By Olivia Parker
It was as if the story were floating in the air, waiting to be rediscovered. And by coincidence, a handful of writers came across it at the same time.
The story was true: In the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, a British expedition set out for Jerusalem to find the ark of the covenant, only to fail, spectacularly, in 1911, in an eruption of political turmoil and religious animosity.
The leader of this failed treasure hunt was a tall, slim British man named Montagu Brownlow Parker. Known as “Monty,” he was my great-great-uncle.
Monty died in 1962, years before I was born. He was a bachelor who lived well, traveled far, spent freely and left the contents of his will to a married woman: That was nearly everything I knew of him. All my family had left of his adventure in Jerusalem was a black box of papers telling a captivating tale.
The expedition grew out of an encounter between Monty and an eccentric Finnish scholar, Valter Juvelius, who claimed he had identified ciphers in the Old Testament that showed where the ark was hidden in Jerusalem. He wanted to go and find it; Monty, a veteran of the Boer War and a son of a wealthy politician, had the connections and credibility to make it happen.
It was late 1908, and that summer’s Young Turk Revolution had injected a new spirit of liberalization across the Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of what was then Palestine. Monty gathered investors, permissions and a team, and in 1909 the “Parker expedition” started digging in Jerusalem for the ark, a holy relic whose value — immeasurable — Monty promised to split with the Ottoman government.
After two years, finding little, the team grew impatient. Monty bribed officials for access to a more promising location: the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, a site sacred in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. There, the team started to excavate secretly at night, opening up a tunnel that led right underneath the Dome of the Rock.
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A mosque attendant, appalled, caught the diggers in action and rumors began to fly, scandalizing members of the city’s various faiths. Monty’s group raced from Jerusalem amid riots and headlines screaming that the explorers had stolen the Temple Mount’s treasures, narrowly escaping on their yacht.
That a relative of mine was part of this was mind-blowing. In 2019, I started to research the story, not knowing that my explorations made me a member of a curious, modern-day venture that paralleled its historical counterpart: the Parker expedition writers.
Scraps of the tale — a short account in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s 2011 book “Jerusalem”; a mention of an “archaeological dig” in the Ottoman archives — had turned at least six others like me onto it. We were all tracking down sources and shaping our notes into book proposals at around the same time.
When we learned of one another’s existence, it felt a little awkward.
The person to tell us was Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, a curator at the Yad Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, who had recognized the story’s power years before any of us had. In 1995, Nirit, then early in her career but with characteristic resolve, tracked down a box of glass negatives from the expedition, enlisted a student to locate the great-grandson of Valter Juvelius in Finland and reached out to my grandfather in England. My grandfather gave her a few photos and documents, and in 1996 she staged an exhibition on the Parker expedition, her paper on it making her a key contact for everyone who came to the story later, looking for sources.
This could have been an annoying position for Nirit to find herself in, but she occupied it with relish. She welcomed each of us who wrote to her as though she were our party host, passing on news of our fellow expedition explorers and enjoying the coincidence that these books were all happening at once.
It seemed less thrilling to me. I felt my loose connection to Great-Great-Uncle Monty shift into possessiveness: Who were these people writing about what I felt, unjustly, to be my story?
They were a diverse group, Nirit explained, and erudite: Louis Fishman, a professor of history at Brooklyn College, who found a dossier on the dig in the Ottoman archives; Timo Stewart, a Finnish researcher whose book focuses on Juvelius; Graham Addison, a retired British businessman turned history writer; and Andrew Lawler, an American journalist studying underground Jerusalem.
Eleven days after telling me about these men, Nirit emailed with a smiling emoji about “the new guy in town”: Brad Ricca, an author in Cleveland who writes books that blend fact and fiction. And four months after that, my dad was sitting down for dinner one evening when Nirit rang to introduce him to Lior Hanani, a young Israeli software developer who chose the expedition as the basis for his debut novel.
Nirit envisaged a conference that would explore our collective research, and decided to introduce us to one another on Zoom. Some of us admitted to feeling nervous, even competitive. But Nirit’s enthusiasm was a diffusing force. There was enough room in the world for each of our approaches — journalistic, novelistic and academic — she insisted.
Afterward, we kept in touch, from homes as far apart as New York, Helsinki and Hong Kong, swapping notes on the pandemic, on Monty, on writing. The friendly tone set by Nirit prevailed.
Brad offered me an early version of his book to read, along with his agent’s contact information. Graham shared a scoop he’d found in the British archives: Monty had a diagnosis of neurasthenia, what we’d now call PTSD.
The present intruded into our reflections on the past, a reminder of the expedition’s lasting relevance. Before Lior and I discussed his novel, we talked about the Hamas rockets that had crashed in front of his house in Israel, during a recent outbreak of fighting that had been inflamed by a raid on the Aqsa Mosque, inside the Haram al-Sharif. “Everything is related,” Lior said, smiling.
It was as though we had formed a Parker expedition think tank and, together, were uncovering the event’s significance.
As Louis writes in a chapter in his book, the events of the expedition’s aftermath — including the revelation, shocking to Jerusalem’s Muslim residents, that corrupt Ottoman officials were aiding the British explorers — add depth to our understanding of the factors influencing the emergence of Palestinian nationalism. The expedition may have had an impact on British foreign policy in the region, Andrew said when we talked, and it helped spawn the world’s ongoing fascination with the ark of the covenant (and Indiana Jones). It illustrates how people at the time viewed the Bible, science and chronology, Timo explained over Zoom, and why secret ciphers might have made sense to them.
Five books about the expedition have now been published; one more comes out in November. I hope a bookshop will display them all together — one story told six different ways.
That leaves my own version, which remains theoretical, at least for now. I’m still turning over my thoughts on my maverick great-great-uncle. I believe there are still parts of his story left to crack.
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