Is the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia?

The Ark of the Covenant series (post #6)

There are multiple theories as to where the Ark of the Covenant might be right now, but one of the more notable ones places it in Ethiopia. Since the Ethiopians certainly never invaded Israel, we might wonder how the Ark could have possibly ended up there. Well, there’s a story, one that involves Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

The Biblical accounts of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Jerusalem to meet Solomon and see his kingdom firsthand are found in 1 Kings 10:1-13 and 2 Chronicles 9:1-12. Jesus also mentions her in Matthew 12:42, calling her “the queen of the South.” Clearly this woman existed.

Furthermore, the Old Testament mentions the land of Sheba in several other passages: Job 6:19; Psalm 72:10,15; Isaiah 60:6; Jeremiah 6:20; Ezekiel 27:22-23; Ezekiel 38:13. The land is consistently described as being one of abundance that had merchants who were actively engaged in trading gold, precious stones, spices, etc. Unfortunately, what the Old Testament doesn’t give us is an exact location for Sheba.

According to the Bible, the Queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem accompanied by a great entourage complete with camels, spices, gold, and precious stones. She tested Solomon’s reputed wisdom by asking him hard questions, questions which he answered with no difficulty. She marveled not only at Solomon’s otherworldly wisdom but also the splendor of his kingdom, and she gifted him with 120 talents of gold, many precious stones, and spices the likes of which Jerusalem had never seen. Solomon, in turn, gave her all she desired, whatever she asked. Then the Queen and her servants returned to Sheba.

The Bible doesn’t speak of any sexual relations between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, but there’s no doubt that she was wildly impressed with him. There’s also no doubt that he was a womanizer who liked his women exotic. Remember that this is the guy who ended up with 700 wives and 300 concubines, and many of those 1,000 women were from foreign races (1 Kings 11:1-3). So, did Solomon and the Queen of Sheba “know” each other in the Biblical sense? Like I said earlier, there’s a story there.

The holy book of Ethiopia is called The Kebra Nagast, which means “The Glory of Kings.” The book claims that Sheba was ancient Ethiopia and tells the story of how its black virgin Queen, in her sixth year on the throne, heard about the great wisdom of Solomon from an Ethiopian merchant named Tamrin. Intrigued, she made the journey to Jerusalem to acquire wisdom, arriving in the city during the seventh year of Solomon’s reign, while he was overseeing the building of the Temple. She remained in Jerusalem for six months, and during that time she converted from worshiping the sun to worshiping the God of Israel.

Each day Solomon lavished the Queen with all kinds of gifts, and each day she grew more astounded at his wisdom. He personally instructed the metal workers how to hammer. He showed the stone masons how to measure. The roof of his palace had “shining pearls that were like unto the sun, the moon, and the stars” that illuminated the place by night as much as it was illuminated by day. He forced the demons to obey him. He even understood the speech of the beasts and the birds, and they actually came to him to converse with him.

The Queen’s relationship with Solomon remained strictly platonic until she informed him that she was leaving the next day to begin the journey home. Solomon, for his part, hoped that God would give him a child through her before she left. So, that night he tricked her into sleeping with him.

The next day Solomon and all Israel sent the Queen away with great fanfare. Solomon gifted her with camels and 6,000 wagons that were loaded down with beautiful things. He even gave her a vessel that could travel over the sea and another one that could travel through the air. He had built these two vessels by way of the wisdom that God had imparted to him.

Nine months and five days after the Queen left Jerusalem, while she was still making her way back to Ethiopia, she gave birth to Solomon’s son. Upon her arrival in her kingdom she was greeted with great pomp and ceremony. She then converted the kingdom to the worship of the God of Israel and raised her son in happiness. She named him Bayna-Lehkem, which means “son of the wise man.”

When Bayna-Lehkem was 22 years old he and a caravan of servants made the journey to Jerusalem so he could meet his father. By this time the young man was skilled in warfare, horsemanship, hunting, trapping, and many other areas. He was also exceedingly handsome, being the express image of Solomon in almost every way.

The caravan stopped in Gaza, which was located just south of Jerusalem. According to The Kebra Nagast, Solomon had previously given Gaza to Bayna-Lehkem’s mother, the Queen. From Gaza word came to Solomon that a man who looked just like him had arrived there. Solomon soon learned that the man’s caravan was traveling from Ethiopia to Judah to see him. This news made Solomon “glad in his soul” because he deduced that the strange foreigner must be his son. At that time Solomon was in the 29th year of his reign and only had one child, his seven-year-old son Rehoboam.

Bayna-Lehkem remained in Jerusalem for some time, and Solomon had every intention of making him his heir apparent. However, when Solomon extended the offer the young man politely declined. It was then that Solomon had him anointed as the King of Ethipoia, with the new king becoming historically known as Menelik I. (The Kebra Nagast even refers to the young king as “David” in honor of his legendary grandfather.) Solomon also ordered his own counselors, officers, and elders to send their firstborn sons back to Ethiopia with the new king so they could serve as the young man’s royal staff.

Azariah, the firstborn son of Israel’s High Priest Zadok, quickly became the leader of the group of firstborns, and he enacted a plan whereby Bayna-Lehkem (Menelik I) and his group could steal the Ark of the Covenant and replace it with a crude counterfeit they paid a carpenter to build. The Kebra Nagast says that Azariah dreamed a dream that confirmed that he should do this. Even more than that, the Angel of the Lord actually helped Azariah and three other men steal the Ark “in the twinkling of an eye.” The reason the Angel gave for providing his help was that Israel had provoked God to wrath.

Bayna-Lehkem (Menelik I) and his group were able to carry the Ark with them out of Jerusalem by concealing it on a wagon of seemingly worthless stuff. Azariah’s father, the High Priest Zadok, eventually discovered the theft and informed Solomon, but by then the group had already departed. Solomon quickly mounted an effort to run them down, but The Kebra Nagast story points out that the group’s wagons did not travel by way of the ground but by way of the air. As the text puts it, the wagons were “suspended in the air, and they were swifter than eagles that are in the sky, and all their baggage traveled with them in wagons above the winds.”

This, then, is The Kebra Nagast’s account of how the Ark of the Covenant came to reside in Ethiopia. It’s also the story of how Bayna-Lehkem became Menelik I, the founder of Ethiopia’s “Solomonic” dynasty of kings, which ruled in virtual unbroken succession over Ethiopia until 1974. Ethiopian history says the Ark was first taken to Ethiopia’s Tana Kirkos, a small island in the middle of the country’s Lake Tana. It remained there in a sanctuary complete with a Holy of Holies for some 800 years before being relocated to Aksum, where it supposedly still resides today in the small chapel of the monastic complex of Saint Mary of Zion church.

Okay, wow, that’s quite a story to be sure. But what should we make of it? Well, I’ve studied this whole subject a fair amount, and I’ve learned that it has its pros and cons. So, if you will permit me, I’d like to offer a list of those. I’ll start with the pros:

  • Whatever anyone else might think of their story, the Ethiopian people believe it wholeheartedly. They take The Kebra Nagast writings as historical fact.
  • The reverence the Ethiopians hold for the small chapel in which their Ark is purportedly housed at Aksum is very real. Their Ark has long been guarded by a succession of virgin monks. One individual monk, The Guardian of the Ark, will live his entire life inside the confines of that one site, never stepping foot off the site. This Guardian is the only man in Ethiopia who can see the Ark. Upon his death, a new virgin monk will be chosen to be the lifelong Guardian of the Ark.
  • Many Ethiopian Christians still follow the same kosher dietary laws that are prescribed in Leviticus. They also circumcise their baby boys, oftentimes giving them Old Testament names. Many of these Christians still hold Saturday sacred as the Sabbath.
  • Each Christian church in Ethiopia has within it a symbolic replica of the Ark, and each church has replicas of the tablets inside the Ark. Also, each church has a Holy of Holies room wherein these representations are kept. Only senior priests can enter these rooms.
  • Ethiopians consider the island of Tana Kirkos on Lake Tana to be a holy site because the Ark once resided there. 125 virgin monks live in a monastery on the island. These monks keep certain ancient instruments (such as a bronze tray) they say Menelik I brought with him from Jerusalem along with the Ark.

Okay, so those are some of the most important pros of the Ethiopian Ark story. Now let’s get to some of the most important cons:

  • Ethiopians also believe that Mary and the baby Jesus once spent ten days on the island in the middle of Lake Tana as part of their fleeing from Herod the Great. The island monks have even erected a shrine on the spot where Mary and Jesus supposedly sat each day. The problem with this story is that while the Bible does say that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled into Egypt to escape Herod the Great, it also says they remained there until Herod died. Egypt is located over 1,000 miles northwest of Lake Tana.
  • Experts have examined some of the ancient instruments on the island in Lake Tana and have concluded that they are far less than 3,000 years old.
  • The Kebra Nagast’s accounts of flying vessels and flying wagons seem very far fetched and hurt the story’s credibility. The part about Solomon being able to converse with the birds and animals does as well.
  • If the Bible’s Queen of Sheba truly did rule over a prosperous kingdom in modern day Ethiopia, there should be some kind of archaeological evidence in Ethiopia dating to 3,000 years ago that supports that idea. But there just isn’t any, not even one village or house dating to that age, let alone the remains of a kingdom. The oldest settled civilization ever discovered in that part of the world is found in the outskirts of the Eritrean capital of Asmara, and even those ruins don’t quite date to 3,000 years ago. There are some impressive ruins at Aksum, the town in which the Ethiopians keep their Ark, but those ruins are 1,000 years too late to be associated in any way with the time of Solomon.
  • The various historical kingdoms that were located in that part of the world left multiple texts behind. These texts date from eras after the Queen of Sheba would have ruled and her son Menelik I would have brought the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia. But not one of these texts mentions the Queen of Sheba, her kingdom, or the Ark of the Covenant.
  • Scholars date the composite writing of The Kebra Nagast to only as early as the 13th century, and while Ethiopians claim that the work is based upon a much older Coptic text, no evidence has ever been found of this earlier text.
  • Reputable scholars contend that the Queen of Sheba/Menelik I story first entered what is now Ethiopia in the 13th century. They believe the Ethiopian royal family of that day heard a similar story from the Arabians and fashioned it to fit their own political needs and legitimize their rule. By reinventing themselves as the descendants of the famous Queen of Sheba and her son Menelik I, the royals could claim that their ancestral line went all the way back to Solomon and therefore shouldn’t be questioned.
  • Even though it is claimed that no one other than The Guardian of the Ark can see the Ark in Aksum, Professor Edward Ullendroff, one of the world’s leading authorities on Ethiopian religion and author of the book Ethiopia & The Bible, was granted access to see it in 1941. He described it as little more than a wooden box, empty inside, that was of medieval to late medieval construction (certainly nowhere near as old as the time of Moses). His opinion was that the Ethiopian monks perpetuate an aura of mystery around their fake Ark in order to ensure that the object remains venerated. Such veneration is essential to maintaining their unified national pride in their historical story.
  • It is very possible that the Bible’s Queen of Sheba wasn’t even from modern day Ethiopia. Whereas the Ethiopian Christians cite her name as Makeda and claim her as their own, this same woman is mentioned in Arab/Islamic texts where she is called Bilqis and is associated with the pre-Islamic south Arabian kingdom of Saba. Along these same lines, the most popular translation of the Hebrew word “Sheba” is the Aramaic word “Saba,” and there was a Sabaean kingdom located in what we call Yemen today. The problem for the Ethiopian story is that Yemen is located in South Arabia, and that’s a long way from Ethiopia. To further complicate matters, the legendary Jewish historian Josephus cited the Queen of Sheba’s name as Nicaule.
  • If the Ethiopian story is true, it means that the Ark of the Covenant was stolen from Solomon’s Temple while Solomon was still alive. How then do we explain 2 Chronicles 35:3 where, centuries after Solomon’s death, Judah’s King Josiah instructs the Levites to put the Ark into the Temple (as I covered in the previous post)? To me this is the most damning piece of evidence against the Ethiopian Ark story. For us to believe that the real Ark is in Ethiopia and has been there since the days of Solomon, we must believe that all during the reigns of the subsequent kings of Judah (including Josiah) a counterfeit Ark was housed in the Jerusalem Temple’s Holy of Holies. Wouldn’t the Bible have mentioned something about that?

In closing, let me say that I don’t doubt the sincerity of the Ethiopian people who claim that the real Ark of the Covenant is in Aksum. This is why interviewing them is pointless. For that matter, even giving them lie detector tests would accomplish nothing. They believe what they believe and no one is going to change that. Also, unless a team of commandos storms that little chapel in Aksum and brings out whatever is in there, nobody is getting in to do any filming or take any pictures. I’ve seen more than one t.v. host turned away at that iron fence that surrounds that chapel.

So, what we are left with is a simple question: Are we going to believe the Bible or are we going to believe The Kebra Nagast? As for me and my house we are going to believe the Bible. And I’ll remind you that the Bible doesn’t even mention Solomon and the Queen of Sheba having sex, let alone them producing a child, that child being anointed by Solomon as the king of Ethiopia, and the child miraculously stealing the Ark of the Covenant away to Ethiopia. I’ll grant you that all of that makes for a fascinating story, but the world is filled with old texts that tell fantastical stories that simply aren’t true. This, in the end, is the category in which I place The Kebra Nagast.

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6 Responses to Is the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia?

  1. Paula says:

    I enjoy your blogs very much.

    • russellmckinney says:

      Thanks Paula. It’s always good to hear that somebody enjoys what I’m doing. That’s encouraging. Tell Ricky I said hello.

  2. Malcolm Woody says:

    This is as good a treatment of the Ethiopian/Ark story as I have ever read. I once watched a docu-drama on Karl Mauch, the German who spent a great deal of time searching for Ophir in the 1800s. He found a massive city in what is now Zimbabwe complete with mines, etc, but again the dating of the find was nowhere near old enough to be associated with Ophir or Cush, or anything of the King Solomon time frame. Everybody likes a good story though, right?

    • russellmckinney says:

      Thanks, I appreciate it. I worked hard on this one. I found an online version of The Kebra Nagast and poured over the story word for word. The thing is just chocked full of little details that I had to leave out of the summary. The Queen stayed in a room in Solomon’s palace during her time in Jerusalem. He sent her 11 different dress ensembles each day. He provided her with her own personal group of singers. Sheba’s queen was supposed to remain a virgin, but she was allowed to remain on as Queen even when she returned home with a child. When the Ark was leaving Jerusalem everybody started crying even though they didn’t know why. The dogs howled. The donkeys screamed. After the Ark was gone, the princess of Egypt comforted Solomon and was the reason he turned to false gods. It also gives the complicated details of how Solomon tricked the Queen into sleeping with him. If I had included everything that I found interesting, the post would have been a lot longer than it was. And it was very long anyway. Oh well.

  3. Pastor Steve says:

    I have studied the ark for a decade now. I agree with everythig on your blog 100% and to be honest, your the only other person I have seen yet to have studied as deep into it. Great job brother, keep up the good work.

    • russellmckinney says:

      Hey, thanks Steve. I appreciate it. The Ark truly is a fascinating subject. I’ve been enjoying putting in the spade work for the series.

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