The Ark of the Covenant is the most sacred object in Judaism. According to the Hebrew Bible (or Christian Old Testament), it houses the original Ten Commandments and the sceptre of Aaron. The power of God is said to live in the Ark, and the Hebrews used it to conquer their Promised Land. Its current location is the stuff of legend.
The Book of Exodus says the Hebrew God instructed Moses to build the Ark during his forty days at Mount Sinai to exact measurements and specifications. Moses had a craftsman named Belazel and his assistant Oholiab build the Ark out of acacia and coat it with gold.
The book of Deuteronomy claimed Moses made the Ark himself. The Hebrews housed the Ark in the portable Tabernacle until the construction of Solomon’s Temple.
The Ark granted the Hebrews divine favour. With it in their control, rivers opened, and the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. When the Philistines, stole it, disease and famine struck the Hebrews until it was recovered. Only in the presence of the Ark could sinners atone.
Living embodiments of gods were common in the Bronze Age. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Philistines and others housed statues to their gods, which they protected fiercely. If the statue were stolen or destroyed, its people would lose their god’s favour. The statue of Marduk was stolen and recovered five times over a thousand years.
The Ark of the Covenant disappeared in the 530s BC when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. Most scholars believe it was lost forever.
The Book of Maccabees – canon to Jews, Catholics and Orthodox Christians – claims Jeremiah hid the Ark in a cave near Mount Nebo (modern West Bank). There it would stay “until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy.” As the Biblical stories spread over the following centuries, so did legends about the Ark’s location.
Some believe the Ark resides in a secret tunnel beneath Jerusalem and that the Dead Sea Scrolls are a map to its location.
The Lemba people of Zimbabwe are descendants of Yemeni Jews. They claim their ancestors brought the Ark south on their migration to Africa until it crumbled. The Lemba priests built a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, allegedly on God’s command. In the 1940s, German scientists carbon-dated the Lemba Ark and found it dated to 1350, around the collapse of the Great Zimbabwe civilization. Today it is housed in the Museum of Harare, Zimbabwe.
The Ethiopian Tewehado Orthodox Church has a different story. According to the Ethiopian National Epic, King Solomon’s fathered a son by the Queen of Sheba. Their son was Menelik I, who became the first emperor of Ethiopia. He brought the Ark from Jerusalem to Ethiopia. The Ark allegedly resides in the treasury of the Church of Our Lady of Zion in the holy city of Axum to this day, where only the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is allowed to view it.
In a 1992 interview, Professor of Ethiopian Studies Edward Ullendorf claimed he saw the Ark firsthand in 1941 while working for the British army. The priests tried to stop him, but he forced his way into the chamber:
“They have a wooden box, but it’s empty,” Ullendorf claimed. “Middle- to late-medieval construction, when these were fabricated ad hoc.”
Sources: King James Bible, Live Science