How a group of aristocratic Englishmen educated at Eton went in search of the Ark of the Covenant

Raiders of the Hidden Ark

In 1911 newspapers in the US, UK and around the world reported on an explosive story following riots and disorder in Jerusalem:

  • ‘Have Englishmen Found the Ark of the Covenant?’ – New York Times 7th May 1911
  • ‘Englishmen Are Said To Have Looted the Sacred Mosque at Jerusalem’ – Chicago Tribune 4th May 1911
  • ‘A Treasure Hunt in Jerusalem. British Explorers’ Alleged Sacrilege’ – The Guardian 4th May 1911

The majority of the members of the expedition were educated at Eton College including the leader of the expedition, the Hon. Montagu Parker, later 5th Earl of Morley. King Henry VI founded the College in the 15th century. The King’s goal for the College was to educate poor children around Windsor Castle, the king’s principal residence. However, over the years, the College changed its role. Its purpose became, and in no small degree still is, to create the next generation of English gentlemen. Eton was and still is a school for those who came from power and money and who assume, generally correctly, that this situation will continue. Most Etonian schoolboys have traditionally known that their academic achievements or otherwise at the College were not the prime drivers of their future. Over the centuries many boys have realised that there was no absolute necessity for them to work hard.

The network of connections the boys made while they there were at Eton was paramount to their futures. They formed many of these connections through the various sports they played. Many at the College reserved the greatest passion and effort for sport. These included cricket, football, rowing and the sport peculiar to Eton, the Wall Game. The formative experience for young English gentlemen who attended Eton is neatly summed up in the words of sixth stanza of the school song, the Eton Boating Song:

‘Harrow may be more clever, Rugby may make more row, But we’ll row forever, Steady from stroke to bow,
And nothing in life shall sever, the chain that is round us now, And nothing in life shall sever, the chain that is round us now’

These chains or bonds holding old Etonians together were clear in the Parker expedition. Four of the initial members of the expedition attended Eton. Besides Montagu Parker, there was Cyril Foley, Clarence Wilson and Robin Duff. They were all upper-class young men. One other common factor was they were mostly younger sons, not necessarily destined to inherit their father’s titles. Montagu Parker was the second son of an earl. Cyril Foley was the second son of a general and the grandson of a baron. Clarence Wilson was the third son of a rich, knighted member of parliament. For such men, not meant to inherit their family estate and title, the question was what they did with their lives. Robin Duff was an exception, as he was a first son.

The full story of the expedition which is told in full for the first time in English includes a deadly curse, bribery, betrayal, gun-running, riots, madness, bankruptcy and more. It sounds unbelievable; Downton Abbey meets Indiana Jones meets Dan Brown. But the Parker expedition is real. Rudyard Kipling on hearing an account from a participant wrote: ‘Talk of fiction! Fiction isn’t in it’.

The author Lady Selina Hastings wrote, ‘This is the story of a remarkable adventure, exciting, harrowing, beautifully written and thoroughly researched. Graham Addison displays not only an acute understanding of period and location but also of the levels of society in which his fascinatingly complex characters were part. His account of this extraordinary undertaking, and for many its tragic aftermath, is a truly impressive undertaking.’ 

The expedition started in 1908, when a Finnish scholar convinced a group of young Englishmen from wealthy and titled families he had uncovered secret cyphers in the Bible showing where the Ark was hidden. They were educated at Eton, had fought in elite units of the British military and socialised with European royalty and rich Americans. One had thwarted an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria when he was a schoolboy. Another had taken part in the infamous Jameson Raid which helped trigger the Boer War. Most of the funding came from the family of one of the richest men to have ever lived in Australia. They headed for Jerusalem on a private yacht to dig for the Ark. With them were a Swiss psychic, a Finnish socialist poet, and a Swedish captain who had experienced the darkest heart of colonial madness in the Belgian Congo.

The Parker expedition unwittingly ‘scattered sparks in the religious tinder-heap’ that is Jerusalem. Its impact still has echoes today.

The New York Times was one of the first US newspapers to cover the incident and its aftermath. On 4th May 1911, the paper carried a report headlined ‘Fears Diggers Took Ark of Covenant’. Three days later, they ran a double-page spread headlined ‘Have Englishmen Found the Ark of the Covenant?’ and a sub-heading of:

‘A Mysterious Expedition, Apparently Not Composed of Archaeologists, Hunts Strange Treasure Under the Mosque of Omar, Sets the Moslems in a Ferment, and May Cause Diplomatic Incident’

The mystery surrounding the Ark of the Covenant’s location is one of the world’s greatest and most enduring. One of the Bible’s most sacred and powerful objects has not been seen for over 2,500 years. The missing Ark has inspired many quests and even a famous film.

Raiders of the Hidden Ark tells how the Parker expedition believed that they had solved the puzzle of where the Ark was hidden. The secret cyphers which the expedition was based on said it was hidden in tunnels just outside Jerusalem. 

The cyphers also said that the Ark was protected in many ways to stop individuals accessing it. The Ark was protected by deadly radioactive radium and boobytraps. It was also protected by a deadly curse.  This was not a curse like Tutenkhamen’s which was invented by a newspaper after the event.  The Finnish biblical scholar Juvelius informed the expedition members that any person who attempted to disclose the secret chamber containing the Ark would be cursed ‘sixty and six fold’. Raiders of the Hidden Ark reveals for the first time the fate of those who went on the expedition. 

It was often not a happy one. Within a few years, one was mad, three were dead, two were bankrupt, one divorced and another deported.

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