Chapter 6

Resolving Doubts

My visit to Chartres cathedral and my readings of Wolfram’s Parzival during the spring and summer of 1989 had opened my eyes to many things that I had missed before – notably to the revolutionary possibility that the Knights Templar could have made an expedition to Ethiopia in the twelfth century in search of the lost Ark. As explained in Chapter 5, I did not find it difficult to see how and why they might have been motivated to do that. But what I now needed to establish was this: other than the Templar ‘quest’ that I thought I had identified, was there really any convincing evidence to suggest that the last resting place of the Ark of the Covenant might actually be in the sanctuary chapel at Axum?

After all, there were literally hundreds of cities and churches around the world which boasted of possessing holy relics of one kind or another – fragments of the True Cross, Christ’s shroud, the finger-bone of Saint Sebastian, the lance of Longinus, and so on and so forth. In almost every case where a proper investigation had been conducted such boasts had turned out to be hollow. Why, therefore, should Axum be any different? The fact that its citizens obviously believed their own legends certainly didn’t prove anything – except, perhaps, that they were a susceptible and superstitious lot.

And, on the face of things, there seemed to be several good reasons for concluding that the Ethiopians did not possess the Ark of the Covenant.

Trouble with tabots

First and foremost, in the mid-nineteenth century, a legate of the Armenian Patriarch had visited Axum determined to prove that the tradition of the Ark’s presence there, ‘which the whole of Abyssinia believed to be the truth’, was in fact ‘an appalling lie’.1 After putting some pressure on the Axumite priests, the legate – whose name was Dimotheos – had been shown a slab of ‘reddish-coloured marble, twenty-four centimetres long, twenty-two centimetres wide and only three centimetres thick’2 which the priests had said was one of the two tablets of stone contained within the Ark. They had not shown him the object believed by Ethiopians to be the Ark itself and had clearly hoped that he would be satisfied with a glimpse of the tablet – which they had referred to as ‘theTabot of Moses’.3

Dimotheos had indeed been satisfied. He reported with the obvious pleasure of a man who has just debunked a great myth:

The stone was virtually intact, and showed no sign of age. At the most it dated from the thirteenth or fourteenth century of the present era … Stupid people like the Abyssinians who blindly accept this stone as the original are basking in a useless glory by possessing it, [for it is] not the true original at all. Those that know the Holy Scriptures do not require any further proof of this: the fact is that the tablets on which the divine laws were inscribed were placed inside the Ark of the Covenant and lost forever.4

What was I to make of this? If the slab of stone shown to the Armenian legate had really come from the relic claimed by the Axumites to be the Ark of the Covenant then he was right to suggest that they were basking in useless glory, because it went without saying that something made in ‘the thirteenth or fourteenth century of the present era’ could not possibly have been one of the two ‘tablets of the law’ on which the Ten Commandments had supposedly been inscribed more than twelve hundred years before the birth of Christ. In other words, if the contents were bogus then it followed that the container must be bogus too, which meant that the entire Axumite tradition was indeed ‘an appalling lie’.

But that was a conclusion, I felt, that it would be premature to accept before attempting to find the answer to an important question: had Dimotheos been shown the object believed to be the genuine Tabot of Moses, or had he in fact been shown something else?

This question was particularly pertinent because the Armenian legate had so obviously been affronted and outraged by the possibility that a people as ‘stupid’ as the Ethiopians might possess a relic as precious as the Ark of the Covenant – and had therefore very much wanted to prove that they did not. Moreover, as I read and re-read his account, it became apparent to me that his desire to vindicate his own prejudices had over-ridden any proper investigative spirit on his part – and that he had also absolutely failed to recognize the subtle and devious nature of the Ethiopian character.

When he had visited Axum in the 1860s the specially dedicated sanctuary chapel had not yet been built5 and the Ark – or the object believed to be the Ark – was still kept in the Holy of Holies of the church of Saint Mary of Zion (where, in the seventeenth century, it had been installed by Emperor Fasilidas after the reconstruction of that great edifice6). Dimotheos, however, had not been permitted to enter the Holy of Holies. Instead he had been taken to a rickety wooden outbuilding ‘situated with some other rooms outside the church on the left’.7 It had been in this outbuilding that the ‘reddish-coloured marble stone’ had been revealed to him.8

Because of this it seemed to me that there was a very high degree of probability that the Armenian legate had been duped by the priests. The Ark, I knew, was regarded as uniquely sacred by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It was therefore inconceivable that it, or any part of its contents, would have been removed even temporarily from the Holy of Holies of Saint Mary of Zion unless there had been some extremely compelling reason. The voyeuristic whim of a vulgar foreigner would certainly not have qualified as such a reason. At the same time, however, this foreigner had been an emissary of the Armenian Patriarch in Jerusalem and it would therefore have been thought wise to treat him with a certain amount of respect. What to do? The answer, I suspected, was that the priests had decided to show him one of the many tabots kept at Axum. And because he had so forcefully expressed his wish to see something connected to the Ark, if not the Ark itself, it would only have been kindly and polite to massage his ears with words that he obviously very much wanted to hear, namely that what he was being shown was the ‘original Tabot of Moses’.

Needing to be sure that I was right about this I made a long-distance telephone call to Addis Ababa, where Professor Richard Pankhurst – my co-author on the government book in 1983 – was now living (he had moved back to the city in 1987 to take up his old post at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies). After telling him a little about my re-awakened interest in the Axumite tradition concerning the Ark of the Covenant, I asked him about the Dimotheos incident. Did he think that the Tabot that the Armenian legate had been shown could actually have been one of the objects believed by Ethiopians to have been placed in the Ark by Moses?

‘Most unlikely,’ Richard replied. ‘They wouldn’t show such a sacred thing to any outsider. Besides, I’ve read Dimotheos’s book and it’s full of mistakes and misapprehensions. He was a pompous man, pretty unscrupulous in his dealings with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and not entirely honest. I imagine the Axum clergy would have seen through him very quickly and fobbed him off with some other tabot that wasn’t of any great importance to them.’

We talked for some time longer and Richard supplied me with the names and telephone numbers of two Ethiopian scholars who he thought might be able to help me with my research – Dr Belai Gedai (who had spent several years making an exhaustive study of his country’s ancient history, drawing heavily on rare Amharic and Ge’ez documents) and Dr Sergew Hable-Selassie of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, the author of a highly respected work entitled Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 12709 with which I was already familiar.

The question of what Dimotheos had or had not seen in Axum was still very much at the forefront of my mind and I decided that I would put the problem to Hable-Selassie. I therefore called him, introduced myself, and asked for his opinion on the matter.

He laughed: ‘Well certainly that fellow did not see the original Tabot of Moses. To satisfy his wish the priests showed him a substitute – not the real one … Here in Ethiopia it is normal for each church to have more than one tabot. In fact some have as many as ten or twelve, which they use for different ceremonial purposes. So he would have been shown one of these. There’s no doubt about that at all.’

The confident nature of the historian’s response laid to rest any remaining uncertainty that I may have felt about the merits of the Armenian legate’s testimony. The ‘reddish-coloured marble stone’ that he had seen had no value as evidence either for or against Ethiopia’s claim to possess the Ark of the Covenant. Nevertheless his account of his visit to Axum had raised another complicated reservation in my mind – a reservation to do with the whole issue of tabots as a category of sacred objects. As far as I was aware these objects were supposed to be replicas of the Ark of the Covenant – which, as I knew very well, had been a box about the size of a tea-chest. Yet the small marble slab that Dimotheos had been shown had been called a tabot and it had been described as one of thetablets of stone contained inside the Ark.

This was something that I really needed to clarify. Every Ethiopian church had its own tabot (and, as I now knew, they sometimes had several). But were these tabots really supposed to be replicas of the sacred object, thought to be the Ark, that was kept in the sanctuary chapel in Axum? If that were the case, and if all tabots were flat slabs, then the implication was that that sacred object, too, must be a flat slab – which meant that it could not be the Ark (although it might possibly be one of the tablets of the law on which the Ten Commandments had been inscribed).

Certainly the tabots that I had seen over my many years of acquaintance with Ethiopia had all been slabs rather than boxes – slabs that had been made sometimes of wood, and sometimes of stone. And certainly, also, it had been this very characteristic that had led the scholar Helen Adolf to conclude that Wolfram von Eschenbach must have had some knowledge of tabots when he had devised his Grail Stone.10

That was all very well – if tabots were meant to represent the stone tablets that the Ark had contained. On the other hand, if these objects were thought of as replicas of the Ark itself then the Axumite claim to that relic would be severely damaged. I could hardly forget that it had been precisely this problem – brought starkly to my attention after my visit to the British Museum Ethnographic Store in 1983 – that had caused me to abandon my initial research into the great mystery that was now clamouring for my attention once again. Before going any further, therefore, I felt that it was imperative to establish once and for all exactly what tabots were supposed to be. To this end I telephoned Dr Belai Gedai, the other Ethiopian scholar whom Richard Pankhurst had recommended to me. After introducing myself I got straight to the point: ‘Do you believe,’ I asked, ‘that the Ark of the Covenant is in Ethiopia?’

‘Yes,’ he replied emphatically. ‘Not only me but all Ethiopians believe that the Ark of the Covenant is in Ethiopia, kept in the church of Saint Mary of Zion in Axum. It was brought here after the visit of Emperor Menelik I to his father Solomon in Jerusalem.’

‘And what about the Ethiopian word tabot? Does that mean “Ark”? Are tabots supposed to be replicas of the Ark in Axum?’

‘In our language the correct plural of tabot is tabotat. And, yes, they are replicas. Because there is only one original Ark and because the ordinary people need something tangible to which they may attach their faith, all the other churches make use of these replicas. There are now more than twenty thousand churches and monasteries in Ethiopia and every one of them has at least one tabot.

‘That’s what I thought. But I’m puzzled.’


‘Mainly because none of the tabotat I’ve seen looked anything like the biblical description of the Ark. They were all slabs, sometimes made of wood, sometimes made of stone, and none of them were much more than a foot long and wide or more than two or three inches thick. If objects like these are supposed to be replicas of the relic kept in the church of Saint Mary of Zion in Axum then the logical deduction is that that relic can’t be the Ark of the Covenant after all …’


‘Because of the biblical description. Exodus clearly depicts the Ark as a fair-sized rectangular chest. Hang on, I’ll look up the details …’

I took down my copy of the Jerusalem Bible from the bookshelf above my desk, turned to Chapter 37 of Exodus, found the relevant passage, and read out how the artificer Bezaleel had built the Ark according to the divine plan given to him by Moses:

Bezaleel made the Ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, one and a half cubits wide, one and a half cubits high. He plated it, inside and out, with pure gold.11

‘How long exactly is a cubit?’ Gedai asked.

‘Approximately the length of a forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger – in other words about eighteen inches. So that means the Ark would have been about three feet nine inches in length and two feet three inches in width and depth.Tabotatsimply don’t fit those dimensions. They’re much too small.’

‘You are right,’ Gedai mused. ‘Nevertheless we do have the original Ark of the Covenant. This is certain. In fact there is even an eyewitness description.’

‘You mean the one given by the Armenian legate Dimotheos?’

‘No, no. Certainly not. He saw nothing. I am referring to someone who came much earlier, a geographer named Abu Salih – who was also an Armenian, by the way. He lived in the very early thirteenth century and he made a survey of Christian churches and monasteries. These churches and monasteries were mainly in Egypt. In addition, however, he visited some neighbouring countries, including Ethiopia, and his book contains material on these countries as well. That is where the description of the Ark is given. If I remember correctly it does accord quite well with what you have just read me from Exodus.’

‘This book of Abu Salih’s? Has it ever been translated into English?’

‘Oh yes. A very good translation was made in the nineteenth century. You should be able to find a copy. The editor was a certain Mr Evetts …’

Two days later I emerged triumphantly from the stacks of the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In my hand was B. T. Evetts’s translation of Abu Salih’s monumental Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and some Neighbouring Countries.12 On page 284, in small print, I found the subheading ‘Abyssinia’ followed by eight pages of observations and comments. Amongst them was this reference:

The Abyssinians possess the Ark of the Covenant, in which are the two tables of stone inscribed by the finger of God with the commandments which he ordained for the Children of Israel. The Ark of the Covenant is placed upon the altar, but is not so wide as the altar; it is as high as the knee of a man and is overlaid with gold.13

I borrowed a ruler from the librarian and measured my own leg from the sole of my foot to my knee: twenty-three inches. This, I felt, was close enough to the twenty-seven inches given in Exodus to be significant – particularly if the statement ‘as high as the knee of a man’ had referred to a man wearing shoes or boots. I knew that such a rough measure could never be conclusive as a piece of evidence; on the other hand it by no means excluded the possibility that the Armenian geographer had seen the original Ark of the Covenant when he had made his visit to Ethiopia in the thirteenth century. And anyway, from my point of view, the real importance of the account that he had given was this: it indisputably described a substantial box or chest covered with gold rather than a slab of wood or stone a few inches thick like the tabotat that I had seen – or, for that matter, like the tabot that had been shown to Dimotheos in the nineteenth century.

Equally significantly, Abu Salih had given some details about how the object that he had seen had been used by the Christians of Axum:

The liturgy is celebrated upon the Ark four times in the year, within the palace of the king; and a canopy is spread over it when it is taken out from its own church to the church which is in the palace of the king: namely on the feast of the great Nativity, on the feast of the glorious Baptism, on the feast of the Holy Resurrection, and on the feast of the illuminating cross.14

There could, it seemed to me, be no question but that this early and quite matter-of-fact eyewitness account provided considerable support for Ethiopia’s claim to be the last resting place of the genuine Ark of the Covenant. The dimensions and appearance were roughly right and even Abu Salih’s description of the way in which the relic that he had seen had been covered with a ‘canopy’ when transported was in accord with the regulations laid down in the Bible:

And when the camp setteth forward … they shall take down the covering veil and cover the Ark with it. And they shall … spread over it a cloth.15

So far so good. But though the Armenian geographer was helpful, he still did not provide me with any answer to the knotty problem posed by the shape of that category of objects known as tabotat. Nor was this problem one that I could afford to ignore. I therefore decided to check out the etymology of the Ethiopic word. In its pure and original form, I wondered, did tabot actually mean ‘Ark’? Or did it mean ‘stone tablet’? Or did it mean something else altogether?

My investigation into this matter took me into intellectual territory that I had never charted before (and that I would prefer never to have to chart again), namely linguistics. Ploughing through reams of obscure and boring documents I established that the ancient Ethiopian language known as Ge’ez, together with its modern and widely spoken descendant Amharic, are both members of the Semitic family of languages, to which Hebrew also belongs.16

I then learned that the word most frequently used in biblical Hebrew to refer to the Ark of the Covenant was ’aron,17 which obviously bore no similarity whatsoever to tabot. There was another Hebrew word, however – tebah – from which scholars agreed that the Ethiopic tabot had undoubtedly been derived.18

I next sought to confirm whether this word tebah had featured in the Hebrew Old Testament, and, after further research, I discovered that it had – though only twice. Significantly, in both cases, it had been used to refer to a ship-like container: first the ark of Noah which contained the survivors of the human race after the flood,19 and secondly the ark of bulrushes which contained the infant Moses after his mother had set him adrift on the Nile to save him from the wrath of Pharaoh.20

Turning to the Kebra Nagast I then found one passage in which the Ark of the Covenant was specifically described as ‘the belly of a ship … Two cubits and half a cubit shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and half a cubit the breadth thereof, and thou shalt cover it with pure gold, both the outside thereof and the inside thereof.’21 Within this ‘belly of a ship’, furthermore, were to be placed ‘the Two Tables which were written by the finger of God’.22

Such language left no room for doubt. Both in terms of its etymology and its early usage the Ethiopic word tabot unambiguously connoted the biblical Ark of the Covenant in its original form as a gold-covered container – a form for which the ‘belly of a ship’ could serve as a clever metaphor capable not only of summoning up an image of the object but also of linking it conceptually to earlier ‘ships’: the ark of Noah and the ark of bulrushes, which of course had both also contained sacred and precious things.

By the same token, however, tabot definitely did not mean or in any way connote flat solid slabs of wood or stone. So there was still a genuine mystery here. That mystery, however, was finally resolved for me by Professor Edward Ullendorff, Fellow of the British Academy and the first incumbent of the Chair of Ethiopian Studies at the University of London. Now retired and living in Oxford, this renowned scholar insisted that he could see no difficulty in explaining how slabs of wood or stone had come to be referred to as ‘Arks’ by the Ethiopians:

The genuine Ark is supposed to rest at Axum; all other churches can only possess replicas. In most cases they are not, however, replicas of the whole Ark, but merely of its supposed contents, i.e. the tablets of the Law … In other words: the description of these stone or wooden tablets as tabotat is simply by way of a pars pro toto referring to the most important part of the Ark, the tables of the Covenant.23

Flies in amber

By eliminating an apparent contradiction, Ullendorff’s solution to the tabot problem lifted one of the clouds of doubt that hovered over Ethiopia’s claim to possess the lost Ark. Other clouds remained, however. Amongst them, one of the darkest was brought to my attention by Ullendorff himself. In a paper entitled ‘The Queen of Sheba in Ethiopian Tradition’ he had indicated very strongly that the Kebra Nagast was not to be taken seriously as a work of history; rather its purpose had been to glorify Ethiopia and it was to this end that the Ark had been introduced into it.24

Nor was Ullendorff alone in the view that the Kebra Nagast was largely apocryphal. In the Introduction to his translation of that great epic, for example, Sir E. A. Wallis Budge pointed out that it was most unlikely that the Queen of Sheba could have been an Ethiopian at all: ‘It is far more probable’, he wrote (rehearsing an argument with which I was already somewhat familiar), ‘that her home was Sebha, or Saba, in the south-west of Arabia.’25

Several authorities made much of the fact that in Solomon’s time – a thousand years before Christ – Ethiopia had not possessed any real civilization of its own and certainly had not boasted an advanced urban society capable of producing so illustrious a monarch as the Queen of Sheba. Indeed, the consensus was that enlightenment had not even begun to dawn in the Abyssinian highlands until about the sixth century BC and had not reached any level of sophistication until some four hundred years after that. Neither could this period of progress be regarded as an Ethiopian achievement: instead the catalyst had been an influx of Arab tribesmen whose ‘superior qualities’ had revolutionized the sluggish culture of the native inhabitants. Coming mainly from the Yemen, these Semitic immigrants had

settled in the north of Ethiopia and in the process of assimilation with the local population brought about a cultural transformation. They brought with them gifts beyond price: religion, a more highly-developed social organization, architecture and art, and a system of writing.26

In short, Ethiopian civilization was not only much more recent than the Axumite legends implied but also had been borrowed from elsewhere. In their heart of hearts, furthermore, most Ethiopians knew this to be true and felt deeply insecure about their heritage. Indeed one standard work of history went so far as to suggest that the Kebra Nagast was popular because it filled a deep psychological need on the part of the Abyssinians ‘to prove their ancient origins … Parvenu peoples, like parvenu individuals, hanker after ancestors, and peoples have as little scruple in forging family trees as have individuals.’27

In my view the importance of all these arguments lay less in the notion that the Kebra Nagast was mainly a work of fiction (since that did not preclude the possibility that what it had to say about the abduction of the Ark could have been based on some real event), but rather in the consensus that Ethiopian civilization was relatively young and that it had been derived from South Arabia.

This consensus had a real bearing on my attempts to establish the legitimacy of the Ethiopian claim to the Ark because it applied not only to the general civilization of the highlands but also – and quite specifically – to the Falashas. The Kebra Nagast stated quite plainly that the Jewish faith had been introduced into Ethiopia in the 950s BC when Menelik and his companions had arrived with the Ark (indeed it even said that the Queen of Sheba herself had been converted to Judaism).28 On the face of things, therefore, the existence of indigenous black Jews in Ethiopia looked like significant corroborative evidence for the Ark’s presence. On closer examination, however, this turned out not to be the case – or at least not according to the scholars. As Richard Pankhurst had told me in 1983,29 the academic establishment was overwhelmingly of the opinion that the Jewish faith was unlikely to have reached Ethiopia before the second century AD, and that it had been brought across the Red Sea from the Yemen where a large Jewish community had indeed been established after AD 70 by emigrants fleeing Roman persecutions in Palestine.30

One of the strongest proponents of this view was Professor Ullendorff, who presented a long argument on the subject in his influential Ethiopia and the Bible and who concluded quite emphatically that the ancestors of the Falashas must have been converted by Jews who had ‘entered Ethiopia via South Arabia’ over a lengthy period from AD 70 through until about AD 550.31

I decided that I would have to investigate this issue very thoroughly. If the Judaism of the Falashas was indeed less than two thousand years old – and had come from Arabia – then a great swathe of apparently convincing ‘cultural corroboration’ for direct contacts between Ethiopia and Jerusalem in Old Testament times would be obliterated at a stroke and Axum’s lcandidacy as the last resting place of the Ark would lose much if not all of its credibility.

Soon after I began this new phase of my research, however, it became apparent to me that the scholarly consensus in favour of ‘the Yemeni theory’ had largely come about because there was an absence of evidence for any alternative theory. There was nothing whatever which proved that the Jewish faith could not have arrived by some other route; on the other hand there was no proof that it had. The tendency therefore had been to focus on South Arabia as the likely source because it was known that there had been other migratory movements from that region into Ethiopia.32

This struck me as a deplorable failure of logic in which absence of evidence, which was one thing, was in fact being treated as evidence of absence – which was quite another. To reiterate, the problem was a lack of proof that Judaism might have arrived in Ethiopia much earlier and by a different route than the scholars believed; but there was no proof at all that this could not have been the case.

I therefore felt that the field was open and that what I needed to do in order to satisfy myself one way or the other was to study the traditions, beliefs and behaviour of the Falashas themselves and to draw my own conclusions about their origins from these. I thought it likely, however, that their religious observances would have been adulterated during the twentieth century by extensive exposure to western and Israeli visitors. I therefore turned to older accounts that depicted their way of life before it had been contaminated by modern cultural change.

Ironically, several of these accounts were written by foreigners who came to Ethiopia with the express intention of engineering cultural change, notably nineteenth-century Christian missionaries who had heard rumours of the existence of a sizeable population of Abyssinian Jews and who had rushed to convert them.

One such evangelist was Martin Flad, a young German who arrived in Ethiopia in 1855 to proselytize on behalf of the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews.33 His book, The Falashas of Abyssinia, was published in 1869. I found a worn and much-handled copy of it in the British Library and soon became intrigued by several passages in which the author insisted that there must have been Jews in Ethiopia at least since the time of the prophet Jeremiah (around 627 BC34), and possibly since the reign of Solomon. Flad based this assertion in part on the fact that:

The Falashas know nothing of either the Babylonian or the Jerusalem Talmud, which were composed during and after the time of the captivity. They also do not observe the Feasts of Purim and of the Dedication of the Temple, which … are still solemnly kept by the Jews of our time.35

On further investigation, I discovered that the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple was properly known as Hanukkah (meaning, literally, ‘Dedication’). From my point of view the most significant fact about it was that it was instituted in 164 BC36 and therefore would certainly have been observed by the Jewish community that established itself in the Yemen after AD 70. The academic orthodoxy which had previously persuaded me to see the Falashas as the descendants of Ethiopians converted by these Yemeni Jews thus suddenly began to look very suspect. To put matters as plainly as possible, non-observance of Hanukkah suggested only one rational conclusion: the Falashas must have acquired their Judaism before 164 BC and thus not from the Yemen but from some other source.

I next researched the Feast of Purim of which Flad had also found Ethiopia’s Jews to be ignorant. This festival, too, I learned, had been observed since at least the second century BC. Indeed it was quite possibly of even earlier provenance than that: the events that it commemorated took place in the mid-fifth century BC and several of the authorities whom I consulted suggested that its observance had become widely popular by 425 BC.37 This raised the interesting possibility – of which Flad himself had obviously been convinced – that the Falashas had become isolated from the evolving body of world Judaism well before that date, perhaps during the sixth century BC.

I now had a growing sense that the gap between Abyssinian legend and historical fact was closing fast: five hundred years before Christ, after all, was only four hundred years after Solomon. It was beginning to look more and more probable that the Judaism of the Falashas had arrived in Ethiopia in early Old Testament times – just as the Kebra Nagast and the Falashas themselves had always claimed. If this were so, then the implications were clear: at the very least the story of the abduction of the Ark to Ethiopia by Menelik deserved to be taken much more seriously than the academics had hitherto allowed.

I found further evidence for this point of view in the account of another nineteenth-century missionary, Henry Aaron Stern, who was himself a German-Jewish convert to Christianity. He had worked and travelled with Flad in Ethiopia and had published his ownWanderings among the Falashas in Abyssinia in 1862.

As I read this 300-page volume I developed an intense dislike for its author, who came across as an arrogant, brutal and unscrupulous proselytizer with no respect whatsoever for the culture or traditions of the people amongst whom he was working. In general, too, I felt that his descriptions of Falasha religion and lifestyle were thin and poorly observed. As a result, by the time I was halfway through the book I had become thoroughly impatient with it.

Then, on page 188, I came across something interesting. Here, after a lengthy treatise on the absolute interdiction amongst the Falashas of ‘intermarriages with those of another tribe or creed’, Stern described the Ethiopian Jews as being faithful to the law of Moses ‘which … is the formula after which they have moulded their worship.’ He then added:

It sounds strange to hear in central Africa of a Jewish altar and atoning sacrifices … [Yet], in the rear of every place of worship is a small enclosure with a huge stone in the centre; and on this crude altar the victim is slaughtered, and all other sacrificial rites performed.38

Though at this stage my general knowledge about Judaism was limited to say the least, I was well aware that animal sacrifice was no longer practised anywhere in the world by modern Jews. I had no idea whether this ancient institution still existed amongst the Falashas in the late twentieth century; Stern’s account, however, made it quite clear that it had flourished a hundred and thirty years earlier.

Continuing his description of the sacrificial enclosure, the German missionary next remarked:

This sanctum is sacredly guarded from unlawful intrusion … and woe betide the stranger who, ignorant of Falasha customs, ventures too close to the forbidden precincts … I was one day on the very verge of committing this unpardonable offence. It was a very sultry and close noon when, after several hours’ fatiguing march, we reached a Falasha village. Eager to obtain a short rest, I went in quest of a cool and quiet shelter, when accidentally I espied in the midst of a secluded grassy spot a smooth block that looked as if it had been charitably placed there to invite the weary to solitude and repose. The thorny stockade easily yielded to the iron of my lance, and I was just about to ensconce myself behind the flattened stone when a chorus of angry voices … reminded me of my mistake, and urged me to beat a hasty retreat.39

I found myself wishing that Stern had received the punishment he deserved for vandalizing a holy place.40 At the same time, however, I could not help but be grateful to him for drawing my attention to the practice of sacrifice amongst the Falashas. This was a lead well worth following up since it might provide another clue to the date at which Ethiopia’s Jews became separated from the main body of their co-religionists.

I devoted considerable effort to researching the obscure subject of Judaic sacrifice in Old Testament times. The picture that eventually emerged from the fog of scholarly references was of a constantly evolving institution that started out as a simple offering to God which anyone, priest or layman, could make and in virtually any place where a local shrine had been established. This state of relative unregulation, however, began to change after the Exodus from Egypt around 1250 BC.41 During the Hebrews’ wanderings in the wilderness of Sinai the Ark of the Covenant was built and housed in a portable tent or ‘tabernacle’. Thenceforward all sacrifices were to be made at the door of this tabernacle and anyone disobeying the new law was to be punished by banishment:

Whatsoever man there be of the House of Israel … that offereth a burnt offering or sacrifice and bringeth it not to the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, to offer it unto the Lord; even that man shall be cut off from among his people.42

I learned, however, that this prohibition was rather less absolute than it sounded. The main point of the code was not to abolish sacrifice at local shrines in all circumstances but rather to ensure that sacrifices were carried out exclusively at a centralized national place of worship when and if such a place existed. In the wilderness the tabernacle housing the Ark was such a central point. Later, from roughly 1200 to 1000 BC, a national sanctuary was established in Israel at Shiloh, which thus became the new sacrificial centre. Significantly, however, there were periods of political upheaval when Shiloh was abandoned and during these periods the Hebrews were permitted to sacrifice once again at local shrines.43

By the 950s BC Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem had superseded Shiloh as the national religious centre. There is evidence, however, that local sacrifices did take place elsewhere from time to time, particularly amongst those Jews living far from the capital. Indeed it was not until the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BC) that a blanket ban on all forms of sacrifice other than at the Temple began to be strictly enforced.44

So seriously was this prohibition taken that the Jews appear not to have attempted sacrifice of any kind in the decades immediately following the Temple’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC. The early tradition of reverting to local shrines in the absence of a centralized national place of worship seems to have been irrevocably abandoned. Quite simply, while there was no Temple there could be no sacrifice.45

After the return from the Babylonian Exile, the Second Temple was built in Jerusalem and the institution of sacrifice was re-established exclusively within its precincts; meanwhile the absolute prohibition on local offerings was reinforced and appears to have been strictly obeyed. This system of centralized sacrifice remained firmly in place from 520 BC, when the Second Temple was dedicated, until 70 AD when it was razed to the ground by the Roman Emperor Titus.46

No Third Temple had ever been contemplated, other than by millennial groups who linked the fulfilment of that dream with the coming of the still-awaited Messiah.47 In consequence, since AD 70, sacrifice had everywhere been abandoned by the Jews. The Falashas were the sole exception to this rule.48 Moreover Stern’s account suggested that they had offered sacrifices at all their places of worship when he had worked amongst them in the nineteenth century. With a little further research I was able to confirm that this tradition was so strong that sacrifices continued to be made by the majority of Falasha communities today despite their increased exposure to modern Jewish practices.49

As I considered this fact, I realized that there might be a number of possible explanations for it. The most obvious and attractive of these explanations, however, was also the simplest – and therefore the most likely to be correct. I wrote in my notebook:

The ancestors of today’s Falashas 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. That would suggest that the conversion took place before King Josiah’s ban – i.e. no later than the seventh century BC and possibly even earlier than that.

HYPOTHESIS: At some stage after the building of Solomon’s Temple (mid-900s BC) but before Josiah (mid-600s BC) a group of Jews migrated from Israel and settled in Ethiopia. They established local shrines at which they conducted sacrifices to their God and they began to convert the natives of the country to their faith. Perhaps they initially maintained contact with their homeland. The distance was great, however, and it is reasonable to suppose that they would eventually have became completely isolated. They would thus have been untouched by the great revolutions in theological thought that took place in the Judaic world in subsequent centuries.

This explains why the Falashas are the only Jews still practising sacrifice. Frozen like flies in amber, trapped in a time-warp, they are the last surviving practitioners of genuine First Temple Judaism.

So far so good. But QUESTION: why would a group of Jews have migrated from Israel to somewhere as far away as Ethiopia? We are talking the tenth to seventh centuries BC here, not exactly the jet age. The émigrés must therefore have had a very strong motive. What could that have been?

ANSWER: The Kebra Nagast is in no doubt about what the motive was. It says that the migrants were the first-born sons of the elders of Israel, and that they came to Ethiopia in the entourage of Menelik to attend the Holy Ark of the Covenant which they had abducted from the Temple.

Decline and fall

If the Kebra Nagast’s account of the arrival of Judaism in Ethiopia were true, I reasoned, then I might expect to find evidence somewhere in the historical annals to prove that the Jewish faith had formerly enjoyed a much greater prominence in that country than it did today. That certainly would make sense if it had originally been associated with so exalted a figure as Menelik I. I remembered, moreover, that my old friend Richard Pankhurst had mentioned something to me that was relevant to this line of inquiry. When we had worked together in 1983 he had told me that the Falashas had once been a prosperous and powerful people with kings of their own.

I therefore placed another telephone call to Richard in Addis Ababa to see if he could recommend any sources that might shed light on the decline and fall of the Falashas.

He directed me to a book with which I was already slightly familiar: Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in the Years 1768-1773 written by the Scottish adventurer James Bruce of Kinnaird. Pankhurst also suggested that I should look into the ‘Royal Chronicles’ compiled during the reigns of a number of Ethiopian emperors since medieval times. These, he said, documented a series of wars that had been fought between the Christians and the Jews and could be of interest. ‘Other than that,’ he added, ‘I’m not sure where you can get the kind of information you want. The problem is that almost nothing in depth was ever written about the Falashas before Bruce.’

James Bruce of Kinnaird, as I was to discover, was something of an enigma. Hailing from a staunchly Presbyterian Stirlingshire family, he had belonged to the minor aristocracy and had inherited sufficient wealth to indulge a lifelong passion for overseas travel. Initially it seemed to me that it was only this wanderlust that had lured him into the heart of the Ethiopian highlands. When I began to look at his work on the Falashas, however, it gradually dawned on me that his interest in these people had been too intense and too sustained to be explained away merely as the normal curiosity of an intelligent traveller. Over a period of several years he had carried out meticulous research into the faith, customs and historical origins of Abyssinia’s black Jews. In the process, interviewing elders and religious figures, he had recorded many ancient traditions that would otherwise most certainly have been lost to history.

Amongst these traditions was one which stated that King Ezana of Axum had been reading the Psalms of David when he was first introduced to Frumentius, the young Syrian who later converted him to Christianity.50 Bruce, furthermore, made it quite clear that the monarch’s acquaintance with this book of Old Testament verse resulted from the widespread prevalence of Judaism in Ethiopia at that time51 – i.e. the early part of the fourth century AD.

In the context of what I now knew about Falasha customs, I was happy to give credence to this assertion. Indeed I took it as additional support for my own rapidly evolving hypothesis – namely that a form of the Jewish faith incorporating archaic traditions of blood sacrifice had been in Ethiopia for at least a thousand years before Frumentius turned up to preach the gospel of Christ.

I was soon to find further confirmation of this in an old and rare Ethiopic manuscript that had once rested in the Tigrayan fortress of Magdala (stormed and looted by British forces under General Napier in the nineteenth century). Entitled A History and Genealogy of the Ancient Kings it contained the following passage:

Christianity was introduced into Abyssinia 331 years after the birth of Christ by Abuna Salama, whose former name was Frumentos or Frumentius. At that time the Ethiopian kings reigned over Axum. Before the Christian religion was known in Ethiopia half the inhabitants were Jews, who observed the Law; the other half were worshippers of Sando, the dragon.52

The reference to worshippers of ‘the dragon’ – presumably a rubric for all sorts of primitive animistic gods – was interesting. It suggested that Judaism had at no point become the exclusive state religion of Ethiopia and that, in the pre-Christian era, the Falashas – like Jews everywhere – had accepted the coexistence of many pagan creeds. I reasoned, however, that they would undoubtedly have been put on their guard, and been tempted to abandon their traditional tolerance, by the arrival of a militantly evangelistic monotheistic sect like the Christians, whom they would have had good reason to see as a real threat to their preeminence and to their beliefs. The conversion of the Axumite king would have looked particularly ominous in such a context and thereafter Jews and Christians might well have found themselves locked in bitter struggle.

There was considerable support for this analysis amongst the traditions recorded by Bruce. The Scottish adventurer asserted, for example, that the Falashas

were very powerful at the time of the conversion to Christianity or, as they term it, ‘the Apostasy’. At this time they declared a prince of the tribe of Judah, and of the race of Solomon and Menelik, to be their sovereign … This prince … refused to abandon the religion of his forefathers.53

Such a state of affairs, Bruce added, was bound to lead to conflict since the Christians, too, claimed to be ruled by a king descended from the line of Solomon. The conflict, when it came, was thus precipitated by concerns that were entirely secular:

Although there was no bloodshed upon difference of religion, yet, each having a distinct king with the same pretensions, many battles were fought from motives of ambition and rivalship of sovereign power.54

Bruce provided no details of these ‘many battles’ and the history books, too, were silent concerning them – other than noting that in the sixth century AD Kaleb, a Christian king of Axum, assembled a vast army and took it across the Red Sea to do battle with a Jewish monarch in the Yemen.55 Was it not quite probable, I now speculated, that this Arabian campaign had been an escalation of fighting between Jews and Christians in Ethiopia itself?

Evidence that this might indeed have been the case was contained in the Kebra Nagast. Towards the end of the great epic I found specific mention of King Kaleb in a chapter that seethed with anti-Judaic sentiments: here, for no apparent reason, the Ethiopian Jews were suddenly described as the ‘enemies of God’; furthermore, the text advocated that they should be ‘cut to pieces’ and that their lands should be laid waste.56

All this was said in a context that ascribed two sons to Kaleb. One of these sons was named ‘Israel’ while the other was referred to as ‘Gebra Maskal’ (an Ethiopic term meaning ‘Slave of the Cross’). The symbolism of a Jewish-Christian rift was hard to miss (with the Christian faction, of course, being represented by Gebra Maskal and the Jewish faction by Israel). And this analysis began to look even more credible when I remembered that the Falashas never referred to themselves as ‘Falashas’ but always as ‘Beta Israel’, i.e. ‘House of Israel’.57

The basic message, therefore, seemed clear enough; nevertheless, the whole passage was complicated by dense and obscure imagery. Several times, for example, the words ‘Chariot’ and ‘Zion’ cropped up. I could make little or no sense of the former. I already knew very well, however, that the latter – ‘Zion’ – was one of a number of different epithets for the Ark of the Covenant used frequently in the Kebra Nagast.58

Everything became clear when I read that Israel and Gebra Maskal were destined to fight each other. After this battle, the text continued:

God will say to Gebra Maskal, ‘Choose thou between the Chariot and Zion’, and He will cause him to take Zion, and he shall reign openly upon the throne of his father. And God will make Israel to choose the chariot, and he shall reign secretly and he shall not be visible.59

In this fashion, the Kebra Nagast concluded:

The kingdom of the Jews shall be made an end of and the Kingdom of Christ shall be constituted … Thus hath God made for the King of Ethiopia more glory and grace and majesty than for all the other kings of the earth because of the greatness of Zion, the Ark of the Law of God.60

It seemed to me beyond any reasonable doubt that what was being described here, albeit in arcane and symbolic language, was a conflict between the Jews and Christians of Ethiopia – a battle for supremacy in which the followers of the new religion triumphed while the followers of the older faith were vanquished, thereafter to live invisibly in secret places. It was also clear that the Ark of the Covenant – ‘Zion’ – had stood at the heart of this struggle for power and that the Christians had in some way managed to wrest it from the Jews who thenceforward had had to content themselves with the ‘Chariot’, in other words with second best.

As my researches continued, however, it became obvious that the Falashas had not tamely accepted the invisibility and second-class status that the Christians had sought to impose on them. On the contrary, I found a considerable body of evidence to suggest that they had fought back – and, furthermore, that they had done so with great determination and over a rather lengthy period.

The first tantalizing hint of sustained warfare between Abyssinia’s Jews and Christians came in an account written by a ninth-century traveller named Eldad Hadani – better known as Eldad ‘the Danite’ because he claimed descent from the lost Israeli tribe of Dan. Exactly who he was, or where he came from, was by no means clear. In a widely circulated letter written in AD 833, however, he had claimed that the Danites – and three other ‘lost’ Jewish clans – lived in Ethiopia where they were locked in permanent antagonism with the Christian rulers of that country: ‘And they slew the men of Ethiopia and unto this very day they fight with the children of the kingdoms of Ethiopia.’61

On investigating further I discovered that several authorities regarded Eldad as a charlatan and his letter as an improbable piece of fiction. Others, however, felt that much of what he said was firmly grounded in fact.62 I had no hesitation in aligning myself with the latter camp – simply because Eldad’s references to the Abyssinian Jews were too close to the truth about the Falashas to have been pure fabrications. He insisted, for example, that they had emigrated from the Holy Land to Ethiopia in First Temple times, shortly after the separation of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel (i.e. around 931 BC63). In consequence, he said, they did not celebrate festivals instituted after that date such as Purim and Hanukkah. Neither did they have rabbis ‘for these were of the Second Temple and they did not reach them.’64

I was already well aware of the non-observance of the later festivals by the Falashas, and of the implications of this. On checking I now discovered that they did not have rabbis either: indeed their religious officials were called kahen, a word derived from the Hebrew kohen (more familiar as the common name Cohen) meaning ‘priest’ and dating back to the era of the First Temple.65

All in all, therefore, it did sound very much as though Eldad had been in Ethiopia as he had claimed, and had given a faithful enough description of the state of Judaism there in the mid-ninth century AD. His report of sustained fighting between the Abyssinian Jews and their neighbours during this period thus also looked quite plausible:

And their banner is white and written thereon in black is ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one God’… They are numerous as the sands of the sea, and have no employment but war and, whensoever they fight, they say it is not good for mighty men to flee, let them die young, but let them not flee, let them strengthen their heart unto God, and several times they say and cry all of them together, ‘Hear O Israel, our God is one God’, and then they all take heed.66

Eldad concluded that the Jewish tribes in Ethiopia had been successful in their warlike endeavours and had ‘placed their hands on the necks of their enemies’.67 This, it seemed to me, was nothing more nor less than a fairly accurate description of the true balance of power between Christians and Jews in the ninth and early tenth centuries AD. It was, after all, at precisely this time that the Christian Solomonic dynasty of Axum had been overthrown. And I already knew from my previous research that this coup d’état had been the work of a Jewish monarch – a great queen named Gudit (or Judit, or possibly Yehudit).

As outlined in Chapter 5, Gudit’s brief and bloody reign was followed, perhaps half a century later, by the establishment of the Zagwe dynasty, to which King Lalibela had belonged. Although they were almost certainly Jews at the outset, the Zagwes themselves later converted to Christianity and subsequently (about fifty years after Lalibela’s death) abdicated the throne in favour of a monarch claiming Solomonic descent.

Whatever else it achieved, however, it quickly became apparent to me that the Zagwe interregnum had not halted the chronic state of conflict between the Abyssinian Jews and Christians. As my researches continued I learned that Benjamin of Tudela, a widely travelled Spanish merchant who lived in the twelfth century, had reported the existence of Jews in Ethiopia who were ‘not under the yoke of the Gentiles’, and who had ‘cities and castles on the summits of mountains’. He spoke of wars with the Christians in which the Falashas were normally successful, taking ‘spoil and booty’ at will because no man could ‘prevail against them’.68

Then, in the fifteenth century, the Jewish traveller Elijah of Ferrara related that he had met a young Falasha in Jerusalem and was told how his co-religionists ‘preserved their independence in a mountainous region from which they launched continual wars against the Christian emperors of Ethiopia.’69

A hundred years later the Jesuit Bishop of Oviedo asserted that the Falashas hid away in ‘great inaccessible mountains; and they had dispossessed the Christians of many lands which they were masters of, and the kings of Ethiopia could not subdue them, because they have but small forces, and it is very difficult to penetrate into the fastnesses of their rocks.’70

The bishop was wrong, however. His statement was made in 1557 – by which date, far from ‘dispossessing’ anyone, the Falashas were actually under sustained attack from Christian forces bent, apparently, on genocide. Sarsa Dengel, the Solomonic emperor who ruled from 1563 to 1594, waged a seventeen-year campaign against them – a campaign described by one respected scholar as ‘a veritable crusade, inspired by religious fanaticism.’71

During the fighting, which saw brutal onslaughts against Falasha strongholds in the Simien mountains west and south of the Takazze river, the defenders acquitted themselves with great dignity. Even Sarsa Dengel’s sycophantic chronicler could not avoid expressing admiration for the courage of one group of Jewish women who, rather than be captured and used by the emperor’s men, hurled themselves off a cliff with the cry ‘Adonai [God] help me’.72

Later the Falasha king, Radai, was taken prisoner. Offered his life if only he would beg the Virgin Mary for mercy – and death if he would not – he is reported to have said: ‘Is not the mention of the name of Mary forbidden? Make haste! It is better for me that I should depart from a world of lies to a world of justice, from the darkness to the light; kill me, swiftly.’ The emperor’s general, Yonael, answered: ‘If you prefer death, die bravely and bow your head.’ Radai then bowed and Yonael struck him with a great sword: the single blow instantly decapitated the Falasha monarch and passed through his knees also, the blade finally burying itself in the ground. Those who witnessed this horrible scene were said to have admired ‘the courage of the Jew in death who declared the things of the earth are bad and the things of heaven are good.’73

Towards the end of the same campaign the last two Falasha fortresses in the high Simiens were attacked and overwhelmed despite the bravery of the defenders. In both cases the leaders and their picked men chose suicide rather than captivity.

This did not bring an end to the persecutions, however. On the contrary, even worse atrocities were committed after 1607 when Emperor Susneyos ascended the throne. He launched a pogrom against all Falashas still living in the vast highland expanses between Lake Tana and the Simien mountains. During the next twenty years of ‘unwarrantable butchery’ thousands were killed in fierce fighting and their children were sold as slaves. The few survivors, according to the detailed account given by the Scottish traveller James Bruce:

were ordered upon pain of death to renounce their religion, and be baptised. To this they consented, seeing there was no remedy … Many of them were baptised accordingly, and they were all ordered to plough and harrow on the Sabbath day.74

The upshot of such sustained and vindictive oppression was that it forever deprived Ethiopia’s Jews of the autonomous statehood that they had obviously once enjoyed – and thus hastened their slide into obscurity. Looking back through the admittedly sketchy historical documents at my disposal, I found that it was even possible to chart this gradual submergence and disappearance in numerical terms.

In the early 1600s, for example, the Falashas were said to have numbered some ‘100,000 effective men’.75 Assuming one ‘effective man’ per family of five, this would give a total population for that period of around 500,000. Nearly three hundred years later – in the late nineteenth century – the Jewish scholar Joseph Halévy put total Falasha numbers at around 150,000.76 By the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century this figure had plummeted to just 50,000 – according to the undoubtedly well-informed estimate of another Jewish investigator, Jacques Faitlovich.77 Sixty years on, in the famine year of 1984, the Falasha population of Ethiopia was reliably estimated at 28,000.78

My reading left me in no doubt that the watershed had come at the beginning of the seventeenth century with the Susneyos campaigns, which had clearly broken the back of Falasha resistance. Before that they had been a populous and powerful folk with kings and a kingdom of their own; afterwards, disenfranchised and beaten, their numbers remorselessly declined.

The historical record, therefore, more than adequately resolved the contradiction that had been bothering me, namely how to explain the latter-day victimization and impoverishment of the Falashas if it were true that Judaism had been brought to Ethiopia by so exalted a figure as Menelik I – who had also brought the Holy Ark of the Covenant, the most precious and prestigious relic of the ancient world. I now realized that there was no contradiction at all. Indeed a scenario in which the Jewish religion had once enjoyed great influence suggested the only possible motive for the merciless pogroms, killings and mass enslavements that Susneyos and other Christian emperors had inflicted upon their Falasha compatriots. Simply stated, such bizarre and apparently psychopathic behaviour made a twisted kind of sense if the Christians had actively feared the possibility of a resurgence of Judaism – and if their fear had stemmed from the fact that this rival monotheistic faith had earlier represented an extremely strong and enduring theme in Ethiopian life.

‘Consummation of heart’s desire …’

All this, I reasoned, strongly supported the view that Judaism had arrived in Ethiopia long before Christianity. By the same token it also added some social corroboration to the legendary account of Menelik’s abduction of the Ark. To summarize, I now knew that:

• The Falashas’ archaic traditions of blood sacrifice – as well as some of their other religious practices – cast grave doubt on the academic orthodoxy which favoured a late (and South Arabian) origin for Ethiopian Judaism. On the contrary the evidence suggested quite compellingly that the Jewish faith must have come to Ethiopia in First Temple times and must then have been isolated there. Furthermore, the best possible account of how and why Judaism had taken root in the heart of Africa at so early a date was provided by the Kebra Nagast. Since the story of the abduction of the Ark was central to that account it followed that Ethiopia’s claim to possess the sacred relic deserved to be taken seriously.

• There was clear evidence to suggest that the Jewish faith had been an important force in Ethiopia long before the arrival of Christianity in the fourth century AD. This evidence also suggested that Jews and Christians had subsequently engaged in a protracted struggle to the death. The winners of this struggle had been the Christians – who had, in the process, captured the Ark of the Covenant. Thereafter they had gradually incorporated it into their own non-Jewish religious ceremonies. This was the only satisfactory explanation for what was otherwise an incomprehensible anomaly – namely the crucial role, unique in the Christian world, played in all Ethiopian church services by replicas of an Old Testament relic.

• These replicas depicted the contents of the Ark – i.e. the tablets of stone – rather than the Ark itself. This had originally confused me; I now understood, however, that it was merely an example of a culture being ‘economical with its symbols’. In the Holy of Holies of every one of the more than twenty thousand Orthodox churches in Ethiopia was a tabot. Behind these tabotat – and directly responsible for the superstitious dread which they inspired in the general population – lay a mysterious and puissant object. There now seemed to me to be every possibility that that object might indeed be the Holy Ark of the Covenant.

Of course there were still several loose ends. These included the important issue of the ethnic identity of the Queen of Sheba (could she really have been an Ethiopian?). Linked to this, and of at least equal weight, was another legitimate doubt that the scholars had raised: in the era of Solomon was it really possible that Ethiopia could have possessed a sufficiently ‘high’ civilization to have engaged in direct cultural contact with ancient Israel? Finally there was the problem of Axum – to which Richard Pankhurst had drawn my attention in 1983.79 The sacred city had not even existed in Solomon’s time and therefore the Ark could not have been brought to it. This did not preclude the possibility that the relic might have been deposited at some other place in Ethiopia and then moved to Axum at a later date. If so, where was that ‘other place’ and why had I encountered no traditions concerning it?

These, I realized, were questions for which I would eventually have to seek answers. There were others, too. Indeed it was perhaps intrinsic to the occult and recondite nature of the Ark of the Covenant that it would always generate questions, confusions, ambiguities and misgivings. An object so rare and precious, imbued with such power, venerated with such fervour over so many centuries – and charged with the numinous energy of God – could hardly be expected to yield up its secrets easily or to any casual inquirer.

I felt, however, that the evidence I had already unearthed in support of Ethiopia’s claim to be the last resting place of the relic was sufficiently thought-provoking to merit further research. Moreover, when I combined this evidence with the results of the decoding exercise that I had just carried out on Wolfram’s Parzival, I found it difficult to resist the conclusion that two plus two did indeed equal four.

In short, knowing what I knew now, it seemed to me hardly surprising that the clandestine tradition of quest that I had identified should have focussed on the Abyssinian highlands. After all, for a group of knights whose very identity was bound up with the mysteries of Solomon’s Temple, no real historical relic other than the Ark could possibly have served as a more fitting object of chivalric endeavour. By the same token, there was only one country in which such an endeavour might have been undertaken with any genuine hope of success – a country which had a living institution of Ark-worship, a Solomonic heritage, and a credible claim to possess the Ark itself.

I therefore believed I was right in my hypothesis that the Templars had launched a quest in Ethiopia in the late twelfth century and I believed that they had found the precious relic which Wolfram had described as ‘the consummation of heart’s desire’.80 As I shall recount in the next chapter, however, I also believed that they had lost it again – that it had been wrested from them and that they had been obliged to quit Ethiopia without it.

Why? Because a very few intrepid men continued to travel to Ethiopia in search of the Ark long after the utter destruction of the Knights of the Temple of Solomon in the fourteenth century. Furthermore, though they travelled at different periods, and were born in different lands, all these later adventurers were directly linked to the Templars and had inherited their traditions.

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