"I realised that if I were to have a hope of discovering the source of Solomons wealth, I needed to find Ophir. Scholars and adventurers have searched for it for almost three millennia..."
An inky hand-drawn map was hanging on the back wall of Ali Babas tourist shop, deep in the maze of Jerusalems Old City. Little more than a sketch, and smudged by a clumsy hand, the map showed a river and mountains, a desert, a cave, and what looked like a trail between them. At the end of the trail was an oversized X. "Is it a treasure map?" I asked. Ali Baba, an old man with a pot-belly, glanced up from his newspaper. It shows the way to the fabled gold mines of Suleiman, he said. After an hour of negotiation, I slid a wad of Israeli shekels across the counter and left with the map. Anyone else may have scoffed at the object, or laughed at my gullibility. After all, Jerusalems Old City is cluttered with Holy Land bric-a-brac. I had a feeling from the start that Ali Babas map was suspect, for it had no place names or co-ordinates. But to me it symbolised a family obsession.
In the 1920s my grandfather, Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, an Afghan traveller and scholar, searched for King Solomons mines in southern Arabia. He felt certain that Solomon had acquired his gold in what is now Yemen. He was forced to cut his expedition short after being accused of spying. Thirty years later, my father carried on the search, scouring the Red Sea coast of Sudan. He found no gold either, but did come across a great labyrinth of what appeared to be ancient mine shafts. Not long before his death, my father cautioned me not to continue the search, declaring it to be a waste of time and money. I had never given much thought to carrying on the family tradition, but Ali Babas map changed all that.
I spent almost two years researching the mines, turning to texts like the Septuagint, the oldest known version of the Old Testament. It describes the magnificent temple that Solomon constructed in Jerusalem, near to where the Dome of the Rock now stands. The buildings interior was overlaid with the purest gold, supposedly brought from the mysterious land of Ophir. The Bible suggests that Ophir was a source of exotic merchandise, brimming with peacocks and apes, frankincense, ivory, silver and gold. I realised that if I were to have a hope of discovering the source of Solomons wealth, I needed to find Ophir. Scholars and adventurers have searched for it for almost three millennia. Ptolemy said it lay near the Straits of Malacca (off the Malaysia peninsula); Christopher Columbus was sure he had found it in modern- day Haiti; while Sir Walter Raleigh thought it was hidden in the jungles of Surinam. Others have said it was in India or Madagascar, China or even in Peru.
Eventually, in the 1880's, amid the gold and diamond bonanza in southern Africa and the discovery of the Great Zimbabwe ruins, the Victorians felt that they had at last solved the mystery. The young writer Henry Rider Haggard capitalised on the hysteria, and his rattling novel King Solomons Mines first appeared in 1885. As my research progressed, I became sure that Ptolemy, Columbus, Raleigh and Rider Haggard not to mention my own father and grandfather had all been looking in the wrong place. They should have been searching in Ethiopia. We know that the Israelites gained their knowledge of mining and working gold from the Egyptians, during their slavery under the Pharaohs. We know, too, that the Egyptians mined their gold in Nubia, near Ethiopias western border (nub meant gold in ancient Egyptian). The imperial family of Ethiopia claims descent from the child born to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
But, most significant of all, Ethiopia has an abundance of pure gold which unlike in other parts of Africa is close to the surface and can easily be mined. So I packed a Bible, some old clothes, hiking boots, and Ali Babas map. Then I bought myself a Gold Bug metal detector, and a cut-price ticket to Addis Ababa. As the plane landed at the Ethiopian capital, I was overcome with fear. I sensed my father and grandfather peering down at me, shaking their heads in disappointment. When I was sitting comfortably at home in London, it was easy to talk about searching for King Solomons mines. But the task at hand was difficult: a foreigner travelling in Ethiopia with a metal detector and gold-mining manuals is immediately suspected of being a spy. I had to keep the real reasons for my journey a secret or, like my ancestors, I would be beaten up. Then I met a young taxi driver called Samson. It turned out that he had worked as a miner in the illegal gold mines of southern Ethiopia. He spoke several tribal languages, and had secretly studied the country's history during the oppressive Derge regime (1974- 1991).
Taking one look at Ali Babas map, he cackled in laughter. It was complete rubbish, he said. Impressed by his candidness, I hired him on the spot. I had heard that an important manuscript was preserved at a monastery in the extreme north of the country. My informant said that the text known as the Kebra Negast (meaning The Glory of Kings) contains clues to the whereabouts of the mines. So we travelled northward, through the highlands and over the Simien Mountains, to a cliff face called Debra Damo. The monastery, which is perched at the top of a precipice, is home to three hundred priests. No women or female creatures of any kind are permitted to ascend. At the base of the cliff, we deliberated how we could scale it. As we stood there, gazing up, a plaited leather rope was lowered down.
I wrapped it around my waist, tied it in a reef knot and, as if by magic, I was pulled upward. An elderly monk led us through dark cloisters, thick with the smell of incense. He swept a scarlet cloth away from a lectern, revealing a very large book: the Kebra Negast. Handwritten in Geez, the ancient language of Ethiopia, it recounts in detail the story of Solomon and Sheba. The monk translated some of the text in a whisper. I asked him if it gave the exact location of Solomons gold mines. He narrowed his eyes, and barked at Samson ferociously in Amharic. Whats he saying? Samson replied: He says that the book does have the answers, but were not to reveal them to foreigners like you, or else you'll steal all the gold for yourself! I pressed the monk with more questions about the gold, but Samson was growing nervous. He nudged me, insisting that we leave immediately. It was maddening, especially as I thought I was on to something with the ancient manuscript. Samson told me later that the monks at Debra Damo had a direct line to God.
As far as he was concerned their wishes had to be respected. We negotiated the cliff face once again, and beat a retreat. Samson suggested we head to the south, where he'd mined gold for eight years. The journey took many days, taking us through some of the most dramatic landscape on the African continent. There were great expanses of farmland, endless forests, and rivers seething from heavy winter rain. In the West, our impressions of Ethiopia have been moulded by television images of drought and starvation, yet much of the country is lush, and breathtaking in its beauty. In a land where poverty is endemic, the illegal gold mines near the small town of Shakiso offer a chance of escape. Nothing could have prepared me for the mines. They were like a scene from a Hollywood epic of the Old Testament: hundreds of men, women and children drenched in mud, digging the ground, many with their bare hands. They had excavated a crater the size of a football pitch.
At the bottom of the pit was alluvial silt, which Samson told me contained the gold dust. The silt was scooped onto rounded wooden pans and hurled to the surface in a relay. The mine is one of many to have sprouted up in southern Ethiopia over the past fifty years. The alluvial seam probably wasn't worked in ancient times, as it would have been depleted long ago. But what was so interesting was that the mining techniques were almost identical to those devised five millennia ago by the Egyptians. Solomons slave labour mined tons of gold in the same way using wooden trays, sluices and panning pools. The big difference was that the people I saw mining near Shakiso were not slaves. They were working for themselves. Life is cheap there, especially for the fraternity of young miners, many of whom worked in tunnels, digging down to the seam. In the rainy season, when the ground is soft, fatalities are common. The tunnels collapse, burying brave men alive.
The risks may explain the miners way of life. In the makeshift village adjacent to the pit they spend their money as fast as they earn it. All kinds of illicit services are available in the dark grass-roofed shacks including gut-rot araki, gambling and prostitution. I was impressed that Samson had broken free from such a destructive existence. One morning, he told me, he had glanced into a sliver of broken mirror and seen not himself, but the Devil. He fled to Addis Ababa to begin a new life. Although Id hoped at first that these mines could be those once worked by Solomon, I realised there was little real chance of that. Yet, as we left the mines and continued westward following another lead, I was buoyed by having seen such ancient methods in action. In the 1920's an eccentric Englishman called Frank Hayter claimed to have found a cave on a remote mountain near the border with Sudan.
There, he said, he came upon a cache of gold and precious stones. He thought the find was somehow connected to King Solomons mines. In western Ethiopia we hired a herd of mules. They were savage, resented having to work, and bit anyone who got near them. They bucked, too, tossing both Samson and me to the ground. We made the long trek to the mountain, through forests and stretches of deep mud, in search of Hayters cave. It rained non-stop for a week. I kept the muleteers going with handfuls of monosodium glutamate powder. We scoured the mountain for days, but the only cave we came to ended after a few feet in a natural stone wall. If the cave was indeed there it eluded us, yet I felt certain that we were close to where Solomon mined the gold for his temple. By the time we finally reached the main road, morale was very low, made worse by mule bites and the constant downpour. Samson and I hitch-hiked towards the capital. We stopped for the night in the small town of Nejo and put up at the only hotel which wasn't a brothel.
Its Ethiopian owner, Berehane, overheard us talking of gold and Solomons mines. It turned out that his grandfather was an Italian prospector called Antillo Zappa. I knew from my research that Zappa had been a friend of Frank Hayter, and had mined gold nearby. Next morning Berehane led us out of the town and across open fields. There, on an exposed hillside, we came to a series of pits. They had evidently once been much larger, but had been filled in over the centuries by natural erosion. Berehane said that local people often found shards of pottery here, and that his grandfather believed the pits were ancient. Given the location and abundance of pure gold in the area, I think there is a strong possibility that these pits once formed part of Solomons mines.
It is impossible to say for certain without mounting a full-scale archaeological dig, and to this end I have approached the British Museum and several biblical and archaeological foundations in the United States. If all else fails, it may eventually fall to my own children to raise the funds, and thus continue the family obsession with King Solomons mines.
Words by Tahir Shah