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.
For about 4,000 years, until the arrival of gun-bearing Europeans, the tribes that populated the islands of Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia maintained a balance of offense and defense that basically precluded the possibility of large-scale political units. In the intervening years, Solomon Islanders have not lost their taste for tribal piercings, markings, and imaginative hairstyles. Mohawks, blowouts, dreadlocks, half-crowns, tonsures, cornrows, shaved-tops, birds of paradise, and naturally blond afros grace the heads of men and women alike. They speak a host of local tribal languages and a lingua franca of Pijin whose simplified syntax and phonetic spelling were a gift from missionaries, who helped contribute words like “pikinini”—which here means “child.” The possessive form—a shortening of the construction “belongs to me” or “belongs to you”—becomes blong me, blong iu, which is in turn in speech shortened to just blo, such that everywhere you walk, you hear people telling each other blo me, blo iu. A giant billboard along Mendana Avenue advertising baby formula exhorts Solomon Islanders to Luk aftam gud helt blo pikinini blo iu.
As remote as they are, the Solomons are also used to the idea that they are a pivot on which history turns. From August 1942 to February 1943, when the Japanese fully withdrew from the islands, some 31,000 imperial soldiers and more than 7,000 Allies were killed in fierce land, sea, and air battles. What they did mattered to the outcome of the war. Dozens of Allied and Japanese military ships, transporters, and cargo vessels, and hundreds of planes rest between Guadalcanal, Savo, and Florida, on the seabed of what American soldiers dubbed Iron Bottom Sound. Over time, the hundreds of wrecks sprouted coral gardens, havens for some of the earth’s most astonishing forms of life.
In 1978, the Solomon Islands were granted independence, but remained within the British Commonwealth, making the new country a constitutional monarchy with the Queen of England as its figurehead. A series of ineffective prime ministers then quarreled, stole, blundered, and strangled the untapped potential of land and sea that is as close to a terrestrial paradise as we are likely to see before death. A 1920s colonial prospectus put it best: “The soil and climate of the Solomon Islands are admirably suited for the growth of every kind of tropical production. … Coconuts grow there faster, and more luxuriantly, than in any other part of the world. Hurricanes are unknown. … Here is a rich, fertile country, with nearly every natural advantage.”
As remote as they are, the Solomons are also used to the idea that they are a pivot on which history turns.
But poverty clung to the people. Jobs were scarce. The colonial systems of copra and cocoa farming allowed middlemen and wholesalers to hoard profits. Crippled by remoteness, producers were only as good as their ability to reach shipping. Sovereignty in many ways became the country’s most valuable asset. Soon, whaling countries were offering to build bridges and repair airports; Taiwan, needing leverage in the international community, built health centers and kept a watchful eye on the price of tuna. Tribal rivalries festered. Non-governmental agencies also proliferated, as the Solomon Islands languished in the ranks of the 40 poorest countries in the world.
In the late 1990s, high unemployment and complex internal migrations plus severe tribalism, “land alienation,” and incompetent post-colonial governance led to general unrest and instability. A loose band of marauders known as the Isatabu Freedom Movement, or Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army, started to target Malaitans, who though ethnically indistinct from Guadalcanalese, were technically settlers and resented for having grown into a working-class majority in Honiara.
Malaitans responded by forming into the Malaita Eagle Force, led by a dread-locked, dark-skinned man named Jimmy “Rasta” Lusibaea who, like Solomon’s Temple, is something of a legend on the Internet. In 2000, he captured Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu and forced him to resign. He rallied his troops under a modified Solomon Islands flag that included the Star of David—a black warlord fighting for Israel in the South Pacific.
By 2003, despite the Townsville peace agreement in 2000 and the contested elections in its wake, the country was bankrupt and the capital in full-blown chaos, with militants and less organized gangs roaming the streets and raiding the national treasury to pay for beer. The Solomon Islands prime minister made a desperate appeal for international aid. Under the aegis of the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), a security force of several thousand troops landed and effectively began to run the country. Representatives of 14 other Pacific nations also participated under Operation Helpem Fren. RAMSI is only this year finally handing over full command to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force; for a year New Zealand troops have been on a farewell tour, performing the Haka war dance. Charged with “ensur[ing] the safety and security of Solomon Islands,” RAMSI has presided over amnesties, weapons collection, looting control, contested elections, anti-Chinese rioting, health and development projects, economic reform, tax collection, among other civic activities.
Into this post-conflict environment parachuted an Israeli development expert named Yoel Siegel, whose photograph I’d spotted on a website, in which he is seen posing between a pair of rotund Melanesians below a banner strung across an empty tropical road. The sign reads:
The Israel Development Experience 2nd–10th November 2010
Auki, Malaita Province, Solomon Islands
After changing a precious wad of U.S. dollars into Solomon dollars, imprinted with warriors, shields, ceremonially carved posts, and mythical sea turtles, I bought a cell phone from an Australian telecom outfit, and as the attendant handed me the device over the counter, I noticed my first Star of David—no more than the size of a bottle cap, it appeared between her thumb and forefinger. It was a moment before I realized it wasn’t a pen doodle, but an unprofessional tattoo, and that the twin lines above the star made it look like the flag of the Jewish State, a resemblance that turned out to be entirely intentional, and an important part of my story.
Enjoy this preview? To continue the adventure into the jungles of the South Pacific, read the rest here, or available as a Kindle Single.
Matthew Fishbane is Creative Director at Tablet magazine.