Guest Columnist: Mission impossible
The Parker mission failed to find the golden Menora, but cleared Hezekiah’s Tunnel while looking for it.
Menorah in old city Photo: courtesy/itraveljerusalem
Just over a hundred years ago, in August 1909, a luxury yacht sailed into Jaffa
harbor. It carried Captain Montague Parker and a group of his friends, with some
rudimentary mining equipment and a stash of pounds sterling. Parker was on his
way to Jerusalem to find the treasures of Solomon’s Temple that, he had been
told, were hidden in a secret passage under the Temple Mount.
Parker had been an officer in the Grenadier Guards and distinguished himself in
action during the Boer War in South Africa. He had risen to the rank of major
but retained his substantive rank of captain, that being better known to the
world at large. At the end of the war he was at a loose end and happened to meet
a Finnish amateur Bible scholar called Valter Juvelius, who had researched
arcane Hebrew and other documents and come to the conclusion that the Temple
artifacts were to be found in a secret location in Jerusalem. All he needed was
the money to mount an expedition to search for the ancient
Parker was interested and agreed to raise the funds if he
could lead the enterprise.
Being the nephew of the Earl of Morley, Parker
had aristocratic connections and was able to raise the necessary sum of £50,000
– equivalent to several million pounds today. The sponsors would receive their
share of the rich findings; the Ark of the Covenant alone was considered to be
worth 20 times the sum needed for the expedition.
Once the money was in
hand, Parker went to Constantinople to get the necessary “firman” or permit to
start the dig near the Temple Mount, which he obtained by judicious bribery. He
also persuaded two of the underpaid Ottoman officials to come to Jerusalem, for
the princely sum of 200 Turkish pounds per month, plus a share of the booty, to
supervise the work.
All was now ready to go. From Jaffa the team rode to
the recently completed Augusta Victoria Hospice on the Mount of Olives to set up
their base. The grand building had recently been completed in honor of the
consort of the German kaiser, who had ridden on horseback into the Old City,
through the enlarged Jaffa Gate, in 1899.
With the help of his two
Turkish supervisors, Parker and his men claimed an area of ground near the entry
to the Gihon water system, known at the time as the Virgin’s Spring, which was
then fenced off and guarded by Turkish troops, who did not allow entry to any
locals or other visitors. The Jerusalem Pasha Azmey Bey had been suitably bribed
to turn a blind eye to the work.
Parker’s activity naturally aroused the
intense concern of the local archeological community. The Germans, French and
British all had their missions in Jerusalem, but Parker would give out no
communication and allow no inspection. His men proceeded with the digging, but
they were amateurs and it went slowly and with little result.
London, the Finnish scholar Juvelius had hired an Irish medium, who studied the
documents and sent directions to the team about suitable locations. He advised
Parker to search the long water tunnel, so Parker sent to London to obtain the
services of two mining engineers who had worked on the Metropolitan Railway, the
first line of the London Underground. Then he made another excellent
He persuaded Père Louis-Hughes Vincent of the Sainte-Etienne Ecole
Biblique in Jerusalem to join the team and guide them through the water channel,
known as Hezekiah’s Tunnel, where the Irish medium had reported they would find
a secret passage to lead them to the treasure under the Temple
Père Vincent was professor of archeology at the famous French
school and was known locally as the pre-eminent expert on the archeology of
Palestine. His presence on the dig gave it immediate respectability in the eyes
of the local archeological missions.
THE WATER tunnel had been discovered
70 years earlier, but the first genuine explorers crawled through it only 30
years later. They were Lt. Charles Warren and Sgt. Birtles of the Palestine
Exploration Fund, who braved a tunnel full of silt, debris and rotting domestic
waste. Parker decided to have it fully cleared to enable him to find the secret
passage. Vincent agreed to join the expedition as he saw this as a
once-and-for-all opportunity to examine the tunnel in detail, which would be a
great contribution to the archeology of Jerusalem.
When Warren and
Birtles had gone through the tunnel in 1867, they had had to proceed on all
fours, with compass, notebook, pencil and candles held in their firmly clenched
teeth, as they crawled through on their bellies, all the time in danger of being
overwhelmed by a rush of water and refuse.
Nevertheless, Warren managed
to make a reasonable survey of the tunnel and to discover several passages at
the Gihon end, one of which is still known as Warren’s Shaft. Père Vincent was
able to follow the same trail, but he did it in relative comfort after Parker’s
men had cleared the full half-kilometer length of tunnel. Vincent was happy, but
not so Parker, as no secret passage leading under the Haram es-Sharif had come
The survey that Vincent conducted was a fully accurate piece of
work and he very shortly after published his plans and a detailed account of his
findings in French, closely followed by an English version in 1911. That
publication is still considered to be the standard work on the layout of the
The clearing of the tunnel was useful to Vincent and all students
of ancient Jerusalem. But it was of little use to Parker, who now telegraphed
London desperately for more guidance. The reply came that Parker was to start
work on the Temple Mount itself, at the southeast corner in the area of the
socalled Solomon’s Stables. This called for further bribery, but that did not
He and his men worked for several clandestine nights on the
Mount with little success, and the Irish medium now advised them to start
digging in the Cave of the Spirits itself.
This was the cave under the
Even Shetiya, the Foundation Stone in the center of the Dome of the Rock from
which, by tradition, Muhammad had ascended to Heaven on his steed El-Burak, and
on which, two thousand years earlier, Abraham had prepared to sacrifice his son
There was an ancient tradition that within the cave there was a
shaft, known as the Shaft of the Spirits, that led down to a secret hoard of
fabulous treasure, and it was this that Parker now had to find. Luckily both the
Jerusalem pasha and the guardian of the Dome of the Rock, Sheikh Khalil, had
been well bribed (but not the humble keeper, who guarded the Dome during the
Parker proceeded on this tricky task one night in April 1911.
Unfortunately for him, the keeper, who usually went home at night, decided to
sleep in the Dome that night, as his house was packed with visitors for the
Muslim festival at Nebi Musa (on the road to Jericho, from where the tomb of
Moses could be sighted), which coincided with the Jewish Passover and the
Christian Easter. So that night the city was full of visitors and
The noise made by Parker and his men hammering and digging in
the cave woke the superstitious keeper who, imagining ghosts and spirits, rushed
to the cave to find it full of strange-looking workmen. He ran off screaming and
shouting to raise the alarm and call the police.
The story soon spread
among the faithful milling around the Temple Mount and a large crowd attacked
the guardian of the Dome of the Rock, who had been alerted and had come to
restore order. But order was impossible as rumors spread that a group of
infidels had infiltrated the cave and made off with the Crown of Solomon, the
Ark of the Covenant and the sword of Muhammad.
Taking advantage of the
public furore, Parker and his men had quietly slipped out of the city and back
to Jaffa. But the game was up as the police had telegraphed to Jaffa, where
Parker and his men were apprehended, and became the focus of another angry
Parker was able to show that he did not (unfortunately!) hold any
of the assumed treasures and invited the police to come to his yacht that
afternoon to search for the treasures and discuss the matter in peace and
The officers agreed, but of course when they sailed out to the
yacht, it had slipped anchor and was well out to sea. So ended the archeological
career of Montague Parker and his merry men, and a mission that was doomed to
failure in spite of the efforts of Valter Juvelius and his anonymous Irish
medium, and the expenditure of large sums of the money of the British
Nothing further is known of Parker, and how he dealt with
his disappointed sponsors, but he left two legacies, good and bad.
first was the excellent work done by Père Vincent, whose survey and findings are
still used by today’s archeologists. The second, the bad result, was the
animosity created by the adventurers, now extended to genuine archeologists,
which is one factor that makes it impossible for research to be conducted on the
Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg is a Senior Fellow of the W.F.
Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.