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Riding the Da Vinci wave
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 20 - 05 - 2004

By Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Why all the fuss and flurry? Why are so many scholars, theologians and historians up in arms against a fictitious suspense thriller that is taking the world by storm? On 18 March 2003, a murder mystery entitled The Da Vinci Code, appeared in bookstores throughout the US, and sold 6,000 copies on the first day. Word of mouth pushed sales to 25, 578 by week's end placing it as No.1 on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list, unheard of for an obscure author. It has stayed there, and on every other best seller list as No.1 or No.2 for 60 weeks. It is back as No.1 this week. "Not since Harry Potter has an author delighted in leading readers on a breathless chase...," wrote Janet Maslin, critic of the New York Times. Now in its 56th printing, it is being translated in 40 languages and is still selling at the rate of 80,000 to 90,000 every week. When you consider that 100,000 in total sales of any book is a bestseller, you can realise the magnitude of this success story. Sales have already reached 7.35 million and the publishers are dancing with joy: "We were out of our minds on day one," gloats Doubleday, "there's never been a bigger adult seller in such a short time."
As sales of the book soar, so does the debate, dispute and controversy; the mysteries of its success are almost as great as the mysterious dark secrets it tries to uncover. What is it that author Dan Brown so deftly and intelligently plotted that has created such a furore in all conceivable circles? Six books have already been published denying the author's premise, his description of early Christian beliefs and his revisionist views of Christian doctrines.
This year's most spectacular read starts with a big bang, hard to put down, harder to forget. A grizzly murder takes place in the long, silent corridors of a darkened museum, unveiling a stunning secret that has been protected by a clandestine society since the days of Jesus. The victim, Jacques Saunière, esteemed curator of the Louvre Museum, spends his last dying moments, not in identifying his killer, but desperately trying to pass on some peculiar and confidential information. He removes his clothes, draws a circle, and poses like the figure in Leonardo Da Vinci's famous drawing "The Vitruvian Man". Are you hooked? Fascinated? Captivated? This is only the prologue of a top-notch thriller that sparkles with energy and adventure.
Saunière's granddaughter Sophie Neveu and Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, a modern version of Indiana Jones, endeavour to decipher clues of this mystery. Their search takes them to high roads and low roads of Paris and London, and hot on their heels, is a tireless French policeman and a ruthless albino monk. The mysteries continue to unfold, combining a wealth of esoteric information about secret societies, ancient cover-ups and savage vengeance. Through his lofty plot the author explores some of Western culture's basic beliefs from the nature of the Mona Lisa smile, to the 1,000 year legendary secret society, The Priory of Sion whose members have included Sir Isaac Newton, Boticelli, Victor Hugo and Leonardo Da Vinci.
A labyrinth of intricate schemes involves the Gnostic Gospels, the Knights Templar, and the ancient Catholic organisation known as Opus Dei and secret documents about the nature and whereabouts of the Holy Grail, documents that must be concealed at all cost.
The mystery dates back to the year 325 when a newly converted Emperor Constantine, calls a meeting of bishops from around the world to consolidate Christianity's power base. At the Bishop's Council of Nicea, and at the behest of the Emperor, a divine Christ is created. The idea of the divine Jesus is hatched by the Emperor, as a political power play. He orders all older scripture texts destroyed, which is why no complete set of gospels predate the fourth century. Until that moment in history Jesus was neither the Son of God, nor even a Nazarene carpenter, but a wealthy religious leader married to the rich Mary Magdalene, who carries the Royal blood of Benjamin. When the Romans kill Jesus, a pregnant Magdalene, flees to France where her bloodline still survives. The Church has conspired to suppress this information for 17 centuries. Why? Brown's answer is because they needed to strip women of their spiritual power and divinity. Whatever happened to all the goddesses that dominated pre-Christian cultures from Ancient Egypt to Ancient Rome? Female as well as male deities were worshipped 2000 years ago, until the Church dealt women a fatal blow in Nicea in 325. What about the Holy Grail? Drawing from earlier controversial Grail theories, Brown describes the Holy Grail, not as the vessel Christ drank from during the Last Supper, but a symbolic metaphor for the vessel that is woman's body. The Holy Grail was Mary Magdalene.
In case you wish to quibble with the veracity of his claims, author Brown ascertains "the secret I reveal has been whispered for centuries....so there are thousands of sources to draw from." "It is not my own." How does the Renaissance genius Leonardo Da Vinci figure in all this? Art historians and critics agree that his paintings contain hidden levels of meaning, symbols, anomalies, and codes, intentionally providing clues to a powerful secret. According to Brown, he was one of the grand masters of the Priory of the Sion, and some of his best-known works, notably "The Mona Lisa", "The Virgin of the Rocks" and the "Last Supper" contain carefully encoded references to the Priory's secret. "I first learnt of the mysteries hidden in Da Vinci's paintings when I was studying art history at the University of Seville in Spain. I was captivated. I spent years doing research before writing The Da Vinci Code. "
Who is this unknown author Dan Brown who has so engaged laymen and academicians this last year? He is a shy 38 year-old former musician and English teacher who lives quietly with his wife in New England, whom he thinks without a doubt is "the most astonishingly talented woman I have ever known." He is by no means a new author having written three books before The Code. His third Angels and Demons is now 7th on the bestseller list.
How much of his blockbuster is based on fact? "All of it: the paintings, the locations and organisations described in the novel, all exist." Brown weaves his fact and fiction so skilfully that he has convinced millions. "His research is impeccable," writes a literary critic of the New York Daily News. Brown insists that all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in his novel are accurate. Among his many sources: The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ, by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, The Goddess in the Gospel : Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine and Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail, both by Catholic author Margaret Starbird. His list is endless.
Fact or fiction or a marriage of both, Brown has received accolades from critics, editors and fellow best selling authors, but nothing or no one could outdo New York Times critic Janet Maslin when she wrote: "WOW!"
Why then have academicians not taken previous books on the same subject to task? Could it be that they have not been read as widely as The Da Vinci Code ? The Council of Catholic Bishops of the US published a condemnation of Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ, a work that praises Christ's divinity, long before its release. Why then have they been silent for the past year regarding The Da Vinci Code that doubts the veracity of established Christian doctrine? Have they perhaps learned that such attention would only result in more sales, or could it be that they realise that a work of art is best left alone? As Pablo Picasso reflected: "We all know Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth."
Best selling author Robert Crais ( Hostage ), after unveiling the secret of The Code wrote: "Mr Brown, I am your fan." Millions echo his sentiment as The Code and Mr Brown win more fans everyday.

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