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ODE TO THE PAST (with the occasional nod to the present)

The Lost Ark

Where is the lost Ark of the Covenant? The question has inspired dozens of claims, hundreds of theories, and even an Indiana Jones flick (Raiders of the Lost Ark).

No one knows, of course, which makes the lost ark the stuff of legend as much as biblical record. Is it buried beneath Temple Mount? Was it carried off to Ethiopia by the spawn of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba? Was it destroyed by the Babylonians? Carried off by the Egyptians during one of their famous campaigns? Taken by the Knights Templar to Scotland?

I’m personally fascinated by the account of Solomon and Makeda (Queen of Sheba), and the ark’s supposed journey to the mountain kingdom of Aksum. Ethiopian legend holds that Menelik I, the love child of Makeda and Solomon, had gone to visit his father in Israel and asked for a copy of the ark to take back to his own kingdom. Solomon gave him the replica, but Menelik secretly switched it with the real ark—the chest holding the original tablets of stone on which were inscribed the ten commandments, given by God to Moses during the exodus of the Jews—and carried it back to Sheba (which, at the time, spanned both sides of the Red Sea).

Eventually, the story goes, the ark ended up in Ethiopia, supposedly carried there for safekeeping. While it may well be in Ethiopia (in the absence of proof, one legend is as good as another, after all), the likelihood of Menelik carrying it there is slim to none. It is more likely that it was spirited off by Jewish priests during or before the Babylonian invasion and carried to various hiding places within Israel and Palestine. It likely moved around a lot, and could easily have been taken across the Red Sea.

During my own time in Aksum, researching for The Tenth Saint, I had the chance to visit the church that supposedly houses the ark today—St. Mary of Zion (or, as Ethiopians refer to it, Maryam Tseyon). It’s a tiny, unassuming chapel in the midst of the arid mountain town that was once a kingdom.

Originally built in 300 CE, and rebuilt many times over the centuries, the church was the site of coronation of Ethiopian emperors and now houses marvelous iconography and illuminated manuscripts. It holds great significance to Ethiopian Christians, who fervently believe the church is the resting place of the holy relic. A single monk has been appointed to guard it, and he is the only one allowed to set eyes upon it. A chest does indeed exist in this church—but is it the true ark, or does it contain sacred tablets of another kind? Over the centuries, many tablets have been consecrated and used for worship by the Ethiopian church.

This is one mystery of antiquity that may never be solved. Perhaps it’s better that way. Sometimes faith is more powerful than the actual object, which may or may not live up to the legend.
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