Mythology is a frustrating thing. One of the main reasons it’s frustrating is because within the norms of Conformist culture it’s just like God: You either believe in it as a preestablished truth or you reject it 100% as nonsense; there is no Third Position; no in-between or middle way. You may either embrace literally a myth that is part of your chosen off-the-shelf package religion or you see it as an entertaining story that is completely imaginary. I’ve spoken before of how I see this as the reason we’ve never solved the mystery of Atlantis, (See EG: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2008/05/beyond-knowledge-conference-2008.html) but lately I’ve come across another historical conundrum that is similarly afflicted: The Ark of the Covenant.
The Ark of the Covenant is the most enigmatic historical artifact and religious relic in the world. It first appears in mythology in the Bible; the Book of Exodus. In one of the best-known stories ever told, Moses leads his fellow Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to Mount Sinai. He ascends the mountain to the summit, a place of pilgrimage in modern times, where God descended in a storm cloud flanked by two cherubim blowing ram's horn trumpets and gave Moses the Ten Commandments. God carved the text of the Ten Commandments onto a pair of stone slabs with his finger (Does God really have fingers!?) and Moses brought them down from the mountain after, in the best of Biblical tradition, forty days. God told Moses to build a wooden box to carry the stone tablets in. As He did with Noah, God gave a very precise design blueprint for the box. The box was to be oblong in shape, measuring 2.5 by 1.5 by 1.5 Royal cubits in dimension, that’s 3.75 x 2.25 x 2.25 feet. It was to be made of acacia-wood timber and covered all over with solid gold plating. Similar acacia-wood carrying-staves were inserted into four gold rings built into the side and the staves were never to be removed even when the box was standing on the ground. The box was to be covered with a golden lid with similarly golden figurines of the two cherubim that accompanied God set on top (God Himself, of course, was never portrayed in an image). This box was to be called the Ark of the Covenant. According to some myths other objects were placed in there too: a facsimile of the original tablets, also inscribed by God’s finger, after the originals were smashed by Canaanite idolaters, who took over while Moses went away for a while. Also it is said to contain Moses’ own first hand-written Torah, Aaron’s Rod and several other Israelite heirlooms. This was long before the building of the famous Temple of Jerusalem and the Israelites were a nomadic culture at that time so they carried the Ark with them wherever they went, which must have been quite a burden seeing as it was partly made of solid gold! Whenever they stopped and set up camp the Ark was placed inside a sacred mobile shrine called the Tabernacle which consisted of a special tent that only Moses and the Ark’s vanguard could enter; this tent was also set up to very specific dimensions dictated by God (Maybe this is why the Masons call God “the Great Architect”). The Ark was more than just a ceremonial antique though; it was also a very powerful weapon of war that was a channel of God’s power on Earth. In fact the Israelites defeated several enemies by using the Ark; most famously the Ark destroyed the fortified walls of Jericho after God told the army to march around it 7 times (7 is another recurring number in the Bible) brandishing the Ark. After 40 years (that number again!) of wandering in the wilderness the Israelites installed the Ark permanently in Solomon's great Temple of Jerusalem. The home of the Ark was in an inner sanctum known as the “Holiest of Holies” into which only the most senior high Levite Priests were permitted to enter. This Temple was destroyed and rebuilt several times and today all that remains of it is the Wailing Wall, but what happened to the Ark that lay inside it? After the final sacking of the Temple by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC the Ark is never mentioned again in the Old Testament. This is strange; you’d think that whether the Ark survived or was destroyed, the authors of the Bible would have something to say about its fate. This was the most prized national treasure that the Israelite people possessed, designed by God, built by the founder of their nation and containing a specimen of God’s own handwriting. This is the God revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. So what happened to it? According to the Book of Revelations the Ark ascended into Heaven and St John saw it when the Temple gates were opened in one of his visions. However usually these kinds of ascensions are very dramatically noted at the time they happen, as with Mary, but not this one. It’s as if God whipped the Ark out of the back door as Nebuchadnezzar’s armies were marching up the drive; that’s not God’s style.
As with the Holy Grail, since the Ark vanished from history and legend, several theories have arisen as to where it might be right now. These theories have spawned many fictional accounts, such as Stephen Spielberg’s celebrated film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first in the Indiana Jones series. In this film the Ark is hidden in Egypt. It’s also said to be located in Ireland, England, Jordan, France, South Africa and Italy. But by far the most likely story is that the Ark went to Ethiopia; how the Ark ended up there is a long and interesting story, but there’s also archaeological evidence that it is a true one. Ethiopia is an ancient and unique country, almost unknown to the outside world until it tragically shot into the global headlines the 1980’s, when a famine wiped out millions of its people and this inspired rock stars to come together in the first ever international concert to raise money to save them. In fact the country deserves notoriety for other more positive reasons. It is home to one of the most archaic and fascinating religious traditions on Earth. It has both an unusual orthodox Christian church and a very old Jewish tradition. There are two stories of how the Ark of the Covenant arrived in Ethiopia. One of them states that the Ark was not destroyed during the Babylonian conquest at all; not because God had managed to get it out of the way, but because the Ark had been removed before then, over 200 years before then in fact. The theory goes that the Ark was taken by Jewish refugees when a usurper-king called Manasseh came to power. Manasseh is portrayed in the Bible as a deeply wicked man who brought down the Kingdom of Israel with much brutality and then committed a gross blasphemy by installing a pagan idol in the Temple. The Jewish loyalists fled and it seems reasonable that they would save the Ark by taking it with them. But where would they flee to? This was a big question that’s not easy to answer. However we can suppose that wherever they went to there would be historical and archaeological evidence for their presence because such a high class of refugees would have a great impact on the surrounding area, its culture and traditions. In fact they’d enjoy a similar status as the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan Buddhist followers do today. It seems likely that they would desire to build a new temple, maybe not quite as grand as Solomon’s original one in Jerusalem, but still substantial. Does a record of any such presence exist?
Yes it does. If you travel up the river Nile into southern Egypt you come across a small and apparently insignificant island called Elephantine; this is right on the ancient trade routes between Africa and Palestine. On this island during the time of King Manasseh’s regime a large and powerful Jewish expatriate community emerged and the ruins of their buildings can be seen to this day on the island. Among them is a huge temple complex; at the time, this was the only Jewish Temple in the entire world to be built other than the main one in Jerusalem. It must have been a very special place for Jews during this early Diaspora, perhaps special enough to be the new home of the Ark of the Covenant? Unfortunately the relationship between the Elephantine Jews and their Egyptian asylum-granters was rather shaky. This was because the Jews still practiced animal sacrifice, especially prime rams, at a time when the local Egyptians were worshipping a ram-god called Khnum. The conflict came to a head in 410 BC and the result was that the Jews were evicted from Elephantine. The Egyptians then demolished the Temple. Where would the Jews go from there? Not north for sure because there lay Egypt and they would have surely have been under exile as a result of their eviction, and beyond Egypt lay their arch-enemy Manasseh. To the West was nothing but the endless Sahara Desert and to the east the Red Sea. So they could only have gone south. Upriver on the Nile lay some very green and pleasant lands like Kush, Ophir and Nubia, the region today called Ethiopia.
The second legend is a native Ethiopian one and is today the foundational doctrine of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It concerns a well-known, but very tenuous and mysterious historical character: the Queen of Sheba. The story goes that the Queen of Sheba came from one of the countries in what is now Ethiopia and lived in the early 9th Century BC, just when the Temple in Jerusalem had been built. On a state visit to Jerusalem she had a fling with King Solomon through which she became pregnant. Her baby became King Menelik I. When he came of age the young king went back to Jerusalem to remind his estranged father of his responsibilities. A deal of some kind was struck which meant that Menelik was given the Ark of the Covenant to take to Ethiopia on condition that he imposed the Judaic faith and culture on his people. He did so and the Jewish tradition in that country endures into the modern era. I find this tale slightly dubious. Sure I know that paternity feuds can be very bitter and costly indeed to the paternal party, but there’s no way Solomon would hand over the Ark. It would be better if he handed over the rest of the entire nation and kept the Ark. Remember what this artifact meant to his people; it was literally a direct gift from God. Also if Menelik had taken the Ark it would mean that the Ark would have been removed from the Temple in Jerusalem just a few short years after the thing had been built! What a waste of effort! Whichever of these tales is the right one there is very strong evidence that the Ark ended up in Ethiopia. Its first sanctuary was Lake Tana. Archaeologists had to visit the extremely remote and isolated Monastery of Debre Damo to discover this secret. This mountain fortress was sealed off from the outside world for over 1500 years and can only be entered by shinnying up a leather rope to a doorway 60 feet up on a sheer cliff face. There, the location of where the Ark was held was revealed. I say was, not is; but bear with me.
Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile, the final destination that the Jewish exiles from Elephantine would have come to by following the river. The lake is huge and is covered by many islands, some of them isolated monasteries on which outsiders were forbidden. The area is held sacred by the Ethiopian people and has been used as a fortress to guard national treasures during the frequent occasions when the country has come under attack from an outside enemy or internal strife. The most inaccessible and exclusive of all these outposts is the island of Tana Kirkos. It is almost totally undiscussed; even most Ethiopians have never even heard of it. Here both local legends and archaeological evidence agree that something of enormous spiritual and historical value was kept here. In Part 3 of this TV show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOqLpT6HKzY we see the location where a new Tabernacle may have been erected. The socket holes in the rock match the very precise God-given measurements from tradition, ones that the Jewish priests would have very solemnly and reverently reproduced on the ground of this foreign land. In Part 4 you’ll see that nearby is a very regal grave, maybe the last resting place of the chief Levite Priest who led the expedition. Also in Part 4, you’ll see that the islanders of Tana Kirkos possess sacred objects that they say were brought by the Jewish refugees and show them to the camera. The Ark was kept on Tana Kirkos for 800 years and then, in the 4th Century AD when Ezana, the first Christians king of Ethiopia, sat on his throne, this most holy treasure was moved to the Royal city of Aksum.
For over 600 years Aksum was the centre of a prosperous Christian empire and the heart of its power lay in its sacred core, the Cathedral of St Mary of Zion, the place where the Ark of the Covenant has rested for the last 1600 years. Today the home of the Ark is a surprisingly modest building, a small chapel-like structure in the grounds of what is today a fairly average-sized newly-rebuilt cathedral. It is called The Church of the Tablet and was built in the 1950’s by Emperior Haile Selassie’s wife after the Ark began to cause damage to its original storage site in the old cathedral; I’ll explain how and why such damage might be done in a moment. However this sanctuary is a place of great veneration and on festival days thousands of people will gather in the streets of Aksum as a Tabot, an effigy of the Ark that is always used in Ethiopian church services, is paraded through the city with enormous reverence. As for the real Ark? That’s an entirely different matter. The real Ark never leaves the little chapel and nobody is allowed near it except the Keeper. The post of Keeper of the Ark of the Covenant has got to be the most exclusive and carefully-vetted job application that exists. He is a man who is the most trusted and dedicated of all the Ethiopian clergy selected in a way that makes the Papal Conclave look casual. He and he alone is permitted to enter the Church of the Tablet and look upon the Ark. He takes vows to tend the Ark and do nothing else ever again; he never leaves the small chapel compound and never leaves his job until the day he dies. Under no circumstances is anybody else allowed near the Ark. This is apparently more for their own protection than that of the Ark. The Ark, it seems, can easily take care of itself! More on that in a moment, but one thing is for certain: anybody who goes on a quest for the Ark will eventually end up in only one place: outside the high security railings surrounding the Church of the Tablet. The Ark will lie just a dozen feet away from them but for all the chance they’ll have of viewing it, it might as well be on Mars! Of course in a region as volatile and unstable as northern Ethiopia there’s always a risk that in a period of disorder somebody might try to force entry to the chapel and look at the Ark, or even try to steal or destroy it. If that happens then I’ve no doubt that it will be over the Keeper’s dead body… but maybe it will be over the perpetrator’s too.
As I said, it appears that the Ark is more than just a relic; it has an awareness and intelligence of its own and it seems quite capable of defending itself, often greatly to the detriment of its attacker. There are many stories of what happens to people who try to abuse the Ark, one of them is Biblical. The Ark was captured once by the Philistines after a battle in which they thrashed the Israelites so badly that the Tabernacle was overrun. The Ark was carried back to their homeland in triumph and placed in their own temple. The Israelites were devastated, thinking they’d lost their most priceless treasure forever. However 7 months later the Philistines came to the Israelites and offered to return the Ark unconditionally. This was because since the Ark had been in their possession their entire country had been beset by terrible misfortune, in particular the people had all fallen ill with plagues and tumours. The Ark was exceptionally choosy about whom it had around it. It brought great success and protection to the Israelites, but to anybody else it didn’t like, it brought disaster and death. This factor of the story was included into the climax of Stephen Spielberg’s film about the Ark. Apologies for the spoiler, but what happens is that it appears that all is lost. Indiana Jones and the heroine are tied up awaiting execution and the Nazis open up the Ark to test it. Immediately they’re struck down by fire and die in a very gruesome scene which gave me nightmares as a child. The Ark, so the stories go, has a willpower all of its own and will react very violently if you try to harness it to your own devices. But this is just a story isn’t it? Just ancient myths and a film script? Maybe not, because the Keepers of the Ark in Aksum say the exact same thing. They don’t only keep ordinary people away from the Ark as an act of respect for the Ark’s sacred status, but to protect them from the Ark!
You may be wondering why I’ve decided to write about this subject. Am I about to turn religious? Do I believe the literal truth of the Ark’s origins? Am I now going to try and persuade you that God really did come down to Moses and write on stone tablets with his own hand? No! Definitely not! I’m not going to suggest that the legends associated with the Ark of the Covenant are the absolute truth of its origins; but then again, as I said at the start of this article, I’m not sure that we can just dismiss the entire phenomenon of the Ark as make-believe. The Ark may well be a real object of enormous physical, energetic and/or spiritual power that was found by tribesmen in Palestine 3000 or so years ago, and the Bible stories and Ethiopian fables were legends that grew up around factual accounts and experiences of it over the ages. Graham Hancock (see HPANWO Links column) has speculated that it might be some form of high technology; I think it may be part of a Roswell-style “flying disk”. There’s no way to be sure, but in 2008 the History Channel said in one of its programmes that the Keepers of the Ark usually don’t live very long; they are quickly struck down by maladies like cataracts and other conditions associated with exposure to excessive radiation. It might be some kind of interdimensional object, portal or energy field; or even something else altogether that we can’t even imagine. Whatever it is, it is without a doubt the most incredible relic in the entire world. It has seized the imagination of the people who’ve come into contact with it for over 3000 years… and sometimes their lives too. We will probably never know, unless for some hitherto unimaginable reason the Ethiopian priesthood decides to bring the Ark out and put it on public display, but that is so unlikely that it hardly deserves a second thought. However on the 25th of June 2009 the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church said that he would unveil the Ark the following day; when the following day arrived he said he’d changed his mind!
(Sources: Raider of the Lost Ark, Hational Geographic and Grahamhancock.net)
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