Like the vast majority of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, nearly everyone in the town of Axum in Ethiopia believes the lost biblical Ark of the Covenant is hidden away in a stone chapel on the grounds of their largest church, where it has been safeguarding Ethiopia for nearly 3,000 years.
Thousands flock to churches in Axum and throughout Ethiopia for Timkat, an Ethiopian celebration of the baptism of Jesus Christ. At the center of the festivities are ?tabots,? tablets kept in every Ethiopian Orthodox church that symbolize the ark.
?I can understand that outsiders are skeptical? about the ark, says Mersa Belay, head priest of Axum, 370 miles north of Ethiopia?s capital, Addis Ababa. ?They do not have our faith.?
The details differ, but the basic account of the ark?s journey starts when the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Israel had a son named Menelik who was raised in Ethiopia, his mother?s home. As a man, Menelik visited his father in Jerusalem, stole the ark and returned to Ethiopia with an entourage of Israelite aristocrats and founded a kingdom based in Axum.
That was about 3,000 years ago. Ethiopians converted to Christianity about 1,300 years later. The dynasty they believe Menelik founded ruled Ethiopia until 1974, when Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed.
Historians agree Ethiopia was converted to Christianity around AD 330. The rest of the story is dismissed as propaganda dreamed up in the 12th century to support a new line of Ethiopian kings who hoped to gain legitimacy by tracing their roots to King Solomon.
?The story of the ark … cannot be documented, although many have tried,? says historian Richard Pankhurst, founder of Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. The most thorough investigation of the ark is ?The Sign and the Seal,? by Graham Hancock.
Scholars are not sure where the Queen of Sheba lived, although modern Yemen – not Ethiopia – is the most likely place. Outside Ethiopian chronicles, there is no mention of the ark?s leaving Jerusalem, and the first Ethiopian kingdom didn?t appear until about 800 to 900 years after Solomon was believed to have lived.
The ark has helped keep Ethiopia – the only African country never colonized – independent throughout most of its history, says Belai Giday, an Ethiopian historian. ?Ethiopia has been invaded, but has never been subjugated by a foreign power,? he says, regarding Ethiopian resistance to Italian occupation between 1936 and 1941. ?The Italians tried … but they never ruled because we never lost faith in the ark and kept fighting.?
Once a year, Axumites gather at the chapel they believe houses the ark. Draped in white linen sheets, they watch as robed priests remove a tabot covered by richly embroidered green and red velvet cloths from the stone building and began a solemn procession to a tent a half-mile away.
The tabot representing the ark is accompanied by an honor guard of soldiers with assault weapons. Men marching behind sing haunting Ethiopian Orthodox Church music. At the rear, women quietly wail. The solemnity gives way to celebration as the tabot reaches the tent. Men and women sing and dance, clapping to the beat of drums. Timkat reaches its climax with a mass baptism.
Gebrelebanos Teklemariam, the lone priest who now guards the ark, rarely speaks with outsiders. Other priests say they have seen the ark but are not supposed to talk about it. Patriarch Abune Paulos of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church says he has seen the ark and describes it as the same as the one in the Bible. It?s a wooden box covered in gold and topped with two winged cherubim, and inside are two mirrorlike tablets with Hebrew inscriptions.
?If it were nothing … we would take it out and walk with it,? says Merha Godega, a member of the Axum congregation, explaining why a tabot is used in the ceremony instead of the actual ark. ?But the ark is too powerful. If we took it out, it would destroy us.?
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