Chapter 7

A Secret and Never-Ending Quest

From the first to the sixth century AD the empire centred on the city of Axum in northern Ethiopia could rightly claim to rank amongst the most powerful and prosperous in the known world. It dealt on equal terms with Rome and Persia and sent its navies sailing to ports as far afield as Egypt, India, Ceylon and China. Its architectural and artistic achievements were impressive and it became the first bastion of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa, adopting the new faith as its official religion in the early fourth centuryAD(coincidentally at much the same time as the miraculous conversion of Constantine the Great).1

By the seventh century, however, Axum’s light had begun to dim; the embassies that it sent abroad were now few and far between and its once formidable military power was clearly in decline. This marked change, which eventually led to total isolation, had much to do with the advance of the belligerent forces of Islam and the encirclement of Abyssinian Christianity during and after the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad (AD 570–632). ‘Encompassed by the enemies of their religion,’ wrote Edward Gibbon in hisDecline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ‘the Ethiopians slept for near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten.’2

The millennium to which the great English historian referred lasted from roughly the seventh to the sixteenth centuries, during which time it would be fair to say that Ethiopia all but disappeared from world consciousness. Formerly well known to outsiders, and relatively well travelled, this Christian country in the remote highlands of Africa was gradually transformed into a mysterious realm of myth and magic in which dragons and other monsters were believed to dwell – a terra incognita where no one dared (or wanted) to venture.

It would have been tempting to assume that the Abyssinians had reverted to barbarism or stagnated during the long, dark hole in their history. My researches had shown me, however, that the opposite was true: as the extraordinary rock-hewn churches of Lalibela proved, a rich and idiosyncratic culture had been preserved throughout. Moreover, although this culture was introverted and suspicious of the motives of foreign powers, it had stayed in contact with the outside world. Prince Lalibela himself had spent twenty-five years as an exile in Jerusalem in the second half of the twelfth century. And it had been from Jerusalem that he had returned to Ethiopia to claim his kingdom and to build the monolithic churches that now bear his name.

As outlined in Chapter 5, my findings had convinced me of the possibility that Lalibela might have been accompanied by a contingent of Templars when he left the Holy Land in 1185 to win back his throne. These knights, I believed, would have been motivated first and foremost by a desire to seek out the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia. In furtherance of this end it seemed logical to suppose that they would have been more than willing to assist the prince to achieve his own political objectives – since by so doing they might reasonably have expected to gain great influence.

The reader will recall that I then learned of an Ethiopian tradition which told of the involvement of mysterious ‘white men’ in the construction of the Lalibela churches. This tradition was an ancient one. Indeed, it had already been very old when it had first been recorded in the early sixteenth century by a Portuguese visitor, Father Francisco Alvarez. I knew that the Templars had been great builders and architects,3 and it was therefore difficult to resist the conclusion that they might have been the ‘white men’ who had had a hand in the creation of the rock-hewn monoliths. Furthermore, since the churches were twenty-four years in the making, the implication was that the knights had – at the very least – had a sustained presence in Ethiopia and perhaps had entertained plans for an even longer-term involvement in the affairs of that country.

The suspicion that this might indeed have been the case deepened as my research continued. In order to explain why, it is first of all necessary to acquaint the reader with what happened to the Templars during and immediately after the brutal suppression of the order in the early fourteenth century. It is also necessary to cross-reference this information with certain events that took place in Ethiopia at around the same time.

A period involved in darkness

Founded in the year 1119, and given official recognition by the church in 1128 at the Synod of Troyes, the Templars quickly rose to a position of great international power, wealth and prestige – a position from which they were nevertheless doomed to fall within two centuries. The history of the order’s catastrophic collapse has been too frequently and thoroughly recounted elsewhere to require extensive repetition here.4 Suffice it to say that quite suddenly, on Friday 13 October 1307, all Templars residing in France were arrested. This was a well co-ordinated operation that saw simultaneous dawn swoops on hundreds of Templar properties by the bailiffs and seneschals of the French king, Philip IV. By nightfall 15,000 men were in chains and Friday the 13th had won a unique place for itself in the popular imagination as the most unlucky and inauspicious date in the calendar.

The charges levelled against the Templars to justify their dramatic and humiliating arrests were as lurid as they were imaginative. They were accused, for example, of denying Christ and spitting on His image, and of giving each other indecent kisses ‘in shame of human dignity, according to the profane rite of the order’ (these kisses were said to be placed on the anus, navel and mouth of each initiate at the time of his induction). It was also alleged that they engaged in a wide range of other homosexual practices (which were ‘required without the possibility of refusal’), and – last but not least – that they made offerings to idols.5

At this time (and until 1377) the official residence of the Papacy was the city of Avignon in Provence. The reasons for the abandonment of the Vatican need not be gone into here.6 Obviously, however, the removal of the Holy See to a point so close to French territory gave King Philip great influence over the Pope (Clement V who had been crowned at Lyons in Philip’s presence in 13057). This influence was exercised to the detriment of the Templars, whose destruction Philip was determined to ensure not only in France but also in every other country in which they were established. To this end the French monarch put pressure on Clement V who in due course issued a bull (Pastoralis praeeminentiae, dated 22 November 1307) which ordered the arrest of the Templars throughout the Christian world.8

Proceedings followed as far afield as England, Spain, Germany, Italy and Cyprus and, in 1312, another bull from the puppet Pope officially suppressed the order. Meanwhile thousands of Templars had been subjected to the most horrific tortures and inquisitions. Many were subsequently burned at the stake – including Grand Master Jacques de Molay and the Preceptor of Normandy, Geoffroi de Charnay.9

It is not my intention here to go in any depth into the persecution, trial and destruction of the Templars. I only became interested in these matters because of the evidence I had unearthed which suggested a possible Templar quest for the Ark in Ethiopia in the late twelfth century. Having established that a group of knights could have accompanied Lalibela from Jerusalem in the year 1185 I naturally wondered what might have happened next – and this curiosity led me to look for clues in the subsequent history of the Templar Order.

That history, of course, was rather short: less than 130 years after Lalibela’s accession to the throne of Ethiopia the Templars had been rounded up, tortured, and burnt at the stake. Their properties and money had been shared out amongst the ruling houses of Europe; their order had ceased to exist; and their good name had been tainted by charges of sodomy, blasphemy and idolatry.

Nor, in the records of the last century of their existence, could I find a single shred of evidence to support the view of a sustained Templar quest in Ethiopia. After the early 1200s the trail simply went cold; from then until the arrests in 1307 the order seemed to have been concerned solely with its campaigns in the Near East and with the build-up of its own considerable power and wealth.

Where else, I wondered, might I find the information I was looking for? Few attempts had been made to chronicle developments in Ethiopia in the period that now concerned me. I knew, however, that James Bruce had done his utmost to gather and record ancient traditions during his lengthy visit in the eighteenth century. I therefore turned to his Travels – which I now kept constantly on my desk.

Towards the end of Volume I, as I had hoped, I came across several pages devoted to the reign of King Lalibela. Unfortunately much of what the Scottish adventurer had written was irrelevant to my own investigation. There was, however, one particular detail that attracted my attention. Drawing on ‘the histories and traditions … thought the most authentic’ in Ethiopia,10 Bruce reported that Lalibela had promoted a scheme to reduce the downstream flow of water into the Nile river system in order ‘to famish Egypt’.11 After ‘an exact survey and calculation’, it seemed this illustrious monarch of the Zagwe dynasty had ascertained:

that there ran on the summit, or highest part [of Ethiopia], several rivers which could be intercepted by mines, and their stream directed into the low country southward, instead of joining the Nile, augmenting it and running northward. By this he found he should be able so to disappoint its increase, that it never would rise to a height proper to fit Egypt for cultivation.12

Such a project, I could not help but think, would certainly have suited Templar ambitions which, by the end of Lalibela’s reign (AD 1211), had begun to focus on the conquest of Egypt. Several extensive battles were fought at this time on the banks of the Nile, and the Templars spent more than a year besieging the Arab fortress at Damietta in the delta.13 There could be no doubt, therefore, that a ‘famished’ and weakened Egypt would have been very much to their liking.

In the event, however, the diversion of the rivers was never completed: ‘Death, the ordinary enemy of all these stupendous undertakings, interposed here and put a stop to this enterprise of Lalibela.’14 Bruce then added a comment on the last two monarchs of the Zagwe dynasty:

To Lalibela succeeded Imrahana Christos, remarkable for nothing but being son of such a father as Lalibela, and father to such a son as Naakuto Laab; both of them distinguished for works very extraordinary, though very different in their kind. The first, that is those of the father, we have already hinted at, consisting in great mechanical undertakings. The other was an operation of the mind, of still more difficult nature, a victory over ambition, the voluntary abdication of a crown.15

I was already familiar with the historical details that followed. In 1270, Naakuto Laab – the last of the Zagwes – was persuaded to abdicate his throne in favour of a certain Yekuno Amlak, a monarch claiming Solomonic descent. This king, as the reader may recall, had been biding his time in the distant province of Shoa where the Solomonic line had been preserved by the descendants of the single royal prince who had escaped the uprising of the Jewish queen Gudit in the tenth century.16

Bruce had little or nothing to say about Yekuno Amlak himself, or about his immediate successors, Yagba Zion (1285–94) and Wedem Ara’ad (who ruled until the year 1314). Indeed, it seemed that the normally fastidious research methods favoured by the Scottish traveller had failed to yield any solid information at all for the century that followed Lalibela’s death in AD 1211: ‘All this period is involved in darkness,’ Bruce complained. ‘We might guess, but since we are not able to do more, it answers no good purpose to do so much.’17

Similar darkness, as I already knew, also enshrouded the period before Lalibela’s accession to the throne. I was therefore left with a host of unanswered questions. Of these by far the most important concerned the Ark of the Covenant: I needed to know what had happened to it during the roughly 300 years (from the tenth to the thirteenth century) in which the rule of the Solomonic dynasty had been interrupted. And I needed to know whether the Templars might have gained direct access to the sacred relic if, as I supposed, they had established themselves in Ethiopia during Lalibela’s reign.

Once again I telephoned the historian Belai Gedai in Addis Ababa to see if he could enlighten me with his knowledge of local traditions.

‘In the tenth century’, he told me, ‘we Ethiopians say that the Ark was removed from Axum by the priests and the people in order to keep it safe from the ravages of Queen Gudit, and we say that it was brought to an island on Lake Zwai …’

‘You mean in the Rift Valley – south of Addis Ababa?’

‘Yes.’

‘That was a hell of a long way for it to be moved.’

‘Yes, but no lesser distance would have been safe. Gudit was Jewish, you know. She wanted to establish the Falasha religion all over the country and she wanted to destroy Christianity. She came to burn and rob the churches at Axum. So the priests carried off the Ark to prevent it from falling into her hands, and they brought it very far – all the way to Zwai! – where they were sure that it would be out of her reach.’

‘Do you know how long it remained on the island?’

‘Our traditions say that it was there for seventy years and that after that it was taken back to Axum.’

I thanked Gedai for his help and rang off. What he had told me fitted – more or less – with the picture of Ethiopian medieval history that I had thus far managed to piece together. I knew that the throne of Ethiopia had been held by Gudit for some years after she had deposed the Solomonids. I also knew that she had eventually been succeeded by the first monarch of the Zagwe dynasty, himself probably a Jew.

Later, however (and certainly well before Lalibela’s time), the Zagwes had converted to Christianity. It therefore seemed quite possible that they might have permitted the safe return of the Ark to its customary resting place in Axum – where, presumably, it would still have been when Lalibela came to power.

Of obvious relevance to this argument was the eyewitness account of the Ark in Ethiopia given by the Armenian geographer Abu Salih in his Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and some Neighbouring Countries. From internal textual evidence (the translator and editor of this important work explained in his Introduction), it was clear that it had been written ‘in the first years of the thirteenth century’18 – in other words during the reign of Lalibela himself. And although Abu Salih at no point stated in which Ethiopian city he had seen the sacred relic, there was no good reason to suppose that this city had not been Axum. Moreover, as I re-read the relevant passage, I was struck by a few words that I had overlooked before. Describing the transportation of the Ark on certain ceremonial occasions, the geographer had noted that it was ‘attended and carried, by bearers who were ‘white and red in complexion, with red hair’.19

With a shock of genuine excitement I realized that I was looking at a second piece of pure and early testimony suggesting the presence of mysterious white men in Ethiopia at the time of King Lalibela (particularly so since another authoritative translation of the same passage rendered ‘red hair’ as ‘blond hair’20). Alvarez had already alerted me to the old tradition that white men had built the wonderful rock-hewn churches – a tradition that fitted well with what I knew about the advanced architectural skills possessed by the Templars. Now, as though to bear out my own evolving theory, here was Abu Salih addressing me across seven centuries with the electrifying news that men who were white and red in complexion, men with red or even blond hair – men, in other words, who sounded very much like northern Europeans – had been associated closely and directly with the Ark of the Covenant itself.

The possibility that these men might have been Templars was a very seductive one, but it still left my investigation stranded in the early thirteenth century and it still left the key questions unanswered. If the northern Europeans seen by Abu Salih had indeed been Templars then had they just contented themselves with carrying the relic from time to time or had they perhaps tried to remove it from Ethiopia and take it back to Europe? Most important of all – if they had tried, had they succeeded?

On all these points, I had to admit, I was effectively blocked by the absolute lack of historical information. Obsessively secretive as the Templars had undoubtedly been,21 it did not really surprise me that their own documents and records yielded so little. Nor was there any comfort to be gained from Ethiopian annals: after examining a wide range of different sources, I was forced to accept that the century after the death of King Lalibela had indeed been a period ‘involved in darkness’, just as James Bruce had observed. Almost nothing was known about what had gone on in these years.

I was by now feeling extremely pessimistic about the prospects of ever breaking the research deadlock. Nevertheless I telephoned Richard Pankhurst in Addis Ababa and asked him if there were any records which might suggest that there had been contacts of any kind between Ethiopians and Europeans during the period in question.

‘None that I know of before 1300,’ he replied.

‘And how about after 1300? I suppose the first documented European contact was with the Portuguese embassy that arrived in Ethiopia in 1520?’

‘Not quite. A small number of missions travelled in the other direction before that – I mean from Ethiopia to Europe. As it happens, the very first of these was sent within a century of Lalibela’s death – so that does put it into the period you’re interested in.’

I sat forward in my chair: ‘Do you happen to know the exact date?’

‘Yes, I do,’ Richard replied. ‘It was 1306, and it was quite a large mission. It was sent by the Emperor Wedem Ara’ad and it had, I believe, about thirty members.’

‘Do you remember what the purpose of this mission was?’

‘I’m not absolutely certain. You would have to check the source. But I do know that its destination was Avignon in the south of France.’

A final solution?

Richard did not realize it, but he had just dropped a small bombshell. Avignon had been the seat of Pope Clement V – who had been crowned at Lyons in 1305 in the presence of King Philip of France. Moreover, as I was already well aware, it had been Clement V who had ordered the arrest of the Templars throughout Christendom in 1307. Now I had learned that a high-level Ethiopian delegation (the first ever to be sent to Europe) had visited Avignon in 1306 – just a year before the arrests. Were these dates and events clustered together by coincidence? Or was there, perhaps, some underlying pattern of cause and effect? To get answers to these questions I would have to try to establish whether the Abyssinian envoys had in fact met with the Pope during their visit and, if they had, I would also have to try to learn what had passed between them.

The original source of information on the 1306 mission had been a Genoese cartographer, Giovanni da Carignano, who had been active in map-making during the years 1291–1329.22 I was intrigued to discover that this same Carignano had been responsible for a major shift in European ideas about Ethiopia: after centuries of confusion (see discussion in Chapter 4) he had been the first authority to affirm unambiguously that ‘Prester John’ ruled in Africa rather than in ‘India’.23

Carignano had met with the members of the Ethiopian embassy when they had passed through Genoa in 1306 on their way back from Avignon to their homeland. Because of adverse winds they had spent ‘many days’ in the Italian port and there the cartographer had questioned them about ‘their rites, customs and regions’.24

Regrettably, however, Carignano’s treatise containing all the information that the Ethiopians had given him had subsequently been lost. All that remained of it today was a brief abstract preserved in a Bergamese chronicle of the late fifteenth century written by a certain Jacopo Filippo Foresti.25

I finally managed to get my hands on an English translation of the abstract in question. It consisted of only a single paragraph in which Foresti praised and then summarized Carignano’s treatise:

Amongst many things written in it about the state of [the Ethiopians] … it is said that their emperor is most Christian, to whom seventy-four kings and almost innumerable princes pay allegiance … It is known that this emperor in the … year of our salvation 1306 sent thirty envoys [who] … presented themselves reverentially before Pope Clement V at Avignon.26

And that – apart from a few frills and the ‘Prester John’ reference already mentioned – was all that was known about the first-ever Ethiopian mission to Europe. Skimpy though the data was, however, it did confirm my suspicion that the envoys had met with Pope Clement V27 – and that they had done so just a year before he authorized the mass arrests of the Knights Templar.

No information was given concerning the substance of the meeting; nor was there the slightest hint as to why the Emperor of Ethiopia should have been so anxious to make contact with Pope Clement V in the year 1306. It seemed to me improbable, however, that Wedem Ara’ad would have sent so large an embassy on such a long and unprecedented mission if he had not had a very strong motive indeed. I now felt at liberty to speculate about what that motive might have been.

Opening my notebook I jotted down the following series of propositions, conjectures and hypotheses:

Assume for the moment that the Templars did go from Jerusalem to Ethiopia with Prince Lalibela in 1185 – and that they did help to install him on his throne. Assume that the ‘white men’ said to have built the Lalibela churches were in fact Templars. Assume also that the ‘white men’ seen acting as bearers for the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia in the early 1200s were these same Templars.

The implication is that the order had succeeded in winning a position of power, trust and influence with Lalibela, and with the Zagwe dynasty to which he belonged. If so then it would be reasonable to assume that the last two Zagwe monarchs (Imrahana Christos and Naakuto Laab) would also have had a good relationship with the Templars – whom they might have continued to grant privileged access to the Ark.

Assume that this was what happened and that during the six decades after Lalibela’s death in 1211 the Templars were allowed to approach the sacred relic but not, of course, to take it out of Ethiopia. Perhaps they planned to take it but were simply biding their time until a favourable opportunity presented itself. Meanwhile, as the knights who had originally come to Ethiopia grew old the order would have sent out others from the Holy Land to replace them. There would have been no particular sense of urgency; indeed they might have been quite content for the Ark to stay in Ethiopia.

This state of affairs would have changed dramatically in 1270, however, when (for whatever reasons) Naakuto Laab was persuaded to abdicate his throne and was replaced by Yekuno Amlak – a monarch claiming Solomonic descent. Unlike the Zagwes, the very identity of the Solomonids was irrevocably bound up with the Ark of the Covenant and with the notion that Menelik I – the founder of their dynasty – had brought it from Jerusalem during the reign of King Solomon himself. In this context it is worth remembering that the first written version of the Kebra Nagast was prepared on the orders of Yekuno Amlak.28 In other words, although the legend was by then already very old in oral form,29 Yekuno Amlak wanted it formalized. Why? Because it served to legitimize and glorify his title to the throne.

From this it follows that Yekuno Amlak would have been horrified by the presence in his country of a body of armed, militant (and technologically advanced) foreigners like the Templars: foreigners who could call on reinforcements from amongst the thousands of other members of their order in the Near East; foreigners who clearly had a special interest in the Ark and who were possibly plotting to steal away with it.

Assume, however, that Yekuno Amlak (new to the throne and still insecure) initially tried to placate these powerful and dangerous white men, perhaps by giving them the false impression that he was willing to co-operate with them in much the same way as the Zagwes had done. That would have been a logical strategy – particularly since it is known that his army was very small30 – and would explain why nothing spectacular happened during his reign. It would therefore have been up to his successors to seek a final solution to the problem of how to get rid of the Templars and retain the Ark.

Yekuno Amlak’s son (Yagba Zion, 1285–94) was, if anything, even weaker than his father in military terms. Yagba Zion, however, was succeeded by a much stronger character, Wedem Ara’ad, who reigned until 1314. Significantly it was Wedem Ara’ad who sent a large embassy to Pope Clement V at Avignon in 1306.

Is it not possible that the purpose of that embassy was to stir up trouble for the Templars – and perhaps to give the Pope and the French king (Philip IV) an urgent motive to destroy the order? Such a motive could have been provided by the suggestion that the knights were planning to bring the Ark of the Covenant to France. After all, this was a period when deep superstitions ruled the popular imagination. With so sacred and so powerful a relic in their hands the Templars would have been in a unique position to challenge both the secular and religious authorities of the land – and those authorities would certainly have taken any steps they could to prevent such an eventuality.

This theory begins to look particularly attractive when set against the backdrop of the arrests of the Templars in France and elsewhere. All these arrests took place in 1307 – i.e. about a year after the departure of the Ethiopian mission from Avignon. This fits perfectly with what is known about the behaviour of King Philip IV: there is evidence that he began to plan his operation against the Templars about a year in advance of its implementation31 (i.e. in 1306) and there is also evidence that on several occasions during that year he discussed his plans with Pope Clement.32

It would of course be folly to imagine that the destruction of the Templars was occasioned only by the lobbying of the Ethiopian envoys. Malice and greed on the part of Philip IV also played a role (the former because the king had several times been snubbed by the order; the latter because he undoubtedly had his eyes on the huge sums of money resting in Templar treasuries throughout his realm).

By the same token, however, it would be folly to imagine that the Ethiopian mission to Avignon in 1306 had nothing to do with the events of 1307. On the contrary it is more than probable that there was a link – and that link, I am convinced, was the Ark of the Covenant.

Portuguese and Scottish connections

The Templars were a rich and powerful international brotherhood of religious warriors. As such, despite the best efforts of King Philip IV and Pope Clement V, they did not prove easy to destroy. The suppression was most effectively and completely implemented in France; even there, however, some brothers managed to evade capture33 (as did the entire Templar fleet which slipped out of the Atlantic port of La Rochelle on the morning of the arrests and was never seen again34).

In other countries the trials and inquisitions were pursued with much less vigour than in France; nevertheless, tortures, imprisonments, executions, confiscation of property and the final dissolution of the order were the end result in England (after some considerable delay), in Spain, in Italy, in Germany, in Cyprus and elsewhere.35

In Portugal and Scotland, however, the Templars appear to have escaped persecution almost completely. Indeed, circumstances were so favourable in these countries that, under different disguises, the order managed to live on in both of them.

At the time when Pope Clement V issued his bull ordering the arrests of the Templars throughout Christendom – November 1307 – Scotland was locked in a fierce struggle to preserve its national independence against the colonial aspirations of England. Leading this struggle was the most famous of all Scots monarchs – King Robert the Bruce who, at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, was to inflict such a crushing defeat upon the English that his country’s freedom was guaranteed for centuries afterwards. With all his energies focussed on the war, Bruce had no interest whatsoever in pursuing the papal vendetta against the Templars. He therefore only went through the motions of suppressing them: just two knights were arrested36 and the most that appears to have been required of the remainder was that they should keep a low profile.

There was method in the Scottish king’s behaviour: all the evidence suggests that he granted safe haven not only to local Templars but also to members of the order fleeing persecution in other lands.37 Not naturally altruistic, it seems that he adopted this generous policy in order to encourage fugitive knights to join his army.38 It has, furthermore, been cogently argued that a Templar contingent did fight on Bruce’s side at Bannockburn39 – a suggestion that looks worthy of further research when it is remembered that the victorious Scots marched behind a tiny Ark-shaped reliquary at that famous battle.40

The favour that Bruce showed towards the Templars in Scotland, and the fact that many knights escaped arrest in England (because of a delay in implementing the papal bull there), made it possible for the order to go underground in the British Isles – in other words to survive in a secret and hidden form rather than to be completely destroyed. For hundreds of years it has been rumoured that this secret survival took the form of Freemasonry41 – a view supported by a specific Masonic tradition that the oldest Scottish lodge (Kilwinning) was founded by King Robert the Bruce after the battle of Bannockburn ‘for the reception of those Knights Templar who had fled from France’.42 In the eighteenth century Andrew Ramsay, a prominent Scots Mason and historian, added credibility to this tradition with a considerable body of work on the connections between Freemasonry and the Templars.43 And at around the same time Baron Carl von Hund, a leading German Mason, declared that ‘Freemasonry originated in Knight Templary, and that, in consequence, every Mason is a Templar.’44

That such forthright statements should have been made in the eighteenth century (rather than in any earlier century) is not surprising: this was the period in which Freemasons finally ‘came out of the closet’ and began to talk about themselves and about their history.45 Subsequently, as the new spirit of openness encouraged further research, it became clear that ‘Knight Templarism’ was and always had been an important force within the Masonic system.46 This research, together with much other material not previously uncovered, has recently been incorporated into a detailed and authoritative study which itemizes the many ways in which Freemasonry was shaped and influenced by fugitive Templars.47

It is not my intention here to participate at all in what is undoubtedly a heated, convoluted and highly specialized debate. The point I wish to make is simply that the Masonic system did inherit many of the most central traditions of the Order of the Temple of Solomon, and that this inheritance was first passed on in the British Isles in the years 1307–14 by Templars who had survived papal persecution because of the specially favourable conditions then prevailing in Scotland.

Nor, as I have already noted, was Scotland the only country in which the Templars were left unscathed. In Portugal they were tried but found to be free of guilt, and thus neither tortured nor imprisoned.48 Of course, as a good Catholic, the Portuguese monarch (Dennis I) could not afford to ignore papal instructions completely: accordingly lip service was paid to these instructions and the Templars were officially dissolved in 1312. Just six years later, however, they were reborn under a new name: the Militia of Jesus Christ (also known as the Knights of Christ or, more simply, as the Order of Christ).49

This transformation of one order into another enabled the Portuguese Templars not only to survive the fires of the Inquisition during the years 1307 to 1314 but also to emerge phoenix-like from the ashes in 1318 – after which date they seem to have carried on with business very much as usual. All Templar properties and funds in Portugal were transferred intact to the Order of Christ, as were all personnel.50 Moreover, on 14 March 1319, the newly formed entity received the approval and confirmation of Pope John XXII (Clement meanwhile having died).51

In summary, therefore, despite the harshness of the suppression in France and elsewhere, the Portuguese Order of Christ, and British (and especially Scottish) Freemasonry, were the means by which Templar traditions were preserved and carried forward into the distant future – perhaps right up to modern times.

As my research continued I was to become increasingly sure that one of the traditions thus perpetuated was the quest for the Ark of the Covenant.

‘After battle like wolves and after slaughter like lions …’

Even if my theory about the Templars in Ethiopia was correct, I knew that there was no way that I could establish what might have happened to them in that country after the persecutions began in Europe in 1307. Historical records from the reign of Wedem Ara’ad were virtually non-existent. After sending his mission to Avignon, however, my guess was that he would have stayed in touch with developments and would have been informed of the order’s destruction. Secure in the knowledge that no further knights could now be sent to vex him, the Emperor would then have moved against those Templars who remained in Ethiopia and either expelled them or wiped them out – most probably the latter.

That, at any rate, was my working hypothesis, and probably I would have thought no more about this aspect of my investigation if I had not learnt about the ‘Portuguese connection’ represented by the Order of Christ. You see, with just two unimportant exceptions,52 all the known early visitors to Ethiopia were Portuguese. Moreover, this Portuguese interest in the realm of ‘Prester John’ was already pronounced within a century of the destruction of the Templars and was, from the beginning, spearheaded by members of the Order of Christ.

In this endeavour, the first and most active figure on whom any solid information is available was Prince Henry the Navigator, Grand Master of the Order of Christ and a man described by his biographer as possessing ‘strength of heart and keenness of mind to a very excellent degree … [who] was, beyond comparison, ambitious of achieving great and lofty deeds.’53

Born in 1394, and actively involved in seafaring by 1415,54 Henry’s greatest ambition – as he himself declared – was that he would ‘have knowledge of the land of Prester John’.55 Chroniclers who were his contemporaries, as well as modern historians, are in full agreement that he devoted the greater part of his illustrious career to the pursuit of precisely this goal.56 Yet an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue surrounds all his efforts. As Edgar Prestage, the late Camoens Professor of Portuguese Language, Literature and History at the University of London, observed:

Our knowledge of the Henrican voyages is inadequate, and this is largely due to the adoption of a policy of secrecy which included the suppression of facts … historical works … nautical guides, maps, instructions to navigators and their reports.57

Indeed, so great was the commitment to secrecy in Henry’s time that the release of information on the results of the various exploratory voyages that were undertaken was punishable by death.58 Despite this, however, it is known that the prince was obsessed with the notion of making direct contact with Ethiopia – and that he sought to achieve this end by circumnavigating Africa (since the shorter route through the Mediterranean and then into the Red Sea via Egypt was blocked by hostile Muslim forces59). Moreover, even before the Cape of Good Hope was rounded, the masters of Portuguese vessels venturing down the West African coast were instructed to enquire after ‘Prester John’ to see whether it might not be quicker to approach his kingdom overland.60

One can only speculate as to the true objective of the Portuguese prince. The common view is that he intended – as a ‘good crusader’61 – to forge an anti-Islamic alliance with the Christian Ethiopian emperor. Perhaps he did. Since all serious plans to win the Holy Land for Christendom had been abandoned more than a century before Henry was born, however, I found it difficult to resist the notion that he must have had some other motive – some hidden agenda, perhaps, that would have accounted both for his secrecy and for his fascination with Prester John.

As I studied the life of the great navigator further I became more and more certain that this motive was rooted and grounded in his identity as Grand Master of the Order of Christ, in which capacity he would have inherited all the mystical traditions of the Order of the Temple of Solomon. It is notable that he immersed himself in the study of mathematics and cosmography, ‘the course of the heavens and astrology’,62 and that he was constantly surrounded by Jewish doctors and astronomers63 –men in every way reminiscent of Wolfram’s character Flegetanis who ‘saw hidden secrets in the constellations [and] declared there was a thing called the Gral whose name he read in the stars without more ado.’64

Another factor which suggested to me that the Portuguese prince was profoundly influenced by Templar traditions was his celibacy. The Knights of Christ were not bound by such strict rules as their predecessors in the Order of the Temple. Nevertheless, like the Templar Grand Masters before him, Henry ‘would never marry, but preserved great chastity [and] remained a virgin till his death.’65 Likewise, I could not help but wonder whether it was entirely a matter of coincidence that the illustrious navigator chose to make his last will and testament on 13 October 146066 – the 153rd anniversary of the arrests of the Templars in France (which took place on 13 October 1307).

Henry died in 1460, shortly after making his will, and it was not until the early years of the twentieth century that certain secret archives pertaining to the last decade of his life came to light. Amongst these archives (details of which were published by Dr Jaime Cortezao in 1924 in the review Lusitania67) a brief note was found to the effect that ‘an ambassador of Prester John visited Lisbon eight years before Henry’s death’.68 It is not known what the purpose of this mission was, or what the prince and the Ethiopian envoy discussed. Nevertheless, two years after their meeting it can hardly have been accidental that King Alfonso V of Portugal granted spiritual jurisdiction over Ethiopia to the Order of Christ.69 ‘We are’, admits Professor Prestage, ‘still ignorant of the motives that led to this concession.’70

In the year that Henry the Navigator died – 1460 – a fitting successor was born at Sines, a seaport in the south of Portugal. That successor, also a Knight of the Order of Christ,71 was Vasco da Gama, who was to open up the Cape route to India in 1497.

It is notable that when he set off on this famous voyage da Gama was carrying two things: a white silk banner with the double red cross of the Order of Christ embroidered upon it; and letters of credence for delivery to Prester John.72 Moreover, although his ultimate destination was indeed India, the Portuguese admiral devoted a considerable part of the expedition to African exploration and is reported to have wept for joy when, at anchor off Mozambique, he was rightly told that Prester John lived in the interior far to the north.73 It was also claimed by the same informants that the Ethiopian emperor ‘held many cities along the coast’.74 This claim was incorrect, but da Gama’s subsequent stop-overs at Malindi, Mombasa, Brava (where he built a lighthouse that still stands) and Mogadishu were in part motivated by his continuing desire to make contact with Prester John.75

Meanwhile, in 1487 – a decade before da Gama set off – the Order of Christ had sponsored a different initiative also aimed at reaching Ethiopia. In that year King John II of Portugal, then Grand Master of the Order, had sent his trusted aide Pero de Covilhan on a perilous journey to the court of Prester John via the Mediterranean, Egypt and the Red Sea. Disguised as a merchant, Covilhan passed through Alexandria and Cairo to Suakin and there, in 1488, he took ship in a small Arab barque for the Yemeni port of Aden. He then became caught up in various adventures which delayed him considerably. As a result it was not until 1493 that he finally succeeded in entering Abyssinia.76 Once there, however, he made his way immediately to the emperor’s court where he was first welcomed but later placed under comfortable house arrest. One can only speculate as to why this happened, but since it is known that Covilhan’s greatest skill was as a spy (he had previously worked as a secret agent in Spain77) it is difficult to resist the notion that the Order of Christ may have commissioned him to gather intelligence on the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant. Perhaps he aroused suspicion by making enquiries about the sacred relic; perhaps not. At any rate he was detained in Ethiopia for the rest of his life.78

Covilhan was still alive when the first official Portuguese embassy to the court of Prester John landed at the port of Massawa in 1520 and made its way inland to meet with Lebna Dengel, the Solomonic emperor who had been on the throne since 1508. One of the members of this embassy was Father Francisco Alvarez – and the reader will recall that it was Alvarez who had been told by priests of the ancient tradition that the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela had been ‘made by white men’.79

I now turned back to the English translation of the lengthy narrative that Alvarez had written after leaving Ethiopia in 1526. Re-reading his chapter on Lalibela I was struck by the description he gave of the church of Saint George. Carved into the roof of this great edifice, he said, was ‘a double cross, that is, one within the other, like the crosses of the Order of Christ.’80

Of course, as I already knew, the Lalibela churches had been hewn in the time of the Templars, long before the Order of Christ was created to follow in their footsteps. It seemed logical to suppose, however, that the cross of the Order of Christ was derived from a design that would have been significant to the Templars. It was therefore intriguing to learn that this design had been used on Saint George’s – undoubtedly the finest church in the Lalibela complex. Casting my mind back to my own visit there in 1983, I could not recall the double cross motif. I was sufficiently interested, however, to look out the photographs that had been taken on that trip; these confirmed that the description that Alvarez had given of Saint George’s was absolutely correct: the double cross was there.

In the mid-1520s, while the Portuguese embassy was still at the court of Lebna Dengel, it became clear that Ethiopia would soon come under attack from Muslim forces massing in the emirate of Harar in the eastern part of the Horn of Africa. These forces were led by a redoubtable and charismatic warlord, Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim el Ghazi, whose nickname was ‘Gragn’ (meaning ‘the left-handed’).

After some years of careful preparations, Gragn eventually declared his holy war in 1528 and led hordes of wild Somali troops (supported by Arab mercenaries and Turkish matchlockmen) on a rampage into the Christian highlands.81 This turned out to be no brief campaign but rather continued, year in year out, without any remit. Across the length and breadth of Ethiopia towns and villages were burnt, churches were destroyed, priceless treasures were looted, and thousands of people were put to the sword.82

Lebna Dengel had been somewhat cool towards the Portuguese. During the six years that their embassy had been in his country (1520–6) he had constantly stressed his own self-sufficiency, saying, in spite of the Muslim threat (which was very apparent by 1526), that he saw no point in hastening into an alliance with any foreign power.83 This strangely aloof attitude, I believe, could have been occasioned by concerns as to the true motives of the European visitors – particularly as regards the Ark of the Covenant.

Whatever fears the emperor may have entertained, however, it gradually became apparent to him that Gragn posed a far greater threat than the white men ever would – and not only to the sacred relic but also to the very existence of Ethiopian Christendom. In 1535 the Muslims attacked Axum and razed to the ground the ancient and most holy church of Saint Mary of Zion84 (from which, as I shall recount later in this chapter, the priests had already taken the Ark to another place for safekeeping). In 1535, too –and not by coincidence – Lebna Dengel at last overcame his antipathy towards foreign alliances and sent an envoy to the king of Portugal with an urgent request for military assistance.85

Meanwhile communications between Ethiopia and Europe had become much more difficult (because the Turks had won control of much of the coast of the Horn of Africa as well as many of the Red Sea ports). It took a long while for the emperor’s SOS to reach its destination and, in consequence, it was not until 1541 that a contingent of 450 Portuguese musketeers landed at Massawa to lend their support to the Abyssinian army – which appeared at that point to be utterly beaten and demoralized (Lebna Dengel, after years on the run, had died of exhaustion and had been succeeded by his son Claudius, then barely out of his teens).86

Since they were armed with matchlocks, hand-guns, and several pieces of heavy artillery, much hope was pinned upon the intervention of the Portuguese troops. The Ethiopian royal chronicle for 1541 speaks of the confident manner in which they marched up into the highlands from the coast, praising them as ‘bold and courageous men who thirsted after battle like wolves and after slaughter like lions’.87 Nor did this description overstate their qualities: though small in numbers they fought with inspiring valour and won a series of decisive victories. The British historian Edward Gibbon was later to summarize their achievements in just nine words: ‘Ethiopia was saved by four hundred and fifty Portuguese.’88

Significantly in my opinion, the commander of the relief force was none other than Don Christopher da Gama, son of the famous Vasco and, like his father, a Knight of the Order of Christ.89 James Bruce was inordinately interested in the character of this young adventurer and described him in the following terms:

He was brave to a fault; rash and vehement; jealous of what he thought military honour; and obstinate in his resolutions … [However], in a long catalogue of virtues which he possessed to a very eminent degree, [he] had not the smallest claim to that of patience, so very necessary to those that command armies.90

I believe that, as a Knight of the Order of Christ, Don Christopher may well have had an ulterior motive for his operations in Ethiopia: first he would defeat the Muslims; later he would seek out the Ark of the Covenant. His rashness and lack of patience, however, were to cost him his life before either objective could be achieved.

Despite overwhelming odds, he repeatedly engaged Ahmed Gragn’s forces in battle (on one occasion, deserted by the Abyssinians, the Portuguese faced 10,000 spearmen – and beat them). Such feats of derring-do, however, were loaded with risks and, in 1542, Don Christopher was taken prisoner (an eyewitness described how, shortly before his capture, he ‘had been shot in the right knee and was fighting with his sword in his left hand, for his right arm had been broken by another shot’91).

The Portuguese commander was first horribly tortured and then, according to Bruce’s account of his last hours, was

brought into the presence of the Moorish general Gragn, who loaded him with reproaches; to which he replied with such a share of invectives that the Moor, in the violence of his passion, drew his sword and cut off his head with his own hand.92

Barely a year later, however, the Muslim leader too was killed. In a battle fought on the shores of Lake Tana on 10 February 1543 he was shot dead by a certain Peter Leon,

a man of low stature, but very active and valiant, who had been valet de chambre to Don Christopher … The Moorish army no sooner missed the presence of their general than, concluding all lost, they fell into confusion and were pursued by the Portuguese and Abyssinians with a great slaughter till the evening.93

Thus, after fifteen years of unparalleled destruction and violence, ended the Muslim attempt to subdue the Christian empire of Ethiopia. The costs to the Portuguese relief force were considerable: as well as the redoubtable Don Christopher, more than half of the original contingent of 450 musketeers were killed in the fighting. Abyssinian casualties, of course, were far greater (running into tens of thousands) and the cultural damage – in terms of burnt manuscripts, icons and paintings, razed churches and looted treasures – was to cast a shadow over the civilization of the highlands for centuries to come.

The greatest treasure of all, however, was saved: moved out of Axum by the priests only days before that city was burnt in 1535, the Ark had been taken to one of the many island-monasteries on Lake Tana. There it was kept in safety until long after Gragn’s death. Then, in the mid 1600s, Emperor Fasilidas (described by Bruce as ‘the greatest king that ever sat upon the Abyssinian throne’94) built a new cathedral of Saint Mary of Zion over the gutted ruins of the old – and there, with due ceremony, the sacred relic was at last re-installed in all its former glory.95

Fasilidas did one other thing also. Despite the debt of gratitude that his country owed to the Portuguese (whose numbers had been allowed to increase steadily after the successful conclusion of the war with Gragn) he made it his business to throw all the settlers out. Indeed, he seemed so wary of their intentions that he entered into a business arrangement with the Turks at Massawa: any Portuguese travellers arriving there and seeking entry into Ethiopia were to be apprehended and decapitated – with a substantial sum in gold payable for each head thus obtained.96

The source of a mystery

After the death of Don Christopher da Gama the intense and focussed interest that the Order of Christ had shown in Ethiopia seemed to come to an end. And after the reign of Fasilidas there was no longer any way in which that interest could have been pursued byany Portuguese.

However, as noted earlier, the Order of Christ was not the only vehicle in which Templar traditions were perpetuated. Scottish Freemasonry, too, inherited some portions of the mystical legacy of the Temple of Solomon – in which the Ark of the Covenant played such a central role. Because of this Scottish connection, and because he had claimed to be a distant descendant of the king who had welcomed the fugitive Templars in the fourteenth century,97 I felt that a closer investigation was warranted into the activities of one of the most audacious and determined foreigners ever to visit Ethiopia: James Bruce of Kinnaird.

Standing rather more than six feet four inches tall, and with a girth to match, Bruce was a giant of a man (‘the tallest man you ever saw gratis’, as one contemporary described him). He was also wealthy and well educated. Born in 1730 in the lowlands of Scotland on the family estate at Kinnaird, he was sent at the age of twelve to Harrow school, where his work in the classical languages was considered excellent by his teachers. He later completed his studies at Edinburgh University.

A period of illness followed and when he recovered he went to London intending to take up a job offer with the East India Company. Once there, however, he fell passionately in love with a beautiful woman named Adriane Allan, whom he married in 1753. Soon afterwards he joined his father-in-law’s winetrading business as a partner.

Tragedy followed. On a trip to France in 1754 Adriane died suddenly and, though he remarried much later and fathered several children, Bruce seems to have taken a long time to recover from the loss of his first wife.

Restless and depressed, he began to travel almost continuously, learning new languages with great facility wherever he went. His peregrinations took him first to Europe, where he fought a duel in Belgium, sailed down the Rhine, inspected Roman ruins in Italy, and studied Arabic manuscripts in Spain and Portugal. Subsequently – after his linguistic ability had been recognized by his government – he was given a diplomatic posting as British consul in Algiers. From there he later travelled extensively along the North African coast, visiting the ruins of Carthage, before journeying onwards to the Holy Land where he explored several other ancient sites. He also found the time to return occasionally to Scotland to attend to the family estates of which he was now the laird, his father having died in 1758.

During this period the young Scotsman became something of an astronomer, acquiring two state-of-the art telescopes that subsequently went everywhere with him. He also picked up surveying and navigational skills that would be invaluable to him on his travels in Abyssinia.

It is not clear exactly when he conceived of this last adventure, but there is evidence that he had been planning it for a considerable while (it is known, for example, that he had begun to learn Ge’ez, the classical language of Ethiopia, as early as 175998). Because of such preparations, which included detailed readings of the works of all previous travellers, he had accumulated a great deal of background knowledge about the country by the time that he arrived in Cairo in 1768 to begin his epic journey.

What was it that inspired Bruce to go to Ethiopia? His own account of his motives is unambiguous: he went, he said, risking ‘numberless dangers and sufferings, the least of which would have overwhelmed me but for the continual goodness and protection of Providence’, in order to discover the source of the Nile.99 Lest anyone should be in any doubt that this was indeed his ambition he enshrined it conspicuously in the full title of the immense book that he later wrote: Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772 and 1773.

There is a mystery here, however, which has attracted the attention of more than one historian (though no solution has ever been proposed to it).100 The mystery is this: long before he set out for Ethiopia, James Bruce knew that the Blue Nile’s source had already been visited and thoroughly explored by two other Europeans: Pedro Paez and Jeronimo Lobo (both of whom were Portuguese priests who had lived in Ethiopia in the 1600s before the Fasilidas ban was put into effect).

As my research into the Ark of the Covenant progressed during 1989, the mystery of Bruce’s objectives came to engage my attention more and more. The five hefty volumes of his Travels had become essential reference works for me because they provided a unique picture of Ethiopian culture at a time when that culture was still not too far separated from its own archaic origins. Moreover, I knew the Scottish adventurer to have been a considerable scholar, and I was impressed from the outset by the solid accuracy of his observations and by the general worth of his judgments and opinions on matters of history. I also regarded him as an honest man, not overly prone to hyperbole, exaggeration or misrepresentation. How then, I had to ask myself – since it was clear from many of his own comments that he had carefully read the works of both Paez and Lobo101 – could I account for the fact that he had failed to give them credit for their achievements?102 Since I fully agreed with the subsequent judgment of history (namely that ‘Bruce, far from being a romancer, was a most reliable guide’103) I found myself increasingly puzzled by his obvious dishonesty over this crucially important issue – a dishonesty which he compounded with the bald assertion that ‘none of the Portuguese … ever saw, or indeed pretended to have seen, the source of the Nile’.104

I was soon to discover that this was not the only matter about which Bruce had lied. On the subject of the Ark of the Covenant he was even more evasive and deceitful. Describing his own visit to the sacred city of Axum, he commented on the destruction by Ahmed Gragn of the first church of Saint Mary of Zion and added – correctly – that another had now been built in its place:

In it [is] supposed to be preserved the Ark of the Covenant … which Menelik … is said, in their fabulous legends, to have stolen from his father Solomon on his return to Ethiopia … Some ancient copy of the Old Testament, I do believe, was deposited here … but whatever this might be, it was destroyed … by Gragn, though pretended falsely to subsist there still. This I had from the King himself.105

In summary, what Bruce appeared to be saying was that the Ark had never been brought to Axum (since the story of Menelik and Solomon was just a ‘fabulous legend’), that the relic once stored in the church could therefore only have been ‘some ancient copy of the Old Testament’, and that even this relic no longer existed since it had been ‘destroyed by Gragn’. These statements were then backed up with the assertion that they had been corroborated by ‘the King himself’.

Had it not been for that last remark I might have been content to believe that Bruce had simply never learned of how the Ark had been saved during the war with the Muslims, and of how it had later been returned to Axum after the rebuilding of Saint Mary of Zion. The claim that ‘the King himself’ had attested to the destruction of the relic was patently false, however: in 1690 – long after the Gragn campaigns and just eighty years before Bruce’s own visit – an Ethiopian monarch had entered the Holy of Holies of the new Saint Mary’s where he had actually seen the Ark (thus confirming its continued existence). The monarch in question (Iyasu the Great) had been a priest as well as a king, and because of this he had been allowed not only to view the sacred relic but also to open it and gaze inside it.106 Since it is inconceivable that the king in Bruce’s day would not have known of this famous and unprecedented incident, I had to conclude that the Scottish traveller was once again being ‘economical with the truth’.107

My conviction that this was so deepened further when I realized – contrary to his own statement quoted above – that Bruce had not in fact regarded the Ethiopian tradition of Menelik, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba as a ‘fabulous legend’. On the contrary, he had treated it with the utmost respect. In Volume I of his Travels – some thousand pages before his account of his visit to Axum – he had written at great length about the close cultural and commercial connections between Ethiopia and the Holy Land in early Old Testament times.108 Here, amongst other things, he had unequivocally stated his own view that the Queen of Sheba had been a real historical person (rather than a mythical figure),109 that she had indeed made her voyage to the court of King Solomon in Jerusalem (‘there can be no doubt of this expedition’110) and – most important of all – that she had come from Ethiopia rather than from any other country: ‘[Others] have thought this Queen was an Arab,’ he concluded,’ ‘[but] many reasons … convince me that she was an Ethiopian.’111

He next went on to describe as ‘by no means improbable’112 the account given in the Kebra Nagast of the queen’s love affair with Solomon and the subsequent birth of Menelik. In the same vein he then retold the story of Menelik’s own visit to Jerusalem and ultimate return to Ethiopia bringing with him ‘a colony of Jews, among whom were many doctors of the law of Moses’.113 These events, Bruce concluded, had led to ‘the foundation of an Ethiopian monarchy, and the continuation of the sceptre in the tribe of Judah down to this day … first when Jews, then … after they had embraced Christianity.’114

All this was nothing more nor less than a straightforward précis of the Kebra Nagast in a context that granted it a great deal of weight and historical authenticity. Strangely, however, while covering every other major detail, Bruce at this point made absolutely no mention of the Ark of the Covenant – an omission that could only have been deliberate given the central and all-pervasive role played by the sacred relic in the Ethiopian national epic.

Once again, therefore, I was forced to conclude that the Scottish traveller had knowingly misled his readers about the Ark. But why should he have wanted to do that? What possible motive could he have had? My curiosity aroused, I carefully re-read his description of Axum and came across an important detail that I had completely overlooked before: his own visit there had taken place on 18 and 19 of January 1770.115

This timing, I suddenly realized, could have been no accident, for on precisely those two days he would have witnessed the celebration of Timkat, the most important festival of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. During this festival, and at no other time – as I had established when I talked to the guardian-priest in 1983 – the Ark of the Covenant was traditionally wrapped in rich brocades (‘to protect the laity from it’116) and carried out in procession.117 Bruce had therefore chosen to be in Axum on the single occasion in the year when, as a layman, he might have had a reasonable opportunity to get close to the sacred relic.

I was by now seriously beginning to wonder whether it had not been the Ark all along that had lured the Scottish traveller to Ethiopia: his claim to have gone there to find the source of the Nile did not stand up to close scrutiny and bore all the hallmarks of a ‘cover story’ intended to veil the real object of his quest. Moreover his evasiveness on the subject of the Ark itself was most peculiar and really only made sense if he had indeed had a special interest in it – an interest that he had wanted to keep secret.

Soon I learned other things that deepened my suspicions. I discovered, for example, that Bruce had been fluent in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac118 – dead languages that he could have had no reason to learn unless he had wished to make an intimate study of early biblical texts. Moreover, there could be no doubt that he had made such a study: his knowledge of the Old Testament, which shone out from nearly every page of the Travels, was described by one scriptural expert as ‘outstanding’.119

Nor was this the only example of Bruce’s ‘more than common erudition’.120 As I already knew, he had also carried out meticulous and original research into the culture and traditions of the black Jews of Ethiopia. ‘I did not’, as he himself had put it, ‘spare my utmost pains in inquiring into the history of this curious people, and lived in friendship with several esteemed the most knowing and learned among them.’121 Because of such efforts he had managed to make a lasting contribution to the study of Falasha society – a contribution that, like so much else, did not jibe at all with his professed enthusiasm for geographical exploration but that was entirely consistent with a quest for the lost Ark.

I telephoned the historian Belai Gedai in Addis Ababa and asked him whether he had any views on Bruce’s motives. His reply shook me: ‘As a matter of fact what we Ethiopians say is that Mr James Bruce did not come to our country to discover the source of the Nile. We say that he was just pretending that. We say that he had another reason.’

‘Tell me more,’ I requested. ‘What do you think his objective could have been if it wasn’t the Nile?’

‘The real reason he came was to steal our treasures,’ Gedai said resentfully, ‘our cultural treasures. He took many precious manuscripts back to Europe. The book of Enoch, for example. Also from the imperial repository at Gondar he carried off an ancient copy of the Kebra Nagast.

This was news to me – but exciting news if true. I investigated further and in due course confirmed that Gedai was absolutely correct. On leaving Ethiopia Bruce had indeed carried the Kebra Nagast with him – and not just the single splendid copy taken from the imperial repository but also a copy of that copy that he had made himself (his knowledge of Ge’ez, the classical Ethiopic language, being near-perfect122). Much later he gave both manuscripts to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, where they remain to this day (as ‘Bruce 93’ and ‘Bruce 97’).123

Nor was this all. Prior to the eighteenth century, scholars had believed the book of Enoch to be irretrievably lost: composed long before the birth of Christ,124 and considered to be one of the most important pieces of Jewish mystical literature, it was only known from fragments and from references to it in other texts. James Bruce changed all this by procuring several copies of the missing work during his stay in Ethiopia. These were the first complete editions of the book of Enoch ever to be seen in Europe.125

I was of course interested to discover that Bruce had brought back the Kebra Nagast to Europe – and that he had also gone to the trouble of copying out the entire massive volume by hand. This made the omission of the Ark of the Covenant in his summary of that work look even more suspicious than I had originally thought. Suspicions are not certainties, however. It was therefore only when I got the full story of the Book of Enoch, and of the service that the Scottish adventurer had performed for scholarship in this regard, that I finally felt sure that I was on the right track.

I learned that the Book of Enoch has always been of great significance to Freemasons, and that certain rituals dating back to long before Bruce’s time identified Enoch himself with Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom.126 I then found a lengthy entry in the Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia which recorded other relevant traditions of the order – for example that Enoch was the inventor of writing, ‘that he taught men the art of building’, and that, before the flood, he ‘feared that the real secrets would be lost – to prevent which he concealed the Grand Secret, engraven on a white oriental porphyry stone, in the bowels of the earth.’ The entry in the Cyclcopaedia concluded with these words: ‘The Book of Enoch was known to exist from very ancient times, and is continually alluded to by the fathers of the Church. Bruce brought home three copies from Abyssinia.’127

This brief and familiar mention of Bruce, coupled with the fact that he had gone to such great lengths to obtain not one but three copies of the Book of Enoch, raised the possibility that he might himself have been a Freemason. If so, then a solution to all the puzzles about his evasiveness and dishonesty suggested itself. I was already convinced that he had a special interest in the Ark of the Covenant – an interest that he had been determined to conceal. Now I could see exactly how he might have acquired that interest (and why he might have wanted to keep it secret). As a Freemason – and a Scottish Freemason to boot – he could have been exposed to the Templar traditions concerning the Ark’s presence in Ethiopia.

But was Bruce a Mason? Finding the answer to this question was by no means easy. In the more than 3,000 pages of his Travels there was not a single clue that would have enabled me even to arrive at an informed opinion on the matter. Nor was any enlightenment shed by the two detailed and extensive biographies that had been written about him (the first in 1836128 and the second in 1968129).

It was not until August 1990 that I was at last able to travel to Scotland to visit Bruce’s family estate, where I hoped I might be able to obtain some definitive information. I found Kinnaird House on the outskirts of the Falkirk suburb of Larbert. Situated well back from the main road in extensive and secluded grounds, it was an imposing edifice of grey stone. After some understandable hesitation, its present owner – Mr John Findlay Russell – invited me in and showed me around. It was quite obvious from many architectural details, however, that the building did not date back to Bruce’s time.

‘That’s quite right,’ Findlay Russell agreed. ‘Kinnaird House passed out of the possession of the Bruce family in 1895 and was knocked down by its new owner, a Dr Robert Orr. He built the present mansion in 1897.’

We were standing in an immense panelled hallway directly in front of a broad stone staircase. Findlay Russell now pointed to these stairs and added proudly: ‘They’re just about the only original feature to have been preserved. Dr Orr left them in place and built his house around them. They’re of some historic significance you know.’

‘Oh, really? Why?’

‘Because James Bruce died on them. It was in 1794. He’d been giving a dinner in one of the upstairs rooms and he was escorting a guest down the stairs when he tripped and pitched over on his head. That was the end of him. A great tragedy.’

Before leaving I asked Findlay Russell if he had any idea whether Bruce might have been a Freemason or not.

‘No,’ he said. ‘No idea at all. Of course I take a great interest in him, but I wouldn’t claim to be an expert.’

I nodded, disappointed. As I was walking out of the door, however, another question occurred to me: ‘Do you happen to know where he’s buried?’

‘Larbert Old Church. You’ll have a job finding the tomb though. There used to be a great iron obelisk raised up over it, but that was pulled down some years ago because it was rusting away. It was considered a danger to the public.’

The drive to the church took only ten minutes. Locating the last resting place of one of Scotland’s greatest explorers took much longer, however.

It was a miserable, rainy afternoon and I grew more and more depressed as I hunted up and down the rows of gravestones. As a personality, there was no doubt that Bruce had had many failings. Nevertheless, I felt strongly that this brave and enigmatic man deserved some lasting monument: it seemed shameful that he should have been left to lie in a completely unmarked patch of ground.

After I had thoroughly searched the main cemetery and found nothing, I noticed a thickly overgrown area surrounded by a low stone wall set into which was a small gate. I opened this gate and then walked down a flight of three steps which led … to a rubbish tip. Piles of old clothing, discarded shoes, tin cans and bits of broken furniture lay scattered around amidst dense patches of stinging nettles and brambles. Several massive trees locked branches overhead and their intertwined leaves formed a dripping green canopy that allowed very little light to penetrate.

Cursing the swarms of midges and wasps that rose up to greet me, I proceeded to stamp down as much of the vegetation as I could. I had looked everywhere else, I reasoned, so I might as well look here too. I had almost given up hope, however, when finally, in the centre of the enclosure, I stumbled upon several solid stone slabs laid flat on the ground and completely covered with moss, lichen and vile nettles. With a sense of reverence – but also of anger – I cleared the slabs as best I could and gazed down at them. There was nothing to say that they covered Bruce’s remains but, somehow, I felt sure that they did. Involuntarily a lump rose in my throat. Here lay a man – a great man – who had preceded me to Ethiopia. Moreover, if my guess about his Masonic connections was correct, then there could be little doubt that he had gone to that far country in quest of the lost Ark. Now, however, it seemed that I might never be able to prove those connections. The only thing that was certain was that Bruce was lost himself – lost and forgotten in the land of his birth.

I stayed there for a while, thinking my gloomy thoughts. Then I left the little enclosure, not by the gate through which I had entered it but rather by clambering over the surrounding wall into a courtyard beyond. There, almost immediately, I saw something interesting: lying on its side quite close to where I stood was an enormous metal obelisk. I approached and found that James Bruce’s name was engraved upon it, together with the following epitaph:

His life was spent performing useful and splendid actions.

He explored many distant regions.

He discovered the fountains of the Nile.

He was an affectionate husband, an indulgent parent,

An ardent lover of his country.

By the unanimous voice of mankind his name is

Enrolled with those who were conspicuous

For genius, for valour, and for virtue.

What I found most exciting of all about the obelisk was that it was intact – not rusting and crumbling – and that it was covered with fresh red primer paint. Someone, clearly, was still taking an interest in the explorer – enough of an interest to have had his monument restored, though not yet set up over his grave again.

Later that afternoon I made enquiries with the church authorities and discovered the identity of the mysterious benefactor. It seemed that the obelisk had been taken away for repairs some years previously and had only been returned to Larbert the day before my own arrival. The restoration work had been organized and paid for by no lesser person than the titular head of the Bruce family in Scotland – the Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, himself a Master Mason.130

This was a promising lead and I followed it all the way to Broomhall, the beautiful estate just north of the Firth of Forth where Lord Elgin lived. I telephoned first – the Broomhall number was not ex-directory – and made an appointment for Saturday morning, 4 August.

‘I can’t give you more than about fifteen minutes,’ the earl warned.

‘Fifteen minutes will be enough,’ I replied.

Elgin turned out to be a short, stocky, elderly man with a pronounced limp (apparently the result of injuries received while a prisoner of the Japanese during the Second World War). Without much ceremony he ushered me into a splendid drawing room dominated by family portraits and suggested that I get straight to the point.

So far his manner had been a little abrupt. As we talked about Bruce, however, he softened – and it gradually became clear to me from his detailed and extensive knowledge that he had made a close study of the life of the Scottish explorer. At one stage he took me into another room and showed me several shelves filled with old and esoteric books in many different languages. ‘These were from Bruce’s personal library,’ he explained. ‘He was a man of very wide interests … I also have his telescope, his quadrant and his compass … I can look them out for you if you like.’

While all this was going on, the quarter of an hour I had been promised had turned into an hour and a half. Spellbound by Elgin’s enthusiasm, I had somehow still not managed to ask him the question that had brought me here. Now, quite suddenly, he glanced at his watch and said: ‘Gosh, look at the time. I’m afraid you’ll have to go. Things to do … I’m off to the Highlands this afternoon. Perhaps you can come back on some other occasion?’

‘Er … yes. I’d like that very much.’

At this, beaming graciously, the earl stood up. I stood too and we shook hands. I felt distinctly foolish but I was determined not to leave without satisfying my curiosity.

‘If you don’t mind,’ I said, ‘there’s one other thing I particularly wanted to ask you. It’s to do with a theory I’ve been developing about the motives that led Bruce to make his expedition to Ethiopia. Do you happen to know … er … um … I mean is there any chance, any possibility at all, that he might have been a Freemason?’

Elgin looked slightly amazed. ‘My dear boy,’ he replied. ‘Of course he was a Mason. It was a very, very important part of his life.’

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