The search for the ark of the covenant

By Engr Edgar Mana-ay


Today is the beginning of the Holy Week. It is but fitting to ponder on a pre-historic religious relic worth searching for, which is the Ark of the Covenant dating back to about 3,000 years ago. The Ark is unlike the Holy Grail (refer to my TDG January 18 issue: The Quest for the Holy Grail) which is more of folklore and a literary invention of the 12th century with no historical basis. The Ark of the Covenant does exist and is for real as it has been mentioned in the Bible more than twenty times. This relic accompanied the Israelites from the time they left Egypt until they have established in the promised land where the First Temple became its repository up to the time of Prophet Jeremiah.

The Ark of the Covenant was an acacia wooden box plated with gold, 2.5 ft. by 2.5 ft. and 4 ft. long, enclosing two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were engraved. These were the same tablets that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. It also contains Aaron’s rod and manna. It was kept in the innermost shrine of the Tabernacle and the Temple. So, the terms of the covenant – the law – were preserved in the sacred box, like treaty terms made between human rulers. The Ark was the visible symbol of God’s presence and was the very center of the whole-divinely dictated Israeli religion. Everything pointed to it. During forty years of wandering in the desert (it should have taken them only FOUR months to reach the Promise Land but God punished them for their sinfulness that all the  “originals” from Egypt died and not even their leader Moses but only Joshua and an entirely new born generation reached the promised land, Israel). The Ark was carried in front of them when they are on the move and it was also seen as God’s footstool: the place where He met those who serve Him.

Before the First Temple was built, the Ark was captured by the Philistines in about 940 BC but returned it to the Israelites when they were afflicted by a series of plagues and the mere peep inside the box caused their death. (1 Samuel chapter 5 -6) When the Israelites had firmly settled in the land of promise, King Solomon built the FIRST Temple where the Ark was placed inside the Holy of Holies. In 926 BC Solomon’s son King Rehoboam was overrun by Shishak, the king of Egypt who looted the temple and stole priceless treasures of gold and silver (1Kings 14;25-25).  In 598 BC, Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar invaded Israel, penetrate deeply into the Temple (2Kings 24:25-26), carting off the Temple treasures.

In between came frequent incursions, when barbarian hordes helped themselves to the temple treasures; still none of the biblical accounts does the Ark turn up among the spoils of war! It is possible of course, that the Ark might have been stolen or destroyed during one of these incursions, without its disappearance ever being noted in public record. This is because rank-and-file Jews never saw it anyway, and no one but the high priest ever entered the Holy of Holies to minister before the Ark and that happens only once a year!

The last mention of the Ark was in Jeremiah 3:16, after which the Ark completely disappeared from history and the Bible. Most likely, Babylonian soldiers destroyed it when they looted the FIRST temple in 586 BC. There was no mention of the Ark in the SECOND rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. But this is the stuff of which legends are made! Jewish tradition says that the Prophet Jeremiah hid it in a cave of Mt. Nebo or King Josiah hid it in a cave beneath Jerusalem. SINCE THE ARK OF THE COVENANT TRULY EXIST, WHERE IS IT NOW? Ethiopian legends claim that the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba took it to Ethiopia, where it is supposedly hidden in a Church in Axum. The Chapel of the Tablet at the Church of our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum, Ethiopia “allegedly” houses the original Ark of the Covenant but was never shown in public.

Jewish traditions and the Talmud say that the Ark was “buried in its own place” by King Josiah between 640 and 609 BC, a mere decade before the Babylonian invasion. This supports the popular notion that the Ark took its leave before Nebuchadnezzar’s looters arrived, likely hidden by Levite priests below the Holy of Holies, deep within Mount Moriah labyrinth of secret caverns. Other groups believed one of the prophets, who, forewarned by God of the Babylonian invasion, buried the Ark in the mountains outside Jerusalem. 2nd Maccabees, a work excluded from the Hebrew Bible but included in the canon of the Greek and Latin Christian Churches, reports that the prophet Jeremiah stowed the Ark in a cave on Mt. Nebo, the same mountain Moses climbed to view the promised land before he died.

In the 1920s, American Antonio Futterer looked for the Ark on Mount Nebo, where the Book of Maccabees suggests Jeremiah buried the sacred relic just prior to the Babylonian invasion. His search proved unsuccessful. Sixty years later another American explorer, Tom Crotser borrowed the Futterer sketch to launch another search of Mount Nebo this time from inside the border of modern Jordan but still to no avail. At least one modern-day inquiry placed its bets on the caves of Mount of Olives but still with no findings.

Meanwhile, Hollywood is taking advantage of the puzzling and detective-like search for the Ark by coming up with blockbuster movies spearheaded by “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” produced by Steven Spielberg, starred by Harrison Ford as an Archeologist and adventurer hired by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant before Adolf Hitler’s Nazis can obtain it to use its awesome power against the allies. Other movies such as “The Exodus Decoded” by James Cameron followed.

Years of futile search in Israel shows no hard evidence to suggest that the Ark still resides in Jerusalem, under the Temple Mount, in a cave on Mount Calvary or anywhere else in Modern Israel. We have now to entertain an altogether bizarre and different scenario that the Ark had been either abducted or smuggled out of Jerusalem in the years before the First Temple burned and then taken to a foreign land possibly to North Africa, to a country whose national identity seemed intertwined with the Holy Ark – Ethiopia? Those who entertain that they can still find the Ark still follow what Virgil (70BC-19BC) said: “They can conquer who believe they can.”