The monks who live in the small church of Saint Mary of Zion — also known as the “Chapel of the Ark” — in the sacred Ethiopian city of Aksum are forbidden to go beyond the bars surrounding the chapel.
They cannot abandon the task entrusted to them: to watch over the “Tabot,” as the Tables of the Law are known in Ethiopia, until the day they die.
Abba Gebre Meskel, who is 56 years old, has been doing it for three decades.
Archaeology and legend
According to the Book of Exodus, the Tables of the Law contain the ten commandments God gave Moses high atop Mount Sinai. Some would date the event to the year 1440 BC.
Apocryphal legends, part of common knowledge and tradition in northern Africa and some regions in the Middle East, attribute supernatural powers to the Tables. Around these legends, some others were woven, including the alleged Nazi obsession with occultism and relics that would give Indiana Jones one of his most famous missions.
But the truth is that, after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, nobody knows for sure where the Ark of the Covenant ended up. After disappearing without a trace – and with no known register of its whereabouts – its whereabouts (assuming it survived the destruction of the Temple) is still one of archaeology’s greatest mysteries.
Nevertheless, almost 45 million Orthodox Christian Ethiopians are certain that the Ark of the Covenant was taken, almost 3000 years ago, to Aksum, in northern Ethiopia, and that it has been guarded ever since by these monks in the humble church of Saint Mary of Zion.
Menelik, Solomon’s son
According to the Coptic tradition, the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon had a child: Menelik I, the founder of a dynasty of Solomonic Emperors that ruled Ethiopia. He would have been in charge of moving the precious chest, made out of gold and acacia wood.
In an interview with National Geographic, the temple’s Deacon, Zemikael Brhane, said “God Himself chose this land, and Aksum is our holiest city. Westerners always demand visible proof, but we Ethiopians do not need to see the Ark to know it is here: we just feel it, we know it.”
Who can get into the church?
No one aside from the guardian monks is allowed to enter the church. One of the few people even permitted to talk to these monks is the historian Ephrem Brhane, who has devoted himself to guiding pilgrims, faithful and tourists from all over the globe around Aksum. He claims that “Abba Gebre Meskel is 100% convinced it is the authentic Ark: it not only has the exact shape described in the Bible but, moreover, it shines with an enormous light.”
Can the Ark be seen?
For seven days a month, before the sun rises, the monks of Saint Mary of Zion take a copy of the Ark out in procession. Each and every one of the Orthodox churches in Ethiopia has a copy of the Ark.
Routinely, almost a thousand faithful attend the processions every month.
However, the old Chapel of Our Lady of Zion seems to have fulfilled its duty: several leaks in its roofs have forced the monks to start the construction of a new temple, right next to the actual one into which, in the utmost secret, the monks will take the Ark.
No one will know that the Ark has been moved once again, into this new temple, until the day after the deed is done.