Arne Basilier

The connections to the United States

The famous and the no-so famous

There are many connections of the Parker expedition. The expedition was reported in US newspapers more than anywhere else and certainly the largest and most sensational reports were those which appeared in American newspapers. The coverage started as early as 1909 but was at its height after the Haram al-Sharif incident in April 1911.

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’

Many of the American newspapers that covered the story the most heavily were part of the so-called yellow press. They would carry stories under large, lurid or sensational headlines and would often incorporate graphics and images. Often, they were less interested in the truth of the story than telling an exciting one. They would often include fake interviews or information within their reports. Another innovation which they pioneered were large Sunday supplements. The best-known proprietor of such papers was William Randolph Hearst. He was one of the most significant newspaper owners of the 20th century and the inspiration for the film Citizen Kane. The Parker expedition was precisely the sort of story that Hearst’s newspapers thrived on. His first newspaper was the San Francisco Examiner. On Sunday, 28th May 1911, the Examiner included a full page about the expedition.

One of the issues with much of the coverage being in the yellow press is that much of what they reported was simple invention or exaggeration. One newspaper said that, when discovered, the robbers ‘loaded a vast amount of objects they had recovered on an armored train which was in waiting on the railroad outside Jerusalem’.

There was also a wonderfully inventive account of Ava Astor’s supposed conversation with Montagu Parker. The article suggested that if Parker found the Ark, she might agree to marry him. It quoted her as saying, ‘Well bring back the Ark and I will—talk to you again.” The yellow press were well known for inventing quotes as so this is most likely some fantastically inventive journalism. Having said that Ava Astor and Montagu Parker did know each other. She spent much time in England and he was a frequent visitor to America. Ava’s first husband was John Jacob Astor, commonly known as Jack. He was part of the immensely wealthy Astor family whose fortune was built on real estate in New York. Jack and Ava married in 1891 but after thirteen years together, their marriage was foundering. Ava spent a great deal of time in England with a country estate at Sutton Place in Surrey and a townhouse in Grosvenor Square. Jack and Ava separated and divorced in 1909. Her divorce settlement of $10 million from her husband would be worth $300m today. Ava Astor was not merely rich but was one of the most beautiful women of her age.

The Times Dispatch Nov 1912

Many newspaper reports described Parker as a favourite of hers. The American newspapers were much less circumspect than the English ones of the time and, following her separation, regularly wrote about her suitors. One article in the Oakland Tribune said of Parker:

‘His attentions during the recent visit of Mrs Astor were indefatigable, while in his company the beautiful American seemed to lose that wearied look she continually wears, and occasionally smiled, something she rarely does.

Many newspaper reports claimed that the Armour Family of Chicago, who made their fortune in meat packing, and Consuelo Vanderbilt, the Duchess of Marlborough, were investors in the expedition. Once again these stories probably started with more than a grain of truth. Parker knew and socialised with Consuelo Vanderbilt. In 1908 shortly before the expedition Consuelo travelled back from England to New York on the Cunard liner Lucania. Newspaper reports describe how Parker accompanied her as a member of her party.

The trouble with all these stories is that there is no evidence in the records of the expedition to back them up. Neither the Armour family nor Consuelo Vanderbilt are recorded as investors in the expedition. One of the expedition members later wrote about an encounter with a rich American who wanted to invest:

‘Never shall I forget the face of a noted American financier when he came to the Ritz one morning with an open cheque book, and having intimated that he wished to be in the show, was politely told that his money was not required. He had to have two cocktails before he could believe it, and even then it broke him up completely.’

The records of the expedition do show that there were two American residents who were shareholders in the expedition. They were two Finnish nationals who had emigrated to Calumet Michigan. They in fact played key roles in getting the expedition off the ground. Their names were Arne Basilier and Uno Montin and they were related. Arne Basilier had emigrated to Calumet from Finland. On a trip home to Finland in 1907 he met a Finnish biblical scholar for lunch at the elegant restaurant of the Hotel Kämp in Helsinki. Dr Valter Juvelius told Arne about his research and how he had uncovered secret cyphers in the Old Testament which showed where the Ark was hidden. However, the scholar needed investors to be able to pursue the project. Arne said that his stepfather, who was a businessman, had connections and would be a good person to raise the money. That individual was Johan Millen and he went to England and there met Montagu Parker and the rest, as they say, is history.

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The connections to Finland

Biblical scholars and poets

Finland played a pivotal role in the Parker expedition from the start with Valter Juvelius to the less well known role of Pertti Uotila.

Valter Juvelius

Valter Henrik Juvelius was Finnish. He was born in 1865 in Pyhäjoki on the Baltic coast of northern Finland. After finishing school, Juvelius took up his father’s profession and worked as a surveyor for many years. A few years before the expedition he gave this up and studied for a doctorate at the Finnish Imperial University. While studying for his doctorate, Juvelius became interested in kabbalist ideas that there were hidden messages within the Old Testament text. His thesis was not directly about the existence of the cypher but it was closely related. It covered the time of the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the exile in Babylon. It was during this period that he said he discovered the hidden cyphers. Juvelius submitted his thesis in 1907 and, after completing his doctorate, became the head of a Workers Education College.

Juvelius’ other great passion was poetry and the Finnish language. He wrote poetry in Finnish. His most famous poem Karjalan Kunnailla (‘O Hills of Karelia’) is still well known in his home country. He also translated many foreign poets and authors into Finnish including Goethe, Burns and Byron. At the start of the 20th century he lived in Viipuri. The town is close to Saint Petersburg, is now known as Vyborg, and has become part of the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation.

Juvelius said that during his studies he discovered the secret cyphers in the Old Testament. The cypher or, more accurately, the cyphers that Juvelius claimed to have discovered were based on the number seven. This number is highly significant in the Bible, as it is considered a holy number, reflecting perfection. He documented cyphers in the book of Ezekiel, the book of Deuteronomy, the book of Leviticus and finally the Wisdom of Sirach.

The cyphers only work in the language the text was first written in. Hence the emphasis that it was from an old unvowelled version of the books of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. Biblical Hebrew is different from the Hebrew in general usage today. One of the critical differences to modern Hebrew is that the alphabet only has 22 letters. It does not contain any vowels. These have to be inferred or vocalised from the text and context of the word. It is not certain where Juvelius found his unvowelled Bible. An expedition member told Rudyard Kipling that Juvelius found the cypher in a document in Saint Petersburg. As we know, Juvelius lived within the Russian Empire and Saint Petersburg is less than 100 miles from his home. The Saint Petersburg Imperial Library contained two of the oldest Hebrew Bible manuscripts in the world: the Codex Babylonicus Petropolitanus and the Leningrad Codex. Both contain the book of Ezekiel.

In late 1907 Juvelius finished documenting the cyphers.  The hidden cyphers were a series of cryptic statements which Juvelius interpreted to say where he believed the Ark was hidden. He concluded his findings by saying,

‘To find the Jews’ temple archives would be an enormous gain for science (and) it might be worth while to fit out an expedition to find the archive.’

The question for Juvelius was how to achieve this. He could not fund the expedition himself and he had no contacts in Constantinople. While he was trying to work out what to do he met an old friend in Helsinki. Pertti Uotila was fifteen years younger than Juvelius. Their families were friends and Juvelius had known Uotila since the younger man was a child. Uotila’s father was a landowner, lawyer and professor at Helsinki University. He was also a poet and translator. Pertti was his eldest son and was born in 1880. Despite the age gap, Uotila and Juvelius became good friends. They shared a common interest in the Finnish language. Pertti Uotila was a poet, like both his father and Juvelius. He also worked as a journalist.

The two friends met for a meal in the elegant restaurant of the Hotel Kämp in Helsinki. Uotila brought along a friend of his, Arne Basilier. He was Finnish but had been working as a chemist in America. Over the meal, Juvelius told them about his discoveries. Uotila was interested in helping his friend secure funding to test his theories. Basilier told Juvelius he knew someone who could help. He suggested involving his stepfather, Johan Millen. So started the process which led to the Parker expedition.

Pertti Uotila

Pertti Uotila was known by different names during his life, including Bertil Oskar Lemmitty Favén, Pertti Faven, Bertil Faven and Oskar Nevanlinna. As well as helping to introduce Juvelius to Millen, Uotila was a participant and investor in the project. As a young man, Uotila was a socialist, and in 1905 he helped translate the hymn of the left, the Internationale, into Finnish. Pertti’s younger brother was Antti Favén a painter who had studied in France and became a well-known Finnish impressionist artist.

Uotila accompanied Juvelius on the expedition to Jerusalem and ended up spending much more time than his friend in the city. Juvelius had to leave Jerusalem at the end of 1909 and he was now restricted to a remote role. Pertti Uotila agreed to stay in Jerusalem to represent him. He stayed there till the end of the expedition.

When he left for Jerusalem, he had recently sold his family estate, including agricultural land and forests. He had capital and invested some of this in the exploration company. When he finally returned home he was close to bankruptcy and divorced. Soon after, he too joined up to fight in the First World War. As Finland was part of the Russian Empire, he became an officer in the Russian Imperial Cavalry. He fought in the disastrous Russian campaigns against Germany. The losses the Russians suffered were significant contributory factors to the two revolutions in 1917, which saw first the Tsar overthrown and then the Bolsheviks seize power. Finland took advantage of the instability and declared independence from Russia. This led to a bloody civil war in Finland, with Red versus White. As with most civil wars, it was brutal, with atrocities committed by both sides. The war also drew in the Bolsheviks, the Germans and the Allies. Despite his youthful socialism, Uotila fought for the right-wing Whites, who eventually proved victorious. After the Finnish Civil War, Uotila fought against Bolshevik Russia for several more years in the so-called Tribal Wars.

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