The Ark for Those Who Believe

St. Mary of Zion, Ethiopia


St. Mary of Zion Church claims to be the guardian of the ark of the covenant.

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If the whereabouts, even the existence, of the ark of the covenant are a matter of historical conjecture, such questions seem unfounded for the millions of Christians in Ethiopia. For them, the ark—the legendary resting place for the Ten Commandments—resides where it has for many centuries, in a tiny square chapel building next to the St. Mary of Zion Church in the town of Aksum.

Ethiopian legend holds that the ark was ferried to Africa by Menelik I, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, sometime in the 10th century B.C. It was carefully guarded by a small band of monks atop an island mesa in Lake Tana before ending up in Aksum, where Ethiopian Orthodoxy—a Christian faith incorporating a number of Judaic traditions—is the ark's chosen protector. This status grants divine protection, many believe, to Ethiopia and its people—though not from misrule and poverty.

Solitary guardian. Unlike more visible relics of Christian faith such as the Shroud of Turin, the ark at Aksum can be seen only by its solitary guardian, a virginal monk who, once chosen for this lifetime appointment, can never leave the iron-fenced chapel grounds. None are allowed behind the red curtains that shield the ark from view, lest they, according to belief, fall ill and die.

Scholars doubt the claims of the ark's existence in Aksum, making it all the more a test of faith. "We don't have to prove it to anyone," Ethiopia's Patriarch Abune Paulos declared in 1999. "You want to believe, it's your privilege. If you don't want to believe, it's your own privilege again."

Scholars have even questioned what is meant by Ethiopia's claim to have the "ark"—whether that refers to the sturdy wooden box said to have housed Moses's stone tablets or directly to the tablets that carry the inscribed words of the covenant. In that fluid sense of the term, the boxy little chapel may be seen as an ark itself, holding the beliefs of the faithful.

If most sacred places draw guests inside for a transformative experience, Aksum's unassuming chapel does the opposite. By shrouding itself and its holy treasure in mystery, it gains its power by remaining unseen—a sacred place that can't be entered or directly experienced, only imagined and believed.