Chapter 15

Hidden History

After a painstaking investigation, I had satisfied myself that Ethiopia’s claim to be the last resting place of the lost Ark was not challenged by any particularly strong or striking alternative. That finding, however, had not been the only outcome of my research. As I wrote in my notebook:

No one who has followed the story of the Ark from its construction at the foot of Mount Sinai until the moment of its deposition in Solomon’s Temple would seriously dispute that it was an object of immense importance to the Jewish people. And yet the fact is that the Scriptures – so dominated by the presence of the relic before Solomon – seem to forget about it entirely after him. Its loss is formally recognized at the time of the construction of the Second Temple. The great mystery, however, to quote the words of Professor Richard Friedman, is that: ‘There is no report that the Ark was carried away or destroyed … There is not even any comment such as “And then the Ark disappeared, and we do not know what happened to it,” or “And no one knows where it is to this day.” The most important object in the world, in the biblical view, simply ceases to be in the story.’1

Reviewing the evidence I had to ask myself: Why should this be? Why should the compilers of the Old Testament have allowed the Ark to vanish from the sacred texts – not with a bang, as one might have expected, but with a whimper?

The Kebra Nagast, I knew, did offer a clear answer to exactly this question. In Chapter 62 it described Solomon’s grief after he had discovered that his son Menelik had abducted the relic from the Temple and carried it off to Ethiopia. When he had had time to collect his thoughts, however, the king turned to the elders of Israel – who were likewise loudly lamenting the loss of the Ark – and warned them to desist:

Cease ye, so that the uncircumcised people may not boast themselves over us and may not say unto us, ‘Their glory is taken away, and God hath forsaken them.’ Reveal ye not anything else to alien folk …

And … the elders of Israel made answer and said unto him, ‘May thy good pleasure be done, and the good pleasure of the Lord God! As for us, none of us will transgress thy word, and we will not inform any other people that the Ark hath been taken away from us.’ And they established this covenant in the House of God – the elders of Israel with their King Solomon unto this day.2

In other words, if the Kebra Nagast was to believed, there had been a massive cover-up. The Ark had been removed to Ethiopia during the lifetime of Solomon himself; all information about this tragic loss had, however, been suppressed, which was why no mention was made of it in the Scriptures.

There was, I thought, much to recommend this argument. It made a great deal of sense to suppose that the Jewish king would indeed have sought to keep from the common herd any knowledge of the loss of the Ark. But at the same time I had serious problems with some other aspects of the Kebra Nagast account – notably those concerning the Queen of Sheba’s Ethiopian credentials, her alleged love affair with Solomon, the birth of their son Menelik, the notion that the latter had brought the Ark to Ethiopia, and the implication that this had happened in the tenth century BC:

1 There appeared to be no justification for the Kebra Nagast’s audacious claim that the Queen of Sheba had been an Ethiopian woman. It was not absolutely impossible that she might have been (in his Antiquities of the Jews, for example, Flavius Josephus had described her as ‘the queen of Egypt and Ethiopia’3). On balance, however, historical research did not suggest that she had started her journey in the Abyssinian highlands when, as the Bible put it, she had travelled to ‘Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones.’4

2 If the evidence linking the Queen of Sheba to Ethiopia was thin, then evidence for the very existence of her son Menelik was even thinner. I had known for some time that historians considered the supposed founder of Ethiopia’s ‘Solomonic’ dynasty to be a purely legendary figure – and I had learnt nothing in two years of research to persuade me that they were mistaken about this rather crucial point.

3 In particular it seemed to be inconceivable that an advanced culture and a centralized monarchy of the kind described in the Kebra Nagast could have existed in the Abyssinian mountains in the tenth century BC. ‘At the time when Solomon was reigning,’ as E. A. Wallis Budge had put it, ‘the natives of the country which we now call Abyssinia were savages.’5 This was the orthodox view and my research had uncovered nothing that would enable me to refute it.

4 Even more fatal to any kind of literal acceptance of the Kebra Nagas was the evidence that I myself had collected in Ethiopia. Of all the many traditions that I had encountered in that country, by far the purest and most convincing had indicated that the Ark of the Covenant had been brought first of all to Lake Tana, where it had been concealed on the island of Tana Kirkos. Memhir Fisseha, the priest whom I had interviewed there (see Chapter 9), had told me that the relic had remained on the island for eight hundred years before it had finally been taken to Axum at the time of Ethiopia’s conversion to Christianity. Since that conversion had occurred around AD 330, the implication of the strong folk memory preserved on Tana Kirkos was that the Ark must have arrived in Ethiopia in 470 BC or thereabouts – in other words about five hundred years after Solomon, Menelik and the Queen of Sheba.

These, of course, were not the only difficulties that I had with the account given in the Kebra Nagast. Something else that bothered me greatly, for example, was the practical question of how Menelik and his companions could possibly have removed so precious and so heavy an object as the Ark from the Temple of Solomon without attracting the attention of the zealous Levites who guarded the Holy of Holies.

And I had several other reservations too, all of which, together with those listed above, had forced me to agree with the academic experts that the Kebra Nagast was indeed a remarkable document but that it had to be taken with a very large pinch of salt. This, however, did not make me want to dismiss the great epic entirely. On the contrary, in common with many other legends, I felt that there was every possibility that its elaborate fictional superstructure might have been erected above a solid foundation of historical truth. In short, while reluctantly rejecting the lovely idea of the romance between Solomon and Sheba, and the cheeky suggestion that the Ark had been stolen from the Temple by their son Menelik, I saw no reason to conclude that the relic might not have been brought to Ethiopia by some other means, thus creating an enigma which the Kebra Nagast had much later gone on to explain in its own peculiarly original and colourful way. Indeed, I was satisfied that the social and cultural evidence in Ethiopia itself very strongly supported that country’s claim to be the last resting place of the Ark. And, since I now also knew that no other country or place had a stronger claim, I was more inclined than ever to believe that the Ark really was there.

Nevertheless, the final pieces of the jigsaw puzzle remained to be put in place. If the Queen of Sheba had not been Solomon’s lover, and if she had never borne him a son called Menelik as the legends claimed, then who in fact had brought the Ark to Ethiopia – and when, and under what circumstances?

The lady doth protest too much, methinks …

In my attempt to answer these questions I kept at the forefront of my mind the very acceptable notion, put forward in the Kebra Nagast, that the removal of the Ark of the Covenant from the Holy of Holies could have been the subject of a cover-up – of a conspiracy of silence involving the priestly elite and the king. But, if not Solomon, then which king?

Part of the definition of a ‘cover-up’, of course, is that it should be difficult to detect. I therefore did not expect that evidence of the sort that I was seeking would be easily extracted from the Old Testament. That great and complex book had guarded its secrets well for more than two thousand years and there was no reason to suppose that it would simply surrender them to me now.

I began by typing up every single mention of the Ark of the Covenant that had ever appeared in the Bible. Even with access to the best scholarship on the subject it was a hard task to track them all down, and when I had finished I had before me a document more than fifty pages long. Strikingly and significantly, only the last page contained references that related to the period after Solomon’s death; all the others concerned themselves with the story of the Ark during the wanderings in the wilderness, the conquest of the Promised Land, the reign of King David, and the reign of King Solomon himself.

The Bible, as I was well aware, contains a hotch-potch of material produced by several different schools of scribes over hundreds of years. Many of the references to the Ark, I knew, were very old indeed; but others were relatively late. None of those in the first book of Kings, for example, were codified before the reign of Josiah (640–609 BC).6 This meant that the account of the Ark’s installation in Solomon’s Temple in 1 Kings 8, although undoubtedly based on ancient oral and written traditions, had been the work of the priests who had lived long after the event. And exactly the same observation applied to all the relevant references in the book of Deuteronomy, since this, too, was a late document that dated only from the time of King Josiah.7 Therefore, if the Ark had been secretly removed from the Holy of Holies before the destruction of the Temple in 587 BC, it seemed to me probable that the traces of any cover-up would be found in Kings and in Deuteronomy – if they were to be found anywhere – for in compiling these books the scribes would have had an opportunity to tamper with the facts in order to create the desired impression that ‘the glory’ had not departed from Israel.

On close examination of the texts I came across a passage in Chapter 8 of the first book of Kings that seemed somehow out of character, that jarred in a curious way with the rest of the description of the great ceremony that had surrounded the deposition of the Ark in the Holy of Holies. That passage read as follows:

The priests brought in the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord to its place, the inner shrine of the house, the Most Holy Place, beneath the wings of the cherubim. The cherubim spread their wings over the place of the Ark; they formed a screen above the Ark and its poles. The poles projected and their ends could be seen from the Holy Place immediately in front of the inner shrine, but from nowhere else outside; they are there to this day.8

Why, I wondered, had the biblical scribe responsible for this passage found it necessary to assert that the carrying poles of the Ark could, in his day, still be seen projecting out of the inner shrine? What would have been the point of such a statement unless the relic had in fact not been there at the time that these words were written (approximately 610 BC according to the authorities9)? The oddly defensive tone had, I thought, the ring of one of those emphatic declarations of innocence that guilty parties sometimes make in order to obscure the truth. In short, like the famous lady in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the author of 1 Kings 8 had aroused my suspicions by ‘protesting too much’.10

I was pleased to discover that I was not alone in this intuition. In 1928 the leading biblical scholar Julian Morgenstern had also been struck by the strangeness of the words ‘they are there to this day’. His conclusion, in an erudite paper published in the Hebrew Union College Annual, was that the scribe must have intended

to convince his readers that the staves of the Ark, and therefore, of course, the Ark itself, were present in the innermost part of the Temple, even though they could not be seen by the people at large, or, for that matter, by anyone other than the High Priest, when he entered the Holy of Holies once a year, on Yom Kippur … The fact that [the scribe] seems to have felt compelled to insist in this manner that the Ark was still present in the Temple in his day … indicates that he must have had to contend with a prevalent and persistent doubt of this, a doubt founded in all likelihood upon actual fact.11

Nor was this all. The very next verse of the same chapter of the book of Kings insisted:

There was nothing in the Ark except the two stone tablets Moses had placed in it … the tablets of the covenant which Yahweh had made with the Israelites when they came out of the land of Egypt; they are still there today.12

And the book of Deuteronomy, written at the same time, said almost exactly the same thing – the tablets of stone were placed in the Ark by Moses, ‘and there they have remained ever since’.13

Morgenstern’s analysis of these words was that they ‘must have been inserted for some particular purpose’.14 And, after referring to the original Hebrew text, he concluded that this purpose could only have been to provide

a direct and positive affirmation, almost, it would seem, in the face of a doubt or question, that the tablets of the Ten Commandments were still present in the Ark in the days … of the author of this verse.15

Deuteronomy and the first book of Kings had, of course, dealt with widely different periods of Israelite history. Crucially, however – and the point is so important that it will bear repetition – they had both been compiled at the same time. That time, as I had already established, had been the reign of King Josiah, i.e. from 640 to 609 BC.

My curiosity aroused, I turned to the typescript in which I had set down all the biblical references to the Ark. I remembered that there were very few in the whole of the Old Testament which related to the period after the death of Solomon. Now I discovered that there were in fact only two: one had been written during Josiah’s reign; the other quoted the words of Josiah himself; and both appeared on the last page of my document.

Josiah and Jeremiah

I had already come across Josiah in my research. When I had been investigating the antiquity of the religious customs of the black Jews of Ethiopia I had learned that it had been during his reign that the institution of sacrifice had finally and conclusively been centralized on Jerusalem and banned in all other locations (see Chapter 6). Since the Falashas themselves still practised sacrifice in Ethiopia (having altars in all their villages), I had concluded in my notebook that their ancestors

must have been converted to Judaism at a time when it was still acceptable for those far away from the centralized national sanctuary to practise local sacrifice. This would suggest that the conversion took place before King Josiah’s ban – i.e. no later than the seventh century BC.

My research had moved on into areas that I had not even dreamt of when I had originally written those words in 1989, and now I was confronted by a peculiarly interesting set of circumstances. Sitting in my hotel room in Jerusalem in October 1990 I therefore opened my notebook again and listed the following points:

• In 1 Kings 8 and Deuteronomy there are signs of efforts being made to convince people that the Ark was still in its place in the Temple; this looks like an attempt to cover up the truth – i.e. that the relic was in fact no longer there.

• The relevant passages were written in the time of King Josiah.

• From this I conclude that the Ark may have been removed from the Temple during Josiah’s reign; it is more likely by far, however, that its loss was discovered then but that it had actually occurred somewhat earlier. Why? Because Josiah was a zealous reformer who sought to emphasize the paramount importance of the Temple in Jerusalem – and because the raison d’être of the Temple was as ‘an house of rest for the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord’. It is virtually inconceivable that such a monarch would have permitted the ultimate symbol of Judaism, the sign and the seal of Yahweh’s presence on earth, to be taken out of the Holy of Holies. The logical deduction, therefore, is that the Ark must have been spirited away before Josiah came to power – i.e. before 640 BC.

• The religious customs of the Falashas include local sacrifice, a practice that was only conclusively banned during Josiah’s reign. On the basis of this and other data it has been my opinion for some time that the ancestors of the Falashas must have migrated to Ethiopia before 640 BC.

• Surely these matters cannot be unconnected?

The chain of evidence looked convincing: the Ark was removed from the Temple before 640 BC; the ancestors of the Falashas migrated to Ethiopia before 640 BC; was it therefore not reasonable to assure that the ancestors of the Falashas might have taken the Ark with them?

This struck me as a fairly logical hypothesis. It did not, however, establish when before 640 BC the supposed migration from Jerusalem had taken place. Neither did it entirely rule out the possibility that the Ark could have been removed during Josiah’s reign. Given the known religious integrity and traditionalism of that monarch the latter notion looked like a very long shot indeed. Nevertheless it had to be considered – if only because, as I already knew (see previous chapter), certain Jewish legends had furnished him with a valid motive. In the last years of his reign, those legends said, he had foreseen the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians and had hidden ‘the Holy Ark and all its appurtenances in order to guard them against desecration at the hands of the enemy.’16Moreover he was believed – possibly by miraculous means – to have concealed the relic ‘in its own place’.17

I was now as satisfied as I ever would be that the Ark had not been buried in the Temple Mount – or anywhere else in the Holy Land. Nevertheless I still had to ask myself: was this possible? Could Josiah really have foreseen the fate of the Temple and taken steps to safeguard the Ark?

I looked into this scenario but concluded that, unless the Jewish king had possessed a truly remarkable gift of prescience, there was just no way that he could have predicted the events of 598–587 BC. He died in 609 BC, five years before Nebuchadnezzar – the author of Jerusalem’s destruction – inherited the Babylonian throne.18 Moreover, Nebuchadnezzar’s predecessor Nabopolassar had shown little or no military interest in Israel and had concentrated instead on wars with Assyria and Egypt.19

The historical background to Josiah’s reign therefore did not support the theory that he might have concealed the Ark of the Covenant. More damning by far, however, was the very last mention of the sacred relic in the Old Testament, which cropped up in a passage in the second book of Chronicles – a passage that described Josiah’s campaign to restore traditional values to Temple worship:

Josiah removed all the abominations throughout the territories belonging to the sons of Israel … And he set the priests in their charges, and … said unto the Levites that taught all Israel, which were holy unto the Lord, ‘Put the Holy Ark in the house which Solomon the son of David king of Israel did build; it shall not be a burden upon your shoulders.20

It was immediately obvious to me that these few short verses, particularly the words emphasized in italics above, were of vital importance to my quest. Why? Quite simply because Josiah would have had no need to ask the Levites to put the Ark in the Temple if it had already been there. Two inescapable conclusions emerged from this: (1) The king himself could not have been responsible for the removal of the relic because he plainly thought that it had been taken by its traditional bearers, the Levites; and (2) the date of the Ark’s disappearance from the Temple could now be fixed to some time before Josiah had made this little speech.

And when exactly had that speech been made? Happily the book of Chronicles provided a very precise answer to this question: ‘in the eighteenth year of the reign of Josiah’21 – in other words in 622 BC.22 What Chronicles did not do, however, was give any indication at all that the Levites had complied with the king’s order; indeed, far from the colourful ceremony that one might have expected to accompany any reinstallation of the Ark in the Temple, there was no follow-up – either in this book or in any other part of the Bible – to Josiah’s strange command. On the contrary, it was clear that his words had fallen on deaf ears or on the ears of people who were not in a position to obey them.

Chronologically, as I have already observed, Josiah’s speech contained the last reference to the Ark of the Covenant in the whole of the Old Testament. I now turned to examine the penultimate reference. This occurred in the book of Jeremiah, in a chapter composed by Jeremiah himself around the year 626 BC,23 and took the form of a prophetic utterance addressed to the people of Jerusalem:

And when you have increased and become many in the land, then – it is Yahweh who speaks – no one will ever say again ‘Where is the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh?’ There will be no thought of it, no memory of it, no regret for it, no making of another. When that time comes, Jerusalem shall be called: ‘The throne of Yahweh’; all nations will gather there in the name of Yahweh and will no longer follow the dictates of their own stubborn hearts.24

Like Josiah, I knew that Jeremiah had been credited in certain Jewish legends – and in the apocryphal book of Maccabees – with hiding the Ark (in his case on Mount Nebo immediately before the destruction of the Temple – see previous chapter). The words quoted above, however, had infinitely greater value as historical testimony than the legends or the Apocrypha because they had been spoken at a known date by a real person, Jeremiah himself.25 Moreover, in the context of everything else that I had learned, there could be no doubt about the meaning of these words, or about their wider implications. To put matters as plainly as possible, they corroborated the impression given in Josiah’s speech that the Ark was no longer in the Temple by 622 BC – and they pushed back to at least 626 BC the likely date at which it had gone missing. I say at least to 626 BC because that, as noted above, was the year in which Jeremiah had uttered his prophecy. It was clear, however, that in doing so he had been responding, at least in part, to some prevalent and probably by then quite long-established anguish over the loss of the Ark. This was the only possible explanation for the verse which stated: ‘And when you have increased and become many in the land, then … no one will ever say again “Where is the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh?” ’ Obviously if people had not been saying such things in 626 BC, and for some considerable while beforehand, then there would have been no need for Jeremiah to have made such a remark.

In reaching this judgment I was pleased to discover that I had the full support of one of the world’s leading biblical scholars, Professor Menahem Haran of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. In his authoritative treatise on Temples and Temple Service in Ancient Israel, this learned academic had considered the passage in question and had reached the following conclusion:

This verse follows upon words of consolation and itself contains a message of consolation and mercy. What the prophet promises here is that in the good days to come there will no longer be any need for the Ark – implying that its absence should no longer cause any grief. These words would, of course, be devoid of any significance if the Ark [had] still … been inside the Temple at the time.26

On this basis I felt that it was entirely safe to conclude that I would have to peer back into the period before 626 BC if I was to have any prospect of establishing the actual date on which the Ark had disappeared. Moreover I did not think that it would be at all fruitful to devote time to a close study of the earlier years of King Josiah’s reign – i.e. from 626 BC back to 640 BC. As I already knew, that monarch had sought unsuccessfully to have the relic reinstalled in the Temple in 622 BC; it was therefore hardly likely that he would have been responsible for its removal in the first place. The guilty party must have been one of his predecessors – any one, in fact, of the fifteen kings who had ruled in Jerusalem since Solomon had placed the Ark in the Holy of Holies in 955 BC.27

Search and find

I was looking at a period of 315 years – from 955 BC down to Josiah’s accession to the throne in 640 BC. In this time Jerusalem and the Temple had been at the centre of an enormously complex series of events. And although these events were described at great length in several books of the Bible, the Ark of the Covenant had not been mentioned once: between Solomon and Josiah, as I had previously established, the sacred relic had been enshrouded in a thick blanket of silence.

I resorted to a modern research tool to find out just how thick that ancient blanket really was. On the desk in my hotel room in Jerusalem was a computerized edition of the King James Authorized Version of the Bible that I had brought with me from England.28For the period that I was now interested in I knew that it would be useless to run a search-and-find programme on the words ‘Ark’ or ‘Ark of the Covenant’ or ‘Ark of God’ or ‘Holy Ark’ or any similar epithets: they simply did not appear. I did, however, have one other option, and that was to look for phrases that had been regularly associated with the Ark earlier in the Scriptures, and also for reports of afflictions of the type routinely caused by the Ark.

In the realm of afflictions I settled on the word ‘leprous’, because, in Chapter 12 of the book of Numbers Moses had punished Miriam for criticizing his authority by using the powers of the Ark to make her ‘leprous’.29 In the realm of phrases I chose ‘between the cherubims’, because the God of Israel had been believed to dwell ‘between the cherubims’ mounted on the Ark’s golden lid and because, prior to the reign of Solomon, this formula had always been used in connection with the Ark and never in any other way.30

I started by running the word ‘leprous’. My electronic Bible of course picked it up in Chapter 12 of the book of Numbers, which described what happened to Miriam. After that it occurred only twice more in the whole of the Scriptures: in the second book of Kings, where there was a plainly irrelevant reference to ‘four leprous men’ sitting by a gate in the northern Israelite city of Samaria;31 and in the second book of Chronicles – where it cropped up in a passage that looked very relevant indeed.

That passage, in 2 Chronicles 26, described how King Uzziah – who had ruled Jerusalem from 781 to 740 BC32 – ‘transgressed against the Lord his God, and went into the Temple of the Lord to burn incense upon the altar of incense.’33 At once the High Priest Azariah and some of his assistants rushed in after the monarch hoping to dissuade him from committing this act of sacrilege at the very entrance to the Holy of Holies:

Then Uzziah was wroth, and had a censer in his hand to burn incense: and while he was wroth with the priests, the leprosy even rose up in his forehead before the priests in the house of the Lord, from beside the incense altar.34

It seemed that Uzziah had not actually entered the Holy of Holies (although the text was somewhat ambiguous on this point), but he had certainly stood very close to it. Moreover he had been holding a metal incense burner in his hand – and that, since the two sons of Aaron had been struck down at the foot of Mount Sinai for offering ‘strange fire before the Lord’,35 had always been a dangerous thing to do within striking distance of the Ark.36

On this basis, therefore, I felt that there was at least a prima facie case for concluding that the ‘leprous’ sores on Uzziah’s forehead had been caused by exposure to the Ark (and I was later to discover that others had thought so too – an illustration from an eighteenth-century English Bible reproduced in the present work clearly shows the unfortunate king standing beside the Ark at the very moment that he is ‘smitten’).

If the monarch’s affliction was caused by the Ark [I wrote in my notebook] then this means that it was still present in the Holy of Holies in 740 BC (Uzziah’s reign ended in that year as a result of what had happened to him37). This narrows the field enormously, since the implication is that the relic could only have been removed in the century between that date and the beginning of Josiah’s reign – i.e. at some point between 740 BC and 640 BC.

Of course I was well aware that the Uzziah incident had little value as historical evidence: it was a tantalizing hint – a clue if you like – but it was quite impermissible to conclude from it that the Ark had definitely still been in the Temple in 740 BC. I needed something stronger if I was to be satisfied that that had indeed been the case – and I found what I was looking for when I ran a search for the phrase ‘between the cherubims’.

As noted above, in biblical passages referring to the period before the reign of Solomon, these words had been used exclusively in connection with the Ark, and in no other way whatsoever. Although it would be necessary to keep a close eye on the context, I therefore felt that any recurrence of these words after the deposition of the relic in the Temple in 955 BC would constitute strong evidence that it had in fact still been present in the Holy of Holies on the date – or dates – that the phrase had been used.

Accordingly I programmed my computer to search for the words ‘between the cherubims’. A few seconds later I knew that they had been cited only seven times in the entire post-Solomonic period.

Two of these citations, in Psalm 80:1 and in Psalm 99:1, clearly referred to the cherubim of the Ark. Unfortunately they were impossible to date with any degree of accuracy:38 there was a small chance that they were pre-Solomonic, but the balance of scholarly opinion held that the relevant verses were likely to have been composed in the ‘early years of monarchy’39 – i.e. during Solomon’s lifetime or within a century or so of his death.

The words ‘between the cherubims’ also cropped up three times in the book of Ezekiel,40 which was a late work written after the year 593 BC.41 In this context, however, all the uses of the phrase were irrelevant to my investigation because: (a) the ‘cherubims’ referred to had been seen by Ezekiel in a vision that came to him while he sat in his house;42 (b) they were described as having ‘four faces’ and ‘four wings’ each, whereas the cherubim of the Ark had each only one face and two wings;43 and (c) they were clearly living creatures of enormous size, not the relatively compact figurines of solid gold that had faced each other across the ‘mercy seat’.44 Indeed, at the end of Ezekiel’s vision, his cherubims ‘lifted up their wings and mounted up from the earth in my sight … and the sound of the cherubims’ wings was … even … as the voice of the Almighty God when he speaketh.’45

In my hunt for references that might prove the continued presence of the Ark in the Jerusalem Temple at particular periods, therefore, Ezekiel’s cherubims were of no consequence and could safely be ignored. This meant that out of all the occurrences of the phrase that I had instructed my computer to search for I was now left with only two that might be of any help to me at all. These appeared in Chapter 37 of the book of Isaiah and in Chapter 19 of the second book of Kings.46 Both recounted the same event, both were of great importance, and both clearly and unambiguously referred to the Ark of the Covenant – though they did not mention it by name. This is what they said (the Isaiah version, the older of the two, is in the left-hand column; the Kings version is in the right-hand column):

Hezekiah went up unto the house of the Lord, and … prayed unto the Lord, saying, O Lord of Hosts, God of Israel, that dwellest between the cherubims, thou art the God, even thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth.47

Hezekiah went up into the house of the Lord, and … prayed before the Lord, and said, O Lord God of Israel, which dwellest between the cherubims, thou art the God, even thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth.48

As the reader will no doubt have observed, both passages not only spoke of the same event but also did so in almost exactly the same language. Indeed the verses in Kings came very close to being a verbatim repeat of the verses in Isaiah. Those verses, scholars were agreed, had been written by Isaiah himself.49 And, since a great deal was known about the life, times and activities of this famous prophet, it was possible to put a fairly precise date on his account of Hezekiah’s prayer to the God of Israel that dwelled ‘between the cherubims’.

Isaiah was called to the prophetic office in 740 BC50 – the very year in which King Uzziah had died after being smitten with leprous sores in the incident described earlier.51 He then continued his ministry throughout the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah (respectively 740–736 BC, 736–716 BC and 716-687 BC).52 Of crucial significance to my investigation was a fact upon which academic opinion was unanimous: the verse in which my computer had flagged the phrase ‘between the cherubims’ had been written by Isaiah in 701 BC – the year in which the Assyrian King Sennacherib had tried and failed to capture Jerusalem.53

Indeed, it had been on Isaiah’s direct advice that Hezekiah – the Judaean monarch – had refused to surrender the city to the Assyrians.54 Sennacherib’s response had been to send a letter threatening death and destruction, and Hezekiah had actually been carrying this letter55 when he had gone up ‘unto the house of the Lord, and … prayed unto the Lord, saying, O Lord of Hosts, God of Israel, that dwellest between the cherubims, thou art the God, even thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth.’

Hezekiah’s prayer had continued as follows:

Incline thine ear, O Lord, and hear; open thine eyes, O Lord, and see: and hear all the words of Sennacherib, which hath sent to reproach the living God. Of a truth, Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the nations and their countries.… Now therefore, O Lord our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou art the Lord, even thou only.56

Miraculously, the Lord complied. First he sent his prophet Isaiah to Hezekiah with this message:

Thus saith the Lord concerning the king of Assyria, He shall not come into this city, nor shoot an arrow there, nor come before it with shields, nor cast a bank against it  … For I will defend this city to save it for mine own sake.57

Yahweh was as good as his word. That very night

The angel of the Lord went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred and fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses. So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed.58

There could be no doubt about the historicity of these events: the Assyrians had surrounded Jerusalem in 701 BC and they had suddenly lifted their siege and fled.59 Scholars believed that this had happened because they had been afflicted by an outbreak of bubonic plague.60 Strangely, however, there was no evidence that anyone in Jerusalem itself had gone on to contract this easily transmissible disease. In the context of everything that I had learned hitherto, therefore, I could not help but wonder whether the Ark of the Covenant might not in some way have been involved in Sennacherib’s undoing. The mass slaughter that had taken place did sound very much like the sort of ‘miracle’ that, in earlier times, the relic had so frequently performed.61

But this was only an intuition, a hunch of my own. It had no status whatsoever as evidence of the continued presence of the Ark in the Temple in 701 BC. What did have that status was Isaiah’s pure and eloquent testimony that King Hezekiah had prayed for his deliverance to the ‘God of Israel, that dwellest between the cherubims’. The monarch uttered this prayer inside the Temple.62 Moreover the full text of the first verse of the passage containing this citation not only stated that he had carried Sennacherib’s threatening letter with him – as noted above – but also added that he had ‘spread it before the Lord’.63 In just such a fashion, though in an earlier era, ‘Solomon … came to Jerusalem and stood before the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord … and offered peace offerings.’64 In just such a fashion, though in an earlier era, ‘David and all the house of Israel played before the Lord on all manner of instruments made of fir wood, even on harps, and psalteries, and on timbrels, and on cornets, and on cymbals.’65 And in just such a fashion, though in an earlier era, ‘the Lord separated the tribe of Levi, to bear the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister unto him, and to bless his name.’66

To cut a long and convoluted story very short indeed, the fact that Hezekiah had spread Sennacherib’s letter out ‘before the Lord’, and then had prayed to the ‘God of Israel, that dwellest between the cherubims’ made it quite certain that the Ark of the Covenant had been in the Holy of Holies at that time. There was no other way in which this passage could be interpreted. And because it did so effectively prove the continued presence of the relic within the Temple long after the reign of Solomon it also dealt a fatal blow to the Kebra Nagast’s claim that the Ark had been stolen by Menelik while Solomon was still alive.

I was not sure whether I should rejoice over this discovery or whether I should lament it. I always find it slightly depressing when a beautiful myth is discredited. And although I still hoped to vindicate the central contention of the Kebra Nagast – namely that the Ark had indeed gone to Ethiopia (although of course not by the hand of Menelik) – I had absolutely no idea how I was going to do this.

Rather dispiritedly, therefore, I turned back to the piles of research papers and books spread out all around me in my hotel room in Jerusalem. The good news, I supposed, was that my investigation had come a long way. I had satisfied myself that the Ark had not been removed from the Temple either during or after the reign of King Josiah, which had begun in 640 BC. Moreover it was now clear that it had still been in its place in the Holy of Holies in 701 BC, the date of Hezekiah’s prayer. This left just sixty-one years in which it could have disappeared, and even that period could be narrowed down somewhat. Why? Because it seemed obvious that Hezekiah himself would not have allowed the sacred relic – before which he had prayed so efficaciously – to be carried off by anyone.

Hezekiah had died in 687 BC and Josiah had taken the throne in 640 BC. Between them there were only two monarchs – Manasseh (687–642 BC) and Amon (642–640 BC).67 It followed that the loss of the Ark must have occurred during the reigns of one or other of these two kings.

The sin of Manasseh

As I immersed myself in the biblical texts once again it quickly became apparent that the guilty party could only have been Manasseh, who was castigated unmercifully by the scribes because:

He did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, after the abominations of the heathen … For he … reared up altars for Baal … and worshipped all the host of heaven, and served them. And he built altars in the house of the Lord … for all the host of heaven … And he made his son pass through the fire, and … used enchantments, and dealt with familiar spirits and wizards: he wrought much wickedness in the sight of the Lord to provoke him to anger … And he set a graven image of the grove that he had made in the house, of which the Lord said to David and to Solomon his son, In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, will I put my name for ever.68

What was this ‘graven image of the grove’ that Manasseh had made? And where exactly in the Temple had he put it?

To find an answer to the first question I temporarily abandoned the King James Authorized Version of the Bible (from which the above quotation is taken) and turned to the more modern Jerusalem Bible which informed me that the ‘graven image of the grove’ was in fact a ‘carved image of Asherah’, an arboreal pagan deity.69 The answer to the second question was self-evident: the ‘house’ in which Yahweh had said that he would put his ‘name for ever’ was the Holy of Holies of the Temple – the debir, the dense golden cell that Solomon had ‘designed … to contain the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh.’70

The implications of what I had just learnt were enormous. Manasseh, who had done ‘that which was evil in the sight of the Lord’, had introduced an idol into the Holy of Holies of the Temple. In taking this momentous step backwards towards paganism it was inconceivable that he could have allowed the Ark of the Covenant to remain in its place – since the Ark was the sign and the seal of Yahweh’s presence on earth and the ultimate symbol of the fiercely monotheistic Judaic faith. At the same time it was improbable that the apostatizing king would actually have destroyed the sacred relic: on the contrary, with his predilection for enchantments and wizardry, he would have regarded that as a most unwise thing to do. The most likely scenario, therefore, was that he would have ordered the Levites to remove the Ark from the Temple before he installed his ‘Asherah’ in the inner sanctum. And this would have been an order that they would have been more than happy to comply with: as faithful servants of Yahweh they would have done anything within their power to avoid the pollution of the object that they regarded as the ‘footstool’ of their God71 – and they could hardly have imagined any worse pollution than for it to have to share the Holy of Holies with the graven image of some alien deity. As priests they would not have been in a position to prevail militarily against a powerful monarch like Manasseh; their best course of action would have been to bow to the inevitable and to carry the Ark away to a place of safety.

There were even indications in the Bible that the relic’s enforced departure from the Temple might have resulted in some kind of mass public protest against the king – a protest that he had ruthlessly suppressed. This was only guesswork on my part, of course, but such a hypothesis did help to explain why Manasseh was said to have ‘shed innocent blood … in such great quantity that he flooded Jerusalem from end to end.’72

At any rate, it was clear that the reign of this monarch had, in later years, come to be regarded as a blot, an aberration and an abomination. He had been succeeded by his son Amon in 642 BC and Amon had in turn been succeeded in 640 BC by Josiah, the zealous reformer who was famous (and beloved of the scribes) for having restored the traditional worship of Yahweh.

Why had Amon’s tenure of the throne been so brief? Because, as the Bible explained, he had done

that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, as his father Manasseh did. And he walked in all the way that his father walked in, and served the idols that his father served, and worshipped them … And the servants of Amon conspired against him, and slew the king in his own house … and the people of the land made Josiah his son king in his stead.73

Josiah, however, had been only ‘eight years old when he began to reign’74 and it was not until eight years after that, the Bible reported, that he had shown the first signs of wanting to ‘seek after the God of David’.75 Indeed the young monarch’s passionate reaction against the sins of Manasseh and Amon did not begin until the ‘twelfth year’ of his reign when – at the age of twenty – he launched a campaign ‘to purge Judah and Jerusalem from … the carved images, and the molten images’.76

And he brought out the grove [Asherah] from the house of the Lord, right out of Jerusalem, unto the brook Kidron, and burned it in the brook Kidron, and stamped it to small powder, and cast the powder thereof on the common burying ground.77

A passionate reaction indeed! And, moreover, one that could be dated: it had been in 628 BC, the twelfth year of Josiah’s reign, that Manasseh’s loathsome idol had at last been rooted out of the Holy of Holies. The Ark, however, had certainly not been brought back in to replace it. As I already knew, Jeremiah had been responding to public grief at the continued absence of the relic two years later when he had prophesied that a time would eventually come when people would no longer ask ‘where is the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh’ – a time when they would have ‘no regret for it’ and when they would not consider ‘making another’.

Four years after that Josiah himself had rather forlornly asked the Levites to restore the Ark to the Temple, adding ‘it shall not be a burden for your shoulders’. That had been in 622 BC, the eighteenth year of his reign, and it was no coincidence that it had been in that very same year, having completed a lengthy nationwide purge, that he had ‘returned to Jerusalem’ and issued orders ‘to repair the house of the Lord his God’.78

The repairs had been duly carried out by ‘carpenters and builders and masons’.79 The great mystery, however, was that the Levites had been unable to comply with Josiah’s request that they should ‘put the Holy Ark in the house which Solomon the son of David king of Israel did build.’ I was now increasingly sure that the answer to that mystery must lie in Ethiopia – although I was not yet in a position to fathom out exactly how or why.

Meanwhile I sought academic support for my view that it must have been during the reign of Manasseh that the Ark had gone missing in the first place. I found that support in an authoritative treatise that I had already had occasion to consult several times before – Professor Menahem Haran’s Temples and Temple Service in Ancient Israel. Here, in a brief section in the middle of the book, I read that:

throughout the various changes that took place in the Kingdom of Judah, the Temple at Jerusalem never ceased to serve exclusively as a Temple of Yahweh … There was only one single period in its history when it was temporarily deprived of its original function and for a short while ceased to serve as a Temple to Yahweh … This occurred during the reign of Manasseh … who set up vessels for Baal … in the outer sanctum and introduced the image of Asherah into the inner sanctum of the Temple … This is the only happening which may explain the disappearance of the Ark and the cherubim … We are entitled to infer that the image of Asherah … was substituted for the Ark and the cherubim. Some fifty years afterwards, when Josiah removed the Asherah from the Temple and burnt it in the Kidron Valley, beating it to dust and desecrating even the dust, the Ark and the cherubim were no longer there.80

After making a number of telephone calls to the Hebrew University I managed to track down Professor Haran. I told him that I had read his book and that I was excited by his suggestion that the Ark of the Covenant might have been lost during the reign of Manasseh. Could he spare me half an hour or so to discuss the matter further? He replied that he would be only too happy to do so and invited me to visit him at his home in Jerusalem’s Alfasi Street.

Haran proved to be an elderly but robust man, grey-haired and solidly built – the very image of the type of learned but eminently practical biblical scholar that one meets so often in Israel. I told him a little about my own research and then asked whether he was certain in his own mind that the Ark had indeed been removed from the Temple in Manasseh’s time.

‘Yes,’ he replied with conviction, ‘I am as certain of that as I can possibly be. This is why the Ark is not referred to in the long lists of Temple vessels and treasures that were later taken by the Babylonians. And I should add with all modesty that my views on this subject have never been refuted in scholarship.’

I took this opportunity to put a question that had been bothering me for some time: ‘If the Ark was taken out as a result of Manasseh’s idolatry then how do you account for the fact that the Scriptures make absolutely no mention of the loss?’

‘I account for it in this way. To have to write down such a report would have filled the scribes with disgust – with such a horrible feeling – that definitely they would have averted from it. I therefore believe that they deliberately refrained from reporting the loss of the Ark. Even in what they did report of Manasseh’s reign their feelings of utter horror do come through. Yet they could not bring themselves to indulge in a description of the occurrence itself.’

‘Do you have any idea at all’, I asked next, ‘what could have happened to the relic after it was removed?’

Haran shrugged: ‘On that I cannot speculate. It is impossible to prove. I can only say with confidence that the orthodox priests of Yahweh would under no circumstances have permitted the Ark of Yahweh to stay in the same place as the idol of Asherah.’

‘So do you think they took it away somewhere? To a place of safety?’

Another shrug: ‘As I say, I cannot speculate on such matters. However it is evident from our records, from the Holy Writ, that Jerusalem itself – in fact the whole country – was not a safe place for those who were loyal to the worship of Yahweh during Manasseh’s time.’

‘Are you referring to the passage in the book of Kings that talks about innocent blood being spilled?’

‘Yes. 2 Kings 21:16. And not only that. Jeremiah also speaks obliquely of the same events when he says “your sword hath devoured your prophets like a destroying lion”. I have no doubt that this was a reference to the acts of Manasseh and I infer from it that certain prophets had opposed him and that for this they were massacred. It is an interesting phenomenon, you know, that you do not find any prophets at all during the reign of Manasseh himself – Jeremiah came just afterwards and others, like Isaiah, came just before. The gap was the result of persecutions and of a sustained campaign against the worship of Yahweh.’

The Professor would not be pushed any further on this subject and resolutely refused to indulge in what he obviously regarded as idle speculation about where the Ark could have gone. When I mentioned my theory that it might have been taken to Ethiopia he looked at me blankly for about half a minute and then concluded: ‘That seems rather far.’

A temple on the Nile

After interviewing Menahem Haran I returned to my hotel feeling directionless and confused. Of course it had been exciting to get his confirmation that the Ark had been lost during Manasseh’s reign. The trouble was, however, that I now seemed to have arrived at the brink of a deep intellectual precipice. Ethiopia was indeed ‘rather far’ from Jerusalem, and I could see no good reason why the loyal priests of Yahweh who had carried the sacred relic out of the Temple should subsequently have taken it to such a distant place.

Moreover, the dates didn’t fit. Manasseh had sat on the throne in Jerusalem from 687 to 642 BC, but the Tana Kirkos traditions asserted that the Ark had not arrived in Ethiopia until approximately 470 BC. So I was still two hundred years adrift.

As I chewed over this problem I realized that what I needed to do was to talk to some Ethiopians. And what better place was there in which to talk to Ethiopians than in the State of Israel? After all, tens of thousands of Falashas – who claimed citizenship under the terms of the Law of Return – had been airlifted here over the past decade. Surely amongst them there must be some elders, knowledgeable in the folk memory of their people, who could help me to bridge the geographical and chronological abyss that yawned before me?

Further enquiries at the Hebrew University produced the name of Shalva Weil, a social anthropologist who had specialized in far-flung Jewish communities and who was regarded as something of an expert on Falasha culture. I telephoned her at her home and, after introducing myself, asked her if she could recommend any member of the Falasha community in Jerusalem who might be able to speak with authority on the ancient traditions of the Ethiopian Jews.

‘Your best bet’, she replied without hesitation, ‘would be Raphael Hadane. He’s a priest, a very senior priest. He’s been here for a few years. He’s an elderly man and extremely knowledgeable. The only problem is he doesn’t speak English so you should try to see him with his son.’

‘Whose name is?’

‘Yoseph Hadane. He came to Israel as a boy in the early 1970s and he’s now a fully trained rabbi. He does speak fluent English so he’ll be able to translate for you.’

Arranging the meeting took up most of my last two days in Jerusalem. Finally, however, I did manage to get together with the Hadane family at the Falasha Absorption Centre, which was located in a suburb called Mevasserit Zion to the west of the city. Here I found hundreds of Ethiopians, some newly arrived, others long-term residents, living in a somewhat ramshackle housing estate.

Raphael Hadane, the Falasha priest, was dressed in a traditional Abyssinian shemma and sported a considerable beard. His son, the rabbi, was clean-shaven and wore a smart business suit. For a long while we sat around drinking tea and exchanging pleasantries while children played at our feet and various assorted relatives came and went. One of these latter, as it happened, had been born and brought up in the village of Anbober, which I had visited in January 1990 on my trip to Gondar.

‘Does Anbober really still exist?’ he asked me rather plaintively. ‘It’s five years since I left home.’

‘It does still exist,’ I replied, ‘or rather it did in January. The population seemed to be mainly women and children, though.’

‘This is because the men emigrate first to prepare a place for their families. Did you talk to anyone there?’

I told them that I had interviewed the priest, Solomon Alemu, and this brought smiles of recognition from everyone around the table. ‘They all know him well,’ explained Rabbi Hadane. ‘Ours is a small society … and close knit.’

Eventually I switched on my tape-recorder and began the interview with the rabbi’s venerable father. Much of what he had to say about Falasha culture and religion was already very familiar. When I turned to what was now the central issue for me, however – i.e. exactly how and when Judaism had arrived in Ethiopia – he told me something that made me prick up my ears.

I had asked a leading question about Menelik and the Queen of Sheba – hoping, after the ritual repetition of the Kebra Nagast story, to pin the old man down on the matter of the date that Menelik’s supposed journey had taken place. Hadane surprised me by dismissing the legend entirely: ‘Some of us say that we are descended from the Israelites who accompanied Menelik, but personally I do not believe that. According to the traditions that I heard in my childhood, our ancestors were Jews who had first lived in Egypt before they came to Ethiopia.’

‘But,’ I interjected, ‘the Kebra Nagast says that too. It says that Menelik and his companions travelled through Egypt.’

‘That is not what I mean. After leaving Israel, our forefathers did not just travel through Egypt. They settled in that country for a very long time – for hundreds of years. And they built a temple there.’

I leaned forward over the tape-recorder: ‘A temple? Where did they build this temple?’

‘At Aswan.’

This, I thought, was very interesting. Solomon Alemu, the priest at Anbober, had also mentioned Aswan to me when I had interviewed him in January. At the time I had resolved to make a trip there. And I had in fact travelled quite widely in Egypt since doing that interview. I had not yet gone as far south as Aswan, however, and I was now beginning to wonder whether that might not have been a mistake. If there had indeed been a Jewish temple there, as Hadane had just indicated, then this was potentially a matter of great importance – because the function of the Temple in orthodox Judaism had been to house the Ark of the Covenant. If it was true that a temple had been built at Aswan, and if this had happened after the Ark had been removed from Jerusalem, then the implications were obvious.

Hadane was unable to be at all specific as to the date of this Aswan temple, however. All he could tell me was that it had endured ‘for a long while’ but that it had eventually been destroyed.

‘Why was it destroyed?’

‘There was a great war in Egypt. A foreign king who had captured many countries came to Egypt and destroyed all the temples of the Egyptians. But he did not destroy our temple. So when the Egyptians saw that only the Jewish temple was not destroyed they suspected we were on the side of the invader. Because of this they started to fight against us and they destroyed our temple and we were forced to flee.’

‘And you went to Ethiopia?’

‘Not straight away. Our forefathers passed first into Sudan, through Meroe, where they remained for a short while. But they were driven out by another war. Then they split into two parties: one group went following the Takazze river; the other group following the Nile. And in this way they arrived in Ethiopia, in Quara, close to Lake Tana. There we made our homes. There we became Ethiopians. And because we were far from Israel, though we had stayed in touch with Jerusalem all the time that we were in Egypt and in the Sudan, we now lost that contact and it became to us only a memory.’

I next asked Hadane whether there was any place in the Lake Tana area that the Falashas regarded as being particularly important or sacred.

‘Three places,’ he replied. ‘The first, the most important, is Tana Kirkos, the second is Daga Stephanos, the third is Zegie.’

I raised my eyebrows: ‘Why is Tana Kirkos the most important?’

‘I do not know exactly. But all our people regard it as sacred.’

My last question was a specific one about the Ark: ‘Ethiopian Christians say that they have the Ark of the Covenant at Axum – the original Ark of the Covenant that was supposed to have been brought from Jerusalem by Menelik, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. You’ve told me that you don’t believe the Menelik story. But do you believe that the Christians have the Ark as they claim?’

‘Our people believe, and I myself also believe, that the Ark of the Covenant is in Axum. As a matter of fact, some years ago, I and others of our spiritual leaders went from our home to Axum to try to see the Ark for ourselves. We were very interested in this tradition and we wanted to see the Holy Ark. So we went there, and we got to Axum, and to the church of Saint Mary. But we were told that it was forbidden for us to enter the chapel where the Ark is, because if we were to enter into there we would die. So we said, “OK. We will purify ourselves and then we will go in there and we will see.” So we did that, we purified ourselves, but still the Christian priests would not permit us to enter the chapel. Because of that we had to return to our place without seeing it.’

‘I’ve heard that it is brought out in public once a year, at the ceremony of Timkat. You would have had a better chance of seeing it if you had gone there at Timkat.

Hadane laughed bitterly: ‘I have heard that too. But I do not believe that the Christians would ever bring out the true Ark. They would not do that. They will never show it to anyone. They will use a replica instead. Do you know why? Because they took the Ark from us long, long ago, and they do not want to give it back. They are jealous of it. So therefore they keep it always concealed in its chapel, surrounded by bars, where no one may approach it other than the one who is appointed as its guardian.’

When I finally left the Falasha Absorption Centre at Mevasserit Zion and returned to downtown Jerusalem my head was literally buzzing with ideas and question. Of all the Ethiopian Jews whom I had talked to during the course of my research, Hadane had proved to be by far the most lucid and the most informative. The story of his attempt to see the Ark in Axum had intrigued me. And the special importance that he had accorded to the island of Tana Kirkos was surely of great significance in the light of what I myself had learnt there during my trip in November 1989. But what had interested me most of all about his answers was the reference that he had made to the existence, at some remote period in history, of a Jewish temple at Aswan. If there was any truth to this then I would certainly have to go to that Upper Egyptian town, which lay some two hundred kilometres to the south of Karnak and Luxor.

Back in my hotel room I dialled the number of Dr Shalva Weil, the social anthropologist who had put me in touch with Hadane.

‘How did the interview go?’ she asked breezily.

‘Very well, thank you. Most helpful. I’m grateful to you for the contact.’

I paused awkwardly. I always feel slightly silly putting completely idiotic questions to academics. But there was no getting around this one. I had to ask: ‘During our interview Hadane mentioned something to me about a temple – a Jewish temple – at Aswan in Egypt. I know what I’m going to say next is a bit nuts, but I’ve learnt not to dismiss folk-traditions completely without at least checking them out. Anyway, what I want to ask you is this: is there actually any possibility that such a temple could ever have existed?’

‘Certainly it existed,’ Dr Weil replied. ‘It was a proper temple, dedicated to Yahweh. But it wasn’t actually in Aswan proper. It stood on the island of Elephantine in the middle of the Nile. There are some archaeological excavations going on there right now, as a matter of fact.’

‘And this island … I mean … is it far from Aswan?’

‘Not more than two hundred metres in a straight line. It takes about five minutes to sail there in a felucca.

‘So effectively Hadane was right when he talked about a temple at Aswan?’

‘Absolutely right, yes.’

‘But does this temple have anything to do with the Falashas?

Hadane said that it had been built by his forefathers.’

‘It’s possible, I suppose. Academics are divided on the issue. Most of us believe that the Falashas are the descendants of Jewish merchants and settlers who reached Ethiopia from south Arabia. But there is one respectable body of opinion which holds that they are descended from the Jews who fled from Elephantine.’

‘Fled? Why?’

‘Their temple was destroyed – some time in the fifth century BC I believe – and the Jewish community that had lived on the island vanished after that. It’s a bit of a mystery, actually. They just melted away. But I’m not an expert … I can recommend some books if you like.’

I thanked Dr Weil for this offer, jotted down the short bibliography that she gave me, and said goodbye to her in a state of some excitement. It had been in the fifth century BC, according to the Tana Kirkos traditions, that the Ark of the Covenant had arrived in Ethiopia. Now I knew that a Jewish temple on the upper Nile had been destroyed in that same century. Was it not possible that that temple had been built two hundred years earlier to house the Ark after it had been removed from Jerusalem during the reign of Manasseh?

I intended to find out and left Israel the next day – not for London, as I had originally planned, but for Egypt.

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