The Italian Centre for Photoreproduction, Binding, and Restoration of State Archives, also known as the CFLR, was located in an unassuming postmodern office building three blocks from the Tiber River at 14 Via Costanza Baudana Vaccolini. It boasted one of the world’s leading archival preservation facilities, as well as a young deputy assistant director named Alessandro Lombardi who was eager to begin his evening.
“Dottore, mi scusi,” said Lombardi.
Dr. Marwan Khalifa, a distinguished Koranic scholar in his early sixties with a handsome face and neatly trimmed beard, looked up from the desk he was working at. “Yes, Alessandro?”
The Italian adopted his most charming smile and asked, “Tonight, we finish early?”
Dr. Khalifa laughed and set down his pen. “You have another date this evening?”
Lombardi approached and showed the visiting scholar a picture on his mobile phone.
“What happened to the blond woman?”
Lombardi shrugged. “That was last week.”
Khalifa picked his pen back up. “I suppose I can be done in an hour.”
“An hour?” exclaimed Lombardi as he pressed his hands together in mock prayer. “Dottore, if I don’t leave now, all of the good tables outside will be gone. Please. When the weather is this nice, Italians are not allowed to work late. It’s state policy.”
Khalifa knew better. No matter what the weather, there were always people working late in the CFLR building—maybe not in the Research and Preservation department, but there was almost always a light burning somewhere. “If you want to leave your keys, I’ll lock up the office when I go.”
“And my time card?” asked Lombardi, pressing his luck.
“You get paid for the time you work, my friend.”
“Va bene,” replied the young man as he fished a set of keys for the department from his pocket and set them on the desk. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Have fun,” said Khalifa.
Lombardi flashed him the smile once more and then made his way toward the exit, turning off any unnecessary lights along his way.
Dr. Khalifa’s desk was a large drafting-style table, illuminated by two adjustable lamps. His time
as well as Lombardi’s was being paid for by the Yemeni Antiquities Authority.
In 1972, workers in Yemen had made a startling discovery. Restoring the aging Great Mosque at Sana’a, said to have been one of the first architectural projects of Islam commissioned by the prophet Mohammed himself, the workers uncovered a hidden loft between the mosque’s inner and outer roofs. Inside the loft was a mound of parchments and pages of Arabic texts that at some point had been secreted away, and were now melded together through centuries of exposure to rain and dampness. In archeological circles, such a discovery was referred to as a “paper grave.”
Cursory examinations suggested that what the grave contained were tens of thousands of fragments from at least a thousand early parchment codices of the Koran.
Access to the full breadth of the find had never been allowed. Bits and pieces had been made available to a handful of scholars over the years, but out of respect for the sanctity of the documents, no one had ever been permitted to study the entire discovery. No one, that is, until Dr. Marwan Khalifa.
Khalifa was one of the world’s preeminent Koranic scholars and had spent the majority of his professional career building relationships with the Yemeni Antiquities Authority and politely petitioning it to allow him to review the find. Finally, there
was a changing of the guard and the new president of the Antiquities Authority, a significantly younger and more progressive man, invited Khalifa to study the entirety of what the workers at Sana’a had uncovered.
It didn’t take long for Khalifa to realize the magnitude of the find.
As Yemen didn’t have the proper facilities to preserve and study the fragments and as the Yemeni government was absolutely opposed to Khalifa taking the items back to the United States, an arrangement was made for the complete contents of the grave to be transferred to the CFLR in Rome where they could be preserved and studied before being returned to Yemen.
With the blessing of the new Antiquities Authority president, Khalifa oversaw the entire process, including the technical side which included such things as edge detection, document degradation, global and adaptive thresholding, color clustering, and image processing.
His anticipation grew as each scrap was preserved and he was able to begin assembling the pieces of the puzzle. A significant percentage of the parchments dated back to the seventh and eighth centuries—Islam’s first two centuries. Khalifa was handling pieces of the earliest Korans known to mankind.
A billion-and-a-half Muslims worldwide believed that the Koran they worshiped today was the
perfect, inviolate word of God—an exact word-for-word, perfect copy of the original book as it exists in Paradise and just as it was transmitted, without a single error, by Allah to the prophet Mohammed through the Angel Gabriel.
As a textual historian, Khalifa was fascinated by the inconsistencies. As a moderate Muslim who loved his religion, but believed deeply that it was in need of reform, he was overjoyed. The fact that he had found, and was continuing to find, aberrations that differed from Islamic dogma meant that the case could finally be made for the Koran to be reexamined in a historical framework.
He had always believed that the Koran had been written by man, not God. If such a thing could be proven, Muslims around the world would be able to reexamine their faith with a modern, twenty-first-century perspective, rather than the outdated, unenlightened perspective of seventh-century Arabia. And now it seemed that he had just the proof he needed.
It was such a powerful discovery that Khalifa could barely sleep at night. It dovetailed so well with another project his colleague Anthony Nichols was working on back in America, that he felt as if Allah himself was steering his research, that this was His divine will.
All Khalifa could think about when he wasn’t at work was getting back to the CFLR facility each day to further investigate the fragments.
Though on evenings like this Khalifa missed Lombardi’s companionship as well as his expertise with the technical equipment, the truth was that he hardly noticed when the young Italian was gone. In fact, he was often so engrossed that he barely noticed Lombardi even when he was standing at the desk right in front of him.
Turning to the voluminous collection of information he had stored on his rugged Toughbook laptop, Khalifa pulled up one of the thirty-two thousand images the CFLR had already digitally archived. While he could have crossed the room and retrieved the fragment itself, he often found it unnecessary as accessing the digital images was much easier.
Khalifa was working on lining up six slivers of text written in the Hijazzi script when a shadow fell across his drafting table. “What did you forget this time, Alessandro?” the scholar asked without looking up.
“I didn’t forget anything,” responded a deep, unfamiliar voice. “It is you who have forgotten.”
Dr. Khalifa looked up and saw a man in a long, black soutane with a white collar. It was a common sight throughout Rome, particularly near the Vatican. But even though the CFLR did a certain amount of work with the Holy See, Khalifa had never seen a priest inside the building. “Who are you?”
“That’s not important,” replied the priest as he moved closer. “I would rather discuss your faith.”
“You must be confused, Father,” said Khalifa as he sat up in his chair. “I’m not a Catholic. I’m Muslim.”
“I know,” said the priest softly. “That’s why I’m here.”
In an explosion of black cloth, the priest was suddenly behind Khalifa. One of his large, rough hands cupped the scholar’s chin while the other gripped the side of his head.
With a powerful snap, the priest broke the scholar’s neck.
He stood there for a moment, the corpse clutched tightly, almost lovingly to his chest, then stepped back and let go.
Khalifa’s head slammed against the table before coming to rest beneath it.
The priest dragged the body across the floor and positioned it at the bottom of a set of stairs which led up to a small archival library. From there, it took only moments to set the fire.
Two hours later, having showered and changed, the assassin sat in his hotel room and studied Khalifa’s laptop. Connecting to a remote server, he had the Koranic scholar’s password program cracked within fifteen minutes. From there, one e-mail confirmed everything he needed to know.
Finally, good news! It appears we have located the book. A dealer named René Bertrand is bringing it to market in Paris at the Antiquarian Book Fair. I will be meeting him there to negotiate the purchase. As you know, my funding is limited, but I have faith that barring an all-out bidding war, the book will be ours!
As planned, I will see you next Monday at 9:00 a.m. in the Middle Eastern Reading Room of the Library of Congress—although now we’ll finally have the book and can begin deciphering the location of the final revelation!
The assassin had had Khalifa under surveillance long enough to know who the sender was and what he was referring to. It was a parallel and potentially more damaging project, which up until this point had appeared stalled. Obviously, things had changed—and not for the better.
The assassin shut down the laptop and spent the next several hours pondering the implication of what he had learned. He then started formulating a plan. When all of the angles had been considered and tested in his mind, he reactivated the computer.
Attaching the relevant e-mails between Khalifa
and Anthony Nichols, he composed his report and delivered his assessment to his superiors.
Their response came back twenty minutes later, hidden in the draft folder of the e-mail account they shared. The assassin had been cleared for the Paris operation.
At the end of the message, his superiors instructed that funds would be transferred to Paris and all necessary arrangements would be made. They then congratulated him on his success in Rome.
The assassin deleted the message from the draft folder and logged off. After reciting his prayers, he disconnected his phone and hung the Do Not Disturb sign on his door. He would be leaving early in the morning and needed to rest. The next several days were going to be very busy. His superiors were in agreement that the prophet Mohammed’s lost revelation needed to stay lost—forever.