Findiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

There was an uprising in Jerusalem in 1911 around Eastertime because English adventurers had entered the Dome of the Rock with hacks and spades in the search of the Ark of the Covenant. The newspapers published stories about this scandal in all corners of the earth. The man who set all this in motion was a Finn today nationally remembered mostly as a poet. How did all this come about? Timo R. Stewart tells us the full story in his new book.

The Bible transforms the life of a land surveyor

Valter Juvelius (1865-1922) was a Finnish land surveyor from a relatively poor background but with a secondary school education and a strong urge to educate himself. His work took him deep in the woods where he slept in cottages with only the Bible to read. Bible reading totally transformed the life of this rather irreligious young man even though in a manner different from the revivalist Christians. He developed interest in the historical critical study of the Bible, even to the extent that he obtained a PhD with a thesis on the historical timing of the Hebrew Bible events.

His actual point of interest in the Bible was the Ark of the Covenant, though. The Bible tells us how the valuables of the Temple were taken away but does not say anything about the fate of the Ark. Dr Juvelius deduced that it was not taken away but hidden in the caves of the Jerusalem Temple Mount. Additionally, instructions to find it were hidden in the Bible and one just had to crack the code. After immense labour, he believed to have found out the way to find the hidden messages.

He managed to get rich aristocratic English former army officers as funders and organisers of an excavation in Jerusalem. They needed to get a license from the Ottoman rulers in Constantinople, purchase a piece of land, hire men and then they were ready to go in 1909. After plenty of unsuccessful emptying of land-filled tunnels, the excavation permit was about to expire. The resulting hurry led the Englishmen to bribe government and religious officials in Jerusalem as well as the Muslim sanctuary, the Dome of the Rock, watchmen to take a shortcut through this mosque into the Temple Mount. When this became known, the excavators had to flee, leaving behind them a bunch of furious Jerusalem inhabitants, and a political turmoil. Below, I will sketch the interreligious dimensions of this mess.

The Dome on the Rock on the Temple Mount. Image: Magdalena Dziaczkowska

Chasing the Ark of the Jews

Dr Juvelius’ relationship to the Jews was rather ambiguous. On one hand, he was willing to study the Hebrew Bible (despite his lack of Christian commitment), the Kabbalah and other holy scriptures. On the other hand, he saw Jews as competitors and harboured deep mistrust of them. That is why the whole project was veiled in deep secrecy. This approach was partly realistic because his project failed to get extension to the excavation permit possibly due to Parisian Jewish businessman Edmond James de Rothschild’s excavation project that was launched right after Juvelius’s. Juvelius’s consortium had probably blocked the way for Rothschild in the Ottoman bureaucratic jungle and now the tables had turned.

Yet another reason for Juvelius to distrust the Jews was his commitment to science – the Ark had to be made accessible for the (Western) scientific community. Jews (just like the Free Masons that Juvelius suspected of trying to grab the Ark) would supposedly not allow scientific research to be done on the cult object. It is hard to estimate how much widely spread antisemitism affected his thought.

Dependence on the Muslims

The role of Muslims in this story is that of statists. One had to deal with the (thoroughly corrupt) Ottoman bureaucracy that was predominantly Muslim to get the official permits. Likewise, one had to hire daily labourers. The Muslim sacred places on top of the Mount were naturally a hindrance to a direct approach to some of the caves. Yet, we cannot know what Juvelius’s opinion on sneaking in the Dome of the Rock would have been because he was forced to stay in Finland for work at that time – he did not have the aristocratic privilege of dedicating to this eccentric adventure full time. What can be deduced from his relationship to the Englishmen was that he was not only linguistically (hardly speaking any English) distant but he was also a man of books while these ex-army officers were men of action. Combined, they would make Indiana Jones!

Muslim reaction to the sacrilege, supported also by Jerusalem Jews and Christians, finally became the last nail in the coffin of this secretive enterprise.

Among a mixture of Christian denominations

Juvelius’s relationship to his own official religion was also rather complicated. He would have been ready to cooperate with revivalist Christians probably believing that they would be more conducive to scientific study of the Ark than the Jews or Free Masons. Yet, it was probably a relief to him that the members of his consortium were rather nominal Christians than ardent believers.

There was also a Catholic dimension to the story. A Dominican father, Louis-Hugues Vincent, very well acquainted with Near Eastern archaeology, provided himself as the person to document the excavations. Probably this documentation was the only notable outcome of the project.

This land surveyor with his English mates had to steer between a bunch of religions and cultures, with an Armenian Oriental Orthodox Christian as their translator. While the English ex-officers had been colonising half of the world and travelled extensively, for Juvelius, this was the adventure of his lifetime.

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