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Real-life historical treasure hunt a riveting read

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/4/2016 (493 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the exciting film Raiders of the Lost Ark, archaeology professor Indiana Jones faces off against Nazis — and his French nemesis, René Belloq — and eventually his achievement is defeated by government bureaucracy.

Professor and journalist Chanan Tigay has constructed an equally thrilling and suspenseful true story of lost antiquities and intrepid modern investigations, managing to mine this tale for realistic entertainment more worthy of Indiana Jones than most Raiders sequels.

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Born in Jerusalem, Tigay teaches creative writing at San Francisco State University. He has published articles in The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly. He collaborated with photographer Colin Finlay on 2012’s Nuclear Meltdown USA: Could Japan’s Power Plant Disaster Happen Here?, exploring whether a Fukushima-style accident could take place in the U.S.

The Lost Book of Moses tells the story of 19th-century antiquities dealer Moses Wilhelm Shapira, whose dealership supplied artifacts and documents to the British Museum as well as other illustrious institutions and individuals.

"As the popularity of biblical archaeology grew, Jerusalem naturally became the center of the antiquities trade. Just as naturally, it became a hotbed for fakes."

Shapira suffered humiliation and family tension for selling counterfeit "Moabitica" — pottery with ancient Semitic inscriptions. Such items were in demand after the discovery of the Moabite Stone, "the first confirmation of a biblical story from outside the Holy Book itself."

In 1883, Shapira began what would have been his comeback triumph. He claimed to have discovered a version of the book of Deuteronomy that was far older than any manuscripts known at the time.

Shapira’s find was exhaustively examined, and declared a forgery. He died in 1884, under violent and mysterious circumstances.

Tigay became fascinated by this story after hearing it from his father, a University of Pennsylvania professor (now emeritus) of near-Eastern languages and civilizations.

In the late 1940s, the Dead Sea scrolls proved that parchment documents could survive for millennia in the Middle East. This eliminated one reason for rejecting the Deuteronomy as fake, and caused some experts to reconsider Shapira’s manuscripts, which he said were found in similar circumstances.

Beginning with tragic and ignominious death, The Lost Book of Moses alternates between Shapira’s development and downfall as a purveyor of relics and Tigay’s own international search for the truth. The manuscripts themselves had vanished before the turn of the century.

Shapira’s story provides fascinating insights into the fledgling science of archaeology as well as the Middle East of the 19th century — as dangerously unpredictable as today, if somewhat less explosive. Some of the information about Shapira comes from his daughter, Maria, who wrote an autobiographical novel called The Little Daughter of Jerusalem under the nom de plume Myriam Harry.

While searching for the lost parchments, Tigay also discovers much more. His modern saga involves research, interviews, and searches of museums, churches and archives. While occasionally slower than the 19th-century narrative and sometimes suffering from distracting "creative writing" asides, this book’s reality puts such fictions as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code to shame.

Like Indiana Jones, both Shapira and Tigay deal with nemeses. Like Jones’ Belloq, one of Shapira’s is French. Linguist Charles Clermont-Ganneau may have had ulterior motives for declaring the Deuteronomy parchments to be bogus.

Tigay is occasionally foiled in his quest by Israeli filmmaker Yoram Sabo, who had worked for decades to find the truth about the manuscripts’ authenticity. The two briefly considered co-operating, but Tigay ends up trying to race Sabo to the truth. Sabo’s documentary, Shapira and I, was released in 2014.

The Lost Book of Moses lives up to its shadowy title and would make an excellent film itself, complete with an unexpected resolution.

Bill Rambo teaches at the Laureate Academy.

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