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The Controversial Quest to Find the Ancient Ark of the Covenant

Ark of the Covenant
An illustration of what the ancient Hebrews’ Ark of the Covenant might have looked like. Credit: Photo illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos: Public domain, Ben Schumin via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.5

The quest to find the ancient Ark of the Covenant, created by the Hebrews thousands of years ago, not only rocked the archaeological world in the early 1900s but also caused so much outrage that it still reverberates around the Islamic world today.

The Ark—long considered to be the “Holy Grail” of Old Testament archaeology—was said to have been created by the Hebrews as long as 3,000 years ago. Believed to have housed the two stone slabs on which the Ten Commandments were written, it was a gold-plated wooden chest topped with two large golden angels.

Carried by two long poles that ran through metal loops, the Hebrews declared that the Jordan River itself stopped flowing when the Ark’s bearers stepped in it during their Exodus to the Promised Land.

Finding the Ark after the passage of thousands of years would be considered the ultimate archaeological discovery of all time as we have seen from the Raiders of the Lost Ark film franchise and other forays into Biblical archaeology.

What sparked the modern interest in the Ark? We may owe it to the most bizarre band of amateur archaeologists who have ever been assembled. They may have indeed created a renewed interest in recovering the precious religious relic, but they ended up angering Palestinians to such a degree that tensions were at a fever pitch in Jerusalem for years.

As reported in a recent story in Smithsonian Magazine, the Dome of the Rock, which Muslims believe was the site at which Mohammed rose to heaven, was the site where the amateur sleuths did their digging only after tricking its guards so that they would be out of the city for a few days.

A new book by journalist Andrew Lawler called Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City records the incredible antics of the group, whose 1909 to 1911 quest for the Ark reads like a plot out of the Keystone Kops if they had ever embarked on an archaeological dig.

Like the ill-fated team that uncovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun a few years later in 1922, it was led by a handsome British aristocrat. He was joined by a Swiss psychic, a Finnish poet, an English cricket champion, and an adventuring Swede who had once served as a pilot on a steamboat on the Congo River, according to the report in Smithsonian.

Needless to say, none of these gentlemen had either any training whatsoever in archaeology nor apparently in diplomacy, which they were in sore need of after they offended religious sensibilities time and again in their dig to find the Ark.

This crew of adventurers arrived in Jerusalem in 1909 at a time when it was still under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. But it wasn’t just the great religious treasure of the Ark that they were after. It was also the treasures that had been gathered by King Solomon 3,000 years ago that many believe were later hidden.

Before too long, the men had opened such a can of worms that it took Indiana Jones-like escape skills just for them to be able to leave the Holy Land in one piece.

Sadly enough, the anger and mistrust engendered by their thoughtless ransacking of the Temple Mount has echoed down to this day with periodic skirmishes taking place there periodically even now when tempers flare between Jews and Palestinians.

Juvelius and Parker
Valter Juvelius and Monagu Parker in one of the tunnels they excavated from 1909-1911. Credit: Unknown/Public Domain

Finnish scholar and poet teams up with aristocrat, assorted amateur archaeologists to find Ark, treasure

Incredibly, the saga began with a Finnish scholar, Valter Juvelius, who had published his doctoral thesis a “New Chronology of the Jews,” hinted that he had come upon a secret code that showed the way toward where the Ark had been buried.

Nothing that Juvelius left behind shows any such thing, of course, but he insisted that the treasure was located in a tunnel under Jerusalem.

By some stroke of luck, the Finnish scholar obtained an introduction to Captain Montagu (Monty) Brownlow Parker, the heir to an earldom.

Parker was intrigued, signing on to serve as the leader of the quest for the Ark and even setting up a syndicate to sell 60,000 one-pound shares to investors who he no doubt believed would profit handsomely if the treasures of Solomon were indeed found.

He used his natural charm to attract a slew of supporters, including Chicago meatpacking king J. Ogden Armour and the duchess of Marlborough, who gave Parker the equivalent of $2.4 million in today’s money for the expenses the men would need.

Parker gave estimates that the Ark, accompanied by along with the wealth of gold and silver platters, bowls and other treasures related in the Old Testament, would be worth  $200 million on the open art market, which at that time would have had few scruples in dealing in such historical objects.

Worth approximately $5.7 billion today, this made the whole venture much more than a spiritual or archaeological quest. It also appealed to the greed that is in all of us if we dig deep enough.

Ark mentioned in Books of Exodus, Chronicles

As Exodus 25:22 states: “There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the Ark of the Covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites,” God tells Moses.

After being taken out just once a year during Yom Kippur, the Ark was tragically lost at some point, perhaps when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 586 BC, sending the Hebrews into exile for many years.

The Book of Chronicles states that the invading army “carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the Lord’s temple and the treasures of the king and his officials.”

The Ark itself may indeed have been desecrated and destroyed at that time with the treasures around it carted off—or not.

According to some long-held Jewish traditions, priests secreted the Ark and its accompanying treasures under or near the Temple Mount, where they somehow survived the destruction of the great Temple and the entire city by the Romans in the year 70 AD.

Of course, the area eventually passed into the custody of Muslims, who erected the
Dome of the Rock shrine in the late 7th century on that very spot where they believe Mohammed ascended into heaven. It is the oldest extant Islamic monument of all in the world.

Ancient city of David located where team excavated

Naturally, archaeological digs under what Muslims call the “Noble Sanctuary” are completely forbidden. However, as one member of the ragtag archaeology team noted, Juvelius thought that “his rendering of the Hebrew text denoted that the Ark of the Covenant could be found by working up the hill through underground passages,” according to Lawler.

Indeed, archaeologists now state that this site, outside the Old City’s walls and south of the Mount, was where the ancient city conquered by King David after 1,000 BC was located.

True to the time period, Parker was sure to give bribes to the authorities in Istanbul, the seat of the Ottoman Empire, as part of shoring up his plans for the great adventure. He was also sure to include a stipulation that he would give half of the loot he uncovered to these Ottoman authorities.

All seemed to be clear sailing in the summer of 1909, and the team of amateur archaeologists landed in the port city of Jaffa.

After receiving criticism about the lack of professional oversight in the group, Parker finally added a French monk who was also an archaeologist to the team — although, as Lawler notes, their goal was still kept under wraps.

But that wasn’t to last for too long, as it took almost 200 laborers to excavate the passages under the ridgeline.

The French monk recorded that “We lived underground nearly the whole time it was daylight,” coming upon “dark mysterious tunnels which seemed to stretch endlessly into the very entrails of the rock.” But all the adventurers found was “some old Jewish flat lamps made of baked clay, some red pottery jars (and) a few metal sling balls.”

Ancient pottery lamps, pots uncovered

After finding no treasures of the kind they were after, the archaeologists ended their quest for that year; a smaller team returned the next summer and worked through the end of the year but still nothing was discovered.

Becoming desperate, Parker threw all caution to the wind, engaging in outright deception in a way to make sure the team would have access to the holiest site of all for Muslims, the Dome of the Rock, just to the side of the surviving Western Wall of the ancient Temple.

Bribing a local sheikh who was in charge of security there, the guards were waylaid, told that there was an Islamic festival outside town. Now free to do that they would on the site, Parker and his team dug as fast as they could for nine nights down under the platform there. Still, they found nothing.

Finally, Parker was at his wits’ end; he then made the unbelievably insensitive and rash decision to enter the cave beneath the Dome of the Rock, known as the Mosque of Omar, thinking that the Ark must be there since that was the spot where the Holy of Holies once stood before the Temple was razed for the final time.

Muslim riots in Jerusalem sowed seeds of unrest today

But his luck finally ran out. On the night of April 12, 1911, Muslim residents of Jerusalem, hearing about the desecration, rioted in the streets of the holy city, causing Parker and his cronies to hightail it back to Jaffa, where their boat was awaiting them. After tricking local Ottoman officials by more smooth talk, Parker and his pals somehow made it onto the boat and sailed away as quickly as they could from the Holy Land.

The jig was up, and headlines around the world screamed such phrases as “Gone with the Treasure that was Solomon’s” with the New York Times’ subheadline reading “English Party Vanishes on Yacht after Digging under the Mosque of Omar.”

Soon, battalions of Turkish soldiers were deployed to stamp out the unrest that was reigning in Jerusalem; the Noble Sanctuary’s sheikh who had taken the bribe and the city’s governor were duly arrested for their part in the plot.

Not only did Parker bot receive any reprimand from the British authorities for his rogue actions; he even had the temerity to return to the Holy Land just a few months later to try his hand at uncovering the treasure yet again. By that time, however, no one would take his bribes and the Ottoman Empire was at war with Italy; the untoward occurrences of 1911 faded into memory in the West except in the minds of those who were intrigued by the prospect of a professional archaeological expedition for the Ark.

However, it had long-term consequences in the East, as that part of the world tends to have a long memory. It lingered in the form of a deep distrust of archaeologists amongst many Palestinians and proved to be an event which helped create the Palestinian nationalist movement.

Of course, at the same time, more and more Jewish immigrants were arriving in Jerusalem, putting them in the crosshairs of this renewed controversy.

Immune from all the troubles he and his bumbling friends had caused, Parker ended up living his life far removed from the tumult in the Holy Land, serving in France in the First World War and then residing in a Georgian mansion near Plymouth in Devon and becoming the Fifth Earl of Morley after the death of his older brother.

Wisely enough, he never spoke or wrote about his exploits in the Holy Land until his dying day; he passed away at the age of 83 in 1962.

Andrew Lawler’s forthcoming book Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City will be published by Doubleday on November 2, 2021.

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