Where is the Ark of the Covenant? What happened to it? Where did it go?

Ark just means “box,” whether it’s Noah’s box or Moses’ box. Noah’s box was huge. Moses’ box was smaller, made of wood and gold, — 3′ 9″ by 2′ 3″ — smaller than a footlocker. It held the stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments. Writing on tablets was quite common 3,000 years ago. The ark travelled with the Israelites in the wilderness, residing in the Tabernacle Tent until Solomon built a home for it: the first Temple, Solomon’s Temple.

Then suddenly, inexplicably it just disappeared. No explanation. No songs of lament in the Scriptures.

The disappearance of the Ark is a mystery in the Bible. The Ark is mentioned 200 times until the time of Solomon and then suddenly, never again. Stone silence, if you’ll pardon the pun.

My favorite movie suggesting a fantastic possibility is Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones races around trying to keep the Ark from the Nazis. In the end he accomplishes nothing. If he had done nothing at all, if he had stayed home, the outcome would have been the same: The Nazis would have opened the Ark and been fried to death, just as they were anyway. But I digress.

Some say Nebuchadnezzar’s armies destroyed it when they burned Jerusalem in 587 BC. From the Scriptural account, however, it seems to have dropped off the map much earlier — hundreds of years earlier.

Ethiopian tradition has another explanation. In Kings and Chronicles we read of the Queen of Sheba (Saba in some traditions) visiting Solomon. Ethiopian tradition holds that Solomon got the queen pregnant. Years later their son Menelik returned to meet his father. He returned with the Ark, which rests in a guarded chapel to this day. This tradition was transmitted orally until the 13th century when is was written in a document called the Kebra Nagast, “The Glory of Kings.” It is written in Ge’ez, an ancient language that preceded Amharic.

Above: An old document written in Ge’ez, kept at the Axum Cathedral.

Former missionary and Water to Thrive Ambassador Jim Sorensen (Pastor Lenae Sorensen’s wife), invited me to read The Sign and the Seal by Graham Hancock. This book spells out the story of the Ark in a kind of da Vinci Code fashion.

Hancock notes that the Queen of Sheba is depicted on the south porch of the 12th century Chartres Cathedral. The south porch with its statues was added in the first part of the 13th century when the Kebra Nagast was written. Why is she included among the many statues of Israel’s Kings? She appears only two times in Scripture where she seems to arrive and leave a pagan. Why include her?

There is a second statue of the Queen of Sheba on the north porch of the Cathedral. Here she is a full-sized statue, with a black slave crouching at her feet. An Ethiopian?

On one of the arches of the north pith is carved a box being transported by ox cart. Beneath it is carved ARCHIS CEDERIS, “The Ark of the Covenant.” Later there is another quote that has been worn out, but appear to say, “The Ark sent away.” Did the architects of the Cathedral know the Ethiopian tradition?

Hancock goes on to equate the Holy Grail with the Ark of the Covenant. While later the grail was assumed to be the cup, the earliest written accounts, like Parzifal, written sometime between 1195 and 1210, it is portrayed as a colored, glowing stone. The Ten Commandments were considered stones from the heavens. In The Jewish Encyclopedia, Menachem Haran suggests the Ark held a meteorite from Mount Sinai that made Moses’ face glow. Ancient Semitic tribes revered stones that fell from heaven, as the holy Muslim Black Stone at the Kaaba in Mecca. Greeks and Romans also believed stones that fell from heaven possessed divine life.

Talmudic sources said the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple was dark. There was no light, except the divine light emitted from the Ark. It emitted a “dazzling radiance.”

Anyway, Hancock posits the Grail was the Ark, with either a holy luminescent stone from the heavens or holy stone tablets from the heavens. Later the tradition of the Grail was Christianized. As the Ark had held the old covenant, now the cup held the new covenant. This the ark became a cup. The mysterious thing the ancients had been on a quest to find was none other than the Ark of the Covenant. What if the Ark was transferred from Jerusalem to a sanctuary chapel in Axum, maybe to keep the presence of God safe from foreign invaders? The Romans said Axum was the greatest city in Ethiopia. The emperor was said to be highly educated and proficient in Greek. Perhaps it was a place safe from Assyrians and Babylonians.

Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, some of the oldest Christian churches in the world, hold the Ark of the Covenant in high regard. In fact, they have a tradition no other Christian church has: Every Ethiopian Orthodox church has a tabot or mini-ark, a miniature replica of the ark of the Covenant blessed by the Patriarch whenever a new church is built. It is kept in a small tabernacle at the altar, in the Holy of Holies, where only the priest may go. Why? Although these tabots are never allowed to be seen by the laity, you can nevertheless see several in the British Museum, where they rest after being pilfered from Ethiopia. Think the size of a cigar box.

Is the Ark of the Covenant in a small chapel in Axum, a stones throw from the Axum Cathedral? Every Ethiopian I met believed so. The chapel has been guarded as long as anyone can remember by Guardian who is the only person allowed to enter the chapel.

Certainly something is in there, something believed to be the Ark and the stones. As I stood before the chapel this week think about it, I wondered, “What if?”

Above: The Axum Cathedral inside and out. This Ethiopian Orthodox cathedral was built in 1960’s by Haile Silassie to replace the crumbling older cathedral.

Above: To the right of the Axum Cathedral are three smaller chapels, one of which is said to hold the Ark of the Covenant. As I wondered, letting my imagination fly, storm clouds eerily began to form over the chapels…