Many of us are familiar with the Ark of the Covenant from reading the Old Testament or, for us non-bibliophiles, watching Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster hit Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the film the Nazis seek the ancient artifact to use as a deadly weapon against the allies, and the producers were onto something here, as the Ark was supposed to hold the lethal and devastating power of God as shown in the film when the lid flips open and the bad guys get fried. Speculations have come and gone to the whereabouts of the Ark, and this being one of history’s best kept mysteries, seems likely to stay secret. If we knew where the Ark was, as one of the most sought after religious artifacts in the world, it would probably be behind bulletproof glass, with queues around the block to see it before you could say King Nebuchadnezzar.
The Ark was a sacred chest built by the ancient Israelites under the instructions and designs of God. It was used to house and protect the testimony – the Ten Commandments written on two stone tablets. It measured 2.5 cubits long and 1.5 cubits wide and 1.5 cubits high. It was built mainly of acacia wood and was overlaid with gold, with an attractive, artistic border. It had two golden cherubs, one at each end facing each other, four rings of cast gold above its feet and through those rings would be slotted wooden poles used for carrying and transporting the Ark. It was originally kept on the Most Holy compartment of the tabernacle, a tent of worship, and was screened off so that ordinary people couldn’t catch a glimpse of it. Only the high priest could enter the tent and marvel at this holiest of artifacts once a year on Atonement Day. Later the Ark was allegedly moved to Solomon’s temple. The bible uses a number of terms to describe the Ark including the Ark of Jehovah the Ark of strength, and the Ark of testimony.
By the time of Babylonian captivity the Ark had completely disappeared from the pages of history, but the Apocrypha (unofficial old testament pages) states that the Ark couldn’t be found when the Jewish people rebuilt the temple at the time of Ezra and Zechariah because the Jeremiah hid the Ark in a cave inside Mount Nebo before the Babylonian invaded, these texts also state that the exact location of the Ark would never be revealed until God was ready for it to be found.
A book published by Randall Price entitled In Search of Temple Treasures presents a number of possible locations for the Ark including the original Mount Nebo location, Egypt, and even as far away as Ethiopia – The Ethiopians claim to actually have possession of the Ark in a chapel in the small town of Aksum where they claim it arrived 3000 years ago and has been guarded by a succession of virgin monks who, once anointed, are forbidden to set foot outside the chapel grounds until they die. A Smithsonian journalist went on pilgrimage to Ethiopia to see for himself in 2007, and was told by the Ethiopian leader of the Christian church that nobody, not even himself as Church leader is permitted to enter the chapel and feast their eyes on the Ark of the Covenant. So the journalist returned home and the mystery remained.
Another interesting theory that has been whispered in rabbinic circles is that the Ark was hidden in a cave beneath the Temple Mount, Israel, during King Josiah’s reign. Knowing that the Babylonians were mounting an attack they took the ark along with a number of other treasures and stashed them out of sight of the approaching pagan invaders. Most of the evidence for this theory of the Ark’s location comes straight out of the bible. The gold-laden box, made by Moses was laid buried in some secret tunnels and passageways constructed by King Solomon and that it is where it still rests in a secret chamber known as the Holy of Holies.
Another theory places the Ark in Ireland. In this theory the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar sent Jeremiah and his men with the Ark across the sea to Europe. However transporting the Ark would have been no easy feat. The Ark was covered in gold (about 1.5 million dollars’ worth at today’s prices) and would have been an attractive target for thieves and pirates alike. Jeremiah and his men would have required some sort of armed escort, possibly with assistance from the Greeks or Babylonians. And they may not have been heading to Ireland to begin with at all. Perhaps they were heading to Greece or Rome but discontent with Solon’s reforms or finding an inhospitable welcome in Rome they sailed on up the European coast until they found people who welcomed them and as the saying goes – any old port in a storm. To support this theory there is mention in Irish historical documents of a Hebrew man named “Iarbanel” migrating to Ireland around late 580s BC.
1899 in London a group of academics alongside the Anglo Israel Association and led by a judge named Edward Wheeler Bird went on the hunt for the Ark in Ireland’s Hill of Tara where Irish folklore indicated the artifact laid on a grassy knoll. However their timing could not have been worse as the expedition coincided with the Irish “Cultural Revival” a movement of local vested interest in cultural sites. Needless to say the Brits three-year excavation was not warmly welcomed and eventually the search was called off and the Tara Hill hunt was abandoned fruitless.
So where do you think the Ark exists today, if it exist at all? Egypt, Israel, Ethiopia, Ireland, or perhaps someplace else? One thing is for certain the search will continue in the minds and hearts of many as long as mystery remains.