Menelik arrives at Axum with the Holy Ark of the Convenant

AXUM, Ethiopia - In Axum, there's no mystery about what's become of the lost biblical Ark of the Covenant.

Like the vast majority of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, nearly everyone in this dusty, wind-swept town believes the ark is tucked neatly away in a stone chapel on the grounds of Axum's biggest church, safeguarding Ethiopia as it has for nearly 3,000 years.

Fueled by faith, thousands flocked to churches in Axum and throughout Ethiopia on Friday for Timkat, an Ethiopian celebration of the baptism of Jesus Christ. At the center of the festivities are "tabots" - tablets kept in every Ethiopian Orthodox church that symbolize the ark.

It is an annual reaffirmation of Ethiopia’s 1,700-year-old Christian tradition, with its unique focus on the ark.

“I can understand that outsiders are skeptical” about the ark, said Mersa Belay, head priest of Axum, 600 kilometers (370 miles) north of the capital, Addis Ababa. “They do not have our faith.”

“God knew Ethiopians were the people most willing to accept his religion so he placed the ark here,” said Mersa, before launching into the tale of how Moses’ ark came to this northern Ethiopian town of ramshackle stone houses set on arid plains and rocky hills.

The details differ with each telling, but the basic account remains: The Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Israel had a son named Menelik who was raised in Ethiopia, his mother’s home. As a man, Menelik I visited his father in Jerusalem, stole the ark and returned to Ethiopia with an entourage of Israelite aristocrats and founded a kingdom based in Axum.

That was about 3,000 years ago. Ethiopians converted to Christianity about 1,300 years later. The dynasty they believe Menelik founded ruled Ethiopia until 1974, when Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed.

Historians agree Ethiopia was converted to Christianity around AD 330. The rest of the story is dismissed a propaganda dreamed up in the 12th century to support a new line of Ethiopian kings who hoped to gain legitimacy by tracing their roots to King Solomon.

“The story of the ark ... cannot be documented, although many have tried,” says historian Richard Pankhurst, founder of Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa.

Scholars are not sure where the Queen of Sheba lived, although modern Yemen - not Ethiopia - is cited as the most likely spot. Outside Ethiopian chronicles there is no mention of the ark’s leaving Jerusalem. And the first Ethiopian kingdom didn’t appear until about 800 to 900 years after Solomon was believed to have lived.

Despite the skepticism of outsiders, belief in the ark’s powers runs deep in Ethiopia, where about half the 63 million people are Christian.

“The ark protects us in all ways,” said Haile Mersa, a 57-year-old farmer, adding that its powers are not limited to protection. “If we don’t respect (the ark) our belief is that we may lose our lives or become disabled.”

The ark has helped keep Ethiopia - the only African country never colonized - independent throughout most of its history, said Belai Giday, an Ethiopian historian.

“Ethiopia has been invaded, but has never been subjugated by a foreign power,” said Belai, citing Ethiopian resistance to Italian occupation between 1936 and 1941. “The Italians tried ... but they never ruled because we never lost faith in the ark and kept fighting.”

That faith was on display Friday as Axumites gathered at the chapel they believe houses the ark.

Draped in white linen sheets, they watched as robed priests removed a tabot covered by richly embroidered green and red velvet cloths from the stone building and began a solemn procession to a tent 800 meters (a half-mile) away.

At the front was the tabot, accompanied by priests and an honor guard of soldiers with assault weapons. Men marching behind sang haunting Ethiopian Orthodox Church music. At the rear, women quietly wailed.

Solemnity gave way to riotous celebration as the tabot reached the tent. Men and women mingled, singing and dancing, clapping to the beat of drums.

Timkat reaches its climax in the morning with a mass baptism. With believers outside, the tabot representing the ark remains in the tent through the night, a symbol to the faithful that God is present.

The lone priest, who now guards the ark -Gebrelebanos Teklemariam - rarely, if ever, speaks with outsiders. He refused to be interviewed.

Some priests in Axum said they have seen the ark but were not supposed to talk about it.

Patriarch Abune Paulos of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church said he had seen the ark and described it as the one whose construction is recounted in the Bible. It is a wooden box covered in gold and topped with two winged cherubim, he said, and inside are two mirrorlike tablets with Hebrew inscriptions.

The description differed from others given by priests in recent years. But on Friday, there was no debate among believers.

“If it were nothing

... we would take it out and walk with it,” said Merha Godega as he waited for the priests to remove the tabot. “But the ark is too powerful,” he whispered. “If we took it out, it would destroy us.”

The original story published by The Jerusalem Post with the title “Ark of the Covenant features in Ethiopian celebration”