From January 12-29, 2003, we had the opportunity to join with Bob Cornuke, the famous international archaeological investigator, on an invitational expedition to Ethiopia to participate in the annual Timkat celebration.1 It turned out to be one of the most absorbing and life-changing experiences we've ever had.
The Ethiopians have been guarding their mysterious relic for over 2400 years, which they maintain is the Ark of the Covenant. Once a year they celebrate it with a two-day procession called Timkat.
Based on our understanding of 2 Chronicles 35, it appears that the Levites had removed the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to protect it from the ravages of Manasseh and sought protection under Pharaoh Necho. 2 (Pharaoh Necho, incidentally, was an Ethiopian, descended from XXV Dynasty, known as the Ethiopian Dynasty.) This relic, along with its Levitical retinue, apparently remained ensconced at Elephantine Island in Egypt for two centuries before it was moved south to Tana Qirqos Island on Lake Tana in Ethiopia, where it remained for eight centuries before moving to Axum, where it has been secured in a highly protected bunker-like building to this day.
We were able to visit each of these sites where this mysterious relic has been guarded for over 2400 years.
Elephantine Island lies in the middle of the Nile, just across from where the city of Aswan sits today; however, in the days of XXV Dynasty, it was a military fortress serving as a capital, which rendered it as an ideal refuge to protect the Ark from the reach of the malicious King Manasseh in Israel.
In addition to exploring the extensive ruins of the original fortifications and the subsequent temples - particularly from the subsequent Ptolemaic periods - we also encountered evidence that there previously had been a Jewish colony there in the sixth century B.C., worshiping in a temple to Yehovah.3
Tana Qirqos Island
Lake Tana is a large lake - over 90 miles across - in Ethiopia. Among its numerous small islands there is one, Tana Qirqos, which served as the Ark's domicile for eight centuries.
Thanks to the relationships that Bob Cornuke had established in his numerous earlier visits, we were received graciously by the small colony of monks that still reside there and were treated with opportunities to review some of their treasures still in their safekeeping: bronze flesh hooks that were used for the burnt offerings, bowls and other assorted implements, etc. We also examined the postholes that are still visible in the rocks where the Tabernacle ostensibly stood.
It was interesting to discover that they also embrace a tradition that Joseph, Mary and the child Jesus visited there during their sojourn in Egypt.
In about A.D. 330, the Ark was moved to Axum where it still resides today, presently housed in a secure building known as St. Mary's Church of Zion. It is guarded day and night by a Guardian that never leaves the site. When he dies, a young boy, specially chosen and groomed for this honor, will take his place until he, too, dies and is replaced by his successor. This procedure apparently has been followed for thousands of years.
Once a year, they celebrate Timkat, a procession from St. Mary's Church of Zion, through the town, to a waterside ceremony celebrating the Baptism of Christ. The procession continues to a large area distinguished by numerous stelae and other fixtures commemorating the nation, where prayers and songs continue on the second day. Ultimately the ceremonial elements are then returned to St. Mary's Church of Zion.
The actual Ark does not leave its secluded vaults, nor does the Guardian leave its side. Ceremonial replicas and other elements are used in the celebration. But it was absolutely astonishing to participate with tens of thousands of Levites, singing and praying - around the clock - for days prior, during, and subsequent to the processions, all celebrating Jesus Christ!
Here is a living tradition that apparently has been going on for over 2400 years! It is the only living tradition of the Ark of the Covenant on the Planet Earth. This is the only nation in Africa that claims to be Christian - and it has the Lion of the Tribe of Judah on its currency!
We had the unique privilege to be received in the home of Mr. Navrud, the Administrator (the one to whom the Guardian reports). Accompanied by his protg and heir apparent, and our interpreter, Bob and I spent several hours in a Bible study with them, comparing our Scriptures with theirs. While it is clear that they take their responsibility to protect the Ark until the Messiah comes very seriously, they seemed surprisingly unaware of any further eschatological insights.
We shared our views regarding the destiny of the Mercy Seat and the implications behind Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian Treasurer in Acts 8, etc.4 It may seem presumptuous, but it may ultimately turn out that our visit may have planted some fruitful seeds for their future.
Of course, we visited other sites as well (and the three we mentioned have been presented in their historical order rather than the sequence we encountered them).
We began in Rome, visiting the Vatican, et al., which, of course, has to be seen to be fully understood. The scope of the world's history - and its future - is incomplete without understanding the ostensible grandeur - and agonies - from the struggles for temporal and religious power.
We entered Ethiopia through Addis Ababa, "the Capital of Africa," and our visit included the famed rock churches of Lalibella, which apparently figure prominently in intrigues with the Knights Templar in the 14th century. When we visited Elephantine Island, we continued on a cruise down the Nile to Luxor, Karnak, etc., all incredibly spectacular and instructive.
Before we left Cairo, we also made some fascinating discoveries in the Cairo Museum. We examined the stela of Pharaoh Merenptah, the 13th son of Rameses II, which is distinctive in that it includes a reference to the "tribe" of Israel.5 (The mummy of Pharaoh Merenptah is also distinctive in that the salts in the canopic lungs indicate that he apparently drowned in salt water!) Could he be the "missing" pharaoh of the Exodus?
The Reality of the Ark?
Everyone asks us, "Did we actually see the Ark?" No, we didn't. The actual relic never leaves its protected enclosure. It is significant that the Guardian himself never leaves the enclosure - even during the high days of the Timkat celebration.
In our extensive discussion with numerous officials we never encountered the slightest doubt that they believe they really do have the actual Ark of the Torah under their protection. (And we should also bear in mind that it is not in the interests of Ethiopia for the world to be really aware of their predicament; it would further complicate the acquittal of their responsibilities.)
I believe it is correct to report that each member of our expedition "strongly suspect" that the Ark is, indeed, there under their safekeeping, and that it will ultimately prove to be the special "gift" that will be presented to the Messiah in the not-to-distant future.6
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