In Search of King SolomonĂs Mines

by Tahir Shah
295 pages,
ISBN: 1559706414

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An Indiana Jones Type Explores Ethiopia
by Christopher Ondaatje

As any intrepid traveller will tell you, it is the accident of discovery that propels the true adventurer, and the stimulation of achievement, that drives the explorer. Being there is important.
Tahir Shah is a most extraordinary writer. Born into a respected Afghan family and educated in England, Shah has taken us in his other books into the underbelly of India, the myth of Godwanaland and into the heartland jungles of Peru. This time he takes us on an almost impossible journey deep into the mountains of Ethiopia in search of King Solomon's mines. It is an ambitious journey, fraught with danger and intrigue that at times made me wonder whether I was reading fiction rather than fact. But fact it is, and he had done his research well before plunging headlong into a brave attempt to solve one of history's greatest unsolved mysteries¨the source of King Solomon's astonishing wealth. He almost comes up with the answer too.
Shah's journey started with the discovery of a hand-drawn map, mounted into a chipped gold frame, in Jerusalem's Old City. This is followed by an analytical study of the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, produced during the third and second centuries; and of course Rider Haggard's classic novel, King Solomon's Mines, which he soon realised was of no real use to anyone engaged in a serious search for the gold mines.
The biblical land of Ophir was the crucial clue to finding the mines, but the location of Ophir has always been a mystery. And if Ophir served as the first real clue, then the second would be the story of the most famous consort of King Solomon¨the Queen of Sheba¨who "came to him with a very great train with camels that bore spices and very much gold and precious stones."
And so, speculating that Ophir and the Queen of Sheba's Kingdom lay in Southern Arabia, and realising that Ethiopia traces its descent from Menelik¨the son supposedly born to the Queen of Sheba and Solomon¨ Shah tracked down the Kebra Negast (the Ethiopian name for the Queen)¨a sacred Ethiopian text which told the full story of how Queen Makeda became pregnant by Solomon before she returned to her native land.

And Makeda (the Ethiopian name for the Queen) came to Jerusalem and rested in Solomon's palace, which was also fashioned from gold. She gave him precious beakers and fine objects of much gold, pure gold. And she asked him hard questions and he answered them. Makeda was stirred by the King's wisdom and power. And Solomon was moved by the Queen's beauty. So he held a banquet and sprinkled the food with salt. Makeda ate much and that night she slept in a bed beside Solomon's own.
Between their beds was a jar of water. Solomon said he would not touch Makeda if she agreed not to use what belonged to him. But in the night the Queen was overcome with thirst. She reached for the jug of water and drank from it. Solomon jumped from his bed and took the Queen, for she had stolen what was his. Makeda returned to Ethiopia, where their son Menelik was born.

Shah's adventures, his brushes with disaster, were legion. He was bitten by a frothing dog in Addis Ababa; ambushed and threatened with castration by the ferocious Danakil tribe, who display the testicles of their victims around their necks; enticed and surrounded by the hyenas of a mad hyena-man in Harar; survived reeking fever-stricken swamps while following in the footsteps of adventurers before him: Juan de Bermudez, Christian da Gama, James Bruce, Henry Salt, and eventually the manic American, Frank Hayter, whose tome The Gold of Ethiopia, published in 1936, spurred Shah to more ambitious ventures, exploring the several bat-infested ancient gold mining caves.
He travelled by taxi, bus, various vans and jeeps. Along the way his evenings were spent drinking Araki with locals and treating his drinking companions to Tigraya whores¨said to be the most beautiful women in Africa. He learned something else too. "If you wash your groin with coca-cola you won't get Aids." He was jailed and escaped only by producing an expensive high-metal detector which impressed a local official. In Shakiso and Bedakaysa he witnessed the horrors of slave labour:

The crater was the size of a football pitch and about a hundred and fifty feet deep at its lowest point. It had been carved out of the rocky African dirt, a fragment at a time. A thousand shades of golden brown reflected in the bright sunlight. The rivers were covered in mud. Thousands of men, women and children were digging with their hands. A few had basic implements, shovels or iron pikes. All were barefoot, dressed in rags and wet clothes, their skin glistening with sweat and all were labouring desperately to dig out the earth and haul it to the surface. It was right out of the Old Testament, and at that moment the notion of Solomon's mines fell sharply into focus. "For the first time I understood what I was searching for¨the secret entrance to King Solomon's mines."

His adventures continued far into the north-east regions of Africa¨probably the ancient Ophir¨in a desolate expanse of the Danakil desert. From there he went on by camel train past salt traders to Mekele and the highlands of Ethiopia¨an astonishingly fertile land. Across the border from Eritrea, he witnessed once more an open pit mine shaft. In Debra Damo, also on the Eritrean border, Shah climbed an 8,400 feet flat-topped mountain to a monastery, eventually reaching the summit by being hauled up by a plaited leather rope past rocks rubbed smooth by centuries of use. A terrifying experience. There he saw several human skeletons¨one with rotting flesh still attached to it. Vultures were feeding on the rotting carcass. This was the oldest church in Africa, on the walls of which are amazing paintings and carvings¨one of the Queen of Sheba arriving at the Court of Solomon; and another of the Abba Aregawi being hauled up by a snake!
Further and further up Shah travelled to Axum, where the Ark of the Covenant is said to be kept in the compound of the Church of St Mary of Zion, and on to the highlands of Ethiopia to Ben Shangul, where freshly dug tunnels run along rich seams of gold¨the richest in the country. Again Shah witnessed the terrible scene of children scuttling back and forth up a gruelling ascent with baskets and pans from the mine face to the river. In the distance he could see the double peaks known as "Sheba's Breasts."
Eventually, and almost at the end of the journey, Shah, accompanied by pack mules, emerged from a rain forest and arrived at Tullu Wallel. With bamboo staves and shredded blankets, which they set alight, they explored the dank caves that Frank Hayter claimed to be the entrance to King Solomon's Mines.
The curse of Tullu Wallel warns that any curious trespasser will be plagued with misfortune for the rest of his days. But what about the answer to the riddle of King Solomon's gold? This I feel is within the pages of Tahir Shah's amazing book¨but not in his conclusion. Read it for yourself. I am certain he has come as near to the truth as anyone will, for it is quite possible that the source of King Solomon's wealth lay not in any single mine but in the hundreds of caves, tunnels and pits that litter the West and North West highlands of Ethiopia.

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