great authorities on Egyptian religion, had held Sayce in the highest regard (describing him as a ‘distinguished scholar’96) I opened the book at a chapter entitled ‘The Exodus out of Egypt’ and read that, in Sayce’s opinion, ‘the law and ritual of the Israelites’ had been derived from many sources. Amongst these were Various festivals and fasts’ in which
The gods were carried in procession in ‘ships’, which, as we learn from the sculptures, resembled in form the Hebrew Ark, and were borne on men’s shoulders by means of staves.97
Encouraged by the support for my speculations that the distinguished nineteenth-century professor had given me, I looked further through the reference works at my disposal and was able to confirm that the ship-like arks carried during the Apet ceremonials had indeed contained gods, or rather small statues of various deities in the Egyptian pantheon.98 These statues had been made of stone and thus, it seemed to me, were not far removed in concept from the stone ‘Tablets of the Testimony’ that had supposedly been lodged inside the Ark of the Covenant and that the Israelites had regarded as embodying their God. As one Hebrew scholar had put it in a seminal paper published in the 1920s:
The tradition of the two sacred stone tablets within the Ark would point strongly to the conclusion that the original contents of the Ark must have been a sacred stone … [which] was either conceived of as the deity himself, or as the object in which the deity was thought to reside permanently.99
Nor was this the only connection that I was able to establish between the Ark of the Covenant and the ship-like arks that had been carried in the Apet ceremonies. Those ceremonies, it will be remembered, had taken place in the Upper Egyptian town now known as ‘Luxor’, a relatively recent name derived from the Arabic L’ouqsor (meaning ‘the palaces’). Much earlier, during the period of Greek influence in Egypt (from about the fifth century BC) the whole area including the nearby temple at Karnak had been known asThebai. Modern Europeans had subsequently corrupted this name to the more familiar ‘Thebes’.100 In the process, however, they had obscured an intriguing etymology: the word Thebai had in fact been derived from Tapet, the name by which the Luxor/Karnak religious complex had been known in the era of Tutankhamen and Moses.101 And Tapet in its turn was merely the feminine form of Apet – in other words, Luxor and Karnak had originally been named after the great festival for which they had been famous,102 a festival that had centred upon a procession in which arks had been carried between the two temples. What intrigued me about this, of course, was the phonetic similarity of the words Tapet and Tabot, a similarity that looked all the less coincidental after I had discovered from one learned source that the shape of the Tapet arks had evolved over the passing centuries, gradually ceasing to resemble ships so closely and becoming instead ‘more and more like a chest’.103
As noted above, I had long since established that the Ethiopic term Tabot had been derived from the Hebrew tebah, meaning ‘ship-like container’. Now I began to wonder whether it was not entirely possible that the word tebah had itself originally been derived from the ancient Egyptian Tapet – and whether this derivation might not have come about because the ceremonies devised for the Ark of the Covenant had been modelled upon those of the Apet festival.104
Such links and coincidences, though by no means attaining the stature of hard evidence, did deepen my conviction that the Ark of the Covenant could only properly be understood in the context of its Egyptian background. Amongst other things, as Professor Kitchen had pointed out, that background demonstrated that Moses would have had the technology and skills at his disposal to fulfil God’s command to build an ‘Ark of acacia wood’ and ‘to plate it inside and out with pure gold’.
At the same time, however, the sacred relic had been much more than just a wooden box lined with gold. I therefore wondered whether an explanation of its baleful and destructive powers might also be found in Egypt.
Seeking such an explanation I travelled to that country several times and talked to theologians, biblical scholars and archaeologists. I also surrounded myself with rare books, religious texts, folklore, myths and legends and tried to discern whether threads of fact might not lie entangled amongst the wilder fancies.
As my research progressed I became increasingly intrigued by the personality of Moses, the Hebrew prophet and law-giver who challenged Pharaoh, who led the children of Israel to the Promised Land, and who also ordered the construction of the Ark of the Covenant after he had supposedly received the ‘blueprint’ for its design from God Himself. The more closely I looked at this towering, heroic figure, the more convinced I became that information of fundamental importance to my understanding of the Ark would be found within the records of his life.
‘A magician of the highest order …’
It is probably the case that every Christian, Muslim and Jew alive in the world today has a shadowy image of the prophet Moses tucked away in some corner of his or her mind. Certainly I was no exception to this rule when I began to think seriously about him and about his role in the mystery of the Ark. My problem, however, was that I needed to flesh out the caricature that I had acquired in Sunday school and, in the process, to gain some real insight into the man who scholars agree was ‘the outstanding figure in the emergence and formulation of the Jewish religion’.105
Of considerable help to me in completing this task were the extensive and highly regarded historical writings of Flavius Josephus, a Pharisee who lived in Roman-occupied Jerusalem in the first century AD. In his Antiquities of the Jews, compiled from traditions and reference materials unavailable today, this diligent scholar chronicled the four hundred years of Hebrew enslavement in Egypt, which lasted roughly from 1650 until 1250 BC, the probable date of the Exodus.106 The birth of Moses was the key event of this period and was, Josephus said, the subject of a prophecy by an Egyptian ‘sacred scribe’, a person ‘with considerable skill of accurately predicting the future’, who informed Pharaoh that there would arise amongst the Israelites
one who would abase the sovereignty of the Egyptians were he reared to manhood, and would surpass all men in virtue and win everlasting renown. Alarmed thereat, the king, on the sage’s advice, ordered that every male child born to the Israelites should be destroyed by being cast into the river.107
On hearing this edict a certain Amram (Moses’s father-to-be) was plunged into ‘grievous perplexity’ because ‘his wife was then with child’. God, however, appeared to him in a dream and comforted him with the news that:
This child, whose birth has filled the Egyptians with such dread that they have condemned to destruction all the offspring of the Israelites, shall escape those who are watching to destroy him, and, reared in marvellous wise, he shall deliver the Hebrew race from their bondage in Egypt, and be remembered so long as the universe shall endure, not by Hebrews alone but even by alien nations.108
These two passages were helpful to me because they considerably expanded the biblical narrative on the birth of Moses given in the opening chapters of the book of Exodus. I noted with interest that the great legislator of the Jews had indeed been remembered ‘even by alien nations’. More intriguing by far, however, was the special emphasis put on the prophecy of the ‘sacred scribe’ who, with his ability to foretell the future, could only have been an astrologer at the court of the Pharaoh. In making this point, Josephus seemed to be hinting that – from the outset – there had been something almost magical about Moses. In the time-honoured tradition of setting a thief to catch a thief, what we had here was a magician predicting the coming of a magician.
The bare bones of the events that occurred after the child was born are too familiar to require lengthy repetition: aged only three months he was placed by his parents in a papyrus basket coated with bitumen and pitch and cast adrift on the Nile; downriver Pharaoh’s daughter was bathing; she saw the floating crib, heard cries, and sent her handmaiden to rescue the mewling infant.
Subsequently Moses was brought up in the royal household where, according to the Bible, he was instructed ‘in all the wisdom of the Egyptians’.109 Josephus had little to add at this point, but another classical authority – Philo, the respected Jewish philosopher who lived around the time of Christ – gave a fairly detailed account of exactly what Moses was taught: ‘Arithmetic, geometry, the lore of metre, rhythm and harmony were imparted to him by learned Egyptians. These further instructed him in the philosophy conveyed in symbols as displayed in the so-called holy inscriptions.’ Meanwhile ‘inhabitants of neighbouring countries’ were assigned to teach him ‘Assyrian letters and the Chaldean science of the heavenly bodies. This he also acquired from the Egyptians, who gave special attention to astrology.’110
Reared as an adopted son of the royal family, Moses was seen for a considerable period as a successor to the throne.111 The implication of this special status, I learned, was that in his youth he would have been given a thorough initiation into all the most arcane priestly secrets and into the mysteries of Egyptian magic112 – a course of study that would have included not only star-knowledge, as indicated by Philo, but also necromancy, divining and other aspects of occult lore.113
A clue that this may indeed have been so was given in the Bible, where Moses was described as being ‘mighty in words and deeds’.114 In the cogent and dependable judgment of that great scholar and linguist Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, this phrase – also and perhaps not coincidentally applied to Jesus Christ115 – contained the coded suggestion that the Hebrew prophet was ‘strong of tongue’, like the Egyptian goddess Isis. What this meant, though Moses was self-confessedly lacking in oratorical eloquence,116 was that he must have been capable of uttering words of power ‘which he knew with correct pronunciation, and halted not in his speech, and was perfect both in giving the command and in saying the word.’117 As such, again like Isis – who was famous for her proficiency in all kinds of witchcraft – he would have been equipped to cast the most potent spells. Others around him would therefore have treated him with a high degree of respect since they would unquestioningly have believed him capable of bending reality and overriding the laws of physics by altering the normal order of things.
I was able to turn up a considerable body of evidence from the Old Testament to support the contention that Moses had been seen in exactly this way. There was, nevertheless, one important proviso: his magic was depicted throughout as being wrought solely at the command of Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews.
According to the book of Exodus, Moses’s first encounter with Yahweh took place in a wilderness near the land of Midian (to which he had fled to escape retribution after his anger at the persecution of Hebrew labourers had led him to kill an Egyptian overseer). From the geographical clues that were given, it was clear that this wilderness must have been located in the southern part of the Sinai peninsula, most probably within sight of the peak of Mount Sinai itself118 (where Moses was later to receive the Ten Commandments and the ‘blueprint’ for the Ark). The Bible, at any rate, spoke of ‘the mountain of God’ and placed Moses at its foot when the Lord appeared to him ‘in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.’119 God instructed Moses that he should return to Egypt in order to lead his people out of their bondage there.120 Before agreeing, however, the prophet asked the name of the strange and powerful being who had addressed him.121
This daring question in itself contained evidence of Moses’s identity as a sorcerer for, as the great anthropologist Sir James Frazer observed in his seminal work The Golden Bough:
Every Egyptian magician … believed that he who possessed the true name possessed the very being of god or man, and could force even a deity to obey him as a slave obeys his master. Thus the art of the magician consisted in obtaining from the gods a revelation of their sacred names, and he left no stone unturned to accomplish his end.122
The Lord, however, did not respond directly to the prophet’s question. Instead he replied briefly and enigmatically with these words: ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ By way of further clarification he then added: ‘I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’123
The phrase ‘I am who I am’ (or ‘I am what I am’, ‘I am that I am’, depending on the translation) was, I discovered, the root meaning of the name Yahweh used in the Old Testament – and subsequently bastardized in the Authorized King James Version of the Bible as ‘Jehovah’. This name, however, was no name; rather it was an evasive formula based loosely on the Hebrew verb ‘to be’ and written as four consonants which transliterated into the Latin alphabet as ‘YHWH’. Known to theologians as the tetragrammaton, these letters revealed nothing beyond the active existence of God and thus continued to conceal the divine identity from modern researchers every bit as effectively as they had once done from Moses. Indeed so potent was their mystery that no one today could even claim to know exactly how they should be pronounced; rendering the tetragrammaton as ‘Yahweh’ by the insertion of the vowels ‘a’ and ‘e’ was, however, the accepted convention.124
The importance of all this from the biblical perspective was that the deity knew, and pronounced, the name of Moses; Moses, by contrast, only managed to obtain from Him the ritual incantation ‘I am who I am’. Henceforward, therefore, the prophet was bound to answer to God and to do his bidding; likewise all his sorcery in the future would derive from the power of God, and from the power of God alone.
It was understandable that the later redactors of the Scriptures should have wanted to present the relationship between omnipotent God and fallible man in precisely this way. What they could not do, however, was erase the evidence that that man had indeed been a sorcerer; neither could they cover up the most convincing demonstrations of his sorcery – the plagues and pestilences that he was soon to inflict upon the Egyptians in order to force Pharaoh to release the children of Israel from captivity.
In working these terrible miracles Moses was assisted by his older half-brother Aaron, who frequently served as his agent and spokesman. Both Moses and Aaron were also equipped with rods – effectively magicians’ wands – which they used to work their spells. That of Moses was sometimes referred to as ‘the rod of God’125 and first appeared when the prophet complained to Yahweh that neither Pharaoh, nor the children of Israel, would believe that he had been divinely commissioned, unless he was able to provide some kind of proof. ‘What is that in thine hand?’ God asked. ‘A rod,’ Moses replied.126 God then told him to throw it on the ground ‘that they may believe that the Lord God hath appeared unto thee’:
And he cast it on the ground and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it. And the Lord said unto Moses, Put forth thine hand and take it by the tail. And he put forth his hand and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand.127
Once again the emphasis put by the scriptural text on the primacy of God’s role in all of this was understandable. Once again also, however, the connections with Egyptian occult practice were quite unmissable. The turning of an inanimate stick into a snake, and then back again into a stick, was a feat frequently carried out by the magicians of that country; likewise the power to control the movements of venomous reptiles was claimed by Egyptian priests from the very earliest times; last but not least, all Egyptian magicians – amongst them the sage Abaaner and the sorceror-king Nectanebus – possessed marvellous rods made of ebony.128
Looked at in this light, I did not find it surprising that the first contests between Moses and Aaron on one side, and the priests at Pharaoh’s court on the other, were fairly evenly drawn. To impress the Egyptian tyrant, Aaron threw down his rod – which, of course, became a serpent as soon as it hit the ground. Undaunted Pharaoh called for his own sages and sorcerers, ‘and with their witchcraft the magicians of Egypt did the same. Each threw his staff down and these turned into serpents.’ Then, however, Aaron’s rod – imbued with the superior power of Yahweh – swallowed up the rods of the magicians.129
In the next encounter Moses and Aaron turned the waters of the Nile to blood. Remarkable though this trick was, Pharaoh remained unimpressed because ‘the magicians of Egypt used their witchcraft to do the same.’130
The plague of frogs, which followed, was likewise matched by Pharaoh’s sorcerers.131 But the plague of mosquitoes (gnats in some translations, lice in others) was too much for them: ‘The magicians with their witchcraft tried to produce mosquitoes and failed. The mosquitoes attacked men and beasts. So the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” ’132
Still the hard-hearted king refused to let the Hebrews go. He was punished for this with a plague of flies133 and soon afterwards with a pestilence that killed livestock.134 Moses next caused a plague of boils to break out (he did this by throwing a handful of soot into the air135) and then, by using his rod, he procured thunder and hail, a plague of locusts and three days of ‘thick darkness’.136 Finally, the Hebrew prophet arranged for the death of ‘all the first-born of the land of Egypt: the first-born of Pharaoh, the first-born of the prisoner in his dungeon, and the first-born of all the cattle.’137 After this: ‘The Egyptians urged the people to hurry up and leave the land because, they said, “Otherwise we shall all be dead”.’138
So the Exodus began, and with it a prolonged period of danger and enchantment during which, at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Ark of the Covenant was built. Before reaching Sinai, however, the Red Sea had to be crossed. Here Moses gave another dramatic demonstration of his prowess in the occult arts:
And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand and on their left.139
As everyone who has ever attended Sunday school will remember, the pursuing Egyptian forces followed the Israelites into ‘the midst of the sea, even all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots and his horsemen.’140 Then:
Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea – and the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them. But the children of Israel walked upon dry land in the midst of the sea; and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.141
Again, and predictably, the Bible put emphasis on the power of God: Moses may have stretched out his hand a couple of times but it was the Lord who ‘caused the waters to go back’ – and to ‘return’. I found it slightly harder to accept the scriptural party-line on this, however, after I had learned that the ability to command the waters of seas and lakes had also frequently been claimed by Egyptian priests and magicians. For example, one of the ancient documents that I studied (the Westcar Papyrus) related a story from the early Fourth Dynasty – some 1,500 years before the time of Moses – which focussed on the doings of a certain Tchatcha-em-ankh, a Kher Heb or High Priest attached to the court of Pharaoh Seneferu. Apparently the Pharaoh was out boating one day in the pleasant company of ‘twenty young virgins having beautiful heads of hair and lovely forms and shapely limbs.’ One of these ladies dropped a much- favoured ornament of hers into the lake and was broken-hearted to have lost it. The Pharaoh, however, summoned Tchatcha-em- ankh who
spake certain words of power (hekau) and having thus caused one section of the water of the lake to go upon the other, he found the ornament lying upon a pot-sherd, and he took it and gave it to the maiden. Now the water was twelve cubits deep, but when Tchatcha-em-ankh had lifted up one section of the water onto the other, that portion became four and twenty cubits deep. The magician again uttered certain words of power, and the water of the lake became as it had been before he had caused one portion of it to go up onto the other.142
While of course to do with a much more trivial incident, the story in the Westcar Papyrus nevertheless contained many points that I could only regard as startlingly similar to the parting of the waters of the Red Sea. This, in my view, left no room for doubt that Moses’s virtuoso performance in bringing about the great miracle established him firmly in an ancient, and very Egyptian, occult tradition. Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, who I had first encountered through his translation of the Kebra Nagast, but who had also been keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum, had this to say on the subject:
Moses was a skilled performer of magical rituals and was deeply learned in the knowledge of the accompanying spells, incantations, and magical formulas of every description … [Moreover] the miracles which he wrought … suggest that he was not only a priest, but a magician of the highest order and perhaps even a Kher Heb.143
As a Kher Heb (High Priest) of the Egyptian temple Moses would undoubtedly have had access to a substantial corpus of esoteric wisdom and of magico-religious ‘science’ that the priestly guilds kept secret from the laity. I knew that modern Egyptologists accepted that such a body of knowledge had existed.144 I also knew that they had very little idea as to what it might actually have consisted of: obscure references to it appeared in inscriptions in the tombs of senior temple officials but almost nothing of any substance had survived in written form. A great deal was probably passed on in an exclusively oral tradition confined to initiates.145 Scholarly opinion had it, however, that most of the rest had been destroyed, either deliberately or accidentally. Who could possibly guess what treasures of learning were lost when fire ravaged the great library at Alexandria – a library that was reputed, by the second century BC, to have contained more than 200,000 scrolls?146
There was, however, one matter on which there was no need to speculate: as Herodotus put it in the fifth century BC, ‘Egypt has more wonders in it than any country in the world and more works that are beyond description than anywhere else.’ Amongst other achievements, this widely travelled Greek historian – whose books are still in print – rightly credited the Egyptians with being ‘the first of mankind to invent the year and to make twelve divisions of the seasons for it’. Herodotus also claimed to have penetrated some of the mysteries of the Egyptian priesthood, but then, rather tantalizingly, added that he could not – or would not – reveal what he had learned.147
Herodotus was not the first or the last visitor to Egypt to come away with the distinct impression that there were hidden secrets there – and that there might be more to these secrets than mere religious mumbo-jumbo. Indeed the notion that this ancient culture originally promoted itself to greatness through the application of some kind of advanced, but now lost, scientific knowledge was, I discovered, one of the most durable and pervasive in human history: it had proved equally attractive to furious cranks and sober scholars and had been the subject of immense amounts of controversy, acrimony, wild speculation and serious research.
It was a notion, furthermore, that impinged directly upon my quest because it raised an intriguing possibility: as a magician skilled in Egyptian ‘sacred science’, might not Moses have had at his disposal far more in the way of knowledge and technology than had hitherto been recognized by the archaeologists? And might he not have applied this knowledge and technology to the construction of the Ark of the Covenant?
Such a hypothesis seemed worthy of further investigation. I quickly discovered, however, that what was known about the technological achievements of the ancient Egyptians raised at least as many questions as it answered.
It was clear, for example, that these people were clever metalworkers: their gold jewellery, in particular, was quite exquisite, showing a degree of craftsmanship rarely equalled since. It was also notable, from the very earliest times, that the edges of their copper tools were brought to a remarkable degree of hardness – so hard, in fact, that they could cut through schist and the toughest limestone. No modern blacksmith, I learned, would have been able to achieve such results with copper; it was thought likely, however, that any ‘lost art’ lay less in the manufacture of the tools than in the manner in which they were manipulated on site by the stonemasons.148
A study of many surviving hieroglyphs and papyri left me in no doubt that the ancient Egyptians were – at the very least – moderate mathematicians in the modern sense. They employed unit fractions and appeared to have developed a special form of infinitesimal calculus which enabled them to compute the volume of complex objects.149 It also seemed highly probable, more than 2,000 years before the Greeks, that they had understood how to use the transcendental number pi to derive the circumference of any circle from its diameter.150
Egyptian observational astronomy was another area in which great progress appeared to have been made at a very early date. According to Livio Stecchini, an American professor of the history of science and an expert on ancient measurement, astronomical techniques in use as early as 2200 BC had enabled Egyptian priests to calculate the length of a degree of latitude and longitude to within a few hundred feet – an achievement that was not to be equalled by other civilizations for almost 4,000 years.151
The Egyptians also excelled in medicine: their surgeons were skilled in a variety of difficult procedures,152 their understanding of the human nervous system was refined, and their pharmacopoeia included several well known drugs in their first-recorded applications.153
I came across many further pieces of evidence which illustrated the relatively advanced state of Egyptian knowledge at a time when the European peoples were still plunged in barbarism. In my view, however, none of the data suggested the existence of any science that we would regard as truly breathtaking today, nor of any branch of technical achievement sufficiently sophisticated to account for the potent energies that the Ark of the Covenant had been able to unleash. Nevertheless, as I have already noted, the belief that the Egyptians were the guardians of some ‘great and secret wisdom’ was widespread and almost immune to counter-argument.
I knew very well that such ardent conviction often stemmed more from a subconscious desire to glorify the past of the human species than from any rational weighing up of empirical facts. This, certainly, was the dominant opinion of members of the archaeological establishment, most of whom regarded the ‘great and secret wisdom’ theory as balderdash and claimed to have found nothing extraordinary in Egypt in more than a century of painstaking digging and sifting. I myself am sceptical and pragmatic by nature. Nevertheless I must confess that the physical evidence which I saw everywhere around me during the series of research trips that I made to this beautiful and time-worn land convinced me that the academics did not have all the answers, that much remained to be explained, and that there were a number of aspects of the Egyptian experience which had been lamentably under-researched simply because they were beyond the scope of conventional archaeology – and probably of all other accepted forms of scholarly investigation as well.
Three sites had a particularly profound impact on me: the temple complex at Karnak; the Zoser ‘step’ pyramid at Saqqara; and the Great Pyramid at Giza on the outskirts of Cairo. It seemed to me that the special composite quality of raw power, delicate grace, imposing grandeur, mystery and immortality that these edifices possessed stemmed from the working out within them of a refined and highly developed understanding of harmony and proportion – an understanding that could reasonably be said to have amounted to a science. Combining engineering, architecture and design, that science had been remarkable by any standards. It had never since been surpassed in its ability to stimulate religious awe, and it had been equalled in Europe only in the great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages such as Chartres.
Was this an accident? Was the essentially similar effect on the senses of the Egyptian monuments and the Gothic cathedrals a matter of pure chance – or was there perhaps a connection?
I had long suspected that there had indeed been a connection and that the Knights Templar, through their discoveries during the Crusades, might have formed the missing link in the chain of transmission of secret architectural knowledge.154 At Karnak, as I walked slowly past the looming pylons, into the Great Court, and through the forest of giant columns of the Hypostyle Hall, I could not help but remember that Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the Templars’ patron, had defined God – astonishingly for a Christian – as ‘length, width, height and depth’.155 Nor could I forget that the Templars themselves had been great builders and great architects, or that the Cistercian monastic order to which Saint Bernard had belonged had also excelled in this particular field of human endeavour.156
Centuries and civilizations before them, however, it had been the ancient Egyptians who had been the first masters of the science of building – the first and still the greatest architectmasons that the world had ever known. Moreover, the monuments that they left behind beggared description and challenged time itself. Typical in this respect were two tall obelisks that dominated the Karnak complex and that I found myself particularly drawn to on my own visits there. One, I discovered, had been erected by Pharaoh Tuthmosis I (1504–1492 BC) and the other by Queen Hatshepsut (1473–1458 BC).157 Both were perfect monoliths, hewn from single slabs of solid pink granite, the former standing 70 feet in height and weighing an estimated 143 tons, the latter standing 97 feet in height and weighing an estimated 320 tons.158 A few minutes’ walk to the south, overlooking a sacred lake that was used by the temple priests for elaborate purification ceremonies, I found a third, but tumbled and broken, obelisk, the top 30 feet of which – surmounted by a finely pointed pyramidion – were nevertheless quite undamaged. On one occasion, following the advice of a guidebook I had with me,159 I stepped over the rope perimeter surrounding this fallen giant and placed my ear to the angle of the pyramidion. I then struck the granite firmly with the palm of my hand and listened, entranced, as the entire monolith reverberated with a deep, low-pitched tone like some strange and prodigious musical instrument.
It seemed to me that this phenomenon could not possibly have been accidental. On the contrary, the enormous care and skill required to produce such a monolith (when the same splendid visual effect might have been achieved simply by cementing block on block) only really made sense if the ancient Egyptians had wanted to realize some special property inherent in a single piece of stone.
Something, at any rate, other than mere aesthetic considerations must have lain behind the erection of these elegant and flawless stelae. I learned that they had not been hewn locally but rather had been transported by river from granite quarries more than 200 kilometres to the south.
The Nile was a highway broad and deep. It was therefore reasonable to suppose, once the obelisks had been loaded upon barges, that it would not have been so difficult a matter to float them downstream. What I found much harder to understand, however, was the method that the ancient Egyptians had employed to get these massive needles of stone on to the barges in the first place – and then off them again once they had arrived at their destination. One monolith had been left in situ at the quarries, only partially separated from the bedrock, because it cracked before it was completely excavated. Had this accident not befallen it, however, it would have made an obelisk 137 feet high and almost 14 feet thick at its base. Obviously, when the work was started, it had been confidently intended that this monstrous object – weighing a staggering 1,168 tons160 – would be moved and erected somewhere. Yet it was extremely difficult to explain exactly how that would have been done by a people who (according to the archaeologists) lacked even simple winches and pulley systems.161 Indeed I knew that the task of moving so large a piece of solid stone over a distance of several hundred feet – never mind several hundred kilometres! – would have taxed to the limit the ingenuity of a modern team of construction engineers supported by the most sophisticated and powerful machinery.
Equally puzzling, once the monoliths reached Karnak, was the manner in which they had been set upright on their pedestals with such faultless accuracy. In one of the temples a relief depicted Pharaoh raising an obelisk with no assistance of any kind and making use of just a single piece of rope.162 It was quite normal for the ruler to be portrayed in heroic poses and perhaps all that was intended here was a symbolic representation of a real process in which hundreds of labourers were trained to pull together on multiple ropes. However, I could not rid myself of the suspicion that there must have been more to it than this. According to John Anthony West, an experienced Egyptologist, the Pharaohs and priests were preoccupied with a principle known as Ma’at – often translated as ‘equilibrium’ or ‘balance’. It was possible, he suggested, that this principle might have been carried over into practical spheres and ‘that the Egyptians understood and used techniques of mechanical balance unknown to us’. Such techniques would have enabled them to ‘manipulate these immense stones with ease and finesse … What would be magic to us was method to them.’163
If the obelisks, at times, seemed like the products of almost superhuman skill, I had to admit that the Pyramids in all ways surpassed them. As Jean Franqois Champollion, the founder of modern Egyptology, once remarked, ‘the Egyptians of old thought like men a hundred feet tall. We in Europe are but Lilliputians.’164
Certainly, when I first entered the Great Pyramid at Giza, I felt like a Lilliputian – dwarfed and slightly intimidated, not only by the sheer mass and size of this mountain of stone but also by an almost tangible sense of the accumulated weight of the ages.
On previous visits I had only seen the exterior of the pyramid, since I had felt no desire to join the swarms of tourists pouring inside. Early in the morning of 27 April 1990, however, I managed by means of a small bribe to get into the great structure completely on my own. In the dim light provided by a series of low-wattage bulbs, and bent over almost double to avoid hitting my head on the rock face above, I climbed the 129 feet of the ascending passage, and then the 157 feet of the more spacious Grand Gallery, until I reached the so-called ‘King’s Chamber’ – a 2:1 rectangle, the floor of which measured 34 feet 4 inches by 17 feet 2 inches. Just over 19 feet high, the ceiling of this room – which occupied the very heart of the pyramid – consisted of nine monolithic blocks of granite each weighing approximately 50 tons.165
I do not remember how long I remained in the chamber. The atmosphere was musty, and the air warm – like the exhalation of some giant beast. The silence that surrounded me seemed absolute, all-enveloping, and dense. At some point, for a reason that I cannot explain, I moved to the middle of the floor and gave voice to a sustained low-pitched tone like the song of the fallen obelisk at Karnak. The walls and the ceiling seemed to collect this sound, to gather and amplify it – and then to project it back at me so that I could sense the returning vibrations through my feet and scalp and skin. I felt electrified and energized, excited and at the same time calm, as though I stood on the brink of some tremendous and absolutely inevitable revelation.
After my April 1990 visit I was so impressed by the Great Pyramid that I spent several weeks researching its history. I discovered that it had been built around 2550 BC for Kufu (or Cheops), the second Pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty, and that it was also the single largest edifice ever constructed by man.166 The conventional belief amongst archaeologists was that it had been designed purely and simply as a tomb. This conjecture, however, struck me as being utterly incomprehensible: no mummy of any Pharaoh had ever been found there, only a poor and undecorated sarcophagus in the so-called King’s Chamber (a sarcophagus, by the way, that was lidless and completely empty when it was first brought to light by Caliph Al-Mamun, an Arab ruler of Egypt who broke in with a party of diggers in the ninth century AD.167)
As I researched the subject further it became clear to me that the real purpose of the Great Pyramid was, in fact, a matter of considerable debate. On one side stood the most orthodox and prosaic scholars insisting that it was nothing more than a mausoleum. On the other side stood the pyramidologists – an apocalyptic tribe who pretended to find all manner of prophecies and signs in virtually every dimension of the immense structure.
The lunacies of this latter group were perhaps best summarized by one US critic who pointed out that it is possible to marshal numbers to prove almost anything: ‘If a suitable unit of measurement is used, an exact equivalent to the distance to Timbuktu is certain to be found in the number of street lamps in Bond Street, or the specific gravity of mud, or the mean weight of adult goldfish.’168
This, of course, was quite true. Nevertheless, I could see that there were certain surprising features to which the pyramidologists persistently drew attention which did seem unlikely to be accidental. For example, it was a fact that the latitude and longitude lines that intersected at the Great Pyramid (30 degrees north and 31 degrees east) crossed more dry land than any others. This put the edifice at the very centre of the habitable world.169 Likewise, it was a fact that when a north-facing quadrant (a cake-slice-shaped quarter circle) was drawn on a map with its axis at the pyramid then this quadrant exactly encapsulated the entire Nile Delta.170 Finally, it was a fact that all the pyramids at Giza were precisely aligned to the cardinal points – north, south, east and west.171 It was, I thought, extremely difficult to explain how this particular feat of surveying could have been achieved so long before the supposed date of the invention of the compass.
What intrigued me most of all about the Great Pyramid, however, was simply its sheer size and scope. Occupying a ground area of 13.1 acres, I ascertained that the core masonry of the structure was composed of no less than 2.3 million blocks of limestone each weighing approximately 2.5 tonnes.172 Herodotus, whose informant was an Egyptian priest, claimed that gangs of 100,000 labourers built the edifice in 20 years (working only during the three-month agricultural lay-off season), and that the construction technique involved ‘levers made of short timbers’ which were used to lift the massive blocks from ground level.173 No researcher subsequently had been able to guess at exactly what these ‘levers’ might have been or how they could have been used. However, after taking account of the time required for all the site-clearing, quarrying, levelling and other works that would have had to be done, civil engineer P. Garde-Hanson of the Danish Engineering Institute calculated that 4,000 blocks would have had to be installed each day, at the rate of 6.67 blocks per minute, if the job were indeed to have been completed within 20 years. ‘Generally speaking,’ he concluded, ‘I believe it would demand the combined genius of a Cyrus, an Alexander the Great, and a Julius Caesar, with a Napoleon and Wellington thrown in for good measure, to organize the armies required for carrying out the work as assumed.’174
I then learned that a team of Japanese engineers had recently tried to build a 35-feet-high replica of the Great Pyramid (rather smaller than the original, which was 481 feet 5 inches in height). The team started off by limiting itself strictly to techniques proved by archaeology to have been in use during the Fourth Dynasty. However, construction of the replica under these limitations turned out to be impossible and, in due course, modern earth-moving, quarrying and lifting machines were brought to the site. Still no worthwhile progress was made. Ultimately, with some embarrassment, the project had to be abandoned.175
All in all, therefore, the Great Pyramid – with its many riddles and mysteries – suggested to me that the ancient Egyptians must have been much more than ‘technically accomplished primitives’ (as they had often been described), and that there must have existed amongst them a special kind of scientific knowledge. If so then it was entirely possible that the baleful powers of the Ark of the Covenant could have been the products of that science – in which Moses would most certainly have been a leading practitioner.
48 The construction of the Ark of the Covenant at the foot of Mount Sinai.
49 Glowing with fire and light the Ark is transported through the wilderness wrapped in thick cloths to protect its bearers from its unearthly powers.
50 The Ark at the destruction of Jericho.
51 King Uzziah smitten with leprosy after approaching the Ark (see Chapter Fifteen, ‘Hidden History’, this page).
52 Nadab and Abihu, two of the sons of Aaron, are struck dead as they approach the Ark.
53 After receiving the tablets of stone, which he later placed inside the Ark, Moses’ face was burnt and shone so terribly that ever afterwards he had to wear a veil.
54 The Temple complex at Karnak, Egypt.
55 Archaeologists at work on the site of the Jewish Temple on the island of Elphantine, upper Egypt.
56 and 57. Above: this Ark-like chest, transported on two carrying poles, was recovered from the tomb of Tutankhamen. Below: the author examining a mysterious engraving on a fallen stele in Axum. The engraving bears an extraordinary resemblance to the Ark from Tutankhamen’s tomb and may be the earliest Axumite representation of the Ark of the Covenant. Tutankhamen reigned in Egypt approximately 100 years before Moses led the Exodus. It is therefore probable that the Hebrew prophet devised the Ark according to an Egyptian prototype of precisely the kind found in Tutankhamen’s tomb.
58 Priests and deacons at prayer, Timkat, Axum.
59 Timkat procession, Axum.
60 The sanctuary of the Ark of the Covenant at Axum.
61 Gebra Mikail, the Guardian of the Ark.