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Excerpt: ‘The Lost Ark of the Covenant’

"The Lost Ark of the Covenant" is the real-life account of an astounding quest — professor Tudor Parfitt's effort to recover the revered artifact that contained the Ten Commandments, sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Here's an excerpt:

Chapter 2
Sorry. It’s a forgery!”

It was my very first meeting with Reuven. The year was 1992, half a decade after my adventure at the mouth of the cave at Dumghe. We were in my vaulted study in the Old City of Jerusalem.

A weird light seemed to be coming from a yellowing document, which was spread out on the table. Reuven ben Arieh was a financier and diamond merchant, a highly orthodox Jew and a highly unorthodox everything else. He lived mainly in Jerusalem but also had homes in Paris, London, and Miami.

He was a tall, full-bearded, well-built man. The first thing I noticed about him was his eyes. Those eyes were something.

This man was something. He had a beautiful, soft-spoken wife, Clara, admired by everyone, and a life-absorbing mission. His mission was stark in its simplicity and bound to fail: it was to end gentile hatred of Jews. To terminate anti-Semitism. For once and for all. It was as simple as that. Hatred of Jews was a subject about which he had some personal experience: most members of his immediate family, including his father and mother, brother, and sister had been murdered at Treblinka. Reuven, who was about ten years older than me, was born in Holland in 1935.

During the Nazi occupation, he spent three years hidden in a neighbor’s garret. In 1945 he emerged to discover that he was an orphan. Later that year he was claimed by some elderly and wealthy childless relatives of his mother’s who brought him up. They died in the early 1950s, leaving him their fortune. He studied chemistry in France, took up his father’s trade of diamond cutter for a few years, and then in 1953 moved to Israel.

By the time I met him he had fought in three wars against Arab states: the Sinai Campaign of 1956, the 1967 Six-Day War, and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. It was the hostility of Muslims and Arabs toward Israel and Jews that was of most concern to him. It was this hostility, particularly, that he wanted to eliminate from the world. Whenever I subsequently met him —and wherever I met him — it was Arab and Muslim resentment of Israel and how to combat it that he really wanted to talk about. A few days previously Reuven had purchased the manuscript from Anis, one of the Jerusalem dealers. It could be dated more or less to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. So he said. It was going to change the world.

When he arrived at my house in the Old City that late summer’s day, clutching his tattered manuscript, Reuven was as excited as I have ever seen him, before or since. He was wearing a very stylish version of the black hat, long dark jacket, and trousers worn by observant European Jews. But everything was subtly wrong. Despite the heat and dust, his clothes were spotless, and immaculately cut by a Parisian tailor. The tropical weight woolen cloth of his suit was a very dark blue worsted with a herringbone pattern. He gave off a slight suggestion of Chanel Homme. As I was to discover later, he usually had his hair cut in New York, went for regular manicures, and his handmade shirts came from Turnbull & Asser in London’s Jermyn Street. Although I am not Jewish, I had lived in Israel for many years and was familiar with many aspects of the Jewish religion and culture, and it was clear to me that Reuven looked like no other orthodox Jew in Jerusalem — and I told him so. Grinning at me he said, “I want people to say — Hey! Reuven that handsome guy! That beautifully dressed orthodox Jew!”

He had “returned” to Judaism just after the Yom Kippur War. Before that, he had been a completely secular Israeli.

He was now what is known as a baal teshuvah — a sort of born-again Jew. He maintained a fastidiously kosher home but elsewhere he would occasionally eat in a nonkosher restaurant. Since his conversion to Orthodox Judaism, he had immersed himself in the Talmud — the great Jewish collection of religious law — and the Jewish mysticism of the kabbala. However, he also had what he referred to as his “principal interest.” For many years he had been scouring Islamic texts trying to find something that could be exploited to neutralize — or better, eradicate — Muslim hatred of Israel and Jews. What he was looking for was some ancient, unknown Islamic text praising the Jews or foretelling the return of the Jews to Palestine, something that would make the settlement of Muslim land by Jews seem ordained by Allah, something that the lost ark of the covenant would legitimize Zionism in the eyes of the Arab world, something that would destroy Muslim hatred of Israel.

It was an extraordinary idea. As he put it: “No peace will ever come to the Middle East until both sides — Jews and Muslims — reorient their spiritual relationship. We need some document from the past that could allow us to put conflict aside and respect each other!” And today, it seemed, he had found that document. At first glance it appeared to be a letter from the Prophet. The astonishing thing about it was that it set out not to vilify and condemn the great enemies of Islam — the Jews —but to praise and defend them.

In fact, the Sons of Israel, the Banu Israil, as they are called in the Quran, are lauded to the skies. He explained to me that Muhammad had never, ever had the idea of trying to create a new religion. He wanted simply to introduce the older faiths of Judaism and Christianity to the polytheistic people of the desert. The original direction to which Muhammad’s first disciples prayed — the qibla — was actually toward Jerusalem. It was only after the Jews of Medina — one of the oasis towns near Mecca — proved to be disloyal and fought against him that he turned against the Jews and started to pray in the direction of Mecca.

“What’s this got to do with changing the world?” I asked. “Everything, my friend, everything. You could say that the Jews’ disloyalty to the Prophet was the beginning of the conflict between Islam and the West. You know the Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis?”

“Yes, he used to teach at SOAS.”

“Lewis calls this “the clash of civilizations.” This was the great fissure between the cultures.” “Yes,” I acknowledged, “that is true in a way.”

“But just listen! What I’ve got here could easily reverse all that. That’s why I wanted to meet you. I need you to authenticate it. This manuscript gives a radically new perspective on what the Jews of Medina really got up to. It’s explosive. Muslims could soon be joining Jews and even Christians in prayer.

Can you imagine that? They could all be praying together toward Jerusalem. Praying in the same direction is the first step to thinking in the same direction.” Reuven’s eyes were shining with the splendor of this vision. “This document is like a news broadcast from ancient times,” he continued, “from the time these troublesome religions were spawned — a tattered fragment from the past that will permit us to put aside our conflict and actually try to love each other. Armageddon could be postponed for a century or two!”

This was the gist of the document he held in his hand: Muhammad swears in the letter that it was the Jews of Medina and the other oasis towns of Arabia who had always come to his aid in his many battles against the heathen tribes of the desert. The Jews were even ready to desecrate their holy Sabbath to help him. They never left his side. They never betrayed him. During a single bloody campaign, the Jews killed over 20,000 heathen enemies of the Prophet: 7,000 knights, 7,000 regular horsemen, and 7,000 foot soldiers.

“This is what the Prophet actually promised the Jews,” declared Reuven reverently, raising one finger for emphasis. “Not centuries of contempt and persecution!” “Just listen.” He put on a pair of reading glasses, scrutinized the document, and read aloud. “‘O men of the Children of the lost ark of the covenant Israel, by Allah I shall reward you for this … I shall grant you my protection, my covenant, my oath and my witness for as long as I live and as long as my community shall live after me, until they see my face upon the Day of Resurrection.’ “Did you hear that?” he asked, his voice suddenly shrill, thrusting the document in my face and revealing an immaculately laundered cuff. “If the Muslim world knew about this, they would change their attitude to Israel overnight! There’d be no more Arab–Israel wars! No more terrorist attacks!”

Unfortunately, there was more to the letter than met the eye. It was probably quite old, I could see that.

The body of the text was in Arabic and there was a short introduction in Hebrew.

I knew something about Hebrew palaeography — the study of the form of ancient writing — and I could see this was a medieval Hebrew Yemenite script.

This much was genuine. Then I recalled that once in the Yemen I had seen an almost identical document in the home of an antiquarian in Sana’a, the capital of the Yemen. It was called Dhimmat al-Nabi (The Protection of the Prophet) and was an ancient Jewish fabrication, an old forgery, which the Yemenite Jews had created to counter the animosity of their Muslim neighbors. There was no Jewish community in the Muslim world quite as wretched and persecuted as the Jews of the Yemen. They needed all the help they could get. However, this document would not persuade many Muslim scholars to turn their received opinions upside down. It would not change the world. “It’s a shame,” I said, “but it is a forgery. A very old forgery.” A yellow hamseen wind was blowing in from the desert. It was stiflingly hot. Reuven’s face fell when I gave him my assessment of his document, and he grew silent. He just sat there grimacing, rubbing the side of his head where he had been grazed by an Egyptian bullet in the last of his wars.

Had it been genuine, the document he had just shown me could have served this purpose pretty well. “Are you absolutely sure it’s a forgery?” he asked trying to keep the disappointment out of his voice. “Quite sure,” I replied flatly.

Excerpted from "The Lost Ark of the Covenant" by Tudor Parfitt. Copyright 2008. Excerpted with permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved.