I SHOOK my head in amazement at Isma’il’s antics. Street savvy and outgoing with a rough-edged charm, Israelis seemed to instinctively like him. Israel is a brash country anyway, and my extrovert Memen friend never seemed to offend the Israelis – even when bargaining for an Orthodox Jew’s hat at the western wall.
But as I wended my way back to the Hashimi hotel via the Jewish Quarter and the Suq Khan el-Zeit, I kept on thinking about a quote by Maimonides1. He’d penned in 1180:
‘There was a stone in the Holy of Holies, at its western wall, upon which the ark rested. In front of it stood the jar of manna and the staff of Aaron. When Solomon built the Temple, knowing that it was destined to be destroyed, he built underneath, in deep and winding tunnels, a place in which to hide the Ark…’
This clearly explained the motivation behind the archaeology of the Zionists; an archaeology that has resulted in such frenetic digging since 1967. For the Temple Mount fanatics, who exist on the fringes of Israeli politics, a discovery of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem would mean a major political windfall.
But life is never so simple. The notion of political advantage is more the idea than the reality. The hard fact of Israeli partisan politics is its stronger desire not to upset the status-quo, an uneasy balance of power between religious and secular forces – inside and outside of Israel.
In any case, the Knights Templars who explored under the Sanctuary in the 12th century found little to change history. And neither after four decades have the Israeli archaeologists and Rabbis come up with any convincing evidence to suggest that the Ark of the Covenant is still hidden underneath the Temple Mount.
What makes a Jewish search for the Ark so curious is the view of its Orthodoxy that the Ark of the Covenant will only re-appear after the coming of the Messiah. Until 1967 those hunting for the Ark had chiefly been Evangelical Christians. Jews looking for the Ark is a modern accretion, spurred on by right-wing Zionism.
It has to be noted that few of the Rabbis, journalists, Noahides, Evangelicals and adventurers have taken Muslim traditions – which are an integral part of Ark lore – into serious consideration. Rabbi Yehuda Getz, Ron Wyatt, Graham Hancock, Bob Cornuke, Tudor Parfitt and Vendyl Jones have all chased the Ark rainbow in places such as the Dome of the Rock, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Qumran.
Their neglect – and sometimes disdain – of Islamic sources is indeed a pity, for they do enrich the quest. The Ark of the Covenant (the ‘Tabut fiha sakinah’ in Arabic) is clearly mentioned in the Qur’an2, and Muhammadan traditions strongly suggest that the Ark is not hidden in Jerusalem.
Furthermore, Islamic discourse on the Ark reveals an intriguing similarity to the Hebrew one. The Arabic word ‘sakinah’, identical in consonantal structure to the Hebrew ‘shekineh’ (the ‘Divine Presence’) is used.
It was the Shekineh ‘emanating’ from the Ark – a heavenly treasure chest used as a symbol of prophetic authority – that protected the Israelites. And curiously, the Qur’an refers on several occasions to the protective ‘sakinah’, a divine tranquility and peace, protecting the Muslims too3.
Sufis say that there is more to this than meets the eye. These gnostics describe the Ark of the Covenant as a vessel, like the human heart, which contains the ‘Essence’ of the Divine. The Ark might have been a gold-plated box, but the secret has always been in what powers the box has contained.
So what was in the Ark of the Covenant?
There are slight differences in tradition, but most agree that the Ark of the Covenant contained the Tablets of Moses, his staff, a pair of sandals, a robe, a jar of manna and a turban.
More esoteric account adds further items. It traces the history of the Ark back to Adam, who brought some of its contents with him from Paradise. These are: the Hajr ul-Aswad (the Black Stone in Mecca), a staff (now in the Topkapi Museum) and Solomon’s ring.
This narrative – even if it’s regarded as mythical – does suggest a prophetic chain which is symbolic of a unifying and universal message. For in this account Adam’s heavenly relics are passed from prophet to prophet, landing up in the possession of Abraham via the descendants of Noah.
It’s when Abraham rebuilds Adam’s Ka’bah in Mecca that he’s told to insert the Hajr ul-Aswad, the stone from Paradise, into its eastern corner. His eldest son Ishmael inherits the rest of the heavenly relics.
Moses, whom we will discuss soon, escapes the Pharaoh after accidentally killing an Egyptian. Moses seeks refuge in Midian where he meets the prophet Jethro, a descendent of Ishmael. It is from Jethro that Moses receives his spiritual schooling, and his prophetic staff.
According to Biblical accounts Moses is the prophet instructed to build a vessel to carry the relics, which would include the divine tablets revealed on Mount Sinai.
Records tell us that the Ark was made of shittin, or acacia wood, and was a chest of about 1, 5 metres in length. Built by the Israelite craftsman, Belazel, Biblical accounts indicate that the Ark was Egyptian in design4. It was plated in gold with two winged cherubim attached to its lid, and veiled in a blue cloth when transported5. It was housed in a special tent, the Mishkan, which was a portable tabernacle.
The Mishkan consisted of a sacrificial altar, a golden Menorah6, the Qalal (a copper urn containing the purifying ashes of the red heifer sacrificed by Moses)7, jars of anointing oil and incense. After the completion of Solomon’s temple by Hiram Abiff and the jinn, the Ark would have been permanently housed in the Holy of Holies.
However, Solomon knew that his temple would not last forever. And in 587 BCE this was proved true when the Babylonian monarch, Nebuchadnezzar, invaded Jerusalem. He sacked the temple and sent the Jews into exile. Since Babylonian times the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant has been a mystery.
When the Romans captured Jerusalem during the era of the Second Temple in 63 BCE, a curious General Pompey demanded to enter the Holy of Holies. His response to the priests was one of bewilderment. The room was empty, so why the fuss? The historian Josephus (37-100 CE) also records that in his time the Holy of Holies was empty, saying that it was ‘unapproachable, inviolable and invisible to all’.
Biblical authority concludes that the Ark disappeared shortly before 587 BCE at the hands of the prophet Jeremiah who, if the apocryphal book of Maccabees is to be believed, hid the Ark in a cave on Mount Nebo8. But there is also a general reference to the relics of the Temple being captured by the Egyptians9.
According to the Institute for Scientific and Biblical Studies, the 22nd Egyptian Dynasty under Shishak (or Sheshong I) invaded Jerusalem in the fifth year of King Rehoboam with 60, 000 horseman and 1,200 chariots and carried off all the treasures of the Temple10.
The fact that the Ark is not specifically mentioned doesn’t make the statement equivocal and leaves just enough room for speculation. It does lead to the question, though, whether tabernacle artifacts could have ended up in Egyptian temples as trophies of war. What lies in the vaults of Cairo museum? In collector’s cabinets?
The proclivity for ancient Diasporic Jewish communities to build Ark replicas (the Ark is an icon of Ethiopian Christianity11) has contributed to creating Ark legends throughout the Diaspora from Africa to India. Journalist Graham Hancock‘s claim that the Tablets of Moses are housed in Aksum is a case in point.
So too, is the saga of Tudor Parfitt, an academic Indiana Jones and former professor of Jewish Studies at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. He discovered the remains of an Ark replica in Zimbabwe’s national museum. A radio-carbon dating of the Zimbabwean Ark, the ‘Ngoma’, revealed that it was probably constructed in 1350 CE12.
The story of the people who carried this Ark is as interesting as the search itself. In 1990 a young Venda man had come to my office claiming that his tribe, the Ba Lemba, had originally been Muslim. I was initially suspicious, but Saeed Sheikh seemed sincere, and settled down to relate a fascinating tale.
His people, he said, had always claimed that they were Jewish of origin. But having embraced Islam, Sheikh felt that the Ba Lemba had been Muslims who’d migrated from Yemen in the early centuries of Islam.
Sheikh showed me a list of Ba Lemba terms that enjoyed a remarkable resonance with Semitic root words. Even the prefix ‘Ba’ was foreign to local African language. ‘Ba’ means ‘tribe’ in Arabic, and is derived from the ancient word ‘Bani’, a prefix also used for the Bani Isra’il, the people of Moses.
He went on to say that his people had migrated to Africa from southern Yemen across the Red Sea. They’d traveled to Zimbabwe where they’d built a city. Facing hostile Nguni forces, the Ba Lemba had then been forced to flee into modern-day Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Sheikh outlined many of the Ba Lemba customs: burial shrouding, the monitoring of the moon, the slaughtering of animals with a special knife, the observance of sacrifices, the abolition of pork and circumcision.
If these traditions weren’t Islamic, they were certainly ‘Abrahamic’. The Nguni, the forefathers of southern Africa’s tribes who migrated from central Africa, did not share most of these customs. I filed the story for Muslim Views, a local publication, and forgot about it13.
Some 18 years later I encountered Tudor Parfitt’s book about his search for the Ark. At the same time, I was exploring southern Africa’s unwritten history and the influence of the Phoenicians, who’d sailed up the Zambesi River well before the Christian and Islamic eras.
Nguni oral history mentions the ‘Arabi’, who were detested as colonisers and slave traders. Nguni traditions talk about ancient Zimbabwe as being a cursed city – possibly because it was a slave-trading capital. They also mention a siege that drove out its inhabitants. Could the Lemba have been part of the Arabi? I wish I had the answer.
But my Ba Lemba story hadn’t quite finished yet. A genetic study in 2000 revealed that 85% of male Lembas possessed the Y-chromosome marker of the Cohanim, or priestly Levites – the direct descendants of Aaron14.
Nonetheless, that still didn’t locate the original Ark. I followed a trail to the Negus of Abyssinia, a kindly Christian monarch who in 615 CE had sheltered about 80 Muslims from Mecca. A legend stating that Menelik, the son of Sheba and Solomon, had carried the Ark to Ethiopia from his father’s court is just that – a legend.
The one theory that the Ark – or its contents – came into the hands of Prophet Muhammad via the Negus is tempting, but unproved. It’s certainly not corroborated by any credible traditions. Then there is the stronger argument that the Queen of Sheba’s people, the Sabeans, hailed from Yemen. However, it doesn’t diminish Ethiopia’s links to the wandering Jewish tribes in any way, as they must have passed through centres like Aksum on their way to central Africa.
Islamic tradition is the most explicit on the whereabouts of the Ark, although there’s no spot X. This is because it’s believed that the Ark, after being hidden in Jerusalem, was taken further north to Tiberias or Antioch, or to a place between them.
Harun Yahya, the well-known Turkish scholar, quotes a Muhammadan tradition that states the ‘Mahdi’ will unearth the Ark of the Covenant ‘near Lake Tiberias’. The mention of the Mahdi, says Yahya, brings forth the eschatology of the end times. This is when all peoples on earth will be shown the truth of their books15.
Imam Suyuti quotes another Prophetic tradition: ‘The reason he (the Mahdi) will be known as the Mahdi is that he will show the way to a hidden thing. He will bring the Ark to light from a place called Antakya (Antioch)’16.
Islamic commentators are unanimous that ‘near Tiberias’ and ‘Antioch’ are figures of speech meant to denote a distance from Jerusalem. So, as hopeful Ark hunters crowd the room, it’s best to say that the last chapter of the Ark of the Covenant still has to be written – its destiny lies clearly not yet in a full-stop, but rather, in an expectant colon.
1 F.E. Peters, Jerusalem, p. 227, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1985.
2 Qur’an 2: 248
3 Qur’an 9: 26, 40; 48: 26.
4 A box discovered amongst Tutankhamen’s treasures by Howard Carter in 1922 has proved to be an interesting design replica.
5 Blue in Semitic tradition is said to represent the colour of Heaven.
6 The menorah, a candelabrum of seven branches, is the ancient Israelite symbol. The origin of the word is said to derive from the salvia, or wild sage plant. However, its symbolism derives from the Tree of Life and the Seven Days of Creation according to Genesis. Exodus 37: 17-24 gives a full explanation of how Moses was instructed to build the Menorah. Today it is remembered on Hanukah, the festival day (25 Kislev) that commemorates the victory of the Macabees over the Greeks in the 2nd century BCE. The Greeks had stolen the Temple artifacts. To restore the purity of the temple, ritual oil had to be burned in its lamps. There was only enough oil for one day, but miraculously, it burnt for eight days, allowing the Temple to be re-dedicated and purified. Exact replicas of the original Menorah are not permitted, and on Hanukah candles are burnt in a nine-branched Hanukiyah (eight candles for each day of Hanukah and one to light the others). After 70 CE and the final destruction of the Temple, the Menorah was taken to Rome and paraded in the streets. There are some who believe that it is locked up in a Vatican vault to this day. See also: www.chanuka.com/history.shtml
7 The ashes from the red heifer were from a completely red animal, a genetic rarity. The heifer was sacrificed under the supervision of Moses as part of a ritual purification ceremony. The Third Temple movements say that this ceremony will have to precede the building of the ‘Third Temple’. Efforts to breed red heifers in Israel today have all failed. The red heifer is mentioned in Numbers 19.
8 Maccabees 2: 1-8
10 1 Kings 14: 25-26, 2 Chronicles 12: 2-9. Sheshong 1 ruled from 945-924 BCE.
11 Ayele Bekerie, Hymns to an Ethiopian Religious Tradition, Tadias Magazine, December 21, 2009.
12 Tudor Parfitt, The lost Ark of the Covenant, p. 370, Harper-Element, London, 2008.
13 I have not been able to locate the original article, but probably Muslim Views, April 1990.
14 The American Journal of Human Genetics, Y-Chromosomes Traveling South: The Cohen Modal Halotype and the Origins of the Lemba, Mark G. Thomas, James F. Wilson, Tudor Parfitt et al. published online 11 February, 2000.
15 See: harunyahya.com/articles/32ark_of_covnenant.html
16 Another tradition states that the Mahdi “will have the staff of Moses and the ring of Solomon…Allah will keep him (the Mahdi) hidden from sight until He wills. Then he will appear and fill the earth with justice, in the same way it was formerly filled with oppression.” Bihar al-Anwar, Vol. 52, p. 32; Ithbat Al-Hudat, Vol. 6, p. 19. Harun Yahya cites these sources. Yet another tradition from Imam Suyuti says: “He is called the Mahdi because he is the key to something nobody knows. He will bring the Ark of the Covenant forth from the cave of Antakya.” Al-Hawi, lil Futuwwa, 2. 83.