No ancient relic causes so much controversy as the Ark of the Covenant. The subject of Spielberg’s ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, featuring the intrepid Indiana Jones, the film does not exaggerate the passions the mystery of its location and power entails.
Believed to have been constructed from acacia wood by Moses on Mount Sinai about 1250BC, the wooden chest is overlain with solid gold on both the inside and outside. 3ft 9in long and 2ft 3in wide and high, it has a lid of solid gold with a pair of cherubim. Gold rings attached to the Ark’s sides allow poles to pass through to be carried.
WHY AN ARK?
Built according to Divine instructions, the Ark carried the two tablets upon which God scribed the Ten Commandments. Symbolic of the covenant God made between Himself and the people of Israel, it was said to be the focus of God’s presence.
Carried by Levites, members of one of the twelve tribes of Israel, it always went ahead of the Israelites as they wandered through the desert, even going ahead of their armies as they waged war.
When camped, the Ark was placed at the centre of a temporary sanctuary known as the Tabernacle. This centre became known as the Holy of Holies. Once the Promised Land was conquered and the Temple constructed at Jerusalem, the Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies of the temple.
In this respect we can see the Ark as the central symbol of faith. Some mystical Jews have even drawn an analogy of the Ark, with its two tablets inside, with the brain and its two cerebral hemispheres. The Ark remained the centre of their religion until after the Exile to Babylon in the 6th century BC.
OBJECT OF MYSTERY
Today there are two central mysteries concerning the Ark of the Covenant – namely, where is it, and what strange powers did it have? The former enigma comes from its remarkable history.
According to the Old Testament, some time around 1000BC the Ark was captured by the Philistines. For reasons we will narrate later, they eventually let it go, sending it away strapped to a cart pulled by two cows.
Reclaimed by the Israelites, they took it to Kiriath¬ Jearim, with King David eventually taking it to Jerusalem. Here, in 955BC, King Solomon placed it in the Holy of Holies of the first Temple.
At one stage one tradition speaks of it being stolen by Menelik, son of Solomon and Sheba and taken to Axum in Ethiopia. Another tradition speaks of it being taken by the prophet Jeremiah to an unknown cave prior to the Babylonian destruction of the Temple in 587BC.
What exactly happened is not known – it could have been simply destroyed – but the Ark was never seen again.
WHERE IS IT?
There are several theories concerning the location of the Ark. In 1952 a scroll known as the Copper Scroll was found near the caves at Qumran where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The scroll purportedly contains a list of sacred items that used to reside in Herod the Great’s second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70AD.
Among the listed items, it is thought, is the Ark. This discovery eventually fascinated American archaeologist Vendyl Jones. As director of the Institute for Judaic Christian Rsearch in Texas, Jones, who claims to be the real Indiana Jones, led an expedition to the area in March 1992. Claiming to have unearthed incense from the Temple, in May the Israeli Antiquities Authority suddenly stopped the excavation without explanation.
Could the Ark be buried near Qumran? Graham Hancock thinks not. According to him, the Ark remained in the Temple at Jerusalem until about 650BC.
CHURCH OF ST MARY
At this time Judea was ruled by a pagan king called Manasseh. Fearing he would destroy the Ark, the priests clandestinely removed it to a new temple in Elephantine in Egypt. In 410BC this temple was destroyed.
Rescued, Hancock claims the Ark was taken to Lake Tana in Ethiopia, and in 350AD to Axum. Being placed in a specially constructed Church of St Mary of Zion, except for minor removals during medieval times, it has remained there ever since.
To this day the church is guarded by a single monk known as the guardian of the Ark, spending his entire lifetime protecting the relic and allowing no one inside.
Whether the real Ark is really in the church, no one knows, but certainly a replica of the Ark exists here, and is carried in procession once a year during the feast of Timkat. However, apart from the mystery of its location, just as intriguing are powers that are said to be invested in the Ark.
The Old Testament speaks clearly of the Divine power of the Ark. When captured by the Philistines, they quickly got rid of it when they came down with a terrifying plague which caused cancerous tumours.
At Jericho the Ark was marched around the walls, and it is said to have been its power that caused the walls to fall down. Others who inadvertently touched it were instantly killed, and only a chosen few could manage to carry it on its poles, well over a hundred yards ahead of the people. Moses himself is said to have had a face that shined, and usually wore a cowl, after building the Ark.
Due to such powers, many theories have been offered as to what the Ark really was. Some even believe it was actually a small nuclear reactor, hence the cancerous boils, Moses’s ‘radiation effects’ and its seemingly miraculous power.
Of course, easy answers can be placed on the powers of the Ark. It is well accepted that the walls of Jericho fell due to earthquake activity. Similarly, belief in its power was all that was needed for the Philistines to imagine disaster, possibly even causing some form of hysterically induced poltergeist activity.
As for the dangers of boils from being too close to the Ark, suggestion can easily cause illness in such a superstitious culture. Curses are known to happen in many primitive societies, based on the absolute belief that a curse can work.
But all this is irrelevant to the real power of the Ark. Thought of as the throne for the earthly power of an invisible God, it represented the very centre of faith to the people who birthed the idea of monotheism.
In this, sense, whether real or imagined, the Ark remains an icon of world-changing proportions. And there is no greater power than this.
© Anthony North, May 2007