Is the Ark of the Covenant at Aksum?

According to Ethiopian tradition, the Ark of the Covenant is preserved in the ancient holy city of Aksum. For centuries, the great relic was kept in the Church of Mary of Zion, where the emperor Iyasu is recorded as having seen it and spoken to it in 1691. Now it is kept in the Chapel of the Tablet, which was built beside the church during the reign of the last emperor Haile Selassie. The relic is entrusted to a single guardian, who burns incense before it and recites the Biblical Book of Psalms. No one else can approach it, including the high priest of Aksum. The guardian is not only a monk, but a virgin as well, and he serves the Ark until he appoints a successor as his own death approaches.

The classic account of the Ark in Ethiopia is found in a medieval epic written in Geez, The Glory of Kings. It describes how the Queen of Sheba had heard that King Solomon possessed great wisdom, and traveled to Jerusalem so that she could learn to govern her own people more wisely. When she arrived, Solomon was impressed by her intelligence as well as her beauty. He began to hope that he might have a child by her, although the epic is anxious to tell its readers that the king was not driven by lust, but by a plan to fill the earth with sons who would be serve the God of Israel. The queen did conceive a son, and after he had grown he set out from Ethiopia to visit his father. Solomon anointed him as king of Ethiopia, and then instructed the elders of Israel to send their own sons to Africa to serve him as counselors. Because the young Israelites were desperately unhappy that they would never see Jerusalem and its Temple again, they decided to carry the Ark with them. In fact, The Glory of Kings tells us that the Ark itself had decided to leave Jerusalem because the Jews had abandoned the faith that God had revealed to them.

The epic provides a history for two essential themes of the medieval Solomonid dynasty: the descent of the royal family from King Solomon, and the presence of the Ark of the Covenant as proof of the sanctity of the Ethiopian state. One of the great mysteries of this epic was when it was written, and when the tradition of the Ark in Ethiopia began. We know from the evidence of coins and inscriptions that the ancient kings of Aksum were pagan until the 4th century A.D., when they converted to Christianity. There is no evidence that they claimed descent from King Solomon or that they were especially interested in the Ark of the Covenant. The earliest report that the Ark had been brought to Ethiopia appears at the end of the 12th century, when an Armenian named Abu Salih wrote in Arabic at Cairo that the Ethiopians possessed the Ark of the Covenant, and that it was carried by a large number of Israelites descended from the family of King David, who were white and red in complexion and had blond hair. While popular writers have claimed that Abu Salih is clearly stating that the Ark was carried by a mysterious band of Europeans rather than by Ethiopians, his account cannot be interpreted in this way. In the Song of Solomon, we read that Solomon possessed white and red cheeks and hair like fine gold. Abu Salih seems to be relying on the authority of the Bible to describe a people that he had never seen himself but who were said to be related to the kings of Israel.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Ark that Abu Salih describes is its decoration. Crosses would be a very unusual feature for an ancient Israelite Ark, although medieval Christian artists did often assume that if Christianity were the true faith the Ark would quite naturally have displayed its central symbol. If his account is reliable, it would seem that Abu Salih is describing a later Christian Ark. Even though an ancient wooden box could have survived in the dry air of a sealed Egyptian tomb, the humidity of the Ethiopian rainy season would be very damaging. The question therefore arises of whether an Ark might have decayed in Ethiopia, but the stone Tablets of Moses for which the Ark of the Covenant had been made would survive unharmed. In fact, the earliest accounts by foreign travelers in Ethiopia refer to a Tablet rather than an Ark, and the research undertaken for the recent book published by Roderick Grierson and Stuart Monro-Hay has revealed that the clergy at Aksum also describe the great relic as a Tablet rather than an Ark. They use the word sellat, which means ‘tablet’, rather than tabot, which could mean either ‘ark’ or ‘tablet’.

The ambiguity of the word tabot has made the question of the Ark in Ethiopia very difficult to understand. Not only is it used for the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament, it is also used for the Tablet at Aksum, and for the tens of thousands of altar tablets in every Ethiopian church. Each of these altar stones, on which the sacraments of the Christian liturgy are consecrated, is believed to be a replica of the Ark. In fact, each one is believed actually to be the Ark. This has meant that foreign travelers in Ethiopia have often understood Ethiopians to be talking about the Ark of the Covenant described in the Old Testament when they are really speaking about a tabot in a local church. The rich symbolism that surrounds the tabot and the Ethiopian traditions about the Ark is a source of mystical inspiration for the Ethiopian church in the liturgy, and especially during the great processions such as Timkat or Hedar Seyon, festivals that commemorate the Baptism of Christ in January and the arrival of the Ark in November. It is this tradition of profound spirituality that is the key to understanding the nature of Ethiopian claims about the Ark.

While sacred stones marking the covenant between God and man have survived in Mecca for at least sixteen centuries, and while there is no reason why an ancient stone tablet could not have survived at Aksum as well, the clergy in Aksum clearly believe that more than one Tablet or Ark can be the real and true Ark. As a careful reading of the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Bible also reveals evidence of more than one Ark, the Ethiopian tradition should not be thought to be impossible or incredible. It seems that the Ark really is at Aksum, but in a way that is more surprising than most writers on the subject have assumed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s