Media reports yesterday indicated that the incoming Trump Administration is considering Dr. Ben Carson for the role of Secretary of Education, presumably as part of Donald Trump’s stated aim of eliminating the Department of Education. During the presidential primary season Carson became the subject of ridicule of alleging that the pyramids of Egypt were silos built by the Biblical patriarch Joseph to hold Pharaoh’s grain. Recalling this idiocy, last night Stephen Colbert joked that we’ll soon be seeing the Trump government distribute new history textbooks, Shit I Made Up about Egypt by Dr. Ben Carson. The accompanying graphic was hilarious—and be sure to note the UFO and alien accompanying Jesus.
The trouble is that the joke fell a little flat because it is a bit too close to true. Consider the actual pseudo-history book the venerable HarperCollins and the History Channel are releasing next week:
Ready-made for next academic year! Sadly, with alien-demon believer Alex Jones’s friend, conspiracy theorist, and Brietbart boss Steve Bannon on the short list for Trump’s chief of staff, it’s not too far-fetched.
Yesterday I wrote about the odd belief that the Ark of the Covenant was buried in rural England, not far from Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon. I noted that I was unable to trace back the idea that the Knights Templar had discovered the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem back before the 1990s, and it seemed that the claim was inspired by a more complex version offered by Graham Hancock in his book The Sign and the Seal (1992). Curious about what people used to believe before such ideas were proposed, I turned to Hancock’s book to see where he got his ideas from. It was not a terribly productive search.
In Sign and the Seal, Hancock explains that he believed that the Knights Templar went to Jerusalem to look for the Ark, but unable to find it, they ventured to Ethiopia where they became its guardians, because, even at this early date, a key tenet of Hancock’s belief system is that white people must be in charge of any great mystery. To this end, he cites a medieval text written by the Coptic Christian priest Abu Al-Makarim (whom Hancock misidentifies as Abu Salih the Armenian, due to a nineteenth century translation error) in his book Churches and Monasteries of Egypt, composed around 1300 CE, right before the suppression of the Templar order. Regular readers will remember this monk as having written on Hermes’ construction of the pyramids—which tells you how much to credit his historical claims! Anyway, in folio 106a of the manuscript used for the standard English translation, the author writes:
The Abyssinians possess also the Ark of the Covenant in which are the two tables of stone, inscribed by the finger of God with the commandments which he ordained for the children of Israel. The Ark of the Covenant is placed upon the altar, but is not so wide as the altar; it is as high as the knee of a man, and is overlaid with gold; and upon its lid there are crosses of gold; and there are five precious stones upon it, one at each of the four corners, and one in the middle. The liturgy is celebrated upon the Ark four times in the year, within the palace of the king; and a canopy is spread over it when it is taken out from [its own] church to the church which is in the palace of the king: namely on the feast of the great Nativity, on the feast of the glorious Baptism, on the feast of the holy Resurrection, and on the feast of the illuminating Cross. And the Ark is attended and carried by a large number of Israelites descended from the family of the prophet David who are white and red in complexion, with red hair. In every town of Abyssinia there is one church, as spacious as it can possibly be.
Hancock, being somewhat obsessed with the idea that white people are the bearers of secret knowledge, took the text out of context to argue that the red-headed white men were not, as the author clearly states, descendants of the Israelites who accompanied the Ark, but rather the “electrifying news” that “mysterious white men” were in Ethiopia meant that “these men might have been Templars.” Yes, for Hancock, finding white people in Africa is “electrifying.” Hancock claims that Al-Makarim saw these white men himself, though this is clearly not the case. He connects the Templars to the Ark through Freemasonry, whose Royal Arch ritual is concerned with the opening of the Ark.
Al-Makarim’s story is probably just a story, though it might have spoken to lost connections between the Jewish and Christian communities of Ethiopia and the populations to the north in the time before Islam cut off the Christian world’s communication with Ethiopia, as al-Makarim reported himself in folio 106b. It’s possible that in his day, the Falashas—the Ethiopian Jews—had not fully assimilated and might have appeared lighter in color than their neighbors. I don’t know for sure what the text was getting at, since so little attention has been paid to this passage.
Hancock’s sources are standard books on the Templars, which don’t discuss the Ark of the Covenant. It seems fairly clear that after Hancock, fringe theorists simplified his narrative immensely, eliminating the Ethiopians, promoting the Templars to the discoverers and possessors of the Ark, and moving its resting place to Europe or America. Rebecca A. Umland and Samuel J. Umland, in a book about Arthurian legend in cinema, spark a suggestion that perhaps the similarity of the first and third Indiana Jones movies in theme and content helped fringe writers conflate their ideas and connect the Templars more strongly with the Ark. Whatever the cause, by 2000, Kerry Ross Boren and Lisa Lee Boren wrote in Following the Ark of the Covenant that the Welsh Prince Madoc was secretly the Grand Master of the Templars and carried the Ark of the Covenant to America! After them, the deluge—hundreds of post-Da Vinci Code books looking into Templar mysteries and thus their “connection” to the Ark.
To be frank, I had expected to find a lot more fringe literature on the Ark before Graham Hancock. It’s surprising how little there is. A few books talk about the Ark as though it were an electrical device (namely, Chariots of the Gods, which inspired Raiders of the Lost Ark’s view of the Ark) or its supernatural or numerological aspects, but generally, it seems that few authors cared about its ultimate fate. The exception to that is the British Israelists who, after the 1860s, in conflating early legends about Jacob’s Pillar having come to Ireland with stories of the Ark, sought to locate the Ark in Ireland, under the mound at Tara. Now, a Google Books search is certainly not conclusive or exhaustive (it didn’t even return a match for Chariots of the Gods, for example), and article searches are even spottier in their coverage. It looks like nobody except ethnocentric British folk and racists much cared about the “mysteries” of the Ark until Indiana Jones inspired fringe types to do so.
They, of course, pulled on the “research” of the ethnocentric, racist, etc. theories of the British Israelists and merged it into anti-Masonic and Holy Grail legends about the Templars. Thus, the story emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In so doing, it built, as I said before, on Masonic rituals, to the point where some fringe writers began to assert that the Masons had a legend that their ancestors found the Ark beneath the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This is a misreading of the genuine (if modern) Masonic legend that Masons found the golden plates of wisdom which Enoch had inscribed with the wisdom of the world (yes, those plates / tablets / pillars of the Watchers’ wisdom again!) buried where Solomon would construct his temple (Thomas Webb, The Freemason's Monitor 2.1.10; George Oliver, Antiquities of Freemasonry, chapter 4; etc.). Royal Arch Masonry, probably developed in the 1730s, reenacts the discovery of God’s sacred name in the vault where Enoch buried the golden tablet and where Solomon placed the pillar that would hold the Ark. Experts say that in the American York Rite, the Enochian tablet is replaced with the Ark. Because the York Rite is tied to the Knights Templar order within Masonry, you can see how the connection started to take shape to fringe writers who like to link things with the transitive property of fringe history.
What is shocking, though, is that this claim seems only to have developed in the 1990s and 2000s, but now has the weight of being an ancient legend. For the record, shortly after the Ancient Origins article was posted, fringe speculator Scott Wolter, whose Xplrr Media business recently alleged that it knows the location of the Ark of the Covenant, tweeted in direct response his belief that the Knights Templar did in fact hide the Ark, though we know he believes that they took it to America. This sparked an allegation from him that the Roman Catholic Church “wants to control thought” and that the Church privately admits Jesus is a “myth.” His ideas come directly out of this “ancient” stew from the antediluvian era of the 1990s, with more than a soupcon of Anti-Catholic Nativist conspiracy from the early 1800s. That makes it all the stranger that he also used Twitter to denounce Donald Trump, the man whose conspiracy-theorist supports and Nativist appeals is pretty much an embodiment of the old, ugly Nativist America that helped generate Wolter’s own conspiracies.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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