Five months after my reunion with Ali in the S-bahn in Berlin, I found myself on board a small passenger flight from Istanbul to the city of Elaziğ in Eastern Anatolia. My friend Markus and I were glued to the window, watching the drama of the panorama as it unrolled far below. On this late afternoon in March, the rugged landscape had the seemingly infinite detail of an etching traced into copper by the blazing sun.
We were nervous and high with the adventure of it all. At times we felt like characters in a spy novel – fully aware that in real life, they often end badly. Long ago at the university I’d seen the movie Midnight Express, which had left me with inescapable stereotypes of Turkish prisons, weeks of nightmares, and a lifetime phobia of passing through customs. A couple of years before I had been shaking like a leaf as I entered Turkey with Fred Luft’s group, even though – unlike the movie’s antihero – I wasn’t smuggling heroin across the border. (In fact, although my colleagues hadn’t told me this at the time, the cart I was pushing was loaded with drugs. Not heroin, but antihypertensives… When I learned this, later, I thought I’d have a heart attack on the spot.)
This time there was no reason to worry as we entered the country. Neither my name nor that of Markus would mean anything to anyone, and the only people who knew the purpose of our trip were members of a close-knit family who had the best possible reasons to keep it secret.
Coming out of the country might be a different matter.
This trip had been planned in so much haste that we’d arrived in Istanbul that morning with no idea of how we would manage the next leg of the voyage. A travel agent in Heidelberg had assured us that there was an airport in Elaziğ, but he couldn’t make reservations from Germany. “It will be easy from Istanbul,” he assured us.
Markus was cool with this laissez-arriver approach to travel, but it had been 15 or 20 years since I had done the backpacking thing. When you’re young, “Have sleeping bag: will travel” works fine. Now I found myself wondering, “Did I pack my toothbrush? Will I be able to buy one at the airport?”
In fact all we had to do was debark in Istanbul and change counters, at which point we found we could get an amazing rate to Elaziğ – the tickets for a round-trip transfer amounted to something like 100 Euros apiece. It was a relief because my wife and I were footing the bill for this whole adventure (with the help of a very generous sponsor who will remain anonymous until he decides to out himself).
The urgency of our preparations meant that I knew almost nothing about Elaziğ, except its location on the map and that it lay in a province of the same name. The river Euphrates begins in this region. If you follow its flow to the southeast, to the place where it encounters the river Tigris, you reach the purported site of the Garden of Eden. To the east, on the Armenian border, lies Mount Ararat. Mythical or not, this is incredibly exotic fare for anyone imprinted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
I was traveling farther east than I’d ever been before. Once I had been to the island of Cyprus on another adventure that had taken me into the depths of a prehistoric copper mine, in the company of an archeologist, in pursuit of another story. But Elaziğ lay a few hundred kilometers nearer to the source of the rosy-fingered dawn.
* * * * *
Pursuing the script had reached a dead end. With the family’s consent, I’d finally uploaded a sample to an Internet site devoted to ancient alphabets, without saying anything about the purported content of the text. Maybe it would excite some fanatical devotee of this arcane subject. But aside from a single on-topic but ambivalent response, the posting drew no bites, and the discussion quickly meandered off into matters that were wholly irrelevant.
At the same time my Turkish associates were clearly under stress from their mysterious partners abroad. Word about the manuscript seemed to be leaking out – little wonder, with so much at stake. Yet given their intent to control the situation with the government getting involved, this was extremely dangerous.
Ali kept giving me reports of new events. A team from Switzerland had arrived in Turkey, he said, and was trying to get in touch with the holder the document. Another tale involved a group of Israelis. Both groups had been shown a picture or two, he said, but had never seen the object itself. The Israelis, supposedly, had offered to buy the book for 26 million Euros, sight unseen. In retrospect both stories should have seemed like the wildest exaggerations. But when you’re up to your elbows in something as fantastic as this, the demarcation between the real and the fantastic was easily blurred.
There was still the possibility of trying to decode the text using computational methods. But I was unwilling to start a process that might make a stranger aware of its contents without some sort of authentication. In the meantime another expert had raised a further objection: parchment would have been valuable material in ancient times, he said, so why fill the pages so sparsely? Counterargument: the beauty of the book suggested a treasured document, to be regarded almost as art, rather than a object of practical value to be passed from hand to hand.
Any further involvement on my part, I finally told them, would require a certainty that we were dealing with an ancient manuscript, rather than a modern forgery. That would be impossible without carbon dating the object, which meant obtaining a physical sample.
And I remained intensely concerned about the family’s efforts to preserve it. If they hadn’t done anything, every day that passed was damaging the book; it might become unreadable, or simply dissolve into dust. Since I had been unable to speak with anyone directly – the person they were talking to spoke only Turkish, and I’d only heard the Berlin half of their conversations – I wasn’t convinced they were taking adequate measures.
Regarding the contents, from an academic point of view, one could work with excellent photographic reproductions as well as the original. I had been told that infrared photos stood the best chance of detecting details that might reveal traces of forgery. A perfect record would also be of incredible value itself, in case the book was damaged, siezed, or destroyed.
A flurry of telephone calls passed between Berlin and Turkey. Finally it was agreed: I would be permitted to come see it in person with one friend, who would photograph the entire book. I could also obtain a sample for testing. The only catch: we’d have to travel to the far eastern part of Turkey, on our own dime.
* * * * *
Markus is a talented artist I met many years ago while working in Heidelberg. He worked downtown in a coffee shop where I’d sometimes hole up to write while nursing a monstrous caffeine habit. Markus’ vocation was photography, but the studio route wasn’t his gig. He preferred the unfettered life of a freelancer, paying his rent through occasional hours in the coffee shop. His real work was picking up: recently he’d been hired by the city theater to take images for their posters and brochures. He was also a master of pinhole photography, a method he had used to take beautiful images of Heidelberg for a calendar. He was allowed to hang them in the coffee shop and sell them over the counter to customers.
I’d noticed and asked about them once during a coffee run. “Markus took those pictures,” I was told. He wasn’t in at the moment, but he had regular hours. We met a day or two later and after that, whenever I came in, we’d talk about photography and art.
So he came to mind when I began looking for someone to capture a record of the Bible of Elaziğ. I’d already approached another photographer friend, who reluctantly turned me down. I could live with the legal murkiness of the situation given that the book might turn out to be a forgery. But if we found out it was real, the actions of its owners might well cause a dilemma with ethical and moral dimensions beyond the purely legal ones. I was willing to cross that bridge when I came to it, but I couldn’t expect anyone else to draw their line in the same place. Whoever got involved needed strong nerves.
Markus, on the other hand, was game after we’d talked the whole thing through. He’d do some checking on his own regarding the technical requirements of photographing an ancient manuscript, but in principle he had the necessary equipment. So I went to a travel agent – a Turkish immigrant with whom I had had many conversations and planned many trips – and began looking into flights.
* * * * *
The airport in Elaziğ was a scene of total melee. The moment we debarked, passengers flowed into a throng of relatives, other people pushing forward to board the plane we’d just exited, yet others huddled around simple stands selling soft drinks and chai. Right outside the main exit there was something going on involving crates of chickens that I never figured out.
Markus and I were so obviously strange that people stopped in their tracks and stared, the way they might have regarded a pair of extraterrestrials.
Originally my Berlin contacts had intended to accompany us, but things fell through at the last minute and we were on our own. I had a cell phone number for a person who was supposed to meet us. Each time I tried to call, a man aswered in Turkish; I tried to explain our situation but couldn’t make sense of his response against the din in the backgroud. I shrugged helplessly. We stood in front of the terminal and peered across the parking area, to the long line of cars creeping along the road on the far side.
We decided to walk across the parking lot; the moment we reached the road, a slender man wearing a dark blazer got out of a car, holding a cell phone. By some miracle, it was our contact. There was an advantage to looking like total aliens.
The Berlin contingent had assured me that he spoke German; it was, to put it kindly, another exaggeration. From broken sentences we pieced together that he had spent a couple of years in Hamburg, but it had been a very long time ago. We could barely communicate as he gestured us into his car and drove us to a hotel in the center of town. Markus and I dumped our bags in a double room, then returned to the lobby. Where were served chai.
There our communication with Abdullah, as I’ll call him, seemed to reach an almost total impasse. We understood that he’d pick us up the next morning – and he’d bring along a translator. Another “cousin”, named George, who’d been studying in England.
* * * * *
After a night of tossing and turning, I woke to a stunning view out the window of mountain crests hovering over the colorful chaos of the city. Markus and I made our way down to the hotel restaurant. For breakfast we found the usual fare of joghurt, strong cheeses, bread, and small boxes of cereal – no sliced salami in a country where pork was considered unclean.
Abdullah and George joined us as we ate. We were immediately relieved to find that George had been studying philosophy in Oxford, and his English was impeccable. Finally a way to communicate; we no longer had to untangle Abdullah’s limited German vocabulary distilled through Turkish grammar.
George was there simply to introduce himself. Abdullah would take us around in the morning, he said, and he promised to join us again for lunch. Until that point he had heard nothing of the Bible or the entire situation; as the story came together for him, in two languages, he simply gaped at the three of us. He peppered Abdullah with questions, then us, faster and faster, caught up in the excitement and the madness of the whole thing.
Finally he had his feet back on the ground and could translate. Some of my assumptions were quickly dashed – Abdullah was not really the relative of the Turks I had met in Berlin. Nor did he have the book directly in his possession. He was arranging a meeting with the owner.
We discussed our plan to photograph the entire thing with George. Capturing infrared images of 105 pages, plus the object itself, would require a darkened room and plenty of time. Markus and I had scheduled the work for that day and the next; our return flight was scheduled in two days. It was essential that we see it as soon as possible.
Abdullah peppered George with questions. What, precisely, were our intentions? What would happen to the book?
I tried to explain that our priority was to capture high-quality photographs of the document before it experienced damage through handling or exposure to the air. We would also need a small sample of the document that would be submitted to carbon 14 dating. If it turned out to be authentic, at some point it would pass into the hands of experts who would surely spend years studying it, in a way which would ensure its survival and dissemination to the world.
This was a sort of fencing – edging around the legal and ethical issues at hand. Whoever possessed the book was obviously interested in maintaining control of it, despite the fact that Turkish law dictated it would have to be turned over to the government, at least if it had been found within national borders. But high-quality photographs of the document would be immensely valuable in their own right. They would not only serve as a source of vital information, particularly if it began to disintegrate, but be the basis for a translation. And they could also be used to create facsimile copies that would be of interest to scholars everywhere. Not to mention that a collection of the earliest preserved examples of Christian art would be published on the front pages of newspapers everywhere throughout the globe. The rights to the images alone could be worth millions. It might be a way for the finders to profit from their discovery without committing a severe violation of governmental regulations.
For now, though, we were still acting on the assumption that it might be a forgery. If so, as long as they didn’t try to sell it, it was simply a sort of work of art whose legal status was questionable.
The way the discussion was going had made George nervous. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to talk about anything financial,” he said. I agreed – the main thing at the moment was simply to get access to the book.
George had an appointment and promised to meet us later, for lunch. Until then, Abdullah would “show us around,” he said.
* * * * *
The morning dissolved into a strange sequence of scenes: climbing into Abdullah’s car, driving around, parking and walking by storefronts. He exchanged greetings with nearly everyone he met. At one point we entered a sort of alley between two tall buildings with shops lining either side. The windows along the whole row seemed to be filled with gold, shaped into watches, rings, jewelry, platters… We entered one that was barely large enough to hold the three of us and the shop owner, an aged man with a beard. He produced three stools from somewhere, then disappeared behind a door in the back. When he returned he was bearing a large pot (silver, not gold), from which he poured us – what a surprise – black tea.
A store filled with gold had to have excellent security… I wondered if we were about to get our first look at the Bible. Was it here, locked away in a safe, somewhere in the back?
It turned out this was just a social call. Or something. His eyes moved from Markus, to me, to Abdullah. He’d ask a question and Abdullah would answer. We had no idea what they were talking about. This went on through two cups of tea and lasted about half an hour. At that point Abdullah stood up abruptly and indicated the door.
It was one of three or four such stops, meeting various characters – all men – who offered us a constant stream of chai and cookies. I looked at Markus, who shrugged. I shrugged back. George told us later he never quite learned how Abdullah made his living. Perhaps, he said, going from shop to shop, making obscure deals. If so, it was a type of business that subsisted entirely on conversations carried out between men, and it was impossible to imagine a woman breaking into such a system.
Thinking back, I suppose everything that happened to day belonged to another series of tests, like those I’d apparently passed in Berlin. The paranoia was understandable, given the magnitude of what was going on. But it would have been nice to know a bit about the nature of the game and the criteria for success.
George rejoined us at lunchtime at a fast-food place with long tables and benches that reminded me of picnic tables pilfered from a campground. The food was good, but it was noisy inside – no place to talk about shady undertakings. Then it was back into Abdullah’s car for a ride somewhere else; I don’t remember where. Along the way I kept stressing the time factor to George. Both Markus and I had obligations in Germany that would make it impossible to postpone our flight back. We had less than 48 hours and an immense amount to do in that time.
Later in the afternoon we learned that it wouldn’t be possible to see the book until the next day. But we’d be picked up in the morning – the very first thing. Or so Abdullah promised, speaking through George, who was obviously just as frustrated as we were. He, too, had been infected by the possibility that we’d soon be looking at the earliest known version of a document pertaining to the New Testament.
* * * * *
George joined us for breakfast in the hotel, and Abdullah finally pulled up to the entrance of the hotel in the late morning. He found us waiting in the glaring sun at the curb, nervous and overly aware of the countdown to our departure from the country. Markus loaded his camera and equipment into the car and we headed off on a strange tour of the city, along a zigzagging route through narrow streets. We weren’t fitted with blindfolds! – I thought, ironically – but they weren’t necessary. We never could have retraced the maze of turns through an unfamiliar city.
Eventually we ended up in a suburb of low houses and a couple of apartment buildings set at the very edge of the city; beyond was a field with matted brown grass that stretched into a barren plain, then began a steady rise directly into snow-covered mountains. Abdullah gestured us out of the car, approached one of the houses, and rang the bell. We were greeted by a young man in a dark suit who gestured us inside.
We came into a living room complete with television set and recliner lounge, a long sofa, with a table in the middle and some chairs; the scene might have come straight out of American suburbia except for the bright floral patterns of the sofa cover. During my trips to the North I’d noticed such loud patterning everywhere – on the drapes, the furniture, tiling on the walls, women’s scarves. Minimalist aesthetics hadn’t reached the interior of the country. This room was relatively subdued, with a pale brown carpet and nothing hanging on the walls.
There we were greeted by a short, elderly gentleman wearing a headcap and a loose white robe. He gestured at two younger women and three or four children, who instantly vanished into the kitchen. Later George told us he was a Kurd, the population that made up most of the population of Elaziğ and the southeastern regions of the country. I never learned his name.
We submitted to many more questions. What were our intentions, our interest? I answered carefully and respectfully. I went through the whole story again, starting again, pausing for George to translate. I told him I had seen images and pursued the script through the libraries.
Did we want to buy the book?
No, no, I quickly replied. We wanted to help them determine whether it was truly as old as it appeared. We might be able to put them into contact with scholars who would study it for many years.
The old man nodded from time to time. He spoke for a while and George said: “This man has spent his whole life looking and has found many, many valuable things. He has seen this script and others before, and he says he can even read a part of it. He says that when the contents of the book become known, this will change the world.”
“What has he learned?”
The answer was lengthy. George paused to think and said, “It will change the relations between Christians and Islam.” The old man spoke again. “You are the first people he has ever shown it to, outside the family. There are others who are interested, but they have only seen two photographs.”
“We must photograph the book, to ensure that there is the best possible record,” I said. “We’ve brought special equipment.”
If we were willing to help the family bring the book to the world, the old man said, we could take photographs. And he said we would be free to do with them whatever we wished – as long as we made sure that the world learned about it.
What he meant was completely unclear, but Markus gave me a wide-eyed look. We had discussed the potential value of even just the photographs of the document. None of this meant anything, of course – we didn’t have them yet, and if the book was authentic, there was no guarantee that the law would permit their use.
“Where exactly was the book found?” I asked.
He replied that it had been discovered in a stone box, part of a sepulchre, perhaps, somewhere on the border of Turkey, Syria and Iran. With a war raging in the area, it might be argued that such a find was a desparate means of rescuing an artifact that otherwise might very well have been destroyed. But these were matters of law, about which we could say nothing.
It was finally time to see the Bible. The old man gestured to his young relative, who disappeared into the next room.