Ethiopia and the Ark of the Covenant
The Ark of the Covenant, like many artifacts sought after because of Biblical speculation, is shrouded in mystery. According to the Book of Exodus, God commanded Moses to have the Hebrews build the ark as a communication device between God and Moses (Ex. 25:9-10). Contemporary references such as in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) have focused on such powers as the source of fanatical treasure searching.
There are many theories about the fate of the Ark of the Covenant, of which the majority revolve around its transportation to Egypt and beyond or a secret location in Israel in which the Ark was hidden away prior to the Babylonian conquest. One such theory that is particularly intriguing is the Ethiopian legend. The Ark is only a small part of Ethiopia’s long and peculiar legend and history associated with both Judaism and Christianity.
The Ark of the Covenant is said to contain the “testimony” of God’s covenant with the Hebrews (Dt.31:26), a golden jar with manna and the rod of Aaron (Ex. 16:32-34, Heb. 9:4). However, 1 Kings 8:9 states that the only contents of the Ark were the two tablets of stone. The Ark, even from its Biblical record, is concealed in smoke and mirrors as High Priests themselves, notably the first one, Aaron, were only allowed to see the Ark on specific days. The Ark was covered when carried among the Hebrews and hidden in the Holy of Holies. This Biblical account of the Ark of the Covenant follows its many journeys from the wanderings of Egypt to the “Promised Land” of Palestine. The Ark of the Covenant was the subject of many narratives throughout the Tanakh, including its capture by Israel’s nemesis, the Philistines. It was not until the 6th century BCE that the Ark disappeared from the Biblical records when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. Consequently, the Ark then became an artifact of legend comparable to the Holy Grail.
In November, many Ethiopian Orthodox Christians made a pilgrimage to the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum, Ethiopia, during the Festival of Maryam Zion. The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion is the oldest and most significant church in the ancient African nation. The significance of the church is twofold. It holds the legacy of the nation’s first Orthodox Christian’s emperor, Ezana, in the 4th century who is claimed to have constructed the original. It also is the only church in the world to claim possession of the original Ark of the Covenant. Various scholars and treasure-seekers, such as Dr. Bernard Leeman and Graham Hancock, have supported the validity of this claim. The notion that the ancient Jewish artifact is resting in Ethiopia may be absurd or at least counter-intuitive to the average reader. However, the claim made by the Church of Mary of Zion might be deceptively coherent once one is learns of the traditions and legends associated with Ethiopian nation.
Like most legends, the tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is a delicate mixture of fact and fantasy. The claim of the church’s origins is obvious to the average Bible reader. The Book of Acts of the Apostles gives us a narrative in which the apostle Philip meets an Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza (Acts 8). The eunuch is stated to be a treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia, Candace. In the passage the eunuch is conveniently reading a prophecy in the Book of Isaiah, a book in the Jewish Tanakh, at which time Philip proceeds to interpret the prophecy in the light of the new Christian movement. After his conversion, the eunuch is said to continue on his way, presumably back to Ethiopia.
Contemporary historians doubt the validity of the Book of Acts and consequently this narrative is dubious. Part of the ambiguity is seen with any history of the Axum Empire. The Axum Empire was located in Northeastern Africa and developed from the 4th century BCE to its domination in 100 CE and lasted until around the 7th or 10th century CE. It is more likely that a Syrian Greek, Frumentius, who converted the Axumite emperor Ezana to Christianity, had brought Christianity to Ethiopia. However, the Christian tradition brought with it the legends and traditions of its Judaic predecessor, to which the Ethiopians had seeming connections.
The Kebra Nagast, or the Glory of Kings, is a book dated back at least seven hundred years that contains the developed legend of the Solomonic dynasty of the Ethiopian royal family. According to the Kebra Nagast, Ebna Lahakim was the first Emperor of Ethiopia and was the son of Israel’s King Solomon and Queen Makeda of Sheba. His royal name was David, after his Israelite grandfather, and the name was later changed to Menelik I in Ethiopian tradition.1 Contemporary scholars argue whether the ancient kingdom of Sheba is actually in Ethiopia or if it is in modern-day Yemen. Regardless, the tradition is that Ebna Lahakim visited his father’s kingdom and upon his return he was to receive one son of each of his nobles and each of his temple priests along with a replica of the sacred Ark of the Covenant. This may seem strange at first, but it is written that Solomon welcomed his firstborn son joyfully and offered him the heir to the Israelite throne. Ebna Lahakim, however, preferred to rule his mother’s realm in Ethiopia. Solomon had Zadok, the high priest, anoint Ebna Lahakim before the Ark of the Covenant as king of Ethiopia under the royal name of David (or David II).2 Ebna Lahakim would return to Ethiopia not only as the ancestral heir to the throne, but also as the spiritual heir of the Israelite throne.
The return to Ebna Lahakim’s nation would not be without a significant event to the history of Ethiopia. According to the Kebra Nagast, an angelic intervention caused Zadok’s son Azarias, who was destined for Ethiopia along with the other priestly sons, to plot the removal of the Ark of the Covenant to take to Ethiopia. With the assistance of heavenly beings the plot was successful. Once the convoy back to Ethiopia was out of Israel and into Egypt the conspirators told Ebna Lahakim of the scheme. Ebna Lahakim has previously thought the convoy held the promised replica of the Ark, but the conspirators had in fact switched the two. Ebna Lahakim is said to have danced for joy before the Ark as his grandfather had and all the deities of Egypt shattered into pieces.3 Henceforth, as the Kebra Nagast proclaims, Ethiopia would follow the God of the Israelites and turn away from their deities of stone.
There are three major and equally significant criticisms of the tradition of the Ark being held at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. The first obvious criticism is of the validity of the Kebra Nagast itself. The story is told in a myth-like fashion and creates doubters among the scientific community as well as other pseudo-scientific circles. The underlying criticism, however, is the political use of the Kebra Nagast. The earliest claims to the text present the writing of the text to the 13th century, aligning it with the emergence of a new kingship that claimed heritage from the Solomonic dynasty. The story in the Kebra Nagast solidified the new dynasty for the next seven hundred years until its fall in 1974. The argument is that the creation of the myth of the dynasty was used as political propaganda. This certainly gives a motive for the creation of the text but is hardly hard evidence against the narrative, nor does it explain the problematic claim of the possession of the Ark of the Covenant.
A second damaging criticism builds on top of the political motive of the Kebra Nagast. The second criticism is the argument from silence. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims that no one is allowed to ever see or touch the Ark4 except for the a designated person who never leaves the confines of the Church. Again, the argument from silence is hardly a convincing one, especially when in accordance with the Tanakh’s laws about the Ark. The silence of proof does, however, create doubts in a society in which empirical evidences are key to any claim. It is important to note that after the bloody revolution of 1974 that during the Mengistu regime, no one came to investigate the validity of the Ark.5 The fear of even the possibility of a powerful religious relic is evidence of the instilled belief of at least the possibility of the validity to the claim.
The final criticisms are mainly competitions for the claim to the Ark. Competing theories range from a hidden Ark of some vague location in Israel to a specific claim that the Ark is underneath the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Skeptics might say that the Ark would have certainly been destroyed by the Babylonians or by simply by the deterioration over time. Furthermore, skeptics might say that the Ark itself, based on a Biblical record, never actually existed. Some of these competing theories are based on probabilities whereas others are based on faith in one text or another.
The Ethiopian claim, whether true or not is an intriguing one, if not only for it’s simple, yet mythical, tradition. A recent complication of the Ethiopian claim have allowed for new interpretations. One new interpretation finds a synthesis between the theories of the Ark of the Covenant. Like all good compromises, the synthesis would probably leave a bad taste in each of the different theories’ mouths. The complication in Ethiopia is the assertion that there have been linguistic problems in the communication of what the Ark of the Covenant is. It has been mentioned that the “Ark” is actually the original tablets that were the contents of the “Throne” of the Ark of the Covenant. The claim follows that the original tablets are what is held in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion and that the throne, if any, that it sits one would have been a copy of the original. Since there is no current evidence of the original tablets, if they have ever existed, it should be maintained that there is no evidence for their location in Ethiopia or Israel. The problem with the theories is that they continue to look at the journey of the Ark in a structural and linear fashion. Munro-Hay states that the spiritual or esoteric belief in the Ark entertains reverence not through science, but through faith and mysticism that allows them a connection to the Holy Land of Israel.6
The Ark of the Covenant, as the Kebra Nagast states, is a heavenly object and thus even that “original” Ark of the Israelites was only an imitation of the “True Ark of the Covenant”. Even the Biblical accounts of the Ark, which were written hundreds of years after their claimed narratives, present the Ark surrounded in mystery as though even they did not know the actual origins. The Ark was a representative model of the promise from the Hebrew God, YHWH, to his chosen people. To understand the Ark as a single material object that has survived through the millenniums would be to misunderstand the purpose and even the truth of the Ark as a covenant. It could very well be that the narrative presented in the Kebra Nagast gives not only an authority to the Solomonic dynasty, but also a spiritual lineage for the Ethiopian people represented through their “Ark of the Covenant” as it did for the Jewish people.
The connection between the ancient Ethiopian state and the Judeo-Christian tradition can be followed through any given number of examples. The existence of a powerful Axumite Empire is a validated claim that has given credibility to the historical account of the Tanakh and other rabbinical writings. The introduction of the Kebra Nagast to the west in the 17th and 18th centuries has presented a whole new journey of the Ark of the Covenant that was previously not even considered. The simple narrative of a “stolen” Ark has been accepted by the adherents of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church for centuries and cannot be brushed off because of the convenience of political utility or its sacred nature. That said, the possibility of such an object surviving millenniums of travel and war is remote. Furthermore, the interpretation of the Ark of the Covenant being a singular material object is western and is narrow-minded at best. The sacred and esoteric nature of the Ark of the Covenant continues to keep it shrouded in mystery and in the hands of those spiritually initiated in the tradition of the God of Abraham.
1 Munro-Hay, Stuart. The Quest for the Ark of the Covenant. London: I.B.Tauris, 2005. p. 18.
2 Ibid., p.18.
3 Ibid., p. 19.
4 Grierson, Roderick & Stuart Munro-Hay. The Ark of the Covenant. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999., p. 45.
5 Munro-Hay, p. 183.
6 Ibid., p. 208.