AP, Aug. 17, 2002
Thanks to Hollywood’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the Ark of the Covenant is one of the most famous objects in the Bible. It is also one of the most mysterious because the Bible doesn’t say what happened to it.
Ethiopian Christians, however, believe the ark still exists in their country.
The biblical ark signified God’s presence among his people. It was.
In accord with God-given specifications (Exodus 25:10-22), the ark measured about 4-by-2 1/2-by-2 1/2 feet. There were two cherubs with outstretched wings on the lid, or “mercy seat.” The ark was covered with gold and carried on poles inserted into rings as the Israelites migrated through the wilderness and Holy Land.
Divine powers rested with the ark. It dried up the Jordan River so the Israelites could cross (Joshua 3:14-17) and brought plagues upon the Philistines when they seized it in battle (1 Samuel 4:11-5:12).
King David installed the ark in a tent amid great rejoicing after he established Jerusalem as his capital (1 Samuel 6:1-19). King Solomon ceremonially placed it in the Holy of Holies when the Temple was built (1 Kings 8:1-9). The ark still existed under King Josiah in the seventh century B.C.
Then it vanished.
The sacred box was somehow lost or destroyed when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 587 B.C., or earlier, because it wasn’t listed with the spoils the conquerors took from the Temple (2 Kings 25:13-17). Israel never built a replacement ark, in accord with God’s command in Jeremiah 3:16.
So runs the standard Jewish and Christian story. But Ethiopian Orthodox Christians disagree.
Raymond Matthew Wray of the American Catholic magazine Crisis, who wrote about his own search for the lost ark, said there are five ark scenarios:
* The Hollywood version had the ark sitting in a U.S. government warehouse.
* Some think ancient Israelites hid it under the Temple when the Babylonians invaded.
* Others say the Babylonians stole or destroyed it.
* The amateur archaeologist Ron Wyatt, who has since died, claimed he rediscovered the ark under the hill where Christ was crucified.
There is no evidence for any of this.
Then there is No. 5, the Ethiopian scenario.
* The Bible reports that the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon. Most scholars say she came from present-day Yemen. But Ethiopian legend maintains she was from that country and gave birth to Solomon’s son Menelik, who founded a monarchy that lasted until 1974.
This tradition says when Menelik visited Solomon, his aides stole the ark and brought it home. It was kept for centuries in other locations but is now said to be held under strictest secrecy in the town of Axum (or Aksum).
Wray trekked to Axum to see what he could find.
The ark site is St. Mary of Zion Chapel, a modest stone Orthodox sanctuary, roughly 40 feet square, on the grounds of the town’s main church.
In the past the ark was brought forth from the chapel annually but was never seen and was covered with a cloth, supposedly to protect the people from the ark’s power. Today, a replica known as a tabot is paraded instead, to protect the ark.
Wray met with Abba Welde Giorgis, described to him as the guardian of the ark. The guardian’s lifetime appointment is a great honor but also a burden because it prohibits him from leaving the chapel compound.
Unfortunately, Wray’s article tells us nothing about the Ethiopian ark itself, either because he did not probe or because Giorgis was reticent. Nor did an Associated Press reporter find out anything on a previous visit. The ancient mystery lingers.
We do learn from Wray that Ethiopians believe the ark has helped protect their country, as it did ancient Israel. For instance, Ethiopia is almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims, who are in conflict in neighboring Sudan and elsewhere.
But “everybody in Ethiopia is living peacefully,” Giorgis said. “The ark is having an impact on everyone.”