After my blog last week expressing skepticism over the news story announcing the discovery of the Ark of the Covenant, LiveScience.com has walked back its story. The fact is that, lurid tales of killer priests and fabulous treasure aside, a Western professor has seen the ark in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.
The Man who Saw the Ark
Edward Ullendorff saw the ark inside the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. Ullendorff was a professor at University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He also served as an army officer attached to the British armed forces in 1941. And he was with them, when British forces took Ethiopia from the fascist Italians. With soldiers to his back and no one to stop him, Ullendorff had access to the ark within the church.
When he was still alive, Ullendorff gave an interview to the L. A. Times in 1992 debunking Graham Hancock’s claims. Ullendorff stated that he saw “a wooden box, but it’s empty.” He described it as a “Middle- to late-medieval construction, when these were fabricated ad hoc.” He maintained that the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion possessed a medieval period replica of the ark.
These replicas are a common feature of Ethiopian Coptic churches, and none of them are the real Ark of the Covenant. They serve an important role as an idealized place of veneration and religious focus.
These arks function like the altars in Roman Catholic churches. In Roman Catholic churches, the altar is not really a place were consecrated offerings are incinerated with fire — they are technically offering tables that are called altars.
The tabot (or “ark”) in Ethiopian churches serve a similar purpose. The word tabot comes from the Aramaic tebuta, which descended from the Egyptian tbt, “box, chest.” The purpose of the tabot is to remind the onlooker of the Mosaic law and the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
But this is not a the first time an outsider has seen an Ethiopian ark. In 2002, a Scottish church returned a tabot to Ethiopia. Photographs of these tabot show that they are nothing like the original Ark of the Covenant. They are small wood boxes that a single priest carried over his head. In contrast, the original Ark was 2.5 cubits (45 inches) long by 1.5 cubits (27 inches) wide and high (Exod 25:10) and the priests carried it on poles (Exod 25:13-14).
No doubt exists that these Ethiopian arks remain important religious and historical artifacts. But they are only historically significant to the medieval world of Axum, not the late bronze age world of Israel.