Milton C. Fisher

Milton C. Fisher, Th.M., Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Philadelphia Theological Seminary. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Associates for Biblical Research and a frequent contributor to ABR publications.

The possibility that the Ark of the Covenant still exists and is located in Ethiopia has received widespread attention in recent years. Not only has Graham Hancock’s book The Sign and the Seal caught the attention of the public, but an hour-long National Geographic television special based on the book has further popularized the notion. —Ed.

The English journalist Graham Hancock has written an astounding account of his physical and intellectual search for ancient Israel’s most sacred object. The whereabouts of the Ark has long piqued curiosity, both religious and antiquarian. Hancock’s book, over 500 pages plus end notes, covers a decade-long personal adventure. It was utterly captivating for this observer. Having lived 12 years in Ethiopia myself, with numerous visits to some of his other locations (like Israel and Egypt), I could revisit, through his descriptions, places and persons already familiar to me.

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The Theory

Hancock’s The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant (New York: Crown Publishers, 1992) records wide-ranging research, extensive travels, and the numerous personal interviews involved in his quest. I’m able to vouch for the accuracy of much of his historical data, but not always for how he interprets the information — his imaginative stringing of the beads. The reader must examine his complex patchwork, his relentless pursuit of each new lead, each sudden hunch, his constantly evolving hypotheses. Hancock has thoroughly convinced himself, at least, that Moses’ Ark, fashioned in the Sinai wilderness, now resides hidden from popular gaze in a small chapel at Axum, ancient capital of the Christian Ethiopian Empire, in the northern province of Tigray.

Do I agree with Graham Hancock? I cannot lightly dismiss either the ancient and revered claims of my Ethiopian friends or much of what the Englishman has discovered in his arduous search. He has lived and travelled extensively in the regions of which he writes. He has interviewed many sincere and convincing witnesses, whose stories (even about the remote past) share a consistency with other known facts that helps them ring true in his mind. His Ethiopian friends, as mine, have known from childhood the story of how the Ark came to Ethiopia from Solomon’s Temple. Their version has to do with an intimacy between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba that provided Ethiopia with a Solomonic line of monarchs. It maintains that Menelik I, a son of Solomon and the Queen, fell heir to the Ark of the Covenant upon visiting Jerusalem at age 20.

As we shall see, Hancock seizes upon a different theory as to when and how the Ark may have migrated to the Horn of Africa, one that indeed sounds historically feasible. We must admit that claiming the Ark exists today in Ethiopia is not so preposterous as it would seem, at first, to the uninformed. Hancock’s case deserves a fair hearing.

With all that, do not assume I am satisfied with all that Hancock has written. A literary comparison with author James Michener may help. Both men do extensive research and have written long, informative books. But both reveal a religious skepticism and naturalistic bias in matters of theology, church history, and Bible content. They readily deny or reinter-pret what is actually said in Scripture. Graham Hancock, as I see it, is at his worst when he tries to tell us who and what Moses was and what was the nature of the Ark of the Covenant — its purpose, supposed powers, and how he thinks it was utilized by Moses and others. He ignores or rejects what is clearly stated in the Scriptures, and substitutes unjustifiable theories.

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Axum’s new Mary Tsion Church, Chapel of the Ark, and ancient stelae, Ethiopia.

My aim here, however, is to appraise the validity of Hancock’s amazingly complex case for his conviction about the survival and present resting place of the Ark. It is not, he concludes, buried under the Temple Mount at Jerusalem nor off on Mount Nebo, as stated in the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees. It is safely housed in northern Ethiopia.

Strong Points in Hancock’s Arguments

It is in Graham Hancock’s favor that he doggedly pursued every lead he found — by thought, word of mouth, or through reading. He appears utterly relentless in checking and rechecking any aspect of history with even the faintest application to his search. As we shall see, however, he does tend to jump rather quickly to conclusions, often building into his case a series of vague possibilities, if they but lean in the right direction.

There are, nevertheless, at least two undeniably strong points in Hancock’s favor: (1) the existence in Ethiopia from time immemorial of the “Black Jews” or Falashas, along with a subgroup called Qemant, and (2) the presence in every Ethiopian Orthodox Church of a tabot — an “ark,” a (small) clothcovered structure replicating perhaps the tables of the law inside the Ark.

The Black Jews

The Falashas became newsworthy in recent years, due to their being airlifted to Israel. This took place at first from the refugee camps in the Sudan, where Falashas and others fled the

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communist government’s resettlement program, and later by actual agreement with the weakening Addis Ababa regime.

The Israeli “Law of Return,” granting automatic citizenship to any Jew, was not extended to the Black Jews of Ethiopia until they were recognized, first by the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, in 1973, then by the Ashkenazi Rabbi in 1975. This delay is attributed to certain “irregularities” in Falasha practices. Not only do they use an Ethiopic (ge’ez) Torah, rather than Hebrew, but they still practice animal sacrifice. Strict sabbatarians and observers of Mosaic dietary laws, along with practice of eighth-day circumcision, they still had no awareness of the existence of Purim and Hanukkah. While to Israeli orthodox Jews these were deficiencies in their Judaism, for Hancock these distinc-tives are clear evidence of their separation from the homeland before the Babylonian exile — even before King Josiah’s reform (ca. 620 BC). He would seem to have a point there.

The estimate of surviving Falasha Jews at about 28,000 after the famine in 1984 represents an alarming decrease in their population. At the end of the first quarter of this century their number was double that, with a count of some 150,000 at the turn of the century. Prior to the 20 year pogrom of Emperor Susneyos, which began in 1607, butchering and enslaving them (to Sudan and Arabia) by the thousands, the Falasha population in the Semein (“Northern”) Mountain region was perhaps half a million.

The Tabot

Shifting to Orthodox (called “Coptic,” due to historic ties to the Egyptian church) Christian Ethiopia, Graham Hancock calls our attention to the distinctive attachment of that church to an Old Testament symbol. He asks, Why should an ark be the central and essential object in every church sanctuary of the land? This is the second major strong point in his case, I would say.

Requirement of a tabot in every church certainly points to a power-ful attachment to and reverence for the Ark of the Covenant and must have some long-standing reason behind it, be it legendarily or truly historical. Even if the former, what’s behind that? We don’t really know. Maybe one thing, maybe another. And that’s about the way much of Hancock’s “evidence” runs, throughout his case. He seizes upon a maybe, adds a few perhapses, or a why not? First thing we know, he’s assumed that much to be proven fact, and moves on.

But let us consider two more pluses in Hancock’s support system, of at least secondary validity. These are, in

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order, some historical evidence for a great medieval monarchy in East Africa, the “Prester John” records, and the archaeological information available about Elephantine Island in the Nile near Aswan. The former is the less clear, but both must be reckoned with.

Prester John Records

Hancock calls the sketchy information we have about a king (or series of rulers) “Prester (elder) John” a “momentous clue.” First mentioned in a European source in AD 1145 — halfway through the 80-some year occupation of Jerusalem by the Crusaders — this wealthy and militarily powerful Christian ruler was thought to control a vast stretch of “India.” Marco Polo (1254–1324) wrote that Abbysinia (of South Arabian derivation) was a large province called middle or second India. In his day all lands bordering the Indian Ocean were “Indies.” Two centuries later, the Portuguese Fr. Francisco Alverez titled his report of a six-year venture in Ethiopia (starting April, 1520) “Information About the Countries of the Prester John of the Indies.”

How Hancock says this European awareness of Ethiopia’s emperor(s) fits into his total case is complex. For now, let it suffice to say that from the fourth century AD onward this was the only Christian region in Africa, south of the Sahara, and that it was of special interest to certain parties in Europe.

Elephantine Evidence

Of greater significance is the island of Elephantine, in the Nile River at Aswan, near the first of several Nile cataracts. The ancient Egyptian name for the island was yeb (“elephant”) and for the east bank town swn (“market”), in hieroglyphs. Because this also marked the entrance to the Upper Nile region called Nubia (modern Sudan), the prince of the district was “Keeper of the Gate of the South.” Important for Hancock, is that a collection of papyri, written in Aramaic, describes the presence of a sizable Jewish community on the island in the fifth century BC. It was by the Elephantine Papyri that Biblical scholars were able to settle the exact date for Nehemiah’s first visit to Jerusalem, 444 BC, as they contain personal names corresponding to those in his book.

Of particular note with respect to

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the Ark of the Covenant is evidence that the exiled Jews there had a temple. The Persian occupiers of Egypt were using these Jews as military mercenaries. Out of resentment, the local Egyptians destroyed this temple of Yahu (“Jehovah”) about 410 BC, but it was rebuilt. A reconstruction of the size of the temple based on references in the papyri reveals that it measured the same as Solomon’s Temple! Papyrus #12, dated December, 402 BC, declares that Yahu now dwells in His sanctuary in “yeb, the fortress.” Hancock seizes upon this assertion to mean the Ark, “sign and seal” of God’s presence, was there in that temple at that time. When the Egyptians again had strength to do so, they drove the Jews off the island. And where else might they migrate, with the precious Ark, but up one of the two tributaries flowing down from the northwestern highlands of Ethiopia?

Reassured by remarkable traces and testimony he gained by exploring some of the 20 islands of Lake Tana, from which flows the meandering Blue Nile, Graham Hancock reasons that a fifth century BC migration of a number of Jews would explain the presence in Ethiopia of both the Falashas, descendants by intermarriage, and the Ark of the Covenant.

Of particular significance was the tradition reported by a priest on Tana Kirkos island. It says the Ark was removed from that island and taken to the capital Axum by Emperor Ezana, newly Christianized, 1600 years ago — after 800 years on the island. That would conflict with the Ethiopic story about Solomon and Sheba in Kebra Nagast (“Glory of Kings”). But it agrees remarkably with the AD fourth century introduction of Christianity into Ethiopia, via two young Syrian Orthodox guests of the royal court, and with a possible Jewish entrance in the fourth century BC, with their great treasure, the Ark of the Covenant of Israel.

Removal of the Ark from Jerusalem

This brings us to a final consideration on the plus side. After flunking his Bible exam on the Pentateuch (recall what we thought of his treatment of Moses and the Ark), Hancock does a remarkably careful job, researching the Historical Books for the right window of opportunity for the Ark to be removed from the Jerusalem Temple. Noting that there are precious few mentions of the Ark after the Temple’s dedication by Solomon, he highlights a significant command of the reformer king, Josiah. “Put the holy ark in the house which Solomon … built,” he orders the Levites (2 Chr 35:3). How and when did it get out?

Josiah’s grandfather, Manasseh, whose wicked reign of 55 years (697–642 BC) included such abominations

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Lichen covered stones with hollowed basins on Tana Kirkos Island
where the Ark allegedly spent 800 years

as astral worship, child sacrifice, pagan altars in the Temple precincts, witchcraft and sorcery, went so far as to desecrate the House of God with a carved idol (2 Chr 33:3–7). It was then, reasons Hancock, that faithful priests carried the Ark away to safety, to Egypt, where they built the Elephantine temple to house it. Even King Josiah was unaware of this, he suggests, and he finds support in what was said by Josiah’s contemporary, the Prophet Jeremiah.

They will say no more, “The ark of the covenant of the Lord.” It shall not come to mind, nor shall they remember it, nor shall they visit it, nor shall it be made any more (Jer 3:16).

Quite frankly, I’m ready to end the discussion right there. Jehovah God declares through His seventh-century prophet that the piece of Temple furniture known as the Ark of the Covenant is no longer needed. Important as it was at the time of Moses and the monarchy, from this point on we look to Messiah, Immanuel (“God-with-us”), in Whose appearance Ark and Temple find their real fulfillment.

Hancock’s Lesser Indicators

But I did promise to explain what connection “Prester John” has in all this. Trouble is, ‘all this’ gets very complex, as Mr. Hancock works through his data maze. Over a dozen 12th-century AD situations, carefully dated and documented, are linked up by Hancock. He moves among them as one walking on thin ice, testing each step, yet ever ready to stand confidently

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on his own assumptions and conclusions.

AD 1165 dates a purported “Prester John” letter to various Christian kings in Europe, boasting of his wealth and military might. Pope Alexander III’s response in 1177, referring to still another communication, grants a requested chapel in the Jerusalem Church of the Holy Sepulcher to the Ethiopian Church. At this time, “John” (cf. Amharic address to an emperor, as Jan Hoy, “O Great One”) would be Harbay, half-brother of the next king, Lalibela, who was in Jerusalem awaiting chance to seize his rightful throne.

So Hancock figures: Wasn’t it Lalibela who informed the Knights Templar Crusaders of the whereabouts of the sacred Ark? Didn’t they accompany him to Roha (= “Lalibela”) and engineer his rock hewn churches, one of which bears a Templar cross? Isn’t the Holy Grail epic, created in 1182, actually about the lost Ark? Was it not a suspicious Ethiopian king who advised the Pope to outlaw the Templars — whose successors in Portugal and Scotland (James Bruce, a Freemason) were very interested in Ethiopia?

See? It does get complicated. And the more it does, the more uncertain his case, in places. Graham Hancock has produced a masterful picture puzzle, but he probably has pieces left over.