Montagu Parker

The connections to the UK

Floreat Etona

The connections to the UK were very strong.  The bulk of the expedition party came from the United Kingdom, the syndicate was formed in London and the company which was later set up to manage the expedition was also founded in London.

The expedition members from the UK were born into families with wealth and status at the centre of the British upper classes. Most had also been educated at Eton College. Eton College was the most prestigious. King Henry VI founded the College in the 15th century. His 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. At the College they learned this role and to rule their estates and the Empire. A contemporary of Parker’s at Eton wrote:

‘Etonians imbibe a certain sense of the effortless superiority which haunts every imperial race. To be an Etonian seems better than to become great or successful. Boys are lulled into a sense of unassailable primacy which they extend later to the Empire.”

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”

Eton School Uniform in the late 19th Century

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.

Several of the Englishmen who took part in the Parker expedition joined elite military units after Eton. these included the Grenadier Guards, the Horse Guards and the Life Guards. Several of them served in South Africa during the Second Boer War. In the years before the expedition the army careers of many of the individuals were petering out and they needed something else to do.  The expedition provided a perfect opportunity.

Other geographical connections

The connections to Turkey

The mapping tool has current countries and not those that existed just over a century ago. So the title is somewhat misleading as Turkey did not exist as a country at the time of the expedition and so the connections of the expedition were really with the Ottoman Empire which was ruled from Constantinople, the modern-day Istanbul. The expedition to Jerusalem was to a city which was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. However, this post will focus on the connections to the Ottoman Imperial government. The connections to Jerusalem and other parts of what was Palestine will be dealt with in a separate post about connections to Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

The Sublime Porte

In November 1908 the syndicate sent a small party to Jerusalem to explore Juvelius’ cyphers. The three individuals in the party were Parker, Hoppenrath and Juvelius. After they left Jerusalem Parker went to Constantinople. He installed himself in the best hotel in the city, the Pera Palace Hotel. The hotel was built at the end of the 19th century for passengers arriving on the recently completed Orient Express. It was the first hotel in the city to have electricity, running water in all rooms and an electric lift. Years later, Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express there. When he arrived, Parker sent a letter to Ziya Pasha, the Ottoman finance minister, saying that, following long research, he believed he had found a ‘very important treasure within the Ottoman Empire’. He wrote in French as this was the language of diplomacy at the time. Parker unashamedly used 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.


1908 was a challenging time to negotiate an agreement with the Ottoman authorities as it was a time of great upheaval in the Empire. A hereditary dynasty of sultans had run the Empire for centuries. The sultan was Abdul Hamid II, who had ruled since 1876. During his reign, the Ottoman Empire had contracted and had lost significant amounts of territory. The Ottoman government struggled with the level of national debt and there was great unrest about the resulting level of taxation. There was also a sense that the Ottoman Empire was slipping further behind Europe. The discontent prompted challenges to the centuries-old system of rule. The Young Turk revolution broke out, led by elements in the military. In the summer of 1908, they forced the sultan to give up absolute power and become a constitutional monarch. The sultan reinstated the 1876 constitution and Parliament. None of this upheaval stopped Parker. He was successful in his negotiations with the authorities in Constantinople. On the 26th November 1908 he signed two agreements with the Ottoman Imperial government. Ziya Pasha, the finance minister, signed on behalf of the Ottoman government and Parker signed the contracts as a resident of the Turf Club, Clarges Street, London.

The two contracts Parker signed were in Turkish and French, the latter still the international language of diplomacy. The first contract dealt with the purchase of the land for the excavations. The syndicate would pay the Ottoman government to purchase or expropriate the land required. They would have exclusive use of the land for the period of the excavations and then hand it back at the end. The second contract had twelve key clauses detailing the close collaboration between the expedition and the Ottoman authorities. All the costs of the excavations would be paid by the syndicate. The Ottoman authorities would provide ‘the military force necessary’ for Parker’s and his workers’ safety, the cost of which would be met by the syndicate. The Jerusalem governor was also required to ‘help facilitate through all means the task of the Hon. M. Parker’. The contract specified the Imperial Ottoman government and syndicate would split the fruits of the excavations.

The contract also provided that the Ottoman Imperial government could appoint two commissioners to oversee the work. the two commissioners appointed were Abdulaziz Mecdi Efendi and Habip Bey. They were both members of the Ottoman Parliament and were happy to accept the generous salary and easy life.

Because of the Ottoman regime’s instability, Parker had to negotiate with a succession of prime ministers and ministers in Constantinople. He secured unprecedented cooperation from the Ottoman Empire, probably helped by some generous bribery. Parker had to negotiate annual extensions to the contract. The last one allowed them to dig in 1911.

Djavid Bey

After the 1911 Haram al-Sharif incident the Ottoman Imperial government instituted a major inquiry into what had happened and this reported to the Ottoman Parliament. The ministers of war, interior and justice jointly agreed to set up just such an inquiry. They appointed a high-level group from around the Empire. It began its work on 30th April. Officials went to Jerusalem to interview all concerned and establish the facts of what had happened. A week later, on the 8th May, the Ottoman Parliament held an emergency debate on the Haram al-Sharif incident. Two notables, who were the representatives from Jerusalem, attacked both the Jerusalem governor and the Imperial Ottoman authorities. Ruhi al-Khalidi made a harsh, at times sarcastic speech. He said that the issue was a mysterious one which started like a tale from One Thousand and One Nights or Alexander Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo.

At the same time as the inquiry was going on Parker was in Constantinople negotiating that the expedition could return to Jerusalem to resume their work. The Ottoman government agreed to this.

Other geographical connections

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.

Other geographical connections

The connections to India

A sick leave and an investigation

There are a couple of connections of the Parker expedition to India.

Montagu Parker

In 1906 Montagu Parker was serving with the Grenadier Guards but all was not well. He was suffering because of his service in the Boer War. In 1906 he took sick leave from the army. He was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia due to ‘exposure and the hardships of active service during the South African campaign’.84 His symptoms included insomnia, fevers and digestive problems. Neurasthenia was a recognised condition in the British armed forces from the late 19th century until the end of the First World War. During this period, the British army also used the term shell shock to describe the same symptoms. However, shell shock was diagnosed in other ranks, and neurasthenia was generally diagnosed only for officers. Today we would say that Parker had post-traumatic stress disorder. The remedy which the doctors agreed on was that he should take an extended leave from England and spend this ‘in the East or on a long sea voyage.’ Parker did this and circumnavigated the world, spending a good amount of time in India.  He spent time in Simla.

Headline in San Francisco Chronicle from Sep 1907

All-India Sufi Conference

Following the Haram al-Sharif incident in 1911 there was a great deal of anger against the expedition.  On the 26th August 1911, Sir Gerard Lowther (the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire) wrote to the Foreign Secretary in London about the trials in Beirut resulting from the Haram incident. He also reported that the consul in Beirut had received a visit from the Secretary of the influential All-India Sufi Conference. The conference had delegated the Secretary to travel from India to Jerusalem to investigate the alleged theft of ‘ancient moslem relics’.

Other geographical connections

The connections to Libya

Gun-running in the Italo-Turkish War

Libya is a modern country and so the connections are to the area which is now known as Libya. At the start of the expedition the area was a part of the Ottoman Empire.

On the 26th September 1911, the Italian government sent an ultimatum to the Ottoman government, demanding they hand over Libya. The Austrians persuaded the Ottomans to offer the Italians essentially the same arrangement as Britain enjoyed in Egypt but Italy refused to accept the offer. Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire and an invasion fleet headed to North Africa.

At the very same time the Parker expedition was sailing across the Mediterranean on Clarence Wilson’s yacht The Dorothy to try and return to Jerusalem. They may well have seen the Italian fleet heading for North Africa.

The expedition was stopped at Jaffa and could not return to Jerusalem so they headed to Egypt while they tried to negotiate their return.

The Italians had quickly captured Tripoli but were having difficulty extending their control beyond the principal cities and a narrow coastal strip. The Ottoman forces increasingly fought a guerrilla war against the Italians. Britain was officially neutral and would not let arms be transmitted from Egypt to neighbouring Ottoman forces. However, this did not stop weapons and soldiers from getting across by land and sea.

Italian infantry entrenched near Tripoli

The Italians tried to stop this smuggling at sea, and they captured several ships bringing weapons. Parker, bored with waiting in Egypt, borrowed Wilson’s yacht. The Dorothy sailed into the war zone on the Tripoli coastline, proudly flying the Royal Yacht Squadron flag. Parker passed through the Italian naval vessels without challenge. He did not restrict himself to just cruising along the coastline to observe any action. Parker took part in running guns to the Ottoman forces using the perfect cover. In the following months, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire wrote several communique to the Foreign Office about Parker. He described him as a not very reliable person:

“I am afraid that young Parker is engaged in a fresh gun-running or money running expedition. It is not very nice to think that a yacht that carries the white ensign should be thus employed, and I think that the R.Y.S. would be much annoyed if they knew it. ”

Other geographical connections

The connections to South Africa

The Jameson Raid and the Boer War

It is not an exaggeration to say that the core of the Parker expedition was formed in South Africa during the Second Boer War.

Cyril Foley

Cyril Foley was well known within cricket but it was through another ill-fated adventure that he became famous. In 1895, Foley took part in the Jameson Raid in which a heavily armed group of 600 British-led men invaded the Transvaal. The raid’s backers wanted the province to become part of the British Empire and hoped to support a revolt in the Transvaal against the Dutch-speaking Boer government. Foley was invited to join the Raid by Dr Leander Jameson. The operation turned out to be a disaster. The planned uprising in Johannesburg never took place as the ‘Boers were already becoming suspicious that something was afoot’. As a result of his involvement, Foley gained the nickname of the Raider. He later served in the Royal Scots during the resulting war.

Montagu Parker

After leaving Eton College Montagu Parker joined the army. He quickly transferred to join the elite Grenadier Guards. A few months later, in March 1900, Parker sailed with a contingent of the Grenadier and Scots Guards to South Africa and the Second Boer War. He was twenty-one years of age and one of the youngest officers in the Grenadier Guards. Before they sailed, Queen Victoria inspected the regiment at Buckingham Palace, with the officers being presented individually to the Queen. They headed to a war in which the British Army had suffered a series of humiliating reverses at the hands of the Boers. Cyril Foley, Clarence and Gordon Wilson, who later joined the Parker expedition, also served in the Second Boer War. These connections were further bonds that helped bring these men together for the expedition to Jerusalem.

Montagu Parker was wounded at the battle of  Thaba ‘Nchu. Thaba ‘Nchu means Black Mountain in the Tswana language. The battlefield was mountainous terrain, roasting during the day and freezing at night.

The Wilson brothers

At the start of the Second Boer War, Clarence’s eldest brother Gordon was already out in South Africa. In January 1900 the three other Wilson brothers, Clarence, Wilfred and Herbert, all volunteered for active service. Clarence served in the Westmoreland and Cumberland Regiment of the Imperial Yeomanry. They were a volunteer mounted force raised to fight in the Boer War. Clarence was wounded twice in early 1900, the second time so severely that he was invalided back from South Africa. In February 1901 his brother Wilfred was mortally wounded in an attack on Boer positions at Hartebeestfontein in the Transvaal.

It was not just the brothers who went to South Africa. One of Clarence’s sisters went and his sister-in-law, Lady Sarah, was already there. When it became apparent war was coming, Gordon Wilson was appointed as aide-de-camp to Colonel Baden-Powell. Baden-Powell was in Mafeking. Lady Sarah initially remained in the town with her husband.

Other geographical connections

On 24th September 1909

The Hon. Montagu Parker and Robin Duff returned to Jerusalem accompanied by Cyril Ward. They were excited to hear about how Clarence Wilson and Cyril Foley had climbed the Dragon Shaft and rushed off to try it themselves. They returned in shock. Ward had been violently sick when he reached the top and said that he would rather suffer H.M.S. Victoria’s sinking again than repeat the climb. Ward had nearly drowned in one of the worst self inflicted disasters of the Royal Navy. At one point the climbing, Duff thought the rope was slipping and he was falling to his death. Thoughts of his wife flashed through his head. For sporty young men, who had fought in the military, these adventures were part of the expedition’s attraction.

Five years later on the 24th September 1914 Robin Duff’s father died and he became the 2nd Baronet of Vaynol. He attended his father’s funeral in uniform having rejoined the Life Guards at the outbreak of war. Sadly he was not to enjoy the title for long.

On 30th August 1909

After about a month’s work, Montagu Parker and Robin Duff returned to England for a few weeks. Of the English contingent Clarence Wilson, Cyril Foley and the Pearsons engineer Mr Walsh, remained in Jerusalem. On the 30th August, Foley and Walsh explored the Dragon’s Shaft, which connects to Warren’s Shaft. They believed this might well be the perpendicular passage to which the cyphers referred so frequently. As it was some distance into the tunnel, they could only bring short ladders to the bottom of the shaft. There they lashed seven six-feet ladders together. They did this by candlelight, standing in water. Then they tossed a coin to see who would have the dubious privilege of ascending first and the engineer Walsh lost, so he climbed the ladders. Foley watched Walsh disappear into the dark and stepped back so that anything or anyone falling would not hit him. Twenty minutes later, Walsh descended and informed Foley:

“I’ve had rather an exciting time. There’s a slope of rock at the top of the shaft, and I got onto it, but it was so slippery I slid back, and if I had not luckily struck the top of the ladder you would have seen me sooner.”

Foley decided to look for himself and he climbed up. At the top, the ladder was not resting on anything as the shaft sloped away at a forty-five degree angle. He could see a large domed roof above him. To his right was a steep passageway filled with boulders approached by a slope ‘as slippery as ice’. He was contemplating that only he, Walsh, Charles Warren and Sergeant Birtles had seen this spot in 1,800 years when:

“I heard a movement away up the passage and, to my intense horror, something came rushing down it with a speed of thought. Before I could move a dreadful shape hit me full on the shoulder knocking the candle out of my hand and leaving me in opaque darkness. Being deprived of all volition through sheer terror, I mechanically beat all records down the ladder”

Once he had composed himself, he realised a bat had flown into him, drawn by the light from his candle. After seven hours in the tunnel, Foley and Walsh decided they had earned dinner.