Francesco is known as a meticulous priest. He is close to 75 years old and not one of the priests in the outermost southwest building in the Vatican, the one called "the Christian Symbols Building", knows exactly what his job is. Francesco arrives at his workplace every morning at the same time, descends into the deep basement to which only he knows the code to get past the thick steel door, locks himself in and leaves in the evening always at the same time. Only once a year is he absent from his workplace. That's the day he meets the Pope himself and no one knows why he merits such an honor. He's been doing this for more than sixty years.
The priests in the Christian Symbols Building have very boring jobs. They document and catalogue all the symbols that have arisen over the years of the existence of Christianity. This is a Sisyphean and boring task involving an almost never ending burrowing through old manuscripts and books. It's no wonder that none of those coming to the Vatican, residents or tourists, bothers to get to this neglected gray building. However in this building's deep basement are located the most guarded secrets in the Christian world. Treasures that have been looted by the Roman emperors over the course of the rule of the Roman Empire. The man responsible for their welfare and safety is the priest Francesco. He inherited his position from the priest who preceded him who lived to be eighty five. The position is passed down by inheritance and the choice is not random. The young priest who is to take on this position is prepared for his mission in advance by the Pope himself and is chosen for the task at the age of fifteen. Francesco guards, among other things, the Ark of the Covenant, which was looted by the Roman Titus from the Temple in Jerusalem.
Samuel Macunan is a priest. For over sixty years, he has been in charge of the basement in the church located in the Ethiopian city of Axum. No one may enter this basement except for him. Macunan inherited his position from the person who preceded him and who had served in the position for seventy years. Only once a year does Macunan allow two other priests, who have with him an oath of silence, to enter the basement with him and remain there for a number of hours. Macunan is in charge of keeping and maintaining the rarest treasures of the ancient Ethiopian people, which are called "the treasures of the Queen of Sheba", among them the Ark of the Covenant that was brought from the Temple in Jerusalem.
In the year 1867 in Jerusalem, on one dark night, a Briton named Charles Warren bribed one of the people of the Muslim Waqf [trust] who guarded the Temple Mount with twenty shillings. That night Warren managed to lower himself with ropes down one of the shafts that he had excavated and make his way into the space of a small cave deep in the earth. The long box that he discovered there was open and you could tell that someone had looted it. It was a deep carved box with the remains of stones and dust in it. Warren quickly removed the pure gold leaf that had been fastened to the corners of the box and placed them in a sealed cloth sack he had brought with him. Immediately afterwards he hurried out of the cave and climbed back up to where he had come down. That was the first and last time Charles Warren saw the remains of the Ark of the Covenant. The gold leaf ornaments made their way to the British Museum where they were hidden in one of three basements. Years later when during British Mandatory rule in Israel, then Palestine, the British closed off a certain area of the Temple Mount and tried to get to that same cave. On one of the nights they were able to locate another cave where they discovered gold and silver vessels that attested to sacred ritual. The vessels were spirited off in the dead of night and made their way to the British Museum to the same basement. However this time someone saw them doing this. An ultra-orthodox Jewish boy from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Me'a She'arim, whose curiosity led him to sneak into the excavations area, saw with his own eyes how the British were bringing the treasures up out of the earth and looting them. In time, he would tell this to his daughter and she would in turn meet me and tell me about it. And the result is a book which will soon be published by us of stories of Jerusalem of old.
I guess some of you might be a little confused. Am I telling you stories or presenting you with facts? Is something of what I wrote above true or is it absolute fantasy? To find out, I suggest you join me on a journey through the tunnels of the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem, or more precisely, on a journey through the spaces that have been found under the Temple Mount. Any one of you can come to Jerusalem and go to the Western Wall plaza and take part in a guided tour of the Western Wall tunnels. I will take you on a journey that combines imagination, adventure, fantasy and reality.
Let's start with the reality. The Muslim Waqf is actually an obstacle that stands in the way of our quest to solve the problem once and for all, of what else lies hidden in the vast spaces underneath the Temple Mount. It's clear that the Foundation Stone mentioned in the Bible marks the beginning of man. Everything began here and that's why the Temple was built on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem. But the ravages of time, nature and man has created layers upon layers of dirt and stone, and what was once visible is now hidden. I walk behind David, the guide leading me on a private tour I was given, through a long narrow corridor, a kind of tunnel and then on my right, we come upon the largest stone upon which the rest of the stones of the Western Wall rest. This is a stone weighing about 570 tons, is 13.6 meters long, 3.5 meters high, and 4 meters deep. How could people have lifted and positioned such a huge stone without the modern means we have at our disposal today. David, whose grandfather was the chief rabbi of the Jews of Georgia, walks me through an aqueduct that brought water to the precinct of the Temple Mount. The source of the water, which served the residents of the Temple Mount in ancient times, has not yet been determined. I imagine in my mind's eye fighters from different periods coming through these canals and tunnels and trying to locate the holy of holies and loot its treasures. Even someone who is not an expert can discern the many changes the place has been through and the different styles of construction. Along our journey on foot we arrive at a place called "across from the Holy of Holies". Jewish women are permitted into this narrow space and they pray facing a closed off wall framed by and arch. The belief has it that this is the closest and most direct point to the Holy of Holies, to the foundation stone from which it all began.
At a certain point, the names get all mixed up: King Solomon, King Josiah, King Herod, the Romans, the Mamelukes, the Crusaders, the Turks, the British and the Waqf. And that's the greatest mystery of all. Why does the Waqf raise the issue of the excavations at the Temple Mount to the greatest level of extremism that man can find himself: life threatening danger. Any attempt or beginning of an attempt to extend the excavations to underneath the Temple Mount can lead to an explosion in this most sensitive place, maybe the most sensitive religious place in the world. We're talking about belief against belief. If the remains of the Ark of the Covenant should be discovered under the Temple Mount then Islam itself will be in danger of complete disproof and Judaism will once and for all be shown to be the touchstone of all the religions of the world and that the Jews preceded everyone else in Jerusalem and in Palestine. So the finding of the Ark of the Covenant has great importance, not only religious or ideological but also political. Is it possible that the Waqf itself has the evidence that proves that the Ark of the Covenant is in Jerusalem and they are keeping it secret?
When I try to think like a filmmaker, I'd call this hot and explosive material, the stuff of which a good adventure film is made of, and films have already been made about it. But the reality the visitor discovers in the Western Wall tunnels goes beyond anything you could possibly imagine.
The people at the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, who are involved with the legacy of the Western Wall and especially the rabbi of the Western Wall and his staff, will be happy to host anyone who comes for a visit or to make a donation. I think it's appropriate to put in a good word for them since they invest a lot of means and money to preserve what once was. Preservation and heritage are the basis for all people to understand the future. I believe that in a more innocent world the Muslim Waqf would agree and stop its resistance to the continuation of excavation into the cavernous spaces of the Temple Mount. The discoveries will be everyone's and for everyone, regardless of religion, race or gender. This may be utopian but I believe it with all my heart.
Finally, I'd like to return for a moment to the British Museum. The museum was damaged during the blitz over London and of the bombings exposed the basement with the treasures.
Kurt Brunner was a Nazi spy who operated under the guise of a London firefighter during the blitz. He was the first to report to his commander in Berlin about the astounding discovery, after he reached the premises of the museum in order to check on the extent of damage. The discovery fired Hitler's belief that the Ark of the Covenant would grant him the divine providence he so fervently desired. So he sent his envoys to Palestine, who made contact with the Mufti of Jerusalem and on one of the cold dark nights in the month of December, 1943, a group of Nazis and Muslims managed to get to the little cave in the Temple Mount precinct after months of intensive and hidden excavations under the noses of the British. The booty they took was indisputable evidence that that was the place of the Ark of the Covenant.
Now you're probably confused again. Am I making up stories or does this confirm what I said about the facts? I won't tell. I'll just say that there's a chance that in the near future some treasure will be discovered in a small apartment in a gray building in Nurnberg, Germany. The apartment owner has died and one of his grandsons came to the apartment and found a number of closed boxes in the attic. When all this becomes public, you'll know that I was the first to expose this. Until then, if you want to hear more, I invite you to come and visit me in Jerusalem and maybe I'll be able to arrange a VIP tour for you at the Western Wall tunnels, just like was done for me. By the way, if any of you have any connection with Steven Spielberg or Tom Hanks, I'll appreciate your telling them about me.
The next appointment is for the 10th of May.