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Books: Yahoos in Arabia! Volume 51 Number 3, May/June 1998
by Neil Asher Silberman


(Ray Bartkus)

Consider the plot of this improbable archaeological thriller: two intrepid adventurers--Larry Williams, "a millionaire commodities trader and two-time Republican candidate for the Senate from Montana," and Bob Cornuke, a "former member of a police SWAT team"--set out in search of a fabulous treasure buried at the foot of Mount Sinai by the fleeing Children of Israel. Not surprisingly there are complications. Williams and Cornuke discover that the "real" Mount Sinai is not in the Sinai Peninsula, as thought since Byzantine times, but in Saudi Arabia, a country notoriously reluctant to admit foreign explorers. Moreover, the place where they hope to discover and retrieve the "Gold of the Exodus" is now the location of a top-secret Saudi missile and radar base. Their archaeological objective (what else but gold?) has been pinpointed for them by an eccentric amateur "expert" who works out of his garage and who claims to have located the gold on an earlier, secret trip to Saudi Arabia using something called a Simpson Frequency Generator, Model 420-D.

In a hush-hush meeting with an unnamed professor at a West Coast university (who understandably insists that they never reveal his identity), the two protagonists are assured that finding the gold will not only make them fabulously wealthy but also serve the cause of humanity by proving the Bible true. In London, they consort with a shadowy Turkish arms dealer and seductive female Israeli secret agents. Proceeding to Egypt, they scuba dive in the Red Sea's Straits of Tiran, searching for the remains of Pharaoh's chariots, and discover a "land bridge" over which the Israelites fled from Egypt. They then enter Saudi Arabia with forged visas and climb the "real" Mount Sinai, a remote mountain named Jabal al-Lawz in the northwestern part of the country.

There they discover the very spot where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Gunplay and a breathless chase follow as they try to elude and are finally captured by the security forces guarding the missile and radar base. They do manage to catch a glimpse of a Saudi excavation precisely at the spot where they had hoped to find the gold. Drugging their guards with sleeping pills, Williams and Cornuke barely escape with their lives, returning to the United States empty-handed.

This is the stuff of 1930s pulp fiction. The author of the book, "award-winning former New York Times journalist" Howard Blum, insists that the story is true. I don't believe him for a second. The kind of hair-raising adventures he offers seems lifted from the pages of Soldier of Fortune magazine. What we have here is a comic-book fable of macho men arming themselves for a challenging archaeological expedition with little more than a metal detector, a hunting knife, and night-vision goggles. The Gold of the Exodus, which according to the jacket copy is "being made into a major motion picture by Castle Rock Entertainment," is relentlessly offensive. It is based on a laughable conception of what archaeology (and the Middle East) is all about, and it is peppered with vile racial stereotypes. This hateful little book consistently mistakes treasure hunting for archaeological exploration, bull-headed ignorance for courage, and the reading public for fools.

Larry and Bob must have enjoyed telling their tale to Blum over double whiskeys in a dark, smoky bar. Too bad he pretended to believe them. The "award-winning former New York Times journalist" will win no awards here.

The Gold of the Exodus
Howard Blum
364 pages. New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1998.
$25.00. ISBN 0-684-80918-4.

Neil Asher Silberman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

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© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America