True Raiders: The Untold Story of the 1909 Expedition to Find the Legendary Ark of the Covenant by Brad Ricca

“At first, I desperately sought to avoid any links to Raiders [of the Lost Ark],” Brad Ricca writes in the endnotes of True Raiders, “but I came to the conclusion that the movie will unavoidably color a vast majority of any reading experience about the Ark.”

This is an understatement about the resulting text—Ricca’s final product includes sentences such as “‘The Well of Souls,’ Monty Parker said, his face lit by fire”—but it also reflects a real constraint on the reader: If Ricca’s band of treasure-hunting Englishmen had succeeded in their quest in 1909, then Indiana Jones and the Nazis would hardly have needed to go looking for the Ark in 1936, now, would they?

But the Ark is always a MacGuffin. Montague “Monty” Parker, a Boer War veteran in line—but not first in line—for his family’s earldom, is going to the Holy Land, digging implements at the ready, because every story has to have a reason to go somewhere.

A collection of his upper-class British friends have recruited him to lead their syndicate, assembled to search for biblical treasure with the guidance of a cipher that a Finnish scholar, Valter Juvelius, assures them he is busily decoding by taking letters from words in the book of Ezekiel at numerical intervals. (“Deliver two Dimensions! Destroy at that point! And notice cave corridor! Go ahead ten!”) So to the burden of knowing that the Ark cannot turn up, the 21st-century reader adds the burden of knowing that the expedition is based on utter nonsense.

Against these difficulties, working from a motley variety of sources—including, Ricca writes, “Scripture, hand-drawn maps, notes, legends, memoirs, conspiracy theories, scientific reports, government records, and thinly disguised fiction”—the author’s main tactic is the use of entertainment-first storytelling omniscience.

Filling in the Blanks

True Raiders belongs to the genre of book where any shortcomings in the documentary record are smoothed over with abundant made-up stuff: “Where cracks remained,” Ricca writes, “I have filled them in with incidental content—dialogue or even scenes—as adhesive to help convey the facts.” A camera’s-eye narrative traces details no camera would have seen, and conversations among long-dead people have stage directions written in (“looked away quickly,” “in a more charming tone,” “shook his head”).

Valter Juvelius, of Monty Parker’s expedition, in Jerusalem.

For those of us with strict and intolerant standards for nonfiction, this obviously unverifiable stuff tends to unsuspend disbelief, sending one hurrying to the endnotes to try to get a feel for how far beyond the source texts things have strayed. Were a bunch of dilettante explorers in 1909 really inclined toward a theory that the Ark could have been a radiological weapon, powered by the Israelites’ deployment of radium, when the Curies had only just isolated it? I’d like to read the minutes of their meeting myself, to be sure.

But facts truly are stubborn things, and their stubbornness has a peculiar effect here. Despite the showmanship, there is something deeply non-cinematic about True Raiders. It hops among places, times, and points of view not so much to guide a scripted plot through its storyboard as to chase the available material where it happens to go—regardless of how near to, or far from, the Ark it may be.

The expedition’s crackpot Finnish oracle may believe the path to treasure leads through the tunnel of Hezekiah—a real place that seems to correspond to the biblical story of waterworks dug to thwart an Assyrian siege of Jerusalem—but soon after opening with an 1867 exploration of the tunnel, Ricca delivers a set piece at the 1908 Royal Ascot races. Why? Newspaper coverage put Monty there, as well as Ava Astor—the not yet divorced Mrs. John Jacob Astor, who was rumored to be friendly with him—giving the book a plausible approximation of a romantic element.

Monty Parker is going to the Holy Land, digging implements at the ready, because every story has to have a reason to go somewhere.

The newspapers also, even more usefully, supplied a scene’s worth of historical background detail: names of horses and spectators, colors of silks, the particulars of a mid-race accident.

So what if it’s not in the Holy Land? Through Mrs. Astor’s brief documented connection with Monty, we get to watch John Jacob Astor die in the sinking of the Titanic, and we pay a visit to King Tut’s newly opened tomb in 1923, with the sarcophagus and treasure still in situ. Sir Charles Warren, the man who mapped Hezekiah’s tunnel in 1867, went on in history to become the police commissioner of London, leading us to an interlude at one of Jack the Ripper’s crime scenes.

The Boer War and the Armenian genocide put in appearances, as backstory or side story, until the thought of Indiana Jones’s swashbuckling adventures gives way to the memory of the movie’s darkly comic coda, when the hard-won Ark is bundled off into a government warehouse to be dumped among rows and rows of what are presumably other accumulated oddities or miracles.

Or there’s the image of Warren himself, when he tracks down his own finds at the South Kensington Museum—“all crowded together on old shelves, without a ticket or docket to identify them”:

On one particular specimen, he found, to his dismay, “Carved wood from the Temple of Jerusalem,” when the truth was that it was from a house in Jericho, from around the fourth or fifth century B.C. And he would know; he had found it.

One way or another, there’s plenty of action. There’s a shooting of Christian tourists at the Dome of the Rock—not members of the expedition, but it does set the stage for the syndicate’s choice to do some desecratory digging under the holy site. Intrigue gathers around Juvelius’s Bible cipher: the flirtatious wife of an untrustworthy Englishman tries to pry loose its secrets; a suspicious rabbi sends agents to stalk the party’s movements; a courier with a report on the code is attacked. It’s never quite enough to make one forget that the cipher is useless.

The story is most absorbing when the source material pulls it in the other direction—when it turns away from the magic-lantern show of well-known history, slips past the shifty and ignorant British treasure chasers and their exploited workers, and descends into the caves and tunnels with Father Louis-Hugues Vincent, a real archaeologist and Dominican priest in Jerusalem. The syndicate has kept its self-aggrandizing goal and its guiding cipher away from him, so he is going underground simply and purely because he wants to learn more about what’s down there, about the history underfoot.

There is no ancient radioactive weapon for Father Vincent to find, but he doesn’t know he’s supposed to be looking for one. Instead, after examining ocher traces, ash, and a “single small tooth,” he comes away with an Egyptian pottery bowl, which made its way somehow to Jerusalem in antiquity. “This, thought Father Vincent, was the true form of the past.”

Tom Scocca is the politics editor of Slate and the editor of Hmm Weekly