Ark of the Covenant: History, Stories and Where It Might Be

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Ark Of The Covenant

The words of the Ten Commandments were written on two stone tablets with the "finger of God.” The Ark of the Covenant is a wood-and-gold chest built by Moses to house the Ten Commandments. It is believed that the Ark was kept in the First Temple built by King Solomon in Jerusalem. According to one legend it was stolen by the illegitimate son of Solomon and Sheba and taken to Ethiopia in the 10th century B.C.

It is not even clear what is meant by the ark. Does that mean the stone tablets themselves or does it refer to the box they were kept in or is it a reference to the building as repository of faith. The power of the place is said to be the fact it s closed to the outside world and the mystery of what lies within.

The Ark of the Covenant, it is said, is a wood-and-gold chest housing the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. It is regarded as the most precious treasure of ancient Judaism while its location and existence has been a source of controversy for centuries. It is best known today for its presence in the 1981 Indiana Jones movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

According to The Times of London “The Ark was made, according to the Bible, of gold-plated acacia wood and topped with two golden angels. It is said to be a source of great power. In about 586 B.C., when the Babylonians conquered the Israelites, the Ark vanished. For many centuries finding it has been one of the great quests, but also for countries seeking to position themselves in the mainstream of ancient civilization.

Story of the Ark of the Covenant

The Ark, the story goes, was built by Moses and recaptured from the Philistines by David. Later it was housed in the Holy of Holies — a central sanctuary that only the high priest could enter once a year on the Day of Atonement — King Solomon's Temple. Solomon's Temple, also called the First Temple, was plundered and torched by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II in the sixth century B.C., according to the Hebrew Bible. The Ark of the Covenant is a chest that, when originally built, was said to have held tablets

It is said Solomon's Temple was partly destroyed and the Ark of the Covenant was lost when Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 586 B.C. In a Babylonian chronicle Nebuchadnezzar boasted theat he “captured the city and...took heavy tributes and brought it back to Babylon." The Bible has a similar account except that the “tributes” are referred to as “all the treasures of the Temple and the royal palace."

The fate of the Ark is not known. Its location has been placed in Egypt, Zimbabwe and even Ireland, where the Hill of Tara was excavated. In the film “Raiders of the Lost Ark” it was situated in room the Treasury at ancient city of Petra in Jordan.

The Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia?

The Ethiopian holy town of Aksum is regarded as perhaps the most credible site. According to one legend it was stolen by the illegitimate son of Solomon and Sheeba and taken to Ethiopia and placed first on an island Mesa in Lake Tana, where its was watched over by a band of monks, and then taken to a church in Aksum (Axum), where the Ethiopian Orthodox Church became its chosen protector. At the church in Aksum, only a guardian monk has access to the ark. Ethiopians believe that it is defended by monks in the church of St. Mary of Zion and is seen only by the guardian of the Ark, making it impossible to verify.

The Church of St. Mary of Zion in Aksum dates back to A.D. fourth century and is regarded as one of the holiest churches in Ethiopia. A small chapel next door purportedly houses the Ark of the Covenant, which, according to legend was brought back from Jerusalem by Ethiopia's first emperor, Menelik I. A monk who lives in the chapel is the only person who is allowed to see the sacred relic, whose sacred light is purportedly powerful enough to kill ordinary people. Women are not allowed in the church.

At Aksum the ark has been watched over by a single virginal monk who, once chosen for this lifetime appointment can never leave the iron-fenced chapel grounds. No one is allowed behind the red curtains that shields the ark from view, lest they, according to legend, fall ill and die. Most scholars don’t think the ark is really there and it has became a matter of faith whether it is or not. Ethiopia’s Patriarch Abune Daulos said in 1999, “We don’t have to prove it to anyone. You want to believe, it’s your privilege. If you don’t want to believe, it’s you own privilege again.”

Ark of the Covenant Fever in Ethiopia?

Ethiopia throbs with religious fervor. On Sundays in Lalibela, Aksum and Gondar, I was alone in thousand-strong crowds of monks and nuns, hermits and business owners, energetic children and bent-double grandmothers. They wrapped themselves in white or burnt orange and poured into the churches that dot the landscape. [Source: Melissa Twigg, Daily Beast, December 3, 2019]

It is a society with a more profound spirituality than anywhere else I have been to—one where worship is woven into nearly every aspect of life. And during my trip, it became clear that this veneration of the church was born from a belief that Ethiopia has been chosen by God as the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.

There is only one man alive who has seen the alleged Ark in all its biblical glory. It is, according to Ethiopian lore, hidden in a church in Aksum—a small city in the northern highlands—and guarded by a single monk. Nobody else enters the room and only after his death will the monk leave the grounds.

Fate of Ark of the Covenant Revealed in Ancient Hebrew Text

carrying the ark

A Hebrew text called the "Treatise of the Vessels" (Massekhet Kelim in Hebrew), translated in the early 2010s, claims to reveal the locations of treasures from King Solomon's Temple and discusses the fate of the Ark itself but fails to identify its location. The text says the "treasures were concealed by a number of Levites and prophets," James Davila, a professor at the University of St. Andrews wrote in an article in the book "Old Testament Pseudepigrapha More Noncanonical Scriptures Volume 1" (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013). [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, January 7, 2014]

Davila wrote in the article: "Some of these (treasures) were hidden in various locations in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia, while others were delivered into the hands of the angels Shamshiel, Michael, Gabriel and perhaps Sariel" and said the text states the other treasures, "shall not be revealed until the day of the coming of the Messiah son of David."

Owen Jarus wrote in Live Science, “The treatise is similar in some ways to the metallic "Copper Scroll," one of the Dead Sea Scrolls found near the site of Qumran in the West Bank. The Copper Scroll also discusses the location of hidden treasure, although not from Solomon's Temple. The treatise describes the treasures in an imaginative way. One part refers to "seventy-seven tables of gold, and their gold was from the walls of the Garden of Eden that was revealed to Solomon, and they radiated like the radiance of the sun and moon, which radiate at the height of the world."

“The oldest confirmed example of the treatise, which survives to present day, is from a book published in Amsterdam in 1648 called "Emek Halachah." In 1876, a scholar named Adolph Jellinek published another copy of the text, which was virtually identical to the 1648 version. Davila is the first to translate the text fully into English. The writer of the text likely was not trying to convey factual locations of the hidden treasures of Solomon's Temple, but rather was writing a work of fiction, based on different legends, Davila told LiveScience.

“The structure of the story is confusing. In the prologue it states that Shimmur the Levite (he doesn't appear to be a biblical figure) and his companions hid the treasures, "but later on the text mentions the treasures being in the keeping of or hidden by Shamshiel and other angels," Davila said. "I suspect the author collected various legends without too much concern about making them consistent..."The writer draws on traditional methods of scriptural exegesis [interpretation] to deduce where the treasures might have been hidden, but I think the writer was approaching the story as a piece of entertaining fiction, not any kind of real guide for finding the lost Temple treasures."

“The Copper Scroll, which dates back around 1,900 years, and is made of copper, shows several "striking parallels" with the newly translated treatise, Davila said. The treatise says that the treasures from Solomon's Temple were recorded "on a tablet of bronze," a metal like the Copper Scroll. Additionally, among other similarities, the Treatise of the Vessels and Copper Scroll both refer to "vessels" or "implements," including examples made of gold and silver.

“These similarities could be a coincidence or part of a tradition of recording important information on metal. "My guess is that whoever wrote the Treatise of Vessels came up with the same idea [of writing a treasure list on metal] coincidentally on their own, although it is not unthinkable that the writer knew of some ancient tradition or custom about inscribing important information on metal," Davila told Live Science, noting that metal is a more durable material than parchment or papyrus.

“The study of the treatise is ongoing, and discoveries continue to be made. For instance, in the mid-20th century a copy of it (with some variations) was discovered and recorded in Beirut, Lebanon, at the end of a series of inscribed plates that record the Book of Ezekiel. Those plates are now at the Yad Ben Zvi Institute in Israel, although the plates containing the treatise itself are now missing. Recent research has revealed, however, these plates were created in Syria at the turn of the 20th century, about 100 years ago, suggesting the treatise was being told in an elaborate way up until relatively modern times.”

Ark of the Covenant in the Queen of Sheba’s Palace in Ethiopia?

Ark arrives in Ethiopia

In 2008, German researchers from the University of Hamburg claimed they had found the remains of the Palace of the Queen of Sheba — and an altar that may have held the Ark. The discovery, however, was greeted with a great deal skepticism from the archaeological community. According to The Times of London, the claim also “is at the heart of a debate about whether archaeology should chronicle the rise and fall of civilizations or explore the boundaries between myth and ancient history.” [Source: Rogers Boyes, The Times, May 13, 2008 /*/]

Professor Helmut Ziegert, of the archaeological institute at the University of Hamburg, has been supervising a dig in Aksum, northern Ethiopia, since 1999. "From the dating, its position and the details that we have found, I am sure that this is the palace," he said, meaning the palace of the Queen of Sheba, who is believed to have lived in the 10th century B.C. /*/

According to The Times of London, after the Queen of Sheeba died, her son and successor, Menelek, replaced the palace with a temple dedicated to Sirius. The German researchers believe that the Ark was taken from Jerusalem by the queen — who had a liaison with King Solomon — and built into the altar to Sirius. "The results we have suggest that a Cult of Sothis developed in Ethiopia with the arrival of Judaism and the Ark of the Covenant, and continued until 600 A.D.," an announcement by the University of Hamburg on behalf of the research team said. Sothis is the ancient Greek name for the star Sirius. /*/

“Many archaeologists believe that their profession should not be in the business of myth-chasing. Even if the Ark were found, it would be impossible to establish scientifically whether it was the original receptacle for the Ten Commandments. Iris Gerlach of the German Archaeological Institute in Sanaa, Yemen, believes the religious centre of Sheba is in present-day Yemen. Although she does not go head-to-head with her colleague Professor Ziegert, the message is clear: A relic such as the Ark would have been stored in an important religious city rather than in Aksum.” /*/ Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons, Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bible in Bildern, 1860

Archaeologists May Have Found Biblical Town Linked to Ark of the Covenant

In 2019, archaeologist announced that A 2,200-year-old fortification unearthed in Israel may be a town mentioned in the Bible — and linked to the Ark of the Covenant. Yahoo News UK reported: “Israeli news site Haaretz reports that archaeologists believe a fortification at Kiriath-Jearim, a hill outside Abu Ghosh, near Jerusalem, could be the site of the Biblical town of Emmaus, which is mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. [Source: Rob Waugh, Yahoo News UK, September 11, 2019]

Ark of the Covenant
“In the gospel, Jesus appears to his apostles on the road to Emmaus after his crucifixion and resurrection. “Luke 24:13 says: “Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.” Researchers led by Prof Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University believe the remains could be Emmaus. Others are more sceptical.

“Benjamin Isaac of Tel Aviv University said that Prof Finkelstein and his team have a good case archaeologically, geographically and topographically. “However,” Prof Isaac said, “it is a hypothesis and remains a hypothesis.” Finkelstein told Fox News: “The finds at Kiriath-Jearim hint at its long-term role as guarding the approach to Jerusalem. “This can be seen in the Iron Age, Hellenistic and early Roman periods. The Hellenistic and Roman period remains shed light on the much-debated issue of the location of the New Testament’s Emmaus.”

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, King James Version of the Bible,, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, , Metropolitan Museum of Art “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated February 2024

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