Excerpt: Solomon’s Island
The Internet says the Lost Temple of Israel is hidden in the South Pacific. A reporter went to investigate.
One afternoon, a little over a year ago, I received a more or less random-seeming email from a colleague that had no particular connection to either of our busy professional lives. The main purpose of such emails, containing links to the weirder corners of the Internet, is to waste time, and having some time on my hands that day, I followed the two links inside. The first was to a Facebook post, on which I viewed a lo-res video of Papua New Guinea’s Gogodala people—in grass skirts, their bodies decorated with palm leaves, body paint, feathers, shells, and other accessories, and with one man wearing barnacle goggles—singing the Shema, the holiest of Hebrew prayers. When I followed the second link in the email, I came across the text of a 2006 book titled Bine Mene: Connecting the Hebrews, by “geoscientist” Samuel Were, which made a linguistics-based case for a tribe of ancient Israelites who “journeyed down to Lake Tanganyika and in an unexplained way ended up in Fiji.” Elsewhere that day, as the result of my research (or Google searches), I found this: “Growing numbers of evangelical Christians in North Malaita believe that the Lost Temple of Israel lies hidden at a shrine … in the mountainous interior of their island.”
It was one of those frigid city days that make it easy to want to go—anywhere. I clicked over to Google Maps, punched in “Malaita Province,” then zoomed out and sat back and considered what now appeared to be the makings of a truly great story—the kind I could tell in hotel bars for the rest of my life. A story about how the Internet said Solomon’s Temple was on Malaita in the Solomon Islands, an archipelago whose half a million people inhabit nearly 1,000 atolls, islets, reefs, cays, and islands including Guadalcanal, the site of the famous World War II battles—and about how I actually went there to see myself, which is something that very few of us do anymore, which is a shame, because the mysteries of the world are only revealed in person. How did the destinies of Israelites and the inhabitants of the most remote member of the British Commonwealth become intertwined? What did this Solomon’s Temple in the Pacific islands look like? I then bought a ticket online—which was surprisingly cheap, considering that I would be traveling 8,505 miles, or one-third of the way around the circumference of the globe.
Which is a short way of explaining how, by late spring, I came to be seated in the black leatherette of an Air Pacific red-eye, reading Conrad’s Victory en route to the South Pacific by way of LAX. I transferred to Air Nadi, where I took my seat in a hand-me-down Boeing behind a sandal-and-skirt-wearing member of Fiji’s National Rugby Delegation. In Suva, we were met by customs agents and Mormons wearing skirts and sandals, and by a Tiki band. Live orchids hung over the bathroom stalls. From Vanuatu’s Bauerfield International Airport, named for the American World War II fighter pilot Harold Bauer who made 11 enemy kills, we flew low over Guadalcanal’s Weather Coast, across unbroken green canopy on volcanic slopes, and touched down in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands—on the site of the Japanese-built landing strip that in 1942 was a fulcrum of Pacific theater supremacy before America dropped the bomb.
Jonathan, a diminutive, trim islander who sat next to me on the last leg from Vanuatu, introduced himself and inquired about the purpose of my journey.
“I’ve come to meet the Malaitans,” I explained, as he downed as many free international-flight gold-label SolBrew beers as he could. “I’m told they have a kinship with Israel. I’ve read that Solomon’s Temple is buried in the bush.”
“Matthew,” he said. “I believe God has sent you here.”
Before departing from New York, I called my bank and phone provider to flag my upcoming travel. They told me flatly that the Solomon Islands don’t exist. It was a thought that followed me through the quiet strangeness of Honiara, a dusty capital with a single main road named for the Spanish navigator Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira, the first recorded European to make landfall here in 1568. Mendaña claimed to have rediscovered the site of King Solomon’s mines, the El Dorado of the Pacific. Now there were right-hand-drive cars, the South Seas Evangelical Church and hundreds of other churches, the Hot Bread Kitchen, Club Paradise, a colonial-era Chinatown, distribution facilities for SolBrew, lackluster government buildings, shipping agents, and a university, along with the headquarters of Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation radio, and commemorative World War II sites.
The King Solomon Hotel was fully booked, so I settled in to the Mother’s Union resthouse, run by nuns, which Jonathan had suggested as a godly alternative to the Pacific Casino Hotel, with its karaoke bar and “penthouse suites,” or the Japanese-owned Mendana. The lazy, barefoot pace of things seemed governed by the chewing and spitting of betel nut, a mild stimulant made from the blood-red seed of the areca palm. At first glance, the city appeared locked in a battle between sidewalk betel-nut-spitters and store and restaurant owners who fought the rust-colored gloppy splatter with NO SPITTING signs—a battle that neither side appeared to be winning.
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