Customer Reviews of In Search of King Solomon's Mines
A delightfully entertaining trip to Ethiopia
In a shop close to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem the author spots a map. The owner of the shop informs the author that the map depicts King Solomon's mines in Africa, the mines from which gold was extracted to build his famed temple. The fact that the map was not genuine (Shah finds an identical copy in the same shop soon after) does not deter Shah from embarking on his journey. Like many other travelogues by Shah, it is the experience but not just the goal that counts.
This is not to say that the author wanders about aimlessly. Quite to the contrary, he even risks his life for his quest, for e.g. in crossing deserts in northern Ethiopia with the infamous (for killing) Danakil tribe. As a review on the back cover of the paperback edition puts it: "...Shah wins you over with the mad purity of his quest." I can't agree more.
Apart from the very beginning, the book situates itself in Ethiopia. From the country's epicenter and capital Addis Ababa some of the major sites the author visits: are Kebra Mengist to the south, Harar to the east, Lalibela (where the churches carved from crevices -- like Petra of Jordan -- are located), Debra Damo (the monastery located on top of a mountain top plateau) and Mekele to the north, and Tullu Wallel to the west.
The rich historical and anecdotal background Shah provides together with his wonderful sense of humor make for a powerful concoction. A group of eccentric characters make appearances, Shah reveals his reverence for Victorian era adventurers, and at times ponders over why his job is so much difficult compared to others'. There was hardly a dull moment during my read.
Drawing upon a map discovered by chance
In Search Of King Solomon's Mines is the travelogue of Tahir Shah, a man who is determined to find the legendary source of the Bible's wisest king. Drawing upon a map discovered by chance, a multitude of fascinating clues, hits from ancient texts including the earliest form of the Bible, and much more, author and traveler Tahir Shah sets out on a captivating journey of discovery. An inset selection of black-and-white photographic plates adds a visual touch to this rich and enjoyable saga.
...do you want to know what Africa is really like?
As someone who has travelled the continent and lived in it for more than a decade, this is the book for all those who still maintain a romantic vision of modern times in Africa. And for the so-called African experts (some of which have never actually traveled outside of multi-star hotels and government sponsored trips into the 'bush') I strongly suggest that they spend some time getting to know the real Africa. Well done Mr. Shah and I look forward to your next great adventure into the daily, and sometimes miserable, lives of average people who aren't motivated by political gain but are just trying to get by. I would caution those pundits of Africa's present day ills, however, that this real life story will not conform to the text book learning and rhetoric used so often to describe a wonderful continents self-generating decline.
Romantic Explorers Still Exist
Although Shah starts his book in old Jerusalem, where he purchases a dubious treasure map off the wall of an even more dubious shop named Ali Baba's Bazaar, this is actually an excellent travel book about modern Ethiopia. Apparently Shah's grandfather and father both harbored obsessions about locating the source of the gold King Solomon used for his great temple in Jerusalem. This obsession was passed down to the intrepid Tahir, who embarks on his own quest to find the ancient gold mines. Shah is not hoping to cash in (he swears an oath not to harvest gold), rather, the trip is another of his retro-adventures (cf. The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Trail of Feathers) in the style of Victorian-era explorer/romantic adventurers like Richard Burton.
According to the ancient sources, Solomon's gold was brought to him by the Queen of Sheba from the land of Ophir. Shah briefly outlines a geographical and etymological case for Ophir being located in present day Ethiopia, and organizes himself to visit this country largely known in the West for its poverty and famines. Armed with a trunk of books and articles (and far too much equipment), he arrives and promptly hires his taxi driver Samson to be interpreter, guide, and all around fixer. Samson is an extremely devout Christian and a reluctant guide throughout the trip, but the money is a boon to his precarious existence. Together, they set out by train and bus to visit a a series of potential locations Tahir has marked out. After a great deal of hardship in getting to the first site, they return to Addis Ababa and hire a driver-even though Ethiopian roads sound as bad as any I've read about. This is Bahra, a qat-addicted Somali cardsharp who likes to break up the tedium with deliberate roadkill. One of my favorite moments in the book is when, near the end of the journey, he simply stops in the middle of nowhere and declares that his luck has run out and he won't drive any more.
What emerges from Shah's trip is a land far more naturally varied and lush than the typical perception of Ethiopia-though desperately poor. Although there are numerous places where gold is so near the surface that impromptu (and illegal) mining communities spring up to pan for gold and dig tiny tunnels to extract it, the avenues for selling it are such that wealth-as in much of the third world-is highly concentrated at the top. The depiction of one such camp, where even the suspicion that one has found a nugget of gold and swallowed can result in your throat getting slit and your entrails opened up for inspection, is terrifying. Of course, the only thing more desirable than gold is getting to America, and at one point Shah is called upon to give a seminar to several hundred miners on the best way to cross the American border.
Although the focus is obviously on the gold, Shah always has his eyes open for a good story. He visits ancient churches hewn from the rock, hangs out with a "hyena" man whose designated task is to feed hyenas at night so they don't steal children from the town (hyenas are said to be the guardians of Solomon's secret mines), consults with the guru of a Rastafarian sect, travels across desert with a salt caravan, debunks a traveling miracle worker, and sit in many a seedy roadside bar with the ubiquitous prostitutes. Shah details everything with crisp writing and many a well-turned phrase (one of my favorites is "To most Ethiopians, the idea of a hotel without prostitutes is a bad joke.") that act as nice counterpoints to the hardship and struggle he witnesses. The book is bound together with a spirit of adventure rare in modern travel books, and despite a rather rushed and unsatisfactory end, is valuable reading for anyone interested in modern Africa.
Tahir Shah presents an obsession to go on with his trip, no matter what. Sometimes the risks he takes seem uncalculated and borders on the insane, but probably I wouldnt be reading his book if he didn't do that! He presents many interesting and touching tales of Ethiopians. An excellent read. Good luck to the author for his next travel (and hence the next book?)