A decade long quest across three countries on the trail of one of archaeology’s greatest treasures finally came to a conclusion in a small town in Ethiopia, where the search for the lost Ark of the Covenant led to an adventure of self discovery far greater than anything ever found by Indiana Jones himself.
I have held a fascination with history and archaeology ever since my dad sat me in front of an Indiana Jones film when I was a child and was probably glad that for the first time in forever I finally shut up and gave him some peace! The explosions, gunplay and wild adventure through exotic locations stamped an indelible imprint on me so strong that it has guided everything I have done since.
My travels across the globe over the last fifteen years have not only been as adventurous as I could make them, with the Indiana Jones theme tune humming with wild abandon in my head and visions of a Bullwhip and Fedora in my mind every time I have trekked through a jungle, climbed a mountain, peeked inside an active volcano or found myself staring at an ancient tomb or archaeological wonder; they have also been influenced by my love of history, with adventures to see iconic treasures of the past and discover ancient wonders of the world for myself, and my love of history has grown with each destination I have been to.
But there has been no historical relic, perhaps with the exception of the Dead Sea Scrolls, that has captured my attention more than the legendary lost Ark of the Covenant.
Yes, that ark. The Ark of the Covenant. The Ark that for centuries has been considered one of the Bible’s most sacred objects. The religious antiquity that has been sought by everyone from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon (after the Queens son supposedly did a runner with it) to Hitler himself and even Indiana Jones. Not to mention the countless thousands of scholars, historians, archaeologists treasure hunters and conspiracy theorists since.
This legendary Biblical treasure is the ornate chest, built in the time of Noah by the Israelites to house the stone tablets the Ten Commandments themselves had been carved into. Legend describes it as a large chest, made of gold covered acacia wood and topped with two solid gold Cherubim on each side of a mercy seat, with two golden poles permanently fixed inside four golden rings on each side.
Mount Sinai, Egypt.
My story started on the top of Mount Sinai itself. I had spent most of the past week in Al Minya, the tiny little town at the foot of the mountain that had sprung up around St. Catherine’s monastery, the supposed home to the legendary Burning Bush.
I don’t know why I had been putting of climbing the mountain. I had watched the hoards of tourists arrive in their busloads every single night after midnight, ready to lift their overweight carcasses onto a poor camel’s back to get to the summit before the sunrise. But night after night I kept putting it off.
I was spending my days hiking in the mountains around the small town. Telling only the long suffering owner of the guesthouse I was staying in which direction I was heading in and returning every afternoon for the small portion of chicken and rice that the one little restaurant in town served. I wasn’t being purposely monastic, I was actually dying for a Pizza but chicken and rice was usually all they had.
Truth be told I was enjoying the self imposed solitary confinement. It was peaceful knowing that there was no one else for miles around every day, a soothing balm for a soul that needed it at the time.
But I was doing a lot of reading too. Every evening when I came back I sat on the porch of my room and read. I had a few books with me at the time. Paperbacks. Those things people used to carry before eReaders and ubiquitous wifi. I was writing my novel at the time too, so occasionally I would sit and jot down half a chapter or so in a small notepad, but mostly I read.
I read about the pyramids, archaeology, ancient history and alternative theories to the academic text books and the bible. I read about the Holy Grail and the Knights Templar. And finally, I read about the Ark of the Covenant.
I didn’t go out hiking the day after I read that book. I slept in late, and didn’t wake until after dinner. I continued reading that book for the rest of the afternoon, allowing it to fill my head with stories of the Ark of the Covenant. That very same iconic treasure that I had watched melt the face off Nazi treasure hunters when I was a child, in the movies anyway. That same iconic treasure that I had grown up reading about in the library when I should have been in school (yes I know I was the only schoolchild in history to bunk off and go to the library!)
That night I decided to climb Mount Sinai. It was after all the original reason I had caught the bus from Cairo almost a week earlier. So after midnight I set off, torch strapped to my head and water and supplies in my small pack as always.
I didn’t set a particularly fast pace, I took my time climbing the signposted route and by the time I had reached a naturally flat rest stop almost two thirds of the way up where locals had set up a small business selling overpriced drinks and blankets to naive and under prepared tourists, the earliest of the tour groups from Sharm El Sheik had caught up with me.
I know, at some point I will hang my head in shame.
But given that I had spent the last week being antisocial I saw no reason to stop now and carried on as they were swamped with the touts who had been waiting for them, climbing the final 750 or so steps, those same steps that Moses was said to have walked, to the summit itself where I found myself a quiet spot in the darkness and waited for the sun to rise.
The sunrise was spectacular, ruined a bit by the crowds from the numerous sunrise tours and the noise they created, but still spectacular nonetheless. But it wasn’t the sunrise that my mind was occupied with. It was the fact that this was where Moses supposedly received the Ten Commandments. Those famed stone tablets that have a central part in the mythology of the three Abrahamic religions.
But I am far from being religious and I am not exactly a penitent man. It wasn’t the scripture that was holding my interest.
This was the spot where the legend of the Ark of the Covenant began.
The quest begins.
The story of how the Ark was made on Mount Sinai and the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt to the promised land has become one of the most famous tales in the Bible, it tells of how during their long voyage and bereft of any places to worship, they were bestowed with a gift from God. An Ark.
The Ark of the Covenant.
But this was more than just a repository for the stone tablets that Moses had carved the ten commandments into. This was a weapon of war. A weapon of God. In the words of Marcus Brody the Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste to entire regions, and according to the Book of Exodus this was the earthly seat of God himself.
It is easy to see how such a powerful object became to be revered for those who believed, and how it in and of itself was held sacred by so many. But for an object so powerful, so holy, how could it just disappear of the face of the Earth?
The Ark’s Journey.
According to the Book of Exodus, the Ark was carried by the Levi priests through what is now modern day Jordan. Every night the Ark was placed in a portable shrine known as the Tabernacle, most likely according to most historians a large tent with seperate sections inside, the innermost of which was the Holy of Holy’s where the Ark itself was placed.
Eventually after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelite’s found their way to Jerusalem, a place they could finally call home and where the Ark was hidden away.
Israel, and especially Jerusalem, like Egypt, was another bucket list destination for me because of its history and archaeology. Not just because it was once one of the resting places of the Ark of the Covenant of course, but this for me was the chance to walk in the footsteps of Crusader knights, to see the famed Dead Sea Scrolls up close, and to connect on a personal level with the history and events that forged the beginnings of modern Western theology and society.
And this is why despite having a great time exploring the modern side of the city, eating and drinking at the Mehane Yahuda market, shopping at the First Station and generally discovering what a great city it is, I found my deepest connection with the Holy City to be in its past.
I felt like a kid in a sweet shop in Jerusalem, where the most modern site I visited was the 16th Century ramparts built by Suleiman the Magnificent. I walked the same streets that Jesus himself is said to have preached and eventually carried the cross to his own Crucifixion, I walked in the footsteps of the Crusader Knights and visited the Mount of Olives and the Dome of the Rock, and even though I am not religious, I even left a prayer in the Western Wall.
I even fulfilled another childhood dream and saw the world famous Dead Sea Scrolls up close in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel museum. My inner geek nearly exploded when I even managed to get a tour by Dr Adolfo Roitman, the curator of the museum and the scrolls.
But despite all this history, all this culture surrounding me, I was most excited to see one temple above all others. Or at the very least the place where it once stood.
According to most Biblical archaeologists the Ark of the Covenant arrived in Jerusalem around 1000 BCE, under the rule of King David, and unsurprisingly was the cause of a war between the Israelite’s and the Philistines, who at one point even gained control of it. Eventually it was returned to the Israelites and under the command of King Solomon, was housed in one of Israel’s first temples.
The Temple of Solomon.
Solomon’s Temple was said to have been built around the Ark itself to the same design as the Tabernacle that had housed it during all those years in the wilderness. It was in the central shrine, the Holy of Holy’s, where the Ark was kept.
But as always happens it wasn’t long before the shadow of war crept up on Israel again. This time it was the Babylonians who invaded Israel, and this is where the story of the Ark gets really complicated, and all official mention of it in the Bible or any other texts cease.
The Temple Mount.
The modern day site is a flat plaza containing the al Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock and the Dome of the Chain, as well as the Western wall and numerous gates.
I couldn’t get as close as I wanted to during my visit as no one is allowed to visit the Dome of the Rock itself, but I was allowed access to the compound via the Mughabri Gate near the Western Wall, with a lot of restrictions of course. The site is only open at limited times and totally at the discretion of Israeli security.
But still, I was there, and I could be certain as I could be that at some point in history this was exactly where the Ark of the Covenant once stood.
The Ark may not have been the sole reason for my trip to Israel, but the fact that I was stood in the very spot it once stood was something truly special.
This compound is where the Jewish temples, including the Temple of Solomon, once stood. This is exactly where the Holy of Holy’s was situated. Until it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Ark disappeared from history.
It is possible that the Ark was looted from the temple and taken to Babylon, modern day Iraq, but it is highly unlikely. Modern day scholars argue that there is documented evidence to tell them what the Babylonians looted and the Ark was not among those listed. It is much more likely that the Ark was hidden for safe keeping or spirited away.
And it was the first of those theories that led me to take a tour of the Siloam tunnel, or Hezekiah’s tunnel, deep under the streets of Jerusalem.
Legend has it that although these flooded tunnels are ostensibly used to carry water under Jerusalem’s streets, they were dug by the Israelite’s around the time that the Ark disappeared and used to somehow spirit away or conceal the Ark itself in a hidden chamber.
Exploring the tunnels was great fun, spurred on by the legends surrounding their origin I felt like even if I wasn’t exactly likely to find the Ark itself I was at least somehow walking in its footsteps. It felt like I was actually exploring some deep and hidden aspect of this ancient city, completely ignoring the rest of the tour groups behind me of course! I felt like I was being Indiana Jones! All I needed was a fedora and a real whip that the security Nazi’s would actually allow me to take through customs!
But as interesting as the theory is, the tunnels have been explored extensively and unfortunately there is no archaeological evidence to suggest that the Ark was ever kept here for any long period of time.
There is a rumour that the Ark was carried away from the Temple of Solomon when the Babylonians invaded, but it was not hidden underground, it was in fact hidden in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the home to the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church in Jerusalem. A fact that according to the priests who live their, still remains true today. It is they who have the Ark of the covenant.
Except they don’t.
What they have according to scholars, is a replica. Because all Ethiopian Orthodox churches have a replica of the Ark, or at least of the tablets that were held inside. These replica’s are known as the Tabot, and are what consecrate a church and makes them holy.
My time in Israel may have allowed me to see some of the most iconic buildings and treasures in biblical archaeology, it may have fulfilled a childhood dream or two and it definitely gave me a ton of new experiences and travel stories. My visit to Jerusalem may have even allowed me to get close to where the Ark of the Covenant used to be. But it didn’t let me see it.
Because it was no longer here.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church tell a long passed down story of the Queen of Sheba herself, the great Queen from the Ethiopian Kebra Nagast, the national Saga and chronicle of it’s royal family’s lineage. Legend has it that the Queen visited King Solomon in Jerusalem, bearing gifts of gold, spices and countless other treasures, in order to gain access to his famed wisdom. On her way home from Jerusalem the Queen of Sheba bore King Solomon’s son. Menelik.
Menelik went on to become a great King in his own right and once he had grown into a man he made a visit to Jerusalem himself to meet his father. On his return visit home, somehow the Ark of the Covenant had made it’s way into Menelik’s possession and was spirited away, possibly hidden under a large pile of dirty laundry, possibly without Menelik’s knowledge even, as some texts try and blame the priests, but either way, he did a runner with one of the greatest treasures in biblical history.
Menelik eventually bought the Ark to Aksum, where for centuries Ethiopian Orthodox Christians claim it still rests.
Ethiopia had been another one of those countries I had wanted to visit for a long time, not just because of its connection to the Ark of the Covenant, but the wealth of other historical and legendary sites too.
Ethiopia had been a key player in our ancient history, a developing force in how our modern society developed, how could I not want to travel here. So when I got the chance I didn’t hesitate.
But Ethiopia is a land where myth and legend mix with history in such a way that it is impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins, and my search for the history of the places I visited were accompanied by the ghosts of ancient knights in Gondar as I explored medieval castles said to have contained endless feasts with cutlery and furniture made of solid gold.
I climbed mountains to visit priests that lived in ancient rock hewn churches carved into the very peaks.
I walked among the ruins that the Queen of Sheba herself is said to have lived, and visited the tomb of one of the Wise Men themselves, that’s right, one of the wise men from the nativity and sat amongst the ancient burial stelae and wondered about the ancient treasure said to be buried in the vicinity.
But I wasn’t allowed to dwell on my introverted journey into the past for too long. Invitations to local homes for drinks of home brewed Tella or the disgustingly potent Arak were too commonplace for me to remain solo, and invitations to underground local nightclubs gave me a glimpse into the local pride in their culture and the warmth and welcoming spirit that greeted me all over this amazing country.
I loved my time in Ethiopia, but one thing kept pulling at me. The one thing I had came to Ethiopia for and was yet to do. The primary reason I had wanted to come to Aksum for so long.
According to all the scholars, all the ancient oral traditions and legends, Aksum was the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant itself. Resting in the tiny Chapel of the Tablet, adjacent to the St Mary of Zion Cathedral.
And yet this was as close as I could ever get. Ever since its arrival the Ark has been guarded by a succession of monks who are forbidden to step outside of the chapel grounds, with death their only release, and are tasked with ensuring that no one else, not even the heads of the Orthodox church themselves, ever steps foot inside the Chapel to see the Ark.
My ten year quest ended at a small, obscure metal fence.
And somehow that felt right. It felt fitting. I could never lay eyes on the actual Ark itself, but then maybe I never really needed to. I had climbed the mountain where the Ark was made, stood in the sacred spots the Ark once sat, I had traced its steps through the Holy Land and discovered its final resting place.
Did I really find the lost Ark of the Covenant? Well, I don’t know. Like most of Ethiopian history the ark itself is shrouded in some confusing ether between myth and reality.
Maybe it is hidden under the church, maybe it is still in Israel, maybe it is even hidden away in a wooden crate in a government facility by ‘top men’, I don’t know. But what I do know is that while I obviously never found fame and fortune and unfortunately didn’t get to punch a few Nazi’s, I did have one hell of an adventure trying.
I saw and explored three very different countries, had an adventure of a lifetime filled with new experiences, cultural exchanges, new friends and even a near death experience or two, all tied together by the one common goal of seeing if I could find where the lost Ark of the Covenant lay.
Somewhere along the way it went beyond the search for one item, beyond the quest to see something specific, and became instead about everything I had seen and done along the way.
I walked in the footsteps of some of history’s greatest legends and saw with my own eyes the monuments and sites that have been revered in archaeology and religion alike. I explored some of the most stunning locations in the world and felt embraced by the cultures and the people that lived in each one. I met amazing people, ate awesome food, saw things that many people could only ever dream of. It was a grand adventure that Indy himself would have been proud of!
I lived my childhood dream. And no amount of treasure, not even the Ark itself, can replace that.
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