You don’t need a bullwhip or a washable but unwashed, uncrushable but rumpled felt fedora to find the Lost Ark. All you need is an Ethiopian tour operator and a free week next month to get up into the highlands to attend the annual Timket Festival between January 20 and 22.
The Ark of the Covenant, a gold and acacia (shittim) wood box containing the ‘Voice of God’ in the form of the Ten Commandments on two stone tablets given to Moses on Mount Sinai, was allegedly brought from Jerusalem to Ethiopia around 950BC by Menelick 1, the country’s first king and the fruit of a one-night stand between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Eventually, according to all Ethiopians and many scholars, it ended up in the Church of Our Lady of Zion in Axum, the first Ethiopian city to be Christianised. Only one guardian monk may view the Ark. His job is for life. He is the Ark’s full-time bodyguard and caretaker. He lives in the chapel, rarely leaving it.
Mount Nebo in Israel, where Moses viewed the Promised Land and is thought to be buried, claims to be the Ark’s final resting place. Yemen, Chartres Cathedral in France, Zimbabwe, the Hill of Tara in County Meath, Ireland and Herd-ewykey in Warwickshire, England (seat of the Templar leader, Ralph de Sudeley) also claim ownership of the original Ark. In the Spielberg Indian Jones films, the Ark is discovered in the Egyptian city of Tanis.
Every year, pilgrims from around the world journey to Lalibela to venerate the repository of divine energies. Each Ethiopian church has its own ‘tabot’ or imitation ark which, as a symbol of God’s presence on Earth, gives every church its sanctity.
Lalibela in Ethiopia’s highlands, an hour’s flight from Addis Ababa, is famous for its 11th century churches carved out of the Lasta mountains.
Timket (meaning baptism) is the annual Epiphany festival celebrating the baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan. Eighty per cent of Ethiopians are Christians and members of the Orthodox Tewaledo Church.
“You must not touch or see the tabots,” said Solomon, a former Ethiopian Church deacon and the owner of the Jerusalem Guest House where I stayed in the New Jerusalem created by Emperor Gebra Mesquel after Jerusalem was taken by Saladin’s Muslims in 1187.
“You must not approach it with a bad heart,” Solomon solemnly advised me. “Its awesome powers are mentioned in the Old Testament. It shall smite you down with boils. And piles!”
We were eating wot, a lamb stew, served with inacera, a large pancake of fermented dough. We drank the local Gouder red wine. It wasn’t one of the 250 fasting days on the Coptic calendar.
A big bearded Australian cleric was staying there too. “Timket is over 3,000 years old,” he told me. “The sistra hand bells you hear everywhere go back to pre-dynastic Egypt. The instruments played are the nearest to the harps of David. This is a holy place. A place of worship and adoration. Man started here five million years ago. Ethiopia or Abyssinia is mentioned 33 times in the Bible. The Ark over 40.”
Only one guardian monk may view the Ark. His job is for life... full-time bodyguard and caretaker
The Timket procession began at the ‘teff’ rock churches with 600 priests appearing through the tiny holes in the hillside.
The cloth-covered tabots, no bigger than footstools, were carried on the skullcaps of the key men dressed in white turbans and ornate capes. The real Ark is also thought to have contained Aaron’s Rod and a gold jar of manna.
Amidst scenes of unrestrained jubilation, similar to a cup-winning football side returning home, the pseudo-arks were carried two kilometres down a dusty, untarmacked road. The crowds danced with all their might in front of the Ark as King David had, according to the Book of Samuel.
The gold embroidery of the monks’ cloaks and deacons’ hats glinted in the sun. The silver crescents and spangled saintly figures on the banners that flanked them reflected back the strong mid-afternoon African sun. Cowskin kebedo drums pounded and the sistras jingled and jangled. Clouds of incense billowed from swinging censers. The sweet smell of frankincense, which I had smelt fresh and unburnt for the first time while walking around the Merkado in Addis Ababa, Africa’s largest open market, was everywhere.
“The odour of virtue,” said Gashaw, my guide. “It is burnt on holy olive trees. The rising smoke helps our prayers up to heaven.”
Reaching a field opposite the Rotha Hotel (Lalibela was also called Rotha), the Arks were installed in a large marquee pitched on a hillside overlooking the plains of Wollo. The crowds encircled the modern tabernacle and sacred portable tent. Fires were lit and pillars of clouds announced the divine presence.
For an hour, the chief priest or kasi, speaking through a heavy beard, a megaphone and a short translator, supervised the baptism at a cross-shaped stone trough.
Hundreds and hundreds were splashed or splashed each other with tabal or holy water, before settling down from the night to sleep one blessed night beside the mini-temple of Solomon containing Holy of Holies.
They asked for the remission of their sins. They read themselves to sleep, reading from their Davits or prayer books. They would sleep the night in the open air next to the very finger of God.
All night, the monks chanted ancient Zeemia, hymns written in Ge’ez, the ancient language of worship. Back at the Jerusalem B&B, we listened to the chanting and the antiphonic music. Solomon cocked his head and studied the sounds.
“They are singing the Melia,” he said. “It is a chant praising St Michael. They praise every one of his body parts.” He listened again. “They are on his chin now. They have a long way to go. They will not get to his toes much before morning.”
From a hill above the monastic township, we watched the Arks return to their churches, the priests pulling themselves uphill with the aid of their makwamya preying sticks.
On an earthen embankment beside Solomon’s gift shop, the holy men swayed and surged beneath their fringed jantila parasols, dancing the bezakula. Melaket trumpets blared, children danced and everyone had a song to sing.
Young boys jumped up and down shouting “Eyota!” (“The Great!”), their shepherds crooks upraised. Young girls pogoed by the roadside in between the goats, the asses, beggars, cripples and tourists shouting “Behota Caiba!” (“Be Still Merciful”) .
Finally, as the Arks disappeared back into their respective Holy of Holies, not be seen again for another year, everyone screamed “El! El! El!” and Ethiopia echoed with the sound of ancient Amharic hosannas and hallelujahs.
I had seen the Ark. I had been in its presence. I told Solomon that I was happy. He smiled and passed me a millet beer. It was worthily consecrated.
Neither of us had been afflicted by haemorrhoids or boils. The day had not been marred by a plague of mice. And only the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and the Temple of Doom were left on my bucket list.