Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Is the Ark in Axum, Ethiopia?

The Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum, Ethiopia, claimed for centuries to be the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church

We now come to our final theory in our search for the Ark of the Covenant: could it be resting in the Church of St. Mary of Zion in the sacred Ethiopian city of Axum? In some ways, this is the most striking of the four hypotheses that we are looking at (the other three, if you remember, being that the Ark was either (a) taken by the Babylonians, (b) hidden under the Temple Mount, or (c) hidden by Jeremiah on Mt. Nebo). Because this explanation is the most bizarre, it requires the most time to elaborate and evaluate.

First, what is claimed? The original St. Mary of Zion Church was built during the reign of the Emperor Ezana, the first Christian ruler of Ethiopia, in the 4th century AD (the modern Church was built by the late Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1950's). Since the early Middle Ages, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has claimed to possess the Ark of the Covenant. It is claimed that the Ark came to Ethiopia with Menelik I, prince of Ethiopia and son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. This is detailed in the Kebra Nagast, the sacred book of Ethiopian folklore which dates back to the 6th century AD but took its present form around the 12th century.

Just the facts. Now, before we attempt to construct some sort of theory based on this claim, let's look at the bare facts regarding Ethiopia and its relation to Christianity and the Ark. The following are all facts that bear on our discussion.

(1) The Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum is equipped with a spiked protective fence with its barbs facing outward to keep away intruders (see above picture).

(2) The Ark was supposedly once kept in the main church, but has now been moved to a separate building built in the 1950's called the "Chapel of the Tablet." The reason for this move? Reportedly, the Ark was moved to the Chapel of the Tablet adjacent to the old church because a divine 'heat' from the Tablets had cracked the stones of its previous sanctum

(3) The Church, which claims to possess the Ark, is staffed by a large group of deacons whose job is to guard the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary, where the Ark is said to rest. By longstanding tradition, if anybody tries to intrude, he is killed on site. This is well documented in Graham Hancock's book Sign and Seal, where the author merely attempts to peek behind a curtain outside of the sanctuary and is tackled by the deacons, beaten and physically flung out of the Church.

(4) The emperors of Ethiopia, even the late Haile Selassie, claimed to be descended from Solomon.

(5) Ethiopia is home to the mysterious Qemant tribe, who practice a mixture of paganism and Judaism. It is unknown where they got their Jewish practices, all of which predate the arrival of Christianity (c. 4th century).

(6) Ethiopia is also the home of the more populous Falashas, also known as the "Black Jews of Ethiopia." They are a tribe of black Jews who have dwelt in and around Lake Tana from time immemorial and practice the Jewish faith. Their Judaism lacks any Talmudic or Rabbinic influence and has been judged to date from before the exilic period (pre-500 BC). Their existence so far from Israel and their ancient, pre-Christian adherence to Judaism have never been satisfactorily explained.

(7) The Church of St. Mary of Zion is staffed by several monks whose job it is to protect the Ark. Only one monk, a guardian, is allowed access to the Ark. The guardian monk is appointed for life by his predecessor before the predecessor dies. If the incumbent guardian dies without naming a successor, then the monks of the monastery hold an election to select the new guardian. The guardian then is confined to the chapel of the Ark of the Covenant for the rest of his life (sometimes with a chain), praying before it and offering incense.

Whatever else can be said about these facts, one thing is certain: the Ethiopians firmly believe they possess the Ark. Therefore, it stands to reason that something is in the Church of St. Mary. Otherwise, why the protective bars? Why the deacons trained to kill intruders? Why the guardian monk confined for life in the sanctuary? If he is confined for life in the room, he must be confined with something that they at least believe to be the Ark. This is a lot further than we have gotten in any of our other inquiries; we could never ever verify that there was anything under the Temple Mount, or on Mount Nebo, let alone the Ark. Here we have at least evidence that something is present in the Church. That is a big step.

Now that we can safely assume that something is indeed in the Church, is there any feasibility to the claim that it could be the Ark, and how does this stand up to historical scrutiny?

First, the tradition of Menelik, son of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon, does not stand up to historical scrutiny. It may be entirely possible that such a person existed, but it is not possible that he took the Ark to Ethiopia, at least at the time the Kebra Nagast suggests (c. 950 BC). We have established in our first article that the Ark must have been in Israel until at least the time of the wicked Kings Manasseh and Amon (697-642). It was definitely gone by the middle of the reign of Josiah (c. 625), almost 50 years before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. However, we know the Ark did leave Jerusalem in the late 7th or early 6th century BC. Is it possible that it was then taken to Ethiopia? Is there any reason the Ark could have gone to Ethiopia?

Now we come to the interesting archaeological discoveries at Elephantine, in Egypt. Elephantine is an island in the Nile in the southernmost reaches of Egypt, close to the border with Nubia. Many temples have been built on the island over the millenia, including, it seems, an out of place Jewish Temple dating from the 7th century BC. The Wikipedia article on Elephantine reports:

"The Elephantine papyri are caches of legal documents and letters written in Aramaic, which document the community of Jewish soldiers stationed here during the Persian occupation of Egypt. They maintained their own temple to their God [a "Temple", aside from the Jerusalem Temple? Why would a separate Temple be maintained so far from Israel?], functioning alongside that of Chnum [Egyptian god of the Nile cataracts]. The Jewish community at Elephantine was probably founded as a military installation in about 650 BCE during Manasseh's reign [Manasseh's reign? This fits our timeline perfectly], to assist Pharaoh Psammetichus I in his Nubian campaign. The documents cover the period 495 to 399 BC."

What ought to strike us about this is (1) that there should be another Jewish "Temple" anywhere else but Jerusalem; we know how the Jews felt about rival Temples; consider their animosity towards the Samaritans for their schismatic Temple on Mt. Gerizzim! (2) That this Temple should have been built during the reign of Manasseh, the very king during whose reign the Ark appears to have vanished.

Therefore, if the Ark was taken from Jerusalem during the reign of Manasseh, it is feasible that it would have been taken somewhere far away from the reaches of this evil king; the Jewish installation on Elephantine would have been ideal. Also, why would the Jews have bothered to build a Temple here at all? I mean, the whole purpose of the Temple of Solomon was to establish "a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and for the footstool of our God" (1 Chr. 28:2). The Temple exists for the Ark; it is the reason why it was erected in the first place. Therefore, if the Ark (or what was believed to be the Ark) was not on Elephantine, why would the Jews have erected a temple there when the primary liturgical function of a temple was to be "a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord" ? So, we have a motive for the Ark to be removed during the time of Manasseh (to keep it from the abominations being carried out in the Temple of Jerusalem), a place where it could have gone to (Elephantine on the Nile, where there was an established Jewish settlement), and evidence that a "Temple" had once stood there, the only object of which was always to house the Ark.

But how and why would it have come to Ethiopia? First, we know that Egypt suffered great calamaties in the second half of the first millenium BC as it was amalgamated into the Persian (and later, Greek) Empire. It stands to reason that for the same reasons the Ark was originally taken from Israel, it might have again been taken from Elephantine. As the Temple of Solomon was destroyed and not rebuilt until the reign of Cyrus the Great (550-529 BC), taking it back to Israel would have been unthinkable. Could it have been taken south?

On Lake Tana in Ethiopia, there is an island called Tana Kirkos. On this island, there exists a small monastic community of Ethiopian Orthodox monks that have lived there from time immemorial. They make the interesting claim that the Ark was on their island for several centuries. Furthermore, the island is home to some fascinating sacrificial stones dating to the first millenium BC that the monks say were used by their ancestors, whom they say were Jews come from Canaan. If we look at the geography of Tana Kirkos, we see that it is directly south of Elephantine (as the Nile turns into Lake Tana the further south we go).

Ethiopian Monks from a monastery on Tana Kirkos in Lake Tana where, according to their tradition, the Ark of the Covenant rested for 800 years before being taken to Axum sometime in the first millenium AD.

From Tana Kirkos, it is only a short trip to the north to Axum. If we look at the places around Ethiopia that lay claim to having at one time possessed the Ark, we can almost see a logical progression. First, the Ark dissappears from Israel in the half-century before the Babylonian capitvity and is taken to the Jewish settlement of Elephantine, where the remains of a mysterious Jewish "Temple" have been found. Next, we see that a small island called Tana Kirkos in the middle of Lake Tana at the source of the Blue Nile claims it possessed the Ark for centuries and is the site of several mysterious sacrifical stones (by the way, Tana Kirkos is directly down the Nile from Elephantine). Finally, we come to Axum and St. Mary of Zion Church, where the Ark is supposed to rest today, guarded by a "Guardian Monk" who is physically confined to the sanctuary and guarded by deacons who kill intruders.

Well, this is the argument for Axum. What do you think of it? It has one fundamental weakness: the failure of anybody to produce the Ark. However, this argument has many strong points: there is a strong tradition behind it, archaeological evidence to support it, good reasoning behind it, and, despite what you may think, not as unverifiable as the other three theories.

The Axumite theory is unverifiable, but only relatively unverifiable, not absolutely. It is only relatively unverifiable because nobody is granted access to the sanctuary at St. Mary of Zion. In theory, there is no reason somebody could not force their way into the sanctuary and confirm or debunk the theory once and for all. But out other three theories are unverifiable in the absolute sense. No matter how much we search Mt. Nebo or the Temple Mount, it can always be claimed that we were looking in the wrong place or that we just need to dig a little deeper; and, there is no way to verify if the Ark was taken away by the Babylonians. Therefore, our other three theories are actually less verifiable than the Ethiopian theory.

I have to say that I personally believe that if the Ark is anywhere on this earth, it is in the sanctuary of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of St. Mary in Axum. It is the only theory that makes real sense. For an excellent treatment of this topic, check out Graham Hancock's Sign and Seal. He presents this argument in a much more detailed manner. He is an anti-supernaturalist and disbelieves in the miraculous stories attributed to the Ark, but his historical and archaeological scholarship is unimpeachable.


Jacobus said...

Thank you for this informative series. I read the Sign and the Seal several years ago and came to the same conclusion as you. Wonderfully researched and and a convincing case.

Too bad about Mr. Hancock's silly theories about the ark though, e.g. the meteorite... I occasionally pray that he'll look back on his experience and something will click in his heart and he'll be converted.

BONIFACE said...


Thank you for your compliment: I was not sure anybody was reading this series because nobody ever commented on it!

I very much regret recommending the book because of Hancock's "radioactive meteor" theory, and some of his silly theories about Gothic architecture...but his historical research on Ethiopia and the Ark was excellent.

The part was funny when he tried to sneak behind the curtain and got pummeled and thrown out by the deacons...

God bless!

Zach said...

Most definately a good series. At the very least, reading about searches for the Arc make wonderful mystery stories (and great bedtime reading).

Supprisingly enough, many of the research I read about the Arc draw the conclusion that it is most likely at St. Mary of Zion.

Great searies though!

RB said...

Hello there, I've just stumbled onto your blog again through Fr Z and I have to say I was fascinated by this series of posts. Thank you very much for the time and effort you put in.

Br Anthony OPL

Anonymous said...

What an interesting presentation, it real sounds louder than many approaches I met. This and other mysteries, I think, are made for human beings to experience believing without seeing, which for materialistic thinking seems uncomfortable, but for the Ethiopians it is an ever marked scenario!

Figulus said...

You ask why a second temple. An archeologist offered an interesting account of two different second temples, both in Egypt. You can read his account here: http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1215330921923&pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull

A.R. said...

Thank you, I found this article very interesting and informative.

I thought you would be interested in this news article: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/Flash.aspx/167053

Apparently the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has scheduled a news conference in Rome to make an official statement about the Ark.

Anonymous said...

I saw a movie once about this. Their theory was that the Germans found it in Egypt before WWII. It seems that it was captured by the U.S. some time after its discovery, and is now hidden in a gov't storage depot some where. It certainly was an interesting story...

Leaning into destiny... said...

I have watch a sort of documentary which tries to prove that God exists through various new technological abilities and psychological innovations using these technologies also. A good part was on this subject.
Question: Why doesn't someone go to this location to try and measure the heat output (energy displacement) using modern techniques? If it is true that the Arc puts out such energy it could be captures via heat determining equipment even through the walls, perhaps.
Also, has the Catholic Church ever released any communication regarding this subject or any relevant dialogue it has undertaken for the verification of this interesting and major finding? My work does not delve into these issues but at length could help put some possibility in place for their eventual resolution. www.couragetolaugh.com.

BONIFACE said...

Well, I don't think the heat emitted is uniform. According to the Ethiopians, there is a monk who sits in the room with the ark all the time, so it seems to get hot only when it wants to. The Ethiopian Orthodox are also extraordinarily secretive about it...don't think they would let people in to do that sort of testing.

The Catholic Church has never said anything about this, and I do not think the Ethiopian Orthodox have released any info to the Vatican.