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Book Reviews

The Sign And The Seal – Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant by Graham Hancock (1992)

The fate of the Lost Ark of the Covenant is one of the great historical mysteries of all time. To believers, the Ark is the legendary vessel holding the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Bible contains hundreds of references to the Ark’s power to level mountains, destroy armies, and lay waste to cities. The Ark itself, however, mysteriously disappears from recorded history sometime after the building of the Temple of Solomon. After ten years of searching through the dusty archives of Europe and the Middle East, as well as braving the real-life dangers of a bloody civil war in Ethiopia, Graham Hancock has succeeded where scores of others have failed. This intrepid journalist has tracked down the true story behind the myths and legends-revealing where the Ark is today, how it got there, and why it remains hidden. Part fascinating scholarship and part entertaining adventure yarn, tying together some of the most intriguing tales of all time-from the Knights Templar and Prester John to Parsival and the Holy Grail-this book will appeal to anyone fascinated by the revelation of hidden truths and the discovery of secret mysteries.

When I started reading this book I was highly skeptical of what “proof” it could bring to the story behind one of Christianity’s most sought after relics. Starting his search in Africa, Graham Hancock researches through mountains of information, some well known, some mystical, some plain made-believe.

Hancock was the East African correspondent for The Economist until he began to write freelance in the early 1980’s, when he became familiar with Ethiopian culture and politics. Part of this culture is the fervent belief that the Ark of the Covenant– yes, THAT Ark of the Covenant–is kept even today under guard in the town of Axum. The story goes that the Ark was transported to Ethiopia during the time of Solomon, who had a son with the Queen of Sheba (whom the legend asserts was Ethiopian). This son went to visit Solomon, and made off with the Ark, transporting it to secrecy and safety in Northern Africa.

When it comes to the historical tid-bits, the data is documented but still quite dry – even for the audiobook version I had.

“I knew that the first Europeans to arrive in Ethiopia had addressed the monarchs of that country as ‘Prester John.’ This use of the sacred relic as a war palladium – and as an effective one at that – was not, according to Archpriest Solomon [Gabre Selassie, Head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Britain], just something that had happened in Ethiopia’s distant past. On the contrary: ‘As recently as 1896 when the King of Kings Menelik the Second fought against the Italian aggressors at the battle of Adowa in Tigray region, the priests carried the Ark of the Covenant into the field to confront the invaders. As a result of this, Menelik was very victorious and returned to Addis Abada in great honour.’

I re-read this part of the reply with considerable interest because I knew that Menelik II had indeed been ‘very victorious’ in 1896. In that year, under the command of General Baratieri, 17,700 Italian troops equipped with heavy artillery and the latest weapons had marched up into the Abyssinian highlands from the Eritrean coastal strip intent on colonizing the whole country. Menelik’s forces, though ill prepared and less well armed, had met them at Adowa on the morning of 1 March, winning in less than six hours what one historian had subsequently described as ‘the most notable victory of an African over a European army since the time of Hannibal.’ In a similar tone, the London Spectator of 7 March 1896 commented: ‘The Italians have suffered a great disaster… greater than has ever occurred to white men in Africa.”

The best parts of this book, the parts which make it feel like a researcher’s detective novel, are Hancock’s rexamination of the facts known: the Knights Templar involvement in Jerusalem during the Crusades: the Falusha, a peculiar isolated Jewish tribe of Ethiopia; the establishment of a Jewish temple on an island in the Nile which may have been a stopping point for the Ark; the convergence of the Ark and the Holy Grail in medieval literature; etc. It’s fascinating to see how Hancock pulls the pieces together, and at least opens some reasonable questions about the veracity of the legend.

The worst parts of the book, though, threaten to undermine a lot of the solid foundations Hancock lays. Two specific points come to mind: the time when, near the end of his journey, he makes a terribly irresponsible disclaimer– that he doesn’t care how the academics and scholars reply to his work. In other words, he won’t accept scholarly inquiry or verification of his work, although he generously provides a very long bibliography. The second glaring fault, though, seems to justify his nervousness: a long passage in the middle of the book arguing that much of the advanced knowledge necessary to create an object as powerful as the Ark depicted in the Old Testament must have been derived from an ancient, unknown, and long disappeared civilization– Atlantis.