Historical Notes: What was the Ark and what did it look like?
The first mystery of the Ark is that we have two different accounts of who made it and what it looked like. Was it an elaborate golden shrine made by the craftsman Bezalel, or was it a simple wooden box made by Moses himself? Is it possible that these descriptions refer to two different Arks? Modern scholars have been intrigued by three different views of why the Ark was made and what it was intended to do.
The oldest traditions describe a Palladium that ensured the victory of the Israelites in battle. Traditions connected to the priesthood describe it as the heart of the elaborate ritual of the Temple. Yet the Deuteronomist describes a simple container for the Law, an ethical basis for the Israelite religion in place of the cosmic ceremonies of the Temple.
A clue to the existence of more than one Ark may survive in the mysterious verse 1 Samuel xiv, 18. Saul summons the Ark to be brought to him, even though we are told elsewhere that it remained at Kiryath-yearim until David took it to Jerusalem. A shadow of an older and richer tradition seems to have escaped the eyes of editors for whom the true faith had become singular and exclusive: one god, one temple, one shrine.
What was the fate of the Ark that stood in the Temple at Jerusalem? The Second Book of Maccabees reports that Jeremiah carried it out of the Temple and away from Jerusalem before the Babylonians captured Jerusalem in 587 BC. He took it across the Jordan and into Arabia, and here the Arab historians pick up the trail, telling us that it was captured by the Jurhum, the tribe that controlled the ancient shrine in Mecca known as the Kaba.
Along with these reports, we know that sacred stones bearing a remarkable resemblance to the Ark have survived in or near the Kaba for over 17 centuries. What is more, the dimensions of the Kaba in which it was kept are those of the inner sanctuary in the Temple, the chamber built for the Ark of the Covenant.
Given the fascination in Arabia with arks or similar shrines, it should not be surprising if similar traditions were also recorded on the other side of the Red Sea, in a country whose early history is so closely connected with Arabia. In Ethiopia, the medieval epic known as The Glory of Kings tells us that the Ark came to Ethiopia of its own volition, accompanying the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba when he returned from Jerusalem to his mother's country. The great relic is still believed to be preserved in the Chapel of the Tablet at Aksum, but there seems to be no evidence of its presence in Ethiopia before the 12th century.
In fact, the clergy at Aksum now speak of the Tablet of Moses rather than the Ark itself, and they also speak of there having been more than one of the great relic, however unique the Ark is meant to be. Their answer is therefore mystical. After all, the real Ark exists in heaven and material forms on earth are copies, however genuine. But there is also a historical point. While a wooden Ark might survive in the dry air of a scaled Egyptian tomb, the rains of highland Ethiopia would mean decay.
Yet we have seen that sacred stones have survived for centuries in Mecca. Why could an ancient Tablet not survive at Aksum as well?
Roderick Grierson and Stuart Munro-Hay are the authors of `The Ark of the Covenant' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 20)
Arts & Ents blogs
There is a good many moments in the second episode of this psychological thriller that deserve refle...
The opening titles squeal ‘Never Can Say Goodbye…’. Oh Lord how I wish I could heave this series off...
Even though there was a complete absence of our favourite odd couple Brienne and Jaime, we got anoth...
Daft Punk's Random Access Memories set to be fastest-selling album of 2013
Coronation Street triumphs over EastEnders at British Soap Awards 2013
Man Of Tai Chi: Keanu Reeves' directorial debut 'a contemporary Kung Fu film' snapped up at Cannes
The Freemasons' Code: Dan Brown reveals the message that told him the door to the lodge is open
Cannes Film Festival: And why exactly are vous here?
- 1 'Sickening, deluded and unforgivable': Bloody attack brings terror to capital’s streets
- 2 Mothers' diets may harm IQs in two-thirds of babies
- 3 Far-right French historian, 78-year-old Dominique Venner, commits suicide in Notre Dame in protest against gay marriage
- 4 Eyewitness gives extraordinary account of her confrontation with Woolwich attackers
- 5 Woolwich attack: The EDL might have a sinister plan as a soldier is murdered in suspected Islamic terrorist attack
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Find out what The Independent's resident travel expert has to say about one of the most beautiful small cities in the world
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.