Scholar wants to dig in West Bank for lost Jewish ark

The British-born Sanders, a publisher of classical university texts who now lives in Irvine, has spent more than 25 years researching biblical history.

Now the 58-year-old is hoping to excavate the site, where he has detected the contours of an Egyptian temple that he believes may have been built over the burial site of the biblical Ark of the Covenant.

"There will be archaeologists with us," he told the London Sunday Times this week. "But the search for the ark is bound to be more of a treasure hunt than a classical archeological dig."

The Ark of the Covenant — which traditionally is believed to hold the Ten Commandments inscribed at Mount Sinai around 1250 BCE — disappeared from Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem after a raid by an Egyptian king in the 10th century BCE.

The ark was never recovered, and its location is one of the most enduring and fascinating biblical mysteries.

Sanders believes the ark was seized by Egyptian King Shishak when Solomon's Temple was plundered in 925 BCE, the first in a series of Egyptian raids on Jerusalem.

He says papyrus documents in the British Museum have identified an Egyptian temple at the southern end of the West Bank, beneath which the ark may have been buried.

"This temple is referred to in the papyrus as a `mysterious house in the land of Zahi,'" which Sanders said is a reference to the Egyptian god Amuna Ra.

In 1830, the American explorer Edward Robinson walked the route that had been taken by the invading Egyptians and found ancient ruins at the village of Dhahiriya.

Satellite images have also revealed ruins at the southern end of Dhahiriya, which Sanders believes are the remains of an ancient Egyptian temple.

"The village is still there and is the most likely resting place of the tablets of stone," said Sanders. "If the Egyptians had just seized the most sacred religious codes from the people they had invaded, they would have laid them in the foundations of their new temple."

Jonathan Tubb, an expert on Syrian and Palestinian archaeology at the British Museum, agrees that it is "very reasonable" to suggest the ark was looted by Shishak because that would have been the first opportunity to remove it from Solomon's Temple.

"If an Egyptian temple can be identified, it would be a great place to dig," he said. "It could solve all sorts of mysteries."

However, Sanders must overcome two hurdles before he can put together a team to search for the lost ark.

First, he faces the bureaucratic problem of where to go for permission to dig — to the Israeli or Palestinian authorities. Second, there is a security problem: The location of the site is also a training ground for Hamas terrorists, he said.

"It is in very dangerous territory," said Sanders. "But it must be worth the risk."