A huddle grows roughly the high priests, v one young priest bearing an ikon, or divine picture, when others organize ornate gold and also silver crosses. Paul Raffaele
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A sermon is provided on the mountain by Abuna Andreas in ~ Lalibella during Christmas rituals. Paul Raffaele
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Abba Haile Mikael surrounds the bronze dish the monks in ~ Tana Kirkos insurance claim was steal by Menelek from the holy place at Jerusalem, along with the ark the the covenant. Paul Raffaele
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This is a usual mural seen anywhere Ethiopia (left, at Axum) of King Solomon conference Queen Sheba in Jerusalem. Paul Raffaele

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

"They shall do an ark that acacia wood," God commanded Moses in the publication of Exodus, after carrying the Israelites from enslavement in Egypt. And also so the Israelites built an ark, or chest, gilding the inside and out. And also into this chest Moses placed stone tablets inscribed through the Ten Commandments, as provided to the on mount Sinai.

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

Then that vanished. Lot of Jewish legacy holds that it disappeared prior to or when the Babylonians sacked the holy place in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.

But through the centuries, Ethiopian believer have declared that the ark rests in a chapel in the tiny town of Aksum, in their country"s northern highlands. The arrived nearly 3,000 years ago, castle say, and also has to be guarded through a succession of virgin monks who, when anointed, space forbidden to collection foot external the chapel grounds until they die.

One of the first things that captured my eye in Addis Ababa, the country"s capital, to be an huge concrete shaft topped by a large red star—the kind of monument to communist still visible in Pyongyang. The phibìc Koreans constructed this one together a gift because that the Derg, the Marxist routine that rule Ethiopia native 1974 come 1991 (the nation is currently governed by an elected parliament and prime minister). In a project that Derg officials called the Red Terror, castle slaughtered your political enemies—estimates selection from numerous thousand to an ext than a million people. The most influential of their victims to be Emperor Haile Selassie, who death, under scenarios that remain contested, was announced in 1975.

He was the critical emperor of Ethiopia—and, that claimed, the 225th monarch, descended from Menelik, the ruler believed responsible because that Ethiopia"s possession that the ark the 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 that Sheba, among its very first rulers, traveled to Jerusalem come partake that King Solomon"s wisdom; on her method home, she bore Solomon"s son, Menelik. Later on Menelik went to visit his father, and on his return journey was attach by the firstborn boy of part Israelite nobles—who, unbeknown come Menelik, stole the ark and carried it v them to Ethiopia. As soon as Menelik learned of the theft, the reasoned that due to the fact that the ark"s frightful strength hadn"t ruined his retinue, it should be God"s will 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 to be written, they say, come validate the case by Menelik"s descendants the their best to dominance was God-given, based on an unbroken sequence from Solomon and also the Queen the Sheba. But the Ethiopian faithful to speak the chronicles were copied from a fourth-century Coptic manuscript that was, in turn, based on a far previously account. This lineage remained so essential to them that it was written right into Selassie"s two royal constitutions, in 1931 and 1955.

Before leaving Addis Ababa for Aksum, I went to the workplaces of His Holiness Abuna Paulos, patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has actually some 40 million adherents worldwide, come ask around Ethiopia"s case to have the ark the the covenant. Paulos hold a phd in theology indigenous Princeton University, and before the was mounted as patriarch, in 1992, he was a parish priest in Manhattan. Gripping a gold staff, put on a golden icon showing the Madonna cradling an child Jesus, and seated top top what looked prefer a golden throne, the oozed power and also patronage.

"We"ve had actually 1,000 year of Judaism, complied with by 2,000 years of Christianity, and also that"s why our religious beliefs is rooted in the Old Testament," he told me. "We follow the exact same dietary laws as Judaism, as set out in Leviticus," definition that his followers keep kosher, even though they room Christians. "Parents circumcise their infant boys as a spiritual duty, we regularly give Old testimony names to our boys and many villagers in the countryside still organize Saturday spiritual as the Sabbath."

Is this tradition connected to the church"s claim to hold the ark, i beg your pardon Ethiopians call Tabota Seyen, or the Ark of Zion? "It"s no claim, it"s the truth," Paulos answered. "Queen Sheba checked out King Solomon in Jerusalem 3 thousand year ago, and the son she bore him, Menelik, at age 20 visited Jerusalem, from whereby he brought the ark that the covenant ago to Aksum. It"s been in Ethiopia ever since."

I request if the ark in Ethiopia resembles the one defined in the Bible: almost four feet long, simply over 2 feet high and also wide, surmounted by 2 winged cherubs facing each other throughout its heavy lid, developing the "mercy seat," or footstool for the throne the God. Paulos shrugged. "Can you think that also though I"m head of the Ethiopian church, I"m still forbidden from see it?" the said. "The guardian of the ark is the only person on earth who has that peerless honor."

He also mentioned that the ark had actually not been hosted continuously in ~ Aksum since Menelik"s time, including that some monks hid it because that 400 years to store it the end of invaders" hands. Your monastery quiet stood, he said, on an island in Lake Tana. That was about 200 mile northwest, on the method to Aksum.

Ethiopia is landlocked, yet Lake Tana is one inland sea: the covers 1,400 square miles and is the source of the Blue Nile, i beg your pardon weaves that muddy method 3,245 miles with Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt to the Mediterranean. At 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 with an eerie dawn mist as I boarded a powerboat headed because that Tana Kirkos, the island the the ark.

Slowly the boatman threaded his way through a maze the tree-covered islands so dense that he began to wonder great whether we were lost. When, after 2 hours, us suddenly faced a rock wall surface about 30 yards high and more than 100 yards long, that cried, "Tana Kirkos" with apparent relief.

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

The monk introduced himself together Abba, or Father, Haile Mikael. "There space 125 monks top top the island, and also many space novices," he said. "Women have been banned for centuries because the vision of them could fire the young monks" passions."

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

"The ark came below from Aksum for safekeeping from enemies well prior to Jesus to be born due to the fact that our human being followed the Jewish faith then," that said. "But once King Ezana ruled in Aksum 1,600 year ago, he took the ark ago to Aksum." Ezana"s kingdom extended throughout the Red Sea into the Arabian peninsula; he convert to Christianity about A.D. 330 and became hugely significant in dispersing the faith.

Then Abba Gebre added: "The infant Jesus and also Mary invested ten job here during their long exile native Israel." It to be after King Herod bespeak the death of all boys under the period of 2 in Bethlehem, he said. "Would you prefer to check out the place where they regularly sat?"

I complied with him up a wooded path and onto a ridge wherein a pair the young monks were standing through a small shrine, their eyes closed in prayer. Abba Gebre pointed come the shrine. "That"s wherein Jesus and also Mary satellite each work while they were here."

"What proof execute you have that they come here?" ns asked.

He looked in ~ me through what appeared to be tender sympathy and said: "We don"t need proof since it"s a fact. The monks here have actually passed this down for centuries."

Later, Andrew Wearring, a spiritual scholar at the university of Sydney, said me that "the trip by Jesus, Mary and also Joseph is pointed out in only a couple of lines in the publication of Matthew—and he offers scant detail, though he does state castle fled right into Egypt." choose its previous parent institution the Orthodox Coptic Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox confidence holds that the family members spent 4 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. Might Jesus, Mary and also Joseph have traveled come Tana Kirkos? There"s no way to know.

On the way back to the boat, we passed small log huts through conical thatched roofs—the monks" cells. Abba Gebre gone into one and pulled from the shadows an ancient bronze tray set on a stand. He said Menelik brought it native Jerusalem to Aksum together with the ark.

"The Jerusalem holy place priests offered this tray come collect and also stir the sacrificial animals" blood," Abba Gebre went on. Once I checked later on with Pankhurst, the historian said the tray, i m sorry he had seen on an previously visit, to be probably linked with Judaic rituals in Ethiopia"s pre-Christian era. Lake Tana, that said, was a stronghold of Judaism.

Finally, Abba Gebre led me to an old church built from wood and also rock in the traditional Ethiopian style, circular through a small walkway hugging the outer wall. Inside 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") room replicas the the tablets in the ark, and every church in Ethiopia has actually a set, maintained in that is own holy of holies. "It"s the tabots the consecrate a church, and without castle it"s as divine as a donkey"s stable," Abba Gebre said. Every January 19, ~ above Timkat, or the Feast that the Epiphany, the tabots indigenous churches anywhere Ethiopia space paraded through the streets.

"The many sacred ceremony wake up at Gonder," the went on, specify name a city in the highlands just north the Lake Tana. "To understand our deep reverence for the ark, you must go there."

Gonder (pop. 160,000) spreads throughout a series of hills and also valleys more than 7,000 feet over sea level. ~ above the advice that a trusted cleric, i sought the end Archbishop Andreas, the local leader that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Together Andreas ushered me into a straightforward room in his office, I saw that he had the spindly frame and sunken cheeks of one ascetic. Regardless of his high position, he to be dressed like a monk, in a worn yellow robe, and he held a an easy cross sculpted from wood.

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

At noon the next day, Andreas, in a black robe and black turban, emerged from a church on a slope above Gonder and also into a crowd of numerous hundred people. A dozen priests, deacons and also acolytes—clad in brocade robes in maroon, ivory, gold and blue—joined the to kind a safety huddle roughly a bearded monk wearing a scarlet robe and also a golden turban. On his head the priest carried the tabots, wrapped in ebony velvet embroidered in gold. Recording sight that the sacred bundle, thousands of women in the crowd began ululating—making a singsong wail through their tongues—as many Ethiopian women do at moment of intense emotion.

As the clerics started to walk down a rocky pathway towards a piazza in ~ the center of city (a tradition of Italy"s occupation that Ethiopia in the 1930s), they to be hemmed in by probably 1,000 more chanting and ululating devotees. In ~ the piazza, the procession joined clerics delivering tabots indigenous seven other churches. Together they collection off aside from that downhill, with the trailing throng swelling into the thousands, v thousands an ext lining the road. Around five mile later, the clergymans stopped alongside a pool of murky water in a park.

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

The Timkat celebrations were to proceed for three more days v prayers and masses, after i m sorry the tabots would be went back to the churches where they to be kept. I was an ext eager than ever before to situate the original ark, so i headed because that Aksum, about 200 miles northeast.

Just external Gonder, my car passed Wolleka village, where a mud-hut synagogue boring a Star the David on the roof—a relic the Jewish life in the an ar that sustained for as lengthy as four millennia, till the 1990s. That was when the last of the bet Israel Jews (also known as the Falasha, the Amharic word for "stranger") were evacuated come Israel in the confront of persecution by the Derg.

The road degenerated into a rutted, rocky pathway the twisted around the hillsides, and also our SUV struggled to exceed ten miles every hour. I got to Aksum in darkness and shared the hotel dining room v United countries peacekeepers from Uruguay and also Jordan who told me they were monitoring a stretch the the Ethiopia-Eritrea border around an hour"s drive away. The latest U.N. Bulletin, castle said, described the area as "volatile and tense."

The following day to be hot and dusty. Except for the sometimes camel and also its driver, Aksum"s streets were practically empty. We weren"t much from the Denakil Desert, i m sorry extends eastward into Eritrea and Djibouti.

By chance, in the lobby of mine hotel i met Alem Abbay, one Aksum indigenous who to be on vacation from Frostburg State college in Maryland, wherein he teaches african history. Abbay took me to a stone tablet around eight feet high and covered in engravings in three languages—Greek; Geez, the ancient language of Ethiopia; and also Sabaean, from throughout the Red Sea in southern Yemen, the true birthplace, some scholars believe, of the Queen of Sheba.

"King Ezana put up this rock tablet early on in the 4th century, while tho a pagan ruler," Abbay said me. His finger traced the strange-looking alphabets sculpted into the absent 16 centuries ago. "Here, the king praises the god of war after a win over a rebel people." but sometime in the adhering to decade Ezana to be converted to Christianity.

Abbay led me come another stone tablet covered with inscriptions in the same three languages. "By currently King Ezana is thanking "the lord of Heaven" because that success in a military exploration into adjacent Sudan," the said. "We know he intended Jesus because historical digs have turned increase coins throughout Ezana"s power that feature the cross of Christ around this time." before that, they bore the pagan signs of the sun and also moon.

As we walked on, us passed a big reservoir, that is surface extended with eco-friendly scum. "According come tradition, it"s Queen Sheba"s bath," Abbay said. "Some believe there"s an old curse top top its waters."

Ahead to be a towering stele, or column, 79 feet high and also said to sweet 500 tons. Like various other fallen and also standing steles nearby, that was sculpted from a solitary slab the granite, maybe as early on as the first or 2nd century A.D. Legend has actually it the the ark the the covenant"s supreme strength sliced it out of the rock and collection it right into place.

On our way to the chapel wherein the ark is stated to be kept, we passed Sheba"s bath again and also saw about 50 people in white shawls crouched near the water. A boy had drowned there shortly before, and his parents and also other loved ones were wait for the body to surface. "They to speak it will take one to two days," Abbay said. "They understand this due to the fact that many various other boys have drowned right here while swimming. They think the curse has actually struck again."

Abbay and also I made our means toward the office the the Neburq-ed, Aksum"s high priest, who works out of a tin burned at a seminary nearby by the ark chapel. Together the church administrator in Aksum, he would be able to tell us an ext about the guardian the the ark.

"We"ve had actually the guardian heritage from the beginning," the high monk told us. "He prays constantly by the ark, day and night, burning incense before it and also paying tribute to God. Only he can see it; all others space forbidden to lay eye on the or also go close to it." over the centuries, a couple of Western travelers have asserted to have actually seen it; their descriptions space of tablets like those explained in the publication of Exodus. However the Ethiopians say the is inconceivable—the visitors must have actually been presented fakes.

I asked how the guardian is chosen. "By Aksum"s senior priests and also the present guardian," he said. I told that I"d heard that in the mid-20th century a chosen guardian had run away, terrified, and had to be hauled earlier to Aksum. The Neburq-ed smiled, however did not answer. Instead, the pointed come a grassy slope studded v broken stone blocks—the stays of Zion Maryam cathedral, Ethiopia"s earliest church, founded in the 4th century A.D. "It held the ark, however Arab invaders damaged it," the said, including that priests had hidden the ark indigenous the invaders.

Now that I had come this far, ns asked if we can meet the guardian the the ark. The Neburq-ed stated no: "He is typically not easily accessible to ordinary people, just religious leaders."

The following day i tried again, led by a friendly priest to the gate of the ark chapel, i m sorry is around the size of a usual suburban house and also surrounded by a high iron fence. "Wait here," that said, and he climbed the steps resulting in the chapel entrance, whereby he referred to as out softly come the guardian.

A few minutes later on he scurried back, smiling. A couple of feet from whereby I stood, through the steel bars, a monk who looked to be in his late 50s peered about the chapel wall.

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

He wore an olive-colored robe, dark pillbox turban and also sandals. The glanced warily in ~ me v deep-set eyes. With the bars he held out a wood cross painted yellow, emotional my forehead with it in a blessing and pausing together I kissed the top and bottom in the classic way.

I inquiry his name.

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

I told the I had come native the various other side of the world to speak through him around the ark. "I can"t tell you anything around it," the said. "No king or patriarch or bishop or leader can ever see it, just me. This has actually been our tradition due to the fact that Menelik carried the ark here more than 3,000 year ago."

We peered at each various other for a couple of moments. Ns asked a few more questions, but to each he stayed as quiet as an apparition. Then he to be gone.

"You"re lucky, because he refuses most requests to check out him," the priest said. But I felt only a small lucky. There was so much more I want to know: go the ark watch the way it is described in the Bible? has actually the guardian ever seen a authorize of the power? Is he contents to dedicate his life to the ark, never ever able to leave the compound?

On my critical night in Aksum, ns walked under the chapel road, now deserted, and also sat because that a lengthy time staring in ~ the chapel, which shone favor silver in the moonlight.

Was the guardian chanting ancient incantations while bathing the chapel in the sanctifying reek that incense? to be he ~ above his knees before the ark? to be he together alone together I felt? was the ark yes, really there?

Of food I had actually no means of answering any of these questions. Had I tried to slip within in the darkness come sneak a look, I"m sure the guardian would have raised the alarm. And I was additionally held back by the fear that the ark would harm me if ns dared defile it through my presence.

In the last moments of my search, I can not judge whether the ark the the commitment truly rested within this nondescript chapel. Possibly Menelik"s traveling companions did take it it and spirit it house to Ethiopia. Perhaps its origins right here stem from a tale spun by Aksumite clergymans in old times come awe your congregations and also consolidate your authority. Yet the truth of the ark, choose a vision in the moonlight, floated just beyond my grasp, and so the millennia-old secret remained. As the devotion the the worshipers at Timkat and the monks in ~ Tana Kirkos came earlier to me in the shimmering light, I made decision that simply being in the presence of this eternal an enig was a fitting ending to my quest.

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Paul Raffaele is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian. His story on 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 residence Publishers (Eugene, Oregon), 2005The Sign and also the Seal: The pursuit for the shed Ark the the Covenant by Graham Hancock, Simon & Schuster, 1992