The lost ark of Solomon’s Temple is Judaism’s equivalent of the Holy Grail, one of the prizes most eagerly sought by archaeological trophy-hunters. Every few years a book appears claiming to have discovered the missing artefact, out of circulation for 2,500 years.
But Tudor Parfitt’s The Lost Ark of the Covenant, now available in paperback, is a cut above the rest. For one thing, it is by a reputable scholar, a professor of modern Jewish studies at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. For another, it’s a great read, an academic adventure story cum travelogue that takes in the Middle East, Africa and, bizzarely, Papua New Guinea.
It would spoil any reader’s pleasure to reveal Parfitt’s theory. One popular idea he knocks on the head is that the ark fetched up in an Orthodox church in Ethiopia.
Key to the story are the Lemba tribe in South Africa, whose claims to be descendants of Jews from the Middle East have been lent credence by genetic research and whose priests are delightfully known as the Buba. Parfitt’s quest also carries him to the tomb of the Prophet Hud in Yemen.
But there is a glorious detour to the Gogodala, a group of former cannibals in Papua New Guinea who also claim to be one of those tribes of lost Jews that Parfitt has proved so adept in encountering. They avoid pig; but they like python, a fine green specimen of which is served to the professor. “This is what we usually eat at weddings,” he is told. Eat your heart out, Tony Page.