Review from UK's Newspaper, "The Independent", 6 September 1999

Historical Notes

Roderick Grierson  & Stuart Munro-Hay


What was the Ark and what did it look like?

On a mountain in Sinai, the Bible tells us, God spoke to Moses in a cloud of flame and told him to build an Ark for the Tablets of the Law. But is this where the story really begins? In recent months, we have become familiar with the idea of a prequel, as George Lucas has called his new instalment of the Star Wars saga. The earliest accounts of the Ark seem to be prequels themselves, written when the great relic was already installed in the Temple of Solomon. Its origins were part of a distant past, 'long ago and far away', when God was believed to have appeared among men in a way that he no longer did.

The first mystery of the Ark is that we have two different accounts of who made it and what it looked like. Was it an elaborate golden shrine made by the craftsman Bezalel, or was it a simple wooden box made by Moses himself? Is it possible that these descriptions refer to two different Arks? Several of the earliest rabbis to comment on the Bible were convinced that it did, and modern scholars have been intrigued by three different views of why the Ark was made and what it was intended to do. The oldest traditions describe a palladium that ensured the victory of the Israelites in battle, as it did when Joshua led them around the walls of Jericho. Traditions connected to the priesthood describe it as the heart of the elaborate ritual of the Temple, which could only be approached by one man on one day of the year, when the High Priest made atonement for the sins of the nation. Yet the Deuteronomist describes a simple container for the Law, an ethical basis for the Israelite religion in place of the cosmic ceremonies of the Temple. The immense importance and complexity of the Ark in the Biblical narratives seems to be the result of these different traditions being applied to a single object when the final text was compiled, yet a clue to the existence of more than one Ark may survive in the mysterious verse 1 Samuel 14.18. Saul summons the Ark to be brought to him, even though we are told elsewhere that it remained at Kiryath-yearim until David took it to Jerusalem. A shadow of an older and richer tradition seems to have escaped the eyes of editors for whom the true faith had become singular and exclusive: one God, one Temple, one shrine.

What was the fate of the Ark that stood in the Temple at Jerusalem? It is often assumed that the Bible has nothing to tell us, but the Second Book of Maccabees reports that Jeremiah carried it out of the Temple and away from Jerusalem before the Babylonians captured Jerusalem in 587 BC. He took it across the Jordan and into Arabia, and here the Arab historians pick up the trail, telling us that it was captured by the Jurhum, the tribe that controlled the ancient shrine in Mecca known as the Kaba. Along with these reports, we know that sacred stones bearing a remarkable resemblance to the Ark have survived in or near the Kaba for over seventeen centuries. The Black Stone is believed to have come down from heaven on a sacred mountain, to have shone with a divine light, and to contain the covenant that God made with man. Another sacred stone also descended from heaven and was placed in a wooden box for safekeeping, just like the Tablets of Moses. What is more, the dimensions of the Kaba in which it was kept are those of the inner sanctuary in the Temple, the chamber built for the Ark of the Covenant.

Given the fascination in Arabia with Arks or similar shrines, it should not be surprising if similar traditions were also recorded on the other side of the Red Sea, in a country whose early history is so closely connected with Arabia. In Ethiopia, the medieval epic known as The Glory of Kings tells us that the Ark came to Ethiopia of its own volition, accompanying the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba when he returned from Jerusalem to his mother's country. The great relic is still believed to be preserved in the Chapel of the Tablet at Aksum, but there seems to be no evidence of its presence in Ethiopia before the twelfth century. In fact, the clergy at Aksum now speak of the Tablet of Moses rather than the Ark itself, and they also speak of there having been more than one of the great relic, however unique the Ark is meant to be. Their answer is therefore mystical. After all, the real Ark exists in heaven and material forms on earth are copies, however genuine. But there is also a historical point. While a wooden Ark might survive in the dry air of a sealed Egyptian tomb, the rains of highland Ethiopia would mean decay. Yet we have seen that sacred stones have survived for centuries in Mecca. Why could an ancient Tablet not survive at Aksum as well?