Professor Reed's Travel Notes - Ark of the Covenant
Friday June 15th, 2012
Chapel of the Ark of the Covenant
I actually grazed my way north, knowing nothing about where important sites were. Only when I was in Lalibela did I find out that the location of the Ark of the Covenant is in Aksum, a half-hour flight further north. So I immediately changed plans and flew to Aksum.
Aksum was a powerful trading empire during the first millennium CE. It was also the first major empire to convert to Christianity, in the 4th century. And it gave protection to the Muslims in the 7th century when they were fleeing persecution.
The city is home to more than one labeled 'only in Aksum.' The first for me is the Ethiopian Orthodox (Coptic) Church's claim to possess the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple in Jerusalem built by King Solomon about 900 BCE. Others also claim to possess the coveted Ark, but the real thing has not yet been produced. The Ethiopian claim dates back to at least the 12th century.
How did it get there, you ask? Do you remember the story of the Queen of Sheba from this ancient empire who traveled all the way to Jerusalem to visit the renowned and wise King Solomon? Well, he apparently had more than wisdom to share. After a night of love-making, the Queen bore a son and named him Menelik I. When he was a young man, Menelik traveled to Jerusalem to meet Dad. As the story goes, the Ark was in danger from hostile forces, so Menelik whisked it away, leaving a fake copy in the Temple. And now you know the rest of the story, sort of.
The guardian of the Ark is the most important church in the Ethiopian Church, the Church of St. Mary of Zion. The Ark is actually housed next door in the Chapel of the Ark of the Covenant. It is a rather plain building, with no regiment of guards to protect it. Instead, the church appoints a monk to guard it from within...for life! Now there's a job with no chance of promotion! Another monk on the outside makes sure no one gets close to the Chapel...like me who stepped over an invisible line and was beckoned back. There are many replicas of the Ark, which are often used in religious processions...and also used to confuse any would-be thieves who are looking to make money by stealing the real Ark.
Whatever your conclusion, the long tradition and the elaborate celebrations and processions honouring the Ark's presence add a certain weight to the story that is lacking in most other claims. Then there's the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, to add even more drama. The belief in the Ark's mysterious spiritual power is not totally absent here either. I heard that the guardian monks sometimes do not live long due to the powerful energy that the Ark emits.
I'm inclined for the Church to keep the Ark under lock and key.