A Jerusalem Story: The failed raid of the lost ark
The rumor spread like wildfire across the city.
The crimes were unthinkable. Perhaps too fantastical to believe. And yet many did.
In mid-April of 1911, a team of English treasure hunters was busy at work in Jerusalem. They were digging under the Dome of the Rock, under the Temple Mount – the Noble Sanctuary, one of the world’s most sacred and sensitive religious landmarks. They were actually given permission, of a sort, to do so, but this did not make the act any less scandalous.
It was on the night of April 12 that the excavation came to an abrupt end: the wrong person found out about the dig, and it quickly became clear that remaining in Jerusalem was dangerous. The team packed up its equipment and findings and left town in a hurry. They were long gone when word began to spread that British adventurers had made off with the treasures of the ancient Jewish kings.
The press did not feel the need to downplay the event. Respectable newspapers declared that the stolen artifacts included King Solomon’s crown, his sword and his ring, as well as an ancient manuscript of the Bible (long before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls). The New York Times ran with the headline: “Gone With the Treasure That Was Solomon’s”. Some dispatches even mentioned the discovery of the Ark of the Covenant itself.
The incident soon led to chaos. Riots were sparked in Jerusalem, with local citizens going on strike and venting their fury at the Ottoman government for allowing such an outrage to occur. It was clear to all that the authorities had been in the know. Only the eventual resignation of the district governor was enough to calm the masses.
But what was the nature of this strange incident? Who were these treasure hunters? What were they looking for and what did they truly find?
The Genesis of the Parker Expedition
It began a few years earlier with a man named Walter Henrich Juvelius.
This strange Finnish poet was a man of eccentric interests, a doctor of philosophy who was fascinated with numerology, the Kabbalah and Jewish chronology. At some point in the early 1900s, Juvelius claimed to have made a startling discovery: he believed he had found a mysterious cipher while conducting research on Jewish history.
The cipher supposedly enabled one to unlock secrets hidden in the Bible and other ancient Jewish texts. Among these: the location of the treasures of the First Temple, including the Ark of the Covenant. As if this wasn’t odd enough, there was also talk of strange ancient documents unearthed in Ireland that also hinted at treasure buried in Jerusalem.
Armed with these “revelations”, Juvelius eventually turned up in London, where he met Captain Montagu Brownlow Parker. A decorated British soldier who had fought in the Second Boer War, Parker was also a well-connected aristocrat – his brother was the 4th Earl of Morley. Parker bought into Juvelius’ scheme to locate the ancient treasures in Jerusalem, and set about raising money and recruiting personnel. The 30-year-old English officer was quite successful in this: he managed to raise some £25,000 from a number of wealthy British and American patrons (equivalent to more than £3.8 million in 2023), and convinced several of his army buddies to join him and Juvelius on the expedition to the Holy Land.
Why were these affluent socialites and bored army veterans so eager to support such an overly ambitious excavation based on such flimsy evidence, you ask? It likely had something to do with Juvelius’ estimate that the treasure they were certain to find, including copious amounts of gold and silver, would be equal to a value of around $200 million dollars (over $6.4 billion today). This was also a time when the Spiritualist movement was still quite popular in the upper classes of British and American society. Hidden bible codes, mystical long-lost artifacts and ancient buried treasure? What’s not to like?
In 1908, before beginning the dig, Parker made a stop in Constantinople. His team may have been unorthodox (it included a former cricket player, a Swiss psychic and precisely zero archaeologists) and his motives were perhaps questionable, but the army captain was still intent on getting the proper legal permits from the Ottoman administration. After a quick negotiation, officials from the new Young Turks government supplied the permit in late November in exchange for £500 and half of any treasure to be found.
By this point Parker and Juvelius had already made a brief scouting trip to Jerusalem to identify the exact locations for the dig. Juvelius believed that the treasure lay underground, somewhere in the vicinity of the Temple Mount – the massive stone platform thought to be the site of both Jewish temples, where the Dome of the Rock now stood alongside the Al Aqsa Mosque.
Let the Digging Begin
Since digging under the platform itself was (initially) out of the question because of the religious sensitivities involved, Juvelius planned to reach the area by using already-existing ancient underground passages, accessible from what was known as the Hill of Ophel, the area south of the Temple Mount and the mosques. These would hopefully lead to a secret treasure chamber, that Juvelius was convinced existed under the Temple Mount itself.
The British team actually purchased land in the area of the dig site with some help from Ottoman officials. The Turks were able to overcome local resistance to the sale by announcing that the land was to be used for a hospital (this did not pan out). Finally, with the bureaucratic wrangling out of the way, work could begin.
In August of 1909, the team set up in a lone villa south of the Old City walls, the dig site was fenced off, and preparations for the excavation began. The European visitors stood out like a sore thumb in early 20th century Jerusalem, and their secretive behavior aroused plenty of attention and curiosity. Inevitably, despite the efforts to pretend otherwise, rumor got out that these were treasure hunters. Soon enough, the team was under pressure from suspicious locals and community leaders, who were eager to have someone on the inside that they could trust – a serious professional whose mere presence would reassure them. Parker finally gave in.
Enter Louis-Hugues Vincent.
Vincent was a Dominican monk, but also a respected archaeologist who worked at Jerusalem’s École biblique et archéologique française. Parker agreed to allow Vincent full access to the dig, three days a week, on the condition that no information would be shared with the public until Parker saw fit. This had the double effect of silencing local criticism, as well as providing the team with its only certified and relevant expert.
It is primarily thanks to Vincent that we have a detailed record of most of the Parker expedition’s underground work in Jerusalem. In fact, mere months after the scandalous incident on the Temple Mount, Vincent published an entire book, in both French and English, about the Parker expedition, detailing its work methods and findings and featuring intricate maps, drawings and photographs. A rare copy of Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel (1909-11) can be found in the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel.
As work got underway, some three hundred men were employed from the nearby village of Silwan (Siloam) to do the digging. The team began the excavations in the area of the Gihon Spring, Warren’s Shaft and the Siloam Tunnel (also known as Hezekiah’s tunnel). Both the tunnel and the shaft were previously explored in the 19th century, to much fanfare, and were thought to have formed parts of ancient Jerusalem’s underground water system. The general plan was to search for as-yet undiscovered passages, branching off from the known tunnels, that would hopefully lead the team to the secret treasure under the Temple Mount.
The work was arduous and dangerous, continuing at all times of the day, in 4-hour shifts. The workers carried torches and chanted songs as they picked away. Vincent wrote that they “found it necessary to take some such means to counteract the monotony of the dark, mysterious tunnels which seemed to stretch endlessly into the very entrails of the rock”.
The 1909 dig lasted into the autumn, but bad weather soon made further progress impossible. The team dispersed for the season, with Parker and company returning to Britain. They were back in Jerusalem by early August of 1910, with better equipment and aided by experts who had worked on the London Underground subway system. In this second dig season, the team continued to clear out the existing tunnels and even discovered previously unknown passages and chambers. Yet none of these came near the area of the Temple Mount, where the treasure was believed to be hidden. Parker even decided to begin carving out new tunnels, to bore an underground path that would lead them to their goal, but this was a slow and laborious process.
Vincent’s book contains a number of detailed maps charting out the network of ancient tunnels excavated by the team, as well as tunnels that they themselves dug underground.
Conditions were difficult, even for those with experience. Vincent wrote: “Thirty metres from the fountain the candles would not burn any longer, and we had to fall back on portable electric lanterns. In spite of a ventilator and oxygen capsules, the gangs had to be relieved every hour. At certain times I was not able to be more than a quarter of an hour in the gallery.”
While work was underway, water had to be diverted from the ancient Siloam Tunnel in which the famous Siloam Inscription was found in 1880. One of the benefits of this entire enterprise was that the clearing out of the underground waterways meant that water could now flow more easily through the channels. As the dig season drew to a close, the water was diverted back on October 11, 1910. Vincent wrote that its volume was now double what it had been previously, to the delight of the villagers of Silwan: “The flow of water gradually passed through to the Pool of Siloam; the shouts of acclamation and the noise of the feast to celebrate this occasion will long sound in my ears”.
This act of benevolence made Parker and his associates momentarily more popular with the locals, but for the team itself, the year 1910 was full of frustration and disappointment. Two seasons of hard manual labor in the summer heat had taken their toll, and the treasure hunters had little treasure to show for their efforts. Juvelius, the original visionary behind the quest, contracted malaria, packed his things and left for home. The winter rains once again put a stop to the digging and the Ottoman overseers also seemed to lose faith at this point. Parker’s dig permit was set to expire in late 1911, and chances of a renewal appeared slim, but the Englishman, who had investors to answer to, was not quite ready to give up.
With the excavations south of the Temple Mount not yielding any treasures belonging to biblical kings, a desperate Parker decided it was finally time for a different, more direct approach.
Things Fall Apart
Parker proceeded to discreetly bribe Sheikh Khalil al-Zanaf, the caretaker of the “Noble Sanctuary” (the Haram al-Sharif, the Arabic name for the Temple Mount). This payment allowed Parker and his team access to the massive ancient platform, now a site of daily Muslim worship. It was April of 1911, and that year Easter and Passover coincided with the celebration of Nebi Musa. This festival honoring the figure of Moses was marked by local Muslims with a pilgrimage to a religious site near Jericho. Sheikh Khalil made sure the guards usually stationed on the platform were given well-paid leave to attend the festival.
With prying eyes removed from the premises, at night and with a police guard present, Parker and his associates commenced digging on the Temple Mount. Louis-Hugues Vincent, the French archaeologist-monk, did not participate in this part of the venture. He may have disapproved, he may have been kept in the dark, but there is no mention of the dig on the mount in his book. What we know of these events comes from other contemporary accounts and press reports.
Parker’s men began digging in the south-eastern corner of the platform – the area that the crusaders erroneously called Solomon’s Stables. Gustaf Dalman wrote later that year that the team “apparently hoped to be able to get underground from thence to the site of the Temple, but they were stopped by cisterns, and gave up the attempt as impossible.”
At this point, Parker finally stopped beating around the bush. He and his men entered the Dome of the Rock, and began digging beneath the Foundation Stone, the place that many believe to have once been the location of the Holy of Holies, the sacred innermost chamber of the ancient Jewish temple. Dalman, the director of the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology in Jerusalem at the time, wrote that the team: “opened the rock tunnel, which leads from the north to the Sacred Rock under the Dome of the Rock, and which perhaps carried away the blood from the Altar of the Temple. This tunnel was followed for about seven metres in a northerly direction, but nothing particular was found except a slight enlargement of it.”
After nine nights of digging on the Temple Mount, the excavations were stopped when the secretive work was discovered. Dalman wrote that one of the Haram guards, who was “insufficiently bribed”, was responsible. According to another version of events, a guard happened to show up at the Haram at night, intending to sleep there as his own home was full of relatives attending the pilgrimage festival, when he came across the sacrilegious work being done.
The word soon spread, and chaos broke out.
Fueled by rumors of ancient treasures being stolen by foreigners, angry mobs formed in the streets. Some two thousand Muslim demonstrators vented their fury in front of the Ottoman government headquarters, the Saraya, not far from the Temple Mount. A general strike was announced, marches were held and calls were made to kill the foreign intruders and Azmi Bey, the Ottoman governor, along with them. The tension lasted for days, occasionally erupting into public demonstrations and violent riots. Sheikh Khalil, the caretaker of the Haram al-Sharif, was another target of the protestors’ ire. The demonstrators were even supported by some of the local Hebrew press. One article in the May 4 issue of Ha-Tsefira stated: “The Ashkenazi newspapers accuse the English and American tourists of not treating the Muslim holy places with the proper respect”.
Scholar Louis Fishman described these events in detail in his 2005 article, The 1911 Haram al-Sharif Incident. Writing of the episode on the Temple Mount and particularly the protests that followed, Fishman noted that there was something remarkable about these demonstrations and the motivation behind them:
“we can also detect the beginnings of a Palestinian identity as distinct from the local population’s overlapping Ottoman and Arab identities. This is important because it gives us a rare look at the beginnings of a local nationalism expressed through opposition to Ottoman policies concerning not Zionism but the city of Jerusalem.
As for Parker, he and his men quickly left for Jaffa, on the Mediterranean coast, once their secret was out. The Ottoman authorities, who of course had approved the whole enterprise to begin with, made a show of searching their ship, declaring that no treasures were found onboard. The Englishmen were then quietly allowed to leave for home, likely thanks to Parker’s political connections. Sheikh Khalil, however, was soon arrested, as was a local Armenian named Hagop Makasder, who had served as the team’s translator and was found to be a convenient scapegoat.
In the aftermath, both Azmi Bei, the district governor, and Sheikh Khalil lost their jobs. This was decided during a parliamentary inquiry into the episode, held in Constantinople. The incident made international headlines, especially across the Islamic world and as far as India. The masses wanted accountability. Representatives of the Ottoman government again declared that no ancient treasures of significance were stolen, while also justifying their original support for the expedition, arguing that it could conceivably have turned out to be a profitable venture. In any case, the higher-ups in the Ottoman establishment were cleared of any wrongdoing.
So it seems that no crowns belonging to ancient kings, no scepters, no rings, no swords and of course no curious-looking boxes topped with winged angels were uncovered during the work of the Parker expedition. But after two years of digging under ancient Jerusalem, using state of the art equipment and hundreds of workmen laboring day and night, it would, after all, be ludicrous to suggest that absolutely nothing at all was found… So what did Parker have to show for his efforts?
What Did They Find?
The excavations under the Hill of Ophel, south of the Temple Mount, were able to reveal a number of ancient subterranean tombs. One of these was, according to Vincent, “a most remarkable Egyptian-looking tomb, containing wonderfully well-preserved pottery, with specimens as fine as any yet found in Palestine”. Vincent identified the pottery as Jebusite, dating it to around 2,400 BCE at the latest, meaning these finds were significantly older than the Jewish treasures the expedition was looking for. Despite the Egyptian artistic features, the Frenchman concluded that the tomb belonged to a wealthy Jebusite “who either introduced or fostered” Egyptian fashions in the area.
The expedition excavated a number of other tombs and burial chambers that Vincent believed were “almost exactly contemporaneous with the palmy days of the Israelitish kings”. Vincent made impressive efforts to document the large amounts of pottery found in the many chambers and passages dug up by the workers. The pottery finds included “thousands of Israelitish jars”. A handful bore stamps that indicated their purpose or owner. Vincent wrote that only one of these was legible, and that in his opinion, this particular stamp’s letters formed the word “MoReSHeT”. The Frenchman believed that the jar was a tribute from the small town of Moreshet on the southwestern border of ancient Judea, sent to the royal treasury in Jerusalem. This he saw as evidence that the Judean king’s palace could not be far away from the dig site (for more on Parker and Vincent’s finds, see the link to The Librarians website below.)
Israeli archaeologists Ronni Reich and Eli Shukron have argued that Vincent’s work in the area south of the Temple Mount (facilitated by Captain Parker, of course) was critically important in the context of the archaeological study of Jerusalem. They make the case that it was Parker and Vincent who proved this site to be the true site of ancient Jerusalem. Reich and Shukrun believe, as did Vincent, that the City of David was built on this spot, as it was here and only here that remains from the early and mid-Bronze Age were found – meaning that this was Canaanite Jerusalem, the city that would later, during the Iron Age, become the Jerusalem described in the Bible.
Not everyone agrees, however. Another leading Israeli archaeologist, Israel Finkelstein, has argued extensively that the center of ancient Jerusalem was on the Temple Mount itself, and not on the Hill of Ophel, which lies slightly to the south.
Of course it is difficult to know for sure, without digging below the surface, but that, as we have seen, can get complicated.
For more on what Captain Parker was able to find in Jerusalem, check out the original version of this article, published by “The Librarians”, the National Library of Israel’s official online publication dedicated to Jewish, Israeli and Middle Eastern history, heritage and culture.
Louis-Hugues Vincent, Underground Jerusalem: Discoveries on the Hill of Ophel, by London: H. Cox, 1911
Gustaf Dalman, “The Search for the Temple Treasure at Jerusalem”, Palestine Exploration Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 1, 1912
Nirit Shalev Khalifa, “In Search of the Temple Treasures,” Qadmoniot, Vol. 31, issue 116, 1999 (Hebrew)
Louis Fishman, “The 1911 Haram al-Sharif Incident: Palestinian Notables Versus the Ottoman Administration”, Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3, Spring 2005
Ronni Reich and Eli Shukron, “One Hundred Years Since the Parker–Vincent Excavations in the City of David”, City of David Studies of Ancient Jerusalem 7 (Hebrew)