Ever since the premiere of the popular movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, hardly a year passes without someone claiming to have found the Ark of the Covenant, the disappearance of which is one of the most famous Biblical mysteries. According to a very well-known, ancient Ethiopian tradition, how ever, the Ark did not disappear, but came to Ethiopia in the time of King Solomon. Now Graham Hancock, a much-published journalist formerly with The Economist, uses this tradition to claim that he has located the Ark of the Covenant in “a secluded sanctuary chapel” in Axum, Ethiopia.
As it is described in the Book of Exodus, the Ark was a chest measuring 4 feet, 2 inches (2.5 cubits) long; 2 feet, 6 inches (1.5 cubits) wide; and 2 feet, 6 inches (1.5 cubits) high. It was made of shittim or acacia, overlaid with gold inside and outside and was fashioned by two of the most skilled Israelite craftsmen. A golden crown and two cherubs facing each other decorated the top. It was covered by a pure gold cloth called kaporet. When it was transported in processions, the Ark was carried by staves inserted into four golden rings at the bottom corners (Exodus 25:10–22, 37:1–9).
The Ark is the most holy and powerful object described in the Hebrew Bible. First mentioned in Exodus 25:10 as the repository of the Tablets of the Law given to Moses upon Mt. Sinai, it symbolized the divine presence in Israel. Human beings were strictly forbidden to touch or even to gaze upon it (Leviticus 16:2; Numbers 4:15, 19, 20). Many great deeds were performed before it, including the fall of Jericho’s wall after the Ark was carried around it seven times Joshua 6:12–2]).
The Ark accompanied the Israelites on their journey from Sinai and throughout the entire period of the conquest of Canaan. It was first kept at Shiloh (Joshua 18:1; 1 Samuel 3:3), and it accompanied the Israelite army at battles, falling once into the hands of the Philistines near Eben-Ezer (1 Samuel 4, 14:18). When Shiloh was destroyed (Psalms 78:59–67; Jeremiah 26:6–9), the Ark was kept at Beth-Shemesh until a plague necessitated its transfer to Abinadab’s house on the hill in Kiriath-Jearim (1 Samuel 7:1). It was then placed in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, after which it was brought to Jerusalem and kept in a special tent (2 Samuel 6:2–17). Finally the Ark came to rest in a special permanent place in the Holy of Holies in the Temple built by Solomon ( 1 Kings 8:6). Thereafter there is no further mention of the Ark being carried to war or at festivals.
Some scholars, basing their views on Jeremiah 3:16 and on the fact that the Ark is not mentioned among the vessels carried into exile or brought back from Babylonia, suggest that it was no longer in Solomon’s Temple at the time of its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. Furthermore, the Second Temple does not seem to have possessed the Ark (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 5:2). According to another passage in the Talmud, it was hidden by Josiah “in its place,” or beneath the woodshed (Shekalim 6:1–2; Yoma 53b–54a). On the other hand, 2 Maccabees 2:1–7 says Jeremiah hid it on Mount Nebo. The many modern attempts to explain the disappearance or whereabouts of the Ark have been to no avail.
The Ethiopian tradition of the Ark’s removal and present location is found in the Kebra Nagast, a highly valued Ethiopic literary work whose origin (Ethiopic, Jewish, Coptic, Arabic?) and date of composition (6th to 9th centuries C.E., revised in the 14th century) are matters of some scholarly dispute. This work claims that the Ark of the Covenant, called tabot in Ge’ez (classical Ethiopic), was brought from Jerusalem to Ethiopia by Ibn-al-Hakim (Dawit), known popularly as Menelik, the alleged son of the Queen of Sheba by Solomon. According to the same tradition, the Jewish religion was also introduced to Ethiopia at the same time. The word tabot is derived from Jewish Aramaic tebuta, also related to Hebrew tebah (meaning “ark” or “box”).
Many factors suggest that Christianity came to Ethiopia in the early centuries C.E. According to Ethiopian church tradition, the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–39) brought Christianity to the country. Scholars, however, date its origin to about 330, when the royal family was converted to Christianity by a Syrian monk named Frumentius.
Tradition also holds that when Christianity came to Ethiopia half of the population was Jewish and that most of them converted to Christianity. We learn from literary, linguistic, archaeological and historical information that there were Jews and Jewish converts in Ethiopia in the early Christian centuries. It was probably those Jews and those among them who converted to Christianity who were responsible for the strong Jewish molding of Ethiopian culture, including the incorporation of the tabot into the ritual of the Ethiopian church.
The tabot is the most holy object of the Ethiopian church. Its sanctity, function and centrality in the ritual of the Ethiopian church is the same as that of the Ark in ancient Israel. But whereas the Ark was carried on shoulders at ceremonies in ancient Israel (except once when it was conveyed in a cart [2 Samuel 6:3]), in Ethiopia it is carried in religious processions on the heads of officiating priests. The priests march with dignity a step at a time, followed by a company of singing, dancing and clapping priests and deacons who beat drums and praying sticks and rattle the sistra. The solemn congregation, kept at some distance, follows with a quiet serenity occasionally bursting into ululations. The veneration of the tabot in this manner has been compared by some scholars to the scene when David and the people sang and danced 061around the Ark as it was brought up to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:5, 14–16).
The original Israelite Ark is believed to be still lying in the ancient, famous church of Mary Zion in Axum. Guarded by a monk who devotes his life to the task, it is off-limits to all persons, including kings and bishops. Its replicas, however, are found in all Ethiopian churches and monasteries. No one is supposed to see or touch even these replicas, let alone the original Ark. No church is fit for worship unless a copy of the Ark is installed in it, and no service is considered sacred without its presence. The tradition probably goes back to the early days, if not to the beginning, of the Ethiopian church. It should be noted, however, that Ethiopian Jews also adhere to the tradition of the coming of the Ark to Ethiopia in the time of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and of the existence of Jews in pre-Christian Ethiopia. They claim with good reason that, although they lost political power to the Christians, they are the descendants and heirs of those ancient Jews.
The Armenian Abu Salih is one of several medieval writers who, in the early 13th century, noted the Ark’s importance in the Ethiopian church. He gave the following very accurate description of the Ark’s role in the church:
“the Abyssinians [Ethiopians] possess also the Ark of the Covenant, in which are the two tables of stone, inscribed by the Finger of God with the commandments which he ordained for the children of Israel. The Ark of the Covenant is placed upon the altar, but is not so wide as the altar; it is as high as the knee of a man, and is overlaid with gold; and upon its upper cover there are crosses of gold; and there are five precious stones upon it, one at each of the four corners, and one in the middle. The liturgy is celebrated upon the Ark four times in the year, within the palace of the king; and a canopy is spread over it when it is taken out from its own church to the church which is in the palace of the king; namely on the feast of the great Nativity, on the feast of the glorious Baptism, on the feast of the holy Resurrection, and on the feast of the illuminating Cross. And the Ark is attended and carried by a large number of Israelites descended from the family of the prophet David. … ”1
Almost all of these words, recorded about 800 years before Hancock, could have been written in 1993. They describe succinctly the practices still prevalent in the Ethiopian church to this very day, albeit with replicas substituted for the original ark.
Over the past 400 years, numerous scholars who have written about Ethiopia or about the Jewish component of Ethiopian culture have underlined the significance of the Ark in the Ethiopian church, for it is impossible to write about that country without referring to the centrality of the Ark in its Christian tradition.2
In The Sign and the Seal, Hancock claims that the Ark is not “in Israel beneath the Temple Mount (as many believe), but in the highlands of war-torn Ethiopia in a secluded sanctuary chapel at the heart of the ancient and sacred city of Axum. There, guarded by a secretive brotherhood of monks, it forms the centerpiece of a pervasive cult which incorporates elements of early Judaism, of Christianity, and of paganism in arcane rituals and in bizarre and archaic ceremonies that are found nowhere else in the world.”
It is evident to anyone knowledgeable in the literature and history of Ethiopian Christianity that this claim contains little that is new. Hancock does, however, introduce a couple new but controversial ideas. Contrary to the accepted Ethiopian tradition (that Menelik brought the Ark to Dabra Makidda, in Ethiopia, the capital of the Queen of Sheba, during Solomon’s reign), Hancock suggests that the Ark arrived in Ethiopia in the 5th century B.C.E., 500 years after the Queen of Sheba’s famous visit to Jerusalem. Moreover, he says that it did not come directly to Axum from Jerusalem, but from the Jewish temple on El-ephantine Island in Egypt, via another Jewish temple on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile.
These suggestions are interesting, and Hancock structures them in such a way that they seem to solve certain historical puzzles. None of them can be proven one way or another, however, and many scholars would dispute them vehemently, arguing that there is no factual evidence to demonstrate such historical movements nor any connection between the Elephantine Jewish community and Ethiopia.
Hancock also claims that he discovered a history of covert quests for the sacred relic in Ethiopia since the time of the Crusades. He asserts that in 1185 the Templars located the Ark in Ethiopia, but that they were unable to return it to Jerusalem. Subsequently, Portuguese adventurers such as Prince Henry the Navigator and Christopher de Gama (Vasco da Gama’s son), all belonging to the Order of Christ (formed 062in Portugal to shelter fugitive Templars in the early 14th century), trailed the Ark. More recently, a shadowy group of Freemasons, whose traditions supposedly descend directly from the Templars, have kept up the quest to reveal the Ark to the world.
Hancock also hypothesizes that the Holy Grail legend was invented in the 12th century by Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach (also associated with the Templars) as an occult symbol for the real and historical Ark in literary allegories that describe real-life quests for the Ark of the Covenant. Thus, the location of the Ark has been transmitted to succeeding generations in the enigmatic Grail literature.
These claims are also fascinating, but likewise condemned by scholars, who believe that Hancock’s ideas are fanciful and not supported by a shred of evidence.
Some of my colleagues have called this book “trash,” “an adventure story,” “a 063sensational best-seller story,” a “publicity-seeking gimmick” and the like.3 That is not only unkind, but also unfair and inaccurate. By virtue of its arguments, the book has revived an old debate concerning a most significant religious object. It has resuscitated interest in an unsolved mystery and thrown new light upon it. It has generated new interest in Ethiopia, an ancient and fascinating land. If for no other reasons, the author deserves praise for these accomplishments.
While Hancock’s book is definitely not trash, his claim that he has discovered the Ark of the Covenant is an exaggeration. He has not done that. What he has done is to publicize an ancient Ethiopian claim. For centuries, the Ethiopians have had a firm belief that they possess the Ark of the Covenant. As alluded to above, this belief has not escaped the attention of a single scholar of note who has dealt with the history and culture of Ethiopia.
Certain scholarly colleagues of mine also say that Hancock is not qualified to deal with a subject that requires years of study of many ancient languages and history. Because he has not done so, they say, his popular work is full of errors. This judgment is not totally fair either. Hancock has done a great deal of research, albeit from secondary sources (as many modern social scientists do) rather than from primary sources (as scholars in our field do). True, he has relied a lot on oral information gathered from interviews with scholars in Israel and Ethiopia and on impressions of places that he has visited, but he has also read many important works that deal with the subject. In addition, Hancock writes well and communicates his ideas provocatively.
More important, he has tried to solve a puzzle by putting together, in a rather creative way, all the information available to him. Of course, whether his solution adequately addresses the problem is another matter. Indeed his lack of the knowledge of the languages and his narrow understanding of the scholarly debate have led him to make hasty, albeit interesting, judgments. Ironically, however, it is his lack of the necessary scholarly tools that makes Hancock an original thinker!
As a scholar of both Jewish and Ethiopian literatures and cultures, I am fully aware of the complexities of the issues with which this book deals. For example, all Christians have some form of an altar. Is the Ethiopian ark an ancient altar, as at least one scholar once suggested? And even if the Ark is some sort of an ancient Semitic ritual object, is what the Ethiopians possess the original Israelite object? These questions await more serious scholarly research. In the meantime, we have to respect the Ethiopian claims, so sacred, weighty and ancient, and not make wild guesses as to the true nature of the artifact now in Axum.
Ever since the premiere of the popular movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, hardly a year passes without someone claiming to have found the Ark of the Covenant, the disappearance of which is one of the most famous Biblical mysteries. According to a very well-known, ancient Ethiopian tradition, how ever, the Ark did not disappear, but came to Ethiopia in the time of King Solomon. Now Graham Hancock, a much-published journalist formerly with The Economist, uses this tradition to claim that he has located the Ark of the Covenant in “a secluded sanctuary chapel” in Axum, Ethiopia. As it […]