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Finder of the lost Ark ...  and the Garden of Eden, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Tower of Babel and the 10 Commandments

 Thursday, March 15, 2001

by Peter Sheridan in Los Angeles

Descending into the heart of darkness, cramped inside a miniature submarine, British adventurer Michael Sanders sinks 270 feet beneath the surface of the Dead Sea, and thousands of years into the past.  The deeper he submerges, the nearer Sanders' sub draws to an ancient evil so malevolent that the Hand of God is said to have reached down to obliterate it from the face of the earth.

Suddenly the white flat salt sea bottom gives way to an incredible sight;  a giant grid of neatly ordered mounds rising like the ruins of a lost city beneath the waves.

"Sodom and Gomorrah... " gasps Sanders, who believes he has found the legendary cesspits of debauchery that the Bible says were destroyed by heavenly fire and brimstone.  "Unseen by the eyes of man for millennia."

This might be the historic discovery of a lifetime for most Bible scholars but it's all in a day's work for Sanders.  In his spare time he also claims to have found the Garden of Eden, King Solomon's Temple and the Tower of Babel.  He aims to have a go at finding Noah's Ark shortly.

When we meet, however, he's having trouble finding his car keys in his cluttered home.  Unfortunately, the Bible gives few clues about where those might be hidden.

The tailor's son from Leeds is an unlikely Indiana Jones.  Yet Sanders has been shot at on the West Bank, stoned by Arabs, broken ribs exploring the Dead Sea and targeted by a letter bomb which tried to help him meet his maker, presumably to get the definitive answer on so many Bible mysteries still unsolved.

"Indiana Jones has a stunt double," laments Sanders.  I do all my own exploration, and suffer all the injuries.  Worst of all, Indiana Jones is better looking than me."

But the 61-year-old Yorkshireman, who looks uncannily like an ageing George Harrison, shares one remarkable similarity with the fictional character played by Harrison Ford -- or tow, if you count a loathing of snakes --- Sanders believes he has found the lost Ark of the Covenant, and the original stone tablets inscribed with the 10 Commandments.  

Critics may jeer, and they do, but later this year, in an archeological dig that will combine scholarship and showmanship, Sanders plans to excavate the remains of the ancient Egyptian temple beneath whose weathered stones the sacred tablets allegedly hide --- all beamed around the world on live TV.

If it sounds too uber-Hollywood, that's because Sanders left Leeds at 16 and, having lived half his life in the Middle East advising oil sheiks and Arab royalty while researching Biblical texts, moved 20 years ago to California, where he now resides in Irvine, just south of Los Angeles.

Even raiders of the lost Ark have to grasp at showbiz opportunities, apparently, which accounts for Sanders' Bible exploration TV specials on America's NBC this month.  His two-bedroom home is a virtual Holy Land library.  Thousands of history and archaeology books many of them centuries old, crowd shelves that line every wall.  Satellite photos of the Middle East are strewn on a sofa.  Books litter the coffee table.  Research covers the dining table and sprawls across the kitchen.  Despite the attractions of nearby Disneyland, Sanders continues to risk his life among the desert sands.

"Why do I put myself in such danger?" he asks.  How could you find a clue about the location of the lost Ark of the Covenant, or the Garden of Eden, and not pursue it?"

To many people, Old Testament tales of Eden and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah are metaphors, fables.  To him they are road maps to discovery.  But Sanders, who claims to trace his family tree back to the Bible's King David, insists:  "This isn't about spirituality,  I try to keep spirituality out of it.  It's about scientific rational pursuit.  It's a quest for truth. 

"I don't want to prove anything.  I'm not interested in money or fame --- though some little reward would be nice," he confesses with a grin.

His ambitions are mythic as his quests:  Sanders not only hopes to recover the original Commandments but also to bring peace to the Middle East.  And he's already making headway --- he has found his car keys.

"It is widely assumed that King Solomon's Temple was on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, now a holy site and a point of bitter contention for both the Israelis and Palestinians," says Sanders.  "But I'm convinced the Temple was actually built 600 feet further south, over a running spring.  That alone could solve the peace problem.  The Palestinians could have the Temple Mount and the Israelis could have the genuine site of Solomon's Temple."

And why wouldn't the Israelis want such a prize?  Well... it's currently a scrapyard," shrugs Sanders.  Yet urging the Israelis to exchange the Temple Mount for a junkyard has won Sanders friends in high places: he has spoken several times with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.  Placing both Eden and the Tower of Babel in Turkey also won him fans:  "I'm big in Turkey," he grins.

The Bible says that a river rose out of the Garden of Eden and split into four rivers,  People have looked for 2,000 years to find it.  But  new Nasa satellite photographs show this exact configuration emerging from the desert in the north of the country.

HE ALSO found Sodom and Gomorrah by studying detailed Nasa satellite  photos, which indicated strange shapes beneath the surface at the northern tip of the Dead Sea.  The cities may have been destroyed by some catastrophe 5,000 years ago that engulfed them beneath the waters, Sanders believes.

"No submarine had even been down there before, and I had no idea I'd find a perfect 800-metre square area 250 feed down, laid out in grid form like a street map," he says.  "I've spoken to geologists and nobody suggests that they are natural phenomena.  The seashore is also laden with these bizarre balls of sulphur --- the Bible's brimstone."

But it is Sanders' claim to have found the broken remains of the tablets handed down by God to Moses that is causing the most controversy.  He believes they are hidden beneath the giant foundation stones of an Egyptian temple that he discovered in Djaharya, on the West Bank, by following clues in an ancient papyrus housed in the British Museum.

The Ark was supposedly hidden there after a raid on Solomon's Temple in the 10th century BC by an Egyptian king.  High-tech scans confirm underground hiding spaces, he claims. But even Indiana Jones might quiver at the thought of retrieving the tablets from their resting place in the Judean hills, notorious as a training ground for Hamas terrorists.

"It's a dangerous place but worth the risk," says Sanders.  "All the places I go are fraught with political difficulties and real dangers." 

But critics wonder whether Sanders' search for truth might not be a quest for meaningless minutiae on which to hang outlandish theories. Hebrew Bible Professor Mark Bretter, of Brandeis University in Massachusetts, sneers:  "Serious Bible scholars do not take these stories as historical fact."  And Harvard Divinity School research associate Sidnie Crawford says:  "In an area that has been excavated and searched more than any other in the world, it stretches credulity."

But Robert Eisenman, professor of Biblical Archaeology at California State University in Long Beach is less cynical:  "These adventure stories appeal to the imagination of the gullible,  Yet there is the remote possibility that they are true and that's what makes them so interesting."

IN SPITE, of almost 30 years searching the Middle East for Bible mysteries, the divorced father of three grown-up children is also an easy target because he was not trained as an Egyptologist or archaeologist.  In fact, after gaining his psychology degree in London, Sanders researched ghosts and telepathy, and was among the first to join drug guru Timothy Leary experimenting with mind-altering hallucinogens.  His "discoveries" are based on Sanders' controversial rewriting of the entire chronology of ancient Egypt, placing various Pharaohs some 225 years later than do traditional scholars.

Talking with Sanders is equally unnerving, as one half expects the wrath of God to strike at any moment like a Cecil B DeMille lightning bolt. 

"He'll smite me if he wants to," shrugs Sanders cheerfully.  "What can I do about it?  But why would He lead me up this path for 40 years and then pick on me now?  Hopefully there's nothing to fear."

At least Sanders won't be disappointed, since he claims to welcome failure as much as success.  "If we find something in my explorations, wonderful," he says.  "If we don't find anything, great, because that's the truth, too.  It may be painful, or exhilarating.  It's important that people know what is fable and what is history.  The evidence can tell us, if we only look."

And if he can find his car keys in this clutter, perhaps he really can find anything.


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