Thursday, December 29, 2005

Myth of the Lost Ark Fuels Pride of a Nation on Brink of War

Telegraph News -- If Indiana Jones had done his homework, he would have found the Ark of the Covenant by raiding a church in the barren mountains of northern Ethiopia.

Many Ethiopians believe that the Ark, containing the stone tablets inscribed with God's Ten Commandments, rests in the church of St Mary of Zion, at the town of Axum, and some western scholars have endorsed this national myth as true.

The story underpins the country's sense of identity. Ethiopia believes itself to be a unique nation with an ancient Christian tradition. This fervent patriotism has led Ethiopia into a perilous military confrontation with neighbouring Eritrea.

An international boundary commission ruled three years ago that Ethiopia must relinquish to Eritrea some isolated patches of arid land. But Ethiopia spurned the verdict. If the two countries go to war, Ethiopia's national pride will be the cause.

The supposed presence in Axum of Christendom's holiest relic helps to explain the country's resolve. Beside the high, 17th-century walls of St Mary's church, local priests point to a small, suspiciously modern side chapel where, they say, the Ark lies behind seven red curtains. Only one priest - the Guardian of the Ark - is allowed to see it. This grey-haired figure, clutching an Orthodox cross, permanently inhabits the Ark's chapel and is forbidden to talk to strangers.

Amha Taklamaryam, 20, a deacon of St Mary's, has been his assistant since the age of 10. But he has never felt tempted to look upon the Ark. He said: "If you see the Ark and you are not the guardian, you go blind and terrible things happen to your body."

Yet he does not doubt the presence of something he has never seen. "Of course the Ark is here. I believe it because that is what everyone here believes. That is what my father and mother taught me to believe," he said.

According to Ethiopia's national epic, the Kebra Negast, which describes how the country's emperors were descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, their son, Menelik I, travelled from Ethiopia to visit Solomon in Jerusalem. His aides supposedly stole the Ark, which then made its way to Axum, then Ethiopia's royal capital.

Despite the questions over whether Sheba and Menelik actually existed and the chronological problems of the story, some western scholars believe the Ark probably is in Axum. Graham Hancock, who specialises in unravelling ancient mysteries, examined the evidence in his book The Sign and the Seal. He has attempted to explain the missing centuries between the supposed theft of the Ark and the appearance of Axum's civilisation. He thinks it was kept on an island in Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, until Axum emerged.

Richard Pankhurst, the professor of Ethiopian studies at Addis Ababa University, does not fault Hancock's scholarship and believes the Kebra Negast is right about Sheba.

As for the Ark's presence in Axum, Prof Pankhurst is keeping an open mind.

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