THE SIGN AND THE SEAL
by Graham Hancock
It was growing dark and the air of the Ethiopian highlands was chill when the monk appeared. Stooped and leaning on a prayer stick he shuffled towards me from the doorway of the sanctuary chapel and listened attentively as I was introduced to him. Speaking in Tigrigna, the local language, he then sought clarification through my interpreter about my character and my motives: from which country had I come, what work did I do there, was I a Christian, what was it that I wanted from him?
I answered each of these questions fully, squinting through the gloom as I talked, trying to make out the details of my inquisitor’s face. Milky cataracts veiled his small sunken eyes and deep lines furrowed his black skin. He was bearded and probably toothless – for although his voice was resonant it was also oddly slurred. All I could be sure of, however, was that he was an old man, as old as the century perhaps, that he had his wits about him, and that he did not seem to be seeking information about me out of idle curiosity. Only when he was satisfied with everything that I had said did he condescend to shake hands with me. His grip was dry and delicate as papyrus and from the thick robes that he wore, faint but unmistakable, arose the holy odour of frankincense.
Now that the formalities were over I got straight to the point. Gesturing in the direction of the building that loomed in shadowy outline behind us, I said: ‘I have heard of an Ethiopian tradition that the Ark of the Covenant is kept here… in this chapel. I have also heard that you are the guardian of the Ark. Are these things true?’
‘They are true.’
‘But in other countries nobody believes these stories. Few know about your traditions anyway, but those who do say that they are false.’
‘People may believe what they wish. People may say what they wish. Nevertheless we do possess the sacred Tabot, that is to say the Ark of the Covenant, and I am its guardian…’
‘Let me be clear about this,’ I interjected. ‘Are you referring to the original Ark of the Covenant – the box made of wood and gold in which the Ten Commandments were placed by the prophet Moses?’
‘Yes. God Himself inscribed the ten words of the law upon two tablets of stone. Moses then placed these tablets inside the Ark of the Covenant – which afterwards accompanied the Israelites during their wanderings in the wilderness and their conquest of the Promised Land. It brought them victory wherever they went and made them a great people. At last, when its work was done, King Solomon placed it in the Holy of Holies of the Temple that he had built in Jerusalem. And from there, not long afterwards, it was removed and brought to Ethiopia…’
‘Tell me how this happened,’ I asked. ‘What I know of your traditions is only that the Queen of Sheba is supposed to have been an Ethiopian monarch. The legends I have read say that when she made her famous journey to Jerusalem she was impregnated by King Solomon and bore him a son – a royal prince – who in later years stole the Ark…’
The monk sighed. ‘The name of the prince you are speaking of was Menelik – which in our language means “the son of the wise man”. Although he was conceived in Jerusalem he was born in Ethiopia where the Queen of Sheba had returned after discovering that she was carrying Solomon’s child. When he had reached the age of twenty, Menelik himself travelled from Ethiopia to Israel and arrived at his father’s court. There he was instantly recognized and accorded great honour. After a year had passed, however, the elders of the land became jealous of him. They complained that Solomon showed him too much favour and they insisted that he must go back to Ethiopia. This the king accepted on the condition that the first-born sons of all the elders should also be sent to accompany him. Amongst these latter was Azarius, son of Zadok the High Priest of Israel, and it was Azarius, not Menelik, who stole the Ark of the Covenant from its place in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Indeed the group of young men did not reveal the theft to Menelik until they were far away from Jerusalem. When at last they told him what they had done he understood that they could not have succeeded in so bold a venture unless God had willed it. Therefore he agreed that the Ark should remain with them. And it was thus that it was brought to Ethiopia, to this sacred city… and here it has remained ever since.’
‘And are you telling me that this legend is literally true?’
‘It is not a legend. It is history.’
‘How can you be so sure of that?’
‘Because I am the guardian. I know the nature of the object that has been placed in my care.’
We sat in silence for a few moments while I adjusted my mind to the calm and rational way in which the monk had told me these bizarre and impossible things. Then I asked him how and why he had been appointed to his position. He replied that it was a great honour that he should have been chosen, that he had been nominated with the last words of his predecessor, and that when he himself lay on his death-bed his turn would come to nominate his own successor.
‘What qualities will you look for in that man?’
‘Love of God, purity of heart, cleanliness of mind and body.’
‘Other than you,’ I asked next, ‘is anyone else allowed to see the Ark?’
‘No. I alone may see it.’
‘So does that mean that it is never brought out of the sanctuary chapel?’
The guardian paused for a long while before answering this question. Then, finally, he told me that in the very distant past the relic had been brought out during all the most important church festivals. More recently its use in religious processions had been limited to just one occasion a year. That occasion was the ceremony known as Timkat which took place every January.
‘So if I come back next January will I have a chance of seeing the Ark?’
The monk looked at me in a way that I found strangely disconcerting and then said: ‘You must know that there is turmoil and civil war in the land… Our government is evil, the people oppose it, and the fighting comes closer every day. In such circumstances it is unlikely that the true Ark will be used again in the ceremonies.
We cannot risk the possibility that any harm might come to something so precious … Besides, even in time of peace you would not be able to see it. It is my responsibility to wrap it entirely in thick cloths before it is carried in the processions…’
‘Why do you wrap it?’
‘To protect the laity from it.’
I remember asking my interpreter to clarify the translation of this last puzzling remark: had the monk really meant ‘to protect the laity from it’? Or had he meant ‘to protect it from the laity’? It was some time before I got my answer. ‘To protect the laity from it. The Ark is powerful.’