Part II: Europe, 1989

Holy Ark and Holy Grail

Chapter 3

The Grail Cipher

It was in 1983 that I visited Axum and learned at first hand about Ethiopia’s audacious claim to be the last resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. I had been living in Africa at the time. In 1984 I moved to England with my family. Nevertheless in the years that followed I continued to travel regularly to Addis Ababa, producing a number of publications for the government and generally strengthening my contacts with those in power – including President Mengistu Haile Mariam himself. The dictator had a bad reputation for abusing human rights but I cultivated him assiduously and won a number of useful privileges as a result – notably access to many areas that were normally closed to foreigners. If I had wanted to look further into the Ark mystery there is no doubt that I would have been strongly placed to do so. I was just not interested, however. I therefore did not feel even a twinge of regret when, at the end of 1988, the forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front launched a massive offensive against Axum and captured it in a single day of bloody hand-to-hand fighting – during which more than two thousand of the governments troops were killed or captured. At that stage my involvement with the Mengistu regime had become so close that the rebels’ success meant the doors of the sacred city were now effectively closed to me. But I had no particular reason to want to go back there anyway. Or at least so I thought.

The Queen of Sheba at Chartres

I spent most of the second half of 1988 and the first quarter of 1989 writing the accompanying commentary for an illustrated book focussing on the historic northern regions of Ethiopia and on the religious ceremonies and customs of the peoples living there. This project was not commissioned by the government but was the work of two internationally renowned photographers, Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith1 – both of whom were close friends of mine.

Because of the nature of the subject, I had to do some quite detailed background research into several different ethnic groups – amongst them the Falashas, the indigenous black Jews of the Ethiopian highlands whom I had first encountered in 1983. At the same time, because of its formative role in Abyssinian religious culture, I found it necessary to read an ancient text to which Professor Richard Pankhurst had long before drawn my attention. Called the Kebra Nagast (‘Glory of Kings’) this text dated from the thirteenth century AD and had originally been written in Ge’ez. It contained the earliest-surviving version of the story told to me in Axum about the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, the birth of their son Menelik, and the eventual abduction of the Ark of the Covenant from the First Temple in Jerusalem. An English translation had been made in the 1920s by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, formerly Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum. It was out of print, but I managed to obtain a photocopy which I studied closely and drew on at various stages in the book I was writing.

My manuscript was not finalized until the end of March 1989. In April, wanting a complete break, I went on holiday to France with my family. We hired a car in Paris and then, with no particular itinerary in mind, headed south. Our first stop was Versailles where we spent a couple of days looking at the palace and at the châteaux. Then we went on to Chartres, a lovely old town in the département of Eure-et-Loire that is famous for its Gothic cathedral – a cathedral dedicated, like the great church at Axum, to Saint Mary the Mother of Christ.

Chartres has been an important Christian site since at least the sixth century AD and a focal point for the cult of the Madonna since the ninth century when Charles the Bald, grandson of the famous Charlemagne, presented the town with its most precious religious relic – a veil said to have been worn by Mary when she gave birth to Jesus. In the eleventh century the church built by Charles the Bald was burnt down and a new, much enlarged, cathedral was erected on its foundations. Following classical, ‘Romanesque’ design principles that emphasized horizontal solidity, this cathedral, too, was badly damaged by fire. Subsequently, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, its surviving shell was extensively modified and enlarged in the new, soaring, upward-striving style that came to be known as ‘Gothic’. Indeed the high north tower of Chartres cathedral, completed in the year 1134, is thought to be the world’s earliest example of Gothic architecture.2 The south tower was added over the next two decades, as were further features such as the west-facing Royal Portal. Then, in a concentrated burst of building between 1194 and 1225 most of the rest of the superb Gothic exterior was put in place – remaining intact and virtually unaltered ever since.3

When I visited Chartres with my family in April 1989 I was initially much less interested in the history of the cathedral than in its spectacular and glorious beauty. It was such a vast construction, with so much complex sculpture around its walls, that I realized it might take a lifetime to get to know it properly. We had other things to do and see, however, and decided to stay in the town for just three days before moving on towards the south.

I spent the greater part of those three days walking slowly around the cathedral, gradually imbibing its powerful and numinous atmosphere – the remarkable stained glass windows telling biblical stories and illuminating the inner gloom with strange patterns of light, the enigmatic labyrinth mapped out with paving stones in the centre of the nave, the flying buttresses supporting the soaring walls, the pointed arches, and the overwhelming sensation of harmony and proportion conveyed by the grace and agility of the architecture.

Guidebooks that I had purchased stressed that nothing was accidental here. The entire edifice had been carefully and explicitly designed as a key to the deeper religious mysteries. Thus, for example, the architects and masons had made use of gematria (an ancient Hebrew cipher that substitutes numbers for the letters of the alphabet) to ‘spell out’ obscure liturgical phrases in many of the key dimensions of the great building.4 Similarly the sculptors and glaziers – working usually to the instructions of the higher clergy – had carefully concealed complex messages about human nature, about the past, and about the prophetic meaning of the Scriptures in the thousands of different devices and designs that they had created. The statues and windows were in themselves works of art and beauty that were capable, at the most superficial level of understanding, of providing satisfaction, moral guidance and even entertainment to the viewer. The challenge, however, was to delve deeper and to decode the information concealed beneath the more obvious surface interpretations of this or that set of sculptures, this or that arrangement of stained glass.5

I was initially rather unconvinced by arguments like these and found it hard to accept that there could be anything more to the building than its outward appearance. Gradually, however, as I explored further and joined several specialist tours, I began to see that the vast structure was indeed a kind of ‘book in stone’ – an intricate and provocative opus that could be approached and understood at several different levels.

Soon enough, therefore, I too started to play the game – and several times entertained myself by trying to work out the deeper significance of various pieces of statuary that caught my eye. When I thought I had found the correct answer to a particular arrangement or tableau I would then check in the guidebooks to see whether I was right or not.

Then something unexpected happened. Opposite the cathedral’s south porch I stopped for a snack in a café called La Reine de Saba. My recent reading of the Kebra Nagast containing the Ethiopian legend of the Queen of Sheba was still fresh in my mind and I asked one of the waiters why this name had been chosen.

‘Because there is a sculpture of the Queen of Sheba in the porch over there,’ he explained.

My curiosity aroused, I crossed the road and climbed the seventeen steps to the ornate porch – which consisted of a wide central archway sandwiched between two slightly narrower bays. Here, on almost every available square inch of masonry, were hundreds and hundreds of statuettes and many full-size statues. I could find none, however, that seemed obviously to represent the Queen of Sheba. I therefore checked in the guidebooks I had with me, the most detailed of which, Chartres: Guide of the Cathedral, told me where to look:

The inner archivolt of the outer arch has twenty-eight statuettes of kings and queens of the Old Testament: we recognise David with his harp, Solomon with a sceptre, and the Queen of Sheba holding a flower in her left hand. At the top, the four major prophets, bearded, talk with four minor prophets who are clean shaven.6

The book also informed me that the whole of the south porch had been built in the first quarter of the thirteenth century – the same century in which the Kebra Nagast had been compiled in Ethiopia to tell the story of the Queen of Sheba, Menelik and the theft of the Ark.

This struck me as an amusing coincidence and I therefore examined the statuette of the Queen of Sheba with some considerable interest. I could see absolutely nothing about it, however, that made it special in any way – other than the fact that it seemed to be a little out of place in the august company of a large number of Jewish monarchs and prophets. I knew that according to the Kebra Nagast the queen had been converted to Judaism,7 but I also knew that the relatively short biblical account of her visit to Jerusalem made no mention of this. In Chapter 10 of the book of Kings and in Chapter 9 of the book of Chronicles – the only places where she was specifically named in the Scriptures – she arrived at Solomon’s court a heathen and apparently left there a heathen still.8 It was her paganism, therefore, that made her the odd one out – unless, of course, the builders of Chartres cathedral had been familiar with the Ethiopian story of her conversion. This, however, seemed most unlikely – indeed the Old Testament did not even hint that she might have come from Ethiopia at all and the majority of scholars believed her to have been a South Arabian monarch who had hailed quite specifically from Saba or Sabaea in what is now the Yemen.9

I might very well have left the matter there, as a minor anomaly amongst the sculptures in the south porch of Chartres cathedral, if I had not discovered, by reading further in my guidebook, that there was a second statue of the Queen of Sheba in the north porch. That porch, too, had been built between the years 1200 and 1225, and was devoted to an extensive portrayal of Old Testament themes.10

The Ark and the inscriptions

I suppose, on that first visit, that I spent two hours in the north porch trying to puzzle out the convoluted stories told by the sculptures.

The left bay contained several representations of the Virgin Mary and of the infant Christ together with Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Daniel. There were also moral tales – notably one which portrayed the triumph of the Virtues over the Vices, and another which depicted the beatitudes of the body and soul as described by the great twelfth-century cleric Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

The central bay was dominated by a group of Old Testament patriarchs and prophets, notably the figure of Melchizedek – the mysterious priest-king of Salem described in Chapter 14 of the book of Genesis and in Psalm 110.11 Abraham, Moses, Samuel and David were there also, as were Elisha and Saint Peter. Other scenes included the Garden of Eden, with its four rivers, and the Virgin Mary crowned and seated on the heavenly throne beside Jesus.

It was in the right bay that I found the Queen of Sheba. This time she was not an obscure statuette on the arch, as had been the case in the south porch, but rather a full-size statue. She was placed next to a figure of Solomon, which made sense given the biblical context. What immediately caught my eye, however, was that beneath her feet crouched an African – described in one of my guidebooks as ‘her negroid servant’,12 and in another as ‘her Ethiopian slave’.13

No further details were given. Nevertheless I had seen enough to be satisfied that the sculptors who had worked in the north porch of Chartres in the thirteenth century had wanted to place the queen unmistakably in an African context. This meant that I could no longer so easily dismiss the possibility that those sculptors might have been familiar with the Ethiopian traditions about her which, in the thirteenth century, had been set down in the Kebra Nagast. That, at least, would explain why an apparently pagan monarch had been given so much importance in the iconography of a Christian cathedral: as noted above, it had only been in the Kebra Nagast, and not in the Bible, that she had been described as a convert to the true faith of the patriarchs. At the same time, however, it raised another difficult question: how and by what means could the Ethiopian story have filtered into northern France at so early a date?

It was with such thoughts passing through my mind that, on a column between the central and right-hand bays, I came across a piece of sculpture that was to have an even more powerful impact on me. Miniaturized – no more than a few inches high and wide – it depicted a box or chest of some sort being transported on an ox-cart. Beneath it, in capital letters, were carved these two words:

ARCHA CEDERIS

Moving on around the column in an anti-clockwise direction I then found a separate scene, badly damaged and eroded, which seemed to show a man stooping over the same box or chest. There was an inscription here, too, a little difficult to make out:

HIC AMICITUR ARCHA CEDERIS (or possibly HIC

AMITTITUR ARCHA CEDERIS, or HIC

AMITITUR ARCHA CEDERIS, or even HIC

AMIGITUR ARCHA CEDERIS).

The style of the lettering was archaic, jumbled up and obscure. I realized that it must be Latin, or a form of Latin. However, having been obliged by my schoolmasters to abandon that subject at the age of thirteen (on account of my own linguistic incompetence), I made no attempt at a full translation. It seemed to me, however, that the word ARCHA must mean ‘Ark’ – as in Ark of the Covenant. I could also see that the box or chest depicted in the sculptures was about the right size (scaled against the other figures) to have been the Ark described in the book of Exodus.14

If I was correct in this assumption, I reasoned, then the positioning of an image of the Ark within a very few feet of an image of the Queen of Sheba strengthened the hypothesis that the builders of Chartres might, in some as yet unexplained way, have been influenced by the Ethiopian traditions set down in the Kebra Nagast. Indeed the fact the sculptors had placed the queen so unambiguously in an African context made this hypothesis look much more plausible than it had seemed when it had first occurred to me in the south porch. I therefore felt that it would be worth my while to establish whether the miniaturized devices on the columns were really images of the Ark and to work out the meaning of the Latin inscriptions.

I sat down on the paving of the north porch and pored through my guidebooks. Only two of them made any mention at all of the decorations on the columns I was interested in. One offered no translation of the inscriptions but confirmed that the scenes depicted did indeed relate to the Ark of the Covenant.15 The other provided the following translation – which I found interesting, but also rather suspect:

ARCHA CEDERIS: ‘You are to work through the Ark.’

HIC AMITITUR ARCHA CEDERIS: ‘Here things take their course; you are to work through the Ark.’16

Even my schoolboy Latin was sufficient to suggest that these interpretations were probably incorrect. I therefore decided that I would have to refer the matter to an expert for clarification and it occurred to me that in just a few days I would be passing quite close to the home of a man well qualified to help – Professor Peter Lasko, an art historian and a former director of the University of London’s Courtauld Institute, who now spent six months of every year living in southern France. The father of a close friend of mine, Lasko had made a lifetime study of the sacred art and architecture of the medieval period and could probably give me an authoritative opinion – or at any rate point me in the right direction.

Accordingly I carefully copied out the inscriptions and then stood up to try to produce a sketch of the whole north porch. As I was doing so I noticed something else that was possibly significant: the Ark tableau, though standing to the front of the porch on the supporting columns, was positioned exactly midway between Melchizedek, the Old Testament priest-king whose statue dominated the central bay, and the statue of the Queen of Sheba, which dominated the right-hand bay. Indeed I found that I could draw a neat triangle connecting up all three pieces of sculpture – with Melchizedek and the Queen of Sheba at either end of the long base and the Ark of the Covenant at the apex of the two shorter sides.

Nor was this all. As I studied the layout of images in the two bays I realized that the Ark on its little cart had been depicted as moving away from Melchizedek and directly towards the Queen of Sheba – along the side of the triangle I had drawn. Given the cryptic nature of much of the sculpture at Chartres, and the way in which different figures were often deliberately juxtaposed in order to tell stories and convey information, it seemed to me that this particular arrangement was unlikely to have been accidental. On the contrary it looked very much like another piece of evidence to support my evolving hypothesis that the builders of Chartres must, somehow, have been exposed to the Ethiopian legend of the Queen of Sheba as related in the Kebra Nagast. Though there was far too little to go on here to justify any firm conclusions, it was at least possible that the curious iconography of the north porch did contain echoes of the tradition that the Ark of the Covenant had been taken away from ancient Israel (represented by the priest-king Melchizedek) and to Ethiopia (represented by the Queen of Sheba).

I therefore paid special attention to the statue of Melchizedek before leaving the north porch. He had caught my eye when I had first arrived, but now, as I sketched him, I began to notice more details. Dangling beneath his right hand, for example, was a censer very similar to those that I had often seen in use in Ethiopian church services – where copious quantities of incense were routinely burned. Meanwhile he held in his left hand a long-stemmed chalice or cup containing not liquid but rather some sort of solid cylindrical object.

I searched through my guidebooks again, but could find no reference to the censer and only conflicting explanations of the cup. One source said that Melchizedek was intended here to be viewed as a precursor of Christ and that the chalice and the object within it were thus meant to represent ‘the bread and the wine, the symbols of the Eucharist’.17 Another captioned its photograph of the statue with these words: ‘Melchizedek bearing the Grail cup out of which comes the Stone’, and then added (somewhat puzzlingly):

With this we may connect the poem of Wolfram von Eschenbach, who is said to have been a Templar – though there is no proof of this – for whom the Grail is a Stone.18

None the wiser, I eventually left the north porch and joined my wife and children in the gardens behind the great cathedral. The next day we drove south from Chartres in the direction of Bordeaux and Biarritz. And some time after that, now heading east towards the Côte d’azur, we arrived in the département of Tarn-et-Garonne near the city of Toulouse. There, with the aid of a good map, I eventually found the home of the art historian Professor Peter Lasko whom I had telephoned from Chartres and who had expressed a willingness to talk to me about the sculptures in the north porch – though, he had modestly added, he could not claim to be an expert on them.

An Ethiopian connection?

I spent an afternoon with Peter Lasko at his house in the village of Montaigu de Quercy. A distinguished, grey-haired man in his sixties, I had met him several times before and he knew that, as a writer, I specialized in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. He therefore began by asking me why I had suddenly taken an interest in medieval French cathedrals.

I replied by outlining my theory that the sculptures I had seen in the north porch of Chartres might in some way have been influenced by the Kebra Nagast: ‘Melchizedek with his cup could represent Old Testament Israel,’ I concluded. ‘He was priest-king of Salem, after all, which a number of scholars have identified with Jerusalem.19 Then the Queen of Sheba with her African servant could represent Ethiopia. And then we have the Ark between the two, going in the direction of Ethiopia. So the message would be that the Ark had gone from Jerusalem to Ethiopia – which is exactly what the Kebra Nagast says. How does that sound to you?’

‘To be perfectly honest, Graham, it sounds preposterous.’

‘Why?’

‘Well … I suppose it’s just possible that Ethiopian traditions could have filtered into Europe as early as the thirteenth century – in fact, come to think of it, there has been at least one scholarly paper which does suggest that this could have happened. I rather doubt that view myself. Nevertheless, even if the Kebra Nagast story was known in Chartres at the right time I just don’t see why anyone would have felt motivated to translate it into the iconography of the cathedral. That would have been a most peculiar thing to do – particularly in the north porch which is mainly about the Old Testament forerunners of Christ. Melchizedek is there for that very reason, by the way. He’s specifically identified with Christ in the book of Hebrews.’20

‘He’s shown holding a cup in the sculpture and there’s also some kind of cylindrical object in the cup.’

‘Probably meant to represent bread – the bread and the wine of the Eucharist.’

‘That’s what one of my guidebooks says. But there’s another one which identifies the cup with the Holy Grail and which argues that the cylindrical object is a stone.’

Peter Lasko raised a quizzical eyebrow. ‘I’ve never heard such a thing before. It sounds even more far-fetched than your theory of an Ethiopian connection …’ He paused reflectively, then added: ‘There is one thing though. That scholarly paper which I mentioned – the one that talks about Ethiopian ideas finding their way into medieval Europe …’

‘Yes.’

‘Well oddly enough it’s about the Holy Grail. If I remember rightly it argues that Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Grail – which was a stone, not a cup – was influenced by some sort of Christian Ethiopian tradition.’

I sat forward in my chair: ‘That’s interesting … Wolfram von Eschenbach was also mentioned in my guidebook. Who was he?’

‘One of the earliest of the medieval poets to concern himself with the Holy Grail. He wrote a book-length work on the subject called Parzival.’

‘Isn’t that the name of an opera?’

‘Yes, by Wagner. He was inspired by Wolfram.’

‘And this Wolfram … when did he write?’

‘Late twelfth or early thirteenth century.’

‘In other words at the same time that the north porch of Chartres cathedral was built?’

‘Yes.’

We both remained silent for a while, then I said: ‘The paper that you told me about which argues that Wolfram’s work was influenced by Ethiopian traditions – I don’t suppose you happen to remember the title of it do you?’

‘… Ah. No. I’m afraid not. It must have been at least twenty years ago when I read it. It was by someone or other Adolf, I think. That name sticks in my mind, anyway. Wolfram was a German so you really need to talk to a specialist in Middle High German literature to find out more details.’

Silently resolving that I would do just that, I then asked Peter if he could help me with a translation of the inscriptions that had so intrigued me at Chartres. My guidebook, I told him, had rendered ARCHA CEDERIS as ‘You are to work through the Ark’ and HIC AMITITUR ARCHA CEDERIS as ‘Here things take their course; you are to work through the Ark.’ These interpretations, however, were in his view completely wrong. ARCHA certainly meant Ark and CEDERIS was most probably a corruption of FOEDERIS – meaning Covenant. On this reading, therefore, ARCHA CEDERIS would translate very simply and logically as ‘Ark of the Covenant’. Another alternative, however, was that the word CEDERIS was intended as a form of the verb cedere – meaning to yield or to give up or to go away. The tense was unorthodox, but the best translation of ARCHA CEDERIS if this was the case would be ‘the Ark that you will yield’ (or ‘give up’ or ‘send away’).

As to the longer inscription, the problem was the obscurity of the fourth letter of the second word. My guidebook had presumed it to be a single ‘T’. It was much more likely to be an abbreviation representing a double ‘T’, however (because there was no Latin word spelt AMITITUR with a single ‘T’). If a double ‘T’ had indeed been intended then the phrase would read HIC AMITTITUR ARCHA CEDERIS, meaning something like ‘Here it is let go, the Ark that you will yield’, or perhaps ‘Here it is let go, Oh Ark, you are yielded’, or alternatively – if CEDERIS was a corruption of FOEDERIS – ‘Here it is let go, the Ark of the Covenant’.

It was also possible, however, that the fourth letter of the second word was a ‘C’ of some kind (which was actually what it looked like). If so then the relevant phrase became HIC AMICITUR ARCHA CEDERIS – which would translate either as ‘Here is hidden the Ark of the Covenant’, or ‘Here is hidden the Ark that you will yield’ (or ‘give up’ or ‘send away’).

‘Even the word “hidden” isn’t definite,’ concluded Peter as he closed his Latin dictionary. ‘Amicitur in this context could equally well mean “covered up” – although that does convey the same sort of idea doesn’t it? I don’t know. The whole thing’s a bit of a puzzle really.’

I agreed wholeheartedly with him on this point. The whole thing was indeed a puzzle. It was, moreover, a puzzle that I felt challenged, intrigued and tantalized by and that I very much wanted to solve.

During the remainder of my holiday in France my thoughts kept wandering back to the north porch of Chartres where I had seen the little sculptures. What I could not forget was the way in which the relic on its ox-cart had appeared to be moving towards the Queen of Sheba; nor could I dismiss from my mind the possibility that this suggested movement or a journey towards Ethiopia.

I knew that I was indulging in wild speculation for which there was no academic justification whatsoever and I fully accepted Peter Lasko’s argument that the sculptors of Chartres would not have allowed themselves to be influenced by an Ethiopian legend in their choice of subject matter. This, however, left me with a much more exciting possibility to contemplate: perhaps those responsible for the north porch of the cathedral (which had also been called ‘the door of the initiates’21) had been drawing a cryptic map for future generations to follow – a map that hinted at the location of the most sacred and precious treasure that the world had ever known. Perhaps they had discovered that the Ark of the Covenant really had been let go, or yielded (or sent away?) from Israel in Old Testament times and that it had subsequently been hidden (or covered up?) in Ethiopia. Perhaps this was the true meaning of the little sculptures with their puzzling inscriptions. If so then the implications were truly breathtaking and the Axumite traditions that I had so readily dismissed in 1983 would, at the very least, merit a close second look.

Mary, the Grail and the Ark

When I returned from France at the end of April 1989 I set my research assistant to work on the problem of the scholarly paper that Peter Lasko had mentioned to me. I knew that it might have been written by someone named Adolf and I knew that the subject matter had to do with a possible Ethiopian influence on Wolfram von Eschenbach’s story of the Holy Grail. I did not know where, or when, the paper had been published, or even in what language, but I advised my researcher to contact the universities to see if there were any specialists on medieval German literature who might be able to help.

While waiting for an answer on this I went out and bought a number of different versions of the Grail ‘romance’. These included Chrétien de Troyes’s Conte du Graal, left unfinished by the author in AD 1182,22 Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’arthur, a much later epic dated to the mid-fifteenth century,23 and last but not least Parzival, which Wolfram von Eschenbach was thought to have written between the years 1195 and 121024 – dates that coincided almost exactly with the main phase of construction work on the north porch of Chartres cathedral.

I began to read these books and initially found Malory’s the most accessible – since it had been the inspiration for a number of stories and films dealing with the quest for the Holy Grail that I had enjoyed as a child.

I quickly discovered, however, that Malory had presented an idealized, sanitized and above all Christianized account of ‘the only true quest’. Wolfram’s story, by contrast, was more earthy, provided a more accurate portrayal of the realities of human behaviour, and – most important of all – was completely devoid of New Testament symbolism where the Grail itself was concerned.

In Malory the sacred relic was described as a ‘vessel of gold’ carried by a ‘perfect clean maiden’ and containing ‘part of the blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ’.25 This, as I was well aware, was precisely the image that had long been enshrined in popular culture, where the Grail was always portrayed as a cup or a bowl (usually that in which Joseph of Arimathea caught a few drops of Christ’s blood when the Saviour hung suffering on the cross).

I myself had been so influenced by this conception that I found it difficult to think of the Grail as anything other than a cup. When I turned to Wolfram’s Parzival, however, I found confirmation of what I had learned in France, namely that the relic – although carried by a maiden just as in Malory – was depicted as a stone:

However ill a mortal man may be, from the day on which he sees the Stone he cannot die for that week, nor does he lose his colour. For if anyone, maid or man, were to look at the Gral for two hundred years, you would have to admit that his colour was as fresh as in his early prime … Such powers does the Stone confer on mortal men that their flesh and bones are soon made young again. This Stone is called ‘The Gral’.26

I was struck by this odd and compelling imagery, and it raised a nagging question in my mind: why should the Morte D’arthur have depicted the Grail as ‘a vessel’ when the far earlier Parzival had unambiguously described it as ‘a Stone’? What was going on here?

I investigated further and learnt from one authority on quest literature that Malory was ‘merely embroidering a theme, the meaning of which [he] did not understand’ when he wrote the Morte D’arthur.27 That theme had been most definitively spelled out in Wolfram’s Parzival and in Chrétien de Troyes’s Conte du Graal,28 both of which were more than two hundred years older than the Morte.

Encouraged by this advice I turned to my copy of Chrétien’s unfinished story and there read the following description of the Grail – the first in literature (and, for that matter, in history). As in both Wolfram and Malory, the precious object was carried by a damsel:

Once she had entered with this grail that she held, so great a radiance appeared that the candles lost their brilliance just as the stars do at the rising of the sun and the moon … The grail … was of pure refined gold [and] was set with many kinds of precious stones, the richest and most costly in sea or earth.29

At no point, I discovered, did Chrétien’s manuscript explicitly state that the Grail was a cup or bowl. It was clear from the context, however, that this was precisely what he saw it as. In several places he referred to a central character – ‘the Fisher King’ – being ‘served from the grail’,30 and later added: ‘he’s served with a single consecrated wafer brought to him in that grail – that supports his life in full vigour, so holy a thing is the grail’.31 On checking further I learned that the very word ‘grail’ was itself derived from the Old French gradale (Latin gradalis) meaning ‘a wide and somewhat hollowed-out vessel in which delicious food is served’. In the colloquial parlance of Chrétien’s day gradale was often pronounced greal. And even in more recent times grazal, grazau, andgrialcontinued to be used in parts of the south of France to denote receptacles of various kinds.32

Here, therefore, was the origin of Malory’s conception of the sacred object as a vessel. Other than the mention of ‘a consecrated wafer’, however, Chrétien’s treatment offered no unequivocal connections with Christianity (not even in the notion of the Grail being a ‘holy thing’ – which could as easily have been inspired by the Old Testament as by the New33). Like Wolfram, the French poet did not mention Christ’s blood at all and certainly did not suggest that the relic was a container for it.

It followed that the ‘sacred blood’ imagery associated with the Grail in popular culture was a gloss added by later authors – a gloss that broadened, but also to some extent obscured, the original theme. With a little more work on the subject I was able to satisfy myself that this process of ‘Christianization’ had been sponsored by the Cistercian monastic order.34 And the Cistercians in their turn had been profoundly influenced and shaped by one man – Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who had joined the Order in the year 1112 and who was regarded by many scholars as the most significant religious figure of his era.35

This same Saint Bernard, I then discovered, had also played a formative role in the evolution and dissemination of the Gothic architectural formula in its early days (he had been at the height of his powers in 1134 when the soaring north tower of Chartres cathedral had been built, and he had constantly stressed the principles of sacred geometry that had been put into practice in that tower and throughout the whole wonderful building).36 Moreover, long after his death in 1153, his sermons and ideas had continued to serve as prime sources of inspiration for the further evolution of Gothic architecture and also for statuary and sculptures like those I had seen in the north porch at Chartres.37

The principal bridge between the earlier non-Christian versions of the story of the Holy Grail and the stylized New Testament tract that it had become by Malory’s time had been formed by the so-called Queste del Saint Graal – compiled by Cistercian monks in the thirteenth century.38 Moreover, although he was already dead when this great anthology was begun, it seemed to me that the strong hand of Saint Bernard could also be seen at work here – reaching out from beyond the grave as it were. I arrived at this conclusion because, in his extensive writings, this immensely influential cleric had propounded a mystical view of Christ’s blood, a view that was incorporated by the compilers of the Queste into their new concept of the Grail itself.39 From now on Wolfram’s Stone was completely forgotten and Chrétien’s ‘vessel’, although preserved, was filled up with the blood of Christ.

What I found interesting about this notion was the way in which it had immediately begun to be interpreted by the church. In hymns, sermons and epistles, I learned, subsequent generations of Christians all over Europe had gone to great lengths to equate the Grail symbolically with the Blessed Virgin Mary – to whom, I remembered, Chartres cathedral had been dedicated. The reasoning underlying this pious allegory was as follows: the Grail (according to the Queste and other later recensions of the legend) contained the holy blood of Christ; before she gave birth to him, Mary had contained Christ himself within her womb; therefore, QED, the Grail was – and always had been – a symbol for Mary.40

According to this logic, Mary Theotokos, the ‘God Bearer’, was the sacred vessel who had contained the Spirit made flesh. Thus, in the sixteenth-century Litany of Loretto,41 she was the vas spirituale (spiritual vessel), the vas honorabile (vessel of honour), and the vas insigne devotionis (singular vessel of devotion).42

Why did this symbolism attract my attention? Quite simply because the Litany of Loretto had also referred to the Blessed Virgin as arca foederis43 – which, as I already knew, was Latin for ‘the Ark of the Covenant’. I researched this coincidence further and discovered that the Litany was not the only place in which it cropped up. In the twelfth century, the redoubtable Saint Bernard of Clairvaux had also explicitly compared Mary to the Ark of the Covenant – indeed he had done so in a number of his writings.44 And as early as the fourth century Saint Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, had preached a sermon in which he had argued that the Ark had been a prophetic allegory for Mary: just as it had contained the Old Law in the form of the Ten Commandments, so she had contained the New Law in the form of the body of Christ.45

I was subsequently to discover that concepts like these had persisted into the twentieth century and had been woven into the fabric of modern Christian worship. On a trip to Israel, for example, I came across a small and beautiful Dominican church built in 1924 and dedicated A la Vièrge Marie Arche d’alliance – in other words ‘To the Virgin Mary Ark of the Covenant’. The church stood at Kiriath-Jearim, overlooking the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and its seven-metre steeple was topped off with a full-sized representation of the Ark. There were also several paintings of the sacred relic arranged around the interior walls of the building itself. During my visit I was given the following (very ‘Ambrosian’) explanation of the dedication – and of the symbolism – by a senior church official, Sister Raphael Mikhail:

‘We compare Mary to a living Ark. Mary was the mother of Jesus, who was the master of the Law and of the Covenant. The tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments of the Law were placed inside the Ark by Moses; so also God placed Jesus in the womb of Mary. So she is the living Ark.’

It seemed to me highly significant that both the Ark and the Grail, apparently so different, should nevertheless have been compared repeatedly to the same biblical personality, and in exactly the same way. If Mary was both a ‘living Ark’ and a ‘living Grail’, I speculated, then surely this suggested that the two sacred objects might not in fact have been so very different – that they might, indeed, have been one and the same thing.

This struck me as a truly electrifying possibility. And, farfetched though it at first appeared, it did shed interesting light on the choice and juxtaposition of statuary in the north porch of Chartres cathedral. If I was correct then Melchizedek’s ‘Grail’ cup with the ‘Stone’ inside it would at one level have represented Mary but could, at another, have been intended to serve as an esoteric symbol for the Ark of the Covenant and for the stone tablets that it had contained.

Such an interpretation, I felt, added considerable weight to the hypothesis that the other iconography of the north porch signalled the removal of the sacred relic to Ethiopia. But I also realized that I had no really firm grounds on which to base a conclusion of this magnitude – only coincidence, guesswork and a strong intuition that I might be on to something important.

I have always been inclined to follow my intuitions to see where they lead. However, it seemed to me that if I was going to involve myself in a proper, thorough, expensive and time-consuming investigation then I needed something rather more solid to go on than a few happy accidents and presentiments.

I did not have to wait long. In June 1989 my researcher finally managed to locate the academic paper that, according to Peter Lasko, had suggested a possible Ethiopian influence on the portrayal of the Holy Grail in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival. The encouragement given to me by that paper launched me on the quest that was to dominate my life for the next two years.

Literary influence – or something more?

The paper, entitled ‘New Light on Oriental Sources for Wolfram’s Parzival’, had appeared in 1947 in the academic journal PMLA (Publications of the Modern Languages Association of America).46 The author was Helen Adolf, a highly regarded medievalist who had taken a special interest in the literary pedigree of the Holy Grail. The thesis that she put forward (for which she admitted that she was indebted to two earlier authorities47) was that Wolfram – although largely influenced by Chrétien de Troyes – must also ‘have known, besides Chrétien, a Grail story in Oriental setting’.48

When I began to read Helen Adolf’s paper I was already aware, from the background research that I had done, that Chrétien de Troyes had effectively ‘invented’ the Grail in 1182. Prior to that date it had existed neither in history, nor in myth. Most authorities on the subject agreed that there were earlier legends – dealing, for example, with magic cauldrons, heroic quests, and deeds of chivalry done by King Arthur and his Knights – which the courtly poets and raconteurs had drawn upon to add texture to their Grail stories.49These older lays, however, which had been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, had been too well known, too ‘tried and tested’, in short too familiar to all and sundry, to have provided the creative impulse for the distinct cycle of romances that Chrétien initiated in the late twelfth century.

The great French poet had never finished his famous Conte du Graal. Within a very few years, however, Wolfram von Eschenbach capitalized on the good start that had been made, extending and completing his predecessor’s story – while at the same time rather churlishly accusing Chrétien of ‘doing wrong’ by it and adding that his own German text was the ‘authentic tale’.50

What made such protestations seem odd was the fact that Wolfram had obviously lifted many details directly from the Conte du Graal and, by and large, had remained faithful to its plot and characters.51 Indeed there was only one glaringly obvious difference – the bizarre innovation of making the Grail a Stone. The motive for this innovation did, therefore, look like a genuine mystery to some scholars. It could not have been a simple mistake on Wolfram’s part – he was much too clever and precise a raconteur to have made an error of such significance. The only reasonable conclusion, therefore, was that he had described the relic in the way he did for some special reason of his own.

It was to precisely this question that Helen Adolf addressed herself in her short paper. And she offered an answer to it that I found most intriguing. Somehow or other, she argued, Wolfram must have gained access to the Kebra Nagast, enjoyed the story about the Ark of the Covenant being removed from Jerusalem to Axum, and decided to work elements of it into his own Parzival. The influence was only ‘indirect’, she thought; nevertheless the most likely explanation for the curious character of Wolfram’s Grail could be traced to the use, ‘in every Abyssinian church’, of what she described as ‘a so-called Tabot, a slab of wood or stone’.52

Adolf explained that this practice had its origins in the religious traditions set down in the Kebra Nagast – an observation that I knew to be correct. In 1983 I had learned that Tabot was the local name for the sacred relic – believed to be the Ark of the Covenant – that Menelik had supposedly brought from Jerusalem and that was now kept in the sanctuary chapel at Axum. Moreover, as the reader will recall, I had subsequently discovered, as Adolf also affirmed, that each and every Ethiopian Orthodox church possessed its own tabot. These objects, which were often spoken of as replicas of the original in Axum, were not boxes or chests but took the form of flat slabs. The ones I had seen had all been made of wood. Researching the matter further, however, I discovered that many were indeed made of stone.53

On the basis of several comparisons Adolf asserted that Wolfram, too, had known this and had derived his Grail-Stone from the Ethiopian tabot. She also pointed out that not all the characters in Parzival had been borrowed from Chrétien de Troyes; there were a few additional figures whose origins were mysterious and who might well have been inspired by the Kebra Nagast. She could offer no solid explanation as to how the German raconteur could have become familiar with the Kebra Nagast but suggested rather tentatively that wandering Jews might have brought it to Europe. In the medieval period, she pointed out, ‘the Jews were not only the mediators between Arabs and Christians in general. They had a special stake in Ethiopia, where they formed, and still form, an important part of the population.’54

I found Adolf’s arguments persuasive but extremely limited in scope. She had confined herself to the specialized field of literary criticism, and accordingly her concerns had been of an entirely literary nature. Having set out to prove the possibility of a connection between the Kebra Nagast and Parzival (with the former ‘indirectly influencing’ the latter) she had been quite happy to stop when she felt she had achieved this goal. I was enormously grateful to her, however, because she had opened my eyes to something far more exciting – something of infinitely greater significance.

On the basis of the comparisons cited earlier between the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, and Mary the Mother of Christ, I had already begun to wonder whether the identities of the Ark and the Grail were really as distinct and separate as they seemed at first sight. Now it occurred to me that if Wolfram’s Grail looked as if it had been influenced by Ethiopian traditions concerning the Ark then there was just a chance that there could be more to this – perhaps much more – than Helen Adolf had ever guessed. To cut a long story short, I began to wonder whether the German poet might not have deliberately constructed his fictional Grail as a kind of ‘code’ for the real and historical Ark. If so then the quest that formed the central theme of Parzival could also be a code that might, like some cryptic treasure map, point the way to the last resting place of the Ark itself.

I had already become intrigued by the possibility that a similar code in the north porch of Chartres cathedral – though carved in stone rather than written in a book – might hint that the relic had been taken to Ethiopia. It was therefore with real enthusiasm and excitement that I set out to try to ‘decode’ Parzival.

Celestial writing, laws and oracles

It seemed to me that my initial task should be to determine whether Wolfram’s Grail could indeed have been designed as a sort of cryptogram for the Ark of the Covenant. To this end I decided that I would temporarily postpone further examination of the Ethiopian connection suggested by Adolf. Instead I would look for direct parallels between the characteristics of the Grail and the characteristics of the Ark as described in the Old Testament and other ancient Jewish sources. Only if those parallels proved persuasive would there be any point in going further.

The first thing that attracted my attention was the way in which Wolfram had transformed Chrétien’s Grail cup – or vessel – into a stone. It occurred to me that the French poet’s description of the Grail had been sufficiently vague and mystical to allow Wolfram toimpose an identity on it, to mould his predecessor’s rather imprecise concept of a sacred receptacle into a shape that suited his own purposes – in short to define that receptacle by speaking not directly of it but of its contents.

The Ark of the Covenant was, after all, a receptacle too, and it did indeed contain a stone – or rather two stone tablets upon which the Ten Commandments had been inscribed by the finger of God. I therefore found it intriguing that Wolfram’s Grail, like the Tablets of the Law, bore – from time to time – the imprint of a celestial script which set out certain rules.55

There were other such coincidences – for example, the oracular function that the Grail played for the community that depended on it:

We fell on our knees before the Gral, where suddenly we saw it written that a knight would come to us and were he heard to ask a Question there, our sorrows would be at an end; but that if any child, maiden or man were to forewarn him of the Question it would fail in its effect, and the injury would be as it was and give rise to deeper pain. ‘Have you understood?’ asked the Writing. ‘If you alert him it could prove harmful. If he omits the question on the first evening, its power will pass away. But if he asks his Question in season he shall have the Kingdom.’56

The Ark, too, frequently served as an oracle, dispensing advice that was crucial to the survival of the Israelites. In the book of Judges, for example, where the identity of God Himself was often completely fused with that of the Ark, I found this passage:

And the children of Israel enquired of the Lord, (for the Ark of the Covenant of God was there in those days, and Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, stood before it in those days), saying Shall I yet again go out to battle against the children of Benjamin my brother, or shall I cease?’ And the Lord said, Go up: for tomorrow I will deliver them into thine hand.57

I also came across a much later biblical passage which stated that it had become rare for the Ark actually to speak and that ‘visions’ were now ‘uncommon’. Nevertheless, as the prophet Samuel lay down ‘in the house of the Lord, where the Ark of God was’, a voice issued forth from the sacred relic warning: ‘Behold, I will do a thing in Israel at which both the ears of everyone that heareth it shall tingle.’58

Neither were utterances and visions the only ways in which the Ark communicated its oracular messages. Like the Grail, it also used the written word from time to time – notably to impart to King David the blueprint for the Temple that his son Solomon was to build.59

The weight of sin, the golden calf, and stones from heaven

As my research progressed I discovered many other shared characteristics linking the Grail to the Ark – and particularly to the Tablets of Stone. One example concerned the way in which the weight of the relic seemed to be spiritually controlled. According to Wolfram: ‘the Gral [while it may be carried by the pure of heart] is so heavy that sinful mortals could not lift it from its place.’60

In this, I thought there might well be a connection to an ancient Jewish legend which described the moment when the prophet Moses descended from Mount Sinai carrying the Tablets of Stone, then freshly inscribed with the divine words of the Ten Commandments. As he came into camp the prophet caught the children of Israel in the act of worshipping the golden calf, a sin so unspeakable that:

All at once he saw the writing vanish from the tablets, and at the same time became aware of their enormous weight; for while the celestial writing was upon them they carried their own weight and did not burden Moses, but with the disappearance of the writing all this changed.61

In Wolfram’s cryptic prose the golden calf, too, made an appearance. It did so, moreover, in a context so crucial that I felt certain that the author was using it quite deliberately to convey a message – a message further identifying the Grail with the Ark:

There was a heathen named Flegetanis [I read in Chapter 9 of Parzival] who was highly renowned for his acquirements. This same physicus was descended from Solomon, begotten of Israelitish kin all the way down from ancient times … He wrote of the marvels of the Gral. Flegetanis, who worshipped a calf as though it were his god, was a heathen by his father … [and] was able to define for us the recession of each planet and its return, and how long each revolves in its orbit before it stands at its mark again. All human kind are affected by the revolutions of the planets. With his own eyes the heathen Flegetanis saw – and he spoke of it reverentially – hidden secrets in the constellations. He declared there was a thing called the Gral, whose name he read in the stars without more ado. ‘A troop [of Angels] left it on earth and then rose high above the stars, as if their innocence drew them back again.’62

To my mind what was really important about this passage was the way in which it used Flegetanis (with his intriguingly Solomonic and Jewish/pagan background) to signal an astral origin for the Grail.

Why important? Simply because some of the most serious biblical scholarship that I studied argued that the Tablets of Stone contained within the Ark of the Covenant had, in reality, been two pieces of a meteorite.63 Neither was this merely some latter-day interpretation that could not have been shared by Moses and by the Levitical priests who attended the Ark. On the contrary, since ancient times, Semitic tribes such as the children of Israel had been known to venerate stones that ‘fell from heaven’.64

The best illustration of this custom, since it had continued into modern times, was the special reverence accorded by Muslims to the sacred Black Stone built into a corner of the wall of the Ka’aba in Mecca. Kissed by every pilgrim making the Haj to the holy site, this stone was declared by the Prophet Muhammad to have fallen from heaven to earth where it was first given to Adam to absorb his sins after his expulsion from the Garden of Eden; later it was presented by the angel Gabriel to Abraham, the Hebrew Patriarch; finally it became the cornerstone of the Ka’aba – the ‘beating heart’ of the Islamic world.65

Geologists, I learned, unhesitatingly attributed a meteoric origin to the Black Stone.66 Likewise the pairs of sacred stones, known as betyls, that some pre-Islamic Arab tribes carried on their desert wanderings were believed to have been aerolites – and it was recognized that a direct line of cultural transmission linked these betyls (which were often placed in portable shrines) with the Black Stone of the Ka’aba and with the stone Tablets of the Law contained within the Ark.67

I then discovered that betyls had been known in medieval Europe as lapis betilis – a name:

stemming from Semitic origins and taken over at a late date by the Greeks and Romans for sacred stones that were assumed to possess a divine life, stones with a soul [that were used] for divers superstitions, for magic and for fortunetelling. They were meteoric stones fallen from the sky.68

In such a context, I found it hard to believe that Wolfram had merely been indulging in flights of fancy when he had specified a meteoric origin for his Grail-Stone. Not only did he use his character Flegetanis to this end but also, a few pages further on, he provided a strange alternative name for the Grail – ‘Lapsit exillis’.69 Although I came across a variety of interpretations for the real meaning of this pseudo-Latin epithet,70 the most plausible by far was that it had been derived from lapis ex caelis (‘stone from heaven’), lapsit ex caelis (‘it fell from heaven’), or even lapis, lapsus ex caelis, ‘stone fallen from heaven’.71 At the same time it seemed to me that the bastardized words Lapsit exillis were quite close enough to lapis betilis to raise the suspicion that the German poet had intended a deliberate – and characteristically cryptic – pun.

Benedictions, supernatural light, and the power of choice

Another and quite different area of comparison lay in Wolfram’s repeated descriptions of the Grail as a source of blessing and fertility for those pure-hearted people who came into contact with it. To cite one example amongst many,72 I found this passage in Chapter 5 of Parzival:

Whatever one stretched out one’s hand for in the presence of the Gral, it was waiting, one found it all ready and to hand – dishes warm, dishes cold, new-fangled dishes and old favourites … for the Gral was the very fruit of bliss, a cornucopia of the sweets of this world.73

It seemed to me quite probable that this description echoed an ancient Talmudic commentary which had it that:

When Solomon brought the Ark into the Temple, all the golden trees that were in the Temple were filled with moisture and produced abundant fruit, to the great profit and enjoyment of the priestly guild.74

I found an even closer correspondence between the Ark and the Grail in the otherworldly luminescence said to have been given off by both objects. The Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple (where the Ark was installed before it mysteriously vanished) was a place of ‘thick darkness’ according to the Bible.75 Talmudic sources recorded, however, that: ‘The High Priest of Israel entered and left by the light that the Holy Ark issued forth’ – a convenient state of affairs that changed after the relic disappeared. From then on the Priest ‘groped his way in the dark’.76

The Ark, therefore, was a source of paranormal lambency: a dazzling radiance was emitted by it – as numerous biblical passages confirmed.77 In similar fashion Chrétien’s Grail, which I thought that Wolfram had been happy to accept (because it provided the receptacle part of the Ark cipher that he then completed with his Stone), sent out a radiance ‘so great … that … candles lost their brilliance just as the stars do at the rising of the sun or moon.’78

Chrétien’s Grail was likewise made of ‘pure gold’79 while the Ark was ‘overlaid with pure gold, within and without’80 and was covered with a lid (known as the ‘mercy seat’) which was also ‘of pure gold’.81 But it was not from this precious metal that Ark and Grail derived their light-generating quality; rather this was the product of their shared impregnation with a fiery celestial energy. And it was this same energy (cast forth by the Tablets of Stone after the Ten Commandments had been inscribed upon them by the finger of God) that caused Moses’ face to shine with an eerie, supernatural brilliance when he descended from Mount Sinai:

As he came down from the mountain, Moses had the two Tablets of the Testimony in his hands. He did not know that the skin on his face was radiant … And when Aaron and all the sons of Israel saw Moses, the skin on his face shone so much that they would not venture near him.82

I therefore thought it not entirely coincidental that Wolfram’s Grail-Stone, on its very first appearance in Parzival, was carried in procession in the hands of a certain Repanse de Schoye whose face ‘shed such refulgence that all imagined it was sunrise.’83

The heaven-destined hero

Repanse de Schoye was a ‘Princess’84 and was also ‘of perfect chastity’.85 Her most important characteristic, however, was that the Grail had chosen her: ‘She whom the Gral suffered to carry itself’, Wolfram explained, ‘had the name Repanse de Schoye … By her alone, no other I am told, did the Gral let itself be carried.’86

Such phrases seemed to imply that the relic possessed a kind of sentience. And linked to this was another quality: ‘No man can win the Gral,’ Wolfram stated in Chapter 9 of Parzival, ‘other than one who is acknowledged in Heaven as destined for it.’87 The same point was then forcefully reiterated in Chapter 15: ‘No man could ever win the Gral by force, except the one who is summoned there by God.’88

These two notions – of the Grail exercising powers of choice and of it being a prize to be won only by those who were ‘Heaven-destined’ – were of great importance in Wolfram’s overall scheme of things. I concluded, moreover, that precedents were provided for both of them in biblical descriptions of the Ark of the Covenant. In Numbers 10:33, for instance, it chose the route that the children of Israel were to take through the desert, and it also determined where they should camp. Meanwhile in the book of Chronicles there was this example of certain individuals being ‘Heaven-destined’ for the Ark:

None ought to carry the Ark of God but the Levites; for them hath the Lord chosen to carry the Ark of God and to minister unto it.89

It was not in the Bible, however, that I found the closest correspondences between the Ark of the Covenant and Wolfram’s sentient, Heaven-destined Grail. These came rather in the Kebra Nagast, which told the story of the Ark’s abduction to Ethiopia. In Sir E. A. Wallis Budge’s authoritative English translation90 I came across this passage in which the sacred relic was referred to almost as though it were a feminine person (who, like all ladies, could change her mind):

And as for what thou sayest concerning the going of the Ark of the Covenant to their city, to the country of Ethiopia, if God willed it and she herself willed it, there is no one who could prevent her; for of her own will she went and of her own will she will return if God pleaseth.91

Next I noted the following strange references which seemed to imply that the relic possessed intelligence and also that the honour of keeping it was granted as a result of heavenly predestination:

The Ark goeth of its own free will whithersoever it wisheth, and it cannot be removed from its seat if it does not desire it.92

Without the Will of God the Ark of God will not dwell in any place.93

But the chosen ones of the Lord are the people of Ethiopia. For there is the habitation of God, the heavenly ZION,94 the Ark of His Covenant.95

Last but not least, in Chapter 60 of the Kebra Nagast, I found a lengthy lamentation supposedly uttered by Solomon when he learned that the Ark had been abducted by his son Menelik from the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem. At the moment of his bitterest grief an angel appeared to him and asked:

‘Why art thou thus sorrowful? For this hath happened by the Will of God. The Ark hath … been given … to thy first-born son …’ And the King was comforted by this word, and he said, ‘The will of God be done and not the will of man.’96

Could this not be, I wondered, exactly what had been in Wolfram’s mind when he had written that ‘no man could ever win the Gral by force except the one who is summoned there by God’? In other words, if the Grail was indeed a cryptogram for the Ark then might not the prototype for the German poet’s ‘Heaven-destined’ hero have been none other than Menelik himself?

To answer this question I read Parzival again. I was not looking, however, for literary influences from the Kebra Nagast – as Helen Adolf had done – but rather for the presence of explicit clues embedded within the text which pointed in the direction of Ethiopia. I wanted to know whether there was there anything at all to suggest that Ethiopia might in fact be Wolfram’s mysterious Terre Salvaesche97 – the land of the Grail and, therefore, by implication, the land of the Ark.

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