From the mausoleum we drove on through rain-soaked streets to the National Museum. Tourists are few and far between in Ethiopia these days. Rastafarians may visit the coffin of their deity, but they rarely bother with the dilapidated state museum. Some of the former Emperor's ceremonial robes were on show, along with tribal crafts and a jumble of bones labelled 'Lucy, the oldest Humanoid in the world'. Samson said they'd been found in the Danakil region in 1974 and had been named after the Beatles' song 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds'.
'Lucy has made us famous. There's even a ballet about her in America. It's all about her life.' He glanced down through the cracked glass case at the assortment of bones. 'Lucy's made us famous, but she hasn't made us rich.'
Unable to resist, I asked him about Ethiopia's gold.
'The Bible speaks of Ophir,' he said, 'a great golden treasure, hidden, but waiting to be dug up. A little hard work, a little sweat, and we'd all be rich like they are in America. Gold is the future of Ethiopia.'
Samson told me that he was from Kebra Mengist, a small town far to the south of Addis Ababa. His father, a schoolteacher, had instilled in him a love of the Bible and a thirst for knowledge. But at an early age he had strayed.
'My parents told me that history was a good thing,' he said. 'After all, the Bible is a kind of history and that is the best thing of all. They told me to study, but my friends tempted me with riches.'
'Were they thieves, stealing from the wealthy?'
'No, no, they were prospectors,' he replied, 'digging gold from the giant open mines.'
I felt my pulse begin to race. A possible source of Solomon's gold suddenly seemed within reach. Anxious not to appear too enthusiastic, lest he take advantage of me, I asked Samson why he had abandoned mining and become a badly paid taxi-driver instead.
'For three years I dug gold from the ground,' he replied. 'Stripped bare to my waist, I worked like a rat in tunnels below the surface. It was infernal down there: hot, stinking, dangerous beyond words. The men who laboured there used to say that they had died and gone to Hell. The Devil was our employer. There was no escape. Yes, I earned good money but, like all the others, I spent it on liquor and bad women. If there was any cash left we gambled it away. The more money we earned through mining, the more we drank, and the more desperate we became.'
We moved on through the museum, past cases filled with imperial crowns, carved gourds, baskets in every colour of the rainbow, and manuscripts written in Ge'ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia. As we walked, Samson continued his story.
'There were dangers everywhere. Sometimes a tunnel would collapse and the miners would be buried alive. I lost many friends that way. Others were killed for their pouches of gold dust, their throats slit with a razor-blade during the night.
'My parents begged me to return home. They said Beelzebub was inside me. But I laughed at them and made fun of their poverty. Then one morning as I was shaving, I saw my face in the scrap of mirror. My eyes were bloodshot from drink and filled with anger. They were not my eyes – they belonged to the Lucifer.'
Back at the taxi, Samson showed me his prize possession – an extremely large leather-bound Bible which he kept under the passenger seat. It had been printed near St Paul's in London in 1673.
The good book, Samson said, reminded him of the true path. But it also taught him that gold could be beneficial if given respect, if used for the good of all men. He had read the Books of Kings and Chronicles and knew all about King Solomon and the land of Ophir. Unable to believe my good fortune at meeting a man who was familiar with biblical history and who had worked as a gold miner, I took out my map and told Samson about my quest to find Solomon's mines.
'Travelling in Ethiopia is hard,' he said. 'It's not like America where the roads are as smooth as silk. Here the buses break down and the police want bribes. A foreigner searching for gold would surely be locked in a cell and beaten with a thorny stick.'
I boasted that I had experience, that I'd only recently travelled to see the Shuar tribe who live deep in the jungles of the Peruvian Amazon. I told him how they shrink the heads of their enemies to the size of a grapefruit, and how they make manioc beer with the saliva of their ugliest crones. I omitted to say that the once feared Shuar warriors are now all fanatical Evangelists, desperate only for tambourines.
'It sounds as if you are a man with no fear,' Samson replied, blowing into his hands. 'But how will you find your way to the gold mines? You are a stranger in a foreign land.'
'I need an assistant,' I replied meekly, 'someone with a knowledge of history and gold. And if I'm to find King Solomon's mines, I'll need someone with a gigantic Bible to keep the Devil away.'
Excerpted from In Search of King Solomon's Mines Copyright © 2002 by Tahir Shah, courtesy of Arcade Publishing.