In Axum’s Maryam Tsion Church lies an artefact central to Ethiopian Christianity. Unfortunately only one person alive has ever seen this artefact. The Ark of the Covenant is, according to Ethiopian Christians, kept under lock and key in Maryam Tsion, and only the official guardian is allowed to enter the place where it is stowed. There is no doubting the importance the legend of the Ark plays in Ethiopian Christianity and few people would question the sincerity of the Ethiopian claim. But, superficially at least, its presence in Axum does seem rather far-fetched.
For those unfamiliar with the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant was built by the Children of Israel to hold the Tablets of Law given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. According to the Bible, God gave Moses precise instructions on its design and embellishments. It was thus vested with a deadly power that was particularly devastating in time of battle. After the Jews settled in Jerusalem, the Ark was enshrined in a temple built by Solomon in the 10th century BC, where it remained until the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586BC. While it resided in Jerusalem, the Ark was the most treasured artefact of the Jewish faith, virtually the personifi cation of God, and in many biblical passages it is referred to simply as Jehovah. After the destruction of Solomon’s temple, it disappeared. Despite several attempts over the centuries, the Ark has never been recovered.
Graham Hancock, in his book The Sign and the Seal, investigated the Ethiopian claim to the Ark and constructed a plausible sequence of events to support it. Hancock points out, and he is not the fi rst person to have done so, that there is strong reason to believe the Ark vanished from Jerusalem long before 587BC. Nowhere in the Bible is it stated that the Ark was taken by the Babylonians, which seems decidedly strange, considering its religious importance; books written during the reign of Josiah (640BC) hint that it had probably disappeared by then. Hancock suggests the Ark was removed during the reign of Manasseh (687–642BC), a king who horrifi ed religious leaders by desecrating Solomon’s temple with an idol they considered to be sacrilegious. He suggests that the Ark was removed from the temple by angry priests and taken out of the kingdom, and that the loss of the Ark, when it was discovered by Josiah, was kept a secret from the laity.
Hancock circumvents the major historical loophole in the Ethiopian Ark theory, namely that the evidence currently available suggests that Axum was founded several centuries after Solomon’s time, by dating the Ark’s arrival in Axum to King Ezana’s well-documented conversion to Christianity in the 4th century. He discovered that the priests at the Lake Tana island monastery of Tana Kirkos claim to have records stating that the Ark was kept on the island for 800 years prior to its removal to Axum. This claim is given some scant support by the presence of several sacrificial stones of probable Jewish origin on Tana Kirkos.