Is the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia?

After extensive research in Africa for The Economist, British journalist Graham Hancock stepped forward with the assertion that he had found the exact location of the ark of the covenant. In his book, The Sign and Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant, Hancock documents that the ark was removed from Solomon’s temple during the reign of Manasseh, transported to Elephantine Island along the Nile, and was finally placed in the Church of St. Mary Zion in the small town of Axum, Ethiopia, where it has existed to this day.

Bezalel Porten attempts to draw a correlation between Hancock’s findings and archaeological evidence of a temple existing in Elephantine Island along the Nile. “A Jewish temple stood on the southern tip of this Nile River island during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. Was it built to house the Ark of the Covenant”? While archaeological remnants exist, the extraordinary evidence is revealed through a “hoard of documents known as the Elephantine papyri”. The story of the discovery of the papyri is remarkable itself. The documents were first acquired in 1893 by New York journalist Charles Edwin Wilbour. After lying in a warehouse for more than 50 years, the papyri were shipped to the Egyptian Department of the Brooklyn Museum. It was at this time that scholars finally realized that “Wilbour had acquired the first Elephantine papyri”. Hancock points to these papyri as the primary source of evidence that the ark made a stop on Elephantine Island. In 1961, a reconstruction of the temple was conducted. Research revealed that the Elephantine temple was oriented “toward Jerusalem” and “measured 60 cubits long and 20 cubits wide—the same dimensions as Solomon’s Temple”. It is from this point that Hancock interjects his theory “that the Ark went first to Elephantine in Egypt, arriving in Ethiopia only in the fifth century B.C.E.”.

With respect to Hancock’s theory, Porten argues that the British journalist is too speculative. It is widely accepted that the Jewish community at Elephantine “was probably founded as a military installation in about 650 B.C.E. during Manasseh’s reign” to assist Pharaoh Psammetichus I in his Nubian campaign. However, exclusive permission from an Egyptian ruler was needed to build a temple on foreign soil. Israel’s tradition also suggests that foreign soil was impure soil and “it was understood that cultic activities should not be performed outside the land of Israel”. This is evidenced in the book of 2 Kings in which the cured Aramean leper Noaman wanted to worship Yahweh in his homeland, so he shipped “two mule-loads of earth” to his native land for “there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel” (2 Kings 5:15-16). Hancock remarks that justification for these activities outside of Jerusalem come with from the pagan influence brought about by Manasseh.

Records indicate that the Elephantine temple “was destroyed in 410 B.C.E. by Egyptian priests of the ram-god Khnum”. Porten argues that if the ark was truly housed here, it was probably destroyed in the invasion or looted by priests of Khnum. Hancock fails to address this issue altogether. This leads Porten to conclude that the assertions made by Hancock are “nothing but bald speculation… None of the evidence cited to support this unscholarly speculation holds up under careful scrutiny”. Porten continues to state that the presence of burnt offerings are not unique because these type offerings were present everywhere. Porten does not discount that a temple was built at Elephantine. In fact, he points to a text from Isaiah that predicts the construction of “an altar to the LORD inside the land of Egypt and a pillar to the LORD at its border,” (Is 19:19) however “there is absolutely nothing in the Bible or anywhere else to suggest that it was built to house the Ark of the Covenant”.

While Hancock’s theory on the ark’s existence at the temple of Elephantine draws some questions, the British journalist’s idea of the ark currently being stored in a church in Ethiopia draws no less attention. As noted before, Graham Hancock is firm in his belief that the ark of the covenant does not rest beneath the Temple Mount in Israel. The theory is not new. Documentary evidence indicates the Templars located the ark in Ethiopia, but were unable to return it to Jerusalem. The only issue remaining unaddressed is, why Ethiopia?

The Jews in Ethiopia don’t necessarily agree with Hancock’s view of how the ark came to their land. Certainly, they attest that the ark is in their presence, but they document its arrival during the reign of King Solomon whereas Graham Hancock asserts that it arrived out of a crisis during the reign of King Manasseh. During the reign of Solomon, “The Queen of Sheba, having heard of Solomon’s fame, came to test him with subtle questions” (1 Kings 10:1). The Bible describes Sheba as “breathless” in witnessing Solomon’s wisdom, palace, and abundance of food. According to an Ethiopian manuscript, which translated means “The Glory of Kings,” Sheba seduced Solomon, eventually bearing him a son, named Menelik. Menelik was educated by his father in Jerusalem and, upon reaching adulthood, left the city to rejoin his mother taking the ark of the covenant with him. Hancock discounts this theory stating that the ark arrived in Ethiopia nearly 500 years after “the Queen of Sheba’s famous visit to Jerusalem”.

Nonetheless, the presence of the ark in Ethiopia is well-documented by the local Jewish faithful. “They claim with good reason that, although they lost political power to the Christians, they are the descendants and heirs of those ancient Jews”. The Ethiopian Jews themselves claim the site of the ark to be in the church of Mary Zion in the small town of Axum. This is the source of Hancock’s findings. The ark is said to be guarded by a monk “who devotes his life to the task, it is off-limits to all persons, including kings and bishops”. There are replicas of the ark in all Ethiopian monasteries and churches, all of which are off-limits as well. In fact, “no church is fit for worship unless a copy of the Ark is installed in it, and no service is considered sacred without its presence”. The church of Mary Zion in Axum is fortified, on all sides, by armed guards making entry virtually impossible. No one may ever prove the ark actually rests there. This is fine for Hancock, who claims that one does not need to confirm they have a cold virus inside their bodies when the symptoms make it perfectly clear. In addressing the need for more scholarly research, Ephraim Isaac demands that the Ethiopian tradition be respected, yet stating that it would be absurd to “make wild guesses as to the true nature of the artifact now in Axum”.