Questions of the kind that I needed to ask in order to evaluate Axum’s claim to be the last resting place of the Ark of the Covenant were not entirely welcome in Addis Ababa in 1983. There was still a certain amount of revolutionary jingoism in the air less than nine years after Haile Selassie had been overthrown (and less than eight after he had been smothered with a pillow by the man who had engineered his downfall – Lieutenant-Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam). Mistrust, hatred and rank fear could also be detected everywhere: people remembered bitterly the period in the late 1970s when Mengistu’s forces had unleashed the ‘Red Terror’ against those seeking to restore the monarchy. State-sponsored death squads had roamed the streets rooting out suspects from their homes and executing them on the spot. The families of the victims of these purges had then had to reimburse the cost of the bullets used to kill their relatives before they were allowed to claim back the bodies for burial.
It was in the emotional climate fostered by such atrocities that I was obliged to conduct my preliminary research into a subject that had explicit connections with Ethiopia’s last emperor and with the Solomonic dynasty to which he had belonged. Just how close these connections in fact were was made clear to me when a friend passed me a samizdat copy of a document prepared at the peak of Haile Selassie’s power and popularity – the 1955 Revised Constitution. Implemented with the intent of encouraging ‘the modern Ethiopian to accustom himself to take part in the direction of all departments of State’ and ‘to share in the mighty task which Ethiopian Sovereigns have had to accomplish alone in the past’, this remarkable piece of legislation nevertheless contained the following unequivocal confirmation of the age-old monarchy’s Divine Right to rule:
The Imperial dignity shall remain perpetually attached to the line of Haile Selassie I, whose line descends without interruption from the dynasty of Menelik I, son of the Queen of Ethiopia, the Queen of Sheba, and King Solomon of Jerusalem … By virtue of His Imperial Blood, as well as by the anointing which He has received, the person of the Emperor is sacred, His Dignity inviolable and His Power indisputable.1
I quickly established that Zelelew, our guide in Axum, had been correct about at least one of the things that he had told us: the Emperor had claimed to be the two hundred and twenty-fifth direct-line descendant of Menelik. Furthermore, very few of the Ethiopians to whom I talked in Addis Ababa – even the most revolutionary amongst them – seriously doubted the sacral pedigree of the Solomonic dynasty. Indeed, it was whispered that President Mengistu himself had plucked the ring of Solomon from Haile Selassie’s dead hand and now wore it on his own middle finger – as though, by this device, he could appropriate some of the charisma and supposed magical powers of his predecessor.
Such whispers and rumours were interesting enough. They did not, however, satisfy my desire for hard information about the Ark of the Covenant and about its mystical associations with the deposed ‘line of Haile Selassie I’. The problem was that most of my Ethiopian contacts were too terrified to tell me what they knew and shut up like clams whenever I mentioned the Ark, the former emperor, or indeed anything to do with the pre-revolutionary period that might possibly be interpreted as seditious. I therefore only managed to make progress when a knowledgeable colleague arrived in Addis Ababa from England – Professor Richard Pankhurst, whom I had invited to join me as co-author in the book that I was preparing for the government.
Grandson of the famous English suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, and the son of Sylvia Pankhurst – who had fought heroically alongside the Abyssinian resistance during the Italian occupation in the 1930s – Richard was, and remains, the leading historian of Ethiopia. In the time of Emperor Haile Selassie he had founded the scholarly and well respected Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University. Shortly after the revolution in 1974 he had left the country with his family, but was now anxious to get reinvolved; our book project, therefore, suited his own requirements well and he had taken a few days off from his work at the Royal Asiatic Society in London in order to discuss our collaboration on the text.
A tall but rather stooped man in his late fifties, he had a diffident, almost apologetic manner which – as I had discovered some time previously – disguised great self-confidence and a wicked sense of humour. His knowledge of Ethiopian history was comprehensive and one of the first matters I discussed with him was the Ark of the Covenant and the seemingly far-fetched claim that it might now rest in Axum. Did he think there could be any factual basis at all to this tradition?
He replied that the story of Solomon and Sheba that I had heard in the sacred city had an ancient pedigree in Ethiopia. There were many versions of it, both oral and written. Amongst the latter the oldest still surviving was contained in a thirteenth-century manuscript known as the Kebra Nagast – which was greatly revered and which most Ethiopians believed to tell ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’. As a historian, however, he could not accept this – particularly since the homeland of the Queen of Sheba had almost certainly been located in Arabia and not in Ethiopia at all. Nevertheless he could not entirely dismiss the possibility that the legend might contain ‘some scintilla of veracity’. There had been well documented contacts between Ethiopia and Jerusalem in antiquity (though not as far back as the time of Solomon) and there could be no doubt that Ethiopian culture did contain a strong ‘flavour’ of Judaism. This was best illustrated by the presence in the country of a group of indigenous Jews – known as the Falashas – who lived in the Simien mountains to the south of Axum and around the shores of Lake Tana. There were also certain widespread customs (many of which Abyssinian Christians shared with their Falasha neighbours) which provided at least circumstantial evidence of early ties with Judaic civilization. These customs included circumcision, the following of food proscriptions very close to those outlined in the book of Leviticus, and the practice (still adhered to in isolated rural communities) of celebrating the Sabbath on Saturdays rather than on Sundays.
I was already aware of the existence of the Falashas and had requested (but not yet been granted) official permission to visit and photograph at least one of their villages on our next field trip – which would take us to Lake Tana and thence northwards to the city of Gondar and hopefully also to the Simien mountains. I knew next to nothing about the so-called ‘Black Jews of Ethiopia’, however, and asked Richard to tell me more about them.
He replied that in physical appearance and in dress they were quite indistinguishable from other Abyssinian highlanders. Their mother tongue, too, was indigenous, being a dialect of the Agaw language which – although now rapidly being replaced by Amharic, the national lingua franca – had once been spoken extensively in the northern provinces. In short, the only really unique quality that the Falashas possessed was their religion – which was undoubtedly Jewish, though of a very archaic and idiosyncratic kind. Their adherence to ancient customs, long abandoned elsewhere, had led a number of romantic and excitable visitors to proclaim them as ‘the lost tribe of Israel’. And in the last decade this notion had received the official blessing of the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Chief Rabbis in Jerusalem who had defined the Falashas unequivocally as Jews – a status that rendered them eligible for Israeli citizenship under the terms of the Law of Return.
But, I asked, where had the Falashas come from in the first place? And how exactly had they been marooned in the middle of Ethiopia nearly two thousand miles from Israel?
Richard admitted that there were no easy answers to these questions. The view accepted by most scholars was that a number of Jews had migrated to the Abyssinian mainland from south-western Arabia in the first and second centuries AD and had subsequently converted some sections of the local population to their faith; the Falashas were therefore seen as the descendants of these converts. It was true, he added, that an important Jewish community had established itself in the Yemen following persecution by the Roman occupiers of Palestine in the first century AD – so it was theoretically possible that missionaries and traders had crossed the narrow Red Sea straits of Bab-el-Mandeb and entered Ethiopia. Nevertheless he knew of no historical evidence which confirmed that this was really what had happened.
And what did the Falashas themselves say?
Richard smiled: ‘That they are descended from King Solomon of course … Their legend is basically the same as the Christian one but a bit more elaborate. If I remember correctly, they claim that Solomon not only made the Queen of Sheba pregnant but also her maidservant – thus fathering not only Menelik but also a half-brother who founded a dynasty of Falasha kings. All the rest of the Jews in Ethiopia today are supposed to be the descendants of the bodyguard made up of the first-born sons of the elders of Israel who accompanied Menelik with the Ark of the Covenant.’
‘And do you think there’s any possibility that what they say might be true – I mean that the Ark could really have been stolen from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem and brought to Axum?’
Richard made a wry face: ‘Frankly no. No possibility at all. As a matter of fact Axum didn’t even exist in the period when this is supposed to have happened. It simply wasn’t there … Look, Solomon died – I don’t know exactly when but it must have been around the 940s or 930s BC. If Menelik was his son then it would have had to have been around those dates – maybe even ten or fifteen years earlier – that he brought the Ark to Axum. But there’s absolutely no way that he could have done that. You see, Axum wasn’t founded until at least the third century BC, perhaps not even until the second century BC – in other words about seven or eight hundred years after the supposed theft of the Ark.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘that rather puts paid to the whole story doesn’t it?’
‘Yes – although I expect it’s just feasible that the Ark could have been brought to some other place in Ethiopia which later got mixed up with Axum in the traditions that have been handed down. There are, however, many other fallacies, anachronisms and inaccuracies in the legend – which is why no historian or archaeologist worth his salt has ever been prepared to spend time investigating it … Nevertheless not all the things that the Falashas say about themselves are complete fantasies and some aspects of their origins would merit further research.’
‘What, for example?’
‘The claim I mentioned that there was once a dynasty of Jewish kings in Ethiopia … If we go back to say the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries AD we find quite a lot of evidence to support that view – and it’s probable that they had a monarchic system long before then as well. In fact, by all accounts, the Jews were once a force to be reckoned with in this country: sometimes they even fought successful wars with the Christian rulers in order to preserve their independence. But over the years they gradually weakened and began to disappear. We know that their numbers were greatly reduced between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. And unfortunately they’ve continued to be in steady decline ever since. There are probably no more than twenty thousand of them left now – and most of them are trying to get to Israel.’
Richard and I worked together in Addis for the next three days – during which time I benefited enormously from the detailed briefings that he gave me about Ethiopian culture and history. Then he returned to London and Carol, Duncan and I embarked on the field trip that would take us to Lake Tana, Gondar and the Simiens.
Tabots: replicas of the Ark
Driving out of Addis Ababa in the battered Toyota Landcruiser that the government had provided to facilitate our work we climbed the immense eucalyptus-covered shoulder of Mount Entoto and then travelled in a north-westerly direction for many miles across high, bleak moorlands.
At Debra Libanos (the name means ‘Mount Lebanon’), we paused to photograph a sixteenth-century church where thousands of pilgrims had congregated to celebrate the life and miracles of Tekla Haimanot, a famous Ethiopian saint. We saw normally shy and conservative men and women casting off all their clothes to bathe naked in a spring of holy water. Possessed by the demanding spirit of their own religious fervour, they seemed enraptured, entranced, lost to the world.
Further north still we crossed the spectacular Blue Nile gorge before finally arriving at Bahar Dar, a small town at the southern tip of Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s mighty inland sea. Here we spent several days puttering about on the reed-fringed waters in a large diesel-engined launch provided to us by the Maritime Authority. We visited some of the twenty monasteries on the lake’s numerous islands and photographed their wonderful collections of old illuminated manuscripts, religious paintings and murals.
Because of their literal ‘isolation’, we learned, these monasteries had frequently been used during times of trouble as places of safety for art treasures and for sacred relics from all parts of the country. Their main purpose, however, was to provide their inmates with peace and solitude. One monk told me that he had not left his tiny, wooded island for twenty-five years and had no intention of ever doing so. ‘By cutting myself off like this,’ he said, ‘I get real happiness. All my days I have been loyal to God and will remain so until I die. I have separated myself from the life of the world. I am free from its distractions.’
Every monastic community had its own church – and these buildings, usually circular in plan rather than rectangular, were often very old. Typically they would have an outer walkway, open at the sides but covered by the projecting thatch of the roof, then an inner circuit (the k’ane mahlet) richly decorated with paintings, then a second circuit (the keddest, used for communion) which in turn surrounded a walled central enclosure (the mak’das) containing the Holy of Holies.
I had been in many Ethiopian churches before, but those on Lake Tana were the first in which I began to get some idea of the significance of the Holy of Holies. I discovered that each of these inner sanctums – which only the most senior priests could enter – contained an object regarded as being immensely sacred. Speaking through our government interpreter at the fourteenth-century monastery of Kebran Gabriel, I asked what this sacred object was.
‘It is the tabot,’ replied my informant, ninety-year-old Abba Haile Mariam.
The word sounded familiar and, after a moment’s reflection, I remembered that I had heard it in Axum when I had sat in the grounds of the sanctuary chapel talking to the guardian monk: it was the Ethiopian name for the Ark of the Covenant.
‘What does he mean by tabot?’ I asked our interpreter. ‘Does he mean the Ark of the Covenant? We were just in Axum a couple of weeks ago and we were told that the Ark was there …’ I paused, genuinely puzzled, then concluded rather lamely: ‘I don’t see how it can be here as well.’
A lengthy discussion followed, into which several of the other monks were drawn. For a while I despaired of ever learning anything of substance from these people who – quiet and withdrawn until a moment before – were now garrulous, animated and argumentative. Eventually, however, with further probing from me and much clarification by the interpreter, a clear picture began to emerge.
Every Orthodox church in Ethiopia, it seemed, had its own Holy of Holies, and in every Holy of Holies was a tabot. No claim was made that any of these objects were actually the Ark of the Covenant. There was only one true Ark and that, properly known asTabota Zion, had indeed been brought by Menelik to Ethiopia in the time of Solomon and now stood in the sanctuary chapel in Axum. All the others throughout the length and breadth of the land were merely replicas of that sacred and inviolable original.
These replicas, however, were important. Indeed they were supremely important. Symbolic on several levels, it appeared from what I was told that they fully embodied the intangible notion of sanctity. As Abba Haile Mariam painstakingly explained to me during our interview at Kebran Gabriel: ‘It is the tabots, rather than the churches that they stand in, that are consecrated; without a tabot at its heart, in its Holy of Holies, a church is just an empty husk – a dead building of no greater or lesser significance than any other.’
The black Jews of Ethiopia
When our work at the island monasteries was complete we returned to Bahar Dar and then drove north, around the curving eastern shore of Lake Tana, to the city of Gondar – founded in the seventeenth century by Fasilidas, the same emperor who had rebuilt the church of Saint Mary of Zion at Axum. During the journey I had time to give further consideration to the tabot tradition that I had just learned about.
At the very least, I remember thinking, it was intriguing and odd that the Ethiopian Christians should ascribe so much importance to the Ark of the Covenant that they felt the need to place replicas of it in every single one of their churches. The Ark, after all, was a pre-Christian relic and had absolutely nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus. So what on earth was going on here?
Inevitably I began to wonder again about the validity of the Axumite claims concerning the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon and their son Menelik. Perhaps, after all, there was some substance to the legends. The presence of indigenous black Jews in the country, whose origin seemed to be shrouded in mystery, was also intriguing – and could, it seemed to me, quite possibly be connected. I therefore found myself looking forward with interest to visiting the Falasha settlements which I knew that we would encounter with increasing frequency on the next stage of our field trip.
Before leaving Gondar, however, we were warned by a senior official that we should on no account try to interview or photograph any Ethiopian Jews. Under the circumstances I was extremely frustrated by this, and even more frustrated – and annoyed – when our interpreter and official guide explained the reason for the ban. With an absolutely straight face he told me: ‘This year the position of our government is that the Falashas don’t exist. And if they don’t exist then obviously you can’t talk to any of them or take their pictures … It would be a contradiction.’
Less than ten minutes’ drive beyond the city limits, however, I spotted a Star of David positioned on top of a hut in a small village by the side of the road. ‘Come on, Balcha,’ I said to the interpreter, ‘that’s a Falasha house isn’t it?’
Balcha was an intelligent, sensitive and highly educated man who had spent several years in the United States. He was vastly over-qualified for the government job he was now doing. He was also quite obviously impatient with the more lunatic edicts of the bureaucrats in Addis Ababa and, indeed, with official secrecy in general. Although we had already left the Falasha village behind I therefore made a determined effort to persuade him to let us turn back.
He cast me a discomfited glance out of the corner of his eye: ‘Really it is very difficult. We never know from one day to the next what line our bosses are going to take … Late last year I brought a Canadian film crew to that very village … they were interested in the Jews and they had all the official permissions and everything. Anyway, they poked around and asked a lot of leading questions about religious freedom, political persecution and so on – all of which I had to translate. Afterwards I was arrested by the security police and locked up for a few weeks accused of facilitating anti-state propaganda. Do you really want that to happen to me again?’
‘No, of course not. But I’m certain there won’t be any problems. I mean we’re actually here working for the government and trying to produce a worthwhile book about the peoples and cultures of this country. Surely that makes a big difference?’
‘Not necessarily. Last year, when I came with the film crew, the Falashas officially existed – the government wasn’t denying them – but I still ended up in jail. This year there are supposed to be no Jews in Ethiopia, so I think if I take you to one of their villages I will be in serious trouble.’
I had to admit that Balcha’s logic was faultless. As we drove on through increasingly mountainous terrain, I asked him to explain the official position – if he could.
Part of the problem, he replied, was that most of ‘the bosses’ in Addis Ababa belonged to the dominant Amhara ethnic group. The Falashas lived mainly in the provinces of Gondar and Gojjam – which were both Amhara strongholds – and, as a result, there was tension between the two peoples. In the past there had been occasional massacres as well as sustained economic persecution, and the Jews were still looked down upon and despised by their Amhara neighbours today. Since the revolution some efforts had been made to improve the situation, but members of the ruling elite continued to suffer from a kind of collective guilty conscience about the whole matter and did not want any foreigners ‘sticking their noses in’. Moreover, since the beginning of the 1980s, official paranoia had been greatly heightened by the strong anti-government line taken by visiting American and British Jews, who had openly and vociferously expressed concern about Falasha welfare. ‘This has been seen as meddling in our internal affairs,’ Balcha explained.
As we talked I learned that there were other more complex considerations too. Instinctively lowering his voice – though our driver spoke no English – Balcha pointed out that Addis Ababa was the Headquarters of the Organization of African Unity and that Ethiopia had joined other African states in ending its diplomatic relationship with Israel after the last Arab—Israeli war. The fact was, however, that clandestine links did still continue between the two countries: indeed the Israelis were providing a certain amount of military assistance to the regime. In return for this help, some hundreds of Falashas had quietly been permitted to emigrate every year to Israel. The problem was, however, that thousands more had fled illegally by trekking across the border into refugee camps in the Sudan – from whence, they hoped, they might eventually be airlifted to Tel Aviv.
As a result of all this, the entire issue had now become very sensitive. On the one hand the government feared that its covert guns-for-people deal with the Israelis might at any moment be exposed, thus causing maximum embarrassment within the OAU. On the other hand there was real resentment at the fact that large numbers of Ethiopian citizens were being lured into refugee camps in a neighbouring and not entirely friendly country. This, Balcha said, made ‘the big-shots in Addis’ look as though they were no longer fully in control – which was true but not something that they wanted to publicize.
During the next three days I had little time to give further consideration to the Falasha question. Our journey had brought us into the heart of the Simien mountains – an Afro-Alpine wilderness, all of which lay at more than six thousand feet above sea level, much at nine thousand feet or more, and a not insignificant portion at thirteen thousand feet plus. The giant of the range, the snow-capped peak of Mount Ras Dashen, soared up to fourteen thousand nine hundred and ten feet – making it the highest point in Ethiopia and the fourth highest in the whole continent of Africa.
At an altitude of ten thousand feet, the camp that we had established as the base for our photography and research was freezing cold at night – so cold that we had to keep a huge fire stoked and burning. In the mornings, however, as the dawn mists evaporated beneath the rising sun, warmth filled the air and astonishing views unfolded in all directions over a surreal landscape which ancient seismic activity, followed by millions of years of erosion, had left folded and fissured, cut through with steep valleys, and dominated by isolated, jutting crags.
Our treks frequently took us up above twelve thousand feet on to remote, unpopulated heaths. At lower altitudes, however, we saw frequent signs of human habitation: grassy meadows that provided grazing for sheep, goats and cattle, and terraced hillsides divided into allotments and planted with cereals. Viewing these tidy smallholdings, I had the sense of a very old, long-established pattern of agricultural life and of a peasant culture that probably had experienced no significant change in the past century – nor even in the past millennium.
There were a few Falasha communities – which, at Balcha’s insistence, we rigorously avoided. The majority of the population, however, were Amharas who lived not in villages but in small hamlets – usually of six houses or less – that tended to be inhabited by single extended families. Typically their homes were circular structures with walls made of wattle-and-daub or sometimes of stone, and with conical thatched roofs supported by wooden poles rising through the centre.
The peasant whom we met and talked to were poor, in some cases very poor indeed, and their lives were clearly ruled by the iron rods of soil and season. Nevertheless they were also dignified and proud and this, Balcha told us, was because they felt – with good reason – that they belonged to a ‘master race’. Over an astonishing period of more than seven hundred years, from AD 1270 until the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, all but one of the rulers of Ethiopia had been Amharas. It was their mother-tongue, furthermore – Amharic – that had been adopted as the country’s official language.
Inevitably, therefore, Amhara culture – expressed through an almost universal dedication to the Christian faith – had had an enormous impact. In the past few centuries, whole tribes and peoples had become ‘Amharized’, and this process was still continuing in many different parts of Ethiopia. In such a context, Balcha concluded, it was little short of a miracle that subject groups like the Falashas had managed to survive at all, let alone maintain their own distinct identity.
A maverick at heart, Balcha (who some years later defected to the United States) surprised us on our journey back to Gondar by ordering our driver to stop at the same Falasha village that we had seen on our way out. ‘Go on,’ he said, ‘I’ll give you ten minutes.’ He then folded his arms and pretended to fall asleep.
From the moment we climbed down from the Landcruiser we were besieged by women and children all shouting ‘Shalom, Shalom’ – which, it quickly transpired, was just about the only word of Hebrew that they knew. With Balcha steadfastly refusing to interpret for us, we at first had some difficulty in communicating; soon, however, we found a young man who spoke some English and, in exchange for a small sum of money, he agreed to show us around.
There was not much to see. Sprawled up a slope at the side of the road, the village – it was called Weleka – was dirty and seething with flies. Many of the people who pressed around us seemed to think that we ourselves must be Jewish and that we had come to take them away to Israel. Others ran towards us with armloads of souvenirs – for the most part baked clay representations of the Star of David and of the supposed bed-time scene between Solomon and Sheba. The plaintive earnestness with which these items were touted touched me and I asked our guide how long it had been since there had been any foreigners here to buy their goods. ‘Not since year before,’ he replied.
In the short time we had at our disposal we photographed what we could. Here a loom stood positioned for a weaver above a hole in the ground; there pieces of iron lay scattered around a fire, in the flickering flames of which a blacksmith was forging an axe-head; in one hut clay was being baked; in another we found a woman at work fashioning pottery. The Amharas, Balcha told us later, despised such lowly trades – indeed, in their language, the word for ‘manual worker’ (tabib) had the same meaning as ‘one with the evil eye’.
By the time we left Weleka I felt thoroughly jaded. Partly prompted by what Richard Pankhurst had told me about the medieval history of the Falashas, and partly because I was intrigued by the possible connection of this people to the Ark of the Covenant story that I had heard in Axum, I had built up some rather unrealistic and extravagant expectations. A romantic at heart, I had nurtured dreams of encountering a noble and ancient Judaic civilization. The reality, however, seemed to be a degraded and impoverished peasant culture overanxious to pander to the enthusiasms of foreigners. Even the place of worship, which the Falashas called a mesgid, turned out to be filled with chintzy gifts from Israel: boxes of matsos were stacked in one corner and nobody could read the Torah – which had been printed in Tel Aviv – because it was written in Hebrew.
Just before we drove away I bought one of the miniature sculptures of Solomon and Sheba in bed together. I have it still. At the time I remember thinking that its cheap workmanship and sentimental imagery appropriately symbolized the deficiencies of the legend itself. Disappointed and disenchanted I glowered out of the window of the Landcruiser as we motored back into Gondar.
Coup de grâce
By the end of 1983 I had entirely lost interest in the Axumite claim to the Ark of the Covenant. The coup de grâce, however, was not delivered by the tawdry Falasha village but by what I saw when I followed up the one issue still outstanding after the completion of our field work – the question of the tabots, the replicas of the Ark, which were lodged in every Ethiopian Christian church. This custom had struck me as being of possible relevance and I wanted to find out more about it.
I raised the matter in the late autumn of 1983 on a visit that I made to Richard Pankhurst’s home in London’s elegant Hampstead district. Over tea and biscuits the historian confirmed that tabots were indeed supposed to be replicas of the Ark and added: ‘It’s a most curious tradition. As far as I’m aware there’s no precedent for it in any other brand of Christianity.’
I asked if he knew how long tabots had been in use in Ethiopia. He replied that he honestly had no idea. ‘The first historical mention was probably made by Father Francisco Alvarez who visited the north of the country in the sixteenth century. But it’s clear that he was witnessing a tradition that was already very old at that time.’
Richard then pulled down from his bookshelf a slim volume, printed in 1970, entitled The Ethiopian Orthodox Church. ‘This is an official church publication,’ he said, ‘let’s have a look and see if it offers any enlightenment on the subject.’
There was no index, but we checked first in a chapter entitled ‘The Consecration of a Church’. Here I read:
The consecration of a church is a solemn and impressive ceremony with rites symbolic of the sacred uses to which the edifice is dedicated. The various parts of the service are of very ancient date … The Tabot, or Ark, previously consecrated by the Patriarch, is installed with grandeur and is the chief feature of the ceremony.2
In another chapter, ‘Church Buildings’, I came across this passage: ‘It is the Tabot which gives sanctity to the church in which it is placed.’3 Finally, in the glossary, I found the word tabot defined simply as ‘Ark of the Covenant’.4
I next asked Richard if he had any idea what tabots looked like. ‘The Bible says that the original Ark of the Covenant was a wood and gold box about the size of a tea-chest. Do the tabots fit that description?’
‘Well, no, I’m afraid they don’t. Of course lay people aren’t supposed to see them at all. Even when they’re brought out in procession they’re always covered in cloth wrappings. But they’re certainly much smaller than the biblical description. We needn’t speculate on this though. You can go and see some tabots for yourself at the British Museum. They were looted from Ethiopia during the Napier Expedition to Magdala in the nineteenth century and brought back to England. I don’t think they’re on public display any more, but you’ll find them in the Ethnographic Store in Hackney.’
The next morning, after I had made a few phone calls, I drove over to Orsman Road, London NI, where the Ethnographic Store was located. It was a modern and fundamentally unattractive building with quite a high level of security: ‘People sometimes try to break in here and nick our stuff,’ explained the caretaker as I signed in.
He took me in a lift to one of the upper floors and then into an enormous warehouse of a room completely filled with rows of metal filing racks. These extended from floor to ceiling and were separated only by narrow walkways badly lit by overhead fluorescent tubes. The caretaker now consulted a voluminous index, muttering incomprehensibly to himself as he did so. ‘I think it’s this way,’ he said finally. ‘Follow me.’
As we walked I was reminded irresistibly of the closing scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark – the scene in which the sacred relic is sealed in a wooden crate and dumped in a federal depository amidst thousands of other anonymous containers. This parallel continued when, after quite a few false turns in the maze of shelves, we finally arrived at the right spot. Here, with a certain amount of ceremony, the caretaker pulled out … a large box.
I felt a thrill of excitement as he opened it up. Inside, however, there was nothing that bore even the remotest resemblance to my image of the Ark of the Covenant. Separated by sheets of crêpe paper there were, instead, nine wooden slabs, some square, some rectangular, none exceeding eighteen inches in length and width, and none more than three inches thick. The majority were very plain but all bore writing which I recognized as Ge’ez, the ancient liturgical language of Ethiopia. A few were additionally engraved with crosses and other devices.
I asked the caretaker to check his index. Could he possibly have made a mistake? Could we be looking at the wrong things?
He squinted at the list in his hands, then replied: ‘No. No mistake. These are your tabots all right. From the Holmes collection. Brought back by the British Expedition to Abyssinia in 1867/8. That’s what it says here.’
I thanked him for his trouble and left, satisfied that I had finally laid the whole matter to rest. These pathetic lumps of wood were supposed to be replicas of the sacred relic in the sanctuary chapel at Axum. Whatever that relic might be, therefore, one thing was now absolutely clear: it was not the Ark of the Covenant.
‘So that’s the end of that,’ I remember thinking as I stepped out on to Orsman Road and ran to my car through a dismal shower of rain.
I could not have been more wrong.