A priest sits before the curtains of an inner sanctum, which in every Ethiopian church houses replicas of the tablets of Moses, supposedly kept within the Ark of the Covenant and known as 'tabots'.
It’s not exactly the dramatic snake-filled pit in the Egyptian desert we might expect. It is a small, nondescript building next to an ancient, but plain looking church. Yet despite nearby sites of interest – the magnificent stone churches of Lalibela, the reputed bath of the Queen of Sheba, a 2,000-year-old granite stele, and an eight foot-high stone tablet engraved with three ancient languages – it is this modest chapel that gets the most attention.
For in this shrine, it is said, is the artifact that fascinated Indiana Jones and spelled doom for a host of evil Nazis in Spielberg’s much loved ‘80s classic Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yes, this little house in Aksum, Ethiopia, is many believe, the home of the one true and original Ark of the Covenant.
Ethiopian pilgrims to holy places wear white.
There is only one man alive who is allowed to see the Ark, but he pays a hefty price for that honor. The previous guardian and senior Aksum priests choose the guardian of the Ark. And once appointed, the guardian must commit to a life of solitude, tending to the relic, praying beside it, and never going further than the small yard that encloses the chapel where it is kept.
Ethiopian Christianity is one of the oldest versions of that religion in the world.
Taking care of the Ark of the Covenant is not an easy task. Once he takes on the duty, the guardian is a virtual prisoner. There is a story that one such chosen caretaker, perhaps panicked at the idea that he would have to spend the rest of his life locked up with a biblical antique, tried to flee. His attempted escape was, we are told, unsuccessful.
Ethiopian Orthodox priests carry metal crosses, which they hold out to be kissed by the faithful.
The story of how the Ark of the Covenant left its “Holy of Holies” room in the Temple of Solomon and ended up in Aksum begins with King Solomon, The Queen of Sheba, and, according to Ethiopian legend, a single night of passion. As a result of the royal romantic interlude, the queen is said to have given birth to a son, Menelik, on her way back to Ethiopia.
Ethiopian prayer sticks, known as 'mequamias', rest against the wall.
When Menelik was about 20 years old, his mother revealed to him the identity of his father. The young man decided to go and visit King Solomon who, it is said, recognized Menelik as his son and treated him with honor. In the end, Menelik ended up spending three years in Jerusalem with the king, studying Hebrew Scriptures and, apparently, making himself unpopular with the Israelites, who kept getting him confused with his clearly youthful looking father.
The rock-cut walls of Bet Medhane Alem church
When it finally became time for Menelik to return to Ethiopia, his father sent him on his way with a group of companions, including Azarius, the son of the high priest of Israel. Azarius, for reasons that are not explained, decided to steal the Ark of the Covenant from the “Holy of Holies” and take it with him. He replaced it with a replica – a risky move, you’d think, considering the Ark’s reputed powers.
Priests in Ethiopia still sometimes read from illuminated books.
However, Azarius’ face did not melt, as fans of Raiders of the Lost Ark might expect, and when they were about halfway to Ethiopia, he confessed to Menelik what he had done. Although, we presume, Menelik was not pleased about inadvertently stealing the Ark from his father, he reasoned that surely they would not have got away with it if God didn’t approve. And so they continued on. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians claim that the Ark has been in Aksum since this time.
Priests sometimes beat on drums, dance and make ululations during the ceremony.
It is written in the Kebra Nagast, Ethiopia’s chronicle of royalty, that Menelik brought the Ark to Aksum. And aside from his part in bringing the Ark to his country, Menelik is also credited with starting a new lineage of Ethiopian kings, which continued until the last Emperor, Haile Selassie, died in 1975.
The T-shaped iron handle of the mequamia can be used as a chin rest during long ceremonies.
Many historians are not convinced about this account of the Ark coming to Aksum. They believe that it is simply propaganda to get people to accept Menelik’s lineage as rulers of the country. Others, including the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, Abuna Paulos, disagree.
A close-up look at a priest's very ornate metal cross
“It's no claim, it's the truth,” patriarch Paulos says. “Queen Sheba visited King Solomon in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, and the son she bore him, Menelik, at age 20 visited Jerusalem, from where he brought the Ark of the Covenant back to Aksum. It's been in Ethiopia ever since." And that’s how most of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christians see it, too.
Waiting on the steps
Ethiopian Jews today also claim ancestry back to Menelik and his companions from Jerusalem. In fact, it wasn’t until the 4th century CE that King Ezana the Great was converted from Judaism to Christianity and created the first Christian kingdom in the world.
A collection of mequamias rest against a wall.
Even now, the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia has strong ties to Judaism. “We've had 1,000 years of Judaism, followed by 2,000 years of Christianity, and that's why our religion is rooted in the Old Testament,” explains patriarch Paulos. “We follow the same dietary laws as Judaism, as set out in Leviticus. Parents circumcise their baby boys as a religious duty, we often give Old Testament names to our boys and many villagers in the countryside still hold Saturday sacred as the Sabbath.”
Only the most senior clergy can go behind the brocade curtains that contain the sacred tabots.
The Ark of the Covenant is mentioned in the scriptures of three faiths: the Jewish Tanakh and the Second Book of Maccabees, the Christian New Testament, and the Islamic Quran. But of course, many of us remember it best as the rather terrifying central object in a certain ‘80s adventure movie. Actually, the film wasn’t far off with its depiction of the physical Ark: the real one, as it was described, would have just been a bit smaller.
These walls are hewn from solid rock, an architectural style for which Ethiopian Orthodox Christians are famous.
Like the biblical and movie Ark, the ‘real’ Ark, supposedly kept in The Chapel of the Tablet at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, is said to have supernatural powers. Nearby, there are granite steles carved from a single rock, dated back as far as the 1st century CE. And according to local legend, the stele were cut out of the rock and put in place by the power of the Ark itself.
A beautiful illuminated manuscript
“If I approached the Ark I would be punished,” one visitor recalls monks telling him when he asked to see the Ark. “The theory is that it would become invisible and unleash upon me its terrible power. I would be killed outright, probably incinerated.” Well, that certainly sounds like an incentive to stay away.
A pilgrim leans against a wall for support. Orthodox services are known to go on for hours.
The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion has roots that go back hundreds of years to the reign of King Ezana. The original structure has been rebuilt a few times since then – a couple of times completely. And the Ark is kept in the Chapel of the Tablet, separate from the church. This, so it’s said, is because when the Ark was in the original church, the divine heat it produced cracked the walls!
A child pilgrim with braided hair
The Ark of the Covenant, if it was indeed inside the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, has survived some close calls. In the 10th century, it is said that a non-Christian, Beta-Israel queen, Gudit, razed the church (along with many others) to the ground. Then, in the 16th century, Somali Muslim general Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi demolished the restored church completely, which resulted in its current 17th-century form. Next, during the 1980s, Marxist forces in Aksum are reported to have plundered churches and killed clergy. On this occasion, however, the church housing the Ark remained untouched.
Resting under the trees, perhaps on the blocks of a demolished church
These days, Ethiopian Christians make up about 60% of the population of Ethiopia. Most of them belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox church. But although they are a majority in their own country, they are a minority in the region (which is predominantly Muslim). Within Ethiopia itself, there have been problems with Islamic militants burning down churches and causing loss of life.
Women are not allowed into the Church of Saint Mary of Zion.
Of course, many other places are rumored to hold the original Ark: it’s said to be in an underground chamber on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, concealed in the Vatican, buried in Ireland, or taken somewhere by the Knights Templar. And there are probably a lot more theories we haven’t even heard about; one story even has it that it ended up in Zimbabwe. Skeptics, on the other hand, believe that, if the Ark ever did exist, it was probably destroyed along with the Temple of Solomon in 587 BCE.
A gun stuffed with leaves – a symbol of peace in a war-torn country, perhaps?
In Aksum, however, they are adamant that they are the keepers of the Ark. “These stories were handed down through the generations by our church leaders, and we believe them to be historical facts,” says Archbishop Andreas, the local leader of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. “That's why we keep tabots in every church in Ethiopia.”
A reminder that, Ark or no, this is still a country suffering the ravages of war
What is it really inside that small chapel in Aksum? Is it truly the original Ark of the Covenant? Is it an ancient replica? Or is the whole thing just some elaborate ancient hoax? We came tantalizingly close to finding out in 2009, when patriarch Paulos said he would put the Ark on display – only to back out on the day it was supposed to happen. But perhaps it’s best that it stays where it is after all: in our imagination.