The Most Secret Object in the World

Journeying to a place in Ethiopia that may hold the secret of one of the Bibles most enduring and elusive mysteries: the legendary Ark of the Covenant.

Originally published in PARANORMAL magazine, May 2009. All photos by the author.

Three hours drive north of Addis Ababa is a green field where out of the starry darkness a dozen children emerge; drawn by our chat and the smoke from the eucalyptus bonfire. After observing us in their quiet, interested way, they melt away, returning after a few minutes with handfuls of seed, possibly barley, which they roast and give us to eat. That we, ten white Europeans, are being nourished by people that television had led us to believe were some of the most wretched on Earth blows my mind in a way that had never happened before. This strangely magical episode would prefigure encounters still to be had in the highlands ahead, particularly as we neared the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, and Axum, home of the Cushite kings, and the peculiar Ethiopian tradition of the Ark of the Covenant.

      The Book of Exodus tells how Moses, a member of the Levite tribe born in Egypt possibly around 1400 BC, later a possible member of the Egyptian royal family, is leading the Israelite slaves from Egypt when he apprehends a voice that appears from a cloud on Mount Sinai. The voice (‘the LORD’, a divine ) offers Moses a bargain: if he and his people adhere to a new covenant of laws, he will become  the voice’s most “treasured possession”, and will lead a “kingdom of priests”, a holy nation. Either liking the sound of this, or being too awestruck to refuse, Moses spends forty days listening further while the voice explains in tremendous detail precisely how the covenant is to be contained within an acacia wood chest or Ark measuring two and a half cubits long, one and a half cubits wide, and a cubit and a half high (a cubit is the length of the elbow to the end of the forefinger, about eighteen inches.) It will be overlaid with pure gold, and have four gold rings to bear staves to carry it with (the later Book of Deuteronomy has a simpler account and does not mention any gold.) On the cover will be a pair of solid gold cherubim, winged creatures  from between whose ‘throne’ the voice will speak to Moses and his priests. When not being transported the Ark will go inside a Tabernacle, a tent-like construction with eleven beautifully decorated curtains, and ritual furnishings. The space inside the Tabernacle where the Ark is contained should measure ten cubits on every side. As well as the precise dimensions of everything, the voice stipulates everything pertaining to the priesthood, from their garments, to their rituals. When Moses finally descends from the mountain with the commandments, he is oblivious that the skin of his face is radiating beams of light, frightening the people until he veils himself.

So begins the story of an artefact that continues to fire the imaginations  of explorers and artists, a trait that has gathered force  in parallel to scientific  discoveries that only recently could compare to some of the things the Ark was said to achieve. As well as being the place where ‘God’ chooses to communicate from amidst fire and smoke, the Ark is one fearsome item of furniture. It burns the wilderness roads as its people leave Sinai, killing  snakes and scorpions from sparks issuing from the cherubim. As the priests carrying it try to cross the river Jordan the Ark causes the waters to dry up before them. The Ark is taken into battles, most strikingly to Jericho where it circles the city seven times before the trumpets are blown and the city walls tumble, its role in this essential somehow although not clearly defined.

The first Book of Samuel illustrates the Ark’s vengeful power when the Philistines capture it from the Children of Israel and install it in the house of their god, Dagon, whose idol is subsequently toppled and disfigured. When the local people are struck by boils and a plague of mice the Ark is removed to other towns where similar bad things happen. After seven months of infamous smitings the terrified and weakened Philistines return it to the Israelites. But not everyone has learned to fear and respect the Ark, as seventy men from Beth-shemesh discover when they are blinded for gazing at it. The curiosity of these poor men I can well understand the nearer we get to Axum, for several centuries a place with a strong claim as the original Ark’s location.

After an overland journey along unpaved roads, partly escorted by rangers with AK-47s to protect us from bandits as we climbed up through the Simian mountains, we arrive in Axum on Christmas Eve. Following a most sobering detour enforced  by soldiers accusing us of being spies for going  too close to the border with Eritrea, I have never been so grateful to arrive anywhere as this place.

      Once the centre of a mighty kingdom, and a key trading hub for routes linking Africa with Arabia, Axum’s former importance is readily evidenced by the mighty stelae that stand or lie broken just across the way from two churches, the smaller of which, St. Mary of Zion, is probably the most important religious building in all Ethiopia. Despite being a very modestly-proportioned and not very attractive 1960s building surrounded by spiked iron fencing, the tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church maintains this is the place where the original Ark of the Covenant is kept. Consequently, none but the priesthood is allowed to enter the building.

The chapel is divided into an upper section, where the Ark is kept, and a lower from which a priest is glad to display treasures and illuminated books for visitors. The priest from the Ark chapel, however, is an exceedingly shy figure who does not encourage visitors, vanishing behind the shrine’s scarlet curtain at the sight of a camera. His entire remaining  life will be spent within the church’s boundary, and word has it that he fled to the hills upon learning of his selection  as the Ark’s keeper (well wouldn’t you?). After a while spent hanging around outside the main gate he eventually emerges, and a pilgrim translates the guardian’s Amharic for me, saying how he feels “shocked and frightened” in the presence of the Ark, curious words than bring to mind more of a relationship between two people than between a person and a non-living thing. None of the men here seem to have any doubt that the Ark here is the original one, entirely distinct from the numerous copies (or tabots) in other Ethiopian churches. So how did it get here? According to the Kebra Nagast, the first emperor of Ethiopia, Menelik I, son of King Solomon and Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, colluded in secretly replacing the Ark with a replica, bringing it from Jerusalem  back to the kingdom of his mother. Menelik then founded the dynasty that ruled Ethiopia for three thousand years until the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.