There are strange things out in the desert, some of which we’ve already discussed. The shifting sands hide lost cities grander than sunken Atlantis, and history older than human memory. Religions are born on the dunes, secrets are lost to memory, and prophecies are whispered in the wind. But sometimes they are heard. Or read.
A Secret Scroll
It’s a tale oft-repeated in both biblical history and conspiracy circles, taken as gospel despite the relative unlikelihood of it all. A mysterious Egyptian merchant shows up at the doors of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus in late 1947 carrying a “great treasure,” evidently demanding to see the local CIA station chief, at that time a man named Miles Copeland. Copeland meets the merchant at the door, and is presented with an ancient decaying scroll. Copeland — curious — unrolls the ancient scroll and photographs a fair portion of it, but will later claim that several parts of the scroll disintegrated in the sun, flaking off and disappearing over the streets of Damascus before he could document their existence. Miles Copeland’s wife is said to have cringed over dinner at his report of the ancient document’s harsh treatment, as she is a trained archaeologist. But then she fades from the story.
Thirty photos — not even enough to fully document the complete remaining scroll — are then taken to the U.S. Embassy in Beirut for further study, where they are identified by a “prominent official well versed in ancient languages” as a portion of the prophecy-laden (and apocalyptic) Book of Daniel written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and then promptly lost. The mysterious Egyptian (maybe of that old native blood) disappears, and both the scroll and the photographs are lost somewhere in Damascus, Beirut, or points between. Later scholarship suggests that the scroll had probably been pilfered from the vast discovery at Qumran that would later become known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and assigns it no great importance except as an illustration of the young CIA’s archaeological incompetence, and of the enormous value of the cache of Dead Sea Scrolls. And that’s probably pretty close to what really happened.
But what if it’s not?
Operation Sweet Spring
Although the typical version of the tale casts Copeland’s wife as a harried academic appalled at the the treatment of a potentially valuable antique, she was in fact *also* a trained British spy herself, a one-time member of Britain’s war-time Special Operations Exective (SOE) which had been responsible for sabotage and subversion behind enemy lines during WWII. Although the SOE and U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) were both disbanded following the war, many of their agents were given high-ranking positions in other spy agencies; Copeland’s wife could easily have been operating under deep cover at the time, still on the job after the war ended. With mysterious Egyptians marching out of the desert to deliver ancient apocalyptic prophecies, it’s perhaps no wonder that war-time spy agencies had employed an archaeologist or two. Let’s not even bother to mention that an occult-focused SOE features heavily in Tim Powers’ masterwork Declare…which is also set in the mid-20th Century Levant. If you can’t spin a game out of that…well, I’m very disappointed in you.
But maybe that’s not really a coincidence. Maybe that was the point all along.
The official version of the story is based on the idea that our unidentified Egyptian shows up in Damascus unannounced and unexpected, bearing a poorly preserved scroll that the then-newly-created CIA showed academic interest in, and then lost in a colossal filing error. This is perfectly alright if you’re Egyptian is Nyarlathotep or one of his heralds (which could still mean the scroll was filled with prophecy, but perhaps not from the Book of Daniel), but doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of how we understand operational espionage in the modern world. What if our Egyptian isn’t just a merchant: what if he’s an asset?
There’s a great post-War pulp game waiting to be built around the hunt for the cache at Qumran, square-jawed spies and mysterious, sly Arabs all racing to reach a hidden cave full of ancient secrets. Imagine for a moment that our Egyptian merchant is not alone by choice, but the last survivor of a black ops mission sent to secure a legendary prophecy from Nazi holdouts (ready to report back to Newschwabenland), the Soviets, or even just mysterious Bedouin tribesman who have spent too long out in the desert listening to the whispers in the halls of many-pillared Irem. Or all three. Because why choose?
In any case, by the time the scroll reaches the embassy in Damascus, Copeland and his wife are ready to photograph the thing and get it sent back to headquarters for analysis: our scroll isn’t a copy of the biblical Book of Daniel (or at least not any version we’re familiar with). Instead, it’s a previously undiscovered prophecy supposedly mapping out the events of the rest of the 20th century (or more). The blundering story about failing to photograph the whole scroll (and losing pieces of it to the wind) is just a smokescreen…or perhaps a sanitized version of the real story involving a fight against vengeful djinn and a strange script that hurt the eyes to look at, let alone photograph. Quickly transported to a more secure location in Beirut, an Agency expert on ancient languages officially declares the scroll to be a copy of a well-known bible story written in familiar Hebrew and Aramaic, and then proceeds to “lose” the scroll and photographs, even as arrangements are made to secretly transport them back to Washington for further study, the lost scroll hidden by its own supposed insignificance and the CIA safe in a cover of its own apparent idiocy.
Prophecy and Espionage
In a world where Kings, Prime Ministers, and Presidents seek intelligence to predict, shape, and react to future events, there’s nothing more valuable than prophecy. Your players can be veteran agents brought into the Agency’s black budget Predictive Sciences Division, still working with counterparts in a highly compartmented SOE that (secretly) survived WWII. Set them and their ancient prophecies against KGB-sponsored psychic spies, and they can help the Cold War stay cold.