Raiding the Ark of the Covenant
The true history of the most famous holy relic from Biblical times.
Today we're going to travel back to Biblical times, and cast our skeptical eye upon one of the most enduring legends in all of Christianity: the Ark of the Covenant, the holy box in which the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments were said to have been stored by Moses himself. It's a particularly interesting story, because unlike its fellow icon the Holy Grail — which existed only as a literary device in Arthurian legend and has no historical basis — the Ark of the Covenant may have been (and in fact probably was) a real physical object.
In appearance, the Ark was very much like the version depicted in Raiders of the Lost Ark, just a bit smaller: 2.5 cubits long, and 1.5 cubits high and wide. It was made of acacia wood, completely gilded with gold leaf, and had two golden cherubs atop its lid. It was carried only by two gold-plated acacia staves, and was not to be touched itself.
There are many replicas of the Ark, even surviving today; and we'll talk about some of those in a moment. But what are they copies of? Following the threads of the various Ark legends backwards through history, they soon fade into stories known only from the Bible, plus some corroborating mentions in other ancient texts such as the Quran and the Books of the Maccabees. The original Ark is said to have been constructed upon instructions from Moses during the Exodus, and this is problematic, as we now know from numerous lines of evidence that the Exodus was a Bible story and not a historical event.
Moving forward through history from there, the chronicle of the Ark becomes increasingly less fuzzy. There are all kinds of Bible stories about where the Ark went and which army had possession of it, but because there is no archaeological evidence of any of these stories, they can't be verified. It is said to have eventually come down to King Solomon sometime in the 10th century BCE, but even King Solomon's very existence has no compelling evidence outside of scripture, despite many efforts by Biblical literalists to interpret various pieces of archaeological and anthropological evidence. Most famously, Solomon built Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. Solomon's Temple is not proven to have existed either. It's said to have been destroyed in 586 BCE. Some archaeologists believe they've uncovered evidence of its structure; others find insufficient reason to support that identification.
Inside Solomon's temple was a special room called the Holy of Holies, in which the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Since we can't verify that the temple existed, we certainly can't say that the Holy of Holies did, and we can't say that there was an Ark inside of it. However, there is a wealth of non-empirical evidence supporting the idea that Solomon, his temple, and the Ark within probably did exist. Historians going back through ancient Rome, such as Josephus, and ancient Greece, such as Herodotus, have all provided accounts that are generally consistent with the Biblical history of Solomon's temple. I believe it's fair to say that the existence of Solomon's temple, and a gilt wooden ark hidden inside of it, are the null hypothesis. We've no compelling reason to doubt it.
The pivotal moment in the Ark's history is the sacking of Jerusalem by the Neo-Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE. This is a factual historical event, and it's the best point at which the Bible-based history of the Ark ends and its evidence-based history begins. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple of Solomon. Anything in it fell into the hands of the Neo-Babylonians. Whether this booty included the Ark of the Covenant is unknown. One further Bible verse states that the haul was taken to Babylon, including "the Ark of God", but of what became of it thereafter there is no mention. In all likelihood, if the raiders had found a large gold-plated box, they would have opened it, found nothing of value inside, and set fire to it along with the rest of the temple. Assuming an original Ark of the Covenant ever did exist, this was probably its ultimate fate.
But as a holy object, the Ark inevitably became the subject of rumor and passion. The Jewish tradition holds that the Ark was secreted to an underground chamber on the Temple Mount (where Solomon's Temple is believed to have been) during Nebuchadnezzar's attack where it remains safe to this day, but the political situation has prevented any archaeology from validating this story. Another story from the second Book of Maccabees holds that the prophet Jeremiah rescued the Ark, took it out of Jerusalem, and hid it in an unknown cave which he then sealed, where it has remained ever since. There's never been any way to evaluate this tale either. And over the ensuing years, a whole raft of scholars and authors have proposed alternate versions: That the Knights Templar took it somewhere, that's it's hidden at the Vatican, that it burned in another basilica in Rome, that it's buried in Ireland, and even a story from Zimbabwe that resulted in the find of a replica ark carbon dated to 1350.
But the best known modern-day claim about the Ark of the Covenant is that it lies in a small Ethiopian temple belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This story exists because the church has long publicly proclaimed it. In fact, you can visit any one of the church's temples throughout Ethiopia and actually view the Ark for yourself. But, contain your excitement: all of the Arks that the church displays are replicas.
The town of Aksum lies in the highlands in the very northern end of Ethiopia, and at the upper end of town, in a gentle valley between two green hills, stands the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. It was originally built in the 4th century, but has been rebuilt a number of times. Kings of Ethiopia have been crowned here ever since it has existed. Church tradition holds that the Ark of the Covenant has resided in Ethiopia for a long time, and the story of how this happened is told in an Ethiopian book written in the 13th century called the Kebra Nagast, or the Glory of Kings. It tells the story of King Menelik I, described as the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. At the age of 22 in about 950 BCE, Menelik visited Jerusalem to meet his father. While there, Menelik's companions stole the Ark from the Holy of Holies, and replaced it with the replica ark that they were supposed to take back with them. Solomon and Menelik both discovered the switch, but only after Menelik was already most of the way back home. Nevertheless, the Ark brought Menelik good fortune in Ethiopia. Armies fell before the Ark. It was secreted in a few other locations through the various centuries, until it was brought at last to Aksum, and there it has sat ever since, at Our Lady Mary of Zion.
The current church was built in the 1950s by Emperor Haile Selassie. Selassie's wife ordered the construction of the tiny Chapel of the Tablet adjacent to the church. The Chapel of the Tablet was to be the final, permanent resting place for the Ark; and to assure that it could never leave, the chapel was actually built around the Ark, using cinder-block passageways with corners too narrow and sharp for the Ark to fit through. A single Guardian spends his entire life inside the quarter-acre fenced enclosure surrounding the chapel, and nobody is ever permitted to see the Ark.
Thus a bloodline is established for all Ethiopian kings to trace their ancestry all the way back to Solomon, and the most holy relic on the planet serves as absolute proof of the fact. To this day, Rastafarians regard Selassie as the reincarnated messiah based on this bloodline, even taking their name from him ("ras" meaning head or duke, and "Tafari" which was Selassie's birth name). Selassie's title of Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Rastafarian dreadlocks represent the lion's mane) is based in part on the Kebra Nagast version of history as well, which holds that the first Jewish immigrants into Ethiopia were companions of Menelik.
But it turns out that the Kebra Nagast may not stand up very well to historical scrutiny. The Kebra Nagast first appeared in the 13th century at about the same time that two rival dynasties contended for the Ethiopian throne. The Zagwe dynasty, which was currently in power, claimed authority based on lineage from Moses. The Aksumites pointed to the Kebra Nagast to prove their own lineage from Solomon, backed up by the Ark of the Covenant. What better basis for divine kingship could there be? Thus the Zagwes were out, and the Aksumites were in. This finding that the Kebra Nagast was essentially created as political propaganda is bolstered by the total lack of corroborating evidence of any kind prior to the 13th century. No archaeological or documentary evidence has ever surfaced that indicate the story of Menelik existed at all before that date. It also contains a number of outright errors. The book is said to have been translated into Arabic from its original Coptic in 1225 by a team of Ethiopian clerics, and the strongest theory is that these Ethiopian clerics were in fact the original authors, and no original Coptic edition — or its hero Menelik — ever actually existed.
Most likely there is a crumbling, dusty wooden ark speckled with the remnants of gold leaf inside the Chapel of the Tablet, and it's a fact that Ethiopians firmly believe it to be the original. But whether it is anything other than just another replica, built by the Aksumites 800 years ago or at some other time, only eventual carbon dating may be able to tell.
In summary, the most likely history of the Ark of the Covenant is that, sometime prior to 586 BCE, one or more Arks were constructed in the Holy Land. Whether they were intended as ceremonial replicas, or as the original, or were for some other purpose, it's unlikely that we'll ever know. One example was likely inside the Temple of Solomon when it was destroyed, and met its end there. Possibly more than one copy made its way into the world. Other replicas were built in later years. Some are in Ethiopia, a few have been collected into museums, and some are still out there, undoubtedly waiting to be discovered, perhaps in some remote cave. About the only thing we can say for certain is that no one ark, replica or original, extant or long destroyed, can trace its history back to a legendary Exodus that's known not to have been a literal event. But somewhere, sometime, there was a first.
Correction: An earlier version of this gave the erroneous pop-culture version of the Ark's contents as "The original stone tablets that Moses brought down out of Mount Horeb and smashed, if you believe in that sort of thing," in the words of Indiana Jones. Not true. The story says replacement tablets were placed in the Ark after Moses calmed down. —BD
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