They were slaughtered trying to stop real-life raiders of the lost ark — an artifact so powerful and holy they were forbidden from ever seeing it.
The harrowing mass-murder of at least 800 people at an Ethiopian church in Tigray highlighted the apparent whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant, one of the biggest mysteries in religion and the stuff of movie legend.
The ark — a large, gold-covered wooden chest said to hold Moses’ Ten Commandments — was held at the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem for centuries, but vanished after Jerusalem was sacked in 586 or 587 BC, according to the Old Testament.
Since then its whereabouts have remained unknown — with rumors including it being stolen by the Knights Templar and hidden in a rebuilt French cathedral, as well as it being buried alongside Alexander the Great in Greece.
However, Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christians have long maintained that the ark has been held in a chapel at the Church of St. Mary of Zion in the holy northern city of Axum.
According to legend, the ark was brought to Ethiopia in the 10th century BC after being stolen by the staff of Menelik, the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Israel — who deemed the theft was permitted by God because none of his men were killed.
The ark is said to be so dangerous it was always covered while moved — and in Axum, only virgin monks ordained to be its keeper are allowed to look at it.
There have never been any photographs of it, only illustrations based on the description from Exodus chapter 25, verse 10-21, of an “acacia wood” box covered in gold and carried on two poles.
Even the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is “forbidden from seeing it,” then then-head, His Holiness Abuna Paulos, told the Smithsonian Magazine in 2007. “The guardian of the ark is the only person on earth who has that peerless honor,” he said at the time.
The guardian “prays constantly by the ark, day and night, burning incense before it and paying tribute to God,” Aksum’s then-high priest told the magazine.
“Only he can see it; all others are forbidden to lay eyes on it or even go close to it.”
Thousands gather at the Zion church in late November to celebrate the day Ethiopians believe the Ark of the Covenant was brought there — one of the reasons so many people were there during the November slaughter, which was only recently reported.
“When people heard the shooting they ran to the church to give support to the priests and others who were there protecting the ark,” Getu Mak, 32, a university lecturer, told The Times of London. “Certainly some of them were killed for doing that.”
Reports of the destruction and looting of priceless artifacts by troops prompted fears that the ark would be targeted. “Everyone was worried it would be taken … or just disappear, including me,” Mak told the UK paper.
It was not immediately clear how the church’s ark was saved, nor what happened to its guardian.
Some historians also insist that the sacrifices were made to defend a worthless replica.
Edward Ullendorff, a late professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), previously told the Los Angeles Times that he saw the ark during World War II and it was “a wooden box, but it’s empty.”
“Middle- to late-medieval construction, when these were fabricated ad hoc,” he said in the 1992 interview, saying the mystery around it was “mostly to maintain the idea that it’s a venerated object.”
Before his death, Ullendorff told fellow professor Tudor Parfitt that “it didn’t differ in any way from many arks he had seen in other churches in Ethiopia,” Parfitt told Live Science in 2018.
“It wasn’t ancient and certainly wasn’t the original ark,” Parfitt said.
Ethiopians have long brushed aside such reports, however, insisting people were shown fakes to protect the real ark, with their faith as strong as ever.
“If you attack Axum, you attack first of all the identity of Orthodox Tigrayans but also of all Ethiopian Orthodox Christians,” said Wolbert Smidt, an ethnohistorian who specializes in the region. “Axum itself is regarded as a church in the local tradition, ‘Axum Zion.’”
With Post wires
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