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By Ron Csillag
Religion News Service

Axum, Ethiopia — “And they shall make an ark of acacia wood; two
and a half cubits shall be its length, a cubit and a half its width, and
a cubit and a half its height.”
Such was God’s commandment to Moses in the book of Exodus after
delivering the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
Along with the Holy Grail (the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper),
the fabled Ark of the Covenant has become not only an icon of modern
culture, thanks mainly to Indiana Jones, but the most revered religious
relic of all time.
And in Ethiopia, people really believe it’s here, resting in the
Chapel of the Tablet in this northern town just miles from the troubled
border with Eritrea.
Ark lore runs deep in this country. Copies of a 1993 book by British
journalist Graham Hancock, “The Sign and the Seal,” are displayed
everywhere. And every church in Ethiopia has a set of tabots (pronounced
TA-bots), replicas of the Ten Commandments that were once housed in the
Ark.
For one of the poorest countries on Earth to lay claim to the Ark
does much to boost its image, not to mention its tourism.
The Ark was the portable wooden chest, gilded inside and out,
adorned with cherubs and topped with a throne, that was constructed by
the Israelites to house the Ten Commandments during their 40 years of
desert wanderings to the Promised Land.
But it was also a kind of super-charged electric capacitor — a
telephone line directly to God, who instructed that if the device was
set up just right, “There, I will meet with thee.”
Whoever possessed the Ark was invincible. “Biblical and other
sources speak of the Ark blazing with fire and light … stopping
rivers, blasting whole armies,” Hancock writes in his book.
The Bible says the Philistines had it for a while but were smitten
by “swellings” for their troubles.
Taken to King Solomon’s first Jewish temple, it lay in the inner
sanctum, the Holy of Holies. But according to Jewish tradition, it
vanished during (or after) the Babylonian sack of Jerusalem and
destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C., creating one of the greatest
mysteries of all time.
Except in Ethiopia, where many educated people believe the real Ark
rests in the Chapel of the Tablet, where it was moved from an adjacent
10th-century cathedral because divine “heat” from the relic had cracked
the stones of its previous sanctum.
As the story goes, the Queen of Sheba, one of Ethiopia’s first
rulers, traveled to Jerusalem to partake of King Solomon’s wisdom. On
her way home, she bore the king’s son, Menelik.
After Menelik went to Jerusalem to visit his father the king,
Solomon gave him a copy of the Ark, and commanded that officials of his
kingdom travel back to Ethiopia to settle there.
But the royal entourage that was traveling to Ethiopia could not
bear to be away from the Ark, so they switched the copy with the
original and smuggled the real thing out of the country. Menelik learned
of this only on his way home, and reasoned that since the Ark’s awesome
powers hadn’t destroyed his entourage, it must be God’s will that it
remain in Ethiopia.
The Chapel of the Tablet is part of a larger compound known as the
Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. The area contains an airy modern church
completed in 1960 by former Emperor Haile Selassie; the 10th-century
stone cathedral featuring breathtaking frescoes of a black Jesus and
Mary; and the Chapel of the Tablet, set behind an iron fence, its trim
painted a sky blue.
During a recent visit, a group of grim-faced tourists from Holland,
the U.S. and Germany — all of them women — stood at a distance from
the cathedral.
“I’m sorry, women have to wait here,” explained a tour guide, Addis.
Four women in the group smiled and proceeded. “No, really,” Addis said,
more firmly. “Wait here.”
Female tourists, beware: Women are not allowed near the old
cathedral or the chapel. These are the holiest sites in Ethiopia, the
guide explained, and since women give off an “aura,” they distract the
country’s most senior — and celibate — monk, the Ark’s guardian.
The guardian is hand-picked by other senior monks, sort of like a
papal election. And only he knows his successor.
“He prays constantly by the Ark, day and night,” Addis explained.
“He fasts. He burns incense before it, paying tribute to God. Only he
can see it.” All others are forbidden to lay eyes on it or even go close
to it.
He’s not kidding.
Men may not get closer to the Chapel of the Tablet than about 25
yards. The monk comes out now and then to get some air and take delivery
of provisions, but those ventures outside are never planned.
The Ark has been in the news of late. This spring, the University of
Hamburg said researchers had found the remains of the 10th century B.C.
palace of the Queen of Sheba, also in Axum, and an altar that, at one
time, held the Ark.
The guide scoffed at the idea. “Why would she have kept it at home?”
Over the centuries, a few Western travelers claimed to have seen the
Ark, and their descriptions have mirrored those in the Book of Exodus.
But the Ethiopians say that is inconceivable.
“If anyone has said he has seen the Ark,” Addis said with a wide
smile, “it must have been a fake.”
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of
this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written
permission.

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