Tana Kirkos is an island in Lake Tana, located in the Amhara region of Ethiopia. The name “Tana Kirkos” translates roughly as “Lakeside.” The author Graham Hancock traveled here in 1989, and the monks here told him that the Holy Ark of the Covenant was brought to Tana Kirkos in the fifth century BC, and here it remained until Ethiopia converted to Christianity in 330 AD, after which it was brought to the capital of the empire, Axum.
Hancock’s further investigations lent credence to the monks’ tales. He traveled to Israel, where the Ethiopian Jews, known as Falashas, were being airlifted to during the Ethiopian Civil War. The Falashas told him that their own oral traditions held that the Ark was brought to a temple at Aswan, Egypt. There it remained for two hundred years until the Jews living there were forced to leave. They headed south, along the Nile and Takazze Rivers, until they finally reached Lake Tana.
These Jewish migrants became the ancestors of the Falashas, although centuries of intermarriage have erased any racial or linguistic differences between the Falashas and their neighbors. Meanwhile, the Ark remained at Tana Kirkos until it was taken to Axum in the fourth century AD. It has remained there ever since, except for one interlude, in which it was taken to Debra Zion in Lake Zwai.
After making some inquiries among historians and archaeologists, Hancock found there indeed had been a garrison of Jewish mercenaries stationed near Aswan, on the island of Elephantine, in the Nile River. They even had their own temple, which apparently was an exact replica of the Temple of Solomon, and which was built in the middle of the seventh century BC (right about the time when the Ark disappears from mention in the Old Testament). There they remained there until 410 BC, when they were ejected by their hosts.
There are no written records to document where they went after that. However, as Hancock points out, it’s unlikely they could ever have returned to Israel, which at the time was at war with Egypt, and even if they could have it was equally unlikely that they would have been welcomed by the priesthood at the Second Temple, who would have been more likely to regard them as rivals and usurpers.
My wife Yaa and I traveled to Bahar Dar, on the shores of Lake Tana, and there we chartered a boat to take us to Debra Zion, along with our guide, Gabriel Meskal, and our skipper Shimabew.
After a three-hour ride, we pulled up ashore at 11 AM. After clambering up a steep rocky trail, we were met by an elderly monk who was using a walking stick stick taller than he was to propel himself in the manner of a man poling a boat. He squinted at us through his one remaining eye and growled something at Gabriel, who translated for him thus: “Women are not allowed.”
Shimabew stayed with her while Gabriel and I walked down a narrow dirt path past the monastery gardens, taking care to step around the cow flops, until we reached an unprepossessing-looking stone hut.
We sat down to wait, and Gabriel told me that some 150 monks lived on the island. No women or children were allowed to live there.
A youngish-looking monk came down to meet us. I asked him, “Simech ma new?” (What is your name?), and both he and Gabriel laughed at my awkward attempt to speak their language. Gabriel informed me that for such a distinguished man of the cloth, I must use the formal “Simeh wot?” “Simeh wot?” I inquired, and the monk told us his name was Gabriel, too.
Gabriel Meskal translated as Brother Gabriel told me that the hut, which now served as a museum, was the original monastery, which was built in the fourth century, the same time Ethiopia converted to Christianity, and the same time the Ark was brought to Axum. I asked Brother Gabriel, “What religion were you before that?” Gabriel Meskal didn’t even bother to translate this question. “We just worshipped,” he said, tersely. He seemed curiously unwilling to utter the word “Jewish” or “Judaism.” Clearly I had inadvertently touched on a sensitive point.
Brother Gabriel led us down another path to a small tabernacle (obviously of recent origin) which housed a stone altar where blood sacrifices had been made, more than two thousand five hundred years ago.
On the way back, he pointed out the new monastery, which only the monks were allowed to enter.
We returned to the museum. Brother Gabriel opened the padlocked door and we stepped inside and viewed a treasure trove of artifacts – crosses, crowns, censers for burning incense, ceremonial robes, musical instruments called sistra, and stacks of ancient manuscripts written on parchment, bound together with twine between wooden covers.
Here’s a water jug our hosts told us was given to Menelik by King Solomon himself:
You can believe that if you want to.
Brother Gabriel informed us that all the book had been written down sometime between the fourth and the tenth century AD. He added that each of these books took something on the order of five years to create.
Afterwards we walked past the monks’ dwellings and vegetable gardens.
Brother Gabriel then led us up another past to a high rocky outcrop overlooking the lake shore. I tried not to contemplate the drop-off to the rocks below as I followed him.
Brother Gabriel told us that this was where Mary, the mother of Jesus, sought refuge when King Herod ordered the slaughter of the innocents. He pointed to a small tabernacle (again, obviously of recent origin) which he said had been erected over the exact spot where Mary had lived for two years before returning to Jerusalem.
“She lived right here?” I asked, incredulous. “Did she have a tent to sleep in?” Both Gabriels seemed amused by my query, and didn’t bother answering.
We climbed back down and rejoined my wife and Shimabew. The old man brought us some freshly-baked holy bread, and after my wife and I both nibbled a bit, Brother Gabriel bid us good-bye. The old man accompanied us down the pathway to where our boat was docked. I said to him, “Tell him the visit was very interesting, and we appreciate your hospitality. Gabriel Meskal translated my words for me, and the old man smiled.
On the way back, two hippos swam out to greet us, and we snapped some pictures.
By the way, as you probably know, the word hippopotamus is Greek for “water-horse.” In my wife’s native language, the word for hippopotamus is nsusun, which literally means “water-elephant.” In Amaregna, the word for hippopotamus is “Gumare,” which literally means “water-donkey.” Just thought you’d like to know.
That night I had my first drink of Talla, a local beverage brewed from sorghum.
It wasn’t bad, although I found the sorghum hulls floating in it a little disconcerting at first.
On the way home, I was mobbed by a gang of young hooligans who demanded to have their picture taken with the big hairy ferenji.
The next day, we hiked out to see the Blue Nile Falls, which the locals call Tis Abay, or The Water That Smokes.
As for the Ark of the Covenant, it remained in the original Church of Saint Mary in Axum for some five hundred years, until Ethiopia became engulfed in a bloody civil war.
This is the second of eight parts
All photos by author