A huddle grows roughly the high priests, v one young monk bearing one ikon, or divine picture, while others hold ornate gold and silver crosses. Paul Raffaele
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A sermon is offered on the mountain by Abuna Andreas in ~ Lalibella during Christmas rituals. Paul Raffaele
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Abba Haile Mikael surrounding the bronze food the monks at Tana Kirkos case was stolen by Menelek from the holy place at Jerusalem, in addition to the ark of the covenant. Paul Raffaele
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This is a common mural seen almost everywhere Ethiopia (left, in ~ Axum) that King Solomon meeting Queen Sheba in Jerusalem. Paul Raffaele

Abba Haile Mikael stands alongside pre-Christian-era stone pillars, believed to be connected with ancient Jewish-style blood sacrifices, inside protective believe shed. Paul Raffaele

"They shall do an ark of acacia wood," God commanded Moses in the book of Exodus, after transferring the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And also so the Israelites built an ark, or chest, gilding the inside and out. And also into this chest Moses placed rock tablets inscribed v the Ten Commandments, as given to that on mountain Sinai.

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Thus the ark “was venerated by the Israelites together the embodiment the God Himself,” to write Graham Hancock in The Sign and also the Seal. "Biblical and also other archaic sources speak of the Ark blazing through fire and also light...stopping rivers, blasting totality armies." (Steven Spielberg"s 1981 film Raiders of the shed Ark gives a special-effects approximation.) according to the first Book the Kings, King Solomon developed the an initial Temple in Jerusalem to home the ark. It was venerated there throughout Solomon"s reign (c. 970-930 B.C.) and also beyond.

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

But with the centuries, Ethiopian believer have claimed that the ark rests in a chapel in the small town of Aksum, in their country"s north highlands. It arrived nearly 3,000 year ago, lock say, and also has to be guarded by a sequence of virgin monks who, as soon as anointed, are forbidden to set foot external the chapel grounds till they die.

One the the an initial things that recorded my eye in Addis Ababa, the country"s capital, to be an massive concrete pillar topped by a gigantic red star—the sort of monument to communist still visible in Pyongyang. The phibìc Koreans constructed this one as a gift for the Derg, the Marxist regimen that rule Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991 (the nation is currently governed by an elected parliament and prime minister). In a campaign that Derg officials called the Red Terror, castle slaughtered their political enemies—estimates range from number of thousand to much more than a million people. The most influential of their victims to be Emperor Haile Selassie, who death, under scenarios that stay contested, to be announced in 1975.

He was the critical emperor of Ethiopia—and, that claimed, the 225th monarch, lower from Menelik, the ruler thought responsible for Ethiopia"s possession of the ark of the agreement in the tenth century B.C.

The story is called in the Kebra Negast (Glory of the Kings), Ethiopia"s chronicle that its royal line: the Queen the Sheba, among its very first rulers, travel to Jerusalem come partake the King Solomon"s wisdom; top top her method home, she bore Solomon"s son, Menelik. Later Menelik checked out visit his father, and also on his return journey was add by the firstborn young of part Israelite nobles—who, unbeknown to Menelik, stole the ark and also carried it with them to Ethiopia. As soon as Menelik learned that the theft, the reasoned that because the ark"s frightful strength hadn"t destroyed his retinue, it need to be God"s will certainly that it continue to be with him.

Many historians—including Richard Pankhurst, a British-born scholar who has lived in Ethiopia for virtually 50 years—date the Kebra Negast manuscript to the 14th century A.D. It was written, castle say, come validate the claim by Menelik"s descendants that their appropriate to dominion was God-given, based upon an unbroken succession from Solomon and also the Queen that Sheba. But the Ethiopian faithful speak the chronicles were replicated from a fourth-century Coptic manuscript the was, in turn, based on a far earlier account. This lineage remained so vital to them the it was written right into Selassie"s two imperial constitutions, in 1931 and 1955.

Before leaving Addis Ababa for Aksum, I saw the offices of His Holiness Abuna Paulos, patriarch that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has actually some 40 million adherents worldwide, come ask about Ethiopia"s case to have actually the ark that the covenant. Paulos hold a doctor in theology indigenous Princeton University, and also before that was installed as patriarch, in 1992, he to be a parish monk in Manhattan. Gripping a golden staff, wearing a golden icon illustrating the Madonna cradling an child Jesus, and also seated top top what looked like a golden throne, the oozed power and also patronage.

"We"ve had 1,000 years of Judaism, adhered to by 2,000 year of Christianity, and that"s why our religion is rooted in the Old Testament," that told me. "We monitor the exact same dietary legislations as Judaism, as collection out in Leviticus," definition that his followers store kosher, also though they space Christians. "Parents circumcise their infant boys as a spiritual duty, we often give Old testimony names to our boys and also many villagers in the landscape still organize Saturday sacred as the Sabbath."

Is this tradition linked to the church"s insurance claim to hold the ark, i beg your pardon Ethiopians call Tabota Seyen, or the Ark the Zion? "It"s no claim, it"s the truth," Paulos answered. "Queen Sheba checked out King Solomon in Jerusalem 3 thousand years ago, and the child she bore him, Menelik, at period 20 saw Jerusalem, from whereby he brought the ark of the covenant ago to Aksum. It"s been in Ethiopia ever since."

I inquiry if the ark in Ethiopia resembles the one described in the Bible: virtually four feet long, simply over two feet high and wide, surmounted by two winged cherubs facing each other across its heavy lid, developing the "mercy seat," or footstool for the throne of God. Paulos shrugged. "Can you think that even though I"m head of the Ethiopian church, I"m quiet forbidden from seeing it?" that said. "The guardian of the ark is the only person on planet who has actually that peerless honor."

He also mentioned the the ark had actually not been organized continuously in ~ Aksum since Menelik"s time, adding that part monks hid it because that 400 years to save it the end of invaders" hands. Their monastery still stood, that said, on an island in Lake Tana. The was around 200 miles northwest, on the means to Aksum.

Ethiopia is landlocked, however Lake Tana is an inland sea: that covers 1,400 square miles and also is the source of the Blue Nile, i beg your pardon weaves that is muddy method 3,245 miles v Ethiopia, Sudan and also Egypt come the Mediterranean. In ~ the outlet where the water starts its journey, fishermen drop lines indigenous primitive papyrus watercrafts like those the Egyptians provided in the pharaohs" days. I glimpsed them with an eerie dawn mist together I boarded a powerboat headed for Tana Kirkos, the island that the ark.

Slowly the boatman threaded his means through a maze that tree-covered islands so thick that he started to wonder big whether we were lost. When, after 2 hours, us suddenly confronted a rock wall about 30 yards high and much more than 100 yards long, that cried, "Tana Kirkos" with noticeable relief.

A fish eagle circled and also squawked together a barefoot monk clad in a spot yellow robe scurried under a pathway cut into the rock and peered into our boat. "He"s making certain there room no ladies aboard," my translator said.

The monk introduced himself as Abba, or Father, Haile Mikael. "There room 125 monks ~ above the island, and also many are novices," that said. "Women have been banned for centuries since the sight of them might fire the young monks" passions."

Another monk, Abba Gebre Maryam, join us. He, too, wore a spot yellow robe, to add a white pillbox turban. A rough-hewn wood cross hung native his neck, and also he lugged a silver staff topped by a cross. In response to my questioning, the elaborated top top what Abuna Paulos had told me:

"The ark came below from Aksum because that safekeeping from adversaries well prior to Jesus to be born since our civilization followed the Jewish religious beliefs then," that said. "But as soon as King Ezana rule in Aksum 1,600 years ago, he took the ark back to Aksum." Ezana"s kingdom extended across the Red Sea into the Arabian peninsula; he converted to Christianity approximately A.D. 330 and became hugely prominent in dispersing the faith.

Then Abba Gebre added: "The infant Jesus and Mary invested ten job here during their long exile indigenous Israel." It was after King Herod ordered the death of all boys under the age of 2 in Bethlehem, the said. "Would you choose to watch the ar where they frequently sat?"

I followed him increase a wooded path and onto a ridge wherein a pair that young monks were standing by a tiny shrine, your eyes close up door in prayer. Abba Gebre pointed come the shrine. "That"s wherein Jesus and also Mary sat each work while they were here."

"What proof perform you have that they come here?" ns asked.

He looked at me through what appeared to be soft sympathy and said: "We don"t require proof because it"s a fact. The monks here have passed this down for centuries."

Later, Andrew Wearring, a religious scholar in ~ the university of Sydney, told me the "the journey by Jesus, Mary and also Joseph is discussed in only a few lines in the publication of Matthew—and he gives scant detail, despite he go state they fled into Egypt." like its previous parent school the Orthodox Coptic Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox faith holds that the household spent four years in west Egypt, Wearring said, in the Nile Valley and also the Nile Delta, before returning home. But western Egypt is over 1,000 mile northwest that Lake Tana. Can Jesus, Mary and Joseph have traveled come Tana Kirkos? There"s no method to know.

On the method back come the boat, we passed little log huts with conical thatched roofs—the monks" cells. Abba Gebre gotten in one and also pulled native the shadows an ancient bronze tray collection on a stand. He said Menelik brought it native Jerusalem come Aksum in addition to the ark.

"The Jerusalem temple priests supplied this tray come collect and also stir the sacrificial animals" blood," Abba Gebre go on. Once I checked later with Pankhurst, the historian said the tray, i beg your pardon he had seen top top an previously visit, to be probably connected with Judaic rituals in Ethiopia"s pre-Christian era. Lake Tana, he said, to be a stronghold of Judaism.

Finally, Abba Gebre led me to an old church constructed from wood and rock in the traditional Ethiopian style, circular with a small walkway hugging the outer wall. Within was the mak"das, or divine of holies—an within sanctum shielded by brocade curtains and also open only to an elderly priests. "That"s wherein we save our tabots," the said.

The tabots (pronounced "TA-bots") are replicas the the tablets in the ark, and also every church in Ethiopia has a set, kept in that own holy of holies. "It"s the tabots that consecrate a church, and also without them it"s as divine as a donkey"s stable," Abba Gebre said. Every January 19, top top Timkat, or the Feast of the Epiphany, the tabots native churches anywhere Ethiopia are paraded with the streets.

"The most sacred ceremony wake up at Gonder," that went on, naming a city in the highlands simply north the Lake Tana. "To recognize our deep reverence because that the ark, you need to go there."

Gonder (pop. 160,000) spreads across a series of hills and also valleys more than 7,000 feet above sea level. ~ above the advice that a friendly cleric, i sought out Archbishop Andreas, the regional leader the the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. As Andreas ushered me into a simple room in his office, I observed that he had the spindly frame and also sunken cheeks of one ascetic. Despite his high position, he was dressed like a monk, in a worn yellow robe, and he held a basic cross sculpted from wood.

I request if that knew of any evidence the the ark had involved Ethiopia through Menelik. "These stories were handed down v the generations by our church leaders, and we think them come be historical facts," the told me in a whisper. "That"s why we save tabots in every church in Ethiopia."

At noon the following day, Andreas, in a black robe and also black turban, emerged from a church ~ above a slope over Gonder and into a group of several hundred people. A dozen priests, deacons and acolytes—clad in brocade robes in maroon, ivory, gold and blue—joined that to form a security huddle about a bearded priest wearing a scarlet robe and also a gold turban. On his head the priest carried the tabots, covering in ebony velvet embroidered in gold. Catching sight the the sacred bundle, hundreds of women in the crowd began ululating—making a singsong wail through their tongues—as many Ethiopian women perform at moments of intense emotion.

As the clerics began to walk under a rocky pathway toward a piazza at the facility of city (a legacy of Italy"s occupation the Ethiopia in the 1930s), they were hemmed in by perhaps 1,000 an ext chanting and also ululating devotees. At the piazza, the procession join clerics moving tabots from seven other churches. With each other they collection off aside from that downhill, through the rolling throng swelling into the thousands, through thousands much more lining the road. About five mile later, the priests stopped beside a pool of murky water in a park.

All afternoon and through the night, the clergymans chanted hymns prior to the tabots, surrounding by worshipers. Then, motivated by glimmers of irradiate sneaking into the morning sky, Archbishop Andreas led the clerics to celebrate the baptism that Jesus by playfully splashing one another with the pool"s water.

The Timkat celebrations were to proceed for three more days v prayers and masses, after i beg your pardon the tabots would certainly be went back to the churches whereby they to be kept. I was an ext eager than ever before to locate the original ark, so ns headed because that Aksum, about 200 miles northeast.

Just external Gonder, my auto passed Wolleka village, where a mud-hut synagogue bore a Star that David on the roof—a relic that Jewish life in the region that sustained for as long as 4 millennia, until the 1990s. That was when the critical of the bet Israel Jews (also known as the Falasha, the Amharic word because that "stranger") to be evacuated come Israel in the challenge of persecution by the Derg.

The road degenerated right into a rutted, rocky pathway the twisted around the hillsides, and our SUV struggled to exceed ten miles per hour. I got to Aksum in darkness and shared the hotel dining room through United countries peacekeepers indigenous Uruguay and Jordan that told me lock were security a stretch of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border about an hour"s drive away. The recent U.N. Bulletin, castle said, defined the area together "volatile and tense."

The following day was hot and also dusty. Other than for the sometimes camel and also its driver, Aksum"s streets were practically empty. We weren"t far from the Denakil Desert, i beg your pardon extends eastward right into Eritrea and Djibouti.

By chance, in the lobby of my hotel i met Alem Abbay, an Aksum native who to be on holidays from Frostburg State college in Maryland, whereby he teaches african history. Abbay took me come a rock tablet around eight feet high and covered in engravings in three languages—Greek; Geez, the ancient language the Ethiopia; and Sabaean, from throughout the Red Sea in southerly Yemen, the true birthplace, part scholars believe, of the Queen the Sheba.

"King Ezana set up this stone tablet at an early stage in the fourth century, while still a pagan ruler," Abbay called me. His finger traced the strange-looking alphabets carved into the absent 16 century ago. "Here, the king praises the god of battle after a win over a rebel people." but sometime in the complying with decade Ezana to be converted come Christianity.

Abbay led me to another rock tablet covered with engravings in the same three languages. "By now King Ezana is thanking "the mr of Heaven" for success in a military expedition into nearby Sudan," the said. "We know he intended Jesus because historical digs have actually turned increase coins throughout Ezana"s reign that function the cross of Christ roughly this time." prior to that, they boring the pagan symbols of the sun and moon.

As we walked on, we passed a big reservoir, its surface covered with green scum. "According to tradition, it"s Queen Sheba"s bath," Abbay said. "Some think there"s an old curse on its waters."

Ahead to be a towering stele, or column, 79 feet high and also said to weigh 500 tons. Like other fallen and standing steles nearby, the was sculpted from a solitary slab the granite, maybe as at an early stage as the very first or second century A.D. Legend has actually it the the ark that the covenant"s supreme power sliced it out of the absent and set it into place.

On our means to the chapel wherein the ark is stated to be kept, we passed Sheba"s bath again and saw around 50 civilization in white shawls crouched near the water. A boy had drowned there quickly before, and also his parents and other family members were wait for the human body to surface. "They to speak it will take one to 2 days," Abbay said. "They recognize this because many other boys have drowned right here while swimming. They think the curse has struck again."

Abbay and also I make our way toward the office the the Neburq-ed, Aksum"s high priest, that works the end of a tin burned at a seminary near by the ark chapel. As the church administrator in Aksum, that would be able to tell us an ext about the guardian the the ark.

"We"ve had the guardian heritage from the beginning," the high monk told us. "He prays constantly by the ark, day and also night, burn incense before it and also paying tribute to God. Only he can see it; every others space forbidden come lay eye on the or also go close come it." over the centuries, a few Western travelers have claimed to have actually seen it; your descriptions space of tablets like those described in the publication of Exodus. However the Ethiopians say that is inconceivable—the travellers must have actually been presented fakes.

I asked exactly how the guardian is chosen. "By Aksum"s an elderly priests and also the current guardian," that said. Ns told that I"d heard that in the mid-20th century a preferred guardian had actually run away, terrified, and had to it is in hauled ago to Aksum. The Neburq-ed smiled, but did not answer. Instead, the pointed come a grassy steep studded through broken rock blocks—the stays of Zion Maryam cathedral, Ethiopia"s earliest church, established in the 4th century A.D. "It held the ark, however Arab invaders ruined it," that said, including that priests had hidden the ark from the invaders.

Now the I had actually come this far, ns asked if we might meet the guardian that the ark. The Neburq-ed stated no: "He is commonly not obtainable to ordinary people, just religious leaders."

The next day ns tried again, led through a friendly monk to the door of the ark chapel, i beg your pardon is about the size of a typical suburban house and surrounded through a high steel fence. "Wait here," that said, and also he climbed the steps causing the chapel entrance, where he called out softly to the guardian.

A couple of minutes later on he scurried back, smiling. A few feet from whereby I stood, with the stole bars, a monk that looked to it is in in his so late 50s peered roughly the chapel wall.

"It"s the guardian," the priest whispered.

He wore an olive-colored robe, dark pillbox turban and sandals. That glanced warily in ~ me through deep-set eyes. With the bars he held out a wooden cross painted yellow, poignant my forehead with it in a blessing and also pausing as I kissed the top and bottom in the classic way.

I inquiry his name.

"I"m the guardian the the ark," that said, through the monk translating. "I have actually no various other name."

I told that I had come from the other side of the people to speak v him about the ark. "I can"t tell you anything about it," the said. "No king or patriarch or bishop or leader can ever before see it, only me. This has actually been our tradition because Menelik carried the ark here an ext than 3,000 year ago."

We peered at each other for a few moments. I asked a couple of more questions, yet to every he continued to be as silent as one apparition. Then he to be gone.

"You"re lucky, because he refuses most requests to see him," the priest said. However I felt only a little lucky. There to be so much an ext I want to know: does the ark watch the means it is explained in the Bible? has the guardian ever before seen a sign of that power? Is he contents to devote his life to the ark, never ever able to leaving the compound?

On my critical night in Aksum, ns walked down the chapel road, currently deserted, and sat because that a lengthy time staring at the chapel, which shone prefer silver in the moonlight.

Was the guardian chanting ancient incantations while bathing the chapel in the sanctifying reek that incense? to be he on his knees prior to the ark? to be he as alone as I felt? to be the ark really there?

Of course I had no method of answering any kind of of these questions. Had actually I tried come slip within in the darkness to sneak a look, I"m certain the guardian would have raised the alarm. And also I was additionally held ago by the fear that the ark would injury me if i dared defile it with my presence.

In the final moments of mine search, I might not judge whether the ark the the commitment truly rested inside this nondescript chapel. Maybe Menelik"s travel companions did take it it and also spirit it home to Ethiopia. Possibly its origins below stem from a tale spun by Aksumite priests in old times come awe their congregations and also consolidate your authority. However the truth of the ark, favor a vision in the moonlight, floated just past my grasp, and also so the millennia-old mystery remained. Together the devotion of the worshipers in ~ Timkat and the monks in ~ Tana Kirkos came ago to me in the shimmering light, I determined that merely being in the visibility of this eternal an enig was a fitting finishing to mine quest.

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Paul Raffaele is a regular contributor to Smithsonian. His story top top Congo"s imperiled mountain gorillas appeared in October.

BooksEthiopia & Eritrea by Matt Phillips and also Jean-Bernard Carillet, Lonely earth Publications (Oakland, California), 2006Searching for the Ark of the Covenant by Randall Price, Harvest house Publishers (Eugene, Oregon), 2005The Sign and the Seal: The search for the lost Ark that the Covenant by Graham Hancock, Simon & Schuster, 1992