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Raiding, and learning about, the lost Ark

The other night, Raiders of the Lost Ark was on BBC3, the digital channel which occasionally justifies its existence by showing films like this. This film, which I was astounded to note was released in 1981 (meaning that it’s the same age as my brother), is the first Indiana Jones adventure, and concerns everyone’s favourite university professor’s quest to find the Ark of the Covenant, while battling with his nemesis Belloq – who’s in cahoots with the Nazis, naturally – and romancing Marion Ravenwood to the accompaniment of a large runaway boulder, early-Eighties special effects, a Nazi-saluting monkey, many snakes, Denholm Elliott and a somewhat anachronistic prototype Luftwaffe aircraft. Archaeology and action – what’s not to like?

The Indiana Jones films constitute my second-favourite movie series (James Bond’s always hard to beat) and while my favourite is The Last Crusade (probably because I got taken to see it in the cinema, back when Edgware still had one of those, although the presence of Sean Connery as Indy’s dad is no doubt a factor too), Raiders is a film that I can happily watch again and again even though I do have a couple of issues with it.

The main one was the afore-mentioned aircraft – the one from the scene where Indy and the character credited as ‘First Mechanic’ have a fight which ends in the latter’s bloody demise by way of the propeller. It always frustrated me that I could never find such a plane in any book about the aircraft of Nazi Germany and/or the Second World War, and it was only after the advent of the Internet that I realised it was fictional! It was based on a glider that was developed into a prototype jet towards the end of the war. But even if it wasn’t real, what on Earth was such an advanced-looking military aircraft doing in British-controlled Egypt in 1936, given that the Nazis presumably wouldn’t have wanted to draw attention to themselves while they searched the ruins of Tanis for the Ark? That said, though, US intelligence had already figured out what they were up to, which is of course how Indy comes to be involved.

Another, more of a slow burner it must be said, was the question of whether everyone was looking for the Ark of the Covenant – that Biblical chest containing the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed – in the right country. If it exists at all (and, let’s be honest, that’s a very big ‘if’), isn’t it supposed to be in Ethiopia?

When I went travelling in Africa – ten years ago, I note with surprise – I visited a town in northern Ethiopia called Aksum. It’s part of the ‘northern circuit’ – other towns on this are the medieval capital of Gondar, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and, on the shores of Lake Tana, Bahar Dar. These are all popular tourist destinations and as such are accessible by plane from Addis Ababa. I, however, visited all of these by bus during my African journey, starting with Gondar (a day’s journey from the Sudanese border), then up north to Aksum, down and across to Lalibela and on to Bahar Dar before heading south to Addis. Ethiopian public transport, I should point out, is not for the faint-hearted; on almost all of the buses I was on, I was the only faranju (‘white man’ – the Amharic equivalent of mzungu).

Although somewhat dusty and nondescript-looking at first glance, Aksum is said to be one of the oldest continually-inhabited places in Africa, with ruins of palaces and underground tombs littered across the town amid the donkeys, the market-traders and the farmers. It’s the home of the Stelae, tall stone obelisks believed to have been carved and erected in the fourth century AD. Decorated with multi-story false windows and doors, they are believed to be markers for underground burial chambers (plenty of those in Aksum) and they are some of the largest monoliths in the world (one of them was stolen during the Italian occupation in the 1930s and was on public display in Rome for many years before being returned in pieces in 2005 and put back together and re-erected in Aksum three years later).

Local legend has it that the Queen of Sheba, the Biblical monarch who visited King Solomon, came from Aksum; one of the ruined palaces is called the Queen of Sheba’s Palace (although her ‘bath’ is in fact a modern reservoir).

Then there’s the church. St Mary of Zion (actually two churches, one built in the seventeenth century and the other in the twentieth) is Ethiopia’s holiest shrine, for this is where Ethiopian Christians believe the Ark to be located today, it having been taken to Ethiopia by King Menelik, the Queen of Sheba’s son by Solomon and the ancestor of the Ethiopian Kings.

The Ark itself is – so I was told – located not in either of the churches but in a separate building between them called the Chapel of the Tablet. Access to this building is strictly forbidden to everyone with the exception of one elderly monk. Only he may look upon the Ark, for reasons which will become apparent if you’ve read the relevant parts of the Old Testament and/or have watched the ending of Raiders.

For me, Aksum was part of a crash-course in Ethiopian history (with particular emphasis on the religious aspects) which had began in a church I visited in Gondar (said to be the only church in which the Prophet Mohamed is depicted on the walls) and would continue with the frankly unbelievable churches of Lalibela that are carved out of solid rock – a place that is for the most part several centuries behind the rest of the world.

By the time I got to Bahar Dar, I was quite literally ‘churched out’ and as a result probably less appreciative of the island monasteries of Lake Tana than I might otherwise have been.

Amid all of that, the story of the Ark got merged in with everything else – the Ethiopian version of how it got there is indelibly tied up with the wider story of the Ethiopian variant of Christianity (one of the world’s oldest), the heartland of which is the highlands of the north that I had visited before heading to the capital; the southern lowlands are mostly Muslim, and have been since the Aksumites were driven back to the mountains in the seventh century AD. All of the Ethiopian kings, down to and including Haile Selassie (the last one, deposed by the Communists in 1974), claimed descent from King Solomon as a result of the legend about how the Ark got to Ethiopia.

Anyone looking for more details about the Ark, and how it (apparently) came to rest in Ethiopia, is advised to get hold of a copy of Graham Hancock’s book The Sign and the Seal which was published in1992, not long after the Indiana Jones movies. A journalist with plenty of previous experience of the region, Graham Hancock (who at around the same time made a cameo appearance in the Ethiopia section of that superb Michael Palin travelogue Pole to Pole) set out on a quest to discover the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant. This took the Old Testament as a starting-point, and moved onto various Medieval texts from diverse places, the Knights Templar and several locations in the Middle East, Northern Africa, France and Scotland.

Hancock’s theory is that the Ark was removed from  Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem in or around 650BC, and that it subsequently spent a couple of centuries in Egypt before it was taken to Ethiopia by way of the Nile and was kept on an island on Lake Tana for around 800 years before being taken to Aksum. The Knights Templar come into the story in the 13th century when, having searched for the Ark on the site of Solomon’s Temple (present-day Temple Mount), they somehow figured out that it was in Ethiopia; they travelled there, where they may have had a hand in building the churches of Lalibela before the Ethiopians, fearful of losing the Ark, got in touch with Pope Clement V; his fear of the Knights Templar acquiring the power of the Ark is given as a key reason for his suppression of the  Knights Templar in the early fourteen century.

Readers of a serious disposition should bear in mind that this is no scholarly work. No academic would dream of making such assumptions as Hancock makes here based on very scant evidence, what I strongly suspect is a fairly fast-and-loose interpretation of certain historical texts and a ready willingness to resort to outright speculation based on the author’s own assumptions wherever the facts dry up. Which they do ... frequently. That said, this is a work that is part-travelogue, part historical detective work that quickly captures the reader (this reader anyway; perhaps unsurprisingly given that I’m a fan of the Indiana Jones movies and have been to Aksum, I was hooked after the first chapter) and leads us on such a fascinating journey that I for one was prepared to forgive Hancock his various foibles.

Perhaps they were all digging in the wrong place... 

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