The Ark of Covenant was one of the most important objects for the ancient Israelites. Designed by God himself, the Ark carried, among other things, the tablets of the Ten Commandments and was a physical marker of the presence of God to his people.
That is, until it disappeared.
Or at least was lost. Or destroyed? No one really knows for sure what happened to it. Aside from a mention in 2 Maccabees (which might be telling us where it ended up, or might be just saying what one story was about where it ended up) it just falls out of the biblical story after the Babylonian exile and not mentioned again.
Which makes the claim of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church so incredible: that they have the original Ark of the Covenant. In a church right now. And have for centuries.
There’s only one catch: they won’t let you see it.
Behold, the Chapel of the Tablet, home of the ancient Ark of the Covenant:
The stone building on the right is part of the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, the most important Ethiopian Orthodox church.
The Chapel of the Tablet is managed by a single guardian monk, who is the only person allowed to view the Ark. Once someone becomes the guardian monk, he remains so for life and may not leave the grounds of the chapel. Ordinarily, a guardian monk names his successor before dying. If, however, the guardian monk dies before naming a successor, the monks of a nearby monastery elect a successor.
The idea that they have the original Ark of the Covenant is important enough in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that apparently most of their churches have replicas of the Ark.
But why in the world does the Ethiopian Orthodox Church think they have the Ark in the first place?
The Story of How It Got There
The Ethiopian Orthodox claim is not entirely implausible. According to Scripture, the Queen of Sheba (or queen from the south) heard of King Solomon’s wisdom and visited him to test him. What Scripture leaves out, according to Ethiopian legend, is that the Queen of Sheba was from Ethiopia specifically. Not only that, but that King Solomon and the Queen slept together and conceived a son.
The Queen returned to Ethiopia, the story goes, and raised their child there. When their son, Menelik, was an adult he visited his father Solomon. After rejecting Solomon’s offer to succeed him as King, Solomon sent him home with a bunch of servants and gifts. Unbeknownst to both Solomon and Menelik, some of the servants stole the Ark, replaced it in Jerusalem with a fake, and took the real one back with them to Ethiopia.
Its absence was soon discovered in Jerusalem, but it was too late: all attempts at recovering it were thwarted by supernatural intervention, and the Ark remained in Ethiopia. Menelik became King of Ethiopia, making the successive kings of Ethiopia descendants of the Jewish King Solomon.
So there were Ethiopian Jews? That might sound a bit strange until you remember that in the New Testament Book of Acts it says there was an important Ethiopian government official who had traveled to Jerusalem to worship there and was reading the Old Testament book of Isaiah (cf. Acts 8.26ff). Why would an Ethiopian government official be wanting to worship in Jerusalem and be reading Isaiah unless he had some connection to the Jewish people?
Philip, according to Acts, was then led to the Ethiopian man by the Holy Spirit, explained to him the Gospel, and baptized him. Philip left him, and the Ethiopian apparently went back home to Ethiopia. Thus, the Gospel came to Ethiopia very early on. Some traditions also claim the Apostles Matthew and Bartholomew personally preached in Ethiopia.
And so, soon after the birth of the Church, the Ark of the Covenant came into the possession of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, in which it remains to this day.
At least that’s the story.