Aswan is located on the east bank of the Nile at a point roughly equidistant from Israel and from the northern borders of Ethiopia. Well placed as a staging post between the African and Mediterranean worlds, its name was derived from the Greek word Seyene, which in turn was a corruption of the ancient Egyptian Swenet, meaning ‘making business’.1 In antiquity the town profited greatly from a rich two-way commerce in which manufactured goods flowed southwards from the high civilization of Egypt, and in which spices, aromatic substances, slaves, gold and ivory from sub-Saharan Africa were traded north. It was from this latter commodity, ivory, that the island in which I was interested had received its name, for Elephantine (which lies in the middle of the Nile directly opposite Aswan) had once been known simply as Abu, or Elephant Land.2
At the reception desk of the New Cataract Hotel in Aswan I enquired about Elephantine and particularly about its Jewish temple. Shalva Weil had already told me that it had been destroyed in the fifth century BC but she had also said that archaeologists were working there, so I hoped very much that there might be ruins to visit.
Mention of the word ‘Jewish’ did not elicit a favourable response from the hotel staff; despite the relatively positive diplomatic relationship that had been forged between Egypt and Israel in recent years I had forgotten how much bad blood and bitterness still divided the peoples of the two neighbouring countries. Finally, however, I did manage to extract the following intelligence from the front-desk manager: ‘Many temples on Elephantine – Egyptian, Roman, maybe Jewish … I don’t know. You can go see, take afelucca ride, find out. Anyway there are archaeologists there, German archaeologists. Just ask for Mr Kaiser.’
Mr Kaiser, eh, I thought as I walked out of the lobby and into a fiercely hot day, a likely story!
After a short felucca ride to Elephantine I was shown to a building on the island’s west bank where I was told ‘the Germans’ lived. I made my way to the front door, knocked, and was admitted by a Nubian manservant wearing a red fez. Without questioning me he led me along a corridor and into an interesting room, the walls of which were lined from floor to ceiling with wooden shelves loaded with broken fragments of pottery and other artefacts. Then he turned to go.
I coughed: ‘Excuse me. Er … I’m looking for Mr Kaiser. Could you call him please?’
The servant paused, favoured me with an inscrutable stare and then left, still without saying anything.
Five minutes or so passed, during which I stood dithering in the middle of the floor, and then … Indiana Jones appeared in the doorway. Or, rather, not Indiana Jones himself but a Harrison Ford lookalike. Wearing a Panama hat at a jaunty angle, he was tall and muscular, ruggedly handsome, and gimlet-eyed. Clearly he had not shaved for several days.
I resisted a strong urge to exclaim, ‘Mr Kaiser, I presume’, and asked less theatrically: ‘Are you Mr Kaiser?’
‘No. My name is Cornelius von Pilgrim.’ He advanced towards me, and, as I introduced myself, he extended a strong and suntanned right hand for me to shake.
‘I’m visiting Elephantine’, I explained, ‘in connection with a project of mine. I’m interested in the archaeology of the temple here.’
‘Yes. You see I’m investigating a historical mystery … the … er … the loss of, I mean the disappearance of the Ark of the Covenant.’
‘Do you know what I mean by the Ark of the Covenant?’
By now Cornelius von Pilgrim’s expression could only be described as glazed. ‘No,’ he replied curtly in answer to my question.
‘You do speak English do you?’ I asked. I wanted to be sure.
‘Yes. Quite well.’
‘Good. OK, then. The Ark. Now let’s see. You know about Moses, right?’
A faint nod.
‘And the Ten Commandments, carved on tablets of stone?’
‘Well, the Ark of the Covenant was the chest made of wood and gold that the Ten Commandments were put in. And … er … I’m looking for it.’
Cornelius von Pilgrim did not seem to be overly impressed. Then he said, without the slightest trace of humour: ‘Ah ha. Like Indiana Jones you mean?’
‘Yes. That’s exactly what I mean. Anyway, the reason why I’m in Elephantine is that I was told on good authority that there was a Jewish temple here. My theory is that the Ark, somehow, was taken to Ethiopia in ancient times. So naturally I’m wondering whether there is any possibility – or any archaeological evidence even – that it might have been brought here first before it went to Ethiopia. You see, I think it was removed from Jerusalem in the seventh century BC. So the question is – what happened in the intervening two hundred years?’
‘You are wondering whether during those two centuries the Ark could have been kept in the Jewish temple on this island?’
‘Absolutely. In fact I’m hoping that you and your team may have excavated the temple. If you have then I’d very much like to know what you found.’
Cornelius von Pilgrim removed his hat before demolishing my hopes. ‘Yes,’ he said after a rather lengthy pause, ‘but on the site that you are interested in there’s nothing to be seen. We’d thought there might be something left … beneath the ruins of the Roman temple that was later built on top of the Jewish one. But now we’ve dug down all the way through the foundations. And there’s just nothing. Absolutely nothing at all. It’s a fact that there was a substantial Jewish settlement here between the seventh and the fifth century BC but nothing remains of it now for archaeology except some of the houses of the people. That’s all, I’m afraid.’
Trying to ignore the immense feeling of depression that had just washed over me I asked: ‘If nothing remains of the temple then how do you know that it was ever there?’
‘Oh. That is not a problem. That is not in doubt. For a while there was a great deal of correspondence between this island and the city of Jerusalem. These letters were written on ostraca – potsherds – and on papyrus scrolls. Many of them have been found and translated and a large number make specific reference to the Temple of Yahweh on Elephantine. The matter is well attested historically and because of this we do know, within a few metres, the exact site of the temple, we also know when the temple was destroyed – it was 410 BC – and finally we know that the later Roman temple was built in the place where the Jewish temple had previously stood. It is all very clear.’
‘Why was the Jewish temple destroyed?’
‘Look … I am not an expert in these matters. I specialize in the remains from the second millennium BC – well before your period. To find out more detailed information you will have to talk to a colleague of mine who has taken a special interest in the Jewish colony. He is Mr Achim Krekeler.’
‘Is he here now?’
‘Unfortunately not. He is in Cairo. But he will return tomorrow. Will you still be here tomorrow?’
‘Yes. I mean … I don’t have long. I have to get back to England. But I can wait until tomorrow.’
‘Good. So I suggest then that you come back tomorrow, in the afternoon, say around three p.m., and you will see Mr Krekeler. Meanwhile, if you like, I would be happy to show you where the Jewish colony was … and the site of your temple.’
I took von Pilgrim up on this kind offer. As we walked I asked him under whose auspices the excavations on Elephantine were being conducted.
‘We are from the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin,’ he replied. ‘We have been working here for a number of years.’
We had arrived at the foot of a low hill. On the slopes above us, spread out over a wide area, was a maze of rubble and masonry, amidst which partially reconstructed dry-stone walls betrayed the outlines of rooms, houses and streets. ‘This’, said von Pilgrim, ‘was the part of the old town of Elephantine where the Jewish people lived.’
We began to climb, picking our way with care amongst the crumbling ruins. By the time we reached the summit I was quite out of breath – but I had also shaken off the mood of depression that had assailed me earlier. Though I could not have explained exactly why, I felt that there was something about this place which was … right – something haunting and evocative that spoke of ancient days and hidden histories.
Cornelius von Pilgrim had led me to the highest point on the island of Elephantine. Now he gestured around us and said: ‘The Jewish temple was here, beneath where we are standing.’
I pointed to a massive, broken column that loomed just ahead of us and to our right and asked what it was.
‘Part of the Roman temple I told you about. As a matter of fact there’s evidence that quite a number of other temples stood here at different periods, dedicated to the gods of the various foreign powers that occupied Egypt in the first millennium BC. Often the architects of these temples would re-use the materials from the earlier buildings. This, I think, is why the Jewish temple so completely disappeared. It was destroyed, knocked down, maybe burnt, and then its masonry was broken up and incorporated into the walls of the next temple.’
‘I asked before why the Jewish temple was destroyed. You didn’t get round to telling me …’
‘Broadly speaking we believe that there was a problem between the members of the Jewish community and the Egyptian residents of the island. You see there was an Egyptian temple too …’
‘On the same site?’
‘No. The Jewish temple had been built more or less beside it.’ The Egyptian temple was over there’ – he gestured in the direction of another pile of rubble – ‘and some remains from it have been found. It was dedicated to the god Khnum. He was a ram-headed god. All his effigies show him with the head of a ram. And we speculate from this that some serious tension may have arisen between the Jewish priests and the Egyptian priests.’
‘Well, it’s obvious. It is known that the Jews here practised sacrifice and almost certainly they sacrificed rams. This would not have made the priests of Khnum very happy. So we guess that at a certain date they simply turned on the Jews and perhaps massacred them, or perhaps expelled them from the island, and then afterwards destroyed their temple.’
‘And you said that that date was 410 BC?’
‘Yes. That’s right. But you must talk to Achim Krekeler for more details.’
The missing link?
I returned the next afternoon as von Pilgrim had suggested. Meanwhile I had spent a sleepless night and a restless morning thinking through everything that I had learned, working out the logic of events and trying to arrive at some tentative conclusions.
As a result of this process – even before my meeting with Krekeler – I was reasonably confident in my own mind that the Jewish temple on Elephantine might indeed prove to be the missing link in the chain of clues that I had assembled over the previous two years. If I was right, and if a group of Levites had left Jerusalem with the Ark of the Covenant during the reign of Manasseh, then they could hardly have chosen a better place of safety. Here they would have been far beyond the reach of the wicked Jewish king who had introduced an idol into the Holy of Holies. Moreover, since I had established the relationship between the ceremony of the Ark and the festival of Apet (held each year at Luxor just two hundred kilometres to the north – see chapter 12), it seemed to me that this Upper Egyptian island could also have been seen by the fugitive priests as a uniquely appropriate location: surrounded on all sides by the sacred waters of the river Nile, might they not have felt that they had returned to their roots?
All this was speculation. What was certain, however, was that a Jewish temple had been built here at approximately the right time to have sheltered the Ark after its removal from the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem. It was also certain that that same temple had subsequently been destroyed during the same century in which – according to the Tana Kirkos traditions – the Ark had been brought to Ethiopia. All this, it seemed to me, added up to a compellingly suggestive series of events. And I was not greatly worried by the fact that the date of the Elephantine temple’s destruction – 410 BC – was approximately sixty years later than the date that I had calculated for the Ark’s arrival on Tana Kirkos (470 BC). Over the huge period of time between the fifth century bc and the twentieth century AD it seemed to me quite possible that the Ethiopian oral traditions on which I had based that calculation could have gone adrift by sixty years or so.
I was therefore in an optimistic frame of mind when I arrived back at the German Archaeological Institute’s house for my meeting with Achim Krekeler. A stocky, friendly man in his mid-thirties who spoke good English, I found him poring over fragments of ancient papyrus which, he explained, had to be handled with great care because they were exceptionally brittle.
‘And it’s papyri like these that have provided the main evidence for the existence of the Jewish temple?’
‘Yes, and for its destruction. After 410 BC a number of letters were sent to Jerusalem describing what had happened and seeking funds and permission for a possible reconstruction.’
‘But the temple was never rebuilt, was it?’
‘No, definitely not. In fact all the correspondence suddenly stopped around 400 BC. After that it seems that the Jewish people left Elephantine.’
‘Do you know what happened to them?’
‘No. Not really. But clearly they had been in trouble with the Egyptians for some time. Probably they were forced to leave.’
‘And you don’t know where they went?’
‘No information on that has ever been found.’
At some length I explained to Krekeler my interest in the Ark of the Covenant and my feeling that it might have got to Ethiopia by way of Elephantine. I then asked whether he thought that there was any possibility at all that the sacred relic could have been brought to the island.
‘Of course it is possible. Anything is possible. But I had always understood that the Ark was destroyed when the Temple in Jerusalem was burnt down by the Babylonians.’
‘That’s the orthodox theory. But I’m fairly sure that it was taken out quite some time before then – in the seventh century BC, during the reign of Manasseh. So one of the things that I’m hoping you’ll be able to give me is a precise date for the building of the temple here in Elephantine.’
‘I’m afraid there is no precise date. Opinions vary. But personally I would have no difficulty in accepting that it might have been built some time in the seventh century BC. Other scholars also share that view.’
‘And do you have any idea what the temple would have looked like? I know you haven’t recovered any material artefacts but I’m wondering whether there might have been any hints in the papyri?’
‘A few. No sacred writings as such have yet been recovered. But we have found a fair amount of descriptive information about the exterior of the temple. From this we can say for certain that it had pillars of stone, five gateways also made of stone, and a roof of cedarwood.’
‘Would it have had a Holy of Holies?’
‘Presumably. It was a substantial building, a proper temple. But there is insufficient evidence to be certain whether there was a Holy of Holies or not.’
We continued to talk around the subject for another hour or so. Finally, however, Krekeler announced that his time was short as he was due to return to Cairo the next day and he had much to do. ‘I can lend you two of the best academic publications on Elephantine,’ he offered, ‘as long as you promise to bring them back tomorrow. They summarize all the main findings of the research that has been done here by scholars from many different countries since the turn of the century.’
When I returned to my hotel I was carrying the weighty tomes that Krekeler had mentioned. They fully repaid the long night that I spent studying them.
The Ark in Elephantine
Here is what I learned about the Jewish Temple on Elephantine – the key facts of relevance to my quest, as I recorded them in my notebook:
1 The temple, as Krekeler told me, must have been a building of some considerable size. Quite a lot of information about its appearance survived in the papyri and the archaeologists have concluded that its dimensions were ninety feet long by thirty feet wide.3 In old measurements this is, of course sixty cubits by twenty cubits.4 Interestingly, the Bible gives exactly the same measurements for Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.5
2 The Elephantine Temple was roofed with cedarwood;6 so was Solomon’s Temple.7
3 It seems, therefore, that Soloman’s Temple must have provided the model for the Elephantine Temple. Since the former had originally been built to accommodate the Ark of the Covenant, is it not probable that the latter was as well?
4 Animal sacrifice was routinely practised at the Elephantine Temple – including the all-important sacrifice of a lamb as the opening rite of Passover week.8 This is highly significant since it indicates that the Jewish community must have migrated to Elephantinebefore the reforms of King Josiah (640- 609 BC). Those reforms conclusively banned sacrifice at any location other than the Jerusalem Temple (a ban that was subsequently respected even by the exiles during the captivity in Babylon). On Elephantine, however, sacrifice continued to be an important ritual for the Jews in the sixth and fifth centuries BC.9 Since those Jews were engaged in a regular correspondence with Jerusalem there can be no doubt that they would have known about Josiah’s ban. Nevertheless, they continued to perform sacrifices. They must, therefore, have felt that they had some special authority so to do. It goes without saying that the presence of the Ark of the Covenant in their temple would have provided them with all the authority they needed.
5 In this connection it is worthy of note that the Elephantine Jews clearly thought that Yahweh resided physically in their temple: a number of papyri speak of him – in no uncertain terms – as ‘dwelling’ there.10 In ancient Israel (and during the wanderings in the wilderness) Yahweh was believed to reside wherever the Ark was;11 indeed this belief only really changed after the loss of the Ark had been recognized.12 When the Jews of Elephantine spoke of Yahweh as a deity who was physically present with them, therefore, it follows that they could well have been referring to the Ark.
6 The Elephantine Jews frequently spoke of the deity dwelling in their temple as ‘the Lord of Hosts’ or ‘Yahweh of Hosts’.13 Scholars recognize this phrase as an archaic one.14 It was frequently used in connection with the Ark (e.g. in the period before Solomon’s Temple was built ‘the people sent to Shiloh that they might bring from thence the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of Hosts.’15).
7 All the above factors lend credibility to the view that the Ark could have been lodged in the Elephantine Temple – and, indeed, that its presence on the island could have been the reason for the building of that Temple in the first place. Krekeler was right to tell me that no exact date of construction has yet been established. From the literature, however, it is clear that the scholars who analysed the papyri did a great deal of work on precisely this subject. They point out that by the early seventh century BC there was already a substantial Jewish population on the island of Elephantine, made up mainly of a garrison of mercenaries in the pay of the Egyptians. These Jewish soldiers, together with their families, would have constituted a viable social context for temple worship. On the basis of this and a great deal of other evidence, the considered opinion of the scholars is therefore that the Elephantine Temple must have been built by the year 650 BC.16
8 It is impossible to overstate the significance of this date. Why? Because it falls during the reign of Manasseh – the king who introduced an idol into the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple, thus causing the Ark to be removed (probably by priests who remained loyal to the traditional worship of Yahweh). It was a difficult enough task to establish that the sacred relic must indeed have been taken out at this time17 – but, having completed that task, I am satisfied that there is no evidence in the Bible about where it might have been taken to (even Professor Menahem Haran was unable to put forward any theories as to what could have happened to it after it left Jerusalem).
9 The academic authorities who studied the Elephantine papyri, and who arrived at the date of 650 BC for the construction of the Temple, were clearly not aware that the Ark could have gone missing from Jerusalem during the reign of Manasseh. If they had been then they would certainly have put two and two together. They were aware, however, of the widespread outrage caused by that monarch’s ‘pagan innovations’, and they concluded that this outrage was the only possible explanation for the otherwise inexplicable fact that a Jewish temple was built on Elephantine:
Manasseh’s reign was accompanied by much bloodshed and it may be surmised that priests as well as prophets opposed his paganisation. Some of the priests fled to Egypt, joined the Jewish garrison at Elephantine, and there … erected the Temple.18
10 These are the words of Bezalel Porten, author of the authoritative study Archives from Elephantine. Porten nevertheless remains puzzled by the fact that a Jewish temple could have been built at Elephantine at all, because of the notion, deeply entrenched within Judaism, ‘that foreign soil was unclean and that, therefore, no Temple to the Lord might be erected on it.’19 He points out that, after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews carried off into exile in Babylon ‘were counselled by Jeremiah to settle down and pray (not sacrifice) to the Lord.’ The same author then adds: ‘there is no evidence that any Temple to YHWH was erected in Babylonia’ and asks: ‘With what justification, then, did the Jews at Elephantine erect their temple?’20
11 It seems to me that the answer to Porten’s rhetorical question is obvious: their justification was that they had brought with them from Jerusalem the Ark of the Covenant and that they now needed to build ‘an house of rest’ for it,21 just as Solomon had done so long before.
Elephantine and the Falashas
When I returned to England I felt quite confident that I had at last uncovered the real sequence of events underlying the mystery of the lost Ark.
Seeking supporting evidence I went to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and acquired copies of the two out-of-print volumes that Achim Krekeler had lent me, volumes that I now wanted to examine much more thoroughly. I also assembled other relevant sources, including The History of Herodotus (because I had learned that the famous Greek scholar had paid a visit to Elephantine around the year 450 BC22).
This further research effort proved fruitful. One thing that had been bothering me, for example, was why Josiah – the zealous traditionalist who had inherited the throne in Jerusalem two years after Manasseh’s death – had not sought to get the Ark back from Elephantine. The answer to that question did not prove difficult to find. As I had already established, Josiah’s reforms had not started until the twelfth year of his reign (when he was twenty) and his restoration of the Temple had only begun in the eighteenth year of his reign (622 BC).23 By this time relations between Judah and Egypt had deteriorated dramatically – so much so, in fact, that Josiah was ultimately killed fighting the Egyptians.24 Even if he had known that the Ark had been taken to Elephantine, therefore, he would not have been in a position to enforce its return from a powerful country with which he was at war.
Having satisfied myself on this point I then moved on to consider the next stage of the lost history that I was attempting to reconstruct – the journey of the Ark from Elephantine into Ethiopia during the fifth century BC. My interview in Jerusalem with the Falasha priest Raphael Hadane had raised the intriguing possibility that the ancestors of Ethiopia’s black Jews might have been migrants from Elephantine – because there could be no doubt that he had been speaking of that island when he had told me that his forefathers had built a temple at Aswan. Moreover the notion that the Falashas might have reached Ethiopia from Elephantine was supported by the findings of my own earlier research. In November 1989 I had been struck by the ‘ethnographic fingerprint’ of Falasha settlement around Lake Tana and – on the basis of this and other evidence – I had concluded that:
the religion of Solomon could only have entered Ethiopia from the west – through Egypt and the Sudan along the ancient and well-travelled trade routes provided by the Nile and Takazze rivers.
For some time before reaching that conclusion I had been profoundly dissatisfied with the large body of academic opinion which held that the Falashas were the descendants of Jews from southern Arabia who had arrived in Ethiopia after AD 70 (see Chapter 6). Now, as I followed up the bibliography that the social anthropologist Shalva Weil had dictated to me in Jerusalem, I discovered that a number of other theories had been put forward to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. Though repeatedly ridiculed by the masters of Ethiopian studies like Professor Edward Ullendorff,25 some of the dissenting voices had suggested that the ancestors of the Falashas could well have been converted to Judaism by migrants from the Jewish colony on the island of Elephantine.26 No doubt there had been extensive commercial and cultural contacts between Yemen and Ethiopia during this period; the reality was, however, that several quite substantial Jewish communities had been established in Egypt for hundreds of years before any Jews had settled in south Arabia. Given the profoundly Old Testament character of Falasha religion, therefore, logic suggested that the Jewish faith must have been carried south-eastwards from Egypt and into Ethiopia in a gradual process of ‘cultural diffusion’.27
To be sure, there were no absolutely unassailable historical facts linking the Falashas to Elephantine. I did, however, come across a great many tantalizing clues and coincidences which seemed to me to be highly suggestive of such a link. All the evidence was circumstantial and none of it actually proved my theory that the Ark had reached Ethiopia in the fifth century BC after spending two hundred years in the Jewish Temple on Elephantine. Viewed in the context of everything else that I had learned, however – in Israel, in Egypt and in Ethiopia itself – my latest findings took on a different and entirely more persuasive aspect.
Set out below, as I recorded them in my notebook, are the principal conclusions that I reached and the evidence on which they were based:
1 The fact that the Jewish community at Elephantine practised sacrifice – and that it continued to do so long after King Josiah’s reforms – is surely highly significant. One of the proofs of the antiquity of Judaism in Ethiopia is the extremely archaic character of Falasha religion, in which animal sacrifice of precisely the kind carried out at Elephantine plays a crucial role.28 This adds weight to the hypothesis that the Falashas are the ‘cultural descendants’ of Jewish migrants from Elephantine and therefore provides strong support for the thesis that the Ark of the Covenant may have been brought to Ethiopia from that island.
2 In its heyday the Jewish Temple on Elephantine had its own well established priesthood. In the vowel-less language of the papyri these priests are referred to as KHN.29 This word, of course, becomes kahen when the vowels ‘a’ and ‘e’ are added. Falasha priests are also called Kahen.30
3 One of the names given to the Jewish Temple on Elephantine was MSGD.31 It meant ‘place of prostration’.32 To this day the Falashas in Ethiopia have no synagogues; neither do they have a temple; they do, however, call their simple houses of worshipMesgid33 (i.e. MSGD with the vowels ‘e’ and ‘i’ added). In this context it is also worthy of note that it was exactly in a prostrate position, knees to the ground, that King Solomon once prayed before the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh.34
4 In his interview with me in Jerusalem Raphael Hadane said that the Jewish Temple built by his forefathers ‘at Aswan’ had been exempted from a great destruction that had been inflicted upon Egyptian temples by a ‘foreign king’:
‘he did not destroy our temple. So when the Egyptians saw that only the Jewish temple was not destroyed they suspected that we were on the side of the invader. Because of this they started to fight against us and they destroyed our temple and we were forced to flee.’
In 525 BC a foreign king did invade Egypt and did indeed destroy many temples.35 His name was Cambyses and he was the ruler of the expansionist Persian Empire that had been founded by his father Cyrus the Great. The Elephantine papyri preserve this recollection of him:
when Cambyses came into Egypt he found this [Jewish] Temple built. They [the Persians] knocked down all the temples of the gods of Egypt, but no one did any damage to this Temple.36
The Persians remained in power in Egypt until very close to the end of the fifth century BC. During this period the Jews on Elephantine co-operated closely with them. It was after their protection had been effectively removed that the Jewish Temple on that island was finally destroyed.37 Raphael Hadane’s folk traditions about the origins of the Falashas are therefore borne out by established historical facts.
5 Hadane also reported that his people especially venerated the island of Tana Kirkos – the same island to which I was told the Ark had been brought in the fifth century BC. Moreover, Memhir Fisseha, the Christian priest whom I interviewed on that island, told me that the Ark had been kept there ‘inside a tent’ for eight hundred years before being taken to Axum.38 It seems to me hardly surprising that a tent or ‘tabernacle’ might have been used on Tana Kirkos to shelter the Ark. If my theory is correct then the Jews who brought the relic there had just experienced the destruction of their own Temple on Elephantine and would have known also of the earlier destruction of Solomon’s Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. They could well have decided that it was time to abandon formal temples for ever and to return to the pure tradition of the desert wanderings when the Ark had always been housed in a tent.
6 Last but not least, Raphael Hadane told me that the ancestors of the Falashas reached Ethiopia not only by way of Aswan (i.e. Elephantine) but also that they passed through the city of Meroe ‘where they remained for a short while’. These same two places were also named by Solomon Alemu, the Falasha priest whom I interviewed at the village of Anbober in January 1990. Can it be a coincidence that, after being lost to history for more than 1,500 years, the ruins of Meroe were finally unearthed by – guess who? Answer: they were discovered in 1772 by the Scottish explorer James Bruce.39
The land of the Deserters
All this, I felt, very strongly suggested that I was on the right track – and the fact that the site of ancient Meroe had been discovered by none other than my old friend James Bruce only served to quicken my enthusiasm for the chase. The Scottish explorer, I was sure, had made his epic journey to Ethiopia in order to locate the Ark of the Covenant (see Chapter 7). How appropriate therefore that he should also have located the fabled city through which the sacred relic had passed on its journey to the Abyssinian highlands.
But had it really passed that way? There was still, it seemed to me, one vital question that I had not yet satisfactorily answered: why should the Jews of Elephantine have migrated to the south with the Ark of the Covenant after they left the island? Why not head north – back towards Israel, for example?
I found that there were several possible explanations for this, all of which could have played a role. For a start, by the fifth century BC, the Jews in Jerusalem had got used to living without the Ark. Solomon’s Temple was long gone and a new one had been built to replace it. This Second Temple, furthermore, was administered by an entrenched priesthood which would definitely not have welcomed competitors from Elephantine.
By the same token, the Elephantine Jews would have felt alien and out of place in the theological environment afforded by Jerusalem in the fifth century BC. Religious thinking had moved on, God was no longer thought of as the quasi-corporeal deity who had dwelled ‘between the cherubims’, and the forms of worship in which the Ark had once occupied centre stage had been largely abandoned.
The return of the relic would, therefore, have led to many potentially catastrophic problems. It would have been quite obvious to the Elephantine priesthood that in order to avoid these problems they would have to stay away from Jerusalem. But where could they go instead? Clearly, they could not remain in Egypt, since the Egyptians had turned against them and destroyed their Temple. Nor, for the same reason, could they have been sure of safe passage if they had chosen to travel north in order to leave that country. A logical solution, therefore, would have been to turn towards the south. It was not without good reason that the Governor of Aswan and Elephantine was titled ‘Governor of the Door of the Southern Countries’.40 In order to take their precious relic to safety the Jews would only have needed to open that metaphorical ‘door’ and head off into those ‘Southern Countries’, which were known collectively as ‘Ethiopia’ – a Greek word meaning ‘burnt faces’ applied at that time to all areas in which dark-skinned people lived.41
The fugitives would by no means have been venturing forth into a terrifying terra incognita. On the contrary, there was direct evidence that members of the Jewish community had been involved in military expeditions far to the south as early as the sixth centuryBC.42 Furthermore, I discovered well documented instances of previous migrations – migrations that had not necessarily involved Jews but that had seen large numbers of people from the Aswan area travelling and settling in ‘the Southern Countries’. For example, Herodotus, the ‘father of History’, reported that four days’ journey beyond Elephantine the river Nile ceased to be navigable:
You will then disembark and travel along the bank for forty days, for there are sharp rocks in the Nile and many reefs through which you will be unable to sail. Having marched through this country in forty days, you will embark again in another boat and sail for twelve days, and then you will come to a great city, the name of which is Meroe. This city is said to be the mother of all Ethiopia … From this city, making a voyage of the same length of sailing as you did from Elephantine to the mother city of the Ethiopians, you will come to the land of the Deserters … These were two hundred and forty thousand Egyptians, fighter Egyptians, who revolted from the Egyptians and joined the Ethiopians … in the time of King Psammetichus. When these people had settled among the Ethiopians, the Ethiopians became more civilised, through learning the manner of the Egyptians. For four months of travel space, then, sailing and road, beyond its course in Egypt, the Nile is a known country. If you add all together, you will find that it takes four months of journeying from Elephantine to these Deserters of whom I spoke.43
I said earlier that the mass exodus of ‘the Deserters’ from Elephantine had not necessarily involved Jews, and I could find no proof that it had. Herodotus had stated very clearly, however, that this exodus had occurred in the time of the Pharaoh Psammetichus (595–589 BC44). I was therefore excited to learn from an impeccable source that ‘Jews had been sent out as auxiliaries to fight in the army of Psammetichus against the King of the Ethiopians.’45 On the basis of this well documented historical fact it did not seem unreasonable to conclude that there might indeed have been some Jews amongst the Deserters.
Another aspect of the Herodotus report which I found intriguing was that it made specific mention of Meroe – through which, according to Raphael Hadane, the forefathers of the Falashas had passed on their way to Abyssinia. Moreover, Herodotus had gone to considerable lengths to explain that his ‘Deserters’ had lived a full fifty-six days’ sail beyond Meroe. If this journey had been made on the Atbara river, which flows into the Nile just to the north of Meroe (and into which, in turn, the Takazze also flows) then it would have brought the traveller as far as the borders of modern Ethiopia, and perhaps across those borders.46
Herodotus had written his report in the fifth century BC. It followed that if a group of Jews bearing the Ark of the Covenant had chosen to flee southwards from Elephantine in that same century then they would have passed through ‘known country’ almost all the way to Lake Tana. Moreover, simple logic suggested that the Abyssinian highlands could have been an attractive destination for them – cool and well watered, these green mountains would surely have looked like a Garden of Eden by comparison with the deserts of the Sudan.
Beyond the rivers of Cush
Could the fugitives from Elephantine have had foreknowledge of this ‘garden beyond the wilderness’? Was it possible that in making their journey to the south they might not only have been travelling through ‘known country’ but also going towards a land in which they already had kin and co-religionists? As my research progressed I did find evidence to suggest that this was indeed possible and that Jews could well have ventured into Abyssinia at dates even earlier than the fifth century BC.
Part of this evidence was biblical. Though I knew that the use of the word ‘Ethiopia’ in the Scriptures could not automatically be assumed to refer to the country now going by that name, I also knew that there were circumstances in which it might have done. As noted above, ‘Ethiopia’ is a Greek word meaning ‘burnt faces’. In the earliest Greek editions of the Bible, the Hebrew term ‘Cush’ was translated as ‘Ethiopia’ and was used to refer, as one leading authority put it, to ‘the entire Nile Valley south of Egypt, including Nubia and Abyssinia’.47 What this meant was that biblical references to ‘Ethiopia’ might or might not refer to Abyssinia proper. Likewise, in English translations that had reverted to the use of the word ‘Cush’, Abyssinia might or might not have been implied.
In this context it seemed to me at least worthy of note that Moses himself had married an ‘Ethiopian woman’48 – according to an undeniably ancient verse in the book of Numbers. Added to this was the curious testimony of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus – supported by several Jewish legends – which asserted that between his fortieth and eightieth years the prophet had lived for some time in ‘Ethiopia’.49
Other passages in the Scriptures also referred to ‘Ethiopia’/‘Cush’. Many were plainly irrelevant to my interests. Some, however, were intriguing and raised the possibility that the scribes responsible for them had not had Nubia or any part of the Sudan in mind but rather the mountainous land in the Horn of Africa that we call ‘Ethiopia’ today.
One such, with which I was already familiar, occurred in the second chapter of the book of Genesis and referred to the rivers that flowed out of the Garden of Eden: ‘And the name of the second river is Gihon; the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia.’50 A glance at a map showed me that there was a very real sense in which the Blue Nile, sweeping out from Lake Tana in a wide loop, did indeed compass ‘the whole land of Ethiopia’. Moreover, as I had been aware for some time,51 the twin springs regarded as the source of that great river are known to this day as Giyon by the Ethiopians themselves.52
Another interesting passage occurred in Psalm 68, described by Jon D. Levenson, Associate Professor of the Hebrew Bible in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, as ‘one of the oldest pieces of Israelite poetry’.53 This psalm included a cryptic reference to the Ark of the Covenant54 and also made the following strange prediction: ‘Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.’55 I could not help but wonder why Ethiopia had been given prominence in this way as a likely candidate for conversion to the religion of Israel. Unfortunately, there was nothing in the psalm itself which helped to answer this question. However, in a passage written somewhat later by the prophet Amos (whose ministry lasted from 783 to 743 BC56), there were indications that something so momentous had happened in Ethiopia/Cush that the inhabitants of that distant land were now to be regarded as being on a par with the ‘Chosen People’ of Israel. Three different translations of the same verse (Amos 9:7) help to illustrate what I mean:
Are ye not as children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel? saith the Lord. (King James Authorized Version)
Are not you and the Cushites all the same to me, sons of Israel? – it is Yahweh who speaks. (Jerusalem Bible)
Are not you Israelites like Cushites to me? says the Lord. (New English Bible)
While I realized that it would be possible to interpret this verse in another way – i.e. to understand from it that the children of Israel were no longer to be accorded any special privileges by Yahweh – it seemed to me that the more obvious reading also had to be considered. By the eighth century BC, when Amos was prophesying, was it not conceivable that there could already have been a flow of Hebrew migrants southwards through Egypt and into the highlands of Abyssinia? There was no proof for this admittedly wild speculation. It was an undeniable fact, however, that out of all the vast swathe of territory that Amos could have been referring to when he spoke of Ethiopia/Cush, only one specific area was known to have adopted the Judaic faith in antiquity (and, moreover, to have adhered to that faith right up until the twentieth century AD). That area, of course, lay in the vicinity of Lake Tana, the Falasha homeland since time immemorial.
The next biblical passage that caught my attention was in the book of Zephaniah, and had been written at some time between 640 and 622 BC57 – i.e. during the reign of King Josiah. Again I found it helpful to view side by side three separate translations of the same verse (Zephaniah 3:10), which supposedly quoted the words of the Lord:
From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants, even the daughter of my dispersed, shall bring mine offering. (King James Authorized Version)
From beyond the banks of the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants will bring me offerings. (Jerusalem Bible)
From beyond the rivers of Cush my suppliants of the Dispersion shall bring me tribute. (New English Bible)
Since there was absolutely no doubt that this verse had been written before 622 BC – and thus well before the exile and captivity of the Israelites in Babylon – it was pertinent to ask the following questions:
1 When Zephaniah had referred to a ‘dispersion’ what event exactly had he been talking about?
2 Which part of biblical ‘Cush’ had he had in mind when he had envisaged the suppliants of the Lord bringing offerings ‘from beyond the rivers of Ethiopia’?
In answer to the first question, I had to conclude that the prophet had been talking about some kind of voluntary popular migration, because there had been no enforced ‘dispersion’ of the Hebrews from the Holy Land prior to Zephaniah’s time. As regards the second question, the reader will recall that the biblical term ‘Cush’ connoted ‘the entire Nile Valley, south of Egypt, including Nubia and Abyssinia’. The verse quoted above, however, contained internal evidence which helped to narrow down the precise geographical area that Zephaniah had been speaking of. That evidence lay in the phrase variously translated as ‘beyond the rivers of Ethiopia’. Since more than one river was involved, the Nile Valley as far south as Meroe could be ruled out. East of Meroe, however, flowed the Atbara, and beyond that the Takazze, while to the south (roughly parallel to the Atbara) the Blue Nile rushed down from Abyssinia. These, surely, were the rivers of Ethiopia, and beyond all of them lay Lake Tana. The possibility that the prophet had had the traditional area of Falasha settlement in mind when he had written this intriguing verse could not, therefore, be entirely dismissed.
My feeling that there might be something to this speculation strengthened when I ran a computer check and discovered that the phrase ‘beyond the rivers of Ethiopia/Cush’ had only been used on one other occasion in the entire Bible. The King James Authorized Version translated the relevant passage (from Chapter 18 of the book of Isaiah) as follows:
Woe to the land shadowing with wings, which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia: That sendeth ambassadors by the sea, even in vessels of bulrushes upon the waters, saying, Go, ye swift messengers, to a nation scattered and peeled, to a people terrible from their beginning hitherto; a nation meted out and trodden down, whose land the rivers have spoiled!58
The other translations of the same passage, which I reproduce below side by side, added further shades of meaning to an already rich and haunting message:
Country of whirring wings beyond the rivers of Cush, who send ambassadors by sea, in papyrus skiffs over the waters. Go, swift messengers to a people tall and bronzed, to a nation always feared, a people mighty and masterful, in the country criss-crossed with rivers. (Jerusalem Bible)
There is a land of sailing ships, a land beyond the rivers of Cush which sends its envoys by the Nile, journeying on the waters in vessels of reed. Go, swift messengers, go to a people tall and smooth-skinned, to a people dreaded near and far, a nation strong and proud, whose land is scoured by rivers. (New English Bible)
Falling as it did in Chapter 18 of the book of Isaiah, it was certain that this passage had been written by Isaiah himself.59 This meant, of course, that it could be accurately dated to his lifetime which, as I already knew,60 had been a long one, spanning the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah (respectively 740–736 BC, 736–716 BC and 716–687 BC61). In fact, the prophet had almost certainly survived into the reign of Manasseh, the monarch whose idolatry, I was now quite certain, had led to the removal of the Ark of the Covenant from the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple. I was therefore interested to learn of a strong and ancient Jewish tradition which held that Isaiah had died a martyr at the hands of Manasseh himself.62
What I found even more interesting was the way in which the prophet had spoken of the mysterious land that lay ‘beyond the rivers of Cush’. The King James Authorized Version of the Bible suggested that he had cursed this land but the more recent translations conveyed no such impression. All three renderings, however, did agree on its geographical character: not only was it located ‘beyond’ rivers, but also it was itself ‘spoiled’, or ‘scoured’, or ‘criss-crossed’ by rivers.
In my view, this information made it virtually certain that Isaiah had been referring to Abyssinia and to the area of traditional Falasha settlement there. The high country around Lake Tana is indeed ‘criss-crossed’ by rivers (which also spoil and scour it by carrying away huge quantities of its precious top-soil). There were other clues as well:
1 The inhabitants of the land were said to be tall and ‘peeled’, or ‘smooth-skinned’, or – in the authoritative Jerusalem Bible translation – ‘bronzed’. This, I thought, was a description that could easily be applied to modern Ethiopians, whose glowing, chestnut-brown complexions are quite distinct from the ‘black’, negroid skin tones found in other African countries.
2 The land was curiously described as ‘shadowing with wings’ (or more directly as a ‘country of whirring wings’). This, I felt, might very well be a reference to the giant locust swarms that, every decade or so, lay waste Ethiopia, overshadowing the fields of the peasants and filling the air with a dry whirring sound that sends shivers down the spine.
3 Finally Isaiah had made specific mention of the fact that the messengers of the land travelled in ‘vessels of bulrushes’ or in ‘papyrus skiffs’, or in ‘vessels of reed’. To this day, as I was very well aware, those who dwell around the vast inland sea of Lake Tana make extensive use of papyrus-reed boats known as tankwas.63
All in all, therefore, I felt that the biblical data did lend a considerable degree of credibility to the view that some kind of relationship might have been established between Israel and the Abyssinian highlands at a very early date. Moses’s Ethiopian wife, Isaiah’s ‘people tall and bronzed’, and Zephaniah’s ‘dispersed’ suppliants – who would return to Jerusalem ‘from beyond the rivers of Cush’ – all made it very difficult to resist the suspicion that Hebrews had been travelling to Ethiopia, and probably settling there, long before the fifth century BC. If, as I suspected, the Jewish priests of Elephantine had brought the Ark of the Covenant to the island of Tana Kirkos in that same century then it followed that they would have been coming to a land in which their co-religionists had already established a secure foothold.
Waves of migration?
Outside the Bible was there any evidence at all which might support this hypothesis? I felt that there was. The research that I myself had conducted in Ethiopia during 1989–90, for example, had already raised the possibility that there might have been successive waves of Hebrew migration over an immense span of time extending back into the remotest antiquity. Most strongly suggestive of this had been the long interview that I had conducted with Wambar Muluna Marsha, High Priest of the ‘Hebraeo-Pagan’ Qemant (seeChapter 11). He had told me that Anayer, the founder of his religion, had come to the Lake Tana area from ‘the land of Canaan’. When I had made a closer examination of Qemant religion I had established that it contained a peculiar mixture of pagan and Jewish practices – the latter reflected particularly in the distinctions between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ foods – coupled with a reverence for ‘sacred groves’ which bore a close resemblance to the very earliest forms of Judaism (the patriarch Abraham had ‘planted a grove in Beersheba,’ and had ‘called there on the name of the Lord’.64 Such tendencies had probably been quite widespread during the early period of Israelite settlement in Canaan, and had enjoyed a brief resurgence during Manasseh’s reign, but had been thoroughly and finally stamped out by King Josiah in the seventh century BC.
The implication was that the forefathers of the Qemant must have migrated to Ethiopia from Canaan at a very early date. By contrast the Falashas looked like the descendants of slightly more recent migrants. Their religion included certain practices also banned by King Josiah – notably animal sacrifice at local shrines – but otherwise looked like a rather pure form of Old Testament Judaism (and was certainly not adulterated with any obviously pagan beliefs).
Neighbours in the mountains and valleys around Lake Tana, the Qemant and the Falashas maintained that they were related to each other (Wambar Muluna Marsha had told me that the founding family of his religion and the founding family of the Falasha religion had travelled ‘on the same journey’ and had discussed a possible marriage alliance – which they had ultimately failed to make).
Such folklore, as I subsequently established, did reflect an ethnographic truth. The Falashas and the Qemant were indeed relatives: both were sub-sections of the great Agaw tribe of western central Ethiopia65 – an ethnic group considered to represent the oldest stratum of population in the Horn of Africa.66 Because of this, the mother-tongue of both peoples was a dialect of Agaw, classified, interestingly enough, as belonging to the ‘Cushitic’ group of languages.67 Semitic tongues related to Hebrew and Arabic (for example, Amharic and Tigrigna) were also present in Ethiopia but were not spoken (except as second languages) either by the Falashas or by the Qemant.
The explanation for this anomaly, and the deductions that flowed logically from it, seemed to me to be obvious. I wrote in my notebook:
The first small bands of Hebrews must have begun to migrate from Israel to Ethiopia a very long time ago. I suspect that this process started as early as the tenth century BC (perhaps even earlier) and that it continued at least until the end of the fifth century BC. On their arrival in the Lake Tana area the migrants would have found themselves amongst the oldest-established inhabitants of Ethiopia – such as the Agaw – and would have intermarried with them, thus gradually losing their own distinct ethnic identity. At the same time, however, they would have passed on the Judaic faith and culture that they had brought with them. In this fashion, by say the second or first century BC, there would have been no more ‘Hebrews’ as such living in Ethiopia, only ‘Hebraized’ or ‘Judaized’ peoples who to all other intents and purposes would have looked like native Ethiopians and who would, of course, have spoken a native Ethiopian language (Hebrew having long since been forgotten). The modern descendants of these ‘Hebraized’ or ‘Judaized’ peoples are the Qemant and the Falashas – the black Jews of Ethiopia – and their mother-tongue, a dialect of Agaw, is indeed a native Cushitic language.
And what about the ‘Semitic’ peoples of Ethiopia such as the politically dominant Christian Amharas? Almost certainly they are, as the ethnographers maintain, the descendants of Sabaean/South Arabian settlers who moved into the highlands in separate and somewhat later waves of immigration. Judaism in one form or another was probably quite well established amongst indigenous Agaw groups by the time that these Sabaean conquerors arrived – which would explain why their cultures, too, were gradually ‘Judaized’ and why Judaic elements survive to this day in the curiously Old Testament character of Abyssinian Christianity.
‘There were always Jews in Ethiopia, from the beginning,’ wrote the Portuguese Jesuit Balthaza Tellez in the seventeenth century.68 In this judgement he was, I suspect, far closer to the truth than those modern scholars who ascribe a relatively late date to the arrival of Judaism – and who seem to be completely blind to all the evidence that runs contrary to their own prejudices.
The mysterious ‘BRs’
While possessing the merit of explaining a great deal that hitherto had never been properly explained, I was well aware of a potential weakness in the theory that I had just outlined in my notebook: might it not reflect my own prejudices rather than the facts? To be sure, it was a fact that the Falashas practised an archaic form of Judaism; likewise it was a fact that Qemant religion contained many ancient Hebraic elements; and in a similar fashion it was a fact that the Christianity of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was riddled through and through with practices that were unmistakably Judaic in origin. But from all this was it legitimate to conclude that there had been waves of Hebrew immigration into Ethiopia for hundreds of years before the fifth century BC – when, as I believed, the Ark of the Covenant had been brought from the island of Elephantine on the upper Nile to the island of Tana Kirkos? If I was right, and if there had indeed been prior Hebrew settlement in that area, then there would no longer be any mystery about why Ethiopia (rather than some other country) had been chosen as the last resting place of the Ark.
But was I right? Thus far the evidence that I had gathered in support of my evolving theory had taken two distinctly different forms: (1) social and ethnographic data about the Falashas and the Qemant, notably concerning their religious beliefs, their folklore and their relationships to one another; (2) clues, scattered throughout the Old Testament, which seemed to bear witness to some kind of sustained Hebrew migration to Abyssinia in the first half of the first millennium BC. If there had really been such a migration, however, then surely there would be proof of it outside the Bible and outside the observed peculiarities of Falasha and Qemant culture? The impressionistic material that I had already gathered was strongly suggestive, but what I really needed in order to make a complete case was tangible archaeological or documentary evidence of Hebrew settlement in Ethiopia prior to the fifth century BC.
I had never come across such evidence and I knew that I was swimming against the current of scholarly opinion in seeking for it now. Nevertheless I put out feelers to my contacts in the academic world in an attempt to discover whether there was anything of importance that I might have missed.
Not long afterwards I received through the mail a paper written in French by a certain Jacqueline Pirenne and published in 1989 by the Université des sciences humaines de Strasbourg.69 The paper had been sent to me by a professor of Egyptology at a major British university. In his covering note who said:
Just a line to enclose a photocopy of an article by Jacqueline Pirenne, given at a recent conference in Strasburg.
Frankly, from a scholarly point of view, I consider she’s gone ‘way over the top’; she’s undoubtedly a very able person, knows her ancient Arabian documentation, but has (for not a few of us) improbable ideas on anc. Arabian chronology & script origin. This essay is fascinating, but more fiction than history, I fear. (Beeston, I gather, criticised it heavily at a recent meeting of the Seminar for Arabian Studies; he’s pre-eminently sane, though no more infallible than the rest of us.)
I naturally wondered why the professor should have thought that a paper by someone who knew her ‘ancient Arabian documentation’ could possibly be of any relevance to my own research. After I had had the paper translated into English, however, I could see exactly why he had thought that, and I was also able to understand why members of the academic establishment had reacted with hostility to Jacqueline Pirenne’s views.
To strip a rather complex thesis down to its bare essentials, the main thrust of her argument was that scholars who had examined the historical relationship between Ethiopia and South Arabia had been completely wrong: far from Sabaean influences reaching Ethiopia from the Yemen, as had previously been supposed, the flow had in fact been in the opposite direction, in other words from Ethiopia to South Arabia:
The Sabaeans … arrived first of all in Ethiopian Tigray and entered Yemen via the Red Sea coast … This conclusion, which is the absolute contrary to all recognized views, is the only one … to explain the facts and do them justice.70
Pirenne then went on to demonstrate that the original homeland of the Sabaeans had been in north-west Arabia but that large numbers of them had emigrated from there to Ethiopia (‘via the Hammamat river bed and along the Nile’) in two separate waves, the first around 690 BC and the second around 590 BC. Why had they emigrated? In order to avoid paying tribute to the Assyrian invader Sennacherib on the first occasion and in order to avoid paying tribute to the Babylonian conqueror Nebuchadnezzar on the second.
This thesis was not as far-fetched as it sounded: during their respective campaigns Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar had not confined themselves to their famous attacks on Jerusalem; it was a fact that they had also pressed on into north-west Arabia, where they might indeed have encountered and displaced Sabaean tribes. This much I already knew. I did not feel, however, that I was in a position either to condemn or condone the rest of Pirenne’s argument, namely that her fugitive Sabaeans had reached Ethiopia by following the Nile Valley and then had migrated onwards from there across the Red Sea and into the Yemen.
Nor was this argument, interesting though it was, central to Pirenne’s importance for my own investigation. What caught my eye, and finally convinced me that I was on the right track, was her analysis of a Sabaean inscription found in Ethiopia and dated to the sixth century BC. Translated by the linguist R. Schneider and originally published in an obscure paper entitled ‘Documents épigraphiques de l’ethiopie’,71 this inscription honoured a Sabaean monarch who described himself as a ‘noble fighter king’ and boasted that in the empire he had established in the north and west of Ethiopia, he had reigned ‘over Da’amat, the Sabas, and over the ‘BRs, the whites and the blacks.’72 Who were the ‘BRs, Pirenne asked:
R. Schneider did not venture any interpretation … but the term, witnessed in Assyrian inscriptions – the Abirus – may be attributed to the Hebrews … It is natural that Hebrews would have emigrated at the same time as the second wave of Sabaeans, since the first capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar … followed by deportation to Babylon, was in 598 BC, whereas the attacks of the same Nebuchadnezzar against the Arabs were in 599–598 BC … Identification of the ‘BRs as ‘Hebrews’ who arrived [in Ethiopia] with the second wave of Sabaeans explains … the existence of the Falashas, black but Jewish … They are the descendants of these ‘Hebrews’ who arrived in the sixth century BC.73
What Pirenne had not given any consideration to was the possibility that the ‘BRs’ – a standard way of writing the word ‘Hebrews’ (i.e. ABIRUS) in early alphabets lacking in vowels – might have arrived in Ethiopia before any of the Sabaean incursions. She had simply deduced, because the inscription that mentioned them had been dated to the sixth century BC, that they must have migrated in that century. On the basis of my own research, however, I now felt very confident in concluding that the ‘BRs’ over whom the Sabaean conquerors had claimed suzereinty could well have been in Ethiopia for some considerable while before that – and, moreover, that their numbers were still being added to at that time (and afterwards) by the arrival via the Nile Valley of more small bands of Hebrew immigrants.
This latter point was still in the realm of theory; Jacqueline Pirenne’s gift to me, however, lay in the fact that she had drawn my attention to definite archaeological and documentary proof of the existence in Ethiopia, in the sixth century BC, of a people called the ‘BRs’. Academics might argue until eternity about who these ‘BRs’ really were, but I myself was no longer in any doubt:
• they had been Hebrews who, at that early stage, had not yet submerged their identity with that of the indigenous Agaw amongst whom they had settled;
• they had worshipped a God called YHWH;
• in consequence, when the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh was brought from Elephantine to Ethiopia in the fifth century BC there was a very real sense in which it could be said to have arrived in a receptive and appropriate resting place.
A chapel of mischance
There remained very little more for me to do. Throughout a long and circuitous historical investigation I had been trying to satisfy myself that there might be genuine merit to Ethiopia’s claim to possess the lost Ark.
I had done that now. I was well aware that scholars might dispute my findings, and the conclusions that I had drawn from them – but, really, the approval of the ‘experts’ and the ‘authorities’ was not what I had sought during 1989 and 1990. Instead my goal had been an inner one in which I alone had been the judge and final arbiter of all the evidence and of all the arguments.
The central issue had been simple: to journey to the ancient Tigrayan city of Axum, and to the sanctuary chapel in which the Ark was supposed to lie, I would have to be prepared to accept physical risks and also to overcome a profound spiritual unease at the thought of putting myself into the hands of the TPLF – armed rebels who had good cause to hate me because of the cosy links that I had hitherto enjoyed with the very government that they were shedding blood to overthrow. I had not been prepared to accept those risks, or to struggle to master my own fears, unless I could first convince myself that in so doing I would be embarking on an adventure that was neither foolish nor quixotic but rather one that I could believe in and to which I could commit myself.
I now did believe that there was a very high degree of probability that the Ark might indeed lie in Axum, and I was therefore prepared to commit myself absolutely to the last stage of my quest – the journey to ‘the sacred city of the Ethiopians’ with all the risks and dangers and difficulties that that would entail.
This was not a decision that I had arrived at lightly; on the contrary, over the previous months, I had determinedly sought out every excuse that might possibly have justified the abandonment of the whole chancy project. Instead of finding such excuses, however, I had only stumbled upon more and more clues that appeared to point unerringly in the direction of Axum.
I had looked for alternative resting places for the Ark, but none of those that legend or tradition offered had seemed in the least bit likely. I had looked for proofs that the relic might have been destroyed, but no such proofs existed. I had established that the Kebra Nagast’s claims about Solomon, Sheba and Menelik could not literally be true – only to discover that these same claims might well serve as a complex metaphor for the truth. Certainly, the Ark of the Covenant could not have gone to Ethiopia in the era of Solomon; but it was entirely plausible that it might have made that journey later, at the time of the destruction of the Jewish Temple that had stood on the island of Elephantine in the upper Nile.
All in all, therefore, whatever the academics might think, I knew that I had reached the end of a long personal road and that I could not any more put off or avoid the final reckoning: if I was to preserve any sense of my own integrity, if I was not in later years to feel dishonoured and ashamed, then I would have to do my level best to reach Axum – no matter the risks that I would have to run, no matter the demons of self-interest and cowardice that I would have to overcome. It was a cliché – perhaps one of the oldest clichés known to man – but it seemed to me that what really counted was not so much that I should attain the sacred city but rather that I should try to get there, not so much that I should actually find the Ark but rather that I should find within myself sufficient reserves of character to make the attempt.
I was, in my own eyes, far from being an Arthurian knight clad in shining armour. Nevertheless, at this moment in my life, I had no difficulty in understanding why Sir Gawain, on his way to the perils that awaited him at the Green Chapel, had chosen to ignore the siren song of the squire who had sought to dissuade him from completing his quest and who had warned him:
‘if you come there you’ll be killed … therefore good Sir Gawain … ride by another route, to some region remote! Go in the name of God, and Christ grace your fortune! And I shall go home again and undertake to swear solemnly, by God and his saints as well, stoutly to keep your secret, not saying to a soul that you ever tried to turn tail.’74
After considering his position, Gawain had replied:
‘It is worthy of you to wish for my well being, man, and I believe you would loyally lock it in your heart. But however quiet you kept it, if I quit this place, fled … in the fashion you propose, I should become a cowardly knight with no excuse whatever … I willgo to the Green Chapel, to get what Fate sends.’75
With just such resolve, though with less chivalry, I was now determined that I must go to my own ‘chapel of mischance’76 to find there whatever Fate might send me. And, like Sir Gawain, I knew that I would have to make that journey at the dawn of a New Year – for the solemn feast of Timkat fast approached.