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Ethiopia’s Historic Trail: Quest for the Lost Ark

What does the tale of the Ark of the Covenant reveal about modern-day Ethiopia?

December 27, 2006

What does the tale of the Ark of the Covenant reveal about modern-day Ethiopia?

The conflict with Eritrea has been over for more than five years and the government of President Meles Zanawi has brought a degree of calm to the country that enables foreigners to traverse the historic trail safely and in relative comfort.

Ethiopia is the site of one of the oldest Christian empires in the world. It also has an intriguing claim to being the caretaker of the most important relic of the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant.

Outside of the country, most people believe the wooden box built by Moses to protect the stone tablets inscribed by God with the Ten Commandments is lost and has been for more than 3,000 years.

Ask a native, however, and you will be told that the Ark is safely tucked away in Ethiopia. Spend a couple of weeks there — and you will think so too.

To understand the role Ethiopia played in the ancient world and its Christian heritage requires a quick review of the map and a ten-day trip from Bahar Dar to Gonder, Axum and Lalibela.

From the map, you will gain an appreciation for northeastern Ethiopia’s strategic location along two critical transportation routes — the Blue Nile and the Red Sea.

The trip along the historic trail will give you an intuitive understanding for Ethiopia’s ties to the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Israelites. On Lake Tana, for example, you will see flat reed boats bearing an uncanny resemblance to the reed boats on the Nile outside of Cairo.

Similarly, you will see indigenous Jews in Falasha settlements outside of Gonder and hear about local customs that underscore the deep connection between Judaism and Ethiopian Christianity.

Starting in Addis Abba, it takes about an hour on Ethiopian Airlines to reach Bahar Dar, the stopping off point for a visit to the Blue Nile Falls and the island monasteries of Lake Tana. Although the falls were once considered the most spectacular in Africa, the construction of a hydroelectric dam nearby has so reduced its flow as to cause the locals to describe it as “a drunken man pissing.”

According to the Ethiopians, the Ark was taken to the islands for safe keeping by Menelik, the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, at a time when the Temple of Solomon was under attack.

He carried the Ark to Egypt and then followed the Nile to the island monasteries on Lake Tana, where it was kept until the fourth century when Ethiopia converted from Judaism to Christianity and the Ark was moved to Axum.

From Lake Tana, the next stop is Gonder which takes a little over three hours to reach by jeep along a well-built road constructed by the Italians during their occupation of Ethiopia from 1931 to 1941.

Gonder’s major attractions are its 17th century castles built by Emperor Fasiladas and his siblings beginning in 1636, when Gonder became the capital of Ethiopia for the next 200 years.

Other attractions include an enormous bath where thousands of people are still blessed during the January 19 (Gregorian calendar) celebration of Timket, or the Epiphany, commemorating Christ’s baptism by Saint John in the Jordan River.

There is also the church of Debre Berhan Selassie, a relatively plain thatched-roof structure on the outside with beautiful paintings depicting various scenes from the Bible on the inside.

In one scene, for example, St. George is depicted slaying the dragon and in another St. Mary is conversing with Mohammad, who is about to choose a path she opposes.

Ethiopia’s connection to Islam is almost as old as its ties to Judaism and Christianity. The prophet Mohammad reportedly told his early followers who were being persecuted in Arabia to emigrate to Ethiopia, “a land of righteousness.”

In subsequent years, relations between Muslims and Christians soured and turned into bloody wars. Today, however, the country is almost evenly divided between Moslems and Christians, co-existing in relative harmony.

Editor’s note: Susan Braden’s account of Ethiopia’s historic route continues here. A gallery of photos taken during her July 2006 visit to Ethiopia is here.