The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - The Quest for the Ark of the Covenant

Stuart Munro-Hay

Reviewer - Julian Kay

The tabota Seyon, Ark of the Covenant, the Ark of Zion is kept in a chapel, Enda Sellat, in the church of Mary of Zion in Aksum. It is claimed by patriarchs and priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to be the Ark constructed by Moses at Sinai, and which was later in King Solomon's temple in Jerusalem. This was the Ark which Menelik I, the son of Solomon and Sheba was to bring to Ethiopia. The Ark of the Covenant occupies a double role in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It is represented in the form of the tabot (a tablet and not ark-like box) in every Ethiopian Church and as such is symbolically present at the centre of Ethiopian Christian worship.

Are these legends true? Is there really a link between the Ark at Sinai, the tablets of Moses and the Ark in Aksum, unseen and under constant guard?

Stuart Munro-Hay commenced the research for (what sadly was to be) his last book in 1995 when he was writing Ethiopia: the Unknown Land. To explore the extraordinary legend of Ethiopia's Ark he set out to scrutinise every mention of the Ark in Ethiopian records. A 'massive but exhilarating' task and the result is a highly complex but fascinating book; not always easy reading but well worth the effort to enjoy what is undoubtedly a 'triumph of historical detective work'.

There have been tales about the Ark being lodged at different times at Lake Tana, Lake Zway, Debre Tabor and according to Salt in 1814, Yeha. Outside Ethiopia in the Jewish kingdom of the Khazars (8th and 9th century AD) there was constructed by Bulan, the ancestor of Joseph, Kagan (king) of the Khazars “a holy tabernacle equipped with a sacred coffer (Ark) and still in my possession”. According to the Kebre Negast (of which there are several editions) the Ark is not to be found on earth and we are referred to Revelations 11:19 “and the temple of God was opened in Heaven, and there was seen in his temple the Ark of His testament” (testament, archaic definition of covenant between God and humanity). The Ethiopian Ark can be several things, in several places at different times but Ethiopia remains the only land claiming to be in possession of the original Ark of the Covenant.

Unlike Dan Cruikshank who not so long ago stood in vain with bated breath (Eighty Treasures Round the World, BBC2) outside the church in Aksum, there was one - and only one - emperor, lyasus I 1682-1706 who was amazingly successful in a unique encounter with the Ark. Not only was he given access by the priests to the sanctuary of the Ark of Seyon, but the seventh lock of the coffer in which the tabota Seyon was enclosed, in his presence “opened of itself” and then “the Ark spoke and gave counsel to the king giving him wisdom and wise counsel to govern the earthly world”.

The author's 'shocking' and 'inevitable' conclusion is that the Ark of the Covenant of Moses, David and Solomon was never at Aksum. But for 25 million of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church the presence of the Ark at Aksum Seyon church is an indisputable fact. In the words of Abuna Pawlos, the Patriarch in 1999, “faith does not go well with scientific proof. We don't doubt that it is here, in our place. We don't have to prove it to anyone”.

The Quest for the Ark of the Covenant by Stuart Munro-Hay is published by I B Tauris, 2005.
300 pages, photos. Hardback.
Price: £19.50

First Published in News File Summer 2005

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