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Dr. Bernard Leeman - Africanist

Illuminating a Lost Ark: Dr. Bernard Leeman Helps Resolve a Crisis in Old Testament Scholarship

Dr. Bernard Leeman - renowned Africanist
"Until serious archaeological investigations commence in Asir and Hijaz, the Ethiopian records concerning the Ark of the Covenant are the most important evidence along with the work of Rabin on West Arabian and Schneider at Adi Kaweh proving that Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon existed." From the paper, Ark and the Covenant, by Bernard Leeman, 2010

Using original Ge'ez documents and other evidence, Bernard Leeman's 2010 "Ark of the Covenant: evidence supporting the Ethiopian traditions," written for the National Museum in Addis Ababa, is a detailed account of how the Ark was surreptitiously removed from the Israelite First Temple and brought to Ethiopia. A former instructor at Asmara University in Eritrea, Dr. Leeman holds Bachelor and Ph.D. degrees in African History from London and Bremen Universities and a Masters in Applied Linguistics.

Bernard Leeman (right) as adventuresome young man
Dr Leeman's father was an Ulster Scot army officer and his mother a South African. They settled in Tanganyika (Tanzania) after the First World War. Leeman studied African history and languages at London University, taught in Saudi Arabia and then becoming a member of in the British army's elite special forces before serving in Tanzanian based liberation armies against apartheid South Africa, achieving the rank of lieutenant general. He has published books on that period: Lesotho and the Stuggle for Azania (1985), Lesole la Mokhehle (1992), The Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (1995), Mandela, Sisulu: equivocation, treachery and the road to Sharpeville (2010) and Racing Mandela: the Story of the Lesotho Liberation Army and the Azanian People's Liberation Army (2012) After freedom in South Africa in 1994, Dr Leeman resumed his academic interest in ancient Arabian history. In 1974/5, he was teaching at Jizan Secondary School in western Saudi Arabia, just north of Yemen, and was inspired to study the intriguing figure known to historians and laymen alike as the "Queen of Sheba". He arrived in Eritrea in 1996 giving up a well-paying job in Australia for a 4,000 dollar a year university job as deputy head and assistant professor of History. There he took another unpaid post teaching Phonology in the English department in order to improve his collegial relationships.

One of the earliest carvings with Hebrew inscription
Asmara University had serious problems and eventually closed. Dr Leeman had only stayed at the University for a year and since that time has been an academic and faculty member in various countries, including Ethiopia, Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan, Sweden, Britain, Laos, China and Australia, at one point Professor at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco and at another a language trainer for the Australian Army's UN Rwanda Force. He was Visiting Fellow at Oxford University for Afghan Women's education and worked in education for Burmese refugees in Thailand. However he is perhaps best known to other Africans (the Beta Israel of Ethiopia in particular) for his scholarship and prolific writings on the liberation struggle in South Africa and the Ethiopian Ge'ez epic Kebra Nagast.

His wife is Tanzanian and Leeman identifies mostly with Tanzania where he has always had a home. Feeling Mandela and the African National Congress-South African Communist Party alliance had given too much away to the South African whites in their 1994 settlement Leeman declined to return to South Africa and has lived with his wife and son mainly in Tanzania, Ethiopia and Australia.

Since 1985 Leeman has been been increasingly involved in the highly controversial academic field of Old Testament scholarship, focusing on the origins of early Sabaean and Hebraic civilization in Africa and the Yemen.

Leeman's current research and writings cover the controversial topic of the ancient location of Israel and the people of the Old Testament. He also has placed special emphasis on analyzing the Kebra Nagast and Ethiopian affiliations of the original Hebrew peoples. The current Wikipedia site correctly explains, "its an account written in Ge'ez", an early Semitic dialect of Ethiopia, "of the origins of the Solomonic line of the Emperors of Ethiopia."

In this respect however, his research flies in the face of the established vanguard of Biblical archaeology. It probably wasn't his intention to be jumping as it were from a frying pan into a fire - or in his case, a "burning bush", but his conclusions regarding the book have ended up counter to many of the long established and cherished Western views on the establishment of Judaism and the whereabouts and spread of the Hebrews and Israelites in the ancient world.

He believes there are a certain group of people that have been intent on not letting the true history out. On one blog he has written rather provocatively on the Ethiopic text, The Kebra Nagast - "The Holy Book" he says "is very much the account of the life of the Queen of Sheba, the Ark of the Covenant, and the foundation of a new Jerusalem in Africa. It is a highly suppressed document because if what it says is true (and it certainly seems so) thousands of university professors have no right to be teaching and Israel is in the wrong place."

The views he holds are associated with and supportive of the highly controversial theories of the recently passed Lebanese historian and Professor Kamal Salibi, who was perhaps the foremost living promoter of the theory of a Yemenite and west Arabian origin of the early Judah, Hebrews, Israelites and Canaanites.

On the other side, Salibi has been criticized by certain revered Biblical archaeologists such as Phillip Hammond, who wrote a review of Salibi's book, The Bible Came from Arabia, published in The International Journal of Middle East Studies. It was mostly a blistering, diatribe which included the following criticisms, "To declare that archaeology, with its modern chronometric techniques, cannot place occupations correctly is contrary to fact. To ignore the linguistic analyses of Biblical Hebrew from the Masoretes to modern scholarship is presumptuous. To dismiss casually all modern scholarship in the field is unscholarly in the extreme. To display ignorance of published archaeological and other data in favor of selected, 'favorable' quotations is likewise not the way knowledge is advanced."

However, the denunciation of Salibi's critics hardly depicts the true state of affairs in Biblical archaeology today. Dr. Leeman describes it more accurately when he wrote the following on an on-line non-academic forum.

"You see Biblical scholarship is divided into two camps. One says, 'We have been digging in Palestine/Israel since 1920 and we conclude there is no evidence that Moses, Joshua, David and Solomon existed. The Old Testament up until the Babylonian captivity (586 BC) is therefore a fantasy or highly exaggerated. If Solomon existed he would have been a headman of a muddy village with an imaginative publicist....The other camp says 'Wait - we will still find evidence.'"

He continues, "There are millions who accept that the Old Testament happened in Israel/Palestine. Of course it did, after 450 BC...."

Speaking of his research on the Kebra Negast and his own publications on the subject he adds,

I looked at the Holy Book of Africa and offered a solution. The Old Testament is a true story. Moses, Joshua, David and Solomon all lived and were substantial historical figures, but they spent their lives in Saudi Arabia far from Israel. It is highly likely that the Ibro (Hebrew) of Somalia are the last remnants of the Hebrew. Even the Lemba of Zimbabwe have a higher percentage of the Hebrew priestly gene than those elsewhere. While this completely undermines the raison d'etre of the State of Israel, the Holy Book also shows that the Law of Moses was originally a gentle legal code without all the nasty things you find in the Old Testament today about hating other people and giving money to support priests. If the Holy Book of Africa is a true account, then Christian, Muslim and Jewish scholars haven't done their homework very well and we can wonder what other mistakes they have made.

St. Paul once remarked that one day wise people would end up looking incredibly foolish. You may recall he went to Arabia for three years after he had his vision, not Jerusalem" Leeman informs that parts of the Kebra Nagast were written well before the Book of Deuteronomy and that it contains the original Law of Moses. The text contains a section called the Sheba-Menelik Cycle "applicable to a 10th century Judah and Israel located in western Arabia not Palestine". It is an account of the queen of Sheba's visit to King Solomon, her adoption of the Israelite faith, the birth of their son Bayna Lekhem who is also named David, his visit to Solomon as a young man, Solomon's plan for an Israelite state in Ethiopia, the theft of the Ark of the Covenant by Azariah, son of the high priest, Solomon's unsuccessful pursuit, the abdication of the Queen of Sheba and establishment of the new Zion in Ethiopia. (This is the daughter of Zion of which the Rastafarians sing.)

He has again informally remarked, "It is the only ancient sacred document that treats men and women equally. Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Islam all regard women as inferior. Jesus Christ, whose followers were mostly women (but St Paul contorted the situation), respected the Queen of Sheba and told the Jewish priests that she would rise on Judgment Day to be a witness against their stupidity."


As explained in his manuscript for the National Museum at Addis Ababa, entitled "Ark of the Covenant : The Evidence Supporting the Ethiopian Traditions" (published 2010), there are actually numerous reputable archaeologists who have come to conceive of the Israel of he Old Testament as more story than history, based largely on anachronisms and exaggerations. "Today leading so called "minimalist" Israeli, American, British, and Danish-based archaeologists believe that Moses, Joshua, David and Solomon never existed and the pre-Babylonian captivity narrative was either fantasy or highly exaggerated."

Like Kamal Salibi these archaeologists have noted that only a handful of the names in the Old Testament have ever been located in the modern Israel/Palestine region and that some of the most important towns are known by archeologists to have been settled too late to be the ones mentioned in the Bible. The Bible they say contains many anachronistic references especially with relation to the Exodus - the place names mentioned in the Bible, "Pithom" "Succoth" and "Ramsses" assigned to sites that have been discovered to date back only to the 1st millennium B.C. rather than the well established time-frame of the Hebrew Moses in the 2nd millenium.

Jan Van Seters (2001) noted: "The full impact of these excavations and their significance for re-evaluation of the older epigraphic materials has not yet been felt within the discipline of biblical studies. There is still considerable effort by both Egyptologists and biblical scholars to try to fit the exodus story into the older way of viewing things, viz. to understand the biblical scenario within the context of the 19th Dynasty of Egypt." (p. 255). In addition is the example of the fabled Canaanite town of Jericho where archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon excavated painstakingly for 6 years. As Leeman cites in his Queen of Sheba and Biblical Scholarship, "Finding no evidence to support the biblical references, she refused to speculate, but concluded that Jericho had been deserted from the beginning of the fifteenth century to the eleventh century B.C.E." (p. 26)

In a review of a book about the ark, Sign and the Seal by adventurist Graham Hancock, Leeman writes, "The site of modern day Jerusalem in Solomon's day was covered by a few small villages. There was no great city of Solomon ever found and nothing has been found of Omri's even more magnificent capital in Samaria".

Notable among the Israeli archaeologists of the "minimalist school" are Ze'ev Herzog, Neil Silberman and Israel Finkelstein who are all rather reputable in the field of archaeology. The first individual, a well-established Israeli archaeologist stated rather frankly in an article in the Israeli journal Ha'aretz , October 1999 entitled, "Deconstructing the Walls of Jericho", "the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom. And it will come as an unpleasant shock to many that the God of Israel, Jehovah, had a female consort and that the early Israelite religion adopted monotheism only in the waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai."

The authors of the book The Bible Unearthed, Finkelstein and Silberman have implied as much, that much of the narrative of the Old Testament was the stuff of folktale. They contend that archeological findings in the modern Israel/Palestine do not validate the formation of the Solomonic kingdom of Israel as mentioned in the Old Testament or an Hebrew Exodus from Egypt among other things.

They write, "what is commonly taken for history -- the stories of the patriarchs, the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, and the saga of the glorious united monarchy of David and Solomon -- is really 'the creative expression of the religious reform movement that flourished in the kingdom of Judah in the Late Iron Age'." (p. 23).

After taking into consideration both the minimalist view of Biblical archaeologists and Salibi's findings of well over 100 closely matching names for the Biblical Canaan and Israel in western and in particular southwestern Arabia, Leeman has himself come to believe that many of the so-called historical anachronisms can be better explained by the fact that earliest Israel was located in another location. considerably further south than the modern Israeli/Palestine borders.

Reconciling the Ethiopians' traditions of origin with Salibi's findings has also allowed for a clarification of the Kebra Nagast and Hebrew inscriptions on the Ethiopian plateau, He explains much of this in the book, Queen of Sheba and Biblical Scholarship, and in recent articles like, The Ark of the Covenant: Evidence Supporting the Ethiopian Traditions. In this last article Leeman contends that back in the 1950s, Edward Ullendorf, the prominent specialist in semitic linguistics and Ethiopian studies believed "that maybe half of Ethiopia's population" was still "Israelite when Christianity was introduced" (p. 5). Ethiopia today has various populations of Hebraic and Judaic origin they include peoples like the Falasha, the Qemant Hebrews and the Yibir or Hebrews and the Mai Bela of Eritrea.

The claim of Leeman's books and articles are that many things point to Solomon's kingdom, Canaan and the Biblical Mizra being situated in an Arabian setting. This is in part based on the evident lack of Egyptian words in Hebrew although they are said to have spent centuries in Egypt. Salibi's contention was also that the pattern of ancient Jewish settlement does not fit well archeologically-speaking with what has been found in the Israel/Palestinian region of today. He showed that the location of early village names found in an early Saudi Gazette closely fit the locality of place names mentioned in the Old Testament. Leeman also maintains that the "remnant Judaic populations in northern Somalia and Eritrea, the history of the Queen of Sheba (three are mentioned in the Tigre inscriptions) and the extraordinary geographical references all point to the true location of Solomon's kingdom being between Taima and the Yemen border, in West Arabia, not Israel/Palestine. The Ark was probably stolen from a near Abha, Arabia."

As far as Dr. Leeman is concerned, the text of the Sheba-Menelik Cycle in the Kebra Negast " is applicable to a 10th century Judah and Israel located in western Arabia not Palestine". He notes the Christianity of the Abyssinian or Ethiopian church is in reality heavily Israelite containing Old Testament Hebrewisms. Even the practice of circumcision is done on the 8th day after birth as with Jews around the world. A 2009 paper he presented at a conference of the African Studies Association of Australasia entitled, "The Sabaean Inscriptions at Adi Kaweh" reads, "The Aksumite priesthood believes it is the inheritor of the Hebrew Aaronite priesthood (the Beta Israel priests believe they themselves are Aaron's descendants")(p. 12) and that, "No data exist for the Beta Israel priesthood but DNA testing on the Buba priestly clan of the Lemba in southern Africa, who claim Hebraic descent, has revealed a much higher percentage of the Y chromosome kohenin priestly gene than among any other Judaiac populations [Thomas et al:2000: 674-686]* (Leeman, 2009, p. 12).

Another common name of the Beta Israel of Ethiopia (also known in the West as Falasha Jews) claiming descent from Aaron, brother of Moses is Kayla. The latter, however, is curiously and conspicuously identical to the generic name of the population who had settled in and around Medina (Yathrib) and Mecca claiming descent from a "Musaikiyya" of Marib. They were also known as Kayla or Banu Kayla and named for their remote Himyarite ancestress in the Yemen. (Encyclopaedic Ethnography of Middle East and Central Asia. Vol. 1 p. 64). In Ethiopian the word Kayla is associated with metal working.

Hebrew which was essentially a dead language in the West, and it is considered that the only people who have unceasingly spoken the dialect with Hebrew/Canaanitic elements to be the modern Hudhail in the Hijaz region. Leeman noted in his 2005 book, Queen of Sheba and Biblical Scholarship, when assessing Hudhail, linguist Chaim Rabin "observed that with sound changes and vocabulary `the resemblance to Canaanite developments is striking.''"(pp. 140-142). Charles Doughty the first Westerner to observe them in the late 19th century described them as having "skins black and shining" (1888, p. 535).

Although the Hudhail bin Mudrika with their branch of Banu Lehiyan still exist today between Mecca and Ta'if, with their African style beehive huts, as with so many of the remnant Afro-Arabian groups it is remarkable that modern western and Islamic historians will talk about such them and related people such as the Quraish and the Lihyanites as if they were an extinct people. A chapter called "The Linguistic Footprints of Lehi' in the recent book Ten More Amazing Discoveries reads, "Evidence on old tribal maps indicates the Lihyanites were a well-established tribe in the area east of Makkah during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammed" (Potter, 2005, p. 12). The author notes that the Lihyanites were found to have spoken a dialect identical to the Dedanite language by the Oxford scholar Michael MacDonald. (p. 13) Their territory today includes a place called Batn Marr or Marr al-Zahran which appears to be the Marah of the book of Exodus15:23 in the Hebrew Old Testament where it says, "Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah."

Kamal Salibi incidently placed Israel in this territory of northern Hijaz near Medina and Taif while Judah he decided was further south in Asir next to Yemen. Salibi, however, was unaware of the connection of the Hudhail with the Hebrew dialect when he made the connection of ancient Israel and their homeland.

Chaim Raabin also noticed similarly for other southern Arabian dialects including the Tayyi, Himyaritic and Azd. The noted similarities with the Tayyi especially "led him to conclude that 'We must therefore assume that part at least of the Western Arabians remained in close enough contact with speakers of Canaanite to be affected by a sound change which took place within that language" (Leeman, 2005, pp. 140-142).

As for the Azd, according to established Arabian tradition they were descendants of people who fled the region of the dam of Marib under a leader named Muzaikiyya and his diviner wife Zarifah. The tribes, also known as Kayla or Aws and Khazraj or Khazras, according to early tradition settled Yathrib or Medina while the branch descended from Harith son of Muzaikiyya (called Khuza'a or Khaza'a) settled between Jiddah and Mecca "with their hordes of horsemen" in Marr el Zahran - a days journey from Mecca driving out the tribe of Djorham (Hadoram).

The 9th century Persian al Baladhuri mentions the same tradition. "They made their abode in Batn Marr. Tha'labah the son of Amr Muzaikiya demanded that the plain of Jurhum be given to his people. This request having been refused, a battle ensued in which Tha'labah got control of the plain." (See Origins of the Islamic State, 2011, by Phillip Hitti, p. 32) This Muzaikiyya and his wife Zarifah appear to be the Biblical Moses and Ziphorah while Marib is Meriba of Exodus 17 and Marr is the Marah of Exodus 15:23.

Rabin had pondered on the unique and obvious connections of ancient Canaanite/Hebrew with the Azd and the related Himyarite, Tayyi and Hudhail. He had no explanation of the "surprising similarities and parallelisms" and so writes Leeman, that Rabin "was clearly puzzled by the similarities he encountered between the dialects of West Arabia and Canaanite/Hebrew. The evidence suggested that Canaanite/Hebrew had once been spoken in western Arabia as far south as the Yemen border and, from Leslau's work, even more probably in the Ethiopian/Eritrean highlands." See Queen of Sheba and Biblical Scholarship (p. 142).

Intriguingly, Leeman notes that arks were in fact carried into battle in Arabia well into the 20th century by bedouin closely related to the Yemenite tribes of Tayyi, Shammar and Murad.

Also not known to early archeologists were inscriptions on incense burners at a site called Adi Kaweh in modern Ethiopia which are the oldest mention of the peoples the world knows as the Hebrews. Ethiopia today has various populations of Hebraic and Judaic origin they include peoples like the Falasha, the Qemant Hebrews and the Yibir or Hebrews and the Mai Bela of Eritrea. Their presence there in the Horn of Africa as well as the Kebra Nagast and other established Afro-Asiatic tradition yet to be unveiled to Westerners support the theory that a population of both Sabaeans or Shebans and Israelite Hebrews were once ruled jointly by kings and queens in northern Ethiopia one hundred and twenty five years after Solomon's death and probably much earlier.

Doughty, C. (2011) Travels in Arabia deserta. Vol. II, Cosimo Inc. (First published 1888)

Finkelstein, I. and Silberman, N.A. (2001). The Bible unearthed. Archaeology's new vision of ancient Israel and the origin of its sacred texts. Touchstone.

Leeman, B. (2005). Queen of Sheba and Biblical Scholarship, Queensland Academic Press
Retrieved from

Leeman, B. (2010). Ark of the Covenant: Evidence supporting the Ethiopian traditions.

Leeman, B. (2009). Sabaean inscriptions at Adi Kaweh - Evidence supporting the Sheba-Menelik Cycle of the Kebra Nagast Rabin, C. ( 1951). Ancient West Arabian. Taylor's Foreign Press. Salibi, K. (2007). The Bible came from Arabia. Naufal Group. 2nd Printing.

*Thomas MG, Parfitt T, Weiss DA, et al. (February 2000). "Y chromosomes traveling south: the cohen modal haplotype and the origins of the Lemba - the Black Jews of southern Africa" American Journal of Human Genetics 66 (2): 674

. Van Seters, J. The geography of the Exodus. The land that I will show you. Essays on the History and Archaelogy of the Ancient Near East in honour of J. Maxwell Miller, 2001.

Information of Dr. Leeman's newly founded on-line University here

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