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.