In this Crisis Magazine classic, Raymond Matthew Wray travels to a lonely corner of Ethiopia, where the Orthodox Church claims to have the “lost” Ark of the Covenant.
“He says you must go now,” my translator told me. I looked from him to the official standing across from the old church ruins. “I thought I could stay until six o’clock?” I protested. He shrugged and got up to lead me out.
While we were leaving, three more visitors entered the compound. I pointed this out to him, waving my entrance ticket in the air. Finally, he opened up: “In the past, they have had some trouble with people here.” In other words, I’d overstayed my welcome. I was being thrown out.
My departure had less to do with how much time I’d spent there than with my taking pictures. After all, this was my second visit of the day — my third if you count the time I came while it was closed. The official who insisted I leave was the same man who asked that I come back when the church compound was open. And he was the same man who watched me take six rolls of film of the Saint Mary of Zion Chapel. This is only one of three churches of interest within the compound, and I could tell he grew suspicious when I ignored the others.
It wasn’t that the chapel of Saint Mary of Zion was that impressive, or even that beautiful. No, it wasn’t the chapel itself that had brought me to Ethiopia. I was much more interested in what was concealed within.
I had come to see the Ark of the Covenant.
The Bible tells us that the Ark is a “chest of acacia wood” overlaid with pure gold “both inside and out.” Wooden poles pierce rings on each side and are used to carry the heavy box. On top, a pair of golden cherubim face one another, their wings outstretched.
In the Old Testament, God Himself appeared as a swirling mist between the golden figures; it was called the shekinah, or “presence.”
The Ark was constructed as a carrying case for the tablets of the Ten Commandments — the same tablets that Moses carried down from the mountain. There’s no record that they were ever removed from the chest. Indeed, it seems likely that wherever the Ark is, the Ten Commandments are still inside.
If you’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you know the chest of the Old Covenant has a dark side. No one but the high priest could approach it, and those foolish enough to touch it died instantly. The Ark was carried into battle, leaving bloodshed and devastation in its path. In his book, The Sign and the Seal, British journalist Graham Hancock elaborates:
Biblical and other archaic sources speak of the Ark blazing with fire and light, inflicting cancerous tumors and severe burns, leveling mountains, stopping rivers, blasting whole armies and laying waste cities.
This is the Ark of the Covenant. And according to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, it now sits in the chapel of Saint Mary of Zion in Aksum, Ethiopia.
There are two different explanations of how the Ark arrived in Ethiopia. The first is based on the legend of the Kebra Nagast (The Glory of Kings). The Kebra Nagast is a 13th-century manuscript drawing on the Old and New Testaments, as well as the apocryphal Book of Enoch and the Book of Pearl. Edward Ullendorf in The Ethiopians: An Introduction to Country and People points out that the Kebra Nagast also borrows generously from the “christological and patristic writings in Coptic, Syriac Arabic, and Greek, from the Testamentum Adami, from Rabbinical literature as well as the Koran.”
But the Kebra Nagast isn’t a doctrinal work. It’s a love story. And it’s the Ethiopians’ version of how they came to possess the Ark of the Covenant. Drawing on 1 Kings 10:1-13, the legend describes how the queen of Sheba first learned of King Solomon when her servant Tâmrîn returned from Jerusalem. Hearing Tâmrîn’s report about Solomon, the queen was smitten: “I love him merely on hearing.”
Sheba journeyed to Jerusalem to see him and remained there for six months. As she prepared to return to her own country, Solomon ordered a royal meal for them where they both made an oath not to take anything from each other by force. Solomon’s interests in the queen were apparently more than just diplomatic. The King intentionally left his bowl of water next to the queen’s bed, so that when she awoke she would take a drink, thereby “taking” what was rightfully the king’s and breaking the oath. While a small thing in itself, the result had a profound effect.
When Sheba realized the gravity of what occurred, she said to Solomon: “I have sinned against myself, and thou art free from [thy] oath.” The Kebra Nagast continues: “He permitted her to drink water, and after she had drunk water he worked his will with her and they slept together.”
Nine months and five days after returning to Ethiopia, the queen gave birth to a son and named him Menelik. At the age of 22, Menelik traveled to Jerusalem to meet his father for the first time. There in Judaism’s holy city, at the hands of his father, Menelik became the king of Ethiopia and founder of the Solomonic dynasty. When the young man departed from Jerusalem, Solomon commanded the nobility of Israel to “give [to Menelik] their children who were called ‘firstborn.'” The clever ruler saw an opportunity to establish a second kingdom.
With this, Menelik and his new subjects departed for Ethiopia. But what Menelik’s companions failed to mention was that they had made off with the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple of Solomon. Indeed, they only told Menelik when they had reached “the water of the Ethiopia.” The news — while surprising — didn’t turn the young man back to Israel; he continued his trip with the relic under his protection. The journey of the Ark recounted in the Kebra Nagast ends in Ethiopia after a brief stop in Egypt.
There is, however, an alternate story, developed recently by Hancock. In his research for The Sign and the Seal, he discovered a number of discrepancies in the time line of Menelik and his companions, especially in regard to Aksum, the alleged final resting place of the Ark in Ethiopia. Aksum, Hancock tells us, didn’t exist in the time of King Solomon. So if the Ethiopian claims are true, where did the Ark come to rest?
Hancock’s explanation is decidedly different from that of the Ethiopians. After studying the Kebra Nagast, he was forced to conclude that it was more legend than fact: “I always find it slightly depressing when a beautiful myth is discredited.” Hancock argues that sometime during King Manasseh’s reign in Jerusalem from 687 to 642 B.C., Jewish priests removed the Ark from Solomon’s temple. Manasseh had converted the Temple of Solomon to pagan worship and installed a pagan idol — a blasphemy for those devout Jews who considered the Ark the touchstone of Yahweh on earth. Hancock speculates that the horrified priests removed the Ark from Jerusalem entirely.
Unlike some of the events described in the Kebra Nagast, there’s a good deal of evidence to support Hancock’s theory. He claims the priests took the Ark and settled in Elephantine, a small island just off of Aswan, Egypt. There, the Jews built a temple to house the Ark — the ruins of the temple are visible to this day. According to Hancock, the Ark remained on the island for some 200 years. The time the Ark was on Elephantine accounts for the period between when the Kebra Nagast claims the Ark was stolen and the appearance of Aksum.
While Hancock’s theory holds up on paper, there was only one way to verify it. So I set out for Ethiopia.
When the sun began to break over Lake Tana, the horizon came alive in orange-red hues. From the water rose a gray haze that faded into the brilliant glow of the sunrise. Across Lake Tana, I could see my first destination: Tana Cherkos.
According to Hancock’s theory, the Ark was brought down the Nile from Elephantine Island in Egypt to the island of Tana Cherkos. There it remained for 800 years. But was there evidence for this beyond the legend?
On this morning, I had two guides. The first was a former deacon in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church who decided to pursue his studies elsewhere. (Deacons are young men who study to become monks and later enter the priesthood.) My second guide was responsible for piloting the boat and taking care of other logistics during the day.
I hadn’t planned on having a deacon as a guide. In fact, I wasn’t sure I would have a guide at all. I just showed up. No contacts. No leads. But when you meet one person in Ethiopia, you’ve met everyone you need to know anywhere in Ethiopia. And as it turned out, he was a tremendous blessing.
As we approached Tana Cherkos, my guide insisted that we review what I was going to ask the abba — the head monk of the island. He explained that there were certain questions that the abba would consider insulting. I understood: For too long, journalists and doubters have ridiculed the Ethiopians’ claim to have the Ark.
The approach to the island monastery is extraordinary. The current church, which dates back to the 19th century, looks like it could fall to pieces with the mildest gust of wind. Green brush and trees cover the entire island. Across from the church and hidden behind a trellis are the living quarters of the deacons, monks, and priests. Their lives there are what they were intended to be — isolated.
Once we arrived, the pilot ran off with my questions in hand to search out the senior priest. It’s obligatory to make first contact with the senior religious. This worked out well, since the senior priest was the man I’d just traveled two hours by boat to see.
When Abba Baya approached, I was surprised at his youth and rakish smile. He was wrapped in a white robe and wore dusty sandals. As I asked him questions, I had the sense he was surprised; he seemed to have expected the usual skepticism.
The Ark’s protective powers are well-known — at least, if the biblical record is to be believed. But I wondered if that power extended to the nation itself. Aside from Eritrea and Kenya, Ethiopia is surrounded by the Muslim countries of Sudan, Somalia, and Djibouti. Ethiopia itself has a Muslim population of about 45 percent. I asked Baya if the Ark of the Covenant provided protection to the Christians within Ethiopia. Had it helped shelter his country from the conflicts that have plagued neighboring countries with similarly mixed populations? I expected a reasoned response that spoke to the history, theology, and politics of the delicate Ethiopian balance, perhaps sprinkled with a Scripture verse or two.
Baya turned to me with a smile: “Yes, all of Ethiopia is protected.”
I waited for a moment, certain that he would say more. He didn’t.
Caught off guard by his brevity, I moved on to my next question. “Why bring the Ark to Tana Cherkos?” I asked. After all, there were other islands. The answer was simple. Baya explained that the Ark was brought to Tana Cherkos because, at the time, it was the only island monastery in existence. When I explained to him what I had learned of how the Ark arrived in Ethiopia, he confirmed what Graham Hancock had theorized: The Ark of the Covenant arrived on Tana Cherkos after spending 200 years on Elephantine Island. While this was hardly conclusive proof, it’s significant that the tradition of the island matched Hancock’s time line so closely.
His answers were short, to the point, and certain. When I asked if Tana Cherkos as an island had been blessed in any particular way, he said, “Yes, Mary, the Mother of God, spent three months and ten days on Tana Cherkos.”
Wide-eyed, I turned to my guide. “Did he just say Mary — as in the Virgin Mary — spent three months and ten days here…on this island?”
Baya smiled. “Would you like to look at her footprints?”
We walked along a path leading up to a craggy overlook. Along the way, we passed several large stone altars the Ark-bearing Jews had used to sacrifice sheep. If I wanted concrete proof of an ancient Jewish presence on the island, those heavy stone altars certainly qualified. As I walked by, I noticed holes ground into the center of the altars — repositories for the blood of the sacrificial animals.
Finally, we stopped, and Baya guided my hand to the ground. At first, I wasn’t completely sure what I was looking at. And then I saw it: a worn footprint, pressed into the bedrock. A small footprint, like that of a woman.
With this unexpected discovery, I had all the information I needed to move on. While there was strong evidence of a long-term ancient Jewish presence on Tana Cherkos, along with the interesting tradition of Mary’s short-term residence, the Ark wasn’t here. To find it, I’d have to continue following the trail. According to the Ethiopian claim, the Ark was brought from Tana Cherkos to Aksum by King Ezana — who wanted a safer long-term home for the holy relic. It’s said to remain there to this day.
There are no routine overland routes in Ethiopia. What may look like a four-hour journey on a map is actually a two-day nightmare by bus. Having little time to work with, I chose to fly to Aksum.
Domestic flights in Ethiopia offer the most breathtaking landscapes. From the highlands, across flatlands, valleys, and canyons, various shades of brown dominate everything. If you have nerves of steel, a window seat on those old prop planes will give you a spectacular view.
My flight arrived at noon. A few minutes later, I had secured a translator. Actually, he was the receptionist at the hotel I checked into, and he promised he could arrange for me to meet the guardian of the Ark. When I explained what I wanted to accomplish, he smiled. “My friend, I will take good care of you.”
As a rule, when I’m traveling, the phrase “my friend” raises a number of red flags in my mind. But in this instance, I took a chance and cautiously agreed to let him help me. Early the next morning, we set off for the church compound a short distance away. It was clear very quickly that my new guide was well-known there. I was relieved.
Surrounded by a red wrought-iron gate, Saint Mary of Zion Chapel was stark against the blue morning sky. With the sun still low in the east, the chapel’s color was hard to make out. I was surprised by how small the structure was — maybe 40 feet square. It seemed a bit modest to be the resting place of the most mysterious — and potentially dangerous — object on earth.
Just outside the gate, there were a few deacons and monks pacing. All around the compound, worshipers mulled about, absorbed in some form of prayer. They came to visit the newly built church to the left of Saint Mary of Zion Chapel, pressing their foreheads against the door of the church and kissing it as they prayed.
But no one dared to pray in front of the chapel of the Ark.
We approached the gate, and my translator began to clang his ring against the bars. “What are you doing?” I whispered.
“I’m just trying to get the guardian to come out,” he said.
“But I thought you said you were going to make arrangements for me to meet him.”
“Of course, no problem,” he replied. “He will speak to you.”
After a few tense moments of waiting, a man emerged from the back of the chapel. He was Abba Welde Giorgis — the guardian of the Ark of the Covenant. Middle-aged and thin, Abba Giorgis was hidden behind faux aviator glasses, a gunmetal blue robe, and a drab yellow blanket slung lengthwise over his shoulder. Though short, he had an air of power and authority.
After giving me his blessing, the guardian took a seat at the edge of the gate, while I lowered myself onto a stone bench.
The guardian of the Ark is chosen by his predecessor, Giorgis told me. The decision is supposed to be based on the “purity of heart” and virtue of the candidate. Once chosen, he serves for life, never leaving the gated compound. The Ark becomes his life. While it’s a great honor to be chosen, many of the monks would gladly decline the opportunity. In fact, the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is scattered with occasional stories of guardians who flee the compound upon being chosen. Some prefer not to live a life of spiritual incarceration. Others are afraid of being so close to the relic. The Ark, they say, is powerful.
“Why was the Ark brought to Aksum?” I asked.
“It’s like Adam,” he replied simply.
“Yes,” he said. “Divine providence.”
I wondered if he, like Abba Baya, believed the relic protected the nation of Ethiopia, just as it had protected Israel before.
“Of course, the Ark is having an impact on everyone.”
“By ‘everyone’ you mean both Christians and Muslims?” I asked.
“Yes. Everyone. Everybody in Ethiopia is living peacefully under one government.”
What he said was true. Ethiopia, unlike many of its neighbors, has a population almost evenly split between Muslims and Christians. And yet the two communities live together in relative peace. There’s none of the religious strife common to so many other African nations.
What about the ravages of AIDS in Ethiopia? How can we say God is protecting the people from that?
His answer was simple. “Sin.” That was it. To him, the behavior that led to the transmission of AIDS was a sin. And the Bible is clear about the wages of sin. People cannot be given help if they’re unwilling to accept it.
Perhaps the most extraordinary sign of a hidden protection is that unlike every other African nation, Ethiopia was never colonized. When the Italians attempted it with their modern army, they were ably repelled by the poorly equipped Ethiopian troops.
“Ethiopians are from the King Solomon dynasty,” the Abba explained. “They will never be colonized as long as they have the Ark.”
My translator interjected: “What he is saying is that we are a tough people, and no one will take our freedom. The guardian never even gives [the threat of colonization] consideration.”
With that, the guardian stood to leave. While he attended to his other responsibilities, I thought about what he had told me. For the people of Ethiopia, the Ark of the Covenant was more than just a historical curiosity: It was the hand of divine protection.
This fact is reflected in their faith. Unlike Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy — the other inheritors of ancient Christianity — the Ethiopian Church was cut off from the outside world; it developed in isolation from its brothers in the West and East. The form it took is revealing, for Ethiopian Christianity is centered not on the Eucharist but on the Ark. Religious ceremonies involve replicas of the sacred chest called tabots. The tabots are not themselves boxes; they’re flat, richly decorated boards. It’s surely no coincidence that they resemble the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Indeed, some have theorized that they’re modeled after the originals, still contained inside the holy chest.
In the past, the Ark itself was brought forth from its chapel once a year, to be used in a sacred procession. Today, out of fear of an attack on the relic, tabots are used instead.
I returned to the compound that afternoon, hoping to photograph the chapel in the setting sun. The lighting was perfect, and I had plenty of film. No one else was around, apart from the compound official, who had begun to eye me suspiciously.
After shooting several rolls of film, I noticed a guide from the hotel sitting in the shade nearby. I sat down beside him on the park bench where I had earlier spoken to Abba Giorgis. As we discussed my reasons for coming to Ethiopia, the guardian reemerged from the chapel and returned to his seat across from me.
With a smile, he turned to my acquaintance. “I remember your friend from this morning. He asked me many questions about the Ark.”
I smiled back as my impromptu translator repeated what the guardian had said.
Abba Giorgis then turned to me. “So, do you remember all the things you learned today?”
“Do you have any more questions?” he asked. I did — the question that had brought me all the way to Ethiopia. In the past, when the Ark was used in the processions, it was covered with a cloth — not to protect the Ark from the people but to protect the people from the Ark. What could it possibly be like to be in its presence?
Abba Giorgis smiled and studied me for a moment. “Have you ever experienced the Trinity?” he asked.
Before I could answer, the official who had been watching me all afternoon began shouting from across the courtyard.
“He says you must go now,” my translator told me.
Filthy, exhausted, sick, and with two days to spare, I retreated to the capital of Addis Ababa, 310 miles south of Aksum. Here, I was finally able to reflect on everything I had seen. Had I actually been within 30 feet of the real Ark of the Covenant?
On the street, Ethiopians speak of the Ark matter-of-factly, the way we refer to our founding fathers when we talk of liberty and freedom. For them, it’s a simple reality.
As I reflected on this, I couldn’t help but think of the horrible images of poverty that CNN used to broadcast regularly during the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s. Poverty still exists in Ethiopia, but it’s nothing like it was then. CNN doesn’t come calling anymore.
As with so many of the countries I’ve visited — Guatemala, Nicaragua, Thailand, Morocco — there’s a great wealth of spirit in the people. But nowhere else — nowhere — have I experienced such generosity and charity. The faith of the Ethiopians is historical. But more than that, it’s a living faith exercised in everything they do. This entire country is alive with it. On the shores of Lake Tana with its numerous island monasteries, in Lalibela with its churches carved from stone, in Aksum with Saint Mary of Zion Chapel — God dwells in Ethiopia in a way I have never seen before. It was hard not to think that the presence of the Ark had something to do with it.
There’s an interesting side note to the Ark story. During the Crusades, the Knights Templar — an order of warrior monks — was formed and sent to the ruins of the Great Temple in Jerusalem. Day and night, clanging and digging could be heard in the interior. When they finally disappeared from the area, it was clear that they’d been excavating the site.
Legend has it that the Knights had been sent not to protect the roads from pilgrims — the official explanation — but to find and secure the Ark of the Covenant from the advancing Muslims. If this is indeed true, the Knights didn’t find it in Jerusalem.
But they might have discovered it in Ethiopia. In one of the archways of an Aksum church, a red Crusader cross is clearly visible. If indeed the Knights traveled to Ethiopia, they found the Ark safe and protected by fellow Christians.
One of my last stops before heading home was at the walled city of Harar — a predominately Muslim enclave 90 miles west of Somalia — where I visited the home of a Christian man. We talked about history, religion, and the way the Ark is intertwined with both. As our time together drew to a close, he smiled at me.
“You may choose to disbelieve that we have the Ark here,” he said. “That is your choice. But we know better. For us, it is a fact.”
Raymond Matthew Wray writes from Maryland. This article originally appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of Crisis Magazine.