The Ark of the Covenant, believed to have been constructed by Moses according to God's direct instructions, is one of the most mythologised objects in human history. Most people picture it as the golden casket of supernatural fury from the first Indiana Jones film, but what if the Ark wasn't "lost" at all? What if it's actually sitting in a verifiable location in a nondescript African town?
Incredible as that sounds, there are many who believe the Ark is indeed housed in a small chapel next to the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum, Ethiopia. But before we consider this claim, let's consider what we know about the Ark itself.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ARK
According to religious tradition, the Ark of the Covenant was built to contain the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. What's really surprising is the level of detail which the Bible goes into about its construction. The Book of Exodus describes the exact dimensions of the box, the materials it's made of, and the lid crowned by golden winged cherubim. It's literally a manual for creating the Ark, and the clarity of the instructions does seem to imply that it was an actual, historic artefact which really was constructed.
The biblical narrative goes onto tell us the Ark was carried by the Israelites and exhibited incredible powers - parting seas and devastating buildings. Eventually, after many epic adventures, the Ark came into the possession of King Solomon, who gave it pride of place in his Temple in Jerusalem.
Then came an attack by the Babylonians, who - according to the traditional narrative - sacked the Temple around 587 BC. Was the Ark destroyed in the carnage? Was it stolen and taken elsewhere?
Or had it already been taken away by that point? This is where the Ethiopian claim comes into play.
WHY THE ARK MIGHT BE IN ETHIOPIA
According to the Kebra Nagast, a great Ethiopian text dating back many centuries, the fate of the Ark was tied up with King Solomon's love life. The wise monarch had a romantic dalliance with the Queen of Sheba, who bore him a child: Menelik I, emperor of Ethiopia.
On reaching adulthood, Menelik decided to visit his father in Jerusalem, and ended up bringing the Ark back with him to Africa. After being kept for several hundred years on the island of Tana Qirqos in Ethiopia, the Ark was eventually brought to the town of Axum, where it has remained to this day, shielded from the eyes of everybody except an appointed "guardian".
WHY IT MIGHT BE TRUE
While there's no solid historical evidence for this version of events, the circumstantial evidence is compelling. The island of Tana Qirqos is still home to devout monks who are absolutely certain the Ark was there for centuries, and openly display relics which apparently came with the Ark from Solomon's Temple. There are also traces of what seems to have been a tabernacle - that is, a shrine erected to house the Ark.
Then there's the issue of the immense pride and seriousness around the chapel in Axum where the Ark is said to reside. Only one man, the so-called "guardian", is allowed to lay eyes on the Ark, and he is in fact forbidden from ever leaving the chapel grounds. He will worship at the Ark until his dying day, at which point his successor - named by him - will take up the mantle.
The sheer severity of this task, and the generations of devoted guardians who have given their lives over to the calling, implies that something of huge importance does indeed exist within the chapel. At the very least, it is a convincing replica of the Ark. Or it's the very Ark itself.
In the words of writer and priest Lionel Fanthorpe, "I would not be in the least surprised if, at some future date, those with the expert scientific knowledge to say 'yay or nay' would find that the Ark in Axum IS the one from Solomon's Temple."
WHY IT PROBABLY ISN'T TRUE
Here's the counter-argument: the Axum story is just one of many possible theories about the fate of the Ark. Admittedly, it has more meat to it than most alternative explanations which place the Ark everywhere from France to Scotland, but there's still a glaring lack of real evidence.
If the Ethiopian clergy really, truly believed the Ark of the Covenant was in that chapel, wouldn't they place it under formidable protection? All that currently stands between the most venerated object on Earth and any potential armed robbers is a fence and an elderly holy man.
As historical author Lynn Picknett says, the fact that security is so lax, and that they pointedly refuse to ever let anyone see the Ark, "leads one to suspect that actually it does not exist."
It's surely more likely that the chapel and its carefully cultivated mythology is simply an expression of national pride. An extension of the cherished Kebra Nagast narrative which links Ethiopia with the court of King Solomon. A part of the national culture and consciousness, but no more than that.
What do you think of the Ethiopian claim on the Ark? Let us know below...