This is the question that typically follows any statement of my particular vocation. More often than not, it is in fact the single most asked question I receive as an archaeologist. Perhaps this post will not give you the answer you were hoping for, but at least to some, I can lay to rest the question that has been on your mind for a long while. 1981 in fact. This is of course, the release of the swashbuckling adventure of Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, which inspired many archaeologists (including myself) and filled them with dreams of traveling the world, fighting Nazis, getting the girl and discovering aliens exist (…maybe we’ll just forget about that last one). If I haven’t lost many of you by now after mentioning last installment of The Crystal Skull, jokes aside, I will attempt in this post to give some history of the Ark, its purpose, and some historical and traditional views on what might have happened to it.
The Ark of the Covenant was first created as a result of a commandment by God in the Book of Exodus 37, approximately one year after the events of the exodus while the Israelites were in the Sinai wilderness. It was constructed of Acacia wood, 45 inches longs, 27 inches wide, and 27 inches tall. The chest was then overlaid with gold, bolted with rings for carrying poles and was finally a lid with two solid gold cherubim (angels) figurines facing each other with their wings outstretched toward each other and spread out over the lid. According to the New Testament book of Hebrews 9:4, this iconic relic held three things within its confines: the tablets given to Moses containing the Ten Commandments, the Staff of Aaron which was used in the Plagues as well as the same staff which bloomed signifying that Aaron’s sons would be the priests (Levites) to uphold the Laws of YHWH, and a golden pot of manna collected from the wilderness.
The function of the Ark has been debated, however the Bible does mention that it was to contain the “Presence of God." The Hebrew word kepporet seems to indicate that the lid of the Ark functioned as the Throne of God as he is “seated upon the Cherubim” mentioned in Isaiah 37:16 “O LORD of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth.” This would fit well within its ancient Near Eastern Context if we look at other contemporaneous cultures during the time period of the Late Bronze age such as Egypt and Assyria. Egypt has perhaps two of the best examples of similar throne structures. The first and perhaps most popular is the throne of King Tutankhamen.
One can see that there are many animal-like figures which match the description of Cherubim in the ANE (Ancient Near East) as hybrid-winged creatures and symbolize the realm of the gods. In this throne, it can be plainly seen that King Tut was seated upon Cherubim creatures, which represented his protection by angelic beings as well as his place among the gods. Pharaohs in ancient Egypt were essentially the reincarnation of the god Horus.
The next example is far more obvious when it comes to the role of the Ark in light of Egyptian religion. This scene is a depiction of Pharaoh Rameses II’s tent structure at Abu Simbul in Egypt.
The relief dates to Rameses II’s reign in 1279-1213 BCE and shows a tent structure with the Pharaoh’s throne at the center of the camp. Many have made connections with his military tent to the Tabernacle and its arrangement. Rameses’ throne room has two cherubim with their wings outstretched with his cartouche (the encased name of the Pharaoh in hieroglyphics) between them. It’s a remarkable image that perhaps shows that author of the Exodus is reworking the Tabernacle and throne imagery to show that YHWH, not Pharaoh, is the one worthy of worship.
Therefore, the purpose of the Ark was to be the throne of God, not necessarily that his presence was in the Ark, but rather, seated on top since YHWH was supposed to be the first and only king of the Israelites. This also fits with other passages of the Hebrew Bible which instruct the Israelites to carry the Ark before them as they travel. Majority of the events surrounding the Conquest of Canaan center around the Ark, such as the crossing of the Jordan River in Joshua 3 and the battle of Jericho in Joshua 6:4-15. The Ark was supposed to symbolize the fulfillment of God’s covenant with his people in that they would indeed be given the land promised to them as well as God being the one who would fight Israel’s battles for them.
The Ark after this point has a rough history. The Ark was housed in the biblical city of Shiloh (currently being excavated today) until the Philistines capture it (mentioned in 1 Samuel 4:3-11) and was kept for 7 months until its return back to Israelite territory. It was then housed in different cities such as Beth Shemesh (also being excavated today) before being sent to David’s capital in Jerusalem. It was not until Solomon built his Temple that the Ark had a final resting place for a hundred years or so. The Ark was returned to the Temple during Josiah’s reign (7th century BCE) and the Bible is not clear why or who removed it from the Temple (2 Kings 21-23) prior to this event.
After the Ark was established in the Temple of Solomon, it plays a pivotal role in the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippor (The Day of Atonement). On this special day, only the high priest was allowed into the Holy of Holies on behalf of the people of Israel. Their job was to sprinkle the blood of an unblemished lamb upon the Ark, or the throne of God. This symbolized the price for the sins of Israel being atoned by this act. This holiday occurs once a year and was the only time anyone was allowed behind the curtain into the Holy of Holies.
This is when the location of the Ark becomes murky. After the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE it is implied that the Babylonians might have been the ones to raid the temple and take the Ark with them back to Babylon as plunder along with the Judean exiles. In the book of 1 Esdras (an ancient Greek form of the book of Ezra), it claims that vessels of the Ark were taken with them but not the Ark itself (1 Esdras 1:54). There is a possibility it could have been taken with the Babylonians, however it is unknown.
2 Maccabees 2:4-10, however also states that the prophet Jeremiah, knowing of the oncoming campaign of Nebuchadnezzar and his army of Babylonians, took the Ark and hid at the site of Moses' resting place on Mt. Nebo (in modern day Jordan) until “the time that God should gather his people again together."
There is the theory that the Pharaoh Shishak (most likely Shoshenq I of the 22nd Dynasty of Egypt) mentioned in the Bible in 1 Kings 11:40, 14:25 and 2 Chronicles 12:2-9, took the Ark of the Covenant during one of his campaigns through the Levant. He raided the temple of Solomon and took its riches back to Egypt. No doubt this would have included the Ark of the Covenant. However, there is no written sources whether Egyptian, or Biblical that can confirm this theory. A version of this theory is of course used in the Raiders of the Lost Ark film.
If the Ark still exists and survived either campaigns of the Egyptians or Babylonians, there are several places which claim to have the sacred box. The most popular among these locations is the Chapel of the Tablet at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum, possession of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Only one priest is allowed in the building where the Ark is held. A popular book written by British author Graham Hancock, The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant also proposes this location as the final resting place for the ark. However there is little historical merit to his claims and most scholars do not hold to these views or claims.
The search for the Ark is a popular topic and inspires many with dreams of adventure, intrigue and conspiracy. However, there is not much historical and archaeological data that give any evidence as to what happened to an object such as this. More than likely (and this is my own opinion) that the empires of Egypt and Assyria would have little use for a sacred box containing some tablets, a staff and a pot of flowers. They would simply have stripped the gold from its wood and added it amongst their booty. I realize this is an anticlimactic end to such an influential and symbolic object of the Bible, however Jewish religion continued on. The Holy of Holies in Zerubbabel’s Temple and in Herod’s Temple was void of the Ark of the Covenant although the presence of God was supposed to still be dwelling behind the curtain; the curtain’s purpose being to separate the righteousness of God with the sinful world.
The Jews of the Second Temple Period clearly did not feel the need to remake another Ark and were satisfied with the vacancy in its place. On Yom Kippur the blood of the lamb, that was to be sprinkled on the Ark, was instead sprinkled on the empty place where the Ark sat, most likely a reminder of the sins of the people, which led to their sacred relic being taken from them. Therefore, Jewish life and ritual continued on. Perhaps if the ancient Jews were willing to let the Ark be lost, we should too.