Dr. Stuart Munro-Hay, co-author with Dr. R. Grierson of The Ark of the Covenant, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1999, adds some notes concerning Ethiopian and foreign sources of information about the Ark of the Covenant.
For fuller details, the book The Ark of the Covenant can be ordered from amazon.co.uk (it is not yet listed by amazon.com in the USA, having no US publisher). M-H has also completed a second volume analyzing the historical documentation for the story of the Ark in Aksum, Zion. The Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia, to be published in due course.
The Ethiopian legends preserved in the book called Kebra Nagast, Glory of the Kings, relate the story of the meeting of King Solomon of Israel and the queen of Sheba, who is an Ethiopian queen called Makeda in this version. The queen of Sheba was the victim of an elaborate seduction plot, and a son, called David, was born from her union with the king of Israel. He is also called Ebna Hakim (Son of the Wise Man - i.e. of Solomon) or, in later times, but not in the Kebra Nagast, Menelik. In due course, as a young man, Menelik went to visit his father, who eventually appointed him king of Ethiopia and sent him home. He and his companions, the eldest sons of the High Priest and other notables of Israel, took with them the Ark of the Covenant, which they removed by stealth from the temple, fleeing with it by night from Jerusalem.
The consensus of Ethiopian opinion seems to agree that the Ark eventually reached Aksum. But there are many uncertainties about the development of the story both in the legend, and in the other reports about the Ark in Ethiopian and foreign accounts which mention it. There are, in Ethiopian tradition today, several stories told about previous resting places of the Ark, presumably before its arrival in Aksum. Other tales concern places to which the relic was withdrawn in time of danger. These include Tana Cherqos island in Lake Tana, an island in Lake Zway, Digsa in Bur north-east of Adwa, and Yeha. Naturally enough, as the legend developed, any place that could make some sort of claim to have been sanctified, however briefly, by its presence, was only too eager to do so.
The Kebra Nagast records only that King David (i.e. Ebna Hakim), son of Solomon, brought the Ark to his mother Makedas capital, Debra Makeda, the Mountain of Makeda, installing the sacred object under guard in the fortress. Aksum is not actually named in the Kebra Nagast story. Possibly it even went at one time to Adefa or Roha, later Lalibela, since Abu Salih the Armenian, in his Churches and Monasteries of Egypt written in the early thirteenth century, mentions that the Ethiopian king (then Lalibela) kept the Ark in the royal palace at the capital, which in Lalibelas time is known to have been Adefa/Roha. The city later came to be called Lalibela after the king himself, the extraordinary rock churches there having supposedly been cut out from the living rock at his command, and with the assistance of the angels.
Abu Salih even described the Ark; it contained "the two tables of stone, inscribed by the finger of God with the commandments which he ordained for the children of Israel. The Ark of the Covenant is placed upon the altar, but is not so wide as the altar; it is as high as the knee of a man, and is overlaid with gold; and upon its lid there are crosses of gold; and there are five precious stones upon it, one at each of the four corners, and one in the middle. The liturgy is celebrated upon the Ark four times in the year, within the palace of the king; and a canopy is spread over it when it is taken out from [its own] church to the church which is in the palace of the king". This sounds exactly like the sort of processions still seen regularly at church festivals in Ethiopia today, when the tabot or altar tablet is carried out from a church. (The Ark is called tabot in Ethiopic, a word used also by extension for the altar tablets; the word for tablet is actually tsallat, as in tsallata heg, the tablet of the law, given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai).
Abu Salihs comment about the Arks ceremonial journey to the church in the royal palace may indicate that the Ark - whatever precisely this was - was lodged at Adefa or Roha during the Zagwé period. It would certainly seem not unlikely that a king as pious as Lalibela is reputed to have been, would wish to have such a relic, if it were in his country, kept close by in his own capital.
If the Ark of the Covenant were kept in the royal church, as Abu Salih records, which of the churches of Lalibela would it have been? Gerster suggests that the church of Amanuel "may have served the king as the palace chapel" seemingly because of its particularly careful construction. Perhaps we may imagine King Lalibela in the splendid setting of this elaborately-decorated church? We know from the Arabic History of the Patriarchs of the Alexandrian Church that in Lalibelas reign a certain Metropolitan Michael was bishop of Ethiopia. It was reported that he rode to church in his golden jewelled cope to enter the sanctuary every Sunday amid the perfumed smoke of aloes and ambergris, but unfortunately no mention is made in this document of the Ark.
Ethiopian tradition asserts that the Ark has long reposed at Aksum; it formerly remained in the Holy of Holies of the church of Maryam Seyon, Mary of Zion, but now apparently rests in the special building, the enda tsallat or Chapel of the Ark (or the Tablet), constructed just to the south over the new treasury. It is uncertain when first the cathedral of Maryam Seyon came to be regarded as housing the Ark. It seems that by the sixteenth century this was certainly the case. The Book of Aksum, the earliest surviving copy of which is seventeenth century, but which describes the church which existed there before the destruction wrought during an invasion in the sixteenth century, does not specifically mention the Ark. However, the cathedral is referred to as "Our Mother Seyon the Cathedral of Aksum", and land grants of the Ethiopian emperors Sayfa Arad and Zara Yaqob also include this Zion dedication. Even earlier, but likely to be much later compositions, are other grants purporting to date from the time of Abreha and Atsbeha, in the fourth century, Gabra Masqal in the sixth century, and Anbasa Wudem, possibly of the tenth century. These, however, refer simply to gabaza Aksum, the cathedral of Aksum, and only the latter employs the name Seyon or Zion.
The chaplain of the first Portuguese embassy to Ethiopia, Francisco Alvares, writing in the 1520s, merely noted of the church that "it is named St. Mary of Syon... because its altar stone came from Sion. In this country (as they say) they have the custom always to name the churches by the altar stone, because on it is written the name of the patron saint. This stone which they have in this church, they say that the Apostles sent it from Mount Sion". There is no specific mention of the Ark.
In 1541 (?) Arab-Faqih, writer of a contemporary History of the Conquest of Abyssinia, noted that during the major invasion of Ethiopia mounted by Imam Ahmad (Grañ) at that time, the imam "returned to march against the town of Aksum, which is said to be an ancient town... (The king of Abyssinia) brought forth the great idol from the church of Aksum [presumably the Ark or tabot]; this was a white stone encrusted with gold, so large that it could not go out of the door; a hole had to be pierced in the church because of its size; they took it away and it was carried by four hundred men in the fortress of the country of Shire called Tabr, where it was left".
In a Jesuit annual letter from Ethiopia for March 1626-27, Manoel de Almeida records some comments about the Ark in his time. He mentions that instead of a consecrated stone "they have a casket that they call Tabot of Sion, that is to say Ark of the Covenant brought from Mount Sion; and they are so devoted to this that all the altar stones they call Tabot. And in the principal churches the altars were as all the churches had in ancient times, made in the form of boxes." He then tells a strange tale that the emperor (then Susneyos) and others affirmed that inside the tabot was enclosed a "pagoda, or an Idol, which had the figure of a woman with very big breasts." De Almeida asserts that the emperor, at the time of his coronation at this church, was insistent that he be allowed to look inside; but the dabtaras did not permit it. Later, some zealous priests, "obstinate in their errors", seeing that the Catholic faith was gaining, took the tabot and other precious things and fled, hiding them until the persecutions passed. The Catholics meanwhile removed the manbara tabot, the tabernacle, of the church, which they sent to the Jesuit centre at Maigoga (Mai Gwa-gwa) or Fremona (Adwa) so that it might not be replaced, and installed an altar to their own specifications.
Another Portuguese ecclesiastic, who had not, however, been in Ethiopia, Balthazar Tellez, enlarged a little on this. He was writing long after the Catholics had been driven from Ethiopia. He declares that the Abyssinians "thought they added much Reputation to their Church of Auxum or Aczum, by saying their Chest or Tabot, was the very Ark of the Old Testament that was in Solomons Temple, and that God brought it so miraculously to Ethiopia... The Abyssines to gain more respect to this little Chest of theirs, always kept it so close and conceald, that they would not show it even to their Emperors. They call it by way of excellency Sion, or Seon, as they pronounce it, and for the same Reason the Church, where they kept this to them so precious a Relick, being dedicated to the Virgin May, had the name S. Mary of Seon. Not many years since, perceiving that the Catholick Faith began to spread abroad, and fearing lest this litle Chest of theirs should be taken away, or disregarded, the most Zealous of their Monks removd it thence, and very privately conveyd it to the Territory of Bur, near the Red Sea, where they hid it among close Thickets and vast high Mountains, in order at a convenient Time to restore it to its ancient Place, in the Church of Auxum or Aczum, where in all likelyhood it now is, since their Revolt..." (quoted from the 1710 English edition of Telles book).
It seems the emperors of Ethiopia could, in fact, sometimes view the Ark or the tablets it contained. When Iyasu I came to Aksum in 1690/91, according to his chronicle, he rode on horseback up to the principal door, the door of the Ark of Zion. The king entered the sanctuary of the Ark of Zion, kissed it, and seated himself on the throne. Later he received communion in the qeddesta qeddusan, the Holy of Holies, and gave a banquet to the clergy. The next day the king entered the beta maqdas and ordered the priests to bring the Ark of Zion to show to him. The tabot of Seyon was deposited in a coffer with seven locks, each having its own key. The keys were brought, and six of the locks were opened, but they could not open the seventh. Brought, still locked, to the king, it opened of itself. The king then saw the Ark, and addressed it "face to face like Esdras". The Ark responded, giving him advice and counsel about his rule. Iyasu in 1687 had already been generous to the cathedral, according to a land charter (Huntingford, The Land Charters, no. 63); "with the help of our Lady Mary of Seyon the Mother of God... in the 72nd year after the previous kings [Susneyos, in 1615] abrogated (the laws), we restored to our Mother Seyon the Cathedral of Aksum all her laws and ordinances, and all her charter lands, and the administration of her possessions by the nebura ed.." On this occasion in 1691, too, Iyasu, at the principal door of the church, with the drums beating, confirmed all the fiefs. In 1693 Emperor Iyasu returned to Aksum. This time, the chronicle records that he entered the "chamber of the Ark" with Sinoda the metropolitan bishop, the etchege Yohannes and the dignitaries, all on horseback. Presumably in this account the chamber actually means the enclosure of the church.
In the 1770s the Scots traveller James Bruce came to Ethiopia, where he lived for several years, interesting himself in all aspects of Ethiopian life, history and legend. He was very dismissive of the fabulous legends about the Ark, though he did add that "some ancient copy of the Old Testament, I do believe, was deposited here, probably that from which the first version was made." He claimed that when he was in Ethiopia King Tekla Haymanot II told him concerning the Ark that the "whatever this might be it was destroyed, with the church itself, by Mahomet Gragn, though pretended falsely to subsist there still". The king may perhaps have told him some such thing, but it seems unlikely to have been true. Arab-Faqih would surely not have missed recording so enormous a blow at the Christians morale as the destruction of their most revered idol, if it had in fact not escaped the invaders.
Two French travellers of the nineteenth century, Combes and Tamisier, recorded a richly decorated chapel dedicated to Sellaté Moussé in the church compound at Aksum. Lejean in 1863 identified Maryam Seyon church itself by the name Sellata Mousi. As Monneret de Villard noted, this must stand for Sellata Muse, the tablet of Moses, and is a further reference to the Arks being present in the cathedral enclave. Combes and Tamisier, however, wrote that "this (female) saint for whom the Abyssinians have great veneration, was of the line of Solomon"! They perhaps saw the church of Mary Magdalene, north of the cathedral of Maryam Seyon, a church which has now disappeared.
Only two persons in relatively modern times actually claim to have seen the Ark, or rather the tablet of the law contained in it; Yohannes Tovmacean and R. P. Dimotheos. The Armenian Tovmacean saw the relic in 1764, when he went to look at the church in Saba, his name for Aksum. "There was also a large and ancient Abyssinian church where they said a piece of the stone tablet of the Ten Commandments carried by Moses had been preserved, and they took Tovmacean and Bijo (his companion) into the church, and showed him a closed altar said to contain this tablet of the Ten Commandments, but they refrained from opening it. However, on the insistence of Bijo, who claimed that he was a relative of the King, they very hesitatingly obliged. They took out a parcel wrapped in cloth, and began ceremoniously to unwrap it. There was a packet wrapped in another parcel of velvet, and it was not until they had removed a hundred such wrappings that they at last took out a piece of stone with a few incomplete letters on it, and, kneeling, they made the sign of the Cross, and kissed the stone, after which the object was again wrapped up, and put back into the altar which was then closed. This was a great relic - if it was indeed a piece of the tablet of the Ten Commandments which God gave to Moses".
As far as Dimotheos was concerned, as legate from the Armenian patriarch to Emperor Tewodros, the priests must have felt that they had to satisfy him. He writes that in 1869 he was taken by the priests to see the Ark; "When we arrived at the church everyone went into the vestibule, and we alone were taken by several of the clergy into the sacristy, built outside the church to the left, at the end of a row of other rooms. Inside this sacristy on the ground floor, was a sort of wooden attic, which one went up to by a movable ladder. One of the priest who accompanied us went up, and having entered, took up two planks of the ceiling to give room for two other priests who followed him there; then a deacon with a censer in his hand approached a coffer, which he censed, and presented us the censer to do the same. The coffer was a casket of Indian work; when it was opened we saw revealed the Tablet of the ten commandments. We removed it to look at it more closely. The stone was a pinkish marble of the type one ordinarily finds in Egypt. It was quadrangular, 24cm long by 22 wide, and only 3cm thick. On the edges it was surrounded by engraved flowers about half an inch wide; in the centre was a second quadrangular line in the form of a fine chain of which the interior space was empty, while the space between the two frames contained the ten commandments, five on one side, five on the other, written obliquely in Turkish fashion; at the base of the tablet, between the two frames, were three letters...". He then notes the letters, one a figure non existent in the Abyssinian alphabet (elsewhere he mentions that the text was in Abyssinian language) indicating ten, and the other two representing the sounds tsa and the unvoiced French e. Although these do not indicate numbers, he thought that nevertheless a date was meant, but no-one could explain it. On the other side the tablet was ornamented with more flowers, but of different workmanship. He added "this stone was near entirely intact, and showed no sign of age; at the most it might go back to the thirteenth or fourteenth century of the common era."
It seems likely that - like Tovmacean? - Dimotheos was shown a tabot, or altar tablet, of a more than usually elaborate kind. The priests, reared in the tradition of the sacrosanct nature of the Ark in their possession, are hardly likely to have revealed it without at least an attempt to foist something else off on these irritating visitors. One tabot in the British Museum collection (kept at present in the Orsman Road store, no. 1868-10-1-21) is fairly elaborate and has a similar decorative arrangement, with a considerable amount of writing on it.
In 1881, Rohlfs questioned the highest church official of the city, the neburaed of Aksum, about the Ark, and whether it had been left undamaged by the Muslims when the church was burnt. Rohlfs was assured that it was still in the church; not an ordinary copy, as one could find in the Holy of Holies, but built into the church wall and accessible only by means of a secret door. Neither clergy, emperor, echege or even the abun could see it; they would not be able to bear the sight of it. Only the guardian and his successors were permitted to see it; "so it was thousands of years ago, and so will it be until the last days".