I PRESENT HERE THE FIRST IN SERIES OF TEN EXCERPTS FROM MY NEW NOVEL (Paperback available from Amazon and on Kindle and to order online from selected bookstores)
Tragedy, Travesty, Tapas and the Ark of God
“ … Creator of all things above and below … Thou art the One, Creator of all that is, the One; the only One …”
Egyptian hymn to Amun-Re
“…Blessed be He, who extends the heavens and establishes the earth…He is our God; There is no other.”
‘Alenu’, ancient Hebrew prayer
‘Coño! This had better be good José―damn good!’
‘Don’t worry Alex! This is beyond good.’
‘Beyond my powers of description at any rate―but what the hell took you so long getting here?’
‘All flights out of Almeria were cancelled because of the storms―I had to get the bus up here―that’s what the hell took me so long! Anyway, I’m here now, so why don’t you just show me what all this fuss is about and then I’ll let you know if it was worth my while spending the last twelve hours aggravating my haemorrhoids on a wooden seat on a clapped out coach with no suspension on the worst damn roads in Europe!’
‘Just wait till you see it. You won’t believe your eyes.’
The tall, youthful, blond haired José Sanchez grabbed the slightly older, shorter, dark haired Alex Martinez by the arm and guided him energetically down an alley way into a small stone courtyard.
‘Here it is Alex’ José said pointing eagerly towards a large rectangular hole next to which was a neat mound of rubble and dirt. ‘Look at that and then tell me I was wrong to call you. The moment we uncovered it I knew this was work for you…’ José stopped talking for a moment when he saw Alex’s face, then said ‘I told you didn’t I?’
At first Alex could not speak. His mouth fixed open in amazement, his hands on his hips, his head shaking in sheer disbelief at what he was looking at. Then, after a minute or so he took off his spectacles and cleaned them with his shirt. Still shaking his head, squinting into the pit he said, almost lost for words, ‘Oh coño! A wonderful thing…a simply wonderful thing…’
It was late April 1974 when José had been commissioned by the department of antiquities to do the exploratory dig along the outside of the eastern wall of the 14th century Transito Synagogue in Toledo.
His original task had been to check the state of the foundations of the building but soon after his men began digging, the walls of what appeared to be a subterranean chamber were uncovered. By the following evening they had exposed the entire chamber.
It was in the form of a skewed rectangle, about eighteen feet long by twelve feet wide and ran lengthways roughly parallel with the rear of the synagogue. It was just over seven feet deep with a floor of exquisitely hand painted glazed turquoise-green tiles.
However, it was not the chamber itself that prompted José to approach The National Heritage Institute in Madrid and demand they summon Spain’s leading medievalist and archaeologist, Professor Alex Martinez as a matter of urgency. It was the additional discovery of a small structure standing within the sunken chamber.
It measured just over eight feet square at its base and stood a little more than five feet in height. It was in the form of a steep sided trapezoid; a flat roofed pyramid and constructed of large sand coloured limestone blocks.
With no floor of its own the structure sat on the tiles of the host chamber as a solid canopy. The narrow seam between the base of the structure and the tiled floor was sealed with mortar.
Now, as Alex Martinez peered into the chamber for the first time, and as José had correctly predicted, he found it hard to believe what was before him.
It was not merely the beauty of the structure sitting on the sumptuous tiled floor; it was the fact it existed at all, there, in that place, from that time.
To his certain knowledge, outside of cemeteries trapezoid constructions were unheard of anywhere on the Iberian Peninsula after the end of the Roman era. To discover one like this in near perfect condition, apparently dating to the Middle Ages was, in both archaeological and historical terms, a revelation. But in addition to its uniqueness, there were several intriguing features of the structure itself.
It had no doorway or normal access point of any kind.
Yet, at some time since its completion in the thirteen hundreds someone had gained access to its interior by removing the roof.
The now exposed interior space was just over five foot square at floor level. The surface of its inner walls was elaborately panelled in hardwood overlaid in an opulently thick layer of pure gold leaf.
The wall blocks were eighteen inch thick ashlar, apparently cut with stone flints rather than iron or steel chisels.
And most intriguing of all was a faint blue inscription on the right-hand cornerstone on the east facing outside wall.
Although Alex could not decipher it he remembered enough from his time as a student volunteer on digs in Israel to recognise the language of the writing. It was with a fair degree of astonishment he observed that the words were written in a script dating back to many centuries before Christ. The inscription on the cornerstone was in early Hebrew.
The instant he saw the inscription Alex knew that he required additional specialist expertise both to determine its date and meaning and also to help him unravel the other mysteries of the canopy’s construction.
To that end, the next day after he had first assembled his own team of archaeology students from the local university to begin the task of further investigating the site, he sent a photograph of the inscription together with samples of the stone and the timber and gold panelling up to the Department of Antiquities in Madrid for analysis.
However, there were two more aspects related to the state of the site itself and the condition of the canopy which were not merely intriguing to Alex but which he also found vaguely troubling.
Alex was familiar with the reports of all the restorations and excavations done at the synagogue since the time it had been used by Napoleon’s troops as a barracks during the Peninsula War and none of them mentioned the sunken chamber or the canopy. Yet, from the loose condition of the dirt fill and the fact it consisted mostly of aggregate typically used in modern road making Alex determined that the site had been covered over during the 1964 works, just ten years earlier.
As he observed and supervised the students going about their various tasks in and around the canopy he pondered why such a remarkable discovery was never publicised and why had it then been covered over again? ‘Could it be’ he wondered, ‘something to do with the other element of the puzzle? The fact that the removal of the roof also dated to the 1964 works…’
‘I didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work that out’ Alex told a colleague over tapas later that evening in Madrid bar.
‘How can you be so sure?’ queried the colleague.
‘Because of this non-medieval artefact I found on the floor inside.’ From his briefcase Alex produced a twelve inch flat headed drill bit with a broken tip. ‘Whoever removed the roof used this’ he stated placing the bit on the bar. ‘So far as I know they didn’t have pneumatic drills in the fourteenth century.’
His colleague looked suitably intrigued.
‘And that’s not all’ added Alex. ‘We also found ropes and a crowbar.’
‘Quite a tool kit!’
‘All the tools required in fact for lifting off the loosened roof and preventing it from crashing down onto whatever was inside the canopy. Most of the roof is still intact on the floor of the host chamber.’
‘But wouldn’t it have been simpler to cut through the side walls?’
‘No. Whoever did this tested the thickness of the stones first. There are probe holes drilled into both the walls and the roof and the roof stones are only a quarter of the thickness of the wall blocks. It made perfect sense to go through the roof—far less work and much less risk to whatever was inside.’
‘Have you told the people at the department about this?’
‘I haven’t had time yet. I’ll do it first thing tomorrow.’
But the next morning something happened that caused Alex to reconsider this line of action.
When he arrived in his office at the institute, there on his desk barely a day after he had submitted the samples for examination was a thin dog-eared envelope with the words “analysis results” scrawled across the front in biro.
The slim envelope instantly set alarm bells off in Alex’s head. He knew that meaningful reports took weeks and more often months to complete and would be presented in the form of a weighty file. But when he then read the note contained within the envelope his alarm turned to dismay:
Dear Professor Martinez,
Following careful examination we find nothing remarkable to report with regard to the nature of the stone, the timber or the graffito at the Transito site.
In the light of these unexceptional findings it has been decided to resume the engineering works to the synagogue’s eastern wall in the interests of securing the building with immediate effect.
The Department thanks you and your team for all your efforts in this matter.
Diego Ruiz – Chief Secretary, Department of Antiquities
Alex immediately telephoned his main contact at the department, the medieval projects manager Miguel Garcia.
Garcia claimed tersely that he knew nothing about it and refused to put him through to Ruiz saying that the director was busy. He then offered Alex a piece of ‘friendly advice’ to ‘drop the whole thing.’
Alex reminded Garcia that he had ‘uncovered a site of potentially great importance to the cultural heritage of Spain and that ‘both as an archaeologist and a patriot he was bound to publish a full site report.’
‘Nevertheless’ Garcia told him, ‘do not under any circumstances publish a report.’
To which Alex replied; ‘You mean like the people who discovered the structure in 1964?’
For several seconds there was silence at the other end of the phone. Then Garcia asked; ‘How the hell do you know that it was discovered in 1964? How can you know that?’
‘I’m trained to know these things Miguel’ he replied surprised at the effectiveness of his gambit. ‘It’s what the government pays me for. Now would you be so kind as to tell me what this all about? What’s with all the fucking secrecy?’
Alex’s swearing had an incendiary effect on Garcia. ‘There’s no fucking secrecy!’ he yelled. ‘No fucking anything! Just a fucking boring, fucking meaningless little fucking structure…’
‘Meaningless!’ Alex cried back. ‘A structure unique in Iberian medieval architecture decorated with enough solid gold to shame the tomb of the average Pharaoh! A structure moreover in perfect condition—except for the fact ten years ago someone removed its roof and then covered it over again as if nothing had happened? If that’s meaningless then I’m a Dutchman!’
‘Alex, I’m telling you again as a friend’ Miguel said quietly, almost pleading, ‘just forget all about this. It’s all a mistake, a bloody great cock-up!’
‘A mistake? What do you mean a mistake?’
‘The excavation Alex—the excavation was a mistake. It should never have been sanctioned. Whoever ticked off on the excavation didn’t know. He didn’t know about the original works in 64. But now they’ve found the old records and it should never have been sanctioned. The Caudillo himself is raising hell here Alex. Please, please just let it go.’
Both the desperation in Garcia’s voice and the mention of Franco were disturbing. Alex had always enjoyed a cordial and constructive working relationship with Miguel Garcia. He’d found him to be an affable chap always willing to go that extra mile for a colleague. This exchange was totally out of character.
‘Listen Miguel, I don’t want to make problems for you. I just want…I just need to know one thing and then I’ll leave you alone. I promise.’
‘What is it?’
‘Whoever took the roof off the canopy found something inside it and whatever it was they removed it in a big hurry…’
‘How do you know all this?’
‘Why else would they have deserted nearly half a ton of gold panelling? They must have found something so…so hot…’
‘I don’t know Miguel! Hot, incredible, astonishing―something so precious in some way that they ignored the gold and covered up their tracks in a rush.’
Garcia did not respond. Alex could hear him breathing heavily down the phone.
‘I won’t write anything Miguel. No report. But please just tell me what was inside the structure?’
After another few seconds Garcia eventually said in a low weary voice; ‘Nothing Alex…they found absolutely nothing.’
‘You swear to me that’s the truth Miguel? You’re telling me that the Caudillo is getting all worked up over nothing because you’re acting like they found the fucking Holy Grail or something?’ Again silence at the other end of the phone.
Calmly now, he repeated the question; ‘Miguel. Do you swear to me that what you just told me is the truth?’
Garcia hung up without answering.