Lost Ark Shrouded in Holy Smoke

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BLOOD ON THE MOUNTAIN: A History Of The Temple Mount From The Ark To The Third Millenium by Richard Andrews (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, [pounds sterling]20)

THE Temple Mount in Jerusalem hides many secrets. It was there that Abraham came to sacrifice Isaac, there that King David brought the Ark of the Covenant containing Moses's original tablets of the Ten Commandments - and there that his son Solomon built his great Temple.

The Bible describes its amazing treasures and how they were carried off by a series of conquering armies. Everything is accounted for except the Ark itself. Could it have been concealed on the spot, and still be waiting to be rediscovered? Like a real-life Indiana Jones, Richard Andrews tantalises readers with that question, although his sweeping historical survey is firmly rooted in hard fact.

Archaeologists do not have it easy. Solomon's Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, lavishly reconstructed by King Herod in Jesus's time and then razed to the ground by the Romans in 70 AD.

It is genuinely difficult to work out which chunk of masonry comes from which era, and Orthodox rabbis in Israel use their considerable power to prevent any excavations which might disturb the Jewish dead.

This is a very restrictive condition, since the Mount has witnessed much ferocious fighting and Jewish bones lie all around. The Roman period was particularly grizzly. Since the (Jewish) High Priests were required to be without physical defect, one did a Mike Tyson and bit off the ears of a potential rival.

A legionnaire who deliberately broke wind during a religious ceremony sparked off a riot in which 10,000 people were killed. As the Second Temple burned down, according to the historian Jose-phus, 'the sea of flames was nothing to the ocean of blood . . nowhere could the ground be seen between the corpses'.

Today's other key issue is Islam.

The Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to Heaven from the Temple Mount, which is now dominated by the mosque known as the Dome of the Rock.

The authorities prohibit digging on holy soil, not least because it might uncover evidence of prior claims to the same ground.

Plucky Englishmen once managed to overcome such obstacles.

Lieutenant Charles 'the Mole' Warren visited the site in 1867, bringing along a huge pet lizard he planned to take back to London Zoo. When he discovered that the local Nubian guards were very fond of grilled lizard, he used it to win them over and gain access to the Temple area.

Although fearful they might still be 'set upon and eaten up instead of the lizard', Warren and his companions grabbed this rare opportunity for archaeological research. …