Chapter 4

A Map to Hidden Treasure

My readings of Parzival during the spring and summer of 1989 had brought a startling possibility to my attention: the fictional object known as the Holy Grail could have been devised to serve as a complex symbol for the Ark of the Covenant. This in turn had led me to formulate another hypothesis – namely that behind Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Heaven-destined Grail hero, there might lie another figure who, once recognized, would point the way to the heart of the mystery of the whereabouts of the Ark – a figure whose real identity the poet had therefore disguised beneath layers of arcane and sometimes deliberately misleading details. This figure, I suspected, might be none other than Menelik I – the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon who, according to Abyssinian legends, had brought the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia. If there was anything at all to this speculation, I reasoned, then I might hope to find further clues embedded in Parzival – cryptic clues that might be obscured by frequent false trails, that might be scattered here and there amongst widely separated chapters, that might be calculatedly vague and ambiguous, but that would, nevertheless, serve to reinforce the Ethiopian connection if only they could be gathered together and made sense of.

Ebony and ivory

I found the first of these clues early in the text of Parzival in a chapter which spoke of a far-off land called ‘Zazamanc’ where the people ‘were all as dark as night’.1 To this land came a wandering European aristocrat, ‘Gahmuret of Anjou’,2 and there he fell in love with no lesser personage than the queen – ‘sweet and constant Belacane’.3

In ‘Belacane’ I could not help but hear an echo of ‘Makeda’, the Ethiopian name for the Queen of Sheba that I had first become acquainted with when I had visited Axum in 1983. I was also aware that this same monarch had been known in Muslim tradition as Bilquis.4 Since I was by this time quite familiar with Wolfram’s love of neologisms, and with his tendency to make up new and fanciful names by running old ones together, it seemed to me rash totally to reject the possibility that ‘Belacane’ might be a kind of composite of ‘Bilquis’ and ‘Makeda’ – and doubly rash since the poet described her as a ‘dusky queen’.5

When I looked more closely at the love affair between Belacane and Gahmuret, recounted at length in the first chapter of Parzival, I found further echoes of the King Solomon and Queen of Sheba story told in the Kebra Nagast and also, with minor variations, in a range of other Ethiopian legends. In this connection I felt it was not accidental that Wolfram had gone to considerable lengths to make it clear that Gahmuret – like Solomon – was white, while Belacane, like Makeda, was black.

For example, after the arrival of the ‘fair complexioned’ Angevin knight6 in Zazamanc, Belacane observed to her hand-maidens: ‘His skin is a different colour from ours. I only hope this is no sore point with him?’7 Certainly it was not, because her romance with Gahmuret blossomed in the following weeks, one thing led to another, and eventually the couple retired to her bedroom in the palace:

The Queen disarmed him with her own dark hands. There was a magnificent bed with a sable coverlet, where a new though private honour awaited him. They were now alone: the young ladies-in-waiting had left the room and closed the doors behind them. The Queen yielded to sweet and noble love with Gahmuret, her heart’s own darling, little though their skins matched in colour.8

The lovers married. Because Belacane was an unbaptized heathen, however, and Gahmuret a Christian with many deeds of chivalry still to do, he fled Zazamanc when she was ‘twelve weeks gone with child’9 and left her only this letter:

‘Like a thief I have sailed away. I had to steal away to spare our tears. Madam, I cannot conceal it that did you but live within my rite I would long for you to all eternity. Even now my passion gives me endless torment! If our child has the aspect of a man, I swear he will be brave.’10

Long after his departure Gahmuret continued to suffer agonies of remorse since ‘the dusky lady was dearer to him than life’.11 Later he proclaimed:

‘Now many an ignorant fellow may think that it was her black skin I ran away from, but in my eyes she was as bright as the sun! The thought of her womanly excellence afflicts me, for if noblesse were a shield she would be its centre-piece.’12

So much then for Belacane and Gahmuret. But what of their child?

When her time came the lady was delivered of a son. His skin was pied. It had pleased God to make a marvel of him, for he was both black and white. The Queen fell to kissing his white spots, time and time again. The name she gave her little boy was Feirefiz the Angevin. When he grew up he cleared whole forests – so many lances did he shatter, punching holes in shields. His hair and all his skin were particoloured like a magpie.13

Wolfram could hardly have found a more graphic way to emphasize that Feirefiz was a half-caste – the product of a union between a black woman and a white man. This half-caste Feirefiz, furthermore, was to go on to play a crucial role in the story of Parzival.His father, the amorous Gahmuret, returned to Europe after deserting Belacane and there married another queen, a certain Herzeloyde, whom he immediately set about making pregnant. He then abandoned her also, went off to have several more adventures, earned great honour in a series of battles, and eventually managed to get himself killed. ‘A fortnight later,’ Wolfram related, Herzeloyde ‘was delivered of a babe, a son so big in the bone that she scarce survived.’14 That son was Parzival himself, the eponymous hero of Wolfram’s tale and – through Gahmuret – the half-brother of Feirefiz.15

In the Kebra Nagast and other relevant Ethiopian legends there were, I discovered, numerous parallels to the complex of relationships involving Gahmuret, Belacane, Feirefiz, Parzival et al. These parallels were often of an indirect kind; nevertheless I had come to expect such tantalizing hints from Wolfram and I became increasingly confident that he was laying down a trail of clues that – through snares and mazes – would lead me to Ethiopia in the end.

The constant references to the contrasting blackness and whiteness of Belacane and Gahmuret had been unmissable features of the opening sections of Parzival. In the Kebra Nagast the lovers were King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Like Gahmuret and Belacane they had retired to bed together.16 Like Gahmuret and Belacane, one of them (in this case Makeda) had deserted the other and gone on a long journey.17 Like Gahmuret and Belacane the fruit of their union had been a half-caste son, in this case Menelik.18And again like Gahmuret and Belacane, the difference in their colour was repeatedly emphasized in the relevant text, in this case the Kebra Nagast. In a typical scene the Jewish monarch was upbraided for Menelik’s abduction of the Ark in the following unambiguous terms:

Thy son hath carried away the Ark of the Covenant,19 thy son whom thou hast begotten, who springeth from an alien people into which God hath not commanded you to marry, that is to say from an Ethiopian woman, who is not of thy colour, and is not akin to thy country, and who is, moreover, black.20

There were, in addition, certain parallels between Menelik and Feirefiz which went beyond their shared identity as half-castes. Amongst these, for example, was the curiosity of the very name ‘Feirefiz’. What language did it belong to, and what – if anything – did it mean? I checked and discovered that literary critics had quite firm ideas on this subject. Most interpreted the strange-sounding epithet as a characteristic Wolfram neologism based on the French words ‘vair fils’ meaning, literally, ‘piebald son’.21 Another school of thought, however, derived it equally plausibly from ‘vrai fils’ – ‘true son’.22

In the Kebra Nagast itself I could find no comparison directly reflecting either etymology (although, in Chapter 36, Solomon declared, on first being introduced to Menelik: ‘Look ye, this is my son’23). In a somewhat different but equally ancient Ethiopic recension of the same legend, however (translated into English in 1904 by Professor Erno Littman of Princeton University), the moment of the meeting between Solomon and Menelik was also described, and contained this passage:

At once Menelik went to him and took his hand to greet him. Then said Solomon: ‘Thou art my true son’.24

‘Vrai fils’, in other words!

Devious mechanisms

Coincidences like these made it increasingly difficult for me to resist the notion that Wolfram had indeed linked his Feirefiz with Menelik. Why should he have done that? Not, I speculated, because he had been influenced by the Kebra Nagast (as the scholar Helen Adolf had suggested in the 1940s25) but rather because he had known the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant to be in Ethiopia, and because he had set out to encode this knowledge within the story of Parzival – which was thus a kind of literary ‘treasure map’ that used the Grail as a cryptogram for the Ark itself.

Wolfram had been addicted to ingenious tricks – to a species of verbal legerdemain that was as baffling as it was entertaining. I felt, however, that I was beginning to see through most of his illusions and also to recognize the decoys that he so frequently set up in order to lure his readers away from the secret that lay hidden at the heart of his story. I was therefore undisturbed by the fact that it was not Feirefiz himself who was depicted as being on a quest for the Grail – nor Feirefiz who was eventually accorded the honour of finding the precious relic. Such an outcome would have provided much too direct and obvious a pointer. And, besides, Wolfram could not have afforded to allow the heathen half-caste son of a black queen to become the hero of a romance written for the amusement of medieval European Christians.

For these reasons, it seemed to me that the clever German poet had been quite content to let all-white, all-good Parzival win through to the non-existent Grail – which was the only thing that most of his audience would be interested in. Meanwhile, for the discerning few, it would be Feirefiz – the true son – who would point the way to the Ark.

I realized, however, that I needed something more solid to support this hypothesis than just a series of coincidences – no matter how suggestive and intriguing these coincidences might seem. I therefore set about the brain-bending task of combing throughParzival yet again.

Eventually I found what I was looking for. I remembered from my previous readings that Feirefiz had ended up marrying Repanse de Schoye26 – the pure and perfect Grail-bearer who, surrounded by an aura of sanctity and power, had appeared and disappeared constantly throughout the story. Now I came across a small but highly significant detail contained in a single line that I had missed before: according to Wolfram’s ‘happily-ever-after’ conclusion, the son of Feirefiz and Repanse de Schoye had been named ‘Prester John’.27

It was obvious to me at once that this could be a momentous clue. I knew that the first Europeans to arrive in Ethiopia had addressed the monarchs of that country as ‘Prester John’.28 I also knew that the legendary founder of the self-styled ‘Solomonic’ dynasty to which those monarchs had belonged had been Menelik I – the supposed son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. I therefore could not help but be excited to read that Repanse de Schoye had given Feirefiz ‘a son named “John” ’ and, moreover, that ‘They called him “Prester John”, and, ever since, they call their kings by no other name.’29

It would have been very nice if I had been able, there and then, to demonstrate that the land of the Grail – Terre Salvaesche – was in fact the same as the land ruled by ‘Prester John’. Such a direct linkage would, at the very least, have enormously strengthened what I was coming to think of as my ‘treasure map’ theory of Wolfram’s work. Unfortunately, however, there was not a single shred of evidence in Parzival to support this view: the location of Terre Salvaesche was never spelled out in anything other than the most dreamlike and indefinite terms and at no point was it suggested that its king was ‘Prester John’.

I was about to conclude that I had marched optimistically into an extremely depressing cul de sac when I discovered that there was another medieval German epic in which Prester John did become the guardian of the Grail. Called Der Jüngerer Titurel (‘The Younger Titurel’), it was written in a style so close to that of Parzival that scholars had long attributed it to Wolfram himself (this attribution dated back to the thirteenth century).30 Relatively recently, however, the hand of a slightly later author had been detected. Thought to have been a certain Albrecht von Scharfenberg, this author was believed to have compiled ‘The Younger Titurel’ between 1270 and 1275 (about fifty years after Wolfram’s death) and to have based it on previously uncirculated fragments of Wolfram’s own work.31 Indeed Albrecht’s identification with ‘his master’32 had been so complete that he had actually claimed to be Wolfram, ‘adopting not just his name and subject matter but also his mannerisms as a narrator and even the details of his personal history.’33

I knew that there was a well established tradition in medieval literature of later writers extending and completing the work of their predecessors. Wolfram’s Parzival had itself grown out of Chrétien de Troyes’s original story of the Holy Grail. Now it seemed that it had been left to a third poet, Albrecht, to provide an ending to that story – an ending in which the Grail found its last resting place.

This last resting place, as ‘The Younger Titurel’ stated clearly, was the land of Prester John.34 I thought it highly significant that such a statement existed in the literature of the Grail and, moreover, that it had been made by a Wolfram acolyte who appeared to have had privileged access to the notes and jottings of Wolfram himself. This, in my opinion, was just the sort of devious mechanism that ‘the master’ might have set up in order not to have to spell out his Ethiopian secret too bluntly in Parzival – while at the same time ensuring that that secret would be transmitted to future generations.

Perhaps this conclusion was warranted; perhaps it was not. Its significance, however, lay less in its academic merits than in the fact that it encouraged me to take Wolfram’s own brief mention of ‘Prester John’ seriously – and thus to persevere with what turned out to be an exhausting but ultimately fruitful investigation.

The purpose of that investigation was to find the answer to a single question: when Wolfram talked of ‘Prester John’ could he have had an Ethiopian monarch in mind?

The first indications were that he had not; indeed he stated plainly that ‘Prester John’s’ birth had taken place in ‘India’35 – a country of which Feirefiz was apparently the king and to which he and Repanse de Schoye had returned after the adventures described inParzival were over.

To complicate the picture further the same paragraph then went on to advise that ‘India’ was also known as ‘Tribalibot’ (‘Here we call it “India”: there it is “Tribalibot” ’36). Checking back I found earlier passages in which Feirefiz had been spoken of as the ‘Lord of Tribalibot’37 – which was consistent enough since I now knew that his son ‘Prester John’ had ultimately succeeded him as the ruler of Tribalibot/India. However, I could hardly forget that Feirefiz was himself the son of Belacane the Queen of ‘Zazamanc’. I was therefore not surprised to learn that Wolfram had also referred to Feirefiz as the ‘King of Zazamanc’.38

The only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from this confetti of exotic titles and appellations was that ‘Zazamanc’, ‘Tribalibot’ and ‘India’ were all, in fact, the same place. But could this place possibly be Ethiopia? Wasn’t it much more reasonable to assume – since he had actually named it – that Wolfram had had the subcontinent of India in mind all along?

I decided to research the real, historical pedigree of ‘Prester John’ to see if this would shed any more light on the problem.

A real king

The name ‘Prester John’, I discovered, had been completely unknown before the twelfth century – a century during which European Crusaders had occupied the Holy City of Jerusalem for a continuous period of more than eighty years (they were finally expelled by the Saracens in 1187). Historians agreed that the very first mention of Prester John had been made roughly half-way through this period – in 1145 in the Chronicle of Bishop Otto of Freisingen. Claiming that his informant was a Syrian churchman, the bishop had written of a certain ‘John, king and priest [rex et sacerdos]’, a Christian who lived in ‘the uttermost East’ where he commanded enormous armies which, apparently, he wished to put at the disposal of the defenders of Jerusalem. This ‘Prester John – for so he was wont to be styled’ was said to be so rich that he used a sceptre of solid emerald.39

Subsequently, in 1165, a letter purporting to have been written by Prester John himself and addressed to ‘various Christian kings, especially to the Emperor Manuel of Constantinople and the Roman Emperor Frederick’,40 was circulated widely in Europe. Filled with the most preposterous, legendary and supernatural claims, this lengthy epistle stated, inter alia, that the Prester’s realm was divided into four parts ‘for there are so many Indias’.41

The next development came in 1177 when Pope Alexander III (writing from Venice) addressed a letter to his ‘dearest son in Christ, John, illustrious and magnificent King of the Indians’.42 Although the Pope certainly believed that he was replying to the author of the 1165 letter he made it clear that he had also had information about ‘the Prester’ from another source. He spoke, for example, of his personal physician, ‘the leech Philip’, who had apparently been approached in Jerusalem by the Prester’s emissaries. Significantly these emissaries, who were referred to as ‘honourable persons of the monarch’s kingdom’, had expressed their ruler’s desire to be granted something that had not even been mentioned in the 1165 letter – a sanctuary in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.43 Responding to this request, the Pope commented:

The more nobly and magnanimously thou conductest thyself, and the less thou vauntest of thy wealth and power, the more readily shall we regard thy wish as to the concession of [an altar] in the Church of the Lord’s Sepulchre at Jerusalem.44

There was much that was puzzling in these twelfth-century documents. But the one thing that was clear from all of them was that Prester John, in his earliest incarnations, had been explicitly associated with ‘India’. As I looked more deeply into the whole issue I was able to confirm that this was indeed the case: again and again ‘the Prester’s’ realms were referred to as India or, more loosely, ‘the Indies’.

It was quite obvious, however, that none of the medieval authorities concerned had had any firm idea in their own minds as to where exactly India and/or the Indies were. And it was equally obvious, when they talked about ‘India’, that they were only rarely speaking of the subcontinent itself. The majority of the references were quite clearly to some other place, perhaps in Africa, perhaps elsewhere – although nobody really seemed to know.

As I researched the subject further I began to understand what the source of all this uncertainty might have been: for more than a thousand years before the earliest mention of Prester John a profound terminological muddle had existed in which ‘India’ had frequently been confused with ‘Ethiopia’. Indeed from the first century BC (when Virgil had written of the Nile rising in ‘India’), until at least the time of Marco Polo – when all the countries that bordered on the Indian Ocean were still referred to as ‘the Indies’45 – the terms ‘Ethiopia’ and ‘India’ appeared to have been used as though they were completely interchangeable.

The classic example of this lay in the works of Rufinius, the fourth-century Byzantine theologian who had compiled the definitive account of Ethiopia’s conversion to Christianity that I had studied in 1983.46 The details of this important treatise (which included place names such as Axum and historically recognized figures such as Frumentius and King Ezana) confirmed beyond all doubt that the country Rufinius had talked about had indeed been Ethiopia; nevertheless he had referred to it throughout as ‘India’.47

This had happened, as one historian explained, because ‘the early geographers had always regarded Ethiopia as the western part of the great empire of India’.48 Moreover, it seemed that this same geographical mistake, coupled with the curious letters that had circulated in the twelfth century, had helped to create the impression that Prester John was an Asiatic, indeed an Indian, king.

This impression, though erroneous, had proved so tenacious that it was still in evidence long after ‘the Prester’ had ceased to be a mythical figure – and long after his realms had been firmly located in the Horn of Africa. In the late thirteenth century, for example, Marco Polo provided some insight into the conventional wisdom of his era when he wrote that ‘Abyssinia is a large province and is called middle or second India. The ruler of this country is a Christian.’49 Similarly, in the fourteenth century, the Florentine traveller Simone Sigoli was still speaking of ‘Presto Giovanni’ as a monarch dwelling in India; this ‘India’, however, was a land which bordered on the dominions of the Sultan of Egypt and its king was described as being the ‘master of the Nile’, the flow of which into Egypt he was believed to be able to control.50 Rather later, when the first official Portuguese embassy was sent to Ethiopia in the sixteenth century, its members believed that they were going to meet ‘the Prester John of the Indies’. The authorised account of this mission was subsequently written by Father Francisco Alvarez, who disembarked at the Red Sea port of Massawa in April 1520 and then spent the next six years travelling overland around Ethiopia. Despite this arduous physical tour of what was unmistakably part of the African mainland, the title of his work continued to reflect the old terminological confusion: ‘Verdadera Informacam das terras do Preste Joam das Indias’ (‘Truthful information about the countries of the Prester John of the Indies’).51

Throughout his scholarly and informative book, Alvarez always referred to the Emperor of Ethiopia as ‘the Prester’ or as ‘Prester John’.52 I was also able to establish that much earlier than this – in 1352 – the Franciscan Giovanni de Marignolli, apostolic legate in Asia, had spoken (in his Chronica) of ‘Ethiopia where the negroes are and which is called the land of Prester John’.53 Similarly in 1328 a certain Friar Jordanus ‘Catalani’ had referred to the Emperor of the Ethiopiansi ‘quem vos vocatis Prestre Johan’.54 And, later, in 1459, Fra Mauro’s well regarded map of the then known world indicated a great city within the boundaries of present-day Ethiopia with the rubric: ‘Qui il Preste Janni fa residentia principal.55

Surveying all the conflicting references before me I felt literally dazed: sometimes, it seemed, Prester John had been unambiguously located in Ethiopia; on other occasions he had been located in Ethiopia but spoken of as the ruler of the ‘Indies’; and sometimes he had been located in India itself – or elsewhere in the far east. Behind all this confusion, however, there seemed to be no doubt that the real Prester John, the source of all the myth-making, must all along have been the ruler of Ethiopia – the only non-European Christian kingdom that had existed anywhere in the world in medieval times, and therefore the only model that Wolfram could possibly have drawn on when he had talked of an ‘India’ being ruled by ‘Prester John’, the Christian son of Fierfiz and Rapanse de Schoye.

For a final and hopefully definitive word I turned to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which observed:

It is not improbable that from a very early date the title ‘Prester John’ was assigned to the Abyssinian king, though for a time this identification was overshadowed by the prevalence of the Asiatic legend. At the bottom of the double allocation there was, no doubt, that confusion of Ethiopia with India which is as old as Virgil or perhaps older.56

Significantly for my purposes, the Encyclopaedia concluded its entry with a reference to the exchange of letters between the Pope and Prester John that, as noted earlier, had taken place in the second half of the twelfth century:

However vague may have been the ideas of Pope Alexander III respecting the geographical position of the potentate whom he addressed from Venice in 1177, the only real person to whom the letter can have been sent was the king of Abyssinia. Let it be observed that the ‘honourable persons of the monarch’s kingdom’ whom the leech Philip had met with in the East must have been the representatives of some real power, and not of a phantom. It must have been a real king who professed to desire … the assignation of … an altar at Jerusalem. Moreover we know that the Ethiopic Church did long possess a chapel and altar in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.57

Indeed so. In fact, as I was soon able to ascertain, the chapel and the altar had first been granted to Ethiopia in the year 1189 – and not by the Pope (who by then was no longer in a position to distribute such favours) but by the Muslim general Saladin who had wrested Jerusalem from the hands of the Crusaders in 1187. Most important of all, these special privileges in the Holy Sepulchre had been obtained for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as a result of a direct appeal to Saladin by no lesser person than the King of Ethiopia himself.58

These events had taken place just a decade before unknown stonemasons in northern France had left enigmatic representations of the Holy Grail, of the Ark of the Covenant, and of an Ethiopian Queen of Sheba in the north porch of Chartres cathedral – and also just a decade before Wolfram von Eschenbach had begun to write his Parzival. It seemed to me, moreover, that such coincidences were unlikely to be just coincidences. On the contrary, I now felt that the circumstantial evidence very strongly supported my hypothesis that the Chartres sculptures and Wolfram’s remarkable narrative poem had been explicitly created to serve as esoteric treasure maps. And, though not actually marked with an ‘X’, there seemed to be little doubt that the spot identified by these maps as the hiding place of the treasure could only be Ethiopia – the land of Prester John, the land that had provided the last resting place of the fictional Holy Grail, and thus (if my theory was correct) the land in which the Ark of the Covenant, the real object that the Grail symbolized, would be found.

Now, however, other questions presented themselves:

• How, in the late twelfth century, could information that the Ark might rest in Ethiopia possibly have reached a German poet and a group of French iconographers?

• What connected the former to the latter? – for they must have been connected in some way if they had both produced works of art encoding the same message.

• Finally, why should anyone have chosen to express the secret of the Ark’s location in a story and in sculptures? I had already concluded that this might have been done to ensure transmission of the secret to future generations. At the same time, however, the code used – particularly by Wolfram – had been exceptionally difficult to crack. I myself, with all the research resources of the twentieth century at my disposal, had only got as far as I had because I had been to Axum and had thus been predisposed to accept that the Ark might be in Ethiopia. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, that advantage should not have been available to anyone. From this it followed that the hidden message of Parzival could not have been decoded in the medieval period at all – unless there had been people with access to some very special and privileged knowledge. Since there would have been no point in creating a code that no one could crack, it seemed to me logical to assume that such people must have existed. But who could they have been?

I did find one group of Europeans who fitted the bill perfectly. As part of the Crusading army of occupation they had maintained a massive presence in Jerusalem in the twelfth century: they had been there in 1145 when the Prester John legends had first begun to circulate, and they had still been there in 1177 when envoys of the King of Ethiopia had visited the Holy City seeking an altar in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Direct contact between Ethiopians and members of this European group would therefore have been perfectly possible.

The group in question was, moreover, highly secretive and made regular use of codes and ciphers in its far-flung international communications. It was, in addition, a group that had been involved with the evolution and dissemination of Gothic architecture in Europe (and quite specifically with the architecture and iconography of Chartres cathedral). Finally, and most importantly, it was a group that Wolfram von Eschenbach had several times mentioned by name – a name that I had also come across in connection with the curious Grail cup that the sculptors of the north porch of Chartres cathedral had placed in the left hand of their imposing statue of the priest-king Melchizedek59 (which, incidentally, was almost the only depiction of Melchizedek in the whole of medieval Europe60).

What then was the name of this strangely influential, powerful and widely travelled group?

Its full and formal title was the ‘Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon’61 – but its members were better known simply as ‘Templars’, or as Knights Templar. It was, fundamentally, a religious order, an order of warrior monks, and throughout much of the twelfth century it had its headquarters in Jerusalem on the site of Solomon’s Temple – the same site from which the Ark of the Covenant had inexplicably vanished in Old Testament times.

1 Ethiopian church painting showing King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. According to Ethiopian tradition their son stole the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple in Jerusalem and brought it to Ethiopia.

2 This painting, from Israel, depicts the veneration of the Ark of the Covenant in Old Testament times. Regarded as the sign and the seal of God’s presence on earth, the Ark was the most sacred relic of the ancient Judaic faith.

3 Main group of stelae at Axum.

4 Section of the fallen stele. At 500 tonnes in weight and more than 100 feet tall, it was the largest single piece of stone ever quarried in the ancient world.

5 According to Axumite traditions the powers of the Ark of the Covenant were used to raise up this towering stele. It stands 70 feet tall and weighs 300 tonnes.

6 An Ethiopian painting depicting the late Emperor Haile Selassie, deposed in 1974.

7 A rebel wall poster showing the brutality of the Emperor’s successor, President Mengistu.

8 Falasha artefacts portraying the supposed bedroom scene between Solomon and Sheba. Haile Selassie claimed to be the 225th direct-line descendant of this union.

9 Falasha market woman.

10 In one of the island churches on Lake Tana a Christian priest stands guard at the doorway to the Holy of Holies.

11 Chartres Cathedral, France. One of the earliest and finest examples of the Gothic style of architecture that blossomed suddenly and mysteriously in the twelfth century AD.

12 Sculpture of Melchizedek, priest-king of ancient Israel, in the north porch of Chartres Cathedral, According to some authorities the cup in his hand is the Holy Grail and the object contained within it is a stone.

13 The Queen of Sheba (central of the three figures), her Ethiopian slave at her feet, in the north porch of Chartres Cathedral.

14 Tableau in the north porch of Chartres Cathedral depicting the removal, to some unstated destination, of the Ark of the Covenant – which is shown placed upon an ox-cart.

15 A section of the strange inscription beneath the Ark tableau.

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