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Keepers Of The Lost Ark

They shall make an ark of acacia wood,” God commanded Moses within the Ebook of Exodus, after delivering the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And so the Israelites built an ark, or chest, gilding it in and out. And into this chest Moses placed stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, as given to him on Mount Sinai.

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Thus the ark “was worshipped by the Israelites because the embodiment of God Himself,” writes Graham Hancock within the Signal and the Seal. “Biblical and different archaic sources communicate of the Ark blazing with hearth and mild…stopping rivers, blasting entire armies.” (Steven Spielberg’s 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark gives a particular-results approximation.) In line with the first Book of Kings, King Solomon constructed the primary Temple in Jerusalem to house the ark. It was venerated there throughout Solomon’s reign (c. 970-930 B.C.) and beyond.

Then it vanished. Much of Jewish tradition holds that it disappeared before or whereas the Babylonians sacked the temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.

However via the centuries, Ethiopian Christians have claimed that the ark rests in a chapel in the small town of Aksum, in their nation’s northern highlands. It arrived almost three,000 years ago, they say, and has been guarded by a succession of virgin monks who, as soon as anointed, are forbidden to set foot outside the chapel grounds until they die.

One in every of the first things that caught my eye in Addis Ababa, the country’s capital, was an infinite concrete pillar topped by a large crimson star—the kind of monument to communism still visible in Pyongyang. The North Koreans constructed this one as a present for the Derg, the Marxist regime that dominated Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991 (the nation is now governed by an elected parliament and prime minister). In a campaign that Derg officials named the Purple Terror, they slaughtered their political enemies—estimates vary from several thousand to more than 1,000,000 folks. Probably the most distinguished of their victims was Emperor Haile Selassie, whose death, underneath circumstances that remain contested, was announced in 1975.

He was the last emperor of Ethiopia—and, he claimed, the 225th monarch, descended from Menelik, the ruler believed chargeable for Ethiopia’s possession of the ark of the covenant in the tenth century B.C.

The story is told within the Kebra Negast (Glory of the Kings), Ethiopia’s chronicle of its royal line: the Queen of Sheba, considered one of its first rulers, traveled to Jerusalem to partake of King Solomon’s wisdom; on her means house, she bore Solomon’s son, Menelik. Later Menelik went to visit his father, and on his return journey was accompanied by the firstborn sons of some Israelite nobles—who, unbeknown to Menelik, stole the ark and carried it with them to Ethiopia. When Menelik discovered of the theft, he reasoned that because the ark’s frightful powers hadn’t destroyed his retinue, it must be God’s will that it remain with him.

Many historians—including Richard Pankhurst, a British-born scholar who has lived in Ethiopia for nearly 50 years—date the Kebra Negast manuscript to the 14th century A.D. It was written, they are saying, to validate the declare by Menelik’s descendants that their right to rule was God-given, based mostly on an unbroken succession from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. But the Ethiopian faithful say the chronicles were copied from a fourth-century Coptic manuscript that was, in turn, based mostly on a far earlier account. This lineage remained so important to them that it was written into Selassie’s two imperial constitutions, stone island very in 1931 and 1955.

Before leaving Addis Ababa for Aksum, I went to the offices of His Holiness Abuna Paulos, patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has some 40 million adherents worldwide, to ask about Ethiopia’s claim to have the ark of the covenant. Paulos holds a PhD in theology from Princeton College, and before he was put in as patriarch, in 1992, he was a parish priest in Manhattan. Gripping a golden workers, wearing a golden icon depicting the Madonna cradling an infant Jesus, and seated on what looked like a golden throne, he oozed power and patronage.

“We’ve had 1,000 years of Judaism, followed by 2,000 years of Christianity, and that is why our religion is rooted in the Previous Testament,” he told me. “We comply with the same dietary legal guidelines as Judaism, as set out in Leviticus,” meaning that his followers keep kosher, although they’re Christians. “Parents circumcise their child boys as a religious duty, we often give Previous Testament names to our boys and lots of villagers in the countryside still hold Saturday sacred as the Sabbath.”

Is that this tradition linked to the church’s declare to hold the ark, which Ethiopians call Tabota Seyen, or the Ark of Zion “It is no declare, it is the reality,” Paulos answered. “Queen Sheba visited King Solomon in Jerusalem three thousand years in the past, and the son she bore him, Menelik, at age 20 visited Jerusalem, from where he introduced the ark of the covenant again to Aksum. It’s been in Ethiopia ever since.”

I requested if the ark in Ethiopia resembles the one described in the Bible: nearly 4 feet long, simply over two toes high and broad, surmounted by two winged cherubs going through one another across its heavy lid, forming the “mercy seat,” or footstool for the throne of God. Paulos shrugged. “Are you able to believe that regardless that I am head of the Ethiopian church, I’m nonetheless forbidden from seeing it ” he said. “The guardian of the ark is the one particular person on earth who has that peerless honor.”

He also mentioned that the ark had not been held repeatedly at Aksum since Menelik’s time, including that some monks hid it for four hundred years to maintain it out of invaders’ fingers. Their monastery nonetheless stood, he said, on an island in Lake Tana. It was about 200 miles northwest, on the approach to Aksum.

Ethiopia is landlocked, but Lake Tana is an inland sea: it covers 1,400 square miles and is the supply of the Blue Nile, which weaves its muddy way three,245 miles via Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt to the Mediterranean. On the outlet where the water begins its journey, fishermen drop strains from primitive papyrus boats like these the Egyptians used in the pharaohs’ days. I glimpsed them through an eerie dawn mist as I boarded a powerboat headed for Tana Kirkos, the island of the ark.

Slowly the boatman threaded his way by way of a maze of tree-coated islands so dense that he began to marvel aloud whether we have been lost. When, after two hours, we out of the blue confronted a rock wall about 30 yards high and greater than one hundred yards long, he cried, “Tana Kirkos” with obvious relief.

A fish eagle circled and squawked as a barefoot monk clad in a patched yellow gown scurried down a pathway cut into the rock and peered into our boat. “He’s making sure there aren’t any ladies aboard,” my translator said.

The monk launched himself as Abba, or Father, Haile Mikael. “There are 125 monks on the island, and plenty of are novices,” he mentioned. “Ladies have been banned for centuries because the sight of them may hearth the young monks’ passions.”

One other monk, Abba Gebre Maryam, joined us. He, too, wore a patched yellow robe, plus a white pillbox turban. A rough-hewn picket cross hung from his neck, and he carried a silver employees topped by a cross. In response to my questioning, he elaborated on what Abuna Paulos had instructed me:

“The ark came right here from Aksum for safekeeping from enemies nicely earlier than Jesus was born because our individuals followed the Jewish religion then,” he stated. “But when King Ezana ruled in Aksum 1,600 years ago, he took the ark again to Aksum.” Ezana’s kingdom prolonged throughout the Crimson Sea into the Arabian peninsula; he converted to Christianity around A.D. 330 and became hugely influential in spreading the religion.

Then Abba Gebre added: “The baby Jesus and Mary spent ten days here during their long exile from Israel.” It was after King Herod ordered the demise of all boys below the age of two in Bethlehem, he stated. “Would you wish to see the place the place they often sat “

I followed him up a wooded path and onto a ridge the place a pair of younger monks have been standing by a small shrine, their eyes closed in prayer. Abba Gebre pointed to the shrine. “That is where Jesus and Mary sat every day whereas they were right here.”

“What proof do you’ve got that they came here ” I requested.
He checked out me with what appeared to be tender sympathy and said: “We do not need proof because it’s a reality. The monks right here have handed this down for centuries.”

Later, Andrew Wearring, a religious scholar on the University of Sydney, told me that “the journey by Jesus, Mary and Joseph is mentioned in only some traces within the E-book of Matthew—and he provides scant element, although he does state they fled into Egypt.” Like its former guardian establishment the Orthodox Coptic Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox religion holds that the household spent 4 years in western Egypt, Wearring mentioned, in the Nile Valley and the Nile Delta, before returning dwelling. But western Egypt is over 1,000 miles northwest of Lake Tana. Might Jesus, Mary and Joseph have traveled to Tana Kirkos There is no method to know.

On the way in which back to the boat, we handed small log huts with conical thatched roofs—the monks’ cells. Abba Gebre entered one and pulled from the shadows an historical bronze tray set on a stand. He mentioned Menelik introduced it from Jerusalem to Aksum together with the ark.

“The Jerusalem temple priests used this tray to collect and stir the sacrificial animals’ blood,” Abba Gebre went on. Once i checked later with Pankhurst, the historian mentioned the tray, which he had seen on an earlier go to, was most likely related to Judaic rituals in Ethiopia’s pre-Christian era. Lake Tana, he stated, was a stronghold of Judaism.

Lastly, Abba Gebre led me to an outdated church built from wood and rock in the standard Ethiopian model, circular with a slender walkway hugging the outer wall. Inside was the mak’das, or holy of holies—an internal sanctum shielded by brocade curtains and open solely to senior priests. “That is the place we keep our tabots,” he mentioned.

The tabots (pronounced “TA-bots”) are replicas of the tablets within the ark, and every church in Ethiopia has a set, kept in its personal holy of holies. “It’s the tabots that consecrate a church, and with out them it is as holy as a donkey’s stable,” Abba Gebre mentioned. Each January 19, on Timkat, or the Feast of the Epiphany, the tabots from churches throughout Ethiopia are paraded through the streets.

“Essentially the most sacred ceremony happens at Gonder,” he went on, naming a metropolis within the highlands just north of Lake Tana. “To grasp our deep reverence for the ark, it’s best to go there.”

Gonder (pop. 160,000) spreads across a series of hills and valleys greater than 7,000 toes above sea level. On the advice of a pleasant cleric, I sought out Archbishop Andreas, the native leader of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. As Andreas ushered me into a easy room in his office, I saw that he had the spindly body and sunken cheeks of an ascetic. Regardless of his high place, he was dressed like a monk, in a worn yellow robe, and he held a easy cross carved from wooden.

I requested if he knew of any evidence that the ark had come to Ethiopia with Menelik. “These stories have been handed down via the generations by our church leaders, and we consider them to be historic information,” he told me in a whisper. “That’s why we keep tabots in each church in Ethiopia.”

At noon the following day, Andreas, in a black gown and black turban, emerged from a church on a slope above Gonder and into a crowd of several hundred individuals. A dozen priests, deacons and acolytes—clad in brocade robes in maroon, ivory, gold and blue—joined him to kind a protecting huddle around a bearded priest carrying a scarlet gown and a golden turban. On his head the priest carried the tabots, wrapped in ebony velvet embroidered in gold. Catching sight of the sacred bundle, hundreds of ladies in the gang began ululating—making a singsong wail with their tongues—as many Ethiopian women do at moments of intense emotion.

Because the clerics started to stroll down a rocky pathway towards a piazza at the center of town (a legacy of Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia within the nineteen thirties), they had been hemmed in by maybe 1,000 more chanting and ululating devotees. At the piazza, the procession joined clerics carrying tabots from seven different churches. Together they set off farther downhill, with the trailing throng swelling into the hundreds, with thousands more lining the road. About 5 miles later, the priests stopped beside a pool of murky water in a park.

All afternoon and through the night, the priests chanted hymns before the tabots, surrounded by worshipers. Then, prompted by glimmers of light sneaking into the morning sky, Archbishop Andreas led the clerics to celebrate the baptism of Jesus by playfully splashing one another with the pool’s water.

The Timkat celebrations were to proceed for 3 extra days with prayers and masses, after which the tabots could be returned to the churches the place they were stored. I used to be extra keen than ever to find the original ark, so I headed for Aksum, about 200 miles northeast.

Simply outdoors Gonder, my car handed Wolleka village, where a mud-hut synagogue bore a Star of David on the roof—a relic of Jewish life in the area that endured for as long as 4 millennia, until the 1990s. That was when the last of the Wager Israel Jews (additionally recognized as the Falasha, the Amharic word for “stranger”) have been evacuated to Israel within the face of persecution by the Derg.

The road degenerated into a rutted, rocky pathway that twisted across the hillsides, and our SUV struggled to exceed ten miles per hour. I reached Aksum in darkness and shared the resort dining room with United Nations peacekeepers from Uruguay and Jordan who told me they had been monitoring a stretch of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border about an hour’s drive away. The most recent U.N. bulletin, they said, described the area as “volatile and tense.”

The subsequent day was sizzling and dusty. Aside from the occasional camel and its driver, Aksum’s streets had been nearly empty. We weren’t removed from the Denakil Desert, which extends eastward into Eritrea and Djibouti.

By probability, in the lobby of my resort I met Alem Abbay, an Aksum native who was on trip from Frostburg State College in Maryland, the place he teaches African historical past. Abbay took me to a stone tablet about eight toes excessive and lined in inscriptions in three languages—Greek; Geez, the historical language of Ethiopia; and Sabaean, from across the Red Sea in southern Yemen, the true birthplace, some students consider, of the Queen of Sheba.

“King Ezana erected this stone tablet early within the fourth century, whereas still a pagan ruler,” Abbay informed me. His finger traced the unusual-looking alphabets carved into the rock sixteen centuries in the past. “Here, the king praises the god of struggle after a victory over a rebel individuals.” But someday in the next decade Ezana was converted to Christianity.

Abbay led me to another stone tablet covered with inscriptions in the identical three languages. “By now King Ezana is thanking ‘the Lord of Heaven’ for fulfillment in a military expedition into close by Sudan,” he mentioned. “We know he meant Jesus as a result of archaeological digs have turned up coins during Ezana’s reign that function the Cross of Christ around this time.” Before that, they bore the pagan symbols of the sun and moon.

As we walked on, we handed a large reservoir, its surface lined with green scum. “In line with tradition, it is Queen Sheba’s bath,” Abbay mentioned. “Some imagine there’s an ancient curse on its waters.”

Forward was a towering stele, or column, 79 ft excessive and said to weigh 500 tons. Like different fallen and standing steles nearby, it was carved from a single slab of granite, maybe as early as the first or second century A.D. Legend has it that the ark of the covenant’s supreme energy sliced it out of the rock and set it into place.

On our strategy to the chapel the place the ark is alleged to be kept, we passed Sheba’s bath again and noticed about 50 people in white shawls crouched near the water. A boy had drowned there shortly before, and his parents and other kinfolk were waiting for the body to surface. “They say it should take one to 2 days,” Abbay stated. “They know this because many different boys have drowned right here whereas swimming. They believe the curse has struck again.”

Abbay and that i made our approach towards the office of the Neburq-ed, Aksum’s high priest, who works out of a tin shed at a seminary close by the ark chapel. Because the church administrator in Aksum, he could be able to inform us more concerning the guardian of the ark.

“We have had the guardian tradition from the start,” the high priest instructed us. “He prays always by the ark, day and night, burning incense before it and paying tribute to God. Solely he can see it; all others are forbidden to lay eyes on it and even go near it.” Over the centuries, a few Western travelers have claimed to have seen it; their descriptions are of tablets like those described in the Guide of Exodus. However the Ethiopians say that’s inconceivable—the visitors should have been proven fakes.

I asked how the guardian is chosen. “By Aksum’s senior priests and the current guardian,” he mentioned. I informed him I’d heard that within the mid-20th century a chosen guardian had run away, terrified, and needed to be hauled again to Aksum. The Neburq-ed smiled, but did not answer. As an alternative, he pointed to a grassy slope studded with broken stone blocks—the remains of Zion Maryam cathedral, Ethiopia’s oldest church, based within the fourth century A.D. “It held the ark, but Arab invaders destroyed it,” he stated, adding that priests had hidden the ark from the invaders.

Now that I had come this far, I requested if we may meet the guardian of the ark. The Neburq-ed said no: “He’s often not accessible to abnormal folks, just religious leaders.”

The next day I tried again, led by a pleasant priest to the gate of the ark chapel, which is about the scale of a typical suburban house and surrounded by a excessive iron fence. “Wait right here,” he said, and he climbed the steps leading to the chapel entrance, the place he referred to as out softly to the guardian.

A few minutes later he scurried back, smiling. A number of toes from the place I stood, via the iron bars, a monk who seemed to be in his late 50s peered across the chapel wall.

“It’s the guardian,” the priest whispered.
He wore an olive-coloured robe, dark pillbox turban and sandals. He glanced warily at me with deep-set eyes. By way of the bars he held out a wooden cross painted yellow, touching my forehead with it in a blessing and pausing as I kissed the highest and backside in the traditional means.

I asked his title.
“I’m the guardian of the ark,” he mentioned, with the priest translating. “I don’t have any other identify.”

I informed him I had come from the opposite facet of the world to speak with him in regards to the ark. “I can’t inform you something about it,” he stated. “No king or patriarch or bishop or ruler can ever see it, solely me. This has been our tradition since Menelik brought the ark here more than three,000 years ago.”

We peered at each other for a couple of moments. I requested a couple of extra questions, but to every he remained as silent as an apparition. Then he was gone.

“You are fortunate, as a result of he refuses most requests to see him,” the priest stated. But I felt solely a bit lucky. There was so way more I wished to know: Does the ark look the best way it’s described in the Bible Has the guardian ever seen a sign of its energy Is he content material to commit his life to the ark, never in a position to go away Stone Island Jumpers Jackets the compound

On my last evening in Aksum, I walked down the chapel street, now deserted, and sat for a long time staring on the chapel, which shone like silver within the moonlight.

Was the guardian chanting ancient incantations whereas bathing the chapel within the sanctifying reek of incense Was he on his knees before the ark Was he as alone as I felt Was the ark actually there

In fact I had no method of answering any of these questions. Had I tried to slide inside in the darkness to sneak a look, I am positive the guardian would have raised the alarm. And I was additionally held back by the fear that the ark would hurt me if I dared defile it with my presence.

In the final moments of my search, I could not decide whether or not the ark of the covenant truly rested inside this nondescript chapel. Perhaps Menelik’s touring companions did take it and spirit it house to Ethiopia. Perhaps its origins right here stem from a tale spun by Aksumite priests in historic times to awe their congregations and consolidate their authority. However the fact of the ark, like a vision in the moonlight, floated simply beyond my grasp, and so the millennia-outdated mystery remained. As the devotion of the worshipers at Timkat and the monks at Tana Kirkos came back to me in the shimmering mild, I decided that simply being within the presence of this eternal mystery was a fitting ending to my quest.

Paul Raffaele is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian. His story on Congo’s imperiled mountain gorillas appeared in October.