The ark of the covenant has been as illusive as the holy grail for those who have searched the historical archives seeking to find it. The Bible talks about it as if it were one of the most significant icons of the presence of God and it played an important role in the early days of Israel's history. From its construction during the exodus by Moses to its relocation into the temple by Solomon, the ark was one of the central features of the Israelite faith. And yet, following its placement in the Holy of Holies in the temple, scripture is virtually silent about it.
What happened to it?
Scholars have long concluded that the ark was captured by the Babylonians in 587 BCE when the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was completed by Nebuchadnezzar. However, in the list of Babylonian booty from the temple in 2nd Kings 24-25 the ark of the covenant is not listed. Surely, as important as the ark was to the faith, its loss would have been recorded. But it isn't. And not only that, the ark of the covenant that's a part of the temple during Solomon's reign seems to be missing many of its artifacts (the ark in Moses' day contained the tablets of the ten commandments, Aaron's rod, and a pot of manna). But according to 1st Kings 8.9, "There was nothing in the ark except the two tablets of stone that Moses had placed there at Horeb, where the Lord made a covenant with the Israelites, when they came out of the land of Egypt."
Which brings us to an interesting theory. Graham Hancock's book entitled The Sign and the Seal claims the ark of the covenant is in safe-keeping in Ethiopia in the Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum. And it seems the Ethiopian Christians have an ancient legend that explains how the ark came to reside in Axum.
The legend goes like this: During Solomon's reign the queen of Ethiopia, Sheba, visited Solomon and was impressed by his wisdom (1 Kings 10.1-13). When she returned to her own nation she discovered she was pregnant by Solomon and gave birth to their Menelik (meaning Son of the Wise One). When Menelik was an adult he traveled to Israel to visit his father. Solomon welcomed his son with honor, but after a year the elders complained Solomon was giving him too much attention and demanded he return to Ethiopia. The legend says Solomon agreed, but only with the proviso that all of the elder's oldest sons would also return with Menelik. One of these destined to accompany Menelik was Azarius, the son of Zadok the high priest of Israel. He managed to steal the ark and took it with them to Ethiopia. When they arrived, Azarius told Menelik of the deed and Menelik decided the theft could not have succeeded without God's help. And so the ark has resided there under close guard ever since.
What makes this legend difficult to believe is that although the ark is said to reside in Axum even today, only one man, the guardian monk, is allowed to view the ark. No one else, Ethiopian or otherwise, is allowed to see the ark. There are no photographs and no other witnesses.
And yet, the legend lives on, and has lived on for over a thousand years.
Biblical scholars continue to contend the ark was destroyed in the Babylonian captivity. Indeed, Jeremiah wrote about its loss, "And when you have multiplied and increased in the land, in those days, says the Lord, they shall no longer say, 'The ark of the covenant of the Lord.' It shall not come to mind, or be remembered, or missed; nor shall another one be made" (Jeremiah 3.16). But the odd thing about Jeremiah's words is they don't say what happened to it. Only that it was gone. Not destroyed. Not residing in Babylon. Just gone from the presence of the Israelites.
It gives one cause to wonder.