Authors: James Becker
Via di Sant’Alessio, Aventine Hill, Rome, Italy
Realistically there hadn’t been too much of a trail to follow, but Mallory and Jessop had inevitably left a series of electronic footprints behind them, and given the right access and connections—which the intelligence section run by the Dominican Order possessed in most European countries—working out where they had gone wasn’t difficult. The biggest problem the order faced was the inevitable delay in obtaining the information they needed to track them. Details of some electronic transactions could be available within a few hours, but sometimes the information could take days to be collated and disseminated.
As a result, Silvio Vitale knew the two targets had booked a flight to Paris out of Gatwick within five hours of the scheduled takeoff time, though he had no idea how they had reached the British airport. The information that Mallory had hired a car in Exeter only arrived sometime
after that, and was by then irrelevant, as the two people were already in France.
He guessed that they’d either hired another vehicle in Paris, or possibly bought tickets for a train, unless wherever they were going and whatever they were looking for was actually in the French capital. The thought that they might simply be spending a few days in Paris on holiday never even crossed his mind: he had never met either of them, but he assumed that they were as keen to continue the Templar quest as he was.
As soon as the destination of the Gatwick flight had been confirmed, Vitale briefed four of his men to fly to Paris, book into a hotel, and await orders. Toscanelli wasn’t one of them. Vitale was still uncertain about his subordinate: the shooting in Devon still bothered him and although he had no proof that Toscanelli had been involved in organizing it in some way, he certainly had his suspicions. And there was a practical reason as well for not sending him. Although Toscanelli would obviously be able to recognize the targets, the reverse was also true—they would recognize him—and that was something Vitale wasn’t prepared to risk. He wanted the two of them watched, not spooked.
His men had already been in the air before another point in the electronic trail was reported to him. The targets had booked a room in a hotel in Chartres the previous afternoon. He still had no idea why they were in the ancient religious center, but at least his surveillance team now had a definite starting point for their search.
Vitale quickly prepared an encrypted e-mail and sent
it to the leader of the group he had sent. As soon as they landed, they would also travel to the cathedral city and there hopefully observe Mallory and Jessop at close quarters. The men were unarmed—they had been briefed to carry out surveillance, nothing more—and also had a range of electronic devices with them that would help record what the two targets said to each other, as well as bugs they could conceal in their hotel room, if they could gain access to it. Their diplomatic passports ensured that their luggage would be exempt from searching.
Soon, Vitale guessed, he would know a lot more about both the targets themselves and, more important, what clue or clues they had managed to identify and decipher. And then, very probably, he would be able to send in additional men and order their executions, as soon as their usefulness to the order was at an end.
“Listen,” Mallory said, “before you decide I’ve fallen off the trolley or had some kind of brainstorm, let me tell you what I mean.”
“I’m listening,” Robin said, but the tone of her voice implied that whatever he had in mind, she would take some convincing that it made any kind of sense.
“I’m not suggesting for a moment that the Ark of the Covenant is lurking somewhere at Chartres Cathedral. If—and it’s a big if—it had been taken there at some point in the distant past, it was definitely moved and hidden elsewhere at a later date, because otherwise it would already have been found.”
“If it even existed in the first place,” Robin pointed out.
“Absolutely. Personally I believe virtually nothing that’s written in the Bible,” Mallory said, “because none of it’s even approximately contemporary with what it’s
supposed to be describing and it’s arguably the most heavily edited book ever written. By which I mean that what’s included in the Bible is only what the early Church decided supported their own version of the story of Jesus Christ, and they excluded every other piece of text that contradicted it, which predictably enough meant that they dumped most of it. At least in the New Testament.
“But the Ark is one of the few things that does seem to have actually existed. The descriptions of it are fairly consistent and specific, and references to it aren’t found just in the Bible, but also in the Koran. Though it’s also fair to say that a lot of the Koran was lifted wholesale from the text of the Old Testament, so that’s not the best possible supporting evidence. But assuming the Ark was real, it’s possible to trace most of its movements over the centuries, or at least until it vanished from the historical record.”
“Which was when?”
“About 586 BC. That was when the First Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar. But the reality is that that’s a long way from being definite. As I said, as a historical document, the Bible is startlingly unreliable, and full of all sorts of fundamental errors that are incredibly easy to identify.”
“Like what?” Robin asked.
“Oh, like the battle of Jericho, for example. Joshua was supposed to march around the town blowing trumpets, and eventually the walls fell down. All complete nonsense, of course. Assuming that Joshua was a real person, which is by no means certain, when he was supposed to have
achieved this impressive military victory, Jericho had already been abandoned for well over a century. In reality, there were no walls to fall down.”
“And the Ark?” Robin prodded gently.
“The sequence of events is simple enough. Until about 586 BC, the Ark received a number of name checks in the Bible. Then Nebuchadnezzar and his army appeared and basically destroyed Jerusalem, and after that there are no more mentions of it. The obvious assumptions are that it was either destroyed during the fighting or seized as a prize by the Babylonians and carried off as a part of the spoils of war. But if they had grabbed it, then logically there might have been some later reference to it being seen in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace or somewhere else in Babylonia. Because there aren’t, the other possible fate that’s been suggested is that the Ark might have been secreted in a cave or tunnel underneath the Temple Mount by the Jewish priests before the Babylonian attack began.”
“But surely, if that were the case,” Robin objected, “once the conflict had ended and peace had eventually been restored in Jerusalem, wouldn’t the priests have recovered the Ark and put it back in the temple?”
“Possibly, but not necessarily. If the Ark had been hidden and not discovered during the looting, then the hiding place must have been pretty good. The corollary to that argument is that if the Ark had been secreted away, the only people who might have known where it was would have been the priests who hid it, and if they didn’t survive the fighting, which is quite likely, the knowledge of its resting place would have died at the same time as
they did. And that is certainly conceivable. The other variant of this story is that the priests didn’t hide the Ark, but instead sent it away for safekeeping, and many of the people who believe that think it went first to Egypt but that it’s now in Ethiopia, hidden away in the Orthodox Church at a place called Axum behind locked doors and guarded by a single priest. His job is to protect the Ark, and he remains in the church as the sole resident until he dies. The Ark never leaves the church, so it certainly could be there, or alternatively the priest might just be guarding an empty room in an empty building. Nobody knows, and there is no obvious way of finding out.
“Another story is that it ended up in Zimbabwe, but that’s quite a difficult scenario to believe. A less likely, and certainly less believable, suggestion is that it’s still in Jerusalem. In 1989 a man digging in the vicinity of Calvary claims to have found a chamber within which he saw and photographed the Ark. Unfortunately, or quite possibly deliberately, the pictures he released were so blurred as to be useless, and for various unlikely reasons nobody has been able to get into the chamber since then, so that was probably a hoax. Other suggested locations include the Languedoc area of France, where it was apparently transported by knights returning from the Crusades, and even Warwickshire in England, where it was supposed to have been taken by a Templar knight named Ralph de Sudeley in the eleven eighties. The short, snappy answer is that nobody really has any idea what happened to the Ark.”
Robin nodded. “I’ve heard some of those stories before, though not the one about the Templar knight and
the Ark being hidden in Warwickshire. But I still have no idea what the relevance of any of this is to our search.”
“The relevance,” Mallory said, “is that somewhere in Chartres Cathedral there are some carvings or sculptures that are supposed to depict the Ark being transported; I think it’s in a cart or wagon or something of that sort. I read something about that ages ago, and I only remembered it when I realized that the shape you identified could be a representation of the Ark.”
“So you’re not expecting to find the Ark itself, obviously?”
“We should be so lucky. No, of course not. But those carvings, wherever they are, are inside the building where they’d be safe from the elements, and would have been done well before the arrest of the Templars, so the date would fit. What I can’t remember is whether there’s any writing or inscriptions associated with the carvings.”
Robin finished her drink and looked across at Mallory.
“There’s only one way to find out,” she said. “Let’s go.”
Mallory paid the bill, and they left.
Identifying the carving didn’t take as long as either of them had expected, not least because they now had some idea what they were looking for, and a couple of the guidebooks pointed them in the right direction.
“According to this,” Mallory said, “the North Portal of the cathedral dates from the first quarter of the thirteenth century and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It’s decorated with apocryphal scenes from her life, as well as illustrations derived from the text of the Old Testament. And that’s where I think we need to start looking.”
Mallory and Robin climbed the steps that gave access to the portal, checking everything they saw around them as they did so. It quickly became apparent that there were a lot of carvings to inspect, most of these apparently depicting events and characters mainly from the Old Testament. They saw angels, prophets, priests, Jesus, and Mary herself. On one panel the patriarch Abraham stared upward, his hand holding the knife with which he planned to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah. Moses, his robes flowing behind him, stood as the centerpiece of one sculpture, holding one of the two stone tablets of the Covenant in his left hand.
“This place is like the Bible carved in stone,” Robin said, staring up at the carvings, her words echoing around the chamber.
“You got that right,” Mallory agreed. Then he pointed to his right. “That could be what we’re looking for.”
Robin looked up. Carved into two pillars, side by side, was a complex battle scene, marked by soldiers carrying lances, and one very clearly clad in chain mail.
“It is?” she said. “You could have fooled me. What’s it supposed to represent?”
Mallory consulted his guidebook before he answered.
“According to this, it’s a representation of the Battle of Aphek,” he said. “It comes from the First Book of Samuel and it shows the Philistines stealing the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was supposed to be guarded by two men named Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli, but they were killed in the battle, the Ark was seized and carried off to Ashdod, but that wasn’t the end of the story.
The Philistines didn’t have a good time at all with the Ark. Apparently they placed it in a temple dedicated to the god Dagon, but when they returned to the building the following day they found that the idol had fallen forward onto its face, almost as if it was praying to the Ark. They restored the idol to its correct position, but the next day it was again found lying prostrate before the Ark and broken into several pieces. That’s what this particular sculpture is supposed to be depicting.”
Mallory pointed out a part of the carving before turning his attention back to the guidebook.
“This bit’s rather sweet, actually,” he said, “though not, obviously, for the Philistines. The Ark is then credited with inflicting a plague of hemorrhoids on them, followed by a plague of mice and then a plague of boils. Not too surprisingly, the Philistines only put up with this for about seven months before they agreed to return the Ark to the Israelites. And, by way of atonement, they also presented them with five solid gold images of the hemorrhoids and a further five solid gold images of the mice.”
Robin looked at him askance.
“I can fairly easily picture what a solid gold mouse would look like,” she said. “And that would be rather sweet, but I’m having real trouble trying to work out how any sculptor could produce a copy of someone’s hemorrhoids. In fact,” she added, “I’d be prepared to pay money to see that particular sculpture. I mean, did it include the bum as well, or just the—how can I put this delicately?—relevant area?”
“I have no idea,” Mallory said, with a smile, “and maybe we’d better move on. Though if you look quite
carefully at that sculpture, there is actually a small mouse carved into it. But no sign of the hemorrhoids, which is probably a good thing. You can see the Ark,” he went on. “Just up there. There’s a carving of the Ark on a cart that’s being pulled by cows or oxen and guided by an angel. It actually looks rather more like a chest, but according to the guidebook there’s no doubt about what it is because of a carving just to the right of that scene. That depicts an open box that contains the three things that the Ark was initially believed to hold: the Covenant, the stone tablets, obviously, but also the pot of manna and Aaron’s rod.”
“And there are a couple of inscriptions directly underneath the carvings,” Robin pointed out. “Are those what we should be looking for?”
“Until we try to use them to decrypt the text on the parchment,” Mallory replied, “I have no idea. But my guess is that those words, or a combination of the two inscriptions, are what we need.”
Robin raised her camera and used the telephoto lens to zoom in on each of the inscriptions in turn, taking several photographs of each, just to ensure that she had good-quality images.
Below the left-hand cylinder, because both sculptures were carved into circular pillars, they read the words:
while under the second cylinder was a rather longer inscription that contained the same two words as part of a longer phrase:
HIC AMITITUR ARCHA CEDERIS
“That’s interesting,” Robin said.
“My Latin is a bit rusty,” she admitted, “and that does look like Latin to me. But as far as I know the word
doesn’t exist in that language. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that the word
, spelled with a double
, genuinely is Latin. I’d need to check a dictionary to be certain, but I think it’s derived from the noun
, which basically means to release or to lose.”
Mallory looked at where she was pointing.
“Are you sure you’re reading it right?” he asked. “That fourth letter of the word looks to me to be more like a
If it is a single letter
it’s very stylized, almost like a
being combined into one. I suppose it couldn’t be a sort of shorthand for indicating a double
“Maybe. I really don’t know, though that idea does seem a bit unlikely, because in fact there would have been plenty of room to have carved two letter
s if that had been the correct spelling of the verb.”
“That makes sense. So perhaps it really is meant to be a letter
. What about
? Is that a Latin verb you recognize?”
“Recognize, no,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It looks like a future participle of something, but I really need to sit down with my laptop and an online Latin dictionary to confirm that. Mind you, it’s quite possible that it doesn’t matter what the inscription actually says. If all we’re doing is using it as a code word to
translate that encrypted text, we just need the letters. The meaning of the Latin is actually completely irrelevant.”
Mallory repeated her action with his own camera, taking several pictures of the two inscriptions below the sculptures, and photographs of the sculptures themselves as well.
“There’s only one way to find out if we are on the right track,” he said. “Let’s get back to the hotel and see if it works.”