One of the great mysteries for biblical scholars and believers is exactly where the Ark of the Covenant stood in the temple King Solomon built in Jerusalem nearly 3,000 years ago.
The Ark of the Covenant itself--the wooden chest used to store the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments are believed to have been written--has been lost in the dust of history. But an English archeological architect now claims that the place of honor the ark once occupied is clearly visible today on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, inside the Muslim shrine known as the Dome of the Rock.
In an article published in the current edition of “Biblical Archeology Review,” Leen Ritmeyer describes how he used measurements, Bible texts and rabbinical commentary to deduce that the ark stood in a rectangular depression carved in the rocky outcropping below the dome. The niche--2 feet, 7 inches by 4 feet, 4 inches--is clearly visible to worshipers and tourists who visit the site, he said.
“For me, it’s the cherry on the cake of my research,” Ritmeyer said in a telephone interview from Harrogate, England.
The ark, ancient Israel’s most sacred ritual possession, accompanied the wandering tribes of Israel over the centuries, until King David brought it to Jerusalem and his son, Solomon, ultimately erected the temple. The ark was installed in an enclosure known as the Holy of Holies, which was entered only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, by the temple’s high priest.
There has been much archeological speculation about the exact site of Solomon’s Temple and the location of the Holy of Holies. Few researchers have claimed to pinpoint the original location of the ark.
But Ritmeyer, an architect known for his reconstructive drawings of numerous archeological sites in Israel, said his research into the Temple Mount--the platform on which Solomon’s Temple was built--has “directed us to the very spot where the Ark of the Covenant stood within the Holy of Holies.”
Ritmeyer says his research proves the truth of certain Bible verses. But Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archeology Review, which published Ritmeyer’s findings in its January-February edition, cautions against overplaying the significance of the new claims.
“I don’t think it’s going to convert anybody. I don’t think it’s going to have any political significance in modern times,” Shanks said. “But I think it’s extraordinarily meaningful to people who love the Bible, who love biblical history, who are passionate about exploring our common . . . religious past.
“The meaning, at least for me, is that it brings us closer to that biblical world in a very tangible way,” Shanks said.
Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. A second temple, built on the ruins of the first and expanded by Herod the Great, was destroyed in AD 70. Many scholars agree that both temples stood somewhere on the elevated ground now topped by the Dome of the Rock and the Mosque of Al Aqsa, but they disagree on exactly where the temples were built.
Archeological surveys of the rock mass directly below the dome are prohibited by Muslim authorities, who have controlled the site since the 7th century, when the Christian church that occupied the site was replaced by a mosque.
Palestinian Muslim religious leaders, who are now in charge of the site, have rejected archeological evidence and Jewish claims that a temple was ever located on the Temple Mount.
The Temple Mount is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, who believe that it is the site where Abraham brought his son to be sacrificed. Muslims believe the prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven from the bedrock known as “es-Sakhra” on the Temple Mount site.
Using measurements made by a German scholar in 1910, photographs and his own observations, Ritmeyer detailed where he believes the walls of the Holy of Holies were within the temple--above “es-Sakhra.”
Ritmeyer said his discovery about the ark’s placement is confirmed in Scripture. In fact, he relied on measurements given in the Bible to locate the Holy of Holies. “All that I’ve found confirms that the record in [the book of] Kings about Solomon building a temple and preparing a place for the Ark of the Covenant is true,” he said.
And what he has found, Ritmeyer said, can be seen by any tourist who visits the site.
The rock is surrounded by a fence, but “the depression is only about 10 feet away from the fence,” he said. “It has been there all along. I have looked at the rock so many times. It took me 21 years to know how to look at it.”
Other specialists in the field of biblical archeology welcome Ritmeyer’s analysis but say questions about the location remain.
“His guess is as good as anybody else’s,” said Avraham Biran, director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archeology of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.
Barry Gittlen, professor of biblical and archeological studies at Baltimore Hebrew University, agreed. “There is, unfortunately, no really good method or set of data by which we can assess whether or not he’s really, really correct,” Gittlen said.
Although the findings may excite average people interested in the ark, archeologists are tempering their enthusiasm, said Gary Byers, executive director of Associates for Biblical Research, an evangelical Christian ministry based in Ephrata, Pa.
“He may have solved the problem, but we can’t say definitely,” Byers said.
But by combining his archeological expertise with biblical accounts and information from ancient texts, Ritmeyer has “given us the best look, the best suggestion as to where the Ark of the Covenant and the temple itself actually stood,” Byers said.
“Without being able to get in there and do accurate measurements, he has really provided us a wealth of information and some really plausible suggestions.”
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An archeologist claims to have found where the Ark of the Covenant once stood. Ritmeyer believes a rectangular depression on the lunar- like surface inside the Dome of the Rock marks the site.