Fallen stela in Axum bearing an inscription said to depict the Holy Ark of the Covenant
Every one of Ethiopia’s 30,000 churches has a replica of the Holy Ark of the Covenant, the gold-plated vessel which was brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai, and which contained the two tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. But the original Ark is said to be housed in a small chapel adjacent to the Church of Saint Mary in Axum, in the northern part of Ethiopia.
The Church of Saint Mary at Axum, built in 1965 by Emperor Haile Selassie
Interior of the Church of Saint Mary
Bell tower of the Church of Saint Mary
The original church of Saint Mary in Axum was built in the fourth century CE, at the same time the Axumite Empire converted from Judaism to Christianity. At the same time, the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Axum and placed in the Church of Saint Mary. In the ninth century, a civil war broke out between the Christians and the Jews, the latter faction led by Queen Gudit. Her armies ravaged Ethiopia and destroyed numerous churches, monasteries, and palaces. During that time, the Ark was brought to an island in Lake Zwai called Debra Zion, where it remained for forty years before being returned to Axum.
In 1535, Axum was again attacked, this time by the Muslim conqueror Amhed Gragn, and the original church of Saint Mary was destroyed. In the seventeenth century, the Ethiopian emperor Fasilidas had the Ark returned to Axum, and it was placed in a new church he had built in honor of Saint Mary, right beside the ruins of the first.
In 1965, Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia, had a third church built in honor of Saint Mary in Axum. At that time the Ark was moved to a new chapel he had constructed next to the Church of Saint Mary built in the seventeenth century by Fasilidas. The Ark remains there to this day, under the watchful eye of Father Teklemariam, the Guardian of the Ark.
The chapel that houses the Ark. The second Church of Saint Mary, built by Emperor Fasilidas, is visible in the background.
Living quarters of Father Teklemariam, the Guardian of the Ark
Each Guardian of the Ark is chosen by his predecessor on his deathbed. The position is a lifetime one. The Guardian of the Ark is never allowed to leave the compound again. No one else is allowed even to see the Ark, not even the most powerful cleric or the President of Ethiopia (or before Ethiopia became a republic, the Emperor).
The epic Kebra Negest (“Glory of Kings”) offers an explanation as to how the Ark of the Covenant came to reside in Ethiopia. In the tenth century BCE, the Queen of Sheba was the guest of King Solomon of Israel. The two monarchs developed a healthy friendship, and the Queen of Sheba returned to Ethiopia pregnant with his child. She named him Menelik, and as a young man Menelik went to visit his father. However, the palace hangers-on complained that the old man was showing the son too much favor, and demanded that he leave. Solomon agreed, on the condition that all the first-born sons in Israel accompany him.
One of these first born sons was Azarius, son of Zadok, the high Priest, and unbeknownst to Menelik he swiped the Ark and took it along with him. Menelik remained unaware of any of this until they were far away from Jerusalem. Concluding that such an audacious theft could not have taken place unless God had willed it, Menelik decided that the Ark should remain with him and his entourage, and so they took it with them to Ethiopia, where it remains until this day. Emperor Haile Selassie claimed to be the 225th monarch in a continuous line stretching back almost three thousand years to King Solomon.
Modern historians do not take seriously the claims of the Kebra Negest, which was written in the thirteenth century, more than two thousand years after the events it purports to describe. There is precious little evidence that the Queen of Sheba was from Ethiopia (most historians believe she was from south Arabia) and even less reason to believe that Menelik ever even existed. In the next installment, I shall explain how the Ark of the Covenant ended up in Ethiopia.
This is the first of eight parts
All photos by author