Is the Ark of the Covenant Really in Ethiopia?


Graham Hancock is convinced that the ark of the covenant today rests in a chapel at the Ethiopian city of Axum. He believes it was taken from Jerusalem to Elephantine by priests about 650 B.C., in the evil days of King Manasseh, that it stayed there in a temple till about 400 B.C., when it was transported to Ethiopia, and that it has remained there since, firstly in a Jewish sanctuary at Tana Kirkos, then held by the Ethiopian Church at Axum.

Hancock presents further evidence for the ark being in Ethiopia by delving into the past. He presents evidence for some of the Crusaders having accompanied an exiled Ethiopian prince back to Ethiopia in 1185 and seeking out the ark of the covenant. He considers that stories of the ark in Ethiopia are the origin of the holy grail stories of the Arthurian legends. He presents evidence that the eighteenth-century explorer, James Bruce, who discovered the sources of the Nile, was motivated by a concealed desire to look for the ark. All this adds to the case that there is something in Ethiopia.

The belief that the ark is held in Ethiopia is clearly widespread there. Evidence for this is in the importance of the Timkat festival, referred to above, in which a tabot, or replica of the ark, is paraded before the people. These tabots are regarded as too holy to be readily seen, but Graham Hancock managed to see some in the British Museum's stores of material not on public display. To his disappointment they were not in the shape of an oblong chest, like the ark of the covenant; they were simply wooden slabs with writing on them. At first this caused him to doubt the whole story, but later he took the view that they were replicas of the tablets of the Law which were put in the ark. He remarked that only the tabot paraded before the people at Axum was in the shape of a chest, an indication that it is here that the ark is kept. But is it really the ark of the covenant?

There is no doubt that an object like the ark has been venerated in Ethiopia for many centuries. There is a good case for saying that this object was transported to Ethiopia by the Jews from Elephantine. The weak point in the whole case is the argument that the Jews at Elephantine built a temple to house the actual ark of the covenant.

What is much more likely to have been the case is that priests from Judah settled at Elephantine and made their own ark as the centre of a new temple and system of worship based on what they left behind in Jerusalem. This would have been similar to what was done by Jeroboam in the northern kingdom several centuries before. When he made golden calves and set them at Dan and Bethel he was, we believe, not setting up representations of pagan gods, but a representation of the God of Israel in the form of the ox-face of the cherubim, which was the face traditionally associated with Ephraim, his own tribe. If the priests of Elephantine had the true ark of the covenant with them in their temple, then when the Jews returned to the land from Babylon and rebuilt the temple why did they not return with the ark, especially when the time of persecution came which ended their stay at Elephantine? If what they in fact had done was to set up their own replica of the true ark they would have known that this would not have been acceptable.

So we conclude that the ark of the covenant is not to be found today in Ethiopia. But does it exist somewhere else?

Next section: The Ark on Mount Nebo?