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Search for the Ark

Notes on a Strange World

Massimo Polidoro

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 33.1, January / February 2009

Along with the Holy Grail, the Ark is the most sought after and elusive of relics. Built of Shittim wood and pure gold to hold the Ten Commandments that were carved in stone by God and given to Moses, the Ark of the Covenant is first referred to in the Old Testament. The Hebrew people carried it on their shoulders during their journey in the desert and finally deposited it inside the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.

According to tradition, the Ark, as a physical manifestation of God, possessed extraordinary power able to evoke disasters and defeat enemies. It is thanks to the Ark, for example, that Joshua is able to part the River Jordan. It’s the Ark that destroys the walls of Jericho and allows the Hebrew people to conquer the city.

The Bible implies that the Ark was figuratively last seen in the sky. “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the Ark of his Covenant.” Some believe that the Ark really existed and are convinced that it is hidden on Earth.

The Lost Ark

According to common interpretation by biblical scholars, the Ark was destroyed in 587 bc, when Babylonian troops led by King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. Some researchers, however, do not accept this interpretation.

“There is no report that the Ark was carried away or destroyed or hidden,” says Richard Elliot Friedman, professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia. “There is not even any comment such as ‘And then the Ark disappeared and we do not know what happened to it’ or ‘And no one knows where it is to this day.’ The most important object in the world, in the biblical view, simply ceases to be in the story.” Actually, there is a quite detailed description in the Old Testament about the Philistines (enemies of the Israelites) carrying the Ark away: “Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the temple of Dagon and set it by Dagon” (1 Samuel 5: 1-5).

Among various hypotheses, there are those who think that the Ark was taken from the Temple before the arrival of the Babylonians. In the First Book of Kings, we read: “And it came to pass in the fifth year of king Rehoboam, that Shishak [Shoshenq I, founder of the twenty-second dynasty] king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem: And he took away the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king’s house; he even took away all: and he took away all the shields of gold which Solomon had made” (1 Kings 14:25-26, King James Bible).

And if Shoshenq I took away the treasures, perhaps he took the Ark as well. That premise inspired George Lucas and Steven Spielberg when they wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, which popularized Indiana Jones as the adventurous archeologist engaged in finding lost relics. When Shoshenq was king, the capital of Egypt was in Bubasti on the Nile delta, which was near Tanis. In the Spielberg film, Indiana Jones finds the Ark in Tanis.

Others have imagined epic adventures in which Templar Knights found the Ark, hid it in a secret underground chamber below Solomon’s Temple, and then took it, along with many other treasures and relics, to some mysterious locale like Chartres Cathedral in France or Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland.

Perhaps more realistic is the discovery made by James Bruce, one of the earliest explorers of Africa, around 1760. Bruce found a document from which it was possible to infer a possible link between Ethiopia and the Hebrews. According to this text, the Ethiopian Queen of Saba (or Sheba) had a child by King Solomon named Menelik. According to legend, Menelik stole the Ark from the temple and took it to Ethiopia around 950 bc.

This piece of information remained relatively unknown until English journalist Graham Hancock decided to investigate it. “The idea that the Ark of the Covenant could be hidden in Ethiopia stimulated my imagination and my curiosity,” says Hancock.

In Axum, Ethiopia, there is a temple that allegedly houses the Ark. “There were many facts that needed explaining. The fact that there existed a population of Hebrews in Ethiopia practicing the Old Testament, the fact that a Christian country worshiped a pre-Christian relic, the fact that there was no other country that claimed to own the real Ark. . . . [These are] mysteries for which I wanted to find the answers,” says Hancock.

He researched the legend of the Ark for two years and wrote a 600-page book, The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. His conclusions, however, are less than impressive. At the end of his investigation he found himself chatting with the guardian of the temple in Axum, who forbade him to enter. No one, except for the guardian, could see the Ark. And so the only proof of the existence of the Ark rested on the testimony of the guardian.

Mystery fosters curiosity, and owing to the fact that no one can see the Ark in Axum, Hancock made a fortune thanks to mere speculation. Perhaps in the temple there is a replica of the Ark built according to biblical descriptions, but not even this is certain.

An Electricity Storage Device?

Apart from the possible resting place of the Ark (assuming it really existed), another question that many have tried to answer is what this mysterious object could be. Some believe the Ark has supernatural powers; some see the Ark, the Ten Commandments, and the frequent conversations that Moses had with God as proof of ancient contact with more evolved beings, probably extraterrestrials. Erik Von Däniken, for example, was convinced that the Ark was some kind of radio receiver through which aliens passing in spaceships communicated their will to the prophet. “I seem to remember,” says Von Däniken, “that the Ark was often surrounded by flashing sparks and that Moses made use of this ‘transmitter’ whenever he needed help and advice. Moses could hear the voice of his Lord but could not see his face.”

There is no mention of flashing sparks in Exodus, and Von Däniken eventually changed his mind. He later claimed that maybe the Ark was a miniature nuclear reactor. He suggested that the machine stored water from the night dew, then green algae (chlorella) was added, and manna came out of the machine. The reaction needed to form manna was radiation.

The thought that the Ark was some kind of anachronistic technological artifact is quite appealing to some. Two British enthusiasts, Michael Blackburn and Mark Bennett, researched the topic (Fortean Times, 2006). The Bible says that those who carried the Ark had to be dressed in a specific way and that no one could touch it. In one instance, it appears that the Ark was in danger of falling from the cart, and a man named Uzzah jumped forward in order to stabilize it—he died instantly.

What if the Ark, wondered Blackburn and Bennet, was no less than a primitive electrical condenser? The description in the Bible (a wooden box covered in gold with two golden cherubs facing each other on the lid with wings outstretched and almost touching) reminds one of the Leyden Jar, a very simple device that accumulated and stored a large amount of static electricity that when discharged could deliver a very powerful jolt. “The cherubim would act as the positive and negative terminals,” say the two authors. “Using the example of the 500 gram, coffee-jar-sized Leyden Jar, and assuming that this could store a charge of approximately 200 volts, the Ark would have held the equivalent of 125 such jars, giving it a comparable, if not greater, potential voltage, as well as, more importantly, allowing for a much longer discharge time,” Blackburn and Bennet explained.

All of this is interesting speculation, even though such a hypothesis raises more questions than it answers. How did the ancient Hebrews discover the properties of static electricity? How could they electrically charge the Ark before taking it into procession? And what could be the use of a similar object, apart from producing a strong electrical discharge?

An Invention of the Ancient Egyptians?

The Ark, in fact, should be seen not as a real object but as a symbol, say modern historians of the Old Testament. “I see an enormous disparity between the historical fact and the narration of it,” says Gianantonio Borgonovo, teacher of Exegesis of the Old Testament at Catholic University in Milano, Italy. “Every narration must have a link to some historical fact, but here there is none. What I mean is that when there was the Ark nobody talked about it, now that there is no Ark everybody talks about it.”

It is a fact that no biblical-era figure writes about the Ark except for the prophet Jeremiah, “But his text had been rewritten and corrected a century later, when the Temple had already been destroyed. Another contemporary, Ezekiel, could have talked about the Ark but didn’t,” explains Borgonovo.

Borgonovo continues, “probably, there never was in Solomon’s Temple an object called ‘The Ark of the Covenant.’ It is just a highly symbolic image that, not accidentally, becomes an object of reverence for Christians, which contains the Ten Commandments, some manna, and Aaron’s staff. So, the question now becomes: Why choose the Ark as a symbol? This is a likely consequence of the Egyptian origins of the Hebrew tradition. It was Tutankhamun, in XIV century bc, who gave the most beautiful description of the Ark.”

It was the forgotten pharaohs who depicted the possible origin of the Ark’s tale on the decorated walls of the East-facing pillars of the palace of Ramses II in Luxor. There one can still see a symbolic representation of the feast of Apet, an Egyptian holiday that announced the culmination of the flooding of the Nile, on which the New Year’s harvest depended. On the wall there is a drawing that appears to show an ark carried on long poles supported by the shoulders of a group of priests. This, however, is not a box but a miniature boat carried by sedan-bearers, as in the Biblical tradition.

The link between Apet’s feast and the Ark of the Covenant is clear if one believes that ancient Egyptians used to carry their gods in procession inside the miniature boats. During Apet’s feast, then, “arks” contained small stone representations of the pantheon of Egyptian gods, just like the Ark of the Hebrews contained the stones of the Ten Commandments, symbol of the God of Israel. l


Massimo Polidoro

Massimo Polidoro's photo

Massimo Polidoro is an investigator of the paranormal, author, lecturer, and co-founder and head of CICAP, the Italian skeptics group. His website is at