Stuart Butler ponders the mysteries surrounding the Ark of the Covenant.
Overshadowed on one side by the modern skyline blotting Church of St Mary of Zion and on the other by the fortified old Church of St Mary of Zion, it would be easy to walk right past the small, squat chapel without ever realising its significance. In fact, it’s only the presence of the clustered groups of white robed pilgrims that give away the fact that this is no ordinary place of worship. Hidden from view within the chapels forbidden interior is an object that many would say is a lynchpin of Christian, Jewish and Islamic belief. And yet nobody knows if it really exists. I’m in the town of Axum in northern Ethiopia and the object I talk of is nothing less than the Ark of the Covenant; the ‘chest’ described so vividly in the Old Testament as containing the stone tablets on which are inscribed the Ten Commandments. One of the key stories of Ethiopian culture is the tale of how the Ark was taken from Jerusalem to Ethiopia in the 1st millennium BC by Menelik 1st (who was himself the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba). This story forms the basis of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and proves the legitimacy of every Ethiopian Emperor from Menelik 1st right up to the late Haile Selassie.
Even among non-believers such an object causes intense interest and of all the treasures in Ethiopia it’s the Ark of the Covenant that everyone wants to see. But yet it’s the one thing that nobody is allowed to look at. The chapel is closed to all comers and the Ark is watched over day and night by a priest guardian who, once he has entered the chapel grounds, is never allowed to leave them again.
During one of my earlier visits to Axum my translator and I fell into conversation with a local priest. I had asked if it would be possible to speak to the guardian. “If you were Zenawi (the then Prime Minister of Ethiopia) he wouldn’t talk to you. If you were the President of America he wouldn’t meet you”. Taking that as a no I tried to ask him what he knew about the Ark. His answers were nothing if not contradictory, hazy and confusing. He told me how the Ark had led Ethiopia to victory in its recent wars with Eritrea. He explained how over time many people had seen the Ark, but then in the next breath described how anyone, other than the guardian, who saw it would burst into flames.
Frustrating as these closed doors and near fairy-tale like stories must be for historians for me they represent the real joy of travelling in Ethiopia. This is a country like no other. A place where it’s taken as fact that the words of God are written on stones, where churches are built by angels and where Christian Crusaders searched for Prestor John.