Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Continuing the previous post’s theme of Indiana Jones and tales I should have told when I visited the relevant scenes, here is the story of how the Ark of the Covenant — yes, the one with the Ten Commandments inside — may or may not really be in northern Ethiopia.
According to Exodus and Deuteronomy, Moses built the Ark with wood with gold covering. The Israelites then carried it with them during their 40 years in the desert before Joshua led them, with the Ark at the head of the column, across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land.
One of the plot points of the film “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is that the Bible claims that an army carrying the Ark before it was invincible — hence the Nazi interest in the artifact. But the Bible says no such thing. Joshua used its power to break down the walls of Jericho, but when the Hebrews took it onto the battlefield again in their fight against the Philistines, the latter prevailed and took the Ark. Later, when the Ark turned out to bring the Philistines nothing but bad luck, they returned it to the Hebrews. The Bible then says that the Hebrews had the Ark during the reigns of Kings David and Solomon, and Solomon placed it in the Temple that he built in Jerusalem.
The Babylonian conquest of 587 B.C. destroyed the Temple. The books of Kings and Chronicles do not say what then happened to the Ark. The deuterocanonical book (i.e., not recognized by Protestants as part of the Bible) 2 Maccabees, which was written centuries later, claims that the Prophet Jeremiah knew that the Temple would fall and spirited the Ark out to a cave on Mt. Nebo, in today’s Jordan.
Various Western authors have suggested that the Ark was subsequently removed to Europe or even the United States, the movers in these theories being often the Knights Templar. When archaeologists discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt, one of the objects found, known as the Anubis Shrine, more or less fit the biblical description of the Ark. The screenwriters of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” also placed the Ark in Egypt, in Tanis, the long since abandoned city where baby Moses was found drifting on the Nile.
Finally there is the claim by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that they have the Ark, right now, in a church. Except they won’t let anyone see it. The Ark is supposedly located in the Chapel of the Tablet at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, in the northern Ethiopian city of Axum or Aksum. Certainly when I visited this church last year, the clergymen wouldn’t let me anywhere near where the Ark was supposed to be.
This belief doesn’t come from nowhere. Ethiopian tradition, solidified in Ethiopia’s national epic Kebra Nagast in the 14th century, holds that King Menelik I took the Ark from the Temple and brought it back to Ethiopia, leaving a copy behind. Menelik is believed to be the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, whom Kings and Chronicles record as having visited Solomon with a great retinue and much spice. The Queen was supposed to be from the old Axum Empire, which dominated a large swath of eastern Africa back in the day. (Modern scholars, however, generally place Sheba in today’s Yemen, although southern Arabians did move to the Horn of Africa back then.) Menelik, born after his mother left Judea, supposedly went to Jerusalem in order to meet his father, and that was when he removed the Ark. (Ethiopian tradition also believes that the Solomonic dynasty continued from Menelik until 1974, when Haile Selassie, who still traced a connection to Solomon, was deposed.)
The British writer of pseudoscience Graham Hancock has also argued that the Ark is in Ethiopia, in his book The Sign and the Seal, but with an alternate theory of how the Ark reached that country. Hancock’s book was for sale at every Ethiopian airport I saw.
I remained unconvinced by any of these theories. But Axum is an easy place to let one’s imagination run wild. Sure, it’s now a dusty, smallish, and sleepy town not too far from the Eritrean border. But it used to be the heart of an empire. And Axum is dotted with numerous colossal stelae of mysterious significance, including the 1,700-year-old so-called Obelisk of Axum, which stands tall and proud in the northern part of the city. So it’s equally easy to forgive the various theorists of the fate on the Ark, even a writer of pseudoscience.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."