What happened to the ark of the covenant?
The Ark of the Covenant was central to the beliefs and religion of the Ancient Hebrews. It was a symbol of their covenant with God and their special relationship with him. Christians and Muslims both revere the ark and regarded it as a symbol of God’s presence on earth. However, there is only one problem and that the tabernacle has been missing for over 2500 years. The location of the object which is sacred to the three great monotheistic religions is not known, nor is its ultimate fate. The mystery of the lost ark of the covenant has inspired many adventures and there have been countless attempts to retrieve the sacred object. It has also inspired many stories, novels, and even movies, for example, Indian Jones and the Lost Ark (1982). This article discusses some of the main theories with regard to what happened to the Ark of the Covenant.
The history of the Ark of the Covenant
The ark is tied up with the early history of the Jewish people and for many centuries it was the symbol of their nation. At some point in time, no later than 1000 BC, the Hebrews who had been enslaved by the Egyptian Pharaohs escaped their bondage under the leadership of Moses. He led them into the wilderness, according to the Old Testament, Moses was instructed by God to make the ark when he was on Mount Sinai for forty days and nights . The Jews are believed to have made the tabernacle in the desert of Sinai. Some scholars believe that the ark was based on Egyptian and even Mesopotamian models .During the wanderings of the Jews in search of their homeland, the ark was carried before them. The Hebrews believed that the ark contained the two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments, Aron’s rod and a jar of manna. For them, it was filled with the spirit of Yahweh (God). There are different accounts of what the ark looked like and its characteristics, but most relate that the ark was an ornate, gold-plated wooden chest, that was carried on poles by the Levites (Hebrew priests). It was widely believed that the moveable shrine had special magical power because it was imbued with the spirit of God and it helped the Hebrews to overcome their many enemies during their wanderings . The priests often carried the ark in front of the Israelite army when it went into battle. It was typically hidden under a veil or cloth and anyone who looked inside it, died, as in the finale of the Indiana Jones movie. The ark was carried into battle by Joshua and later by the Judges, such as Saul and typically was believed to have helped them to achieve victory . The ark was eventually kept at a sacred site in Shiloh. However, the Israelites were defeated by their archenemies’ the Philistines at the Battle of Eben-Ezer (c 9th century BC). The Philistines captured the ark and took it back with them as booty. However, a series of disasters befell them, and they returned it to the Israelites. They placed the moveable shrine in a temple in Beth Shemesh. King David later seized the ark and placed it in his new capital of Jerusalem. He used it to legitimize his new Empire and his title as king. The ark was kept in the First Temple, in Jerusalem which was built by King Solomon. It rested in the Holy of Holies inside the Tabernacle of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. It was only seen by the High Priests and then only during Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In 587 the Neo-Babylonian Empire invaded Judea and besieged Jerusalem. The Babylonians, under King Nebuchadnezzar, savagely sacked the city and deported the population back to Babylon. The conquerors sacked the Jewish capital and destroyed the First Temple, but what happened to the Ark?
The mystery of the Ark There are two main traditions with regard to what happened to the ark after the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar. The first one is that the ark was taken to Babylon by the conquerors, this comes from a Greek version of the Biblical Book of Ezra . Typically, during a siege, the victorious would loot a vanquished city of all its goods and riches. The ark which was plated with gold would have been regarded as a valuable prize. Moreover, it was a symbol of the Hebrews and by seizing it, Nebuchadnezzar was symbolically demonstrating his ascendency over them. At some point, the ark’s gold may have been stripped away and melted down and the ark destroyed. There is no evidence with regard to the fate of the shrine if it is was taken to the city. Babylon itself was later conquered by Cyrus the Great and his Persian army and the ark could have been destroyed at this time. However, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire was very well disposed to the Jews and he permitted them to return to the Land of Israel. It is likely that if the ark had been found in Babylon that, Cyrus would have bestowed it on the Jews. The other tradition with regard to the fate of the artifact that held the Ten Commandments was that it was hidden during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem. There are references to the fate of the ark in the Book of Maccabees. It states that the ark was taken to Mount Nebo twenty miles south of Jerusalem, which was long associated with Moses and was believed to be the location where he died. This was done at the behest of the Prophet Jeremiah who predicted the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar. According to one biblical source, the ark would be revealed when the Hebrews returned from exile  However, the Bible does not state what happened to the ark after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon. It appears that they were no longer aware of its location, or else they would have placed it in the Second Temple that was built in Jerusalem. This has led to centuries of speculation as to the location of the tabernacle.
The Ethiopian connection
Ethiopia is a nation with a long history, and we know that it had much connection with the Christian world, at an early date. Moreover, it was also home to a community of Jews until relatively recently. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is one of the oldest in the world and it has long claimed that the ark of the covenant was in its possession and in 2009, the Patriarch of the Church promised to display the ark, but then changed his mind. There is a copy or model of the tabernacle in every church in the country. The Church in Axum, in north-central Ethiopia, claims to actually possess the precious relic. Axum was once home to the Ethiopian Emperors, who converted to Christianity. The object is believed to be stored in the Church of Our Lady. It is believed that the ark is kept here under close guard. The relic is kept under guard by monks who have dedicated their lives to keeping it safe. It is stated that they are prepared to kill to protect the sacred object. The origin of this story lays in a royal document that was written to legitimize a new Ethiopian dynasty in the Middle Ages. The Solomonic dynasty claimed descent from King Solomon when it was established in the late 13th century. According to the document an Ethiopian Emperor, a son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon spirited the ark away from Jerusalem before the destruction of the city by the Babylonians . Another version of how the ark ended up in Ethiopia was that it was spirited away from Jerusalem and taken to Egypt, where it was taken via the Nile into the Ethiopian Highlands. It is believed by historians that the story of the ark being in the possession of Ethiopian kings is one that is very old and predates the medieval document. However, it is very unlikely that the ark is in the possession of the Church in Axum. A British expert in Ethiopian history, Edward Ullendorff, rejects claims that the ark is in Ethiopia. He served as a British officer in WWII, during the campaign to eject the Italians from the country. Allendorf claims that what is called the ark in the church is a medieval forgery.
The ark in Rome
After Constantine the Great made Christianity the state religion of Rome, there was a positive mania for all forms of Christian relics. The city of Rome soon had many churches that were filled with alleged holy relics. It is believed by some that the moveable tabernacle was found near Jerusalem and taken to the capital of the Empire. Here it was deposited in the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran, which was built in the 320’s AD. This was one of the main churches in early Christian Rome and was often the residence of the Popes. A Jewish Rabbi in the 4th century AD claimed to have seen at least some fragments of the tabernacle, at the church (Monru-Hay, p. 45). However, the ark is alleged to have been destroyed during the Sack of Rome by Alaric and his horde of barbarians in 410 AD.
The Crusades and the Ark
The Crusades resulted in much of the lands of ancient Israel to come under the control of Europeans. The Europeans were very eager not only to recapture the sacred sites from the Muslims they also wanted to obtain as many relics as possible. This was in the belief that they could help the faithful to achieve salvation. Many relics from the Holy Land were taken back to Europe by the Crusaders. There are claims that the Knight Temple, a religious order of soldier monks took the tabernacle from a secret hiding place in Jerusalem. The knights took it back with them to Chartres Cathedral, Paris, France . Another story claims that the leader of the Knights Templers (better known as the Templers) found the tabernacle in Sinai and took it back with them to his fiefdom in England. Most of these stories are largely fictional. They are often based on facts. There was a massive trade in counterfeit relics in the Middle Ages in Europe and the Middle East. It is highly likely that there were many forged arks of the covenants in Europe, but it is almost certain that the real shrine was never found during the Crusades.
The ark of the covenant is one of the world’s enduring mysteries. There are many theories regarding the location of the tabernacle and its ultimate fate. Some of the claims are frankly ridiculous, like the claim that the ark was brought to the Hill of Tara in Ireland or that it was brought to America. Many, even reputable media outlets have supported the claims that the ark is in Ethiopia. Certainly, there is a long tradition of the ark being held in the African nation. It is highly unlikely that what is held in the historic Church in Axum. It is probable that the tabernacle in this church is a replica that only dates from the Middle Ages. The story that it was brought to Rome and lost is also unlikely as it is not based on any primary sources but only on tradition. The claims that the Crusaders brought the shrine back from the Holy Lands are also fables. So, what did happen to the ark of the covenant, that was so central to the history and religion of Early Israel? It is highly likely that the ark was taken by the Babylonians and at some date and it was destroyed or lost.
Gutmann, Joseph. "The history of the Ark." Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 83, no. 1 (1971): 22-30. Grisanti, Michael A. "The Davidic Covenant." Master’s Seminary Journal 10, no. 2 (1999): 233-50.
- Exodus 19:20
- Noegel, Scott B. "The Egyptian Origin of the Ark of the Covenant." In Israel's Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective, pp. 223-242. Springer, Cham, 2015)
- Munro-Hay, Stuart C. The quest for the ark of the covenant: The true history of the tablets of Moses (London: IB Tauris, 2005), p. 11
- Joshua 3:3
- 1 Esdras 1:54
- 2 Maccabees 2:4-10
- Hancock, Graham. Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. (London, Simon and Schuster, 1993), p. 117
- Joseph, Frank, and Laura Beaudoin. Opening the Ark of the Covenant. (London, Red Wheel/Weiser, 2007)