Is the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia?
The Ark of the Covenant has fascinated historians for thousands of years. According to the Hebrew Bible, the ark was a wooden, gold encased box that contained the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed on them. The New Testament Book of Hebrews also included Aaron’s (the brother of Moses) rod and a pot of manna (the bread from heaven that kept the Hebrews alive in the Exodus).
This artifact was housed in the center of the Temple of Jerusalem and was one of the holiest artifacts for the ancient Hebrews. After the conquest of Israel by the Babylonians, the ark disappeared from the historical record.
There are a few theories on what happened to the ark. Some state that it was destroyed by the Babylonians when they destroyed the temple. Others state that it was smuggled out and hidden for safekeeping.
Sorry, there is no evidence that it was placed in a government warehouse to be studied by “top men.” Though Hitler did have an interest in trying to find the ark’s hiding place, no whip-wielding archeologist was fighting to keep it out of his hands.
If you asked members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the ark is housed in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum. Other Ethiopian churches also have replicas of the ark dedicated to different saints.
So, how and why did the ark make its way to Ethiopia? And could this story be true, or is it just a piece of national folklore?
First, we need to go back to the Old Testament of the Bible and King Solomon. Solomon was famed for his wisdom and is credited with building the original temple in Jerusalem. One story tells of him being visited by the Queen of Sheba, a wealthy and wise ruler in her own right. There is debate on where Sheba was and the nature of her and Solomon’s brief relationship.
According to Ethiopian tradition, she was Queen Makeda of Ethiopia. This story is recounted in the 14th-century epic poem the Kebra Nagast (The Glory of the Kings). After visiting with Solomon, Makeda is tricked into spending the night with Solomon. He gives her a ring so that if a child is produced, she could identify themself to Solomon.
Sure enough, Makeda is pregnant by the time he returns to her kingdom. She gives birth to a son whom she names Menelik. He would be the legendary founder of the Solomonic Dynasty, which established the rule of Ethiopia in 1270.
At the age of 22, Menelik returned to his father’s kingdom. Solomon tries to convince Menelik to stay and be his heir, but Menelik longs to return to his mother’s kingdom to rule there. Instead, Solomon sends a company of the first-born sons of some of Israel’s elders to accompany him. The company of young men then sneak the Ark of the Covenant out of Jerusalem, and with divine assistance, are transported to Ethiopia and leave a copy in its place. It is this copy that the Babylonians may have destroyed.
The ark lies somewhere on the grounds of the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. It is guarded by monks who are forbidden from leaving the temple grounds until their death.
There is also the story that the ark was kept in Egypt via the Nile River. It then spent four hundred years at Lake Tana before making its way to Axum.
Some archeologists have been skeptical of the claim that the Ark of the Covenant is in Axum. In a 1992 interview Edward Ullendorff, a former Professor of Ethiopian Studies at the University of London, mentioned studying the ark at Axum in 1940. He said, examining an empty wooden box that dated to the medieval period.
Today the Ethiopian Church still holds firm to its claim. In 2009 patriarch Abune Paulos stated on June 24th that he would unveil the Ark of the Covenant, which had been kept in safe-keeping all these centuries. However, the next day he proclaimed he would not reveal the ark but attested to its status as being intact.
The Tigray War in the region last year placed many cultural artifacts in danger. Among them was the possible home of the Ark of the Covenant.
During the Axum Massacre on November 29, 2020, members of the Eritrea Defense Force and Amhara militias attempted to attack the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. It was reported that they wanted to seize the Ark of the Covenant. There have been no reports on the status of the ark.
Is the Ark of the Covenant tucked away in a church in Ethiopia? Or is it all just part of an interesting origin story for a great and ancient nation?
The truth is, we may never know for sure. But, perhaps one day, the Ark of the Covenant will be discovered somewhere.
Maybe in a government warehouse.