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The Not-So-Lost Ark Of The Covenant: Hymns To An Ethiopian Religious

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  • The Not-So-Lost Ark Of The Covenant: Hymns To An Ethiopian Religious


    Dec 21 2009

    New York (Tadias) - "We don't have to prove it to anyone. [If] you
    want to believe, it's your privilege. If you don't want to believe,
    it's your own privilege again."

    The Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC), offered
    the above response to Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard
    University when asked to provide 'a piece of evidence' for the Ark of
    the Covenant during an interview for a PBS documentary film in 2003 in
    Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Patriarch, in perhaps most memorable moment
    of the interview, reminded the learned professor from Harvard that the
    Ark and its meaning to Ethiopians, is a matter of faith and not proof.

    The Ark of the Covenant, which registers close to three thousand years
    (one thousand years of amete alem or zemene bluei (Old Testament) and
    two thousand years of amete mehret or zemene hadis (New Testament))
    of history, beginning with the period of Queen Makeda (also known as
    Queen of Sheba) of Aksum. The Ark has been established as a central
    tenet of Christianity in Ethiopia. It captures the true essence
    of faith to at least 40 million believers in the ancient-centered
    Ethiopia and the EOTC's dioceses all over the world. Its people's
    communication to Igziabher is mediated through this sacred prescribed
    relic. The purpose of this essay is to narrate a history of the Ark
    and its relevance from a perspective of Ethiopian history and culture.

    The EOTC, according to Abuna Yesehaq teaches, "Igziahaber is one
    Creator, one Savior, and redeemer for all humankind." It also teaches,
    based on the ecumenical council's confessions that Jesus Christ was
    not in two natures but rather one. The two natures were one nature
    united without any degree of separation, thus, making Christ both
    perfect God and perfect person simultaneously.

    According to Abba Gorgorios, the Ark or what Ethiopians call tabot is
    linked to the Old Testament and the freedom of the Hebrew Israelites.

    Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt; he was accompanied by two
    tablets that were inscribed with asertu qalat which were given to him
    by the Amlak of Abraham, Yisahq and Yacob on Mount Sinai (debre sina).

    Moses was further instructed by Amlak to build a container (tabot)
    for the tablets or what Ethiopians call tsilat and a temple.

    Abba Gorgorios described the tabot not only as a safe and secret
    station for the tsilat, but it is also a site of spiritual revelation,
    the revelation of Amlak's limitless mercy. The tabot is like a throne
    and at the time of its coronation (negse), it is revealed spiritually
    to the faithful. Among the various Old Testament traditions Ethiopia
    decided to incorporate to its form of Christianity is the tradition
    of the Ark.

    The Ark, which is brought out of its inner sanctum during important
    church festivals, is not a physical representation of Igziabher (God).

    The Ark is believed to carry the presence of God and Ethiopia is
    perhaps the first country in the world to accept the Old Testament
    faith. The Ark is an accepted tradition among the Oriental Churches.

    For instance, the Copts referred to it as Luhe. The Eastern Churches,
    on the other hand, do not embrace the Ark in their faith.

    According to Sergew Hable Selassie, Abu Salih, the Armenian traveler
    and author, was the first foreigner who made a reference to the
    existence of the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia. He described the
    Ark in which are the two tables of stone, "inscribed by the finger
    of God with the Ten Commandments."

    The Ark of the Covenant may have been a source of mystery and curiosity
    for people like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., but for Ethiopian Christians,
    it is the rock of their faith. There have been countless conjectures
    regarding the Ark's fate and final resting place, but the Ethiopian
    Christians locate the Ark or what they call Tabot at the center of
    their faith. While the rest of the world sees it, at best, as a source
    of inspiration to write mystery novels, construct countless theories
    or make adventurous films, "the Ethiopians believe that the Ark of
    the Covenant was brought to Ethiopia from Jerusalem with the return
    of Menelik I after his famous visit with his father, the King Solomon."

    Writers such as Graham Hancock at present or James Bruce in the
    eighteenth century make their fortunes or earn their fame by dedicating
    or investing their lives to 'discover' the not-so-lost Ark of the
    Covenant or other ancient relics. To Ethiopians, Menelik I also
    brought the Kahinat of the Old Testament and many Old Testament books.

    The EOTC is a member of the family of Orthodox churches, such as the
    Coptic, Greek, Armenian, Syrian, Indian, Russian and Serbian churches.

    "Together with the Roman Catholic Church and the Byzantine Orthodox
    Church, the Orthodox Churches were a single church for four centuries
    until they split apart at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE." The
    EOTC has 32 dioceses in Ethiopia. It has also dioceses in Jerusalem,
    the Caribbean, South America, the United States, Canada, Europe,
    Australia and several sites in the rest of Africa. The EOTC has 40
    archbishops, 400 thousand clergy and 30, 000 parish churches.

    The story of the not-so-lost Ark of the Covenant is widely known,
    but only Ethiopians claim that they are its keepers. Legend has it
    that the Ark is endowed with enough power, if approached too closely
    or touched, to strike mortal beings dead. These aspects of the Ark
    has been extrapolated and exploited in movies such as Raiders of the
    Lost Ark. Its power may have also encouraged the Ethiopians to always
    keep it under wrap. Not only that, at the core of the ecclesiastical,
    liturgical and doctrinal teachings and practices of the Ethiopian
    Orthodox Tewahado Church, the centrality of the Ark becomes quite

    The Ark is, in fact, the most sacred and defining symbol of the
    Church, which is one of the oldest churches in the world. Ethiopians
    wholeheartedly believe that the original Ark was brought to Ethiopia
    from Jerusalem by Menelik I, a creation of royal affairs between the
    Queen of Sheba of the Aksumites and King Solomon of the Israelites.

    Menelik I, according to Ethiopian tradition, was a consolidator of
    a new dynasty found by his mother, approximately 3,000 years ago.

    It is important to note that organized and orderly system of government
    did not begin with Queen of Sheba in Ethiopia. There were a series
    of rulers prior to the rise of the Queen. The Queen succeeded in
    elevating her empire to a global status by wisely adopting Judaism.

    The extent of her wisdom even becomes clearer when the rule of her
    son became irreversibly and forever linked to the great symbol:
    the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, in the Ethiopian context, is a
    great source of tradition and continuity. With established rituals,
    the faithful maintain a sense of connection to Igziabher and through
    religious pilgrimage; they ensure the vitality of their religion.

    I concede that the story of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon has
    several versions both within and without Ethiopia. For instance, the
    origination of the Queen's Arabian name, Bilqis, is a derivative of a
    "vast and confused skein of traditions and tales." The Queen is cited
    by some Arabian sources as having been born in Mareb, the capital
    of the Sabean Empire, and as being the successor of her father. The
    grand temple of the Mahram Bilqis in Mareb still bears her name,
    and according to local folklore, her spirit surrounds the temple and
    nearby dam.

    In Hebrew traditions, the Old Testament refers to the Queen as "Queen
    of Sheba" and in the New Testament she is the "Queen of the South"
    or Azeb. The Ethiopians, on the other hand, not only they use these
    biblical names, but they have also added their own name, Negest Makeda.

    In the Ethiopian text of the Kebra Nagast, an elaborate version that
    places the Queen at the center of the tale is rendered. The Ethiopian
    source distinguishes itself by devoting its focus on Makeda's son
    Menelik I. In fact, the tradition of Menelik I belongs more to ancient
    Ethiopia than the Arabian Peninsula.

    The Ark's holy pedestal is in a chapel next to Saint Maryam Zion Church
    in Aksum, the holy city of Orthodox Christianity. Georgelas observes,
    "If most places draw guests inside for a transformative experience,
    Aksum's unassuming chapel does the opposite. By shrouding itself and
    its holy treasure in mystery, it gains its power by remaining unseen
    - a sacred place that can't be entered or directly experienced, only
    imagined and believed." Georgelas is expressing the views of those who
    see the Ark and its 'discovery' as their potential source of glory. The
    Ethiopians never entertain such a view. However, keenly recognizing
    the undying interest of adventurers or enemies to wrest the Ark from
    them, they came up with a strategy of keeping it safe and secure.

    The Ark is replicated thousands of times so that its presence within
    the faith and history of Ethiopia remains uninterrupted from one
    generation to another. The replication is also a strategy to secure the
    ever presence of the Ark by making it next to impossible to remove the
    Ark from the chapel. In addition, the Ark is guarded by a succession
    of monks who, once anointed, remained in the Chapel or the chapel
    grounds until they die. Their sole duties are to protect the Ark.

    Munro-Hay's The Quest for the Ark of the Covenant documents and
    narrates the medieval history of Ethiopia, particularly the history
    of the monarchy, the church and the contending forces against these
    two major institutions both from within and without. Among the
    well-documented medieval history, a reader finds the attempt by the
    Catholic Church to destroy the Ethiopian Church during the rule of
    Emperor Susenyos quite fascinating. "On 11 December 1625, at Danquaz,
    an Emperor of Ethiopia, Susenyos, knelt before a Catholic Patriarch
    to offer obedience to the Roman Pontiff, Urban VII." His short-lived
    conversion triggered a bloody civil war where millions of Ethiopians
    died. It is important to note, however, "In a dramatic and successful
    effort to preserve their most sacred relic, some priests fled with the
    Holy Tabot of Aksum, as the Catholic faith grew stronger." Ethiopians
    also succeeded in restoring their faith thanks to the martyrdom of
    Takla Giorgis, the son-in-law of Susenyos and many others. In 1628,
    Takla Giorgis smashed the sacred ornaments of the Catholics placed
    in the Holy of Holies of the Aksum Church. After 11 years and six
    months stay in Digsa, the eastern highlands of Eritrea, the Ark of
    the Covenant was returned to Aksum.

    Menelik I also began, as a result of his successful transfer of a
    holy relic and royal blood, the Solomonic line of dynastic rulers,
    who ruled Ethiopia until 1974. Emperor Haile Selassie was the last
    ruler to claim a line of this mythologized and enduring dynasty
    in Ethiopian history. The Ark is, therefore, at the center of both
    church and state formations and consolidations in Ethiopia. The two
    institutions not only functioned in tandem, but they have also played
    defining roles by delineating some of the cultural, political, social
    and economic parameters of Ethiopia.

    The Ark became the basis for establishing the divine lineage of
    Ethiopian monarchy in addition to centering the faithful to a unique
    form of Christianity. The Ark as a central symbol of Christianity is
    exclusively an Ethiopian phenomena. The Ark is called Tabot in the
    Ethiopian languages and its sacredness is maintained by always keeping
    it wrapped and placed in the inner most circle or citadel, Qidist, of
    the Church. As a matter of faith, Ethiopians always insist that they
    possess the original Ark. The holy relic, however, has had a tremendous
    impact on both Judaism and Christianity. Despite intense controversies
    associated with the relic, particularly with regard to its existence,
    the established and regularly observed religious rituals of the Ark
    in Ethiopia, has assured undying interest in it throughout the world.

    The remarkable marriage between the Old Testament and the construction
    of Ethiopian Orthodoxy is perhaps captured with the picture below. The
    fallen largest obelisk is shown together with Tsion Maryam Church
    in Aksum. According to oral traditions, the Ark of the Covenant's
    supreme power sliced the obelisk out of the rock and set it into place.

    The Ethiopians' assured insistence in possessing the Ark ought to
    be seen in the context of Biblical history and in their desire to
    see themselves within it. The Ark is tied to the histories of the
    Israelites and Ethiopians. While the tradition of the Israelites,
    as amply described in the Old Testament, settled with the story of
    the lost Ark, the Ethiopian tradition is constituted on the belief
    that the not-so-lost Ark is in Aksum.

    According to Hoberman, The Ark suddenly disappeared in the sixth
    century BCE, perhaps at the time of the Babylonian invasion and
    destruction of the temple of Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar led the
    Babylonian army. The Ark was originally housed in a temple built by
    King Solomon in Jerusalem circa 970 - 930 BCE. Most biblical scholars
    also acknowledge that the Ark was originally built by Israelites. It
    was Moses, the prophetic leader of the Israelites, who placed the
    original stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, which he obtained
    from God atop Mount Sinai. The Ethiopians call the Ten Commandments
    asertu qalat.

    The Ethiopian source for the Ark of the Covenant is the authoritative
    and the scared book, Kebra Nagast (Glory of Kings). This ancient book,
    in the main, narrates how the Ark was transferred from Jerusalem to
    Aksum and proclaimed as the most important symbol of the Church. Kebra
    Nagast vividly describes the journey of Makeda (Negesta Saba or the
    Queen of Sheba) to Jerusalem to ascertain King Solomon's greatness
    and wisdom and in the process how Menelik was begotten. When the son
    came of age, "he went to visit his father, and on his return journey
    was accompanied by the first born sons of some Israelite nobles,
    who, unbeknown to Menelik, stole the Ark and carried it with them
    to Ethiopia." Geogelas claims that the son of the high priest of
    Jerusalem, Azariah stole the Ark and Menelik only learned that the
    Ark had been stolen on his journey back to Ethiopia. Menelik still
    continued on his journey after hearing of the theft, and brought the
    Ark to Aksum.

    The Ark, Hoberman writes, became the source of much elation, for it
    is the outward symbol of God's holy presence. Ethiopians also see the
    relic's 'safe and secure' presence in Aksum as legitimate heirs to the
    kings of Israel and Judah. The Ark marks the decision to switch from
    an indigenous religion to Judaism, which later became transformed,
    voluntarily and peacefully, into Ethiopian Christianity.

    It is important to note that the switch from traditional religion
    to Judaism or the addition of Christianity to the belief system was
    voluntary. This method of religious adoption is instrumental in the
    creation and maintenance of indigenous traditions. There were no
    religious wars or invasions in the process. In fact, the conscious
    decision to incorporate these two monotheistic religions may have
    paved the way for creative adaptation and for the proliferation of
    literary and artistic traditions in Aksum and beyond. To the faithful,
    the Ark made Ethiopia "the second Zion; Aksum, the new Jerusalem."

    The continuity of a remarkable tradition becomes apparent nationally
    four times a year during Gena (the Feast of Nativity), Timqat
    (the Feast of the Glorious Baptism), Tinsaé (the Feast of the
    Holy Resurrection), and Mesqel (the Feast of the Illuminating
    Cross). The event that the Ark is magnified the most is On January
    7th in conjunction with the celebration of Timkat or Epiphany. The
    replicas of the Ark or tabotat are brought out of the Churches and
    paraded through the streets in the presence of a sea of colorfully
    costumed and purely joyous believers throughout the country. An
    observer describes the ceremony as follows:

    "On their heads the priests carried the tabotat, wrapped in ebony
    velvet embroidered in gold. Catching the sight of the scared bundle,
    hundreds of women in the crowd began ululating - making a singsong
    wail with their tongues - as many Ethiopian women do at moments of
    intense emotion."

    There are also special annual celebrations of the coronation of
    tabotat in revered sites, such as Geshen Mariam on September 21,
    Tsion Mariam on November 21, Qulubi Gabriel on December 19 (As an
    undergraduate student at the then Alemaya College and now Horemaya
    University, I affirmed my faith, which was passed on from my parents,
    by walking from Alemaya to Qulubi for the annual festival and spiritual
    ecstasy by attending yequlubi Gabriel tabot neges.), Abo Gebre Menfus
    Qedus on October 5, Gena or Christmas in Lalibela on December 29,
    Timkat or Epiphany in Gondar on January 11. It is very common for
    the faithful to make pilgrims at least once to all these sites.

    I trust Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., will be willing to reconsider
    to revise his mode of thinking regarding the not-so-lost Ark. I
    am sure, if he makes another 'wandering' trip to what he correctly
    calls the holy land, he will not ask the Patriarch for a 'piece of
    evidence.' Rather he may deploy his creative talent to narrate the
    extraordinary achievement of Ethiopians who succeeded in weaving an
    ancient tradition of the Ark and its unseen power to their sense of
    identity, continuity and inter-nationality.

    The Monarchy may have gone, but tabot is negus in Ethiopia. The
    Ethiopians, without a doubt, believe the original Ark is located in
    a chapel of St Mary of Zion Church in Aksum. The replica of the Arc
    is found in over 30, 000 churches throughout the country as well as
    in Europe, Asia and the Americas. The Ark is central to the religious
    belief of the Christian Ethiopians. The Ark's centrality in Ethiopian
    Christianity is bound to persist for generations to come.

    Hymns to not-so-lost of the Ark, hymns to the majestic shrine, hymns to
    the visible embodiment of the presence of Igziabher, for it signifies
    the hybridity of our expressive and visual signposts drawn from the
    ancestral past to integrate into our much diverse and broader present
    Ethiopian culture.