For centuries – millennia even – the Ark of the Covenant has fascinated millions of people. A gold vessel that could annihilate opposing armies when carried into battle. A cursed object that brought death to those who looked within. An elusive sacred relic that simply disappeared never to be seen again five hundred years before the birth of Christ.
So – what was the Ark of the Covenant?
The Ark of the Covenant was a box made of acacia wood, gilded in gold and with two winged cherubim on the top. This magical but deadly container kept the Ten Commandments and other holy relics. It also included a pot of the manna that fell from heaven when the Israelites were escaping Egypt. And the rod of Aaron – which if you recall turned into a serpent before the Pharaoh.
But for 2,500 years, the Ark of the Covenant has gone missing. It’s absence has gripped the imagination of explorers because the Ark was believed to have supernatural powers. In the Old Testament, we’re told that when the Philistines – dread enemies of the Israelites – captured the Ark, it toppled the statue of their pagan god, Dagon. Then it inflicted “emorods” on the people – which sounds suspiciously like haemorrhoids!
The distraught Philistines sent the Ark back to the Jews.
Now, God had warned his Jewish flock never to look inside the Ark (you’ll remember the consequence of doing that from the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark). But they couldn’t resist a quick peek, just to make sure the Philistines hadn’t messed around with the contents. According to the bible, God punished this transgression by killing “fifty thousand and three score and ten men” on the spot. According to my maths, that’s 50,070 people – just because a handful of them looked inside a box.
The Ark of the Covenant housed in the Jerusalem Temple
The Jews built their first temple under King Solomon to house the Ark of the Covenant. It was placed in a special room protected by a thick curtain across the entrance called the Holy of Holies. This was believed to be a space where God literally dwelt. Access was denied to everybody but the priests, on pain of death.
In 2019, I was in Lisbon – the Portuguese capital – and visited an antiquarian bookshop I know very well. The owner had a folder stuffed with 18th century prints depicting the Temple of Solomon and the Ark of the Covenant. Well of course, I had to buy it. I won’t disclose the price! But here are some pictures below before we continue with the story…
In the year 587 BCE, the temple of Solomon was destroyed during an invasion by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. At this point, the Ark disappeared. Five hundred years later and Babylon had been conquered by the Persians. The Persian king, Cyrus, allowed the Jews to return home but the Ark did not reappear. Even when King Herod, in the years immediately before the birth of Christ, gave the temple a massive makeover – there was still no Ark.
In 73 CE, the Romans levelled Herod’s temple ending the First Jewish Revolt and celebrated its destruction on the Arch of Titus in Rome. You can still see Roman soldiers carting off goods from the smouldering ruins. But no Ark of the Covenant. And if the Romans had got their hands on such a prized possession of the rebellious Jews, they’d have depicted it.
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The Templars and the Ark of the Covenant
Why would the Knights Templar have wanted the Ark of the Covenant? Well, there’s no evidence that they DID want it. But plenty of conjecture. The idea is that being a band of determined Christian warriors, they would have loved to get their hands on a divine weapon of mass destruction. It certainly would have brought the Crusades to an early end.
There are a number of theories including claims that the Templars found the Ark at Petra in Jordan or in Ethiopia. Of course, they may have found it under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem – the platform on which Herod’s temple was built. The rumours swirled that the knights were always busy digging under the stone platform looking for holy relics and could they have found the hiding place of the Ark?
Among the treasure hunters seeking the Ark were the Nazis. Himmler had an obsession with the occult and this is central to the plot of the 1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark. But oh dear, look what happened when the Third Reich decided to have a look inside…