They wouldn't let me see it either.
The monks laughed: What a foolish question. Only the high priest and one selected guardian, they explained, are permitted inside the sanctuary to view the richest treasure of this Christian shrine, the holiest object of the Ethiopian church: the Ark of the Covenant.
Judging from biblical accounts, the original ark, the repository of the stone tablets on which God inscribed the Ten Commandments, disappeared from Solomon's Temple--which was later destroyed--some time around the 7th Century BC.
The void of evidence about its fate is so complete that filmmakers Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas could send their hero Indiana Jones on a fictional quest for it halfway around the world without much fear of contradicting any established wisdom. (He found the ark in Egypt.)
Nevertheless, in a squat, gray stone building at the center of a temple complex in this ancient capital, the Ethiopian Christian Church claims to shelter the original Ark of the Covenant. According to the Kebra Nagast ("Glory of the Kings"), the Ethiopian national saga composed in the 13th Century, the Queen of Sheba was an Ethiopian ruler who was seduced by King Solomon and bore him a son, the first Emperor Menelik. Menelik stole the ark from Solomon's Temple and brought it home, eventually to come to rest in Aksum.
To this day it is the predominant relic of Ethiopian Christianity. Every church in the country has its own symbolic replica, a casket or wooden slab called a tabot , which is paraded around during major festivals for public veneration.
Learned opinion on the fate of the ark falls into three categories: that it was destroyed along with everything else during Nebuchadnezzar's razing of Solomon's Temple in 587 BC; that it remains in an underground hiding place, either under the Temple Mount (according to the Talmud) or under Mt. Nebo, east of Jerusalem (according to an aprocryphal book of the Bible); or that it's pointless to speculate.
To Westerners, all of this might seem a historical footnote were it not for a recent book, "The Sign and the Seal," by Graham Hancock, a British journalist who has spent years in Ethiopia. Drawing together disparate, occasionally ludicrous theories and his own observations, Hancock argues that the object inside the stone chapel at Aksum must be the original ark.
"The Sign and the Seal" has unquestionably created a stir outside Ethiopia; it has been on British bestseller lists for months.
University of Toronto archeologist John Holladay called the book "garbage and hogwash" with "no scientific merit whatsoever." That response was typical.
"The (academic) reaction's been fury and incredulity," Hancock said one day from his hotel in Addis Ababa. "But it's selling like hot cakes."
Hancock's main task is to find a reasonable route for the ark to have traveled from Jerusalem to Aksum. He argues that it must first have been taken to a Jewish garrison settlement at Elephantine, an island in the upper Nile, then to storage on an island called Tana Kirkos in Lake Tana, the Ethiopian lake that is the source of the Blue Nile, and then finally to Aksum.
He bases his conclusions on many cultural truths: Ethiopian Christianity is oddly, and uniquely, influenced by Judaism in a way that suggests some strong contact in ancient times, for example. Ethiopia harbored the Beta-Israel--the mysterious Judaic tribe whose religious practices seem to hark back to biblical times. Could they have originally come to Ethiopia as escorts of the Ark of the Covenant?
Still, Hancock has lately been backpedaling from some of his more bizarre assertions, including one that the ark is really the Holy Grail of medieval legend and that it has been the object of a secretive search over the centuries by the Knights Templar and the Masons, societies that have been warhorses of paranoid conspiracy theorists since ancient times.
"The Grail, the Templars, in those areas I'm definitely out on a limb," Hancock says today. "The speculation about what the ark may actually be is entirely personal. But the area of the book I feel strongest about is the argument about how the ark got to Aksum. The evidence for it is strong, makes sense, and explains a lot of anomalies."
But is it? Or is Hancock's theory a hodgepodge of conjectures fed by a vacuum of evidence and by superficial historic coincidences, inexpertly appraised?
My own quest for the truth of Hancock's version this day has brought me to Aksum, standing in front of the stone chapel of St. Mary of Zion Church, to be informed by a monk that, like Hancock, I am not permitted to view the ark. (But I am solemnly assured that it's the real thing.)
So, my quest must take me elsewhere: first to an interview with one of the preeminent experts on Ethiopia and the Bible, Professor of Ethiopian Studies Edward Ullendorff of the University of London, now retired to Oxford.
Ullendorff's books and lectures are among Hancock's important sources on the Sheba legend and the ark. But the old scholar, for his part, describes himself as rankled by the book.
"It's just a sad joke," he says. "Unfortunately, I wasted a lot of time reading it."
First, he addresses the Kebra Nagast. Treating it as a historical document in any real sense, as Hancock does, is a grave error, Ullendorff says.
"There are nuggets of historical truth in it, but by and large it's an anthology of literary sources," he says.
The function of the Kebra Nagast was not to chronicle Ethiopian history, but to provide an ex post facto justification for dynastic claims to the Ethiopian throne. This it did by purporting to establish a genealogical line traceable all the way back to Solomon and Sheba.
The importance of this Solomonic heritage can't be overstated; the last Ethiopian constitution, drafted in 1958, made it a job requirement for imperial heirs. (The constitution's author, Haile Selassie, judged himself the 225th direct descendant of the Israelite king.) In fact, biblical scholars consider Sheba to be Arabian, not African, and say there is no evidence for a Solomonic connection to Ethiopia.
Ullendorff also challenges Hancock's key contention that Jewish influence and and Ark of the Covenant arrived in Ethiopia via the Nile and Elephantine--with the Israelites who accompanied Menelik from Jerusalem. There's no evidence that any people penetrated Africa along that route, Ullendorff says. "The Nile's not navigable. No one's ever survived the desert route. On the other hand, we have direct testimonial evidence for migration via Arabia."
The next step is to reach Steven Kaplan, chairman of the African Studies Department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Kaplan is an expert on the Ethiopian Jews who went to Israel en masse in two major airlifts--"Operation Moses" in 1984-85 and "Operation Solomon" in 1991.
This controversial community is a foundation stone of Hancock's theory. If Jewish migration had come from Saudi Arabia, to the east, his reasoning goes, how could one explain the existence of this tribe in Gondar, a province very far inland--but on a direct line south from the Nile? Further, Hancock had spoken to elders of the community who related ancient traditions tracing their origin back to Jerusalem.
Kaplan has a simple response to all this. The belief that their traditions are pre-Talmudic--dating before the 4th Century AD--and have ancient links to a Jewish kingdom in Ethiopia is simply wrong.
"More and more scholars believe they developed in Ethiopia 500 to 600 years ago," he says. "There's no direct link to any ancient group." As for being pre-Talmudic in their observance, Kaplan prefers to view them as "non-Talmudic."
"Most of their literature can be proven to have reached them via the Ethiopian Christian Church," he says.
As for the argument that this community descended from the bearers of the stolen ark, Kaplan notes that the ark plays "no significant role in their worship," while one would expect it to be at least as central as it is to the Ethiopian church if they were actually descendants of the ark's escort.
As for the Ark of the Covenant, Kaplan concludes, "I think Spielberg and Lucas got closer to the truth than this book does."
Another scholar cited in "The Sign and the Seal" is Bezalel Porten, a Hebrew University historian specializing in the history of Elephantine, an island in the Nile near Aswan that supported an isolated Jewish settlement starting about 650 BC.
Hancock, trying to reconcile a chronology that leaves a 200-year gap between the ark's disappearance from Solomon's Temple and its supposed arrival in Ethiopia, suggests that it spent that period at Elephantine. The settlement had a lofty stature for such a remote location, he said, noting that letters to Elephantine sometimes used the term Lord of Hosts, a phrase that occurs in the Hebrew Bible generally only in association with the ark.
Unlike many of his academic colleagues, Porten's reaction to Hancock is more amused than infuriated. "Before this book appeared, but after the movie, I always thought that I had a wonderful movie script idea in (the ark in) Elephantine," he remarks. "It would make good fiction . . . but to argue it's fact is different."
It's true that the Elephantine temple was unusually lavish, he says, adding that it was built by disaffected priests from Jerusalem. "But that doesn't mean they grabbed the ark and ran with it."
Although archeological artifacts from Elephantine are scarce, Porten notes that what does exist includes a fairly complete description of the temple. But there is no mention of the ark. "The bottom line is that the evidence isn't hard," Porten says.
The last stop is a return interview with Ullendorff. If Aksum did not have the true ark, I ask, does anybody know what really lies behind the curtains of the chapel?
"They have a wooden box, but it's empty," he says. "Middle- to late-medieval construction, when these were fabricated ad hoc." The mystery around it is "mostly to maintain the idea that it's a venerated object."
How does he know this? No one was permitted to see it, the monks said. Hancock had even tried to make a virtue out of this by arguing that it attested to the object's importance. For, obviously, no mere mortal would be permitted to view something so divine. ("I . . . was never worthy enough," he wrote.)
Hogwash, Ullendorff says. "I've seen it. There was no problem getting access when I saw it in 1941," he says.
He isn't surprised that Hancock was denied permission, for he was nothing but a parvenu. "You need to be able to speak their language, classical Ge'ez," he said. "You need to be able to show that you're serious."
A Journey Into Theory
Author Graham Hancock's "reasonable route" for the Ark of the Covenant:
1. The Ark is spirited away from Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem.
2. It is transferred to a Jewish garrison at Elephantine island in the upper Nile of Egypt.
3. Tana Kirkos Island in Ethiopia's Lake Tana becomes the next home of the Ark.
4. It arrives and remains at Aksum.