Raiders of the Hidden Ark by Graham Addison
Any similarities with the title of a well-known film should be dismissed immediately. This book is all fact, and the stories of each member of The Parker Expedition to Jerusalem. This book is a detailed investigation into each member of an expedition which spanned several years, what motivated them separately and collectively, and some of the challenges that the project faced. It looks at the political upheavals that they had to contend with, as well as the effects of their excavations in Jerusalem, always a place of strife and no more so than in the twentieth century. It examines the life of each man who was involved before, during and after the expedition’s active years, as well as their family backgrounds. One commentator announced that “they were just young men with more money than brains” but the fact remains that Parker gathered men who agreed to journey to Jerusalem and stay there for extended periods of physical labour, as well as put money into the venture.
The inspiration for the expedition was the discovery of some “Secret Cyphers” in the books of the Old Testament by a Swedish scholar, Valer Henrik Juvelius in about 1910.The Biblical text in the original languages gives some hints about the fate of the Ark – a sort of box made with great ceremony that was central to Jewish worship. Various stories about the temple of Solomon and its destruction suggested to Juvelius that the Ark was taken away and hidden before the building was attacked. Juvelius claimed that by the application of numbers and other hints he had identified the most likely place in which to find the precious box. The story of how a group of men was assembled, the finance to cover the trip, the permission to excavate gained and some of the challenges makes for a fascinating account. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this well researched and written book.
The style of the writing is deeply discursive. The background of each man is offered, with Addison pointing out many similarities between them; that they mainly did not take on the adventure for money as they came from relatively wealthy families, they were mostly younger sons who could not be expected to inherit the title or bulk of the family fortune. Nevertheless, in the early part of the twentieth century they were not expected to earn a living or to engage in business or trade. They could serve in the armed forces, where they would need to be of independent means to buy and support a commission, but in the absence of war they were seeking adventure. Some of the expedition party were wealthy enough, such as Wilson, to invest heavily in shares of the project’s funding. It was agreed that each person would contribute a certain amount of money in the hopes of receiving a similar percentage of profits from the discoveries which were expected to represent a massive amount of money. Addison has carefully translated many amounts into 2021 values, so that the reader can understand the formidable sums involved. In pointing this out, he suggests that the money spent would have included substantial amounts for bribing officials and others to permit the excavations to proceed. The Ottoman Empire held Jerusalem in the first years of the twentieth century, but it was a volatile place where three major religions had interests and property. Work in the area was never straightforward even before any digging began. The site on which the search centered was criss-crossed by tunnels, each of which had to be excavated by hand. One of the benefits provided by the search was the full employment of local labour and even the improvement of a water supply.
Addison points out in his Preface “At the risk of ruining the ending I can confirm they failed to find the Ark”. The strength of this book is the commitment to tracing the stories of the people who were brought together in a quest for a legendary object. After the expedition broke up and the First World War erupted, there were men who fought and died on the battlefields of France as officers who suffered the greatest loss as a class. This is not a book of maps and plans, facts and figures and a dry narrative, but a lively and personal account that details such events as a disastrous procession in full military uniform. Having said that there is a comprehensive table of Investors in the project, a Bibliography, a list of Illustrations, Notes and a detailed Index. This book provides human interest and an academic basis for studying a fascinating series of events in the early twentieth century, and I recommend it as an impressive book.