The Ark of the Covenant

Christians in Ethiopia believe that the Ark of the Covenant, a casket containing the original stone tablets upon which God inscribed the ten commandments for Moses, was brought to this country for safekeeping by Menelik I, son of Solomon and Sheba at the beginning of the first Millennium BC. Here it has remained in the secret custody of holy men during the intervening centuries and replicas are now kept in the central tabernacle of each and every Christian church in the country.

This all takes a bit of absorbing as we have nearly a thousand years of history and legend to contend with before the birth of Christ and it was not until a thousand years after the establishment of Christianity that the Ethiopian Solomonic dynasty laid claim to custody of the Ark. There are also numerous other accounts: including one from (of all places) Warwickshire in England where the leader of the Knights Templar, one Ralph de Sudeley, is said to have brought it home in 1180 with a hoard of Maccabean treasure from Mount Sinai. Personally, I like to believe that the Ark was returned to a secret compartment beneath the Temple Mount in Jerusalem but perhaps that is just because I know that there it is most likely  to be kept safe from excavation for the foreseeable future.

Be that as it may, in Ethiopia Aksum is considered to be the Ark’s final resting place and here it is possible to see the sequence of churches, all named St Mary of Zion, built to celebrate its presence. This, of course, makes the city an important point of pilgrimage for Ethiopians from all over the country and it was heartening to be allowed to mingle with them without any apparent embarrassment on either side. The first church was supposedly destroyed in the 9th century by Gurdit (Judith) an avenging Jewish princess who, alas, appears to have existed only as a legend. Excavations have only confirmed the existence of this church in the last couple of years.

Remains of the second church, which was destroyed by Ahmed Gragn (the left handed) in 1535 lie under the sacred Chapel of the Tablet where the ark is now kept. Emperor Fasilidas of Gonder built the third church in 1665 and it is still an active church which apparently contains some wonderful wall paintings but it is only accessible to male visitors. In the 1960’s Haile Salassie had the current basilica built to admit women as well and they have been flocking here ever since. Guide books are very unkind about the architecture of this final building but it has a huge capacity for worshippers, who often spend the whole day here and I found myself experiencing a delightful welcome from a group of ladies up from Addis.

Magnificent church artefacts are assembled in a small, uninspiring museum where low lighting does its best to conceal the gorgeous collection of crowns donated to the church by Ethiopia’s rulers for hundreds of years. A recently excavated gold crown from the site of the 4th century church, believed to have been donated by Ezana, one of the first Christian Emperors, must be one of the greatest archaeological treasures of Africa. Perhaps the new museum being built nearby will display it with proper reverence but in the meantime it sits unnoticed in a dusty corner with a hand written explanatory note. Some cyber-research of my own has turned up a photo taken by a recent visitor who somehow managed to evade the entry search and accidentally overlooked the “no photographs” signs. I will risk adding a copy when I fix up my own gallery of images.


Categories: Africa

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