Ever since the Babylonian Captivity of Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C.E., the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant has been a mystery. As described in the Old Testament of the Bible, the ark served as the visible sign of God's presence to the Israelites. The Israelites would rally and vanquish their foes when the ark was brought to sites of battle, and death came to those in the presence of the ark who were enemies of God, betrayed their allegiance to God, or who simply forgot about the ark's immense power. According to the Bible, the ark was last known to have rested in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Whether it was destroyed, stolen, moved, or remained hidden after Babylonian forces conquered the city and leveled the temple in 587 B.C.E. is not known.
Another mystery concerning the ark is its contents. The ark is said to contain numerous sacred relics, including the tablets of law from God that Moses (14th–13th century B.C.E.) brought back from Mt. Sinai; Aaron's rod, a kind of rounded stick that miraculously grew leaves as a sign of God's trust in Aaron, brother of Moses; and/or a specimen of manna, the mysterious food that had provided an unending source of nourishment to the Israelites as they wandered in the desert. Additionally, the ark possessed a supernatural power that awed and overwhelmed those who viewed it, and it served also as a means through which God could express his will.
The idea of the ark was expressed by God to the Israelites and was then made into a material object by skilled craftsmen in about 1462 B.C.E. They built a chest (about 2 cubits in length and 1 cubits in height or about 3 feet, 9 inches in length, 2 feet, 3 inches in height) using setim (acacia) wood overlaid with the purest gold. The outside of the ark had a gold rim and four golden rings, one on each corner of the chest. Two poles made of setim and covered with gold ran through the gold rings on either side; the poles were used to lift the ark and were never removed from the rings. The ark had a cover of gold on which two cherubim faced each other, each with wings spread. The oracle (word, or commands) of God would issue from the ark from a cloud between the two cherubim (Exodus 25:19–22).
The ark originally provided safety to the Israelites in their journey to the Promised Land. The power of the ark was manifested several times and enemies were scattered. When priests carrying the ark stepped into the River Jordan, the water stopped flowing and all the Israelites were able to cross. At the battle of Jericho the ark was carried by a procession around the walls of the city for seven days, after which the walls came down and the Israelites won the battle.
After losing a series of battles with the Philistines, the Israelites brought the ark to a battle site, hoping for inspiration and wanting to strike fear into the Philistines. However, the Philistines won the battle and secured possession of the ark. The Philistines viewed their capture of the ark as a victory over the Israelites and their God. The ark was treated as a trophy, but several disasters fell upon the Philistines, including the rapid spread of a plague and an invasion of mice wherever the ark was placed. The Philistines eventually built a cart on which they placed the ark and representations of their afflictions; they yoked two cows to the cart and set it forth. The cart made its way to the territory of Israel, where the ark came into the possession of the Bethsames. A large number of Bethsames fell dead when they failed to show respect for the ark. Fearful of the ark's power,
Later, when David (d. 962 B.C.E.) became king of Israel and established Jerusalem as the holy center of the nation, the ark was to be moved there. Along the way, however, a cart carrying the ark was jostled and the ark began sliding off. Forgetting about the ark's strange powers, a man who reached out to secure it was struck dead. The ark was then housed at a nearby site outside the city, where it was the object of veneration for several months before the journey to Jerusalem was completed. The ark was taken once from Jerusalem to inspire David's army in its battle against the forces of Absalom.
Eventually, the ark was placed in the new Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. It was occasionally taken away from the temple for a battle or ceremony, but soon the ark was not allowed to leave the temple. As decades passed, the sacredness and powers of the ark were largely forgotten. When Jerusalem was invaded and taken by Babylonians led by King Nebuchad-nezzar II (c. 630–562 B.C.E.; the Babylonian Captivity of Jerusalem is dated from 587 B.C.E.), the whereabouts of the ark became a mystery. It was either destroyed along with the city or, as suggested in Kings 4:25, taken to Babylon as one of the spoils of victory.
Some biblical scholars theorize that those Israelites still faithful to God were forewarned about the fall of Jerusalem and moved the ark to safety. Jeremiah is said to have moved the ark to a cave on Mt. Sinai, the mountain in Egypt where Moses first spoke with God. The Talmud, the ancient, authoritative history of the Hebrews, indicates that the ark was kept in a secret area of the Temple of Solomon and survived the destruction and pillaging of Jerusalem. The Temple of Solomon was rebuilt on its original foundation after the Babylon Captivity. Around 150 B.C.E., a successor of Alexander the Great invaded Jerusalem and took valuable items from the new temple, but the ark was not mentioned among them.
One account has the illegitimate son of Solomon and Sheba stealing the ark about 1000 B.C.E. and hiding it in Aksum, Ethiopia, where it was guarded by a monk in a church. Other stories have the ark being transported during a Hebrew migration to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) that preceded the Babylonian Captivity. There, according to that version, the ark remained on an island in Lake Tana. With the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman world by 300 C.E., Abyssinia was largely Christian. Later, during the sixteenth century, fierce battles were waged by invading Muslim armies on the Christian empire of Abyssinia, causing much destruction, including the razing of monasteries on the island Tana Kirkos, where the ark was believed to have been kept. A cathedral was built after the Muslim armies retreated, and there, according to this legend, the ark remains safe.
In December 2000, Erling Haagensen and Henry Lincoln published their thesis that the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail were both hidden in sites on the Baltic Sea island of Bornholm about the year 1170.
Interest in the Ark of the Covenant has recurred through the centuries. In medieval times the Knights Templar supposedly came into possession of the ark. In contemporary times, interest in the ark was renewed with the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark, where it is the object of a search just prior to World War II (1939–45) between Nazi forces and an American archaeologist named Indiana Jones. The ark is found and, as in the Bible, its power kills (literally melts) all of those who do not pay it proper respect. In the film, as in the Old Testament, the presence of the ark brings destruction to the wicked and to the vain. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the relic eventually ends up in an undistinguished crate in an overstocked U.S. government warehouse waiting to be archived.
In December 2001, Rev. John McLuckie found a wooden tablet representing the Ark of the Covenant in a cupboard in St. John's Episcopal Church in Edinburgh, Scotland. Rev. McLuckie, who had lived in Ethiopia, recognized the artifact as sacred to Ethiopia's Orthodox Christians, and arranged to have the tablet returned in a special ceremony in 2002.