Clive Baxter sat across the way from the Church, making as much of the little shade available as he could, the dry dusty atmosphere was hot. He sipped at his canteen of water regularly, reflecting on this extraordinary adventure, one in a life full of adventures. Adventure, was that the correct word? Yes it certainly was. Surely adventures couldn’t come any bigger than this, this quest had everything, danger, mystery, incredible fame and fortune and world opinion changing possibilities, all of these aspects immediately sprang to mind without even having to think about it.
A wiry extremely fit 40 year old, he was a professional explorer, a man who could be hired for missions that other men couldn’t or daren’t try. Naturally these undertakings sometimes were not strictly legal such as perhaps retrieving an object who’s ownership was in dispute like in the Indiana Jones films. Baxter smiled to himself, it would not be the first time that similarities between that fictional character epitomised so well by Harrison Ford and himself had occurred to both he and several other people. The big difference was that he was a real person and actually did these things and here he was on the verge of the greatest, most demanding and exciting one of all.
He surveyed the Church again, he was really here, in Aksum, Ethiopia, inland about 100 miles South of Massawa on the Southwest coast of the Red Sea. He was looking with a practised eye at the approximately 15 metre square building with a small dome on the top of the flat roof about 7 metres in height. Metal railings roughly 2.5 metres high surrounded the building. This was it, the Chapel of the Tablet, next to the old Church of Mary of Zion. This harmless looking building in this poor Country was, supposedly thought by many authorities on the subject, to be the last resting place of that most fabled of Biblical relics, the legendary Ark of the Covenant, the vessel constructed specifically to contain the actual Ten Commandments given by God to Moses. It disappeared from Jerusalem in the 9th Century BC when they city was sacked but was always believed to have been removed from it’s inner sanctum within the Temple, the Holy of Holies, by the Priests and safely smuggled out of the Country.
Baxter considered himself a realist yet he had an open mind and had been surprised a few times during his exciting career. He did not really think that this fabulous artefact actually existed within the Church, or probably not anywhere else anymore for that matter however he was sure that something special was in there, the local clergy and inhabitants were honest to a man and they believed it as a matter of course, completely and utterly, no question whatsoever.
He had been here a month now and had slowly, gradually managed to gain a little confidence and credibility with the Priests and had eventually managed to get one of them to organise a few words with the Keeper, the Priest that, once appointed, never ever left the Church again until his death released him from his duties. He was the only person ever to see the Ark in it’s resting place in the crypt. Baxter had been introduced to the Keeper as a researcher of the Ark by one of the Priests that he had purposefully struck up a friendship with, a pleasant middle aged man called Abuna Tuma (Father Thomas). He spoke to the Keeper through the six inches gaps in the metal railings and was allowed about 5 minutes chat with him, he appeared to be in his late fifties and was dressed in black robes which smelt strongly of incense. Photographs were politely but firmly declined.
Baxter had thanked him for the opportunity of speaking to him and had asked him various questions. Who else was allowed to see the Ark? The answer was no one, instructions of the appropriate rituals were written and handed down to the next chosen Keeper at the time of the demise of the one holding the Holy office. Was it ever moved? Never. Had he ever looked at it? Certainly. Had he ever looked in it? Most definitely not. Had he ever touched it? No, only the cloth cover that was always placed over it. How often did he visit the Ark, in the Crypt? Daily, to offer incense and to say Prayers. Lastly, what did it look like? Just as the copy Ark that was paraded around Aksum on occasions, with the Cherubim facing each other on the top and being of the dimensions quoted in the Bible (approximately 45 inches by 27 inches by 27 inches). The Keeper indicated that the meeting was over and wished Baxter well in his studies and then returned back within the Church.
Baxter made a point of telling both of the soldiers that sauntered right around the enclosure singularly at opposite sides at regular intervals what a kind man the Keeper was to have spared him time to chat. In fact Baxter made sure that he visited the site every day, nodding and saying hello to every single Priest and soldier that he saw. He was creating and building on his image as a harmless academic interested in Ethiopian history and in particular the Ark. His aim was to become such a regular visitor and so well known as to be instantly recognised by all and viewed with no suspicion whatsoever. After six weeks of daily visits and staying in the local small hotel and continuously mixing socially with everyone and anyone even vaguely connected with the Church, he decided to put his plan into operation.
Contacting the original Priest, Abuna Tuma, who had arranged his meeting with the Keeper, he asked if he would do him the honour of having dinner with him at Baxter’s hotel. In Aksum this establishment and it’s modest restaurant were regarded as being relatively luxurious, certainly it posed a treat and a welcome change of menu for the Priest who looked forward to not only a more extensive choice of food than usual but also an interesting and varied conversation with this polite Westerner.
Over dinner during which no alcohol was served, Baxter expressed his sincere gratitude to the Priest for the various information that he had provided and in particular for his invaluable assistance in arranging that meeting with the Keeper. He then informed him that he would be leaving Aksum in two days time and wanted to know what he could buy him and the Keeper as a farewell gift and thanks. Was there perhaps something special that he could obtain from the larger market out of town that he intended visiting tomorrow?
The Priest was flattered but said no gift was necessary. Baxter was undaunted and enquired if there was any special delicacy that perhaps the Keeper and he, Abuna Tuma, particularly enjoyed, knowing that neither smoked or drank alcohol. The Priest admitted that both he and the Keeper were partial to a certain popular sweetmeat which was comparatively rare and relatively expensive but that Baxter need not go to the trouble of buying it. After more pleasantries Baxter bade the Priest goodnight, satisfied that his plan was moving along nicely.
The next day he drove his Land Rover out of town to Asmara where he collected the items that he had requested by telephone made to connections the previous night, after his dinner with Abuna Tuma. After returning to Aksum, early the next evening he asked the Priest if he could possibly call the Keeper to the railings in order that he could say goodbye and to give him his gift, simultaneously he gave Abuna Tuma his present, some of the expensive rare sweetmeats and delicacies previously discussed.
Obviously very pleased with the present the Priest went to request the Keeper’s presence and he duly appeared shortly afterwards walking across to speak to Baxter through the railings. Thomson again thanked him for his kindness in conversing with him and asked him to accept the gift both as a token of his appreciation and as a farewell present. The Keeper accepted the package, thanked him and gave him a blessing. Baxter thanked him in turn for the blessing and said that he hoped the Keeper would enjoy some of the sweetmeats that very night as his benevolent thoughts as he ate the sweets would no doubt help speed Baxter on his way as he intended to drive during the night when it was cooler. The Keeper assured him that he would indeed enjoy some of the sweets that very evening, which was exactly what Baxter had planned and hoped for.
As the Keeper went back inside the Church Baxter nodded to the soldiers and again mentioned what a wonderful holy man the Keeper was to which they murmured their agreement.
He returned to his small, spartan hotel room and went over the plan once again. After much thought over the last few weeks assessing the viability of his idea he had ordered the sweets with specific quantities of powerful but tasteless drugs contained therein. The five packages were not all identical and Baxter had been careful not to get them mixed up in their eventual distribution. The first two packages, the ones he had given to Abuna Tuma and the Keeper contained a sufficient quantity of the drug to induce sleep after around four hours, so assuming that the two men consumed some of the product around 8pm (it had been 6pm when he had handed them over) they ought to be fast asleep somewhere around midnight, and remain asleep for around 6 hours. So none of that timing would arouse any suspicions.
The two soldiers were an entirely different matter. Fortunately it was the same two men on duty all night until 6am in the morning but he could not afford to have them falling asleep during daylight hours, someone would notice and an investigation immediately would be instigated. So, a quantity of the drug was used which would induce sleep after only a couple of hours. This meant that if Baxter sauntered over around 9pm before it got dark around 10pm, and gave the soldiers the gifts, apparently as an afterthought before leaving, with any luck they would be asleep around midnight or a little later. Even if they ate the sweets straight away at 9pm they would not be asleep until after 11pm, and buy that time it would be dark.
He believed that he had thought everything through thoroughly in his usual professional manner, the same attitude that had served him so well in so many previous escapades all over the world. Now all that he needed was average luck, he didn’t need good luck but he acknowledged the fact that he certainly did not need any back luck such as the soldiers not eating the tempting sweets or an unexpected inspection of the guard. Well, no plan in the world was foolproof, sometimes matters were left in the lap of the Gods. Baxter smiled to himself, “lap of the Gods”, how appropriate for this current venture.
Baxter went downstairs to the hotel’s tiny reception area, settled his bill, thanked them for their service and left a tip for the small staff in general with the Manager, receiving effusive thanks. He had paid for his room until the next day and had informed the hotel that he would be leaving sometime during the night. He packed his cases and put them in the Land rover, returning to his room and collecting two of the three remaining packages of sweetmeats, one acting as a spare. He lay on the bed contemplating the next few hours wondering just how it would go and if things went exactly as planned what would he find? Would it all be a massive disappointment or success beyond imagination? Well, he would soon find out. He glanced at his watch, 9.30pm and dusk fast approaching.
He went downstairs and out of the hotel walking steadily towards the Church. When he got quite near to one of the soldiers he raised a hand in greeting, the man nodded with a small smile. Baxter told him that he was leaving tomorrow and that he had already said his goodbyes to Abuna Tuma and the Keeper and had given them both a small leaving present. On returning to the hotel he had discovered that he had purchased more of the delicacies than he had intended and would therefore be pleased if the soldier would accept some. He showed the apparently well known if relatively rare and expensive sweet (presumably similar to how truffles are regarded in the West) and offered it. The soldier smiled broadly and thanked him very much stating that he would be delighted to accept it. Baxter informed him that he was also going to give the soldier’s colleague, presently walking on a level with them at the opposite exterior side of the railings, a similar present, and shook hands with him.
Sure enough when advised of Baxter’s gift the second soldier was equally pleased and also shook hands, wishing the adventurer a safe journey home. Baxter slowly walked back to the hotel giving both soldiers a final friendly wave and returned to his room where he again lay on the bed running through final plans and various contingencies.
At 1.am he rose and quietly went downstairs where no one was about, and out of the front door. It was a moonless night, not by accident. The town is not by its very nature noisy nor is it frequented by people out and about late at night and certainly not during the early hours.
Using his night glasses Baxter surveyed the Church. Not a light to be seen. He carefully traversed the entire railings with the glasses but saw no one. He stood and checked around the complete area for five minutes, not a sound and not a sign of anyone or even a cat or dog. He set out across the way towards the Church. When he reached the railings he thought to check the small Sentry box used by the soldiers. He looked in and saw one of the men slumped in the chair snoring. Where was the other? He started circumnavigating the fence and at last reached deep shadows at the rear of the Church where he spotted the other guard sprawled out in deep drug induced slumber.
Baxter though quickly, what to do? Leave him there or carry him back to the hut? He decided to leave him where he was, he would not be visible until dawn which was about four hours away and anyway Baxter would be long gone by then. He moved on to the big iron gate to the enclosure. The massive old fashioned lock was substantial and without the keys would require an angle grinder or welding equipment to defeat it. Neither of those options were practical. Baxter already knew this of course and unwound from his rucksack on his back a very thin but strong purpose made short twine-rope ladder which he cast up so that it hooked over the top of the railings. He climbed up, unhooked the ladder, threw it down on the inside of the compound then jumped down himself and rolled the ladder up and returned in to the rucksack.
He approached the Church door. During his many conversations with Abuna Tuma he had carefully asked the Priest several questions discreetly, such as were searchlights used on a night, was the area alarmed, what locks were in place? He only ever asked one such question during any one conversation daily so as never to raise any suspicions. He had been surprised when all of his enquiries concerning security were answered in the negative, no such measures were taken, after all why would a locked door be required when the Church was never empty and soldiers were on twenty four hour guard? “Anyway” the Priest had once smiled and said “we are sure that God keeps an eye on his property”.
Baxter took out a small oil can from his dark bush jacket. He squirted oil into and around the large iron ring handle, lock and hinges, checking behind him to ascertain that there was still no movement anywhere. He slowly turned the ring. It lifted the catch and he eased the door open inch by inch with very little resulting noise. When it was about a foot ajar he put the oil away back in his pocket and entered and closed the door as quietly as he had opened it.
The not unpleasant smell of incense was immediately very apparent. Producing a flash light that utilised a diffused beam that would not be as noticeable from outside the Church as normal torches, he switched it on, very careful to keep it pointed at the floor. He slowly looked around. There were several wooden benches that were typical of Churches around the world, facing an alter on which was placed the duplicate copy of the Ark used for the regular procession around the town. There were also several paintings of presumably Saints and including inevitably Christ on the cross on the walls.
To his right and half way down the Church was a door. He made his way towards it and found that it was not locked. He pushed it gently open and realised that it was the Keeper’s room, he lay on his bed in a heavy slumber, the deceitful sweets carton half empty nearby. “Well at least he will have enjoyed them” thought Baxter. Did he have any regrets that he had wormed his way into these honest good folks’ trust and that his intended actions would cause consternation and perhaps disruption to their entire way of life? No, he did not, in that respect he admitted to himself that he was an entirely selfish man.
He left the room and carefully shone the light along the walls, foot by foot. There, there it was, in the top left hand wall of the building, another door. That must be the entrance to the crypt. Baxter noticed that his heart rate had increased slightly, this was natural anytime that a rare moment of anticipation and excitement occurred. He moved towards the door knowing that only a few men had ever entered this room and no other living man at all since the present Keeper’s appointment, about six years ago.
Again, this door was not locked and he eased it open, the pungent heavy odour of incense was much stronger now. Stone stairs wound downwards to the right and he needed the torch to navigate them to the crypt where there was another door and he turned the ancient iron ring to open the latch, pushing the door open and standing on the threshold. Although the room was in darkness he noticed a tiny red light flickering on what appeared to be a small altar with kneeler on the left hand side of the room which measured roughly 9 metres by 6 metres. He recalled that Catholic churches have a red light lit when the Holy Sacrament is in residence in the Tabernacle and deduced that similarly the red light here must signify God’s presence.
Exactly in the middle of the far wall opposite was an alcove about 2 metres high and 2 and a half metres wide, ornamental heavy drapes were drawn across it. Baxter stood and let these unique once in a lifetime feelings and thoughts wash all over him then took a tentative step forward in the gloom. The whole scene was incredible, the almost fantasy surroundings, the red light flickering in the background, his own purposely dim torch illuminating whatever small area he designated in this completely and absolutely unique setting, it was truly a lifetime’s achievement.
He glanced at his watch, almost 2.am, everything was still going according to plan and here he was, at the very crunch. He stepped forward up to the heavy woollen drapes and, it had to be admitted, for all his experience, heart in mouth, he drew the drapes back not knowing whether to expect exaltation or massive disappointment. He shone his torch into the alcove. The object revealed was entirely covered by a large embroidered heavy cover almost like a vestment that priests wear on ceremonial occasions or when celebrating Mass. He carefully took hold of one end which was almost touching the floor and gently pulled it away, uncovering the hidden item, letting the cover fall onto the floor.
There in front of him, just18 inches away, resting on a stone base roughly two feet high and three feet long, it stood. The fabled Ark of the Covenant or at least the best possible copy of the Ark in existence. It was complete with the facing Cherubim with outstretched wings towards each other on the top, the whole surface covered in what looked like genuine beaten gold, even the two carrying poles were inserted through the two rings at each side, and the measurements which Baxter of course had committed to memory, looked absolutely correct.
What to do now? There never had been any question of attempting to steal the relic, that could never have been achieved without loss of life to the defenders and subsequent international outrage and criminal charges. However, being the principal person of the group that discovered and proved it’s existence would bring massive rewards from newspapers, books, TV and film offers not to mention the lecture tours, always officially denying of course that it was really him who was guilty of trespass etc., merely that he “had the details on good authority” with a wink to the audience.
He took out an extremely expensive specialist camera and took several photos from every angle. Ideally of course he should obtain a tiny piece of the Ark for carbon dating purposes and the most suitable tiny bit would be a slither of the acacia wood which it was supposed to be made from. The problem was that every bit of it seemed to be overlaid with the gold. Perhaps he could scratch the tiniest fragment from underneath where it would not show.
He stood staring at the Ark turning over various alternatives in his mind. Naturally, the biggest question of all was what was actually inside it, was it empty, or were there really two stone tablets with the words of God written on them, or had any such items turned to dust centuries ago?
Against every shred of his own common sense he felt the overwhelming desire to discover once and for all the truth. After all, he had come this far and achieved so much, what was the point if he didn’t find out finally and conclusively? Was it his imagination playing tricks on his usually iron nerve or had electric tension crept into the room, the very air seemed alive, it was as if the room was waiting for him to do something after which it would immediately respond.
“Nonsense,” Baxter answered himself. The darkness, the flickering red light, his own torch and the unique circumstances had all combined to play upon his nerves and imagination as if there was some external force gathering and preparing to intervene. He decided, he WOULD look inside the Ark, he simply had to. But first he would obtain the tiny sliver of substance required for carbon dating from underneath the vessel where it would not show.
He produced a tiny scraper and receptacle and crawled underneath the Ark, laying on his back and reaching upwards intending to take a minute sample with his right hand, he moved his left hand upwards first to grasp hold of the Ark in order to steady and brace himself, his left hand touched the Ark.
CRACK! A massive bolt of blue energy instantly struck the intruder, completely vaporising him and all of his equipment leaving nothing but a small trace of dust which a sudden draft dispersed.
Inside the Ark the tablets remained where they had rested for over three thousand four hundred years.
Abuna Tuma’s perhaps light hearted words had in reality proved very prophetic, God certainly did keep an eye on his property.