Chapel of the Ark of the Covenant, Axum
Made even more famous by Indiana Jones , the “Lost Ark” has long been one of the great mysteries of antiquity. The biblical Ark of the Covenant mysteriously disappeared from Jerusalem sometime before Christ. However, Ethiopians and some western theorists say they know exactly where it is: enshrined in a chapel in Axum, Ethiopia.
History of Chapel of the Ark of the Covenant
The Ark of the Covenant was a great shrine that contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments that were received from God by Moses on Sinai. According to the Bible, the Ark was made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold. It measured 1.15 m long, 0.7 m wide and 0.7 m high and was carried by two long bars, also made of gold-plated acacia wood. The Ark was guarded by cherubims that “spread forth their two wings over of the place of the ark” (I Kings 8:7).
The biblical account states that the Israelites carried the Ark of the Covenant with them wherever they went and it contained great divine power that proved fatal to many. When the Temple of Jerusalem was built, the Ark was enshrined there in the Holy of Holies and only seen by the High Priest.
At some point, the Ark disappeared from Jerusalem. The mystery of what became of such an important and sacred artifact continues to fascinate archaeologists, historians and believers alike. There are no shortage of theories as to its fate and current location, which include a Jerusalem tunnel and the top of Mt. Nebo in Jordan.
To Ethiopian Christians and Jews, the location of the Ark of the Covenant is no mystery. According to the Ethiopian royal chronicles, the Ark left Jerusalem much earlier than generally thought – in the days of King Solomon – and went to Ethiopia by the hand of Menelik, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. (The Bible tells of a meeting between the monarchs (1 Kings 10), but not a marriage or Prince Menelik.)
The Ark was then kept safe in Ethiopia over the millenia, carefully hidden during wars, and today it is enshrined in a special treasury next to the Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum, Ethiopia.
This theory was popularized outside of Ethiopia through a 1990s book by British journalist Graham Hancock entitled The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Hancock argues that after the Ark was brought to Ethiopia by Menelik, it was kept there for 800 years by a Judaic cult. Then it was seized by the Knights Templar, who thought that it was the Holy Grail. The Knights converted the Jews, who then kept the Ark in a great church.
Several other researches have explored the possibility that the Lost Ark is in Ethiopia, reaching various conclusions. In The Quest for the Ark of the Covenant, Stuart Munro-Hay argues that Axum’s shrine contains a stone altar that was probably produced long ago as a replica of Moses’ stone tablets.
Munro-Hay’s theory is a variation of what seems to be the most common consensus of scholars: there is something old and sacred enshrined at Axum, but it is probably not the Ark of the Covenant.
The Ark of the Covenant was long enshrined in the Old Church of St. Mary of Zion at Axum, constructed specially for the purpose by Emperor Haile Selassie in the early 1960s. Today it is housed in a small chapel or Treasury building next door to the church.
What to See at Chapel of the Ark of the Covenant
The Ark of the Covenant at Axum cannot be seen by anyone but the High Priest of Axum, an elderly and especially holy monk who is charged with its care and preservation for life. He cannot leave the small yard that surrounds the chapel, and he is expected to name his successor on his deathbed. The present custodian with this privilege and burden is named Abba Tesfa Mariam.
The authors of the abovementioned books on the Lost Ark were unsuccessful in their attempts to gain access to the relic. In fact, not even the Ethiopian president is allowed to see it. The Ark used to be taken out on a procession once a year, but due to the recent war and tensions in the area, it remains locked in its shrine full-time.
One recent British explorer was told that these restrictions are for his own safety, for “if I approached the Ark I would be punished – the theory is that would become invisible and unleash upon me its terrible power – I would be killed outright, probably incinerated.” He was told that even seeing one of the blessed replicas placed in all Ethiopian churches could have this effect.
What visitors can see is the building in which the Ark is kept. Referred to as a relic chapel or the Treasury, it also contains the cathedral’s treasures such as the crowns of Ethiopian kings and silver processional crosses. The other treasures are regularly brought out and displayed for visitors, but no one is allowed inside the building.