My research had convinced me of the possibility that the ancient Egyptians might have possessed some advanced but secret scientific knowledge which Moses could have applied to the design of the Ark of the Covenant.
But where could such a body of knowledge have come from? Ancient Egypt itself, as I was very well aware, provided a simple – though supernatural – answer to this question. Every relevant surviving record that I had studied claimed unambiguously that it had been given to mankind by the moon-god Thoth, the lord and multiplier of time, the celestial scribe and invigilator of individual destinies, the inventor of writing and of all wisdom, and the patron of magic.1
Frequently represented on temple and tomb walls as an ibis, or as an ibis-headed man, and more rarely as a baboon, Thoth was venerated throughout Egypt as a true lunar deity who in some manifestations was identical with the moon itself and in others was the guardian of the moon, charged with ensuring that it kept to its course across the night skies, waxing and waning, vanishing and reappearing, precisely as and when it should. It was in this capacity – as the divine regulative force responsible for all heavenly calculations and annotations – that Thoth measured time, dividing it into months (to the first of which he gave his own name).2
His powers, however, were believed to have extended far beyond the mere calibration of the seasons. According to the pervasive and influential teachings of the priestly guild established at the sacred city of Hermopolis in Upper Egypt, Thoth was the universal demiurge who created the world through the sound of his voice alone, bringing it into being with the utterance of a single word of power.3
Regarded by the Egyptians as a deity who understood the mysteries of ‘all that is hidden under the heavenly vault’, Thoth was also believed to have had the ability to bestow wisdom on certain specially selected individuals. It was said that he had inscribed the rudiments of his secret knowledge on 36,535 scrolls and then hidden these scrolls about the earth intending that they should be sought for by future generations but found ‘only by the worthy’ – who were to use their discoveries for the benefit of mankind.4
Later identified by the Greeks with their own god Hermes, Thoth in fact stood at the very centre of an enormous body of Egyptian traditions stretching back into the most distant and impenetrable past. No scholar, I learned, could honestly say how old this moon-god really was, or even make a guess at where and when his cult began. At the dawn of civilization in Egypt, Thoth was there. Furthermore, throughout the entire 3,000 or more years of the dynastic period, he was continuously revered for certain very specific qualities that he was said to possess and for his supposed contributions to human welfare. He was, for example, credited with being the inventor of drawing, of hieroglyphic writing and of all the sciences – specifically architecture, arithmetic, surveying, geometry, astronomy, medicine and surgery. He was also seen as the most powerful of sorcerers, endowed with nothing less than complete knowledge and wisdom. He was exalted as the author of the great and terrible book of magic that was regarded by the priests at Hermopolis as the source of their understanding of the occult. Moreover whole chapters of the famous Book of the Dead were attributed to him, as well as almost the entire corpus of closely guarded sacred literature. He was believed, in short, to possess a virtual monopoly on esoteric learning and was therefore called ‘the mysterious’ and ‘the unknown’.5
The ancient Egyptians were quite convinced that their first rulers were gods. Not surprisingly, Thoth was one of these divine kings: his reign on earth – during which he passed on to mankind his greatest and most beneficial inventions – was said to have lasted 3,226 years.6 Before him the Egyptians believed that they had been ruled by another deity – Osiris, who was also closely associated with the moon (and with the numbers seven, fourteen and twenty-eight which relate to physical lunar cycles7). Although Osiris and Thoth looked quite different from one another in some of their manifestations, I was able to establish that they were similar or related in others (in certain archaic texts they were described as brothers8). A number of papyri and inscriptions went even further and portrayed them as being effectively the same entity, or at least as performing the same functions.
They were most commonly associated in the celestial Judgment Hall where the souls of the dead came to be weighed in the Great Scales. Here Osiris – as judge and final arbiter – often seemed to be the superior of the two gods, while Thoth was a mere scribe who recorded the verdict. Many of the tableaux from the Book of the Dead, however, reversed this relationship, as did a large vignette of the Judgment Scene found amongst the Theban funerary papyri of the New Kingdom. This latter document portrayed Osiris sitting passively to one side while Thoth determined the verdict, and then recorded and pronounced it.9 In other words, not only were Thoth and Osiris both gods of the moon, gods of the dead (and perhaps brothers); both were also judges and law-makers.
As my research continued I noted such similarities with interest, but failed, at first, to see their relevance to my own quest for the Ark of the Covenant. Then it occurred to me that there was one invariable link between the two deities which also tied them conceptually to Moses and to all his works: like him they were above all else civilizing heroes who bestowed the benefits of religion, law, social order and prosperity upon their followers.
Thoth, it will be remembered, invented writing and science and brought these and many other wonders of enlightenment into the world in order to improve the lot of the Egyptian people. Likewise, Osiris was universally believed to have played a crucial role in the evolution and development of Egyptian society. When he began his rule on earth as divine monarch the country was barbaric, rude and uncultured and the Egyptians themselves were cannibals. When he ascended to Heaven, however, he left behind an advanced and sophisticated nation. His many contributions included teaching his people to cultivate the soil, to plant grain and barley, to grow vines, to worship the gods, and to abandon their previously savage customs. He also provided them with a code of laws.10
Such stories, of course, could have been fabrications. In a speculative frame of mind, however, I found myself wondering whether there might not after all have been something more than pure fancy and legend behind the tradition that Egypt became a great nation because of the gifts of Thoth and Osiris. Was it not just possible, I conjectured, that the all-wise, all-knowing moon-god could have been a mythical version of the truth – a metaphor for some real individual or group of individuals who, in remotest antiquity, brought the benefits of civilization and science to a primitive land?
I might have dismissed this notion out of hand had I not learned shortly afterwards of the existence of a great mystery – a mystery to which no definitive solution had ever been proposed. Rather than developing slowly and painfully, as might have been expected, it seemed that the civilization of Egypt had emerged all at once and fully formed. Indeed, by all accounts, the period of transition from primitive to advanced society had been so short that it really made no kind of historical sense. Technological skills that should have taken hundreds or even thousands of years to evolve had appeared almost literally overnight, and apparently with no antecedents whatsoever.
For example, remains from the pre-dynastic period dated to around 3600 BC showed no trace of writing. Then, quite suddenly and inexplicably, the hieroglyphs familiar from so many of the ruins of ancient Egypt began to appear and to do so, furthermore, in a complete and perfect state. Far from being mere pictures of objects or actions, this written language was complex and structured, with signs that represented sounds only and with a detailed system of numerical symbols. Even the very earliest hieroglyphs were already stylized and conventionalized; it was also clear that an advanced cursive script had come into common usage by the dawn of the First Dynasty.11
What struck me as remarkable about all this was that there were absolutely no traces of evolution from simple to more sophisticated styles. The same was true of mathematics, medicine, astronomy and architecture, and also of Egypt’s amazingly rich and convoluted religio-mythological system (even such refined works as the Book of the Dead existed right at the start of the dynastic period.12)
Unfortunately, there is not space here to present all or even a tiny part of the data which confirms the sheer suddenness with which Egyptian civilization emerged. By way of summary, however, I will quote the authoritative opinion of Professor Walter Emery, late Edwards Professor of Egyptology at the University of London:
At a period approximately 3,400 years before Christ, a great change took place in Egypt, and the country passed rapidly from a state of neolithic culture with a complex tribal character to [one of] well-organized monarchy …
At the same time the art of writing appears, monumental architecture and the arts and crafts develop to an astonishing degree, and all the evidence points to the existence of a luxurious civilization. All this was achieved within a comparatively short period of time, for there appears to be little or no background to these fundamental developments in writing and architecture.13
One explanation, I realized, could simply have been that Egypt had received its sudden and tremendous cultural boost from some other known civilization of the ancient world – Sumer, on the Lower Euphrates in Mesopotamia, being the most likely contender. Moreover, despite many basic differences, I was able to establish that a variety of shared building and architectural styles14 did suggest a link between the two regions. None of these similarities, however, turned out be strong enough to allow me to infer that the connection had been in any way causal, with one society directly influencing the other. On the contrary, as Professor Emery put it:
The impression we get is of an indirect connection, and perhaps the existence of a third party, whose influence spread to both the Euphrates and the Nile … Modern scholars have tended to ignore the possibility of immigration to both regions from some hypothetical and as yet undiscovered area. [However], a third party whose cultural achievements were passed on independently to Egypt and Mesopotamia would best explain the common features and fundamental differences between the two civilizations.15
This theory, I felt, shed revealing light on the otherwise mysterious fact that the Egyptians and the Sumerian people of Mesopotamia worshipped virtually identical lunar deities who were amongst the very oldest in their respective pantheons.16 Exactly like Thoth, the Sumerian moon-god Sin was charged with measuring the passage of time (‘At the month’s beginning to shine on earth, thou shalt show two horns to mark six days. On the seventh day divide the crown in two. On the fourteenth day, turn thy full face.’17) Like Thoth, too, Sin was regarded as being all-knowing and all-wise. At the end of every month the other gods of the Sumerian pantheon came to consult him and he made decisions for them.18 Neither was I alone in my intuition that something more than mere chance might have underpinned these links between Sin and Thoth. According to the eminent Egyptologist Sir E. A. Wallis Budge:
The similarity between the two … gods is too close to be accidental … It would be wrong to say that the Egyptians borrowed from the Sumerians or the Sumerians from the Egyptians, but it may be submitted that the literati of both peoples borrowed their theological systems from some common but exceedingly ancient source.19
The question, therefore, was this: what was that ‘common but exceedingly ancient source’, that ‘hypothetical and as yet undiscovered area’, that advanced ‘third party’ to which both Budge and Emery referred? Having stuck their necks out a long way already, I was frustrated to find that neither authority was prepared to speculate much further. Emery, however, did hint at where he thought the cradle of Egyptian civilization might have been located: ‘Vast tracts of the Middle East and the Red Sea and East African coasts’, he rather coyly observed in this context, ‘remain unexplored by the archaeologist.’20
I was sure that if Egypt had indeed received the gifts of civilization and science from elsewhere then some record of this momentous transaction would have been preserved. The deification of two great civilizers –Thoth and Osiris – was evidence of a kind: although presented as theology, the legends of these gods sounded to my ears much more like the echoes of long-forgotten events which had actually taken place.21 But I felt I needed something more substantial – something which clearly and indisputably attested to beneficial contacts with an advanced donor society and which also explained how that society had managed to disappear without a trace.
I did find such an account. It was the familiar story of the lost continent of Atlantis – a story that, in recent years, had been so thoroughly degraded by outlandish speculations that it had become a form of professional suicide for any scholar even to appear to take it seriously (let alone to research it properly). After peeling away all the New Age nonsense, however, I was struck by a single significant fact: the earliest-surviving report of Atlantis had come from the Greek philosopher Plato – one of the founders of rational western thought – who had insisted that what he had said on the matter was ‘not fiction but true history’.22 Furthermore, writing around the beginning of the fourth century BC, Plato had added that the original source of his story had been an Egyptian priest – a priest who had spoken of the recurrent destruction of civilizations by floods and who had said of the Greeks:
You are all young in mind … you have no knowledge hoary with age. [But] our traditions here are the oldest … In our temples we have preserved from earliest times a written record of any great or splendid achievement or notable event which has come to our ears whether it occurred in your part of the world, or here, or anywhere else; whereas with you, and others, writing and the other necessities of civilization have only just been developed when the periodic scourge of the deluge descends, and spares none but the unlettered and uncultured, so that you have to begin again like children, in complete ignorance of what has happened in our part of the world or in yours in early times.
Thousands of years before, the priest continued,
There was an island opposite the strait which you call the Pillars of Hercules, an island larger than Libya and Asia combined; from it travellers could in those days reach the other islands, and from them the whole opposite continent which surrounds what can truly be called the ocean. On this island of Atlantis had arisen a powerful and remarkable dynasty of kings … Their wealth was greater than that possessed by any previous dynasty, or likely to be accumulated by any later, and they were provided with everything they could require. Because of the extent of their power they received many imports, but for most of their needs the island itself provided. It had mineral resources from which were mined both solid materials and metals, including one metal which survives today only in name, but was then mined in quantities in a number of localities in the island, orichalc, in those days the most valuable metal except gold. There was a plentiful supply of timber for structural purposes and every kind of animal domesticated and wild, among them numerous elephants. For there was plenty of grazing for this largest and most voracious of beasts, as well as for all creatures whose habitat is marsh, swamp and river, mountain or plain. Besides all this, the earth bore freely of all the aromatic substances it bears today … There were cultivated crops … There were the fruits of trees … All these were produced by that sacred island, then still beneath the sun, in wonderful quality and profusion.23
This paradise was not to remain ‘beneath the sun’ for much longer, however, because soon – to punish its inhabitants for wrongdoing and an overabundance of materialistic pride – there came ‘earthquakes and floods of extraordinary violence, and in a single dreadful day and night the island of Atlantis was swallowed up by the sea and vanished.’24
My interest in this story did not stem from what it had to say about Atlantis itself, nor was I convinced by the suggestion as to the island’s location ‘opposite the pillars of Hercules’. My own view – well supported by geophysical evidence25 – was that there could never have been such a landmass in the Atlantic Ocean and that those who persisted in looking for it there were fishing for the reddest of red herrings.
It did seem to me, however – and the authorities reluctantly concurred on this point26 – that Plato’s account must have had some basis in fact. No doubt he introduced many distortions and exaggerations of his own but he was, nevertheless, recording something that had actually happened, somewhere in the world, and a very long time ago. Furthermore – and of the greatest significance to me – he made it absolutely clear that a memory of this event had been retained by Egyptian priests and set down in the ‘priestly writings’.27
I reasoned that if a similar memory had been preserved in Mesopotamia then the chance of this being pure coincidence was slight. A far more likely explanation would be that the same cataclysm – wherever it took place – had inspired the traditions of both regions. Accordingly I took a second look at the legends in which I had first noted the similarity between Thoth and the Sumerian moon-god Sin. What I learned did not surprise me: like their Egyptian contemporaries, the Sumerians had not only worshipped a wise lunar deity but had also preserved a record of a flood in ancient times that had destroyed a great, prosperous and powerful society.28
As my research progressed, therefore, ‘Atlantis’ did come to symbolize for me that ‘hypothetical and as yet undiscovered area’ from whence the wonderful civilizations of Egypt and of Sumer both came. As already noted, I did not believe that the area in question could possibly have been in or even near the Atlantic. Instead, I found myself wholeheartedly agreeing with Professor Emery that it was likely to have stood at a point roughly equidistant from both the Nile Delta and the Lower Euphrates – perhaps in some vanished archipelago similar to the modern Maldives (which scientists believe will be completely inundated within fifty years as a result of rising sea levels linked to global warming29), or along the vast unexcavated coasts of the Horn of Africa, or in a flood-prone region of the Indian subcontinent like modern Bangladesh. Such tropical zones looked all the more credible when I remembered that Plato had mentioned the existence of elephants in his ‘Atlantis’ – creatures that, for many thousands of years, have lived only in Africa, India and South-East Asia.30
The more thought I gave to notions like these the more it seemed to me that they possessed genuine merit and were worthy of further investigation. In order to orientate myself in this task I therefore wrote down the following conjectures and hypotheses in my notebook:
Suppose that somewhere around the basin of the Indian Ocean, in the early or middle part of the fourth millennium BC, a technologically advanced society was destroyed by flood. Suppose it was a maritime society. Suppose that there were survivors. And suppose that some of them sailed in their ships to Egypt and Mesopotamia, made landfall there and set about the task of civilizing the primitive inhabitants they encountered.
Most important of all, suppose that in Egypt the priestly traditions of sacred science – to which Moses was exposed from his childhood – were the means by which the skills and know-how of the settlers were deliberately preserved so that they could be passed down to subsequent generations. In Egypt these traditions were associated from the outset with the worship of the moon-god Thoth (and, in Mesopotamia, with the worship of Sin). Perhaps this was because the settlers themselves revered the moon – or perhaps they wittingly and rather cold-bloodedly encouraged the deification of a prominent and familiar but yet frightening and ghostly sidereal object. Their aim, after all, would have been to shape and direct the simple and savage minds of the peoples they had found themselves amongst and to create a durable cult – capable of surviving for millennia – as a vehicle for all their otherwise fragile and easily forgotten knowledge. In such circumstances, it is really not difficult to see why they might have chosen to focus on a glowing and uncanny lunar god rather than on some more abstract, more sophisticated but less visible and less corporeal divinity.
At any rate, once the cult of Thoth had been established in early Egypt, and once its priests had learned and institutionalized the scientific and technological ‘tricks of the trade’ brought by the settlers, then it is logical to suppose that a self-perpetuating process would have begun: the new-found and valuable knowledge would have been fenced about with mysteries, protected from outsiders by all kinds of ritual sanctions and then passed from initiate to initiate, from generation to generation, in an exclusive and secret tradition. This knowledge, of course, would have given its possessors unprecedented mastery over the physical world – at least by the rudimentary standards of the native culture prevailing in Egypt before the coming of the settlers – and would have been expressed in ways that would have seemed astounding to laymen (not least in the erection of stupendous and awe-inspiring buildings). It is therefore easy to understand how the belief that the moon-god had ‘invented’ both science and magic might have taken hold in the population at large, and why it was that the priests of this god were regarded as masters of sorcery.
Saved from water
As my research progressed I turned up several pieces of evidence which seemed to provide strong support for the central hypotheses listed above, namely that a secret tradition of knowledge and enlightenment had been ‘carried’ and preserved within the cult of Thoth – a tradition that had been started in the most distant past by sophisticated immigrants who had survived a flood. Highly significant, in this respect, was a very strong theme – traces of which I found running through almost all the sacred literature – which repeatedly associated wisdom, and other qualities of the civilizing hero, with individuals who had been ‘saved from water’.
The first thing I discovered was that Thoth, who had been seen by the Egyptians as the source of all their knowledge and science, had been credited with having caused a flood to punish humankind for wickedness.31 In this episode, related in Chapter CLXXV of the Book of the Dead, he had acted jointly with his counterpart Osiris.32 Both deities had subsequently ruled on earth after the human race had begun to flourish again. I was therefore excited, when I looked more closely at the story of Osiris, to learn that he had been ‘saved from water’.
The fullest account of the original Egyptian legend was given by Plutarch33 and stated that, after improving the condition of his own subjects, teaching them all manner of useful skills and providing them with their first legal code, Osiris left Egypt and travelled about the world in order to bring the benefits of civilization to other nations as well. He never forced the barbarians he encountered to accept his laws, preferring instead to argue with them and to appeal to their reason. It was also recorded that he passed on his teaching to them by means of hymns and songs accompanied by musical instruments.
While he was away, however, he was plotted against by seventy-two members of his court led by his brother-in-law Set. On his return the conspirators invited him to a banquet where a splendid coffer of wood and gold was offered as a prize to any guest who could fit into it exactly. What Osiris did not know was that the coffer had been constructed precisely to his own body measurements. As a result, when the assembled guests tried one by one to get into it they failed. The god-king then took his turn and lay down comfortably inside. Before he had time to get out the conspirators rushed forward, nailed the lid tightly closed and sealed even the cracks with molten lead so that there would be no air to breathe. The coffer was then cast adrift on the Nile where it floated for some time, eventually coming to rest in the papyrus swamps of the eastern Delta.34
At this point Isis, the wife of Osiris, intervened. Using all her great magic – and assisted by the moon-god Thoth – she went to look for the coffer, found it, and concealed it in a secret place. Her evil brother Set, however, out hunting in the marshes, discovered the location of the coffer, opened it, and in a mad fury cut the royal corpse into fourteen pieces which he then scattered throughout the land.
Once more Isis set off to ‘save’ her husband. She made a small boat of papyrus reeds, coated with bitumen and pitch, and embarked on the Nile in search of the remains. When she had found them she called again on the aid of Thoth who helped her to work certain powerful spells which reunited the dismembered parts of the body so that it resumed its old form. Thereafter, in an intact and perfect state, Osiris went through a process of resurrection to become god of the dead and king of the underworld – from which place, the legend had it, he occasionally returned to earth in the guise of a mortal man.35
There were three details of this story that I regarded as being of the greatest interest: first the fact that, during his rule on earth, Osiris was a civilizer and a legislator; secondly that he was placed in a wooden coffer and thrown into the Nile; and thirdly that Isis came to rescue his body in a papyrus boat coated with bitumen and pitch. The parallels with the life of Moses could not have been more obvious – he, too, became a great civilizer and lawgiver, he too was cast adrift upon the waters of the Nile, he too floated in a vessel of papyrus coated with bitumen and pitch, and he too was saved by an Egyptian princess. Indeed, as the historian Josephus recorded, the very name ‘Moses’ meant ‘saved from water’: ‘for the Egyptians call water mou and those who are saved eses; so they conferred upon him this name compounded of both words.’36 Philo, the other great classical commentator, concurred with this etymology: ‘Since he had been taken up from water, the princess gave him a name derived from this, and called him Moses, forMou is the Egyptian word for water.’37
I asked myself whether there might not have been other instances – in Egypt and perhaps in Mesopotamia as well – of civilizing heroes who had been saved from water. A search in ancient annals and legends revealed that there had been many. For example Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris, was murdered by Titans and thrown into the Nile. Isis rescued him and revived him with her sorcery. He then learned from her ‘the arts of physic and divination and used them for the benefit of mankind’.38 Likewise, in Mesopotamia, Sargon the Great – whose rule brought unrivalled wealth, splendour and stability to Sumer and neighbouring territories at the end of the third millennium BC39 – had claimed quite specifically to have been saved from water:
My mother was a priestess. I did not know my father. The priestess, my mother, conceived me and gave birth to me in hiding. She placed me in a basket made of reeds and closed the lid with pitch. She put the basket in the river which was not high. The river carried me away and brought me to Akki who was a man responsible for libations. Akki looked upon me with kindness and drew me from the river.40
I found that the theme of salvation from water also ran very strongly through the pages of the Old Testament. The prophet Jonah, for instance, was thrown into the sea during a raging tempest, swallowed alive by a giant fish and three days later ‘vomited out upon dry land’ so that he could preach the word of God to the citizens of Nineveh and divert them from their evil ways.41
Even more familiar was the much more ancient story of Noah, who – together with all his family and with ‘two of every sort of living thing’42 – rode out the primeval deluge in a remarkable survival ship which we know as the ark (‘make it with reeds and line it with pitch inside and out’43). After the flood waters had receded, Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, heard God’s command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and went out to repopulate the world.44
By far the most famous and influential biblical figure to be ‘saved from water’, however, was Jesus Christ himself – the only individual, other than Moses, to be described in the Scriptures as ‘mighty in deed and word’45 (a phrase which, as I already knew, implied proficiency in the utterance of magical words of power). Rather than being an actual rescue, the incident in question was wholly symbolic and took the form of the mysterious rite of baptism in the waters of the river Jordan. This, Jesus explained, was absolutely necessary for salvation: ‘Except a man be born of water … he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’46
And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him. And there came a voice from heaven saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.47
Though I knew that the vast majority of practising Christians took this passage from the Gospel of Saint Mark entirely at face value I could not help but wonder whether a deeper layer of meaning might not have been encoded in the stirring and beautiful words. It seemed to me at least possible that what was really being described here was the initiation of Jesus into the enlightened knowledge of a secret cult whose founders were literally ‘saved from water’ thousands of years earlier. Furthermore, I thought it not accidental that it was only after this initiation that Christ began to work his miracles – most of which (including healing the sick, restoring the dead to life, multiplying loaves and fishes, and controlling the elements) would have been instantly recognizable to the High Priests and sorcerers of ancient Egypt as ‘magic tricks’ of the type that they, too, had been trained to perform.48
After considering all the data that I had compiled I made the following entry in my notebook:
The theme of the civilizer, or founding father, or great prophet, or legislator, or Messiah who has in one way or another been ‘saved from water’ occurs in the Scriptures, and in Egyptian and Middle Eastern mythology, so frequently and with such consistency that it cannot be a matter of pure chance. I am not proposing that all the individuals concerned were actual survivors of that ‘hypothetical and as yet undiscovered area’, that supposed technologically advanced society which may have been the cradle for the civilizations of both Mesopotamia and Egypt. The fact is that only Noah, Osiris – and perhaps Horus – belong to a period of pre-history sufficiently remote to qualify them for that distinction. Sargon, Moses, Jonah, and Jesus, however (together with many other important figures in different places and at different periods), were all also saved from water – either literally or symbolically. It therefore seems to me that what is really implied by this recurrent image is initiation of theindividuals concerned into a tradition of secret wisdom started a very long time ago by the survivors of a flood in an effort to preserve vital knowledge and skills that might otherwise have quickly been forgotten.
Going beyond what could be deduced from myths and legends, I also found some rather more tangible evidence in Egypt to support the ‘saved from water theory’. I knew that this evidence – the concealment of complete ocean-going boats beside almost all the most important tombs of pharaohs and notables, and also near all the pyramids – had thus far been treated by archaeologists according to the hoary old dictum that ‘if you can’t understand a particular custom then the safest thing to do is to put it down to religion’. It gradually dawned on me, however, that the practice of boat burial could well have been motivated by something other than a simple desire to install near the grave a ‘physical representation of the symbolic craft that would take the soul or spirit of the dead king to its ultimate destination in the sky.’49
A prime case in point was the cedarwood ship discovered buried and dismantled in a pit beside the southern edge of the Great Pyramid at Giza and now reassembled in a special museum on site. Still in perfect condition 4,500 years after it was built, I learnt that this giant vessel was more than 142 feet long and had a displacement of around 40 tons. Its design was particularly interesting, incorporating (in the informed opinion of Thor Heyerdahl) ‘all the sea-going ship’s characteristic properties, with prow and stern soaring upward, higher than in a Viking ship, to ride out the breakers and high seas, not to contend with the little ripples of the Nile.’50 Another expert felt that the careful and clever construction of this strange pyramid boat would have made it ‘a far more seaworthy craft than anything available to Columbus’; indeed, it would probably have had no difficulty in sailing round the world!51
Since the ancient Egyptians were highly skilled at making scale models and representations of all manner of things for symbolic purposes52 it seemed to me implausible that they would have gone to such trouble to manufacture and then bury a boat as sophisticated as this one if their only purpose had been to betoken the spiritual vessel that would carry off the soul of the king to heaven. That could have been achieved just as effectively with a much smaller craft. Besides, I learnt that recent research at Giza had revealed the existence of another huge boat, also on the south side of the pyramid, still sealed in its pit – and there were also known to be three (now empty) rock-hewn pits on the eastern side. As one otherwise orthodox Egyptologist rather daringly admitted, ‘it is difficult to see why so many boat pits should have been thought necessary.’ Predictably he then fell back on the great standby of all puzzled scholars and declared: ‘it is clear that their presence was required for some religious purpose relating to the afterlife of the king.’53
It was precisely this point, however, which was not clear to me at all – particularly since, as noted in the previous chapter, there was absolutely no indication that any pharaoh was ever interred within the Great Pyramid. Furthermore, the earliest funerary boats to be discovered in Egypt dated back to that mysterious period, just before the inception of the First Dynasty, when civilization and technology in the Nile Valley underwent a sudden and inexplicable transformation.54 I therefore found it difficult to resist the conclusion that the curious practice of boat burial was more likely to be linked to the well established tradition of ‘salvation from water’ than to any purely religious symbolism. Sturdy ocean-going vessels, I reasoned, would have been of immense importance to a group of foreigners who had survived a flood and who had settled in Egypt after sailing away from the site of the cataclysm. Perhaps they, or those who came after them, had believed that the buried boats might one day be needed – not to enable reincarnated souls to navigate the heavens like celestial pleasure trippers but, instead, to allow living individuals to escape once again from the scourge of some terrible deluge.
Hidden riches of secret places
The really great achievements of ancient Egypt all took place early. The peak period spanned the Third to the Fifth Dynasties – roughly from 2900 BC to 2300 BC. Thereafter, albeit gradually and with some notable resurgences, the general trend was steadily downhill.55 This scenario – accepted by all scholars – was, I felt, completely consistent with the theory that civilization was brought into the Nile Valley during the fourth millennium BC from some technologically advanced but as yet unidentified area. After all, one would not have expected an imported culture to produce its most perfect forms of expression from the very moment that the settlers arrived; there would undoubtedly have been a great leap forward at that time but the full potential would not have been realized until the native inhabitants had picked up and learned the new techniques.
And this was precisely what seemed to have happened in Egypt. Just before the beginning of the First Dynasty (say around 3400 BC), writing, arithmetic, medicine, astronomy and a complex religion all appeared very suddenly – without, as already noted, any local evidence of prior evolution in any of these spheres. At the same time highly sophisticated monuments and tombs were being built that incorporated advanced architectural concepts – again with no trace of evolution. The First and Second Dynasties (say from 3300BC onwards) saw the construction of ever more elaborate monuments which embodied with increasing confidence and vigour the new-found skills and knowledge that had arrived in Egypt.56 And this trend towards greater and greater beauty and excellence received what many modern scholars regarded as its ultimate expression in the remarkable stone edifices of the funerary complex of King Zoser, the first Pharaoh of the Third Dynasty.
The complex, which I visited several times in 1989 and 1990, is dominated by a towering six-tiered pyramid 197 feet high and is located to the south of the city of Cairo at Saqqara. The complete site takes the form of a rectangle nearly 2,000 feet long and 1,000 feet wide and was originally enclosed by a single massive stone wall, large sections of which are still standing. Other features include an extensive colonnade with forty tall columns, an elegant courtyard, and numerous shrines, temples and outbuildings – all on a colossal scale but with clean and delicate lines.
I was able to establish that in Egyptian tradition the conception and design of the entire Zoser complex had been regarded as the work of a single creative genius – Imhotep the Builder, whose other titles were Sage, Sorcerer, Architect, High Priest, Astronomer and Doctor.57 I became interested in this legendary figure because of the great emphasis put by subsequent generations on his scientific and magical abilities; indeed, like Osiris, his achievements in these fields were so highly regarded that he was eventually deified. With uniquely impressive engineering feats such as the Zoser pyramid to his credit, Imhotep looked to me like an obvious candidate for membership of the cult of Thoth: the monuments at Saqqara seemed eloquently to confirm that he had assimilated and then put brilliantly into practice the technological dexterity peculiar to that cult.
I was therefore excited to discover that Imhotep was often characterized in inscriptions as ‘the image and likeness of Thoth’58 – and also as the ‘successor to Thoth’ after the deity had ascended to heaven.59 I then learnt something of even greater significance: in antiquity, Moses too was frequently compared to Thoth (indeed, in the second century BC an entire work was filled with such comparisons by the Judaeo-Greek philosopher Artapanus, who credited the prophet with a range of remarkable and clearly ‘scientific’ inventions60).
The fact that individuals as far apart in history as Moses and Imhotep should have been explicitly linked through the cult of the moon-god struck me as strong circumstantial evidence not only for the existence of a secret wisdom tradition but also for the durability of that tradition. Accordingly I began to wonder whether there had been other magicians and sages like Imhotep to whom the design of particularly sophisticated and advanced buildings had been attributed.
Unfortunately, no record survived of the architect who built the Great Pyramid at Giza. This remarkable edifice was certainly the crowning achievement of the splendid Fourth Dynasty – during which Egyptian civilization reached its zenith. As one authority put it:
The Pharaohs would never again build to such scale and perfection. And this level of expertise carried over into almost every other form of art or craft. Under the Fourth Dynasty the furniture was the most elegant, the linen the finest, the statuary at once the most powerful and the most perfect … Certain skills, such as the making of inlaid eyes, reached levels that border on the supernatural. Later dynasties could produce but mediocre versions and ultimately the knowledge disappeared entirely.61
I could only agree with most of the above remarks. It seemed to me, however, that the very special technological skills required for the erection of splendid and imposing monuments had been preserved for a considerable period before ‘disappearing entirely’. Though not given any practical expression, for example, there was no doubt that these skills had somehow survived the many centuries of cultural stagnation that set in after the Fourth Dynasty and had then reasserted themselves in the remarkable resurgence that occurred during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties (1580–1200 BC).
The crowning achievement of this latter era, which filled me with awe every time I set eyes on it, was the beautiful obelisk of Queen Hatshepsut at Karnak. Nearby, on the western side of the Nile, the same monarch had also commissioned a massive mortuary temple that had later come to be regarded as one of the great architectural masterpieces of the world.62
I learnt that the name of the long-dead architect responsible for both of these monuments had been Senmut. Intriguingly, an inscription that he himself had composed – and that could still be read on his tomb wall – left little doubt that his special knowledge and abilities had been acquired after he had been admitted to the mysteries of an ancient and secret wisdom tradition. ‘Having penetrated all the writings of the Divine Prophets,’ he boasted, ‘I was ignorant of nothing that has happened since the beginning of time.’63
Suppose [I wrote in my notebook] that Moses (who lived barely 200 years after Senmut) was also an initiate in this same secret tradition – a tradition that stretched back beyond the horizon of history through Imhotep to the god-kings Thoth and Osiris, and that extended forward as well to include other great scientists and civilizers like Jesus Christ. If there is anything at all to this hypothesis then is it not possible that some of the truly extraordinary thinkers of more recent years may also have been heirs to the ‘occult’ knowledge that inspired the builders of the pyramids and obelisks, and that made it possible for Moses to perform his miracles?
In seeking to answer this question, I was drawn back first and foremost to the Knights Templar – who had occupied the original site of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem in AD 1119 and who, I believed, had learned something in the Holy City that had subsequently caused them to seek the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia. As reported in Chapter 5, the research that I had carried out into the beliefs and behaviour of this strange group of warrior monks had convinced me that they had tapped into some exceedingly ancient wisdom tradition – and that the knowledge they had thus acquired had been put to use in the construction of churches and castles that were architecturally far in advance of other buildings of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Was it not possible, I now asked myself, that the wisdom tradition into which the Templars had been initiated had been the very one to which Moses, Senmut and Imhotep had belonged? And if so then was it not also possible that the knights’ quest for the Ark had been connected to this tradition? I knew that it would probably prove impossible to substantiate such esoteric guesswork. Nevertheless, I was excited to discover a number of ancient Jewish traditions which asserted that the Ark had contained ‘the root of all knowledge’.64 In addition, as the reader will recall, the golden lid of the sacred relic had been surmounted by two figures of cherubim. Could it therefore have been pure coincidence that, in Judaic lore, ‘the distinctive gift of the cherubim was knowledge’?65
These were by no means the only tantalizing hints which suggested to me that the quest for the Ark might also have been a quest for wisdom. Equally significant was the fact that when the Templars were persecuted, tortured and put on trial in the early fourteenth century many of them confessed to worshipping a mysterious bearded head, the name of which was given as Baphomet.66 Several authorities, pointing to the close connections that the knights had cultivated with Islamic mystics, had identified Baphomet with Muhammad67 – thus blithely ignoring the fact that Islam could hardly have inspired such behaviour (since Muslims, as I was very well aware, regarded their prophet as human not divine and had an absolute abhorrence of any kind of idol worship). A far more convincing explanation, however, was given by Dr Hugh Schonfield, an expert on early Christianity, who had deciphered a secret code used in a number of the famous ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ – a code that the Templars might easily have learned during their long residence in the Holy Land. Dr Schonfield showed that if the name Baphomet were written in this code and then transliterated the result would be the Greek word Sophia.68 And the Greek word Sophia, in its turn, meant nothing more nor less than ‘Wisdom’.69
By this analysis, therefore, when the Templars worshipped Baphomet what they were really doing was worshipping the principle of Wisdom. And that, of course, was exactly what the ancient Egyptians had done when they had worshipped Thoth as ‘the personification of the mind of God’,70 as ‘the author of every work on every branch of knowledge, both human and divine’,71 and as ‘the inventor of astronomy and astrology, the science of numbers and mathematics, geometry and land surveying, medicine and botany’.72 I was encouraged to look further.
One fact which quite quickly came to light was that the Freemasons had also held Thoth in special regard. Indeed, according to a very old Masonic tradition, Thoth ‘had played a major part in preserving knowledge of the mason craft and transmitting it to mankind after the flood’.73 And the author of a well researched academic study on the origins of Freemasonry went so far as to say that, in their early days, the Masons had regarded Thoth as their patron.74 I was already aware (see Chapter 7) that close links had existed between the Templars and the Freemasons, with the latter almost certainly being descended from the former. Now I could see that what I was coming to think of as the ‘Thoth connection’ set those links in the ancient and enduring context of a wisdom tradition stretching back to Pharaonic times. I therefore asked myself this: in addition to the Templars and the Masons had there been any other groups or individuals whose works and ideas had appeared unusually advanced – and who might possibly have been initiates in the same wisdom tradition?
I found that there had been many. For example, Copernicus, the Renaissance astronomer whose theory of a heliocentric universe had overturned the earth-centred complacency of the Middle Ages, had said quite openly that he had arrived at his revolutionary insights by studying the secret writings of the ancient Egyptians, including the hidden works of Thoth himself.75 Likewise the seventeenth-century mathematician Kepler (who, amongst other things, compiled an imaginary account of a trip to the moon) admitted that in formulating his laws of the planetary orbits he was merely ‘stealing the golden vessels of the Egyptians’.76
In a similar vein, Sir Isaac Newton had stated his view that ‘the Egyptians concealed mysteries that were above the capacity of the common herd under the veil of religious rites and hieroglyphic symbols.’77 Amongst these mysteries, he believed, was the knowledge that the earth orbited the sun and not vice-versa: ‘It was the most ancient opinion that the planets revolved about the sun, that the earth, as one of the planets, described an annual course about the sun, while by a diurnal motion it turned on its axis, and that the sun remained at rest.’78
Newton’s profound intellect and scholarship had enabled him to lay the foundations of physics as a modern discipline. His specific achievements had included epoch-making discoveries in mechanics, optics, astronomy and mathematics (the binomial theorem and the differential and integral calculus), huge steps forward in the understanding of the nature of light, and – above all else – the formulation of the universal law of gravitation which had altered forever mankind’s vision of the cosmos.
What was much less well known about the great English scientist, however, was the fact that he had spent a significant part of his adult life deeply immersed in hermetic and alchemical literature (more than a tenth of his personal library had been taken up with alchemical treatises79). Furthermore he had been obsessed – literally obsessed – with the notion that a secret wisdom lay concealed within the pages of the Scriptures: Daniel of the Old Testament and John of the New particularly attracted him because ‘the language of the prophetic writings was symbolic and hieroglyphical and their comprehension required a radically different method of interpretation.’80
It seemed to me, as I researched Newton further, that pursuit of this method perhaps explained why he had involved himself in an exacting study of some twenty different versions of the book of Revelation. He had learned Hebrew in order to do the job properly81and had then carried out a similarly meticulous exercise on the book of Ezekiel.82 I was also able to establish that he had drawn on the information contained in this latter work to produce a painstaking reconstruction of the floorplan of the Temple of Solomon. Why? Because he had been convinced that the great edifice built to house the Ark of the Covenant had been a kind of cryptogram of the universe; if he could decipher this cryptogram, he had believed, then he would know the mind of God.83
Newton’s Temple floorplan had been preserved in the Babson College Library.84 Meanwhile the seventeenth-century scientist had expressed his other ‘theological’ findings and observations in private writings that had totalled well over a million words.85 In the mid-twentieth century these rather surprising manuscripts came to light and were purchased at auction by John Maynard Keynes. ‘Newton was not the first of the age of reason,’ the obviously shaken economist later told the Royal Society, ‘he was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than ten thousand years ago.’ Keynes made an extremely careful study of the manuscripts and concluded – significantly in my view – that Newton saw
the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had hid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher’s treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood. He believed that these clues were to be found partly in the evidence of the heavens and in the constitution of elements, but also partly in certain papers and traditions handed down by the brethren in an unbroken chain back to the original cryptic revelation.86
Indeed so! And although I knew that I might never be able to prove that the ‘brethren’ in question had been directly linked to the occult traditions of the moon-god Thoth – and to those scientists and civilizers who had been ‘saved from water’ – I felt that there was at least sufficient evidence to confirm one intriguing fact. In making his greatest discoveries, Newton had indicated several times that he had drawn not only upon his own genius but also upon some very old and secret repository of wisdom. He had once stated quite explicitly, for instance, that the law of gravitation expounded in his Principia was not new but rather had been known and fully understood in ancient times; he had arrived at it by decoding the sacred literature of past ages.87 On another occasion he had described Thoth as a believer in the Copernican system.88 Before that he had aligned himself with the German physician and alchemist Michael Maier (1568–1622) who had argued that, throughout history, all the true adepts of science had derived their knowledge from the Egyptian moon-god.89
Amongst many other curiosities, I discovered that Newton had been struck by the fact that ‘there was a general tradition of deluge amongst ancient peoples’90 and had shown considerable interest in the biblical view that Noah was the common ancestor of all humanity.91 Moreover, despite his own devoutly held religious convictions, he seemed at times to have seen Christ as an especially gifted man and as an interpreter of God’s masterplan, rather than as the Son of God.92 What I found most fascinating of all, however, was that the really pivotal figure in Newton’s theology, and in his conception of early science, had been none other than the prophet Moses, whom he had regarded as an adept in the mysteries of the universe, a master of alchemy, and a witness to the double revelation of God (as expressed in His word and in His works).93
Long centuries before our own enlightened era, Newton had believed, Moses understood that matter consisted of atoms, and that these atoms were hard, solid and immutable: ‘gravity accrued to both atoms and to the bodies they composed; gravity was proportional to the quantity of matter in every body.’94 Newton had also regarded the account of creation presented in Genesis – and attributed to Moses – as an allegorical description of an alchemical process:
Moses, that ancient Theologue, describing and expressing ye most wonderful Architecture of this great world, tells us that ye spirit of God moved upon ye waters which was an indigested chaos, or mass created before by God.
Later, referring to the efforts of the alchemists, the great English scientist had added:
Just as the world was created from dark chaos through the bringing forth of the light and through the separation of the aery firmament and of the waters from the earth, so our work brings forth the beginning out of black chaos and its first matter through the separation of the elements and the illumination of matter.95
Last but not least, I thought it was not accidental that Newton’s favourite biblical passage96 had been one that had hinted at the existence of some form of covert knowledge available only to initiates:
And I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I, the Lord, which call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel.97
I reasoned that if Newton had indeed had access to the same ‘treasures of darkness’ and to the same ‘hidden riches’ as Moses, then this would imply – at the very least – the continuous existence over a period of millennia of a clandestine sect or cult structured to pass on an exclusive and privileged wisdom. This sounded far-fetched; it was, however, by no means impossible. On the contrary, knowledge and skills had frequently and successfully been transferred down the generations – and from one region of the world to another – without any concrete evidence being available to document the process. For example, Rhabdas, a mathematician who had lived in the city of Constantinople in the twelfth century AD, was known to have used a method for deriving square roots that had existed only in ancient Egypt more than two thousand years previously and that had not, otherwise, been employed elsewhere.98 How, and from where, he had acquired this technique was not easy to explain. Similarly, I was very much aware that the transmission of esoteric information, coupled with the teaching and sharing of arcane rituals and ceremonies, had occurred for centuries within the various Masonic orders without any public record ever being available.
Charting the contours of a genuinely reticent sect was, therefore, a daunting undertaking. But what I found more daunting by far was the task of guessing the real nature of the science and technology that such a long-lived and secretive institution as the cult of Thoth might have protected and preserved – particularly if, as I suspected, that science and technology had originated in a historically remote and now utterly obliterated culture. As I wrote in my notebook:
It would be a mistake to assume that our own twentieth-century machinery and inventions are any guideline; on the contrary, if an advanced society did exist at some archaic period, then its wisdom is likely to have been quite different from anything with which we are familiar, and its machines could reasonably be expected to have operated according to principles unknown to us.
A monstrous instrument
It was with such thoughts, as my research moved on, that I found myself drawn to the strange passages in the Old Testament books of Exodus and Deuteronomy which described the encounters between God and Moses on Mount Sinai. Amidst thunder and fire, electrical storms and clouds of smoke, Yahweh supposedly disclosed the blueprint of the Ark of the Covenant to the Hebrew magus and presented him with the stone Tablets of the Law inscribed with the Ten Commandments. Then the Ark itself was built by the artificer Bezaleel who slavishly followed the ‘divine’ plan, almost as though he knew that he was forging some monstrous instrument.
And this, I suspect, is what the Ark really was: a monstrous instrument capable of releasing fearful energies in an uncontrolled and catastrophic manner if it was mishandled or misused in any way – an instrument that was not conceived in the mind of God, as the Bible teaches, but rather in the mind of Moses.
A master sorcerer in an era when sorcery and science were indistinguishable from one another, it is after all possible (and perhaps more than possible) that Moses could have had the technical knowledge – and therefore the ability – to design a device of this sort. There is absolutely no proof of this, of course. Nevertheless I think that only those with a pedantic and cavilling attitude to history would insist that the ancient wisdom traditions of Egypt could have contained no special skills or ideas of a technical nature on which the prophet might have drawn in order to imbue the Ark with the awesome powers attributed to it in the Old Testament.
Speculation on such matters is surely healthy and – for those readers who are interested in penetrating more deeply into the mystery – I offer the following hypotheses and conjectures as food for thought.
Motive and opportunity
Assume for a moment that Moses did indeed have the technical knowledge to create ‘a monstrous instrument’ capable of destroying city walls (as in the case of Jericho99), striking people dead (as in the case of Uzzah and the ‘men of Bethshemesh’100), inflicting cancerous tumours on those who approached it without proper protection (as in the case of the Philistines after the battle of Ebenezer101), and counteracting gravity (as in the case of the bearers whom, on one occasion, it ‘tossed into the air and flung to the ground again and again’102).
If Moses could have made such a machine then it only remains to ask whether he had a motive to do so, and whether he had the opportunity.
I would like to suggest that he had ample motive. One in a long line of civilizing heroes who had been ‘saved from water’, there is evidence to suggest that his prime objective in life might not have been to establish the Jewish faith (although he certainly did that)but rather to civilize the Israelites – who, prior to the Exodus, were little more than an anarchic tribe of migrant labourers marooned in Egypt.
Suppose that the prophet decided to inspire (and thus mobilize) this primitive and almost ungovernable group of nomads by convincing them that he was going to lead them to the ‘Promised Land’ – Canaan – which he had enticingly depicted as ‘a good land and a large … a land flowing with milk and honey’.103 If so then he was far too wily a leader, and far too astute a judge of human frailty, to take what was basically a disorganized rabble straight there. He knew that they would face formidable foes when they eventually arrived; if they were to overcome these foes, therefore, he would first need to mould and shape them, bend them to his will, and impose some discipline upon them.
This reasoning appeals to me because it seems to offer a logical explanation for something that otherwise makes very little sense – namely the fact that the Israelites supposedly spent forty years wandering in the inhospitable wildernesses of the Sinai peninsula.104There were, at the time, at least two well known and much-frequented trade routes which normally enabled travellers to cross the deserts between Egypt and Canaan in just a few days.105 It seems to me, therefore, that Moses’s decision not to use these highways (and instead to inflict a lengthy period of hardship on his people) could only have been a deliberate and calculated strategy: he must have seen this as the best way to get the Israelites into shape for the conquest of the Promised Land.106
Such a strategy, however, would also have had its drawbacks – notably the problem of persuading the tribesmen to stick together in the desert and to put up with all the difficulties and austerities of nomadic life. This problem was truly a knotty one: the biblical account of the wanderings in the wilderness makes it painfully clear that Moses had a hard time trying to keep his people’s confidence and to force them to obey him. It was true that they fell briefly into line whenever he worked some new miracle (and he was obliged to work many); on other occasions, however – and particularly when they faced adversity – they seethed with discontent, criticized him bitterly and sometimes rebelled openly against him.107
In such circumstances, is it not reasonable to suppose that the prophet might have seen the need to equip himself with some sort of portable ‘miracle machine’ to enthral and impress the Israelites whenever and wherever a bit of ‘magic’ was required? And wasn’t that exactly what the Ark was – a portable miracle machine which Moses used to ensure that the people would obey him no matter how difficult the circumstances?
Examples of the sacred object being used in precisely this manner are not hard to find in the Bible. Indeed a dramatic change appears to have taken place in Moses’s behaviour after the building of the Ark. Previously he had responded to the incessant demands and complaints of the Israelites with relatively minor acts of wizardry – striking a desert rock with his wand in order to make fresh water gush forth from it,108 extracting potable water from a stagnant pool,109 delivering food in the form of manna and quails,110 and so on and so forth. Later, however, the prophet did not bother with conjuring tricks like these. Instead, whenever the people grumbled, rebelled against him, or dared to dispute his leadership in any way he simply turned the Ark on them – with predictably dreadful results.
On one fairly typical occasion he used it to inflict a disfiguring skin condition on his sister Miriam because she had questioned his authority.111 The Bible calls this skin condition ‘leprosy’.112 When Miriam had been suitably chastened, however, her sores vanished. Since they had appeared in the first place immediately after she had been exposed to the mysterious cloud that sometimes issued forth from between the two cherubim mounted on the Ark’s lid, it is most unlikely that they were actually caused by leprosy.113 Might they not rather have been induced by some chemical or other contaminant released from the Ark itself?
Miriam was not the only person to have been affected in this way after incurring Moses’s wrath. Moreover other dissidents not lucky enough to be members of the priestly family tended to be punished with even greater severity. A particularly interesting series of events occurred in response to a mutiny in which the ascendancy of Moses and Aaron was openly questioned:
Two hundred and fifty of the sons of Israel joined forces against Moses and Aaron saying, You take too much on yourselves! The whole community and all its members are consecrated, and Yahweh lives among them, Why set yourselves higher than the community of Yahweh?114
Moses was at first so shocked by this insubordination that he ‘fell upon his face’.115 He quickly recovered, however, and proposed the following ‘test’: to find out whether the two hundred and fifty rebels were really as ‘holy’ as he was, he suggested that they should each fill a bronze censer with incense and that they should then come in before the Ark to burn this incense.116 If this was done, he argued, it would allow Yahweh to ‘choose the one who is the consecrated man’.117
The challenge was accepted: ‘And they took every man his censer, and put fire in them, and laid incense thereon, and stood at the door of the Tabernacle … with Moses and Aaron.’118 No sooner had this gathering taken place than ‘the glory of Yahweh appeared’.119 Then the deity supposedly gave his ‘favourites’ a three-second warning of what he was about to do: ‘Yahweh spoke to Moses and Aaron. He said, “Stand apart from this assembly, I am going to destroy them here and now.” ’120 At this, the prophet and the High Priest ‘threw themselves face downward on the ground … And there came out a fire [from the Ark] and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense.’121
the children of Israel spake unto Moses, saying, Behold, we die, we perish, we all perish … Whosoever cometh anything near unto the tabernacle of the Lord shall die: shall we be consumed with dying?122
They had, it seemed, learned a salutary lesson. Subdued by the powers of the Ark, they mounted no further rebellions of any significance. On the contrary, apart from a few low-key gripes and murmurs, they fell very much into line behind Moses and did exactly what he told them to do during the remainder of their sojourn in the wilderness.
So much, then, for motive. Moses clearly had great need of a portable miracle machine exactly like the Ark. Moreover, once he had equipped himself with that machine – if machine it indeed was – he showed no hesitation in using it.
Motive and ability alone, however, do not add up to a coherent case. The next question, therefore, is this: did he have the opportunity to prepare a proper blueprint for the Ark and to fabricate some sort of ‘power-pack’ for it – some sort of energy source by means of which it might be activated?
The answer is yes – ample opportunity. To understand why it is worth recalling the main events of Moses’s life, in the order that they occurred:
1 He was born in Egypt.
2 He was cast adrift on the Nile in a basket made of papyrus reeds coated with bitumen and pitch.
3 He was ‘saved from water’ by the daughter of Pharaoh.
4 He was reared in the royal household where he learned ‘all the wisdom of the Egyptians’ – and became an adept in sorcery, and almost certainly a High Priest.123
5 At the age of forty,124 according to the Bible, he heard that his own native people – the Israelites – were being oppressed by the Egyptians. Accordingly he left the court and went to find out what was happening to them. He discovered that they were living a life of bondage, forced to do hard labour day and night. Incensed at this cruel treatment, and at the arrogance of the Egyptians, he lost his temper, killed an overseer and then fled into exile.125
6 At the age of eighty126 – i.e. forty years later – he returned from exile to lead the Israelites out of their captivity.
What happened during the missing forty years? The Bible is singularly unhelpful in answering this question, devoting just eleven verses to direct discussion of the entire period.127 It does, however, make one thing abundantly clear: in all this great expanse of time the key event was Moses’s encounter with Yahweh at the burning bush – an encounter that took place at the foot of Mount Sinai where, some time later, the Ark of the Covenant was to be built.
Long before Moses persuaded the Israelites to follow him across the Red Sea, is it not therefore probable that he had thoroughly familiarized himself with the fearsome wildernesses of the Sinai peninsula? The location of the burning bush incident leaves no room for doubt that he spent at least part of his forty-year exile in these remote and mountainous deserts. Indeed, it is even possible that he passed most or all of this period there – a view for which there is a degree of academic support. According to one learned Egyptologist, Moses could have spent as long as a quarter of a century in Sinai, living in a settlement on a mountain known as Serabit-el-Khadem barely fifty miles from Mount Sinai itself.128
In June 1989 I visited and climbed Serabit-el-Khadem, which stands in the austere and barren highlands of southern-central Sinai. On the flat top of the mountain, completely innocent of tourists, were the ruins of the settlement in which Moses was thought to have lived – ruins dominated by the obelisks, altars and graceful columns of what must once have been an extensive Egyptian temple. As a High Priest of the ancient Egyptian religion, I reasoned, Moses would have felt comfortable here – and if he had indeed fled the wrath of Pharaoh after killing an overseer as the Bible claimed, then he would have been relatively safe in this remote and obscure spot.
I decided to find out more about Serabit-el-Khadem and researched it in some depth after my initial visit. In the course of this work, two significant facts came to light.
First, I learned that the temple site which I had seen had been thoroughly investigated in 1904–5 by the great British archaeologist Sir William Flinders Petrie – and that he had unearthed fragments of several stone tablets there.129 These tablets were inscribed with writing in a strange pictographic alphabet that, much later, was proved to have belonged to a Semitic-Canaanite language related to ancient Hebrew.130
Second, I discovered that the settlement at Serabit-el-Khadem had been an important centre for the mining and manufacture of copper and turquoise from roughly 1990 BC until 1190 BC.131 These dates meant that there was no anachronism in the assumption that Moses might have sojourned here in the thirteenth century BC, just prior to the Exodus. And the evidence that an alphabet related to Hebrew had been in use on the site at about the same time looked like further corroboration of this view. What really interested me, however, was the point emphasized above, namely that Serabit had functioned as a sort of industrial and metallurgical complex and that the whole area had been extensively mined. It seemed to me that if Moses had indeed lived here for a lengthy period then he could hardly have failed to acquire knowledge of the minerals and metal ores of southern Sinai.
After my visit to Serabit-el-Khadem in June 1989 I drove my hired Jeep the fifty miles across the desert to Mount Sinai. In a sense the word ‘desert’ is a misnomer for this region, for although there are sandy expanses, the bulk of the countryside consists of steep and withered mountain ranges, red in colour, upon which almost nothing grows. The only patches of greenery are created by occasional oases in the valleys, and one such oasis, rich in date palms, stands at the foot of Mount Sinai. Here, in the fourth century AD, a small Christian chapel was erected on the supposed site of the burning bush. That chapel was greatly extended in subsequent years. By the fifth century it had become a substantial monastery under the patronage of the Coptic Church of Alexandria. In the sixth century the Roman Emperor Justinian massively fortified the monastery’s walls so that it could better withstand the attacks of marauding bedouin tribes. Finally, in the eleventh century, the whole complex was dedicated to Saint Catherine.132 It continues to be known as ‘Saint Catherine’s’ today, and many of the structures built in the fifth and sixth centuries still stand.
Before embarking on the arduous 7,450-foot climb to the top of Mount Sinai I spent some time inside the ancient monastery. The main church contained several remarkable icons, mosaics and paintings, some of them almost 1,500 years old. In the gardens was a walled enclosure built around a large raspberry bush that was believed by the monks to be the original burning bush.133 This it certainly was not – and, indeed, I was well aware that even Mount Sinai’s claim to be the ‘Mount Sinai’ referred to in the Bible had by no means been conclusively proved. The fact was, however, that monastic traditions dating back at least to the fourth century AD had associated this particular peak with the ‘mountain of God,’ and had almost certainly done so on the basis of reliable sources of information now lost.134 Moreover I knew that local tribal traditions concurred: the bedouin name for Mount Sinai was simply Jebel Musa – ‘the mountain of Moses’.135 Scholarly opinion also associated the biblical Mount Sinai with the peak bearing that name today – and the few dissenting voices did not favour a different region but rather other nearby peaks in the same range (for example Jebel Serbal).136
I must confess that after climbing Mount Sinai in June 19891 was left in no doubt that this had indeed been the mountain to which Moses had brought the Israelites ‘in the third month’ after leaving Egypt. Pausing at the summit, I stood on a ledge which overlooked tumbled miles of worn and jagged uplands descending to sere plains in the far distance. There was a haze and a powder-blue stillness in the air – not silence, exactly, but stillness. Then a sudden wind whipped up, cool and dry at that altitude, and I watched an eagle soar heavenwards on a thermal, gliding briefly level with me before it disappeared from sight. I remained there alone for a while, in that pitiless and uncompromising place, and I remember thinking that Moses could hardly have chosen a more dramatic or a more appropriate location in which to receive the Ten Commandments from the hand of God.
But is that really what the Hebrew magus came to Mount Sinai to do? It seems to me that there is an alternative scenario. Could it not be that his true purpose all along had been to build the Ark of the Covenant and to place inside it some great energy source, the raw substance of which he had known that he would be able to find on this particular mountain top?
This is a highly speculative thesis – but it is speculation that we are indulging in here and there is room for a little imaginative licence. If Moses had known of the existence of some potent substance on the peak of Mount Sinai, then what might that substance have been?
One suggestion – put forward in a different context in Chapter 3 – is that the tablets of stone on which God supposedly wrote the Ten Commandments were in fact two pieces of a meteorite. Resonant with echoes of Wolfram’s Grail Stone (described as having been brought down from heaven by a troop of angels137), this intriguing possibility is taken seriously by several top-flight biblical scholars, who point to the worship of meteoric fragments in a number of ancient Semitic cultures138 and add that:
concealing tables of law within a closed container [seems] somewhat odd … Words of law engraved upon stone were surely meant to be publicly displayed … [it may therefore be] supposed that the Ark held not two tables of the law but a fetish stone, a meteorite from Mount Sinai.139
If this conjecture is correct then the field lies open to guess what element exactly the ‘meteorite from Mount Sinai’ might have consisted of. It is at any rate not beyond the bounds of reason to suppose that it might have been radioactive, or that it might have possessed some chemical characteristic that would have made it useful to Moses if his purpose had really been to manufacture a potent and durable source of energy for installation in the Ark.
The notion that he might have been manufacturing something on Mount Sinai is certainly not ruled out by the Scriptures. On the contrary, many passages in the relevant chapters of the book of Exodus are sufficiently peculiar and puzzling to allow just such an interpretation to be put on them.
The so-called ‘theophany’ – the manifestation of a deity to a mortal man – began immediately after the Israelites had ‘camped before the mount’. Then ‘Moses went up unto God, and the Lord called unto him out of the mountain.’140
At this early stage the Bible makes no mention of smoke or fire or any of the other special effects that were soon to be brought into play. Instead the prophet simply climbed the mountain and held a private conversation with Yahweh, a conversation that was not witnessed by anyone else. Significantly, one of the first instructions that he supposedly received from the deity was this:
Thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: Whoever touches the mountain will be put to death … He must be stoned or shot down by arrow … he must not remain alive.141
It goes almost without saying that Moses would have had a strong reason to impose just such a rigorous and ‘divinely ordained’ exclusion zone if he had indeed been planning to manufacture or process some substance on Mount Sinai: the prospect of being stoned or shot would certainly have deterred the curious from venturing up to see what he was really doing there and thus would have enabled him to preserve the illusion that he was meeting with God.
At any rate, it was only after he had spent three days on the mountain that the drama really began. Then:
In the morning … there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled … And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because Yahweh had descended on it in the form of fire. Like smoke from a furnace the smoke went up.142
Initially it seems that Moses spent only part of his time isolated on the peak, and that he was frequently in the camp. Soon, however, God told him this:
Come up to me on the mountain and stay there while I give you the stone tablets – the law and the commandments – which I have written.143
This, then, was the prelude to what was to be the key event on Sinai – Moses’s acquisition of the two tablets of stone that he would later place inside the Ark of the Covenant. The prophet’s ascent was accompanied by further special effects:
Moses went up into the mount, and a cloud covered the mount. And the glory of Yahweh settled upon mount Sinai; for six days the cloud covered it, and on the seventh day Yahweh called to Moses from inside the cloud. To the eyes of the sons of Israel the glory of Yahweh seemed like a devouring fire on the mountain top. Moses went right into the cloud. He went up the mountain and stayed there for forty days and forty nights.144
Would an omnipotent God have required forty days and forty nights to deliver two stone tablets to His prophet? Such a lengthy period seems hardly necessary. If, however, Moses had not been receiving ‘the tablets of the Testimony’ at all, but instead had been manufacturing or refining some compact stone-like energy source to place inside the Ark, then he could well have needed that much time to finish the work.
From this perspective, the ‘devouring fire’ on the mountain top that the Israelites had interpreted as ‘the glory of Yahweh’ would really have been the infernal glow given off by whatever devices or chemical processes the prophet was using to achieve his objective. And although this hypothesis sounds far-fetched, it is surely not more so than the strange information concerning the tablets of stone that is contained in the Old Testament, in the Mishnah, in the Midrash, in the Talmud, and in the most archaic Jewish legends.
Tablets of stone?
The clearest descriptions of the tablets are contained in the Talmudic-Midrashic sources which yield the following information: (1) they were ‘made of a sapphire-like stone’; (2) they were ‘not more than six hands in length and as much in width’ but were nevertheless enormously heavy; (3) though hard they were also flexible; (4) they were transparent.145
It was upon these peculiar objects that the Ten Commandments were supposedly written – by no lesser figure than Yahweh Himself, as the Bible is at pains to point out:
When He had finished speaking with Moses on the mountain of Sinai, He gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone, inscribed by the finger of God … And Moses turned and went down from the mount with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, tablets inscribed on both sides, inscribed on the front and on the back. These tablets were the work of God, and the writing on them was God’s writing.146
Theologically, therefore, there can be no doubting the sanctity or the significance of the prophet’s burden: written upon by the very finger of God, the two tablets were quite literally fragments of the divine. From the biblical viewpoint nothing more precious had ever been entrusted to mortal man. One would have thought that Moses would have looked after them. He did not do so, however. Instead, in a fit of pique, he broke these pure and perfect gifts.
Why did he do this incomprehensible thing? According to the explanation given in Exodus it was because the perfidious Israelites had lost hope that he would ever return after his forty days on the mountain and had fashioned a golden calf, which they were worshipping. Arriving in the camp Moses then caught them in flagrante delicto offering sacrifices and dancing and prostrating themselves before the idol. At the sight of this grotesque apostasy the prophet’s ‘anger waxed hot and he threw down the tablets that he was holding and broke them at the foot of the mountain.’147 He then disposed of the golden calf, had about three thousand of the worst idolators executed, and restored order.148
So much, then, for the official account of how and why the original tablets of stone came to be broken. These items, however, were clearly of vital importance and had to be replaced. Accordingly God instructed Moses to return to the mountain top to receive two new tablets. The prophet complied and ‘stayed there with Yahweh forty days and forty nights … and he inscribed on the tablets the words of the Covenant, the Ten Commandments.’149 Moses then climbed down the mountain again bearing the tablets, exactly as he had done before. A close study of the relevant biblical passages, however, does reveal a single substantive and significant difference between his two descents: on the second occasion ‘the skin of his face shone’;150 on the first there had been no mention of this odd phenomenon.
What could have caused the prophet’s face to shine? The biblical scribes naturally assumed that it had been his proximity to God, and explained: ‘the skin on his face was radiant after speaking with Yahweh.’151 Yet on several previous occasions, dating back as far as the burning bush, Moses had stood close to Yahweh and had not suffered any such consequences. Indeed, a typical example had occurred just before he had embarked on his second forty-day expedition to Sinai. While still in the Israelite camp he had participated in a lengthy and intimate encounter with the deity, an encounter that had been held in a specially sanctified structure called the ‘Tent of Meeting’.152 There ‘the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend,’153 but there was no hint or suggestion that the prophet’s skin had glowed as a result.
So what could have produced this effect? Is it not reasonable to suggest that it might have been the tablets of stone themselves? Oblique corroboration for precisely this suggestion exists in the Talmudic and Midrashic sources which insist that the tablets had been infused with ‘Divine radiance’. When God handed them to Moses: ‘He seized them by the top third, whereas Moses took hold of the bottom third, but one third remained open, and it was in this way that the Divine radiance was shed upon Moses’ face.’154
Since this did not happen with the first set of tablets – the ones that Moses broke – it is legitimate to ask a question: why were things so different the second time around? Could the answer possibly be that Moses had discovered that the first set of tablets were technically imperfect as an energy source precisely because they didn’t burn his face? This would explain why he broke them. He did, however, sustain burns from the second set. Perhaps this proved to him that whatever process he had used to manufacture them had worked – and made him confident that they would function properly when they were placed inside the Ark.
The idea that the glow or shine on Moses’s skin might in fact have been caused by some sort of burn is of course purely speculative. There is no support for it in the Bible. Nevertheless, it seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable deduction – as reasonable as any other – from the small amount of evidence that is available there. The description of the prophet’s descent from the mountain with the second set of tablets is limited to just seven verses in Chapter 34 of Exodus.155 These verses, however, make it absolutely clear that his appearance was so gruesome when he arrived in the camp that all the Israelites were ‘afraid to come nigh him’.156 To spare their feelings ‘he put a veil over his face’157 – and ever afterwards, except when he was alone in his tent, he wore this veil.158
Does this not sound much less like the behaviour of a man who had been touched by the radiance of God than of a man burned – and burned badly – by some potent energy source?
A testament to lost truths
It would be possible to speculate endlessly about the true character of the Ark of the Covenant – and of its contents. I have gone as far as I wish to down this particular road. Readers who would like to go further, however, might find it interesting to consider first the materials from which the Ark was made. Huge quantities of gold seem to have been used – and gold, as well as being beautiful and noble, is also chemically non-reactive and exceptionally dense. In particular the ‘mercy seat’ – which served as the lid of the relic – was believed by one learned rabbi (who lived in the twelfth century AD) to have been a full hand-breadth thick.159 Since a hand-breadth was traditionally measured from the tip of the thumb to the extended tip of the little finger, this means that the Ark was closed with a hulking slab of solid gold nine inches deep.160 Why was it necessary to use so much of the precious metal? And was it an accident that Rabbi Shelomo Yitshaki who procured this information – as well as a great deal of other intelligence concerning the sacred relic – was born and spent most of his life in the city of Troyes in the heart of France’s Champagne region?161 That same city was the home of Chrétien de Troyes whose work on the Holy Grail, written seventy-five years after the rabbi’s death, established the genre in which Wolfram von Eschenbach was soon to follow. And it was in Troyes as well that the rule of the Knights Templar was drawn up by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. In this way the mysteries and the connections multiply.
Those who are curious might also wish to give some thought to the peculiar garments that the High Priests of ancient Israel wore when they approached the Ark.162 If they did not wear these garments their lives were believed to be at risk.163 Was this purely a matter of superstition and ritual? Or was protective clothing necessary for some reason that perhaps had to do with the nature of the Ark itself?
Related to this point is another – the curious coverings, consisting of two layers of cloth and one of leather, that the Ark had to be wrapped in before it could be transported164 (apparently in order to prevent anyone from being killed as a result of accidentally touching it whilst it was on the move165). Even when these precautions had been fully complied with, however, the sacred relic still sometimes caused the death of its bearers. It did so with ‘sparks’.166 But what were these sparks? And were the wrappings – which were all made of non-conductive materials167 – perhaps intended to serve as insulation?168
Also of some potential interest is the story of Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron who were struck down by the Ark soon after its installation in the Tabernacle (I have described this incident briefly in Chapter 12; according to the Scriptures a flame leapt out at them ‘and devoured them and they died’169). Surprisingly, Moses completely ignored the normally lengthy Hebrew funeral procedures and instead ordered that the bodies should immediately be taken ‘far away’ out of the camp.170 Why should he have done such a thing? What was it exactly that he feared?
Moving forward in time, I suggest that those who wish to learn more could do worse than examine the passages in the Bible which recount the dreadful afflictions that the Ark worked amongst the Philistines during the seven months that it spent in their hands after they had captured it at the battle of Ebenezer.171 Again, I have described these events in Chapter 12, but I have also left much unsaid that could be said.
Many riddles, too, might be solved by a close study of what happened in the years after the Ark was returned to the Israelites by the Philistines and before King Solomon finally installed it in the Holy of Holies of his Temple in Jerusalem. I believe that an explanation exists for the miracles and the terrors that it worked during this period172 – a rational explanation connected to its character as a man-made device and not to any divine or unearthly influences.
Indeed, my own investigations have led me to conclude that it may only be possible to understand the sacred relic properly when it is seen in this light – not as a repository of supernatural powers but as an artefact and as an instrument. No doubt this instrument was very different from any known to us today, but it was none the less the product of human ingenuity, devised by human hands to fulfil very human objectives. As such its magic and its mystery are not diminished for me. The gift of an ancient and secret science, I think of it as a key to the sealed and unremembered history of our species, a sign of our forgotten glory, and a testament to lost truths about ourselves.
And what else is the quest for the Ark or the Grail if it is not a quest for knowledge, a quest for wisdom and a quest for enlightenment?