As amazing stories go, this one has all the trimmings. A plan to loot ancient treasures and recover the Ark of the Covenant, secret maps and cyphers, an expedition to Jerusalem comprising the sons of one of Australia's richest colonists, a covert plan to dig under a holy shrine, curses, madness and death - and the promise of untold wealth.
Does it sound like the plot of a film? It should, because it bears some striking similarities to Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark.
A new book by British author Graham Addison examines what happened to the Parker Expedition, as it was known. It's a truly wild ride.
Raiders of the Hidden Ark: The story of the Parker expedition is story of wealth and stealth, colonial ignorance, Christian and Muslim tension, and outright greed.
Between 1909-1911, a British aristocrat named Montagu Brownlow Parker, later 5th Earl of Morley, helped form and lead expeditions to the Holy Land in search of the Temple of Solomon. Finnish linguist Valter Henrik Juvelius (real name Valter Juva) convinced him and others the secret hiding place of the treasures of the kings of Judah, including the Ark, was revealed to him by hidden cyphers in the Book of Ezekiel (and the helpful assistance of a clairvoyant) to be under the Dome of the Rock, the holy Muslim mosque.
Morley surrounded him with similarly wealthy young Englishmen, including two Australian-born adventurers, Chesney Clarence and Gordon Chesney Wilson. A third brother Herbert was an investor. Their motives were not altruistic, their methods morally reprehensible.
I heard a movement away up the passage and, to my intense horror, something came rushing down it with a speed of thought. Before I could move a dreadful shape hit me full on the shoulder knocking the candle out of my hand and leaving me in opaque darkness. Being deprived of all volition through sheer terror, I mechanically beat all records down the ladderClarence Wilson on exploring the Temple tunnels (he was hit by a bat)
The brothers Wilson were sons of the fabulously wealthy, Irish-born Sir Samuel 'Bullocky Sam' Wilson, who emigrated to Australia and worked on the Ballarat goldfields before transforming himself into one the colony's most powerful squatters through sheer force and a fiery temper. Owner of Longerenong and Ercildoune stations, three million acres in three states, and 600,000 merinos, Wilson took his family back to England in 1881 to climb the social ladder.
His sons were of an aristocratic class, Mr Addison says, described as 'a collection of people whose material wants were supplied by other people, and were in want of finding something to do.' Like many of the sons of the rich, they went to Eton and fought in the Boer War. One, Wilfred, was killed there.
To cut a long and sometimes hilariously preposterous story short, and not spoil the book's amazing revelations, the three years of expedition were not successful.
"All they found was a bunch of pottery," Mr Addison says.
"One thing they did find, when the workers were digging the tunnels; they came into a quarry and found what the workers said was the 'Throne of Solomon.'
The expedition's French archaeologist pointed out a hole in the seat, and suggested it was perhaps a less regal, more 'earthy' throne.
Desperate to find treasure as the months dragged on, Parker bribed officials and guardians to let him dig in the grounds of the sacred Dome of the Rock, the Al Haram Ash Sharif. Under cover of darkness, but during several religious festivals, the excavation was soon discovered and widespread rioting ensued. Parker and his cohorts escaped to the sea on his yacht the White Lily. The guardian of the mosque was later executed.
The Englishmen were rumoured to have taken Solomon's sword and crown. In fact they had, again, found nothing.
Like Tutankhamen's tomb, there are tragedies involved too. Clarence Wilson went permanently insane after the dig finished; his brothers Gordon and Herbert were killed in the Great War, as were others in the expedition.
And Monty Parker? There's always someone who gets through unscathed.
"Parker lived until 1962," says Graham Addison.
"He spent loads of money traveling around the world. In fact, I think he was last taken ill when he was on a trip back from Australia. He would travel first class around the world on Cunard liners. He lived until age 83, told his family he was going to spend all his inheritance; he never married and had several mistresses. His family called him something like 'the vain, venal black sheep, a boaster and a time-waster.'
Mr Addison says questions about the fate of the Ark of the Covenant, which supposedly contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, have persisted since it was lost in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586BC.
Rumours it had been saved persist to the present day.
"There are a whole series of possibilities of who took it," Mr Addison says.
"If you take the Indiana Jones movie, it was an Egyptian pharaoh, Shisak. People who write books now about where the Ark is say, 'the Templars have taken it'; 'the Masons have taken it'; 'it's on Oak Island in Canada'; 'it's in Chartres Cathedral'; 'it's in the Midlands in England'. Usually the Templars or the Freemasons come into these mystery stories."
If you are seeing this message you are a loyal digital subscriber to The Courier, as we made this story available only to subscribers. Thank you very much for your support and allowing us to continue telling Ballarat's story. We appreciate your support of journalism in our great city.