A huddle grows about the high priests, with one young monk bearing an ikon, or divine picture, if others organize ornate gold and also silver crosses. Paul Raffaele
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A sermon is offered on the mount by Abuna Andreas at Lalibella throughout Christmas rituals. Paul Raffaele
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Abba Haile Mikael surrounding the bronze dish the monks in ~ Tana Kirkos case was steal by Menelek native the temple at Jerusalem, in addition to the ark the the covenant. Paul Raffaele
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This is a typical mural seen anywhere Ethiopia (left, at Axum) of King Solomon meeting Queen Sheba in Jerusalem. Paul Raffaele

Abba Haile Mikael stands next to pre-Christian-era rock pillars, thought to be linked with ancient Jewish-style blood sacrifices, within protective believe shed. Paul Raffaele

"They shall make an ark the acacia wood," God commanded Moses in the book of Exodus, after moving the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And so the Israelites constructed an ark, or chest, gilding it inside and out. And also into this chest Moses placed stone tablets inscribed v the Ten Commandments, as offered to that on mount Sinai.

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Thus the ark “was venerated by the Israelites as the embodiment that God Himself,” writes Graham Hancock in The Sign and also the Seal. "Biblical and also other archaic sources speak the the Ark blazing with fire and also light...stopping rivers, blasting totality armies." (Steven Spielberg"s 1981 film Raiders of the lost Ark provides a special-effects approximation.) according to the first Book of Kings, King Solomon constructed the an initial Temple in Jerusalem to house the ark. It to be venerated there throughout Solomon"s regime (c. 970-930 B.C.) and beyond.

Then it vanished. Much of Jewish heritage holds that it disappeared before or while the Babylonians sacked the temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.

But through the centuries, Ethiopian believer have claimed that the ark rests in a chapel in the small town of Aksum, in your country"s northern highlands. The arrived nearly 3,000 year ago, castle say, and also has been guarded through a sequence of virgin monks who, when anointed, room forbidden to collection foot outside the chapel grounds until they die.

One that the very first things that captured my eye in Addis Ababa, the country"s capital, to be an substantial concrete shaft topped by a huge red star—the sort of monument to communist still clearly shows in Pyongyang. The north Koreans constructed this one as a gift because that the Derg, the Marxist regimen that ruled Ethiopia indigenous 1974 come 1991 (the country is now governed through an chosen parliament and prime minister). In a project that Derg officials named the Red Terror, they slaughtered your political enemies—estimates variety from numerous thousand to an ext than a million people. The most significant of their victims was Emperor Haile Selassie, who death, under circumstances that remain contested, to be announced in 1975.

He to be the last emperor that Ethiopia—and, the claimed, the 225th monarch, lower from Menelik, the ruler thought responsible because that Ethiopia"s possession of the ark of the agreement in the tenth century B.C.

The story is called in the Kebra Negast (Glory the the Kings), Ethiopia"s chronicle the its royal line: the Queen of Sheba, one of its very first rulers, travel to Jerusalem to partake of King Solomon"s wisdom; top top her way home, she boring Solomon"s son, Menelik. Later on Menelik saw visit his father, and also on his return trip was add by the firstborn young of some Israelite nobles—who, unbeknown come Menelik, stole the ark and also carried it through them to Ethiopia. When Menelik learned that the theft, the reasoned that because the ark"s frightful strength hadn"t damaged his retinue, it have to be God"s will certainly that it continue to be with him.

Many historians—including Richard Pankhurst, a British-born scholar who has lived in Ethiopia for almost 50 years—date the Kebra Negast manuscript come the 14th century A.D. It was written, castle say, come validate the insurance claim by Menelik"s descendants the their appropriate to ascendancy was God-given, based upon an unbroken sequence from Solomon and the Queen the Sheba. Yet the Ethiopian faithful speak the chronicles were replicated from a fourth-century Coptic manuscript that was, in turn, based upon a far earlier account. This lineage remained so important to them the it was written into Selassie"s two imperial constitutions, in 1931 and also 1955.

Before leave Addis Ababa because that Aksum, I saw the workplaces of His Holiness Abuna Paulos, patriarch that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has actually some 40 million adherents worldwide, come ask around Ethiopia"s case to have the ark that the covenant. Paulos stop a doctor in theology from Princeton University, and before that was installed as patriarch, in 1992, he to be a parish monk in Manhattan. Gripping a golden staff, put on a gold icon showing the Madonna cradling an infant Jesus, and seated top top what looked favor a gold throne, he oozed power and also patronage.

"We"ve had actually 1,000 year of Judaism, complied with by 2,000 years of Christianity, and that"s why our religion is rooted in the Old Testament," the told me. "We follow the exact same dietary laws as Judaism, as collection out in Leviticus," an interpretation that his followers keep kosher, even though they are Christians. "Parents circumcise their infant boys together a religious duty, we regularly give Old testament names come our boys and also many villagers in the countryside still organize Saturday sacred as the Sabbath."

Is this tradition attached to the church"s insurance claim to host the ark, i beg your pardon Ethiopians speak to Tabota Seyen, or the Ark that Zion? "It"s no claim, it"s the truth," Paulos answered. "Queen Sheba checked out King Solomon in Jerusalem 3 thousand years ago, and also the boy she bore him, Menelik, at period 20 saw Jerusalem, from where he lugged the ark that the covenant ago to Aksum. It"s remained in Ethiopia ever since."

I request if the ark in Ethiopia resembles the one described in the Bible: virtually four feet long, just over two feet high and wide, surmounted by two winged cherubs encountering each other throughout its heavy lid, creating the "mercy seat," or footstool because that the throne of God. Paulos shrugged. "Can you believe that also though I"m head of the Ethiopian church, I"m still forbidden from seeing it?" that said. "The guardian the the ark is the only person on earth who has actually that peerless honor."

He additionally mentioned that the ark had not been held continuously at Aksum since Menelik"s time, adding that some monks hid it for 400 years to save it out of invaders" hands. Your monastery still stood, that said, on one island in Lake Tana. It was about 200 miles northwest, on the means to Aksum.

Ethiopia is landlocked, yet Lake Tana is an inland sea: that covers 1,400 square miles and also is the resource of the Blue Nile, which weaves that muddy way 3,245 miles through Ethiopia, Sudan and also Egypt to the Mediterranean. In ~ the outlet wherein the water begins its journey, anglers drop lines from primitive papyrus watercrafts like those the Egyptians supplied in the pharaohs" days. I glimpsed them through an eerie dawn mist as I boarded a powerboat headed for Tana Kirkos, the island the the ark.

Slowly the boatman threaded his method through a maze the tree-covered islands so thick that he began to wonder great whether us were lost. When, after two hours, us suddenly challenged a rock wall surface about 30 yards high and much more than 100 yards long, the cried, "Tana Kirkos" with apparent relief.

A fish eagle circled and also squawked as a barefoot monk clad in a spot yellow robe scurried down a pathway reduced into the rock and also peered into our boat. "He"s making certain there room no women aboard," my translator said.

The monk presented himself together Abba, or Father, Haile Mikael. "There room 125 monks on the island, and many are novices," that said. "Women have actually been banned because that centuries due to the fact that the sight of them might fire the young monks" passions."

Another monk, Abba Gebre Maryam, joined us. He, too, wore a spot yellow robe, to add a white pillbox turban. A rough-hewn wood cross hung indigenous his neck, and he lugged a silver staff topped through a cross. In an answer to my questioning, the elaborated on what Abuna Paulos had told me:

"The ark came below from Aksum for safekeeping from enemies well before Jesus to be born due to the fact that our human being followed the Jewish faith then," that said. "But when King Ezana rule in Aksum 1,600 year ago, he take it the ark ago to Aksum." Ezana"s kingdom extended throughout the Red Sea right into the Arabian peninsula; he convert to Christianity around A.D. 330 and became hugely influential in spreading the faith.

Then Abba Gebre added: "The baby Jesus and also Mary invested ten work here throughout their long exile indigenous Israel." It was after King Herod ordered the fatality of all guys under the period of 2 in Bethlehem, he said. "Would you like to watch the place where they often sat?"

I adhered to him up a wooded path and also onto a ridge wherein a pair that young monks were standing by a small shrine, their eyes closed in prayer. Abba Gebre pointed come the shrine. "That"s wherein Jesus and also Mary sat each job while they were here."

"What proof perform you have that they come here?" i asked.

He looked in ~ me with what showed up to be tender sympathy and said: "We don"t require proof because it"s a fact. The monks here have actually passed this under for centuries."

Later, Andrew Wearring, a religious scholar in ~ the university of Sydney, called me that "the trip by Jesus, Mary and also Joseph is pointed out in only a few lines in the publication of Matthew—and he provides scant detail, though he walk state lock fled into Egypt." prefer its previous parent school the Orthodox Coptic Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox belief holds that the household spent four years in western Egypt, Wearring said, in the Nile Valley and the Nile Delta, before returning home. Yet western Egypt is over 1,000 miles northwest that Lake Tana. Can Jesus, Mary and Joseph have traveled come Tana Kirkos? There"s no method to know.

On the means back to the boat, us passed small log huts with conical thatched roofs—the monks" cells. Abba Gebre entered one and pulled from the shadows an old bronze tray set on a stand. He claimed Menelik carried it from Jerusalem come Aksum in addition to the ark.

"The Jerusalem temple priests provided this tray come collect and stir the sacrificial animals" blood," Abba Gebre walk on. Once I checked later on with Pankhurst, the chronicler said the tray, which he had actually seen ~ above an previously visit, was probably connected with Judaic rituals in Ethiopia"s pre-Christian era. Lake Tana, he said, to be a stronghold of Judaism.

Finally, Abba Gebre led me to an old church constructed from wood and also rock in the classic Ethiopian style, circular through a narrow walkway hugging the external wall. Within was the mak"das, or divine of holies—an within sanctum shielded by brocade curtains and also open just to senior priests. "That"s whereby we store our tabots," the said.

The tabots (pronounced "TA-bots") are replicas of the tablets in the ark, and also every church in Ethiopia has a set, maintained in that is own divine of holies. "It"s the tabots that consecrate a church, and without them it"s as divine as a donkey"s stable," Abba Gebre said. Every January 19, top top Timkat, or the Feast that the Epiphany, the tabots native churches almost everywhere Ethiopia room paraded through the streets.

"The many sacred ceremony wake up at Gonder," he went on, naming a city in the highlands just north that Lake Tana. "To know our deep reverence for the ark, you should go there."

Gonder (pop. 160,000) spreads across a collection of hills and valleys an ext than 7,000 feet over sea level. ~ above the advice of a familiar cleric, ns sought out Archbishop Andreas, the neighborhood leader the the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. As Andreas ushered me right into a straightforward room in his office, I observed that he had the spindly frame and also sunken cheeks of an ascetic. In spite of his high position, he to be dressed like a monk, in a worn yellow robe, and he held a an easy cross carved from wood.

I inquiry if he knew of any evidence the the ark had concerned Ethiopia v Menelik. "These stories were handed down through the generations by ours church leaders, and we believe them come be historic facts," the told me in a whisper. "That"s why we keep tabots in every church in Ethiopia."

At noon the following day, Andreas, in a black robe and black turban, emerged from a church top top a slope over Gonder and also into a crowd of several hundred people. A dozen priests, deacons and also acolytes—clad in brocade robes in maroon, ivory, gold and blue—joined the to kind a protective huddle around a bearded priest wearing a scarlet robe and also a golden turban. Top top his head the priest lugged the tabots, sheathe in ebony velvet embroidered in gold. Recording sight that the spiritual bundle, thousands of women in the crowd began ululating—making a singsong wail v their tongues—as numerous Ethiopian women do at moments of extreme emotion.

As the clerics started to walk under a rocky pathway towards a piazza at the facility of city (a legacy of Italy"s occupation of Ethiopia in the 1930s), they to be hemmed in by probably 1,000 an ext chanting and also ululating devotees. In ~ the piazza, the procession join clerics carrying tabots indigenous seven other churches. Together they set off furthermore downhill, v the rolling throng swelling right into the thousands, v thousands much more lining the road. Around five miles later, the priests stopped next to a pool of murky water in a park.

All afternoon and also through the night, the clergymans chanted hymns prior to the tabots, surrounded by worshipers. Then, triggered by glimmers of irradiate sneaking right into the morning sky, Archbishop Andreas led the clerics to celebrate the baptism of Jesus through playfully splashing one another with the pool"s water.

The Timkat celebrations to be to continue for three much more days through prayers and also masses, after which the tabots would be returned to the churches wherein they to be kept. I was much more eager than ever to situate the original ark, so ns headed because that Aksum, about 200 mile northeast.

Just exterior Gonder, my vehicle passed Wolleka village, wherein a mud-hut synagogue boring a Star the David ~ above the roof—a relic that Jewish life in the an ar that sustained for as long as four millennia, until the 1990s. The was as soon as the critical of the bet Israel Jews (also known as the Falasha, the Amharic word for "stranger") to be evacuated come Israel in the face of persecution by the Derg.

The roadway degenerated right into a rutted, rocky pathway that twisted approximately the hillsides, and our SUV struggled come exceed ten miles per hour. I reached Aksum in darkness and shared the hotel dining room with United nations peacekeepers native Uruguay and Jordan who told me castle were security a stretch that the Ethiopia-Eritrea border around an hour"s journey away. The latest U.N. Bulletin, lock said, defined the area together "volatile and tense."

The following day to be hot and also dusty. Except for the occasional camel and its driver, Aksum"s highways were almost empty. Us weren"t far from the Denakil Desert, which extends eastward into Eritrea and also Djibouti.

By chance, in the lobby of my hotel i met Alem Abbay, one Aksum aboriginal who to be on holidays from Frostburg State university in Maryland, wherein he teaches afri history. Abbay took me come a rock tablet around eight feet high and also covered in inscriptions in three languages—Greek; Geez, the ancient language that Ethiopia; and also Sabaean, from across the Red Sea in southern Yemen, the true birthplace, part scholars believe, the the Queen that Sheba.

"King Ezana erected this stone tablet beforehand in the 4th century, while tho a pagan ruler," Abbay told me. His finger traced the strange-looking alphabets sculpted into the absent 16 century ago. "Here, the king praises the god of war after a success over a rebel people." but sometime in the following decade Ezana was converted to Christianity.

Abbay led me to another rock tablet spanned with inscriptions in the same three languages. "By currently King Ezana is thanking "the mr of Heaven" because that success in a military expedition into surrounding Sudan," that said. "We know he intended Jesus because archaeological digs have turned up coins throughout Ezana"s reign that function the cross of Christ about this time." before that, they bore the pagan icons of the sun and also moon.

As us walked on, us passed a big reservoir, the surface covered with eco-friendly scum. "According come tradition, it"s Queen Sheba"s bath," Abbay said. "Some believe there"s an ancient curse on its waters."

Ahead to be a towering stele, or column, 79 feet high and also said to sweet 500 tons. Like other fallen and also standing steles nearby, it was sculpted from a single slab of granite, probably as beforehand as the very first or 2nd century A.D. Legend has it the the ark the the covenant"s supreme power sliced it out of the absent and set it into place.

On our way to the chapel whereby the ark is said to be kept, we passed Sheba"s bathtub again and saw around 50 civilization in white shawls crouched close to the water. A boy had actually drowned there quickly before, and his parents and also other relatives were waiting for the human body to surface. "They speak it will take one to 2 days," Abbay said. "They understand this due to the fact that many other boys have actually drowned below while swimming. They think the curse has struck again."

Abbay and I made our way toward the office the the Neburq-ed, Aksum"s high priest, that works out of a tin melted at a seminary near by the ark chapel. As the church administrator in Aksum, that would be able to tell us an ext about the guardian of the ark.

"We"ve had the guardian tradition from the beginning," the high monk told us. "He prays continually by the ark, day and also night, burning incense prior to it and paying tribute to God. Only he can see it; every others are forbidden to lay eye on the or even go close come it." end the centuries, a few Western travelers have claimed to have actually seen it; their descriptions space of tablets like those described in the book of Exodus. However the Ethiopians say the is inconceivable—the visitors must have actually been displayed fakes.

I asked how the guardian is chosen. "By Aksum"s an elderly priests and also the current guardian," the said. Ns told the I"d heard that in the mid-20th century a chosen guardian had run away, terrified, and had to be hauled ago to Aksum. The Neburq-ed smiled, yet did not answer. Instead, that pointed to a grassy slope studded through broken rock blocks—the continues to be of Zion Maryam cathedral, Ethiopia"s earliest church, established in the 4th century A.D. "It held the ark, however Arab invaders ruined it," the said, adding that priests had actually hidden the ark native the invaders.

Now the I had actually come this far, i asked if we can meet the guardian the the ark. The Neburq-ed claimed no: "He is typically not available to plain people, just spiritual leaders."

The next day i tried again, led by a friendly monk to the door of the ark chapel, which is around the dimension of a usual suburban house and also surrounded by a high stole fence. "Wait here," the said, and he climbed the steps leading to the chapel entrance, whereby he referred to as out softly to the guardian.

A couple of minutes later he scurried back, smiling. A few feet from where I stood, through the stole bars, a monk that looked to be in his so late 50s peered around the chapel wall.

"It"s the guardian," the monk whispered.

He wore one olive-colored robe, dark pillbox turban and also sandals. He glanced warily at me through deep-set eyes. V the bars he organized out a wooden cross painted yellow, touching my forehead with it in a blessing and pausing as I kissed the top and also bottom in the timeless way.

I asked his name.

"I"m the guardian that the ark," he said, through the priest translating. "I have no various other name."

I told the I had come native the various other side that the human being to speak v him about the ark. "I can"t tell friend anything about it," he said. "No king or patriarch or bishop or ruler can ever before see it, only me. This has been our tradition due to the fact that Menelik brought the ark here more than 3,000 years ago."

We peered in ~ each other for a couple of moments. I asked a couple of more questions, however to each he continued to be as silent as one apparition. Climate he to be gone.

"You"re lucky, due to the fact that he refuses many requests to view him," the monk said. However I felt only a little lucky. There was so much more I want to know: walk the ark look at the method it is described in the Bible? has the guardian ever seen a sign of that power? Is he contents to devote his life come the ark, never able to leave the compound?

On my critical night in Aksum, ns walked under the chapel road, currently deserted, and sat for a long time staring at the chapel, i beg your pardon shone favor silver in the moonlight.

Was the guardian chanting old incantations while bathing the chapel in the sanctifying reek the incense? to be he top top his knees before the ark? was he together alone together I felt? was the ark really there?

Of food I had actually no means of answering any kind of of these questions. Had actually I tried to slip inside in the darkness to sneak a look, I"m sure the guardian would have raised the alarm. And I was also held earlier by the fear that the ark would injury me if ns dared defile it v my presence.

In the final moments of mine search, I might not judge whether the ark the the agreement truly rested inside this nondescript chapel. Maybe Menelik"s travel companions did take it and spirit it house to Ethiopia. Possibly its origins right here stem native a tale spun by Aksumite priests in old times to awe your congregations and consolidate your authority. But the truth of the ark, like a vision in the moonlight, floated just past my grasp, and so the millennia-old an enig remained. Together the devotion that the worshipers in ~ Timkat and also the monks in ~ Tana Kirkos came back to me in the shimmering light, I decided that merely being in the existence of this eternal secret was a fitting finishing to my quest.

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Paul Raffaele is a regular contributor to Smithsonian. His story ~ above Congo"s imperiled hill gorillas appeared in October.

BooksEthiopia & Eritrea by Matt Phillips and Jean-Bernard Carillet, Lonely planet Publications (Oakland, California), 2006Searching because that the Ark the the Covenant by Randall Price, Harvest home Publishers (Eugene, Oregon), 2005The Sign and the Seal: The quest for the shed Ark that the Covenant by Graham Hancock, Simon & Schuster, 1992