The Ark of the Covenant

Roderick Grierson and Stuart Munro-Hay

Published August 5th 1999, by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London. 

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The Ark of the Covenant is one of the greatest mysteries of antiquity. According to the Bible, it was created after God spoke to the prophet Moses on Mount Sinai, and while the tribes of Israel wandered in the wilderness, it served as a talisman in battle, a throne for an invisible God, an altar for sacrificial cult, and a repository for sacred Law. When Joshua led the Israelites into the land of Canaan, it destroyed the walls of Jericho, and when David chose Jerusalem as his new capital, he danced with joy before the Ark as it was carried into the holy city. His son, King Solomon, built a magnificent Temple for it, but when Babylonian armies destroyed the Temple some four centuries later, the fate of the Ark remained a secret.

The history of the Ark is a fascinating but daunting subject, not least because so much has been written about it. Innumerable books have discussed its significance, its mysterious powers, its even more mysterious disappearance, and a 'conspiracy of silence' that seems to surround its fate in the Hebrew Bible. How could the central shrine of a great faith, the recognized ancestor of two other world religions, Christianity and Islam, simply vanish without trace? For over two thousand years, scholars and clerics tried to explain it: the Ark is still hidden within a secret chamber beneath the Temple Mount; the Samaritans buried it on Mount Gerizim; the prophet Jeremiah placed it in a cave across the River Jordan; the Ark was brought to Mecca centuries before the birth of the prophet Muhammad; the Ark is guarded in the holy city of Aksum, in northern Ethiopia.

After many years of research, the authors of this new book trace the story of Zion, as the Ark of the Covenant has been known for centuries in Ethiopia, from the earliest accounts in the Bible to the testimony of the clergy in Aksum at the dawn of the Second Millenium. They describe the political significance of the Ark for the kings and the high priests of Israel, and how King David brought it with rejoicing into Jerusalem while his wife Michal watched him with contempt from her window (pictured, from an Ethiopian mss.). They explain rabbinic traditions about the cosmic nature of the Ark and the Temple that Solomon built for it. They examine the various accounts of its fate. They follow the history of the Ark into the deserts of Arabia, and arrive at the sacred city of Aksum, in the highlands of Ethiopia. Their book investigates the dreams of a New Israel in Africa, Europe, and the Americas, and analyzes the complex symbolism of the Ark and the Tablets of Moses. They reveal the contradictory descriptions of the Ark in the Bible and in later tradition, its mystical significance, and the powers ascribed to it: Was there only one Ark, or does the Bible contain evidence of other Arks that escaped the eyes of later editors? Do the sacred Arks of Arabia confirm the validity of a multitude of Arks? Could these other Arks explain the tradition of the Ark at Aksum, and is this supported by what the guardians of Ethiopian tradition can tell us today?

 

In Ethiopia, the Ark has a unique position, yet its story has not yet been properly addressed by any of the huge number of books published. It is curious that until now, no student of Ethiopian history has produced a serious discussion of the subject that forms a central theme in the Ethiopian epic known as The Glory of Kings (Kebra Nagast), a work of immense importance for the religious and political history of the country. This book, described as a 'national epic', as 'the masterpiece of Ethiopian literature', even as an 'Oedipal myth', has been translated into several modern European languages. It has even begun to assemble its own mythology. In one modern 'translation', copied almost word for word from the earlier version of Sir Ernest Wallis Budge, the publishers make an astonishing claim: 'lost for centuries, the Kebra Nagast is a truly majestic unveiling of ancient secrets. These pages were excised by royal decree from the authorized 1611 King James version of the Bible.' The Glory of Kings tells us that the Ark was brought from Jerusalem to Ethiopia during the reign of King Solomon. It had decided to leave Jerusalem of its own will, and it chose to accompany the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba when he returned to his mother in Africa. Even today, millions of Ethiopian Christians believe that the Ark rests in its own shrine in the ancient imperial city of Aksum, and that it is represented in every Ethiopian church by the special altar tablet known as the tabot (pictured) or 'Ark' .

 

Because the imperial dynasty that fell when the emperor Haile Selassie was deposed by revolutionaries in 1974 claimed descent from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and because The Glory of Kings has exerted an immense fascination in Europe and the Americas, the theme of the Ark has been mentioned in most of the scholarly books written about Ethiopia. But in every case, even in the publications of The Glory of Kings itself or in studies of the Falasha and the Judaic legacy in Ethiopian Christianity, discussion of the Ark has remained brief and limited. This tremendous claim, that Ethiopians possess the greatest relic of Judaism, has never been thoroughly investigated by scholars familiar with Ethiopian tradition.

As the Second Millenium approaches, the Ark is still supposed to remain in its chosen dwelling place, the Chapel of the Tablet of Moses standing directly beside the immensely revered church (pictured) of Maryam Seyon, Mary of Zion, at Aksum. Whatever the final judgement of scholars about the history of the relic concealed in the Chapel, in a very real sense the Ark is present in the ancient city. The belief of an entire Christian people is focused on it, and in return the Ark is believed to guard and protect them. Its presence is a source of great pride not only for the clergy but for Ethiopian Christians as a whole, a proof of the glory of Aksum and the unique destiny of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

 

The story of the Ark in Ethiopia is often obscure and complicated. The ancient relic seems to disappear and then reappear, to be forgotten or restored to life according to the events and crises of the day. This should not be surprising, as the history of the Ark in the Hebrew Bible is told in much the same way. Over the centuries, Ethiopians themselves were fascinated by some aspects of the story, while foreign travellers and historians recorded others. Yet the specific traditions about Zion and the Ark of the Covenant are always interwoven with wider political and religious themes, with the rise and fall of dynasties, the dream of a New Israel and the rivalries between different factions who claimed to preserve a Jewish and a Christian heritage, above all with the ambitions of the Solomonic emperors. Even as recently as the nineteenth century, Yohannes IV (pictured), the last emperor to be crowned at the Church of Mary of Zion in Aksum proclaimed himself 'King of Zion', and the constitution granted by Haile Selassie in 1955 repeated the claim that the royal house was descended from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. 

 

The empire of Yohannes IV and Haile Selassie is now a part of vanished age, along with the revolutionary regime that destroyed it, and Ethiopians are searching for a new political structure that will serve them in the future. In Aksum, however, the ancient belief in the Ark remains. Despite the immense interest aroused in 1992 by the publication of Graham Hancock's popular book The Sign and the Seal, the clergy at Aksum still guard their relic, determined to shield it from what they regard as profane eyes and idle curiosity. After years of research in Ethiopia itself and among the Ethiopian manuscripts preserved in European libraries, the authors explain why the traditions that have survived for so long at Aksum should be taken just as seriously as the earliest accounts of the Ark in the Hebrew Bible.