OneWorld Magazine - Ethiopia, The Lost Ark of the Covenant


by Graham Hancock

sign and the seal

A great mystery of the Bible

In early Old Testament times the Ark of the Covenant was worshipped by the Israelites as the embodiment of God Himself, as the sign and the seal of His presence on earth, as the stronghold of His power, and as the instrument of His ineffable will.(l) Built to contain the tablets of stone upon which the Ten Commandments had been written, it was a wooden chest measuring three feet nine inches long by two feet three inches high and wide.(2) It was lined inside and out with pure gold and was surmounted by two winged figures of cherubim that faced each other across its heavy golden lid.(3)

Biblical and other archaic sources speak of the Ark blazing with fire and light, inflicting cancerous tumours and severe burns, levelling mountains, stopping rivers, blasting whole armies and laying waste cities. The same sources also leave no doubt that it was, for a very long time, the cornerstone of the evolving Jewish faith: indeed when King Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem his sole motive was to create 'an house of rest for the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord'.(4) At some unknown date between the tenth and the sixth century BC, however, this uniquely precious and puissant object vanished from its place in the Holy of Holies of that Temple, vanished without song or lamentation in the Scriptures - almost as though it had never existed at all. The evidence suggests that it was already long gone when the armies of Nebuchadnezzar burned Jerusalem in 587 BC. Certainly it was not in the Second Temple which was built over the ruins of the First after the Jews had returned from their exile in Babylon in 538 BC. Neither does it seem to have been taken as booty by the Babylonians.

Writing in 1987, Richard Elliott Friedman, Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Religion at the University of California, expressed a view shared by many scholars when he described the disappearance of the sacred relic as 'one of the great mysteries of the Bible':

sign and the seal There is no report that the Ark was carried away or destroyed or hidden. There is not even any comment such as 'And then the Ark disappeared and we do not know what happened to it' or 'And no one knows where it is to this day'. The most important object in the world, in the biblical view, simply ceases to be in the story.'(5)

Indeed so. A close reading of the Old Testament reveals more than two hundred separate references to the Ark of the Covenant up until the time of Solomon (970-931 BC); after the reign of that wise and splendid king it is almost never mentioned again.(6) And this, surely, is the central problem, the real historical enigma: not, human nature being what it is, that an immensely valuable golden chest should go missing, but - given its supreme religious significance - that it should go missing amidst such a deafening, improbable silence. Like a black hole in space, or a negative photographic image, it is identifiable in the later books of the Old Testament only by what it is not - it is, in short, conspicuous only by its absence.

From this it seems reasonable to suggest that some sort of cover-up may have taken place - a cover-up devised by priests and scribes to ensure that the whereabouts of the sacred relic would remain forever a secret. If so then it is a secret that many have tried to penetrate - a secret that has inspired several treasure-hunting expeditions (all of which have failed) and also one enormously successful Hollywood fantasy, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was first released in the USA and Europe in 1981 with Harrison Ford in the starring role as Indiana Jones.

I was living in Kenya at the time and had no opportunity to see the film until it finally arrived in Nairobi's cinemas early in 1983. I enjoyed the combination of action, adventure and archaeology and I remember thinking what a sensation it would be if someone were really to find the Ark. Then, only a few months later, I made an extended visit to Ethiopia during which I travelled to the north-west of the war-torn province of Tigray. It was there, in Axum - the so-called 'sacred city of the Ethiopians' (7) - that I had my encounter with the guardian monk reported earlier in this chapter.

Return to Ethiopia Index
Initiation: 1986 | A great mystery of the Bible | 1983: a country at war
Into Axum | Palaces, catacombs and obelisks | The sanctuary chapel


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