Graham Hancock The Sign and the Seal
Mandarin 1993 (1992)
I experienced a sense of déjà vu when I first picked up this paperback: black cover, red titles, a yellow band with the legend “the explosively controversial international bestseller” emblazoned across the front. Back home I realised why. The design was a rip-off of (or, if you prefer, a loving homage to) The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent et al from a decade before. Oh dear – more hype and more tripe, I sensed, for Holy Blood, Holy Grail was a real dog’s dinner of a few facts, a lot of fiction and huge dollops of sensationalist speculation.
In essence the book is, as it subtitle proclaims, “a quest for the lost Ark of the Covenant”. This artefact, popularised by the first of the Indiana Jones films, was ordered by Moses to be built near Mount Sinai after the exodus from Egypt. Modelled on Egyptian royal furniture, it functioned both as a container for the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments and as the seat of the invisible Israelite god Yahweh. Ensuring victory in battles for the Promised Land, it was placed in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem around the middle of the 10th century BC. And, after some subsequent references in the Old Testament, it simply disappears.
It is at this point that most crank theories begin. The ark is a giant storage battery. Or an alien spacecraft. It’s hidden in Atlantis. Or any combination of these. And it is then that I lose interest.
Twenty years ago Graham Hancock’s book seemed different. Yes, there are speculations about the Ark’s function, about Atlantis and so on, but it appeared at first that this ex-journalist had his feet firmly on the ground. His research suggests that in the reign of the apostate Manasseh (who flourished in the mid-seventh century BC) the Ark was removed from Jerusalem and taken to be housed in a purpose-built temple on the Egyptian island of Elephantine, on the Nile near Aswan. Two centuries later it was transported south into Ethiopia to an island on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. For eight centuries it remained there in the midst of a long-established Jewish community (the Falasha people) until the country’s emperor converted to Christianity in the fourth century AD. Then it was removed to another Ethiopian town, Axum or Aksum, and placed in a new structure, the church of St Mary of Zion, where it remains as a vigorous and living tradition to this day, despite famine and civil war. And at the Ethiopian New Year (18th-19th January) replicas of Moses’ stone tablets, normally housed in the most secret part of every church, are carried in procession by the priests to tumultuous receptions.
As far as I could see there was nothing inherently implausible in this reconstruction, and much to recommend it. History, archaeology and common sense are not distorted by it, and the thirteenth-century legend that it was brought to Ethiopia by the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba can be seen as an enthusiastic attempt to explain its presence there. But, even if this reconstruction is true, what are we to make of Hancock’s further assertions, that the Ark of the Covenant is also the Holy Grail?
I must confess that my heart sank when I saw paraded the list of interested parties: the builders of Chartres, St Bernard, Wolfram von Eschenbach, the Knights Templar, the Freemasons and a few others besides. Haven’t we met these characters, the usual suspects, too frequently in decades past, and doesn’t each new theory claim to unite them all into an integrated secret history?
Hancock invites us to consider and re-assess some familiar motifs. In the eleventh century the Templars reportedly spent more time involved in archaeological activity on the site of the Temple than in protecting pilgrims – if remotely true, it was with little result. Then they appear to have shifted interest from there to Ethiopia, at a time when the Christian emperor of that country was establishing diplomatic relations with the Mediterranean world. Their emblem, the croix pattée, now appears there for the first time. Around that period elaborations of the Grail story (Parzival and Der Jüngerer Titurel) not only have Templar-like knights as guardians of the Grail but also set its last resting place in the land of “Prester John”, a legendary Christian emperor somewhere in the East. The sacred object is most often described as a stone, particularly one that had “fallen from heaven”, and Moses’ tablets of stone, some unnamed scholars have suggested, may have been part of a meteorite.
There’s more. After the downfall of the historical Templars it’s claimed continuity was maintained by two traditions: one is the Order of Christ – Portuguese Templars under another name – and the other is represented by the Freemasons. Prince Henry the Navigator, Grand Master of the Order of Christ, was very keen to establish diplomatic relations between Portugal and Ethiopia, while Vasco da Gama’s pioneering voyage around Africa in 1497 was in part an attempt to make contact with Prester John by a different route.
Meanwhile, it is often argued that the Templars survived in Scotland to pass on their secrets to another clandestine organisation, the Freemasons. It is noteworthy, Hancock observes, that the eighteenth-century Freemason James Bruce of Kinnaird travelled to Ethiopia, allegedly to “discover the source of the Nile” even though the Portuguese had already achieved this goal a century before. And it is significant that Bruce was instrumental in bringing copies of the Ethiopian Ark legend back with him to Europe.
I read this book two decades ago thinking that a précis doesn’t do justice to this intelligent and, it seemed to me, largely honest book. Here we had an author who, by his own account, risked his life to travel in war-torn Ethiopia and other parts of the Middle East. Why? All he wished to do was to ask the Ethiopian guardian of the Ark if he might have a glimpse of what obsessive research tells him is the prototype of the Grail (granted, this was a long shot given that the Axum priesthood have always kept their secret from prying eyes). An armchair archaeologist has to take on trust what an explorer describes, and The Sign and the Seal seemed to be more than just another sensationalist claim bolstered by hunches.
And yet I constantly got the impression that this breathless history would have done better as a novel than an historical study. Hancock’s interests in the supernatural, the paranormal and ‘lost’ knowledge come to the fore in his subsequent books; and as this book already exhibits clear pseudohistorical traits by cherry-picking of bits of arcane lore to mix in with travelogue, its conclusions are to me fatally compromised. There is also the odd conceptual merging of two distinct objects in Hancock’s text, the Ark itself and the Tablets of Moses which the Ark contained, so that we get the impression that the precinct of St Mary of Zion in Axum contains both Ark and tablets even though the church (or rather, the Chapel of the Tablet) only claims one tablet.
A more reliable and scholarly guide is Roderick Grierson and Stuart Munro-Hay’s The Ark of the Covenant (Phoenix 2000) which corrects many of the historical claims made by Hancock. The authors also draw attention to the unfortunate side-effects of Hancock’s book which are that this once obscure site is increasingly subject to outside pressure, with rumours that “international spies and intelligence networks have decided to steal the Ark of the Covenant”.
Wouldbe Indiana Joneses are continuing to muddy the waters, ensuring that the silt of myth remains trapped in suspension in the river of history. But at least the Indiana Jones films made it clear that the Ark and the Grail are completely separate.