Written texts have it that the ark, the repository of the Ten Commandments tablets that God gave to Moses, was taken to Ethiopia by Menelik, son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba around 1000 B.C., says Richard Pankhurst, a British scholar who has lived in Ethiopia more than half of his 60-odd years. It's guarded by an "ecclesiastic" in a rude wooden building in little Axum, a 3-day drive from the capital on bad roads. But inside the building are sumptuous curtains and paintings depicting stories in the Old Testament.
"Nobody sees it -- you have to take it on faith that it's the ark," Pankhurst says. "It's a question of veneration."
Even asking the man who is second in command to the patriarch of the conservative Ethiopian Orthodox church brings a stern rebuke.
"There is in our country the Ark of the Covenant," says Archbishop Gerima, who sits in the patriarchate in the capital city. "You can ask his holiness about it, but I am not going to discuss it. It's impossible to see it."
The patriarch is "out" or "in a meeting" in subsequent queries.
In every town across the country, a replica of the ark is kept in an Ethiopian Orthodox church. Only ordained priests are allowed to see even the replicas, Pankhurst says. Once a year, for the festival of Timket, on Jan. 19, Epiphany on the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian calendar, the replicas are taken from behind curtains, draped with beautiful material and paraded around. The faithful renew their vows. Ethiopia, better known for famines and wars, is mostly Christian, though Muslims are estimated to make up between one-third and one-half of the country's population, estimated at 67 million.
Demelash Nega, who comes from the Axum region, laughs when asked if the ark could possibly be the real thing.
"Of course it's real, just like Jesus Christ is real," Nega says. "How else could it survive for so many years?"
Menelik was said to have gone to Jerusalem to see his father. Legend has it that his followers said they would not return home without the ark. The followers spirited it away from Jerusalem in the middle of the night -- continuing their travels until they reached Ethiopia.
Menelik became the first of a new line of kings in the northern Africa region.
"It's intimately related to Christian history," Pankhurst says solemnly of the religious object said to be the ark. "Everyone should know that it is here."