The Ottoman Empire and a 'very important treasure'

Read how a group of English aristocrats persuaded the Ottoman Imperial government to allow it to dig in Jerusalem for the Ark of the Covenant

In 1911 newspapers newspapers around the world reported on an explosive story following riots and disorder in Jerusalem after an expedition was found digging in the Dome of the Rock 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

In Constantinople the government set up an inquiry and there was a Parliamentary debate. Yet the Imperial government and the Jerusalem authorities were fully aware of the expedition and had given it unique support and blessing. The origins started three years before.

In 1908 the Ottoman Empire was consumed by revolution in an attempt to end the decline it had suffered over decades. Into this revolutionary mix sailed the Honourable Montagu Parker. He was the second son of the 3rd Earl of Morley. Parker sent a letter to the Ottoman finance minister, signing himself a Grenadier Guards officer, resident at the Turf Club, Piccadilly, London. He wrote, ‘I believe I have discovered a very important treasure in the Ottoman Empire’.   The difference between the state of the Ottoman Empire and the British Empire could not have seemed starker. The Ottoman Empire was consumed by revolution in an attempt to arrest its decline. By contrast, the United Kingdom was the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth, commanding the largest empire ever seen. At the start of the Edwardian era, the British Crown ruled over almost a quarter of the world’s population. 

When he arrived in Constantinople, Parker sent a letter to Ziya Pasha, the Ottoman finance minister unashamedly using all devices to get the Ottoman authorities to take his approach seriously. He used his military rank and position and signed the letter as the Honourable Captain Parker of the Grenadier Guards. He also played up his British establishment connections. His father had been a government minister and his elder brother was a member of the House of Lords.

Within two weeks he had signed contracts with the Ottoman Imperial Government allowing his syndicate to dig in Jerusalem protected by Ottoman troops. Throughout the expedition the syndicate were supported and protected by the Ottoman authorities.

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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