The shifting sands of northern Yemen’s Rub al-Khali desert and the robed and turbaned local tribesman at my side were my only companions as I made my way to the excavation of the ancient city of Marib. I was perched uncomfortably on the back of a rank-smelling camel I’d named Otis, and I was exhausted from my travels. The incredible heat had sweat pouring down my back in rivers and my bones ached from the camel’s heavy, loping gait.To Be Continued
My guide led me to the base camp of the international archaeological expedition that was currently toiling in this desert hell to uncover the ancient secrets and treasures of Marib, the city of the legendary Queen of Sheba, long-buried here along the ancient trade routes to Oman.
I remembered from my school days that the Queen of Sheba had ruled a vast empire of wealth and power in this part of Arabia, encompassing land on both sides of the Red Sea, including much of what’s now Ethiopia and Somalia. It was an empire built on the spice trade in frankincense and myrrh.
Now that vast empire was buried beneath the ever-changing white sand, and all that showed of it were a few giant limestone columns and crumbling walls poking up from below the ground amid the tent city of the archaeological expedition.
Doctor Richard Brendon, one of the team leaders at the Marib dig, greeted me. He and I went way back – and I owed him a favor or three. About five-foot-eleven, with dirty blond hair and a frame that implied long and physical labor, Dick looked at least fifteen years younger than his true 67. I wish I’d aged as well.
At his side was a beautiful young woman in her late twenties. She wore khaki shorts and an olive-green tank top. Her skin was dark and dusky, and black sunglasses hid her eyes. A brightly-colored scarf was tied up on her head around her dark hair like a turban.
"Walker," Dick said. "You made it!"
"No thanks to this damned camel," I spat as I clumsily dismounted the kneeling beast. "I think he was trying to shake my tired old body apart."
"Worth their weight in gold, Joe," Dick said, a broad smile creasing his rugged face. "Even after thousands of years, there’s no better way to travel the sand."
I shook his hand. "Damn, but it’s good to see you," I said.
"You too, Walker." Dick turned his attention to the young woman at his side. "Allow me to introduce Doctor Talia Khari, an assistant curator from the Cairo Museum. She’s part of the international team, and she’s been a great help in our work."
"Thank you, Doctor," she said softly. Even though I couldn't see them but I was pretty sure she had her eyes fixed on me behind the dark glasses. For some reason, that made me nervous.
We retired to Brendon’s tent, where a makeshift field office greeted me. Wooden tables were covered with tools and old pottery. A few bronze statues shined amid the rubble. A couple of old Army cots and a small, portable refrigerator made the tent seem almost homey. Dick showed me to a battered folding chair and offered me a beer. "It’s cold, Walker. That’s the real reason we haul gas generators out here, you know: to keep our beer cold."
I took a deep pull on the green bottle. The brand was unfamiliar to me; the label unreadable. The cold liquid rushed down my paper-dry throat, washing away a day’s worth of sand and grit. It was the best beer I’d ever tasted.
"I’m glad you could come, Walker," Dick repeated. "I think we have something here that would be of great interest to your readers. You know the story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba?"
"Only what I saw in the movies. Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida, right?"
He grinned. "Forget Hollywood, old friend. Around 940 BC, the Queen traveled to meet with King Solomon of Israel. The Bible tells us it was to seek the King’s wisdom. But it’s all pretty vague what that wisdom actually was.
"For two years, teams have been using radar to map the ruins under the sand. We use the radar data to help determine where we’ll dig next. Just now, we've been concentrating on excavating the Mahram Biquis – the Temple of the Moon God. It’s a magnificent structure, still mostly intact, and full of new discoveries." He turned to Dr. Khari, who sat nearby; hands folded in her lap. There was an odd tension in her posture, but Dick seemed unaware of it.
"A week ago, Talia found references to a previously unheard-of document. If we can actually uncover it, it will be the greatest archaeological discovery since the Dead Sea Scrolls!"
"What is it?" I asked.
Talia Khari spoke up. She’d removed her sunglasses in the tent and her eyes were black and bottomless. "The Scroll of Solomon. The actual wisdom and word of Solomon, passed to the Queen of Sheba, who he regarded as a righteous woman. If it still exists, it would be priceless."
"And you think it’s buried out there somewhere?"
"We’re sure of it, " said Dick. "We’ve been working for the last five days to uncover the chamber said to be the reliquary of the scroll. It’s a small antechamber deep in the heart of the Temple."
He went to the small refrigerator and pulled out two more beers, untwisting the caps with a massive hand. "Your arrival is particularly well-timed, old friend," he said as he offered me one.
"Tomorrow we open the Chamber of the Scroll of Solomon."
Monday, November 10, 2008
The Walker Files: The Scroll of Solomon, Part 1
Here's one last "Joe Walker" adventure from my tabloid days. The second part of this story will post on Friday. Hope you folks have been finding these entertaining, at least.