Part V: Israel and Egypt, 1990
In the mid-afternoon of Thursday 4 October 19901 entered the old walled city of Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate. After passing Omar Ibn el-Khatab Square, with its pleasant cafés and hawkers’ stands, a bewildering maze of narrow streets paved with ancient cobble stones lay ahead of me.
A few years earlier this whole area would have been seething with shoppers and sightseers; now, however, it was almost deserted. The Palestinian intifada, and recent threats by Iraq to ‘burn’ Israel with Scud missiles, had been enough to drive virtually all foreigners away.
To my right, as I walked, was the Armenian Quarter and, to my left, the Christian Quarter dominated by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Within this great edifice was the Chapel of the Invention of the Cross which the victorious Muslim general Saladin – at the request of King Lalibela – had granted to the Ethiopian community of Jerusalem after the Crusaders had been expelled from the city in AD 1187.1 In later years the Ethiopians had lost their privileges in the chapel. I knew, however, that they still occupied an extensive monastery on its roof.
I continued in an easterly direction through the silent and deserted alleys, many of which were covered with canvas awnings that cut out the glare and heat of the afternoon sun, creating a cool, almost subterranean atmosphere. A few forlorn shopkeepers sitting in their doorways made half-hearted attempts to sell me souvenirs that I did not want and bags of ripe oranges that I had no desire to carry.
To my right now, as I proceeded along the Street of the Chain, was the Jewish Quarter where gangs of Hasidic youths dressed in dark suits and incongruous fur hats roamed pugnaciously about, declaring by their body language that they were the masters of all they surveyed. To my left, filled to the brim with unhappiness, frustration and restless despair, was the Muslim Quarter. And straight ahead, rising up above the clutter of the old city like a golden symbol of hope, was the Dome of the Rock – the beautiful mosque erected by the Caliph Omar and his successors in the seventh century AD and regarded as the third most sacred place in the Islamic world.2
It was the Dome of the Rock that I had come to see, although not because of its significance to Muslims but because it had been built on the original site of the Temple of Solomon. Inside I knew that I would find a great stone, believed by orthodox Jews to be theShetiyyah – the foundation-stone of the world. And on that stone, in the tenth century BC, amidst the ‘thick darkness’ of the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant had been placed by Solomon himself.3 Like a man who seeks to conjure up an image of his long-departed lover by caressing some item of her clothing, I therefore hoped that by touching the Shetiyyah I might gain a deeper and more abiding sense of the lost relic that I sought.
This, however, was not my only purpose on that afternoon in October. Just a few hundred metres to the south of the Dome of the Rock I knew that I would also be able to visit another building of central importance to my quest – the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which the Knights Templar had used as their headquarters in the twelfth century AD. From this base, I suspected, they had sallied forth to conduct investigations of their own in the caverns beneath the Shetiyyah – where certain legends suggested that the Ark had been concealed shortly before the destruction of Solomon’s Temple.4
It was to the Al-Aqsa Mosque that I went first, slipping off my shoes and entering the cool and roomy rectangular hall believed by Muslims to be the ‘furthermost sanctuary’, to which Muhammad was supposedly transported by angels on his famous Night Journey. Whatever place of prayer existed in the Prophet’s lifetime (AD 570–632) had long since vanished, however, and I was confronted by a medley of different building styles, the oldest of which dated back to around AD 1035 and the most recent to the period 1938–42, when the Italian dictator Mussolini had donated the forest of marble columns that lay ahead of me and when King Farouk of Egypt had financed the restoration and repainting of the ceiling.5
The Templars, too, had left their mark on the great mosque. Taking up residence here in AD 1119 and not leaving until 1187 when they were driven out of Jerusalem by Saladin, they had been responsible, amongst other things, for the three magnificent central bays of the porch. Much of the other architecture that the knights had added had subsequently been destroyed. Their refectory, however, had survived (being incorporated into the nearby Women’s Mosque), and the vast underground area which they had developed as stables for their horses (the so-called ‘Stables of Solomon’) were also in a good state of repair.6
As I carefully picked my way in stockinged feet amongst the Muslims who were already assembling for afternoon prayer I felt strangely light-headed but at the same time alert – keyed-up. The jumble of different eras and influences, the old mixed in with the new, Mussolini’s marble columns, and the eleventh-century Islamic mosaics, had all conspired to confuse my perceptions. Currents of incense-laden air wafted through the spacious and light-filled interior, summoning up visions of the European knights who had lived and died here so long ago and who had named their strange and secretive order after the Temple of Solomon – the site of which, now occupied by the Dome of the Rock, was only two minutes’ walk away.
The raison d’être of the Temple had been extremely simple. It had been conceived and designed as nothing more, and nothing less, than ‘an house of rest for the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord’.7 But the Ark, of course, had long since vanished, and the Temple, too, was gone. Utterly and completely destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC, the structure erected by Solomon had been replaced half a century later by the Second Temple – which, in its turn, had been razed by the Romans in AD 70. The site had then lapsed into disuse until the arrival of the Muslim armies in AD 638 when the Dome of the Rock had been built.8 Throughout all these changes the Shetiyyah had remained in place. The sacred floor on which the Ark had once stood was therefore the single constant factor that had weathered all the storms of history, that had seen Jews and Babylonians and Romans and Christians and Muslims come and go, and that still endured today.
Leaving the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and slipping on my shoes again, I now made my way up through the tree-lined precincts of the Temple Mount to the Dome of the Rock – the very name of which reflected its guardianship of the Shetiyyah. A large and elegant octagonal building faced with rich blue tiling, its dominant exterior feature was its massive golden dome (which, indeed, could be seen from many different parts of Jerusalem). To my eye, however, there was nothing overwhelming about this tall and perfect monument. On the contrary it conveyed a complex feeling of lightness and grace coupled with an understated but reassuring strength.
This first impression was enhanced and completed by the interior of the building, which quite literally took my breath away. The soaring ceiling, the columns and arches supporting the inner octagon, the various niches and recesses, the mosaics, the inscriptions – all these elements and many more melded together in a sublime harmony of proportion and design that gave eloquent expression to humanity’s yearning for the divine and that proclaimed that yearning to be both noble and profound.
My glance had been drawn upwards when I entered – upwards into the cupola, the farthest reaches of which were lost in the cool darkness overhead. Now, however, as though attracted by some powerful magnetic force, I felt my attention tugged down again towards the very centre of the mosque where a huge tawny rock perhaps thirty feet across, flat in places, jagged in others, lay directly beneath the dome.
This was the Shetiyyah and, as I approached it, I was aware that my heart was beating more quickly than usual and that my breathing seemed laboured. It was not difficult to understand why the ancients had thought of this great boulder as the foundation-stone of the world or to see why Solomon had chosen it as the centrepiece of his Temple. Rough-textured and asymmetrical, it jutted out above the bedrock of Mount Moriah as solid and as unshakable as the earth itself.
A carved wooden railing surrounded the whole central area, but into one corner of this railing was set a shrine through which I was allowed to push my hand to touch the Shetiyyah. Its texture, smoothed down by the caresses of countless generations of pilgrims before me, was slick, almost glasslike, and I stood there, lost in my own thoughts, drinking in through the pores of my fingers the immense antiquity of this strange and wonderful stone. Though it was perhaps a small victory, it nevertheless meant a great deal to me to be in this place and to savour this moment of quiet reflection at the source of the mystery that I sought to solve.
Eventually I withdrew my hand and continued my circuit of the Shetiyyah. At one side a stairway led down to a deep hollow beneath the stone – a cave-like cist known to the Muslims as Bir el-Arweh, the ‘Well of Souls’. Here, according to the faithful, the voices of the dead could sometimes be heard mingled with the sounds of the rivers of paradise. As I entered, however, I could hear nothing except the murmured prayers of the half-dozen or so pilgrims who had preceded me and who were now slumped in obeisance on the cold rock floor invoking in mellifluous Arabic the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful – a deity whose prophets, long before the time of Muhammad, had included Abraham and Moses and who, in his absolute and uncompromisingoneness, was in no way different from Yahweh, the God of the Ark.9
I already knew that a number of Jewish and Islamic legends spoke of a sealed and secret passage beneath the Well of Souls leading into the bowels of the earth, where the Ark had supposedly been concealed at the time of the destruction of Solomon’s Temple – and where many believed that it rested still, guarded by spirits and demons.10 As noted in Part II, I suspected that the Knights Templar could have been motivated to search here for the Ark in the twelfth century AD after learning of these legends. One variant of the tale that might particularly have excited their interest purported to be an eyewitness account by a certain ‘Baruch’ of an intervention by an ‘angel of the Lord’ only moments before the Babylonian army broke into the Temple:
And I saw him descend into the Holy of Holies, and take from it the veil, and the Holy Ark, and its cover, and the two tablets … And he cried to the earth in a loud voice, ‘Earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the mighty God, and receive what I commit to you, and guard them until the last times, so that, when you are ordered, you may restore them, and strangers may not get possession of them …’ And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up.11
If the Templars had indeed been inspired by this text to search beneath the Well of Souls they would not, I was absolutely confident, have found the Ark there. The so-called ‘Apocalypse of Baruch’ (from which the above quotation is taken) might easily have seemed to them like a genuinely ancient document dating from the sixth century BC. The truth, however, as modern scholarship had subsequently revealed, was that it was written in the late first century AD and that it therefore could not possibly have been an eyewitness account of the concealment of the sacred relic, whether by an angel or by any other agency. On the contrary it was, from beginning to end, a work of imaginative fiction which, despite its eerie and evocative tone, possessed no historical merit whatsoever.12
For this and other reasons, I felt sure that the Templars would have been frustrated in their excavations beneath the Temple Mount. But I also suspected that they had later learned of Ethiopia’s claim to be the last resting place of the Ark and that a group of knights had ultimately gone there to investigate this claim for themselves.13
I, too, was following the same trail that those knights had stumbled upon so many centuries before, and I felt that it pointed compellingly towards the sanctuary chapel in the sacred city of Axum. Before attempting to make my own way into the war-torn highlands of Tigray, however, I wanted to be absolutely satisfied that there was no other country or place where the lost relic could be. It was that desire that had brought me to the original site of the Temple of Solomon on 4 October 1990. And it was that desire that had drawn me to the Shetiyyah, on which the Ark had once stood and from which it had vanished.
That was my starting point, but now I intended to use the rest of my stay in Jerusalem to talk to religious and academic authorities and to examine in the greatest possible depth all the circumstances known to have surrounded the mysterious disappearance of the relic. Only if I was still confident of the basic merit of the Ethiopian claim after I had completed that exercise would I finally commit myself to the Axum adventure. The January 1991 Timkat ceremonials at which I hoped that the object believed to be the Ark would be carried in procession were, however, less than four months away. I was therefore acutely aware that my time was running out.
What house can you build me?
The installation of the Ark in the Temple of Solomon, which – as I had already established – must have taken place around the year 955 BC,14 was described in the first book of Kings:
Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel … And the priests brought in the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord to its place in the Temple … in the Holy of Holies … And it came to pass, when the priests were come out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud: for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord. Then spake Solomon, ‘The Lord said that he would dwell in the thick darkness. I have surely built thee a house to dwell in,, a settled place for thee to abide in forever … But will God indeed dwell on the earth? behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?’15
According to the Scriptures, Solomon had later ‘turned away his heart after other gods’ and had worshipped with particular enthusiasm ‘Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians and … Milcom the abomination of the Amorites’.16 Because of this tendency to apostasy I found it difficult to believe that the monarch whose legendary wisdom was said to have excelled ‘all the wisdom of Egypt’17 had ever really held Yahweh in especially high esteem. And for the same reason I did not think that he had been paying metaphysical tribute to the omnipotence and omnipresence of the God of Israel when he had expressed his doubts about the ability of the Temple to ‘contain’ the Ark. On the contrary, it seemed to me that when Solomon had uttered these curious words he had been giving voice to genuine fears of a pragmatic rather than of a spiritual nature. Might not the sacred relic still break free, even though it was anchored now to the very foundation-stone of the world? Might not the unpredictable energies pent up within it still be sufficiently potent and dangerous to burn through the thick darkness of the Holy of Holies and to destroy the great ‘house’ that had been erected around it?
There was, I felt, a real sense in which the Temple appeared to have been built less as an earthly palace for a dearly beloved but incorporeal deity than as a kind of prison for the Ark of the Covenant. Within the Holy of Holies, above the two cherubim that faced each other across the relic’s golden lid, Solomon had installed two additional cherubim of giant size – grim guardians indeed, with wingspans of fifteen feet or more, all covered in gold.18 Meanwhile the Holy of Holies itself – the purpose of which, the Bible stated explicitly, had been ‘to contain the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh’19 – had been a perfect cube, foursquare and immensely strong. Measuring thirty feet long, by thirty feet wide, by thirty feet high,20 its floor, its four walls and its ceiling had been lined with pure gold, weighing an estimated 45,000 pounds,21 and riveted with golden nails.22
Nor was this golden cell the only feature of the Temple’s construction that caught my attention. At least as interesting was the pedigree of the craftsman – a foreigner – who had been called in to complete all the other metalwork that Solomon had required:
And Solomon sent for Hiram of Tyre; he was the son of a widow of the tribe of Naphtali … and he was filled with wisdom, and understanding, and cunning to work all works in bronze.23
The phrase emphasized above in italics had jumped out at me from the page as soon as I had set eyes upon it. Why? Because I knew that the very first mention in literature of the Grail hero Parzival had described him in almost exactly the same words as ‘the son of the widowed lady’.24 Indeed, both Chrétien de Troyes, the founder of the genre, and his successor Wolfram von Eschenbach, had gone to great lengths to make it clear that Parzival’s mother had been a widow.25
Could I be looking, I wondered, at yet another of the bizarre coincidences in which, through the use of dense and often deceptive symbolism, the fictional quest for the Holy Grail seemed to have been deliberately devised to serve as a cryptogram for the real quest for the lost Ark? I had long since satisfied myself that the Knights Templar had been key players in both and that, after the destruction of their order in the fourteenth century, many of their traditions had been preserved in Freemasonry. I was therefore intrigued to learn that Hiram of Tyre, who the Bible said had been called to Jerusalem by Solomon, was not only a widow’s son like Parzival, but also a figure of immense significance to Freemasons – who knew him as ‘Hiram Abiff’, and who made reference to him in all their most important rituals.26
According to Masonic tradition Hiram was murdered by three of his assistants soon after he had completed the bronzework of the Temple. And this event was for some reason regarded as so laden with meaning that it was commemorated in the initiation ceremonies for Master Masons – in which each initiate was required to play the role of the murder victim. In one authoritative study I found this description of the relevant part of the ceremonial (which is still in regular use today):
Blindfolded on the ground, the initiate hears the three murderers decide to bury him in a pile of rubble until ‘low twelve’ (midnight), when they will carry the body away from the Temple. To symbolise the burial of Hiram Abiff, the candidate is wrapped in a blanket and carried to the side of the room. Soon he hears a bell strike twelve times and is carried from the ‘rubble’ grave to a grave dug on the brow of a hill ‘west of Mount Moriah’ (the Temple Mount). He hears the murderers agree to mark his grave with a sprig of acacia, then set out to escape to Ethiopia across the Red Sea.27
Here, then, were more coincidences – a minor one in the form of the sprig of acacia (the same wood that was used to make the Ark), and a major one in the Masonic tradition that Hiram’s murderers had intended to flee ‘to Ethiopia’. I had no idea how much weight I should attach to such details but I could not rid myself of the feeling that they must in some way be relevant to my quest.
This suspicion deepened, furthermore, when I turned back to the Bible to find that one of the bronze items of Temple furniture that Hiram was said to have built was
the Sea of cast metal, ten cubits from rim to rim, circular in shape and five cubits high; a cord thirty cubits long gave the measurement of its girth … It was a handsbreadth in thickness, and its rim was shaped like the rim of a cup, like a flower. It held two thousand baths.28
This ‘Sea’, I learned, had stood in the courtyard of the Temple. It had been a huge bronze basin, fifteen feet in diameter and seven and a half feet high. It had weighed around thirty tonnes when empty but had normally been kept full with an estimated 10,000 gallons of water.29 Most authorities admitted frankly that they did not know what its function had been – although some thought that it had symbolized the ‘primordial waters’ referred to in the book of Genesis30 and others believed that it had been used by the priests for their ritual ablutions.31 I, however, found neither of these hypotheses satisfactory – and, of the two, the latter seemed the most improbable because the Bible stated quite plainly that Hiram had made ten smaller bronze basins for precisely this purpose (placed on wheeled stands, each basin held ‘forty baths’32). After reviewing the evidence, therefore, I entered the following speculation in my notebook:
Is it not possible that the bronze ‘Sea’ which Hiram made for the courtyard of Solomon’s Temple was a throwback to the ancient Egyptian rituals on which the ceremonies of the Ark appear to have been closely modelled? In the festival of Apet at Luxor the ‘Arks’ containing effigies of the gods were always carried to water.33 And this, too, is precisely what happens in Ethiopia today: at Timkat in Gondar the tabotat are carried to the edge of a ‘sacred lake’ at the rear of the castle.34 So perhaps the bronze Sea was also a kind of sacred lake?
According to the Bible, the other items fashioned by Hiram for Solomon’s Temple had included ‘the ash containers, the scoops and the sprinkling bowls’35 and also
two bronze pillars; the height of one pillar was eighteen cubits, and a cord twelve cubits long gave the measurement of its girth; so also was the second pillar … He set up the pillars in front of the vestibule of the sanctuary; he set up the right-hand pillar and named it Jachin; he set up the left-hand pillar and named it Boaz. So the work on the pillars was completed.36
Jachin and Boaz, I discovered, also featured in Masonic traditions.37 According to the ‘old ritual’ these two great pillars had been hollow. Inside them had been stored the ‘ancient records’ and the ‘valuable writings’ pertaining to the past of the Jewish people.38 And amongst these records, the Freemasons claimed, had been ‘the secret of the magical Shamir and the history of its properties’.39
My curiosity was aroused by this mention of the ‘magical Shamir’. What had it been? Was it just a piece of Masonic arcana, or was it referred to in the Bible?
After a painstaking search, I was able to confirm that the word ‘Shamir’ appeared only four times in the Old and New Testaments40 – thrice as a place name and once as the name of a man. Clearly, therefore, none of these could have been the ‘magical’ Shamir, the secrets of which the Masons claimed had been concealed in Hiram’s bronze pillars.
I did find the information that I was looking for, however – not in the Scriptures but in the Talmudic-Midrashic sources at my disposal. Because Moses had commanded the Israelites not to use ‘any tool of iron’ in the construction of holy places,41 Solomon had ordered that no hammers, axes or chisels should be used to cut and dress the many massive stone blocks from which the outer walls and courtyard of the Temple had been built. Instead he had provided the artificers with an ancient device, dating back to the time of Moses himself.42 This device was called the Shamir and was capable of cutting the toughest of materials without friction or heat.43 Also known as ‘the stone that splits rocks’,44
the Shamir may not be put in an iron vessel for safekeeping, nor in any metal vessel: it would burst such a receptacle asunder. It is kept wrapped up in a woollen cloth, and this in turn is placed in a lead basket filled with barley bran … With the destruction of the Temple the Shamir vanished.45
I was fascinated by this odd and ancient tradition, which also claimed that the Shamir had possessed ‘the remarkable property of cutting the hardest of diamonds’.46 I then found a collateral version of the same story which added that it had been quite noiseless while it was at work.47
All in all, I concluded, these characteristics (like many of the characteristics of the Ark of the Covenant) sounded broadly technological in nature, rather than in any way ‘magical’ or supernatural. And I also thought it significant that this peculiar device – again like the Ark – had been directly associated with Moses. Finally it did not seem to me entirely irrelevant that the Freemasons had maintained their own separate traditions about it – traditions which stated that its secrets had been concealed inside the two bronze pillars placed ‘in front of the vestibule of the sanctuary’ by Hiram the widow’s son.
Without knowledge of those long-lost ‘secrets’, I realized that I could not hope to go any further with this line of inquiry. At the same time, however, I felt that the story of the Shamir deepened the mystery surrounding the real nature of the great stronghold on the top of Mount Moriah that had been built and explicitly dedicated as ‘an house of rest for the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord’. With its bronze pillars and its bronze ‘Sea’, its giant cherubim and its golden inner shrine, Solomon’s Temple had clearly been a special place, wonderfully made, the focus of superstition and religious dread, and the centre of Jewish faith and cultural life. How, then, could the Ark possibly have disappeared from it?
Shishak, Jehoash and Nebuchadnezzar
An obvious answer to the last question – which, if correct, would completely invalidate the Ethiopian claim – was that the Ark could have been taken by force from the Temple during one of the several military catastrophes that Israel suffered after the death of Solomon.
The first of these catastrophes occurred in 926 BC during the unsuccessful reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam.48 Then, according to the first book of Kings, an Egyptian Pharaoh known as Sheshonq (or ‘Shishak’) mounted a full-scale invasion:
In the fifth year of king Rehoboam … Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem: And he took away the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king’s house; he even took away all.49
There was nothing in this tantalizingly brief account to suggest that Shishak’s booty had not included the Ark of the Covenant. But if the Ark had indeed been captured just thirty years after Solomon had installed it in the Temple then it seemed to me that the scribes would have said so – and would in addition have lamented the loss of the precious relic. They had not even mentioned it, however50 – which to my mind implied one of two things: either the Ark had been secretly removed before the arrival of the Egyptian army (perhaps during the reign of Solomon himself as Ethiopian tradition insisted); or it had remained in situ in the Holy of Holies throughout the invasion. But the notion that the Pharaoh could have taken it looked most implausible.
A further indication that this was so had been left by Shishak himself in the form of his vast triumphal relief at Karnak. I had already become quite familiar with that relief during my various visits to Egypt and I felt sure that it had made no mention of the Ark of the Covenant or, for that matter, of any siege or pillage of Jerusalem.51 On checking further I was now able to confirm that this impression had been correct. One authoritative study stated unequivocally that the majority of the towns and cities listed as having been sacked by Shishak had in fact been in the northern part of Israel:
Jerusalem, target of Shishak’s campaign according to the Bible, is missing. Although the inscription is heavily damaged, it is certain that Jerusalem was not included because the list is arranged into geographical sequences which allow no space for the name Jerusalem.52
What then could have happened at the holy city to explain the Scriptural assertion that Shishak had taken away ‘the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king’s house’?
The academic consensus, I discovered, was that the Pharaoh had surrounded Jerusalem but that he had never actually entered it; instead he had been ‘bought off with the treasures of Solomon’s temple and palace.’53 These treasures, moreover, could not possibly have included the Ark, even if it had still been there in 926 BC; instead they would have consisted of far less sacred items, mainly public and royal donations dedicated to Yahweh. Such items, normally quite precious and made of silver and gold, were not stored in the Holy of Holies but rather in the outer precincts of the Temple in special treasuries that were always mentioned in the Old Testament conjointly with the treasuries of the king’s house.54 ‘Occasionally,’ as one leading biblical scholar put it,
these treasuries were depleted either by foreign invaders or by the kings themselves when they were in need of funds. The treasuries thus constantly oscillated between a state of affluence and want … The invasion of Shishak [had], therefore, nothing to do with the Temple sanctums, and it would be entirely inaccurate to associate [it] with the disappearance of the Ark.55
Precisely the same caution, I discovered, also applied to the next occasion on which the Temple had apparently been looted. This had happened at a time when the unified state that David and Solomon had forged had been split into two warring kingdoms – ‘Judah’ in the south (which included Jerusalem) and ‘Israel’ in the north. In 796 BC56 Jehoash, the monarch of the northern kingdom, joined battle at Bethshemesh with his Judaean counterpart Amaziah:
And Judah was put to the worse before Israel, and they fled every man to their tents. And Jehoash king of Israel took Amaziah king of Judah … at Bethshemesh, and came to Jerusalem, and brake down the wall of Jerusalem … And he took all the gold and silver, and all the vessels that were found in the house of the Lord, and in the treasuries of the king’s house.57
Once again, this pillage of the Temple had not involved the Holy of Holies or the Ark of the Covenant. As one authority on the period explained:
Jehoash did not even enter the Temple’s outer sanctum, certainly not the inner one … The phrase ‘the house of the Lord’ mentioned in connection with Jehoash … is simply a shortened form of ‘the treasuries of the house of the Lord’. This may be seen from the fact that the ‘treasuries of the king’s house’ which are always contiguously mentioned with the ‘treasuries of the house of the Lord’ are also mentioned.58
So much then for Shishak and Jehoash. The reason that neither of them had claimed to have taken the Ark, and the reason that neither had been reported by the Bible to have done so, was now quite clear to me: they had got nowhere near the Holy of Holies in which the sacred relic had been kept and had helped themselves only to minor treasures of gold and silver.
The same, however, could not be said for Jerusalem’s next and greatest invader, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. He attacked and occupied the holy city not once but twice, and even on the first occasion, in 598 BC,59 it was clear that he had penetrated deeply into the Temple itself. The Bible described this disaster in the following terms:
The troops of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon marched on Jerusalem, and the city was besieged. Nebuchadnezzar … himself came to attack the city while his troops were besieging it. Then Jehoiachin king of Judah surrendered to the king of Babylon, he, his mother, his officers, his nobles and his eunuchs, and the king of Babylon took them prisoner. This was the eighth year of King Nebuchadnezzar. The latter carried off all the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king’s house, and cut in pieces all the golden furnishings that Solomon king of Israel had made for the sanctuary of Yahweh.60
What had Nebuchadnezzar’s booty consisted of? I already knew that the ‘treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king’s house’ could not have included any truly sacred objects such as the Ark. As noted above, these phrases had very specific and distinct meanings in the original Hebrew and referred only to dispensable items stored in the royal and priestly treasuries.
More significant by far was the statement that the Babylonian monarch had ‘cut in pieces all the golden furnishings that Solomon king of Israel had made for the sanctuary of Yahweh.’ The Hebrew word that the translators of the Jerusalem Bible had rendered as ‘sanctuary’ was, I discovered, hekal and its precise meaning was ‘outer sanctum’.61 In trying to envisage its location I found it useful to recall the basic layout of Ethiopian Orthodox churches which – as I had learned on my trip to Gondar in January 1990 – exactly reflected the tripartite division of the Temple of Solomon.62 By co-ordinating this mental picture with the best scholarly research on the subject I was able to confirm beyond any shadow of a doubt that the hekal had corresponded to the k’eddest of Ethiopian churches.63 This meant that the ‘sanctuary of Yahweh’ despoiled by Nebuchadnezzar had not been the Holy of Holies in which the Ark had stood but rather the antechamber to that sacred place. The Holy of Holies itself – the inner sanctum – had been known in ancient Hebrew as the debir and corresponded to the mak’das in which the tabotat were kept in Ethiopian churches.64
If the Ark had still been in the Temple at the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s first attack, therefore – and that, as it turned out, was a very big if – then it was certain that the Babylonian king had not taken it. Instead he had contented himself with cutting ‘in pieces’ and carrying off the ‘golden furnishings’ that Solomon had placed in the hekal.65 The other ‘furnishings’ that had been looted by Nebuchadnezzar – and the list was quite specific – were as follows:
the lamp-stands, five on the right and five on the left in front of the debir, of pure gold; the floral work, the lamps, the extinguishers of gold; the basins, knives, sprinkling bowls, incense boats, censers, of pure gold; the door sockets for the inner shrine – that is, the Holy of Holies – and for the hekal, of gold.66
Of course, in this translation, the terms ‘inner shrine’, ‘debir’ and ‘Holy of Holies’ were all used interchangeably to refer to the same sacred place – i.e. the place in which the Ark had been installed by Solomon so many centuries before.67 Once I had satisfied myself that that was indeed the case, a single significant fact suddenly became clear to me: while not looting the Holy of Holies, Nebuchadnezzar had nonetheless removed its door-sockets. From this it was safe to deduce that the doors had been taken off their hinges and that the Babylonian monarch – or the soldiers who had carried out his orders – would thus have been able to look right into the debir.
I realized immediately that this was an important, indeed a crucial, finding. Gazing into the inner sanctum the Babylonians should immediately have been able to see the two giant cherubim, overlaid with gold, that Solomon had placed as sentinels over the Ark – and they should also have been able to see the Ark itself. Since they had shown no compunction in removing the gold from the furnishings of the hekal it therefore had to be asked why they had not immediately rushed into the debir to strip the far larger quantities of gold from its walls and from the cherubim, and why they had not taken the Ark as booty.
The Babylonians had demonstrated that they held the Jews – and their religion – in complete contempt.68 There was thus no mileage in assuming that they might have refrained from looting the Holy of Holies out of some sort of altruistic desire to spare the feelings of the vanquished. On the contrary all the evidence suggested that if they had indeed been confronted by rich pickings like the Ark, and the gold overlay on the walls and on the cherubim, then Nebuchadnezzar and his men would unhesitatingly have helped themselves to the lot.
What made this even more probable was that it had been the normal practice of the Babylonians at this time to seize the principal idols or cult-objects of the peoples they had conquered and to transport them back to Babylon to place in their own temple before the statue of their god Marduk.69 The Ark would have been an ideal candidate for this sort of treatment. Yet it had not even been stripped of its gold, let alone carried off intact. Indeed neither it nor the cherubim had been mentioned at all.
The logical conclusion [I wrote in my notebook] is that the Ark and the gold-covered cherubim were no longer in the debir in 598 BC when the first Babylonian invasion took place – and, indeed, that the walls, floor and ceiling of the debir had also been stripped of their gold prior to that date. This would seem to lend at least prima facie support to the Ethiopian claim – since I have already established that Shishak and Jehoash did not get their hands on the Ark, or on the other precious contents of thedebir, and since they were the only previous invaders to have acquired any sort of treasure from the Temple.
Of course the Babylonian assault on Jerusalem in 598 BC had not been the last that Nebuchadnezzar would mount – and the conclusion that I had just scribbled in my notebook would be proved completely false if there were any evidence to suggest that he had taken the Ark the second time that he sacked the holy city.
After the successful operation of 598 BC he had installed a puppet king, Zedekiah, on the throne.70 This ‘puppet’, however, turned out to have ideas of his own and, in 589 BC, he rebelled against his Babylonian overlord.71
The response was instantaneous. Nebuchadnezzar marched on Jerusalem once again and laid siege to it, finally breaching its walls and overrunning it in late June or early July of the year 587 BC.72 Slightly less than a month later:73
Nebuzaradan, commander of the guard, an officer of the king of Babylon … burned down the Temple of Yahweh, the royal palace and all the houses in Jerusalem. The … troops who accompanied the commander of the guard … broke up the bronze pillars from the Temple of Yahweh, the wheeled stands and the bronze Sea that were in the Temple of Yahweh, and took the bronze away to Babylon. They took the ash containers, the scoops, the knives, the incense boats, and all the bronze furnishings used in worship. The commander of the guard took the censers and the sprinkling bowls, everything that was made of gold and everything made of silver. As regards the two pillars, the one Sea and the wheeled stands … there was no reckoning the weight in bronze in all these objects.74
This, then, was the detailed inventory offered in the Bible of all the objects and treasures broken up or carried off to Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar’s second attack on the city. Once again, and significantly, the Ark of the Covenant was not included – and nor was the gold that Solomon had used to line the Holy of Holies and to overlay the great cherubim that had stood within that sacred place. Indeed absolutely nothing else was mentioned at all and it was clear that the bulk of the loot taken in 587 BC had consisted of bronze salvaged from the pillars and the ‘Sea’ – and also from the wheeled basins – that Hiram had made four centuries earlier.
A fact that argued very strongly in favour of the basic veracity of the list was that it was entirely consistent with the biblical account of what had previously been stolen from the Temple in 598 BC. On that occasion Nebuchadnezzar had left the bronze items in place but had removed the ‘treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king’s house’ and had also stripped off all the gold from the furnishings of the hekal. This was why, eleven years later, Nebuzaradan’s haul of gold and silver had consisted only of a few censers and sprinkling bowls:75 he had not been able to find anything more valuable for the simple reason that all the best items had been looted and taken to Babylon in 598 BC.
Since I had already satisfied myself that those items had not included the Ark, and since the relic had not been amongst the second lot of booty either, I felt increasing confidence in my conclusion that it must have disappeared at some stage prior to the Babylonian invasions. By the same token the other oft-cited explanation for the loss of the relic – namely that it must have been destroyed in the great fire that Nebuzaradan had started76 – also looked increasingly untenable. If the Ark had indeed been taken away before 598 BC – perhaps to Ethiopia – then it would of course have escaped the destruction of the Temple.
But was it safe, from this chain of reasoning, to deduce that it had gone to Ethiopia? Certainly not. Researching the matter further I found that Judaic traditions offered several alternative explanations for what had happened – any of which, if sufficiently strong, might prove fatal to the Ethiopian case and all of which therefore had to be considered on their merits.
‘Deep and tortuous caches …’
The first point that became clear to me was that the Jews as a people had only become conscious of the loss of the Ark – and conscious that this loss was a great mystery – at the time of the building of the Second Temple.
I was already aware that in 598 BC Nebuchadnezzar had sent into exile in Babylon a large number of the inhabitants of Jerusalem.77 In 587 BC, after the burning of Solomon’s Temple,
Nebuzaradan, commander of the guard, deported the remainder of the population left behind in the city, the deserters who had gone over to the king of Babylon, and the rest of the common people … Thus Judah was deported from this land.78
The trauma of the banishment, the humiliations of the captivity, and the firm resolve that Jerusalem should never be forgotten, were soon to be immortalized in one of the most poignant and evocative pieces of poetry in the whole of the Old Testament:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof,
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.79
This physical exile of an entire people was not to last for very long. Nebuchadnezzar had begun the process in 598 BC and had completed it in 587. Slightly less than half a century later, however, the empire that had expanded so dramatically under his rule was utterly crushed by Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, whose triumphant armies entered Babylon in 539 BC.80
This Cyrus, who has been described as ‘one of the world’s most astonishing empire-builders’,81 adopted an enlightened approach towards his subject peoples. There were others, like the Jews, who had also been held captive in Babylon. He made it his business to set them all free. Moreover, he permitted them to remove their confiscated idols and cult objects from the temple of Marduk and to carry these home with them.82
The Jews, of course, were unable to take full advantage of this latter opportunity, because their principal cult object, the Ark of the Covenant, had not been brought to Babylon in the first place. Nevertheless a large number of the lesser treasures thatNebuchadnezzar had seized were still intact, and these the Persians handed over with all due ceremony to the appropriate Judaean officials. The Old Testament contained a detailed report of the transaction:
King Cyrus took the vessels of the Temple of Yahweh which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and dedicated to the temple of his god. Cyrus king of Persia handed them over to Mithredath, the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah. The inventory was as follows: thirty golden bowls for offerings; one thousand and twenty-nine silver bowls for offerings; thirty golden bowls; four hundred and ten silver bowls; one thousand other vessels. In all, five thousand four hundred vessels of gold and silver. Sheshbazzar took all these with him when the exiles travelled back from Babylon to Jerusalem.83
That return journey took place in 538 BC.84 Then, in the spring of 537 BC, the Second Temple began to be built above the razed foundations of the First.85 The work was finally completed around 517 BC,86 and although this was a cause for great rejoicing there were also reasons for sorrow. The removal of the Ark of the Covenant from the First Temple – whenever it had occurred – had clearly been kept secret from the public (not a difficult task since no one but the High Priest was supposed to enter the Holy of Holies). Now, however, after the return from Babylon, it was impossible to disguise the fact that the precious relic had gone, and that it therefore could not be installed in the inner sanctum of the Second Temple. This great change was explicitly admitted in the Talmud, which stated: ‘In five things the First Sanctuary differed from the Second: in the Ark, the Ark-cover, the Cherubim, the Fire, and the Urim-and-Thummim.’87 The Urim and Thummim had been mysterious objects (here referred to collectively as a single object) that had possibly been used for divining and that had been kept in the breast-plate of the High Priest in the time of Moses. They were not present in the Second Temple. Neither was the celestial fire that had always been associated with the Ark of the Covenant. And of course the Ark itself was also missing – together with its thick golden cover and the two golden cherubim that had been mounted upon it.88
The secret, therefore, was out: the most precious relic of the Jewish faith had vanished, apparently into thin air. Moreover the people knew that it had not been brought into captivity with them in Babylon. So where could it possibly have gone?
Almost at once theories started to circulate and, in the normal way of things, some of these theories quickly took on the character of revealed truths. The majority supposed that Nebuchadnezzar’s looters had failed to find the Ark because, before their arrival, it had been carefully hidden somewhere within Mount Moriah itself, where the Second Temple now stood on the site previously occupied by the First. According to one post-exilic legend, for example, Solomon had foreseen the destruction of his Temple even while he was building it. For this reason he had ‘contrived a place of concealment for the Ark, in deep and tortuous caches’.89
It was this tradition, I felt sure, that must have inspired the author of the Apocalypse of Baruch to suggest that the relic had been swallowed by the earth below the great ‘foundation stone’ known as the Shetiyyah. I knew, of course that no reliance could be placed on that relatively late and apocryphal work. Nevertheless I was aware that other accounts existed which likewise identified some secret cavern within the Temple Mount as the last resting place of the Ark.
Reinforcing the notion that that cavern might have been located directly beneath the Holy of Holies, the Talmud expressed the view that ‘the Ark was buried in its own place.’90 And this entombment, it seemed, had been the work of King Josiah, who had ruled in Jerusalem from 640 to 609 BC,91 i.e. until just a decade before the first Babylonian seizure of the city. Near the end of his long reign, the story went, foreseeing ‘the imminent destruction of the Temple’, ‘Josiah hid the Holy Ark and all its appurtenances, in order to guard them against desecration at the hands of the enemy.’92
This, I found, was quite a pervasive belief. Not all the sources, however, agreed that the place of concealment had been in the immediate vicinity of the Holy of Holies. Another parallel tradition, recorded in the Mishnah, suggested that the relic had been buried ‘under the pavement of the wood-house, that it might not fall into the hands of the enemy.’93 This wood-house had stood within the precincts of Solomon’s Temple, but its precise location had been forgotten by the time that the Jews returned from their exile in Babylon and thus ‘remained secret for all time’.94 Nevertheless the Mishnah reported that a priest had once been working in the courtyard of the Second Temple and there, by accident, he had stumbled upon ‘a block of pavement that was different from the rest’:
He went and told it to his fellow, but before he could make an end of the matter his life departed. So they knew assuredly that there the Ark lay hidden.95
An entirely separate account of the concealment of the relic was put forward in the second book of Maccabees (a work excluded from the Hebrew Bible, but included in the canon of the Greek and Latin Christian churches, and in the Apocrypha of the English Bible96). Compiled at some time between 100 BC and AD 70 by a Jew of Pharisaic sympathies (who wrote in Greek),97 the opening verses of 2 Maccabees 2 had this to say about the fate of the Ark:
The prophet Jeremiah … warned by an oracle [of the impending destruction of the Temple of Solomon], gave instructions for the tabernacle and the Ark to go with him when he set out for the mountain which Moses had climbed to survey God’s heritage. On his arrival Jeremiah found a cave dwelling, into which he brought the tabernacle, the Ark and the altar of incense, afterwards blocking up the entrance.98
In the opinion of the scholars who produced the authoritative English translation of the Jerusalem Bible – from which the above quotation is taken – Jeremiah’s supposed expedition to hide the Ark was nothing more than an inspirational fable devised by the author of the second book of Maccabees as part of a deliberate attempt to re-awaken the interest of expatriate Jews in the national homeland.99 The editors of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church likewise regarded the passage as being of no historical value.100And since it was written some five hundred years after the death of Jeremiah himself it could not even be said to be a particularly ancient tradition101 – although its author had attempted to dress it up as such by claiming that he had based his account on a document found in ‘the archives’.102
It was a fact, however, that the prophet Jeremiah (unlike the author of Maccabees) had lived at around the time of the destruction of Solomon’s Temple – which meant that he could, just conceivably, have played some role in the concealment of the Ark. Moreover ‘the mountain which Moses had climbed to survey God’s heritage’ – Mount Nebo103 – was a known place that stood barely fifty kilometres to the east of Jerusalem as the crow flies.104 Culturally appropriate because of its associations with the founder of Judaism, this venerated peak thus also looked like a feasible hiding place in terms of its geographical location.
The Maccabees story had therefore not been entirely dismissed by later generations of Jews; on the contrary, although never incorporated into the Jewish canon of Scripture, it had been substantially elaborated upon and embellished in the folklore – where, for example, the knotty problem of exactly how Jeremiah (who had been very much at odds with the priestly fraternity in the Temple105) had managed to get the sacred items out of the Holy of Holies and across the Jordan valley to Nebo was solved by providing him with an angel for a helper!106
After looking back through all the Jewish traditions that I had surveyed concerning the last resting place of the Ark, I entered the following summary in my notebook:
Outside of the Talmud, the Mishnah, the Apocalypse of Baruch, the second book of Maccabees, and various rather colourful legends, there is nothing of any substance in Jewish tradition concerning the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant. Since it now seems certain that it was not looted by Shishak or Jehoash or Nebuchadnezzar, it therefore follows that the only alternatives to the claim that it is in Axum are (a) very sketchy, (b) historically dubious, and (c) lacking in any current vitality (by contrast religious feeling in Ethiopia continues to be massively focussed upon the belief that the relic is indeed there).
All this makes the Ethiopian case look more and more credible. Nevertheless the Jewish ‘alternatives’ cannot be dismissed out of hand simply because they seem to be a bit flimsy.
ACTION: find out whether any archaeologists have excavated at Mount Nebo, or in and around the Temple Mount – which are the only two locations proposed by the Jews as the last resting place of the Ark.
I wrote that note in my hotel room in Jerusalem on the night of Saturday 6 October 1990. Two days later, on the morning of Monday 8 October, I attempted to go back to take a second look at the Temple Mount, and to visit some excavations that I knew were in progress just outside the sacred precincts, perhaps a hundred metres to the south of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. As I approached, however – walking along the city wall from David’s Tower to the Dung Gate – the sound of gunfire and of people screaming forewarned me that something had gone seriously wrong.
Death on the Mount
What I had walked into subsequently came to be known as the ‘Temple Mount massacre’, and although it represented the coming to a head of years of hatred between the Jews and the Arabs of Jerusalem, its proximate cause was a demonstration by an ultra-conservative Zionist group known as the ‘Temple Mount Faithful’. The large banner that they carried as they marched up to the Moghrabi Gate bore a Star of David and a provocative inscription in Hebrew which summarized the key issue for all concerned. That inscription read:
TEMPLE MOUNT – THE SYMBOL OF OUR PEOPLE IS IN THE HANDS OF OUR ENEMIES
What the demonstrators hoped to do was to enter the Temple Mount itself through the Moghrabi Gate, march up to the Dome of the Rock, and there lay the cornerstone for a proposed Third Temple. This ambition, obviously, was packed with political dynamite: since work began on the construction of the Dome of the Rock in the seventh century AD, the whole of the Temple Mount area had been a sacred site of immense importance to Islam as well as to Judaism. Moreover, much to the chagrin of groups like the ‘Temple Mount Faithful’, it is the Muslims who are in possession of that site – which has contained no Jewish place of worship since the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in AD 70. Wishing to defend this status quo – against what must have looked to them like a genuine threat – an estimated five thousand militant Arabs had gathered inside the walls of the Temple Mount and had armed themselves with stones which they planned to hurl down at the approaching Zionists.
The atmosphere was thus highly charged with emotion when the Temple Mount Faithful began their march on Monday 8 October. And what added enormously to the tension was the location of the Moghrabi Gate through which they intended to pass. Opening out into the main compound less than fifty metres from the front porch of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, this gate is built into the southern end of the Western Wall – the exposed exterior of which, known as the ‘Wailing Wall’, is today the single most important Jewish holy place. Dating back to Second Temple times, it is part of a retaining buttress built by Herod the Great in the late first century BC. It escaped demolition by the Romans in AD 70 (because, said the Midrash, the ‘Divine Presence’ hovered over it) and, in later years, it became a potent symbol of the nationalist aspirations of the Jewish people scattered during the diaspora. Even after the formation of the State of Israel it continued to be administered by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and it was not until the Six Day War of 1967 that it was finally incorporated into Israel proper. A large plaza was then cleared in front of it and dedicated as a formal place of worship – where, to this day, Jews from all over the world gather to lament the fact that they have no Temple. To avoid a potentially catastrophic confrontation with Islam, however, Jewish worship in any form continues to be banned on the Temple Mount itself, which remains under the exclusive control of the Muslims of Jerusalem and which directly overlooks the Wailing Wall.107
By choosing to try to enter the Temple Mount through the Moghrabi Gate, therefore, the Temple Mount Faithful were asking for trouble. Access was in fact denied to them by the Israeli police but, as they turned away, the five thousand Arabs who had gathered inside began to rain down showers of stones – not only on the heads of the zealots who had participated in the march but also on the large numbers of other Jews then making their devotions at the Wailing Wall. In this way something that had started life as an apparently symbolic demonstration was very rapidly transformed into a full-scale riot in which eleven Israeli worshippers and eight policemen were hurt, and in which twenty-one Arabs were shot dead and one hundred and twenty-five seriously injured.
By the time I arrived on the scene the worst of it was over: piles of stones lay amongst pools of blood at the base of the Wailing Wall; the wounded were being ferried away in ambulances; and the police – dressed in riot gear and armed to the teeth – appeared to be in full control. The Temple Mount itself, having just been stormed by the security forces, was off-limits. So too was the area of excavations immediately to the south that I had intended to visit. Hundreds of angry and excited Jews, a few of them proudly wearing blood-stained bandages, milled around in a decidedly bellicose mood and soon a wild celebration began in front of the Wailing Wall – although exactly why anyone should have rejoiced over the brutal killing of a score of Arab youths was something that I just could not understand.
Disgusted and depressed I eventually left the area, climbing up the steps that led into the Jewish Quarter of the old city and crossing into the Street of the Chain – along which I had walked a few days previously on my first visit to the Temple Mount. Here I saw further gratuitous violence as the police, carrying guns and truncheons, rounded up Palestinians whom they suspected of having been amongst the rioters. One young man, protesting his innocence in a high-pitched and terrified voice, was repeatedly punched and slapped; another ran at break-neck speed into a narrow alley where he was cornered and beaten before being dragged away.
Altogether, it had been a most unpleasant morning and it cast a blight over the rest of my stay in Jerusalem. This was so not only because of the human suffering that current events had now directly linked to the place where the Ark had once stood, but also because the Temple Mount and the excavations to the south of it remained sealed off by the security forces until long after I had left Israel. Despite these inauspicious omens, however, I was determined not to waste any of the few days remaining to me in that unhappy country, and I therefore continued with my investigation as best I could.
Digging up sacred places
The immediate question that I was seeking to answer was the one that I had jotted down in my notebook on the night of Saturday 6 October: had any efforts been made by archaeologists to dig at the Temple Mount, or at Mount Nebo, in order to test the Jewish traditions about the last resting place of the Ark?
I began with the excavations that I had tried unsuccessfully to visit on the morning of 8 October. Though I could not now gain access to them, I was able to meet with some of the archaeologists involved in them and to research their findings. What I learned was that proper digging had started here in February 1968 – some eight months after Israeli paratroopers had seized control of Jerusalem in the Six Day War. And although all the excavations were safely outside the sacred precincts of the Temple Mount they had been a focus of controversy from the very beginning. According to Meir Ben-Dov, Field Director of the dig, early opposition came from members of the Higher Muslim Council, who suspected a plot against their interests. ‘The excavations are not in fact a scientific venture,’ they complained, ‘their Zionist objective is rather to undermine the southern wall of the Temple Mount, which is likewise the southern wall of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, as a way of destroying the mosque.’108
To Ben-Dov’s surprise, Christians were at first almost equally unhelpful. ‘They suspected’, he explained, ‘that the purpose of the excavation was to lay the groundwork for building the Third Temple and the whole business about an archaeological venture was just a cover for an invidious plot. All I can say is that until you actually hear these rumours with your own ears, they sound like the product of a demonic imagination. Yet more than once – whether in jest or otherwise – people whose exceptional intelligence and abilities as historians and archaeologists are beyond question have come straight out and asked me: “Don’t you intend to reinstitute the Temple?” ’109
The strongest opposition of all came from the Jewish religious authorities – whose agreement to the dig was required by the government before any work could begin. Professor Mazar of the Archaeological Institute of the Hebrew University led the negotiations with the Sephardi and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbis – both of whom turned him down flat when he first approached them in 1967:
The Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Nissim, explained his refusal by the fact that the area of our proposed dig was a holy place. When asked to elucidate his answer further, he intimated that we might prove that the Wailing Wall was not in fact the western wall of the Temple Mount. Besides, what point was there in taking the chance and conducting a dig for scientific purposes when they were irrelevant anyway? On the other hand the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Unterman, agonized over halakhicproblems (questions of Jewish law). ‘What will happen,’ he mused aloud, ‘if, as a result of the archaeological excavation, you find the Ark of the Covenant, which Jewish tradition says is buried in the depths of the earth?’ ‘That would be wonderful!’ Professor Mazar replied in all innocence. But the venerable Rabbi told the learned Professor that that was precisely what he feared. Since the Children of Israel are not ‘pure’ from the viewpoint of Jewish religious law, they are forbidden to touch the Ark of the Covenant. Hence it is unthinkable to even consider excavating until the Messiah comes!110
The rabbi’s concern about the Ark was entirely orthodox. All Jews have indeed been considered to be in a condition of ritual impurity since the destruction of the Second Temple – a condition that is only supposed to end with the coming of the true Messiah.111Dogma of this sort thus represented a considerable obstacle in the path of the archaeologists. Nevertheless they managed in due course to win the rabbis over – and also to overcome the objections of the representatives of the other two monotheistic faiths descended from the Old Testament worship of Yahweh. The dig went ahead. Moreover, despite the location of the site outside the Temple Mount, a number of artefacts from the days of the First Temple were recovered. Predictably, though, no trace of the Ark of the Covenant was found, and the vast bulk of the discoveries proved to be from the later Second Temple, Muslim and Crusader periods.112
In summary, therefore, I could see that Meir Ben-Dov’s excavations had certainly not vindicated the Jewish traditions about the concealment of the Ark. But neither had they conclusively disproved those traditions. Only one thing could do that, and that would be a thorough and painstaking dig on the Temple Mount itself.
My own feeling, as the reader will recall, was that such a dig had been carried out by the Knights Templar long centuries before the discipline of archaeology was ever invented, and that they, too, had failed to find the Ark. Nevertheless I still needed to know whether any excavations had been undertaken in modern times, and if so what had been found. I put these questions to Dr Gabby Barkai, an archaeologist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University who specializes in the First Temple period.
‘Since modern archaeology emerged,’ he told me bluntly, ‘no effort has been made to dig inside the Temple Mount.’
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘Because it’s the ultimate sacred site. The Muslim authorities are utterly opposed to any kind of scientific investigations being undertaken there. It would be the worst kind of sacrilege from their point of view. So the Temple Mount remains a riddle for archaeology. Most of what we know about it is theoretical and interpretive. Archaeologically we only have the findings of Charles Warren. And Parker of course. He actually did dig inside the Dome of the Rock – in 1910 if I remember correctly. But he wasn’t an archaeologist. He was a lunatic. He was looking for the Ark of the Covenant.’
I was not sure from this statement whether Barkai had described Parker as a ‘lunatic’ because he had looked for the Ark; or whether he had looked for the Ark because he had been a lunatic; or whether his lunacy had been manifestly apparent before he had started to dig inside the Dome of the Rock. This, however, seemed like an excellent opportunity to refrain from mentioning that I, too, was looking for the Ark. I therefore confined myself to asking the archaeologist where I might find out more about Parker – and about Charles Warren, the other name he had mentioned.
A couple of days of archive research followed, during which I learned that Warren had been a young lieutenant in Britain’s Royal Engineers who had been commissioned by the London-based Palestine Exploration Fund to excavate the Temple Mount in the year 1867. His work, however, had been confined to much the same areas – outside and to the south of the sacred precincts – that were to be more thoroughly investigated a century later by Meir Ben-Dov and his colleagues.113
The difference was that Warren had very actively sought permission to excavate inside the Temple Mount as well. But all his efforts had been rebuffed by the Ottoman Turks who then administered Jerusalem. Moreover, on the one occasion when he had managed to cut a tunnel northwards and to burrow under the exterior walls, the sledgehammers and other tools used by his labourers had disturbed the prayers of the faithful going on above them in the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The result had been a hail of stones, a riot, and orders from Izzet Pasha, the governor of the city, that the dig should be suspended forthwith.114
Despite such difficulties, Warren had refused to be discouraged and had persuaded the Ottomans to let him go back to work again. He had subsequently made several other clandestine attempts to tunnel beneath the Temple Mount, where he had planned to ‘locate and map all the ancient remains’ that he might encounter.115 But he was unable to realize this ambition and reached only the foundations of the exterior walls.116 Of course he did not find the Ark of the Covenant – there was no evidence that it had ever been his intention to look for it anyway. His chief interest had been in the Second Temple period and in this context he did make many discoveries of lasting value to scholarship.117
The same could not be said for Montague Brownslow Parker, a son of the Earl of Morley, who had gone to Jerusalem in 1909 with the express intention of locating the Ark – and who had made no contribution to scholarship whatsoever.
Parker’s expedition, later politely described by the renowned British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon as ‘exceptional by any standards’,118 was the brainchild of a Finnish mystic named Valter H. Juvelius, who in 1906 had presented a paper at a Swedish university on the subject of the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple by the Babylonians. Juvelius claimed to have acquired reliable information about the hiding place – inside the Temple precincts – of ‘the gold-encrusted Ark of the Covenant’, and he also said that a close study that he had made of the relevant biblical texts had revealed the existence of a secret underground passage running into the Temple Mount from some part of the city of Jerusalem. After poring over the reports of Charles Warren’s excavations, he had convinced himself that this secret passage would be found to the south of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in the area that Warren had already dug. Proffering the lure of the US $200 million that he believed the Ark would be worth if it could be recovered, Juvelius therefore sought investors to finance an expedition which would locate and clear that passage in order to gain access to the treasure.119
His fund-raising efforts were not crowned with success until, in London, he encountered Montague Brownslow Parker, then aged thirty, and won his support for the venture. Milking his contacts in the British aristocracy and abroad, including members of Chicago’s wealthy Armour family, Parker very quickly managed to raise the useful sum of $125,000. The expedition accordingly went ahead and, by August 1909, had established its headquarters on the Mount of Olives (which directly overlooks the Temple Mount).
Digging began immediately on the site that Warren had previously so painstakingly explored. Moreover Parker and Juvelius were not deterred by the fact that their illustrious predecessor had found nothing of enormous significance; on the contrary they proceeded with optimism – since they had by now hired an Irish clairvoyant to assist them in their search for the supposed ‘secret tunnel’.
Time passed. There were the predictable protests from the faithful of all religious persuasions. And, as winter came, the weather turned foul, flooding the excavations with rivers of mud. Understandably, Parker was discouraged. He called a temporary halt and did not resume the dig again until the summer of 1910. Several months of frenetic activity then followed. The secret tunnel, however, still obstinately refused to reveal itself and, in the meantime, opposition to the whole project had grown decidedly more pronounced. By the spring of 1911 Baron Edmond de Rothschild, a Zionist and a member of the famous international banking family, had made it his personal mission to prevent the potential desecration of the holiest site of Judaism, and to this end had purchased a plot of land adjoining the excavations from which he could directly threaten Parker.
The young British aristocrat was rattled by this development. In April of 1911, therefore, he abandoned the search for the tunnel and resorted to more desperate means. Jerusalem was then still under the control of the Ottoman Turks and the governor of the city, Amzey Bey Pasha, was not a man known for his scrupulous honesty. A bribe of $25,000 secured his cooperation, and an additional though smaller sum persuaded Sheikh Khalil – the hereditary guardian of the Dome of the Rock – to admit Parker and his team to the sacred site and to turn a blind eye to whatever they did there.
The work, for obvious reasons, was carried out at dead of night. Disguised as Arabs, the treasure hunters spent a week excavating the southern part of the Temple Mount close to the Al-Aqsa Mosque – where Juvelius and the Irish clairvoyant both believed that the Ark had been buried. These efforts proved entirely fruitless, however, and in the small hours of the morning of 18 April 1911 Parker switched his attentions to the Dome of the Rock, and to the legendary caverns supposed to lie far below the Shetiyyah.
In those days the staircase leading down to the ‘Well of Souls’ had not yet been installed and Parker and his team had to lower themselves and their equipment by means of ropes fastened to the Shetiyyah itself. They then lit storm lanterns and began to hack away at the floor of the grotto in the hope that they might thus gain access to the lasting resting place of the Ark.
Disaster struck before they had even begun to establish whether other hollows lay beneath them. Though Sheikh Khalil, the hereditary guardian, had been bought off, another mosque attendant unexpectedly appeared (the story goes that he had decided to sleep on the Temple Mount because his own home was full of guests). Hearing the sound of digging from the Dome of the Rock he burst in, peered down into the Well of Souls and, to his horror, saw a number of wild-eyed foreigners attacking the holy ground with picks and shovels.
The reaction, on both sides, was dramatic. The shocked mosque attendant uttered a piercing howl and fled screaming into the night to rally the faithful. The Englishmen, wisely realizing that the game was up, also beat a hasty retreat. Not even bothering to return to their base camp, they left Jerusalem at once and made for the port of Jaffa – where, conveniently, a motoryacht that they had chartered lay moored in the harbour. In this way they managed to cheat the hysterical mob that arrived at the Temple Mount only moments after their departure and that carried off the unfortunate Sheikh Khalil to an unspeakable fate.
Before morning there were full-scale riots in Jerusalem and Amzey Bey Pasha – who was rightly suspected of complicity – had been assaulted and insulted. His response was to close the Temple Mount and to issue orders that the treasure hunters should be apprehended on their arrival at Jaffa. No doubt he took this latter step in part to assuage his guilty conscience. However, rumours had spread that Parker had found and abducted the Ark of the Covenant, and Muslim and Jewish leaders were vociferous in their demands that the sacred relic must not be allowed to leave the country.
Alerted by telegraph, the Jaffa police and customs authorities arrested the fugitives, impounded all their belongings and made an extremely thorough search. They found nothing. Somewhat nonplussed by this they then locked the baggage up but allowed the Englishmen to row out to their yacht, in the salubrious surroundings of which, it had been agreed, the interrogation would continue. As soon as he and his colleagues were safely on board, however, Parker ordered the crew to weigh anchor.
A few weeks later he was back in England. He had failed to find the lost Ark, but he had succeeded in losing the entire $125,000 with which investors in the United States and Britain had entrusted him.120 ‘The whole episode, and excavations,’ Kathleen Kenyon concluded many years later, ‘did not redound to the credit of British archaeology.’121
British archaeologists, however, were not involved in the next attempt to find the Ark, which took place in the 1920s and which focussed on Mount Nebo where, according to the book of Maccabees, the prophet Jeremiah had concealed the sacred relic just before the destruction of Solomon’s Temple.
The prime mover on this occasion was an eccentric American explorer who liked to dress up in flowing Arab robes and who, though male, went by the curious name of Antonia Frederick Futterer. After thoroughly surveying Mount Nebo (and also its neighbouring peak Mount Pisgah) he claimed – with truly awe-inspiring originality – to have found … a secret passage. This passage was blocked by a wall of some sort and Futterer did not attempt to break it down. When he examined it by flashlight, however, he discovered … an ancient inscription, which he faithfully copied and carried back to Jerusalem. There he made contact with a ‘scholar’ at the Hebrew University who helpfully deciphered the hieroglyphs for him. The message read:
HEREIN LIES THE GOLDEN ARK OF THE COVENANT
Unfortunately Futterer would not name the scholar who had produced this translation; nor, in the furore that followed, did anyone step forward to claim that honour; nor was Futterer subsequently able to produce the copy that he claimed to have made of the inscription; nor did he ever go back to Mount Nebo to retrieve the Ark from its alleged secret passage.122
Half a century later, however, a new champion emerged to pick up the baton that Futterer had dropped. That champion, too, was an American explorer, Tom Crotser by name, whose previous ‘discoveries’ had included the Tower of Babel, Noah’s Ark, and the City of Adam. In 1981, by rather circuitous means, this gentleman acquired some papers that Futterer had left, papers which apparently included a sketch of the walled-up secret passage on Mount Nebo where the Ark of the Covenant was supposed to lie buried.123
Mount Nebo is located just inside the border of the modern state of Jordan and it was to that country that Crotser now flew, together with a group of zealous colleagues from an organization known as the ‘Institute for Restoring History International’ (headquarters: Winfield, Kansas).124 Their mission, of course, was to salvage the Ark. To this end they spent four days sleeping rough on Mount Nebo – much to the consternation of the Franciscans of Terra Santa who own the summit, who guard the Byzantine church that was erected there over the supposed burial place of Moses, and who, for the past several decades, have conducted careful and professional archaeological excavations in the area.125
Needless to say, the Franciscans have never found the Ark, and nor did Crotser – at least not on Mount Nebo. After finishing there, however, he and his team moved on to neighbouring Mount Pisgah (which Futterer had also visited). On that peak they stumbled upon a gully which they were confident would give them access to the ‘secret passage’ identified in Futterer’s sketch.
The fact that part of the floor of the gully was blocked by a length of tin sheeting only added to their excitement. On the night of 31 October 1981 they removed this flimsy obstacle and, sure enough, a passage stretched ahead of them. They followed the passage, which they said was about four feet wide and seven feet high, for a distance of some six hundred feet into the bowels of the earth. There they came across a wall exactly like the one that Futterer had described and, without further ado, they broke it down.
Beyond it was a rock-hewn crypt measuring roughly seven feet by seven feet and containing, according to Crotser, a gold-covered rectangular chest measuring sixty-two inches long, thirty-seven inches wide and thirty-seven inches high. Beside it, apparently, were carrying poles exactly matching the biblical description of the carrying poles of the Ark of the Covenant. And off to one side lay cloth-wrapped packages which Crotser assumed to be the cherubim that, in times gone by, had been mounted upon the mercy seat.
The Americans were certain that they had found the sacred relic. They did not remove it; neither did they touch it or open it; using flash-guns, however, they did take colour photographs of it. Then they left Jordan and returned to the USA where they immediately informed the press agency UPI about their discovery. The result was an internationally syndicated news story which, according to the journalist responsible, ‘got more play than anything I wrote in my life.’126
So, had the Ark really been found? Obviously the photographs taken in the crypt were crucial evidence that might vindicate the sensational claim that the Americans had made – if suitably qualified biblical archaeologists were given the opportunity to study them. It was therefore difficult to understand why Crotser steadfastly refused to release these pictures to anyone. Few were convinced by his argument that God had instructed him to give them only to the London banker David Rothschild who, he said, was a direct descendant of Jesus Christ and had been chosen by the Lord to build the Third Temple – in which the Ark of the Covenant, retrieved from its hiding place, would occupy centre stage.127
A member of the same international banking family that had opposed Montague Parker’s excavations at the Temple Mount in 1910, Rothschild icily declined to take delivery of the photographs – which Crotser still keeps in his home in Winfield, Kansas, which he still refuses to release, but which he will show to selected visitors.
In 1982, one such visitor was the respected archaeologist Siegfried H. Horn, a specialist on the Mount Nebo area and the author of more than a dozen scholarly books.128 He spent some time closely examining Crotser’s photographs which, unfortunately, seemed to have come out of the development process rather badly:
All but two showed absolutely nothing. Of the two that registered images, one is fuzzy but does depict a chamber with a yellow box in the centre. The other slide is quite good and gives a clear view of the front of the box.129
Immediately after leaving Crotser’s house, Horn (who is an accomplished draughtsman) made a sketch of the box as he had observed it in the slide. Some parts of the yellow metal overlay appeared to him to be brass, not gold, and, moreover, were stamped with a diamond pattern that looked machine-worked. More damning by far, however, was the fact that a nail with a modern style of head could be seen protruding out of the upper right corner of the front of the box.130 Horn concluded:
I do not know what the object is but the pictures convinced me that it is not an ancient artefact but of modern fabrication with machine-produced decorative strips and an underlying metal sheet.131
From fictions to fact
After working my way steadily through the archaeological records in Jerusalem I was unable to trace any further references to expeditions that had sought to test the Judaic traditions about the last resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. And the scholars whom I talked to confirmed that the field was indeed a limited one: Charles Warren, and later Meir Ben-Dov and his team, had dug in the vicinity of the Temple Mount (though they were not looking for the Ark); Montague Brownslow Parker – not an archaeologist but a ‘lunatic’, as Gabby Barkai had described him – had dug inside the Temple Mount but had not found anything; Antonia Frederick Futterer had found, but not explored, a secret passage on Mount Nebo which he had believed to contain the Ark; and lastly Tom Crotser claimed to have found the Ark itself in that same passage – which, however, seemed to have migrated from Mount Nebo to Mount Pisgah in the fifty years since Futterer’s visit.
And that was it. That, as the saying goes, was the boiling lot – with the sole exception of my own activities. And what was I doing? Well I was looking for the Ark, too, of course – a venture in which, I must confess, I was disconcerted to discover that I had been preceded only by Messianic visionaries and harebrained cranks.
My saving grace, I supposed, was that I had not the slightest interest in the building of the Third Temple and that I did not believe that the Ark had been buried beneath the Dome of the Rock or in Mounts Nebo or Pisgah. I realized that it would be practically impossible to prove that those locations concealed no further secrets; but I was now as satisfied as I ever would be that the lost relic had not gone to any of the places indicated in the Judaic traditions, that it had not been taken by the Egyptians or the Babylonians, and that it had not been destroyed either.
Its disappearance, therefore, looked more and more like a genuinely baffling mystery – ‘one of the great mysteries of the Bible’ as Richard Elliott Friedman, Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Religion at the University of California, had once described it.132All my work in 1989 and 1990 had strengthened my conviction that the solution to that mystery must lie in Ethiopia. And yet … And yet … the one problem that I had not confronted at all, at any stage of my research, was that Ethiopia’s claim to possess the Ark seemed to rest on foundations that were every bit as flimsy as the Apocalypse of Baruch or the book of Maccabees.
To put matters plainly, I was beginning to feel that the Kebra Nagast’s bold assertions were not sufficiently reliable as a historical witness to justify a trip to the sacred city of Axum – a trip during which I would have to put my own life at risk. The insistence that the Queen of Sheba had been an Ethiopian and the linked pretence that she had borne a son to King Solomon who, in due course, had abducted the Ark from Jerusalem, had more the ring of preposterous fictions than of sober truths. To be sure, I had uncovered a great deal of evidence in Ethiopia – persuasive evidence – which did lend considerable support to the notion that the relic might really lie in the sanctuary chapel in Axum. And now I had satisfied myself that no other location could hope to present a more convincing case. That, however, was less a reflection of the strength of the Kebra Nagast’s account of how the Ark had got to Ethiopia than of the weakness of the alternatives.
Before finally committing myself to going to Axum, therefore, I felt that I needed to find a more convincing explanation than that offered in the Kebra Nagast of how ‘the most important object in the world in the Biblical view’133 could possibly have ended up in the heart of Africa. By the time that I finally left Jerusalem in mid-October 1990 I had found that explanation – as I shall recount in the next chapter.