The Ark, the Grail and the dog’s dinner


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?

Cross-PatteeHancock 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.

10 thoughts on “The Ark, the Grail and the dog’s dinner

  1. Interesting stuff, thanks.
    Coincidently, I found this reference in an on-line national history facility

    “Further, some twenty years before, he was at Wetherby, and the chief preceptor, who was also there, did not come to supper because he was preparing certain relics which he had brought from the Holy Land; thinking he heard a noise in the chapel during the night, Robert looked through the keyhole, and saw a great light, but when he asked one of the brethren about it next day he was bidden to hold his tongue as he valued his life. ”

    The stuff of imagination! (The town of Wetherby, England was founded by the Templars)


    1. Thank you! Yes, Templars are a whole big subject in themselves, aren’t they, a big fat Gordian knot where myth and history have become inextricably entangled.


  2. Fascinating stuff, thank you. Loved this post.
    Could not agree with you more.

    I think anyone with the faintest interest in history & archeology will always, inevitably, be drawn to the Ark and the Grail stories, because of the romance and intrigue inherent in them. Yet of course it’s exactly those qualities that attract every loony, conman and crank with a typewriter.
    Have to confess, Can’t quite see how people get the two things mixed up, since the Grail is a NT artefact and the Ark an OT one. “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?”
    How can it be “also” or both? Totally confused by this, alas. Is he confused or simply mad, or does he present any evidence at all?

    As regards G Hancock himself, it is sad to hear from your excellent piece he has slipped further down the greasy slide of temptation, to mangle and selectively-present, his evidence.
    Sad, because i think he does have some redeeming features as a (at least semi-serious) historian, if there can be such a person.

    I have a copy here of his book ‘Heavens Mirror” which actually contains a lot of factual and fascinating information about the way various ancient civilisations, from Neolithic Egypt, Scotland/Ireland/Brittany, to Cambodia and Mexico etc, made very precise astrological observations of the stars, (true as you know) then made them central to their various belieft systems, (true again, probably, although hard evidence here is scanty) then, crucially, (again, sometimes truthfully, as best i understand it) how they incorporated astronomy, and astronomically-significant numbers, into their sacred architecture. (true again, partially, probably true, maybe, although hard evidence here is Very scanty) Anyway: So far, so good–(-ish).

    And Hancock does actually write very well, he knows how to tell a story and create excitement, even explain quite complex ideas. He is- in that “Mirror” book, especially interested in ancient understandings of the very real phenomenon of “Precession” – super slow changes in the axis of the earths rotation, only observable and measurable through very precise measurement made over hundreds or thousands of years. And how these Precession-significant numbers, occur in sacred architecture.

    At that which point, lamentably, he completely loses the run of himself, as we say here in Ireland. 🙂 eg: an International, pre-flood pre-Ice Age global, civilisation, far-older and more-sophisticated than anything we have-ever-previously imagined, from (or with evidence stil in) Egypt to Cambodia to well, Everywhere, but inevitably most of the best evidence under the sea, yes Atlantis, especially off the sea of Japan, and so on, and so on.. And of course the more extravagant the claims, the more selective, and carefully, artfully phrased the “evidence” becomes.
    All quite maddening, because as i say he does actually have some excellent material. if only he, and those like him, didn’t feel the temptation to merge it all into a grand history of everything, we’d all be better off!

    Anyway, please forgive the saga-length response, (sorry!) but I liked your post and the whole general theme. Its just frustrating when writers distort. Not keen on the whole genre, which i supos we could label “Histortion” (?) or something. Pseudo-History masquerading as real History = Fiction = Distortion.
    (Good lord, feel quite proud of that now in fact. Did I just coin a new word, or is that one already in currency?)

    Anyway, thanks again, and my very best regards, always a great read here, don’t know quite how you do it.
    compliments from Dublin. – Arran.


    1. Glad you enjoyed this! How do I do it? I recycle the occasional review I wrote years ago!

      I take your point about his writing — as a former journalist for the nationals he wouldn’t have got far with anything less. In my original review I did mention the book being easy to read but in this re-edit I’m afraid it got cut in favour of additional commentary.

      I do believe you did just coin a new word, Arran — ‘histortion’ — I love it!

      As for astronomy having a say in architectural matters, I do concur with you, but we’ll never know for sure exactly how for anything prehistoric, sadly.


      1. 🙂 Relieved, proud and delighted I may have coined a new term, potentially at least, (will have to google later to see if anyone else thought of it first.)

        Thanks again, for a nice reply, and a super post.


        1. If he is guilty of Histortion, it must also follow that Hancock, (plus others of his ilk) is a “histortian”

          gawd, I’m on fire. Well, dunno. Does that 2nd term work quite as well? Not convinced.

          But it came to me, and vital to try and and assert soem sort of “intellectual property rights”, or at least clamour for credit, at this key early stage, don’t you think? 😉


          1. ‘Histortian’ doesn’t work as well — too similar to ‘histortion’. How about ‘histortioner’? Someone who distorts history by extorting dirty money from the discipline? If you like it as a term you can have it, gratis!


  3. Very interesting. This was one of the reasons I didn’t study a lot of ancient history. I didn’t like that no one really had the answers. I’m not saying that 20th century history and historians never distorted the facts, but it was easier for me to wrap my head around what probably happened. I do enjoy learning these stories, though. But it’s hard to believe the experts. This one sounds like a hard to believe one.


    1. Thank you for following up the link!

      I don’t mind it that no one really has the answers — it shows that the science side of history is continuing to evolve as our critical tools get sharper, as ongoing research teases out new facts and as archaeology produces new artefacts and structures for examination.

      What I do mind is amateur historians (and even a few professional ones, who ought to know better) telling us that what they’ve come up with is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and that patient and careful research and evaluation are somehow of no value. Which is a stance that too many pseudohistorians take.


Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.