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A Real Life Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark.

The Lost Ark of the Covenant: Solving the 2,500 Year Old Mystery of the Fabled Biblical Ark By Tudor Parfitt Harper One, San Francisco, 2008, $25.95, pp.384


Like the quest for the Holy Grail--the cup from which Jesus is said to have sipped at the Last Supper--the search for the lost Ark of the Covenant has inspired scholars and adventurers since it vanished following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 587 BC. Accounts differ, but reports in Arabic and various texts suggested that the Israelites still marched with the Ark at the head of their armies long after its putative disappearance. The legend is that as long as they possessed the Ark, which held the original tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, they could not be vanquished. It was a treasure indeed worth having.

Popular interest in the search for the Ark was most recently revived by the Steven Spielberg blockbuster movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, whose hero may have been loosely based on real American adventurer Vendyl Jones. Hyperbolic and fantastic as the film and its sequels seemed, the actual search for the Ark has led a number of archaeologists and adventurers into feats of extraordinary foolhardiness and ambition. The Knights Templar conducted extensive excavation of the Temple Mount during the Crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries.

Now Tudor Parfitt--professor of Jewish studies at London's School of Oriental and African Studies and a fellow at the Oxford Centre of Hebrew and Jewish Studies as well as at Harvard--has joined the quest. He comes armed with passion, curiosity, fine wit and a story-telling style that makes this enormously erudite book irresistible to any reader with an ounce of romance in his or her soul.

Parfitt has been tracking the lost tribes of Israel for more than two decades and became interested in the fabled Ark in 1987 while living with the Lemba tribe in Zimbabwe. Claiming descent from the Israelites, the Lemba captivated Parfitt with their dignity, rituals and dancing. He was particularly intrigued by their most sacred object, the ngoma lungundu, which they imbued with secrecy, mystery and supernatural power. Like the Ark, the ngoma was carried into battle on the shoulders of tribal priests as a guarantor of victory; it was never allowed to touch the ground, and was regarded as both highly dangerous and divine. According to the Lemba, it destroyed anyone who touched it except for members of the priestly Buba caste.

Parfitt was struck by resemblances to biblical descriptions of the powers and properties of the Ark, but as a scholar he dismissed them as " interesting comparison, but no more than that," because of significant differences. The Ark, according to biblical accounts, was

a wooden chest decorated with gold and cherubim that contained the original commandments and, in some accounts, Aaron's rod, or wand. The ngoma, on the other hand, was a wooden drum, and while the Lemba insisted that sacred objects were carried within it, they refused to reveal what these were or where the ngoma itself might be found. Nevertheless, they insisted that it was a powerful weapon that terrified their enemies.

Five years later in Jerusalem, the saga of the Ark and its whereabouts took a new turn when Parfitt encountered Reuven ben Arieh, a financier, diamond merchant and Holocaust survivor who had given himself a sacred mission: nothing less than to end anti-Semitism once and for all. His solution? Find the Ark of the Covenant, return it to Jerusalem and place it in a newly constructed Third Temple. Ben Arieh had come across a passage in the Koran, which read, "Muhammed considered the restoration of the Ark to the Jews to be a sign of the kingship of Solomon." He therefore believed contemporary Muslims would accept the restored Ark as a convincing sign of Israel's political legitimacy.

While attracted to the idea of peace in the Middle East, Parfitt had doubts about a lightning transformation of the region. Nevertheless, he was excited by the prospect of finding the Ark, and almost equally fascinated by the handsome, bold and enigmatic Ben Arieh. An Orthodox Jew who often dressed in stylish, imported French versions of the orthodox costume--when he wasn't wearing conventional blazers, Turnbull and Asser shirts and Hermes' ties--Ben Arieh's personality seemed to shift inexplicably along with his attire. He was well-connected and possessed a trove of arcane knowledge and useful information about the Ark. He was also wealthy enough to bankroll the search and a salary to a brilliant but highly eccentric Coptic scholar,Daud Labib. Labib occasionally dressed as a priest, had a penchant for tantrums and prostitutes and was given to sudden inexplicable mood changes. Although Labib was a virulent anti-Zionist, he was happy to join the quest because he needed funds to complete his doctorate, and to pay for a hoped-for marriage.

Pursuing the Ark, Parfitt traversed the politically treacherous terrain of Egypt, Israel, Yemen and Ethiopia during the 1990s and even went off on a wild goose chase to New Guinea. There he examined claims of a Papuan tribe, the Gogodala, who--like the Lemba--believed they were descended from the Israelites, and offered to show him the hiding place of the Ark. This turned out to be a dead end, but research on the coast of East Africa proved more fruitful.

Wherever he went, Parfitt encountered two kinds of adventure. One was physical: political threats and assassinations, venomous snakes, wild pig ticks (whose ravenous habits make Lyme disease seem almost benign), crocodiles and potentially hostile tribesmen not eager to give up their secrets. Unlike Indiana Jones, who arrived with high boots and a bullwhip to cut off the heads of attacking serpents, Parfitt's weapons were persistence and a cool fatalism.

The other type of adventure was scholarly. Parfitt deftly parsed linguistic curiosities like the word aron, for instance, which in Hebrew can mean a ringing sound or someone who lays to waste, and is related to the word iran, which means box--all of which emerge as key pieces of a puzzle that grows in importance as he nears his quarry. Parfitt seamlessly fuses western poetry with Biblical passages, quoting T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Henry Thoreau. "Only connect," he muses, referring to E.M. Forster, while he wonders which of several places with the same names might harbor the Ark or lead him to it. It is a pleasure to follow his meticulously clear train of thought as he explains why he accepts, then rejects, various reports of the Ark and its locations. The writing is bright with Parfitt's vivid and often very funny descriptions of his colleagues Ben Arieh and Labib, and although he sometimes falls prey to British snobbery, Parfitt seems genuinely fond of these two very different men and their unnerving behaviors and talents.

How does this wild and serious trek finally turn out? Here's a hint: Some readers may already know that male Lemba priests were tested and found to carry the DNA of the Cohens, the priestly caste of the Hebrews. But what the ngoma turns out to be, and how it fulfills its description in the Bible, provides an astonishing and perhaps unsettling conclusion.

The Lost Ark of the Covenant deserves an enthusiastic and careful reading. But try to resist its fast pace to better savor a thrilling ride through history, linguistics, genetics and anthropology.

Gloria Levitas is a writer and anthropologist who taught history of religion and anthropological linguistics at Queens College in New York City for 27 years. She has written numerous travel articles and reviews for The New York Times and other publications.
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Author:Levitas, Gloria
Date:May 1, 2008
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