Sunday, February 24, 2008


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Somebody call the Pentagon. It seems Africa may be harboring the world’s first, most highly sought, weapon of mass destruction. The Ark of the Covenant, commissioned by God, covered in purest gold, carried before the armies of the Lord, able to devour armies and halt the flow of rivers, has been found. Twice.

That most fabled of artifacts, rediscovered in public culture thanks to the movie theatrics of Steven Spielberg and Raiders of the Lost Ark, which has remained lost to humanity for at least 1,500 years, has resurfaced in Africa. The only problem is where, exactly. Is it in Aksum, Ethiopia, brought there by Menelik, the son of King Solomon and Queen Sheba? Is it in Zimbabwe, kept hidden by the Lemba tribe, true descendants of Moses himself? Or are both claims false, yet more examples of wishful thinking among scholars desperate to lay bare the divine, supernatural power of God?

The story of the Ark of the Covenant begins more than 3,000 years ago, when Moses ascended Mount Sinai and received explicit instruction from God on how to construct the Ark. It became a sacred container, holding the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments and other sacred objects, including the rod of Aaron, and a golden jar holding manna from the journey across the wilderness.

We know much about the Ark thanks to the explicit descriptions provided in ancient Jewish texts. The container was a cubit and a half broad and high, two and a half cubits long (approximately 2’5”H X 2’5”W X 4’3”D if we assume Egyptian royal cubits were used). The Ark was built from acacia wood, was covered in purest gold. Its upper surface or lid was a mercy seat and at each end stood cherubim, their faces turned toward one another.

In battle the Ark was carried by priests a kilometer or more before the army. Then it would be wrapped in a veil, possibly tachash skins and a blue cloth, concealed from the eyes of those carrying it. The Ark burned thorns and other obstructions in the road. Tradition speaks of sparks emanating from the Ark, killing serpents and scorpions in its path. To touch the Ark directly meant death. Indeed, it proved a cursed item for many that possessed it, including God’s chosen people.

Despite its power, the Ark could not guarantee success in battle. Joshua brought forth the Ark at Ai, but experienced defeat. Against Benjamin at Gibeah, Joshua again lost despite the Ark’s presence.

The Ark was taken by the Philistines after defeating the Hebrews during the time of Eli. The trophy was taken on tour through the Philistine lands, but misfortune followed it, whether at the Temple of Dagon, Ashdod, Goth, or Ekron. People were smitten with boils, took to their beds. Many died from symptoms which today would be identified as classic radiation poisoning.

So dreadful was the Ark’s affect upon the Philistines that they returned this most holy of objects to their enemy after only seven months. It was set in the field of Joshua the Beth-Shemite. Again, those that gazed upon the Ark or dwelt near its presence, were struck dead. Some sources say 70 died in this manner, yet other manuscripts suggest as many as 50,000 perished from close proximity to the Ark (recent excavations at Beth-Shemite has uncovered the remnants of a vast iron-ore smelting city, conducive with the theory that a vast city-state habited the region during the time of the Ark's presence).

These accounts provide the best clues as to the true nature of the Ark of the Covenant. Might this device represent the harnessing of hitherto unknown energies, a true WMD wielded in battle more than 3,000 years ago? Had God (or some entity deified as such) provided the blueprints and the technical know-how to its chosen culture, allowing the use of some drastically anachronistic weapon against its enemies? What else might the Ark be used for?

Texts suggest that the Ark was also used for God to converse directly with high priest. Was the Ark, then, also a communications device? And more, some accounts suggest that the Levites chosen to carry the Ark were, in fact, carried by the Ark, held aloft several inches off the ground by the powers emanating from it (the terms Levi, Levite, and Levitate may be synonymous).

That the artifact existed is accepted in general principal by scholars. Its rediscovery today therefore would represent both the culmination of religious espousal and the opportunity to crack open the heavenly mysteries which shroud early human history.

The search to locate the lost Ark has captured the imagination of scholars, treasure hunters and theologians alike. Each quest for it turns up yet another theory as to where it might be located. A Common site touted is beneath the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s most precious shrines, now sits atop the spot where Solomon’s first temple once stood.

Others claim the Ark lies buried beneath the tomb of Tutankhamen, in France, or beneath a London tube station. Perhaps strangest is the theory that places it within the New World, whence came the Ark in the name Arkansas -- strange, but true!

Yet the ties to Ethiopia are stronger than most. The Ark fell out of history sometime around 586 B.C., during the Babylonian sacking of the temple in Jerusalem. Many believe King Nebuchadnezzar had the relic destroyed, but given the object’s value and power (both physical and spiritual) it is more likely the Ark was removed to a safer and now lost location.

There are suggestions that the Ark was never captured by the Babylonians, but that instead it was removed from the Temple prior to the attack and escorted to safety by prince Menelik, son of Solomon and Sheba, and taken to Ethiopia. The story is described within the Kebra Negast, which chronicles Ethiopia’s royal line. The Negast can be traced to the 14th century A.D. only, but faithful claim its origins lie in a 4th century Coptic manuscript, itself based upon earlier writings.

The links between Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christian faith and Judaism are many and often unexplainable. The region also claims to have been the hiding place of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, during the reign of King Herod, who sought the death of every male child under the age of two.

As was documented in a recent Smithsonian article, the Ark is believed to be housed in a temple within the town of Aksum in northern Ethiopia, not far from the shores of the Red Sea. Proving the case for the Ark in Ethiopia remains impossible. Only the chosen guardian of the temple is allowed to view the sacred artifact. Daily he is said to kneel before the Ark and pray. Once a year, on the Feast of St. Mary, the chapel gates are opened to the public, but access to the Ark remains forbidden.

Yet now a new wrinkle has developed in the endless quest. Welsh academician Tudor Parfitt claims to have found the Ark, in Zimbabwe.

A professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Parfitt has authored a new book entitled The Lost Ark of the Covenant, Solving the 2,500 Year Mystery of the Fabled Biblical Ark. Parfitt made a name for himself in the 1980s when he proved a genetic connection between the Lemba tribe of Zimbabwe and the descendents of Jewish Temple priests. Now, Parfitt claims the Ark made a voyage from Jerusalem and into the hands of the Lemba, which call the object ngoma.

The professor claims the Lemba migrated from Jerusalem via a spice route, arriving in the city of Senna, located in modern day Yemen. From a nearby port, the Lemba could conceivably sail down the African coast with the Ark. Parfitt’s search led him across the continent and eventually to a dusty museum in Harare. There, “amidst nesting mice, was an old drum with an uncharacteristic burnt-black bottom hole, the remains of carrying rings on its corners; and a raised relief of crossed reeds.”

Yet Parfitt’s drum fails to meet the specifications described in the Old Testament for the Ark. Furthermore, carbon dating pinned the Lemba object to circa 1350 AD. Parfitt claims the current Ark was created from the ruins of the previous one, which had destroyed itself.

Such a claim requires us to make several leaps of faith, although the Lemba connection to the ancient tribes of Israel – much like the links between Jerusalem and Ethiopia – require further research.

In the end, we may never know the final fate of the Ark. The prophet Jeremiah foretells that the Ark will never again be seen by man, and Revelation says is abides in the Temple of God, in Heaven. Thus, then, the most ancient of WMD proves to be just as elusive as its modern Middle-Eastern counterparts.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


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When the French government announced a ban on the use of genetically modified (GM) crops last week, it reignited a heated clash between Europe and the United States, between environmentalists and technologists.

At stake is the future health of the planet. One path leads to poverty, famine, death. The other promises prosperity, abundance, life. But which is which, nobody knows.

Environmentalists tout studies which indicate GM crops may lead to serious health risks, force low-income farmers to abandon their fields, lead to rapid urbanization, massive corporate growth, and threaten the vital diversification of global crops required to feed a growing populace.

In Europe at least, these green fears are prevalent, leading several European Union (EU) nations to ban the production and cultivation of GM crops. France joins Germany, Austria, Greece, Hungary, and Poland in banning MON-810, a GM corn engineered by US-based Monsanto, and designed to kill a pest insect known as the corn borer.

MON-810 is the only GM crop authorized for production in the EU. Its troublesome adoption suggests that GM foods may never grow roots on the continent.

The story is far different in the U.S., where GM foods are abundant and there’s little opposition to their introduction. A lack of labeling renders consumers blind to choice, and the implementation of GM food meets with no resistance from a government eager to place these products on the dinner table whilst creating an America monopoly in the burgeoning biotechnology industry.

Unfortunately for Monsanto and the America agribusiness, engineered seeds are far easier to export than the homegrown apathy to so-called ‘Frankenfoods’. Polls have shown that seven in ten Europeans will not eat genetically modified organisms (GMOs), regardless of any EU ruling authorizing their use.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy echoed his countrymen’s sentiment when he declared a ban on MON-810. The High Authority on GMO, a watchdog authority, gave its study January 9, concluding the existence of “a certain number of new scientific facts relating to a negative impact on flora and fauna” from the modified corn. France banned trials of MON-810 after they discovered that rats exposed to the GM seeds suffered kidney and liver damage.

Monsanto disagrees, and now the U.S. is taking its complaint to the World Trade Organization, in hopes of reversing the French decision. With European markets dwindling, American avenues to profits are blockaded. To date, the GM market is valued at $6.9 billion, with Monsanto enjoying an astonishing 90% dominance of the global biotech acreage, which is thought to double by 2015.

So are GM crops safe or not?

The answer must be a tentative yes, for now. Environmental fears of conventional crop failure, herbicide tolerance, transgenic mutations in the wild, and the outbreak of new diseases have failed to occur. GM crops have resulted in significantly increased yields, which have hopeful consequences for the Third World and drought-riddled regions elsewhere.

But more studies need to be carried out before we may be certain. And should we discover a flaw in our technological food basket, what might that mean to the hundreds of millions of us that, often daily, consume these products? The recent discovery of hitherto unknown conditions such as Colony Collapse Disorder and White Nose Syndrome, within bees and bats respectively, and both key pollinators, suggests we don’t yet know enough about the environment and the consequences of introducing new organisms into the food chain.

The decision to introduce GMOs into the United States, without both further studies and the restraint of a skeptical public, is troubling. Europe is to be commended for its caution. There, the only countries eager to introduce GMOs are the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

Yet the decision by France may not be a truly altruistic one. Rumors speculate that the government made a secret deal with the greens, banning GMOs while paving the go-ahead for the introduction of nuclear power stations.

The debate over whether or not to introduce GMOs is under discussion in Brazil and India. Brazil’s National Biosecurity Council has authorized the use of two GM corns, including MON-810. But Via Compasina, a rural watchdog, claims the council overstepped its boundaries and went against the recommendation of both the health and environment ministries.

India’s Supreme Court has requested top scientists frame guidelines for granting approval of GM trails. The Genetically Engineered Approval Committee warns that all aspects of bio-safety must be examined before introducing GMOs into the country.

Monsanto faces an uphill battle outside the U.S. On the continent, it is viewed as an icon of soulless American greed. Stories abound of farmers losing their land rights, of generational farmers forced to move to the city, unable to pay the heavy toll for the new, improved seeds (which must be purchased yearly; harvesting seeds from planted GM crops is illegal). Every news story about herbicide resistance and GM contamination of conventional fields spawns immediate backlash against the biotech giant.

Ironically, Monsanto may yet prove to be the hero. As food prices continue to soar, as populations grow, as dramatic weather changes bring drought to once fertile regions, the need for dramatically increased yields beckon technological innovation.

Europe has the luxury to say no to Monsanto and its promises of an abundant future. Africa cannot be so proud. There, GMOs may solve a problem borne of harsh climates and harsher governmental regimes, where starvation and ethnic friction have devastated entire generations.

Ethics are the reserve of the prosperous. Europe is right to demand stricter GMO policies. The Americans should cease their bully tactics, understanding that further studies may serve to strengthen their position and pave the way for a global embrace of its golden, super food.

More food can only be beneficial. Let’s hope Europe will shine an ethical light on the distribution of crops, GM or not, ensuring they reach those that truly need it: the poor. Politics and profits be damned; our modern age ought have no room for famine.