My quest for the lost Ark of the Covenant

The Blue Nile Falls. Picture by Stevie Matthews
The Blue Nile Falls. Picture by Stevie Matthews

Former Morpeth Town Council assistant Stevie Matthews has travelled the globe completing long-distance runs, mountain treks and other challenges, often in support of charity. Here she tells us about her latest adventure in search of the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia.

Since childhood I was always intrigued by the disappearance of the Ark of the Covenant and it seemingly being carried-off “somewhere”. How could God let this happen, when it was the home for His Laws? The Queen would not let anyone steal the Crown Jewels.

The entrance to a cave church. Picture by Stevie Matthews.

The entrance to a cave church. Picture by Stevie Matthews.

I watched the adventures of Indiana Jones searching for the mysterious Ark, and latterly, intriguing television documentaries on it being taken to “safe keeping” by the son of the Queen of Sheba. At last, something tangible.

And so it was I found myself landing in Addis Ababa in the early hours of November 8, ready to start my quest.

I was met by my guide, Freedom, an incredibly friendly and happy chap, who took me to my hotel, before starting out on a tour of the memorable sites. He was an Eastern Orthodox Christian, as most of the population is, save for a minority Muslim and Hindu following.

We started at the Keris Selassie, or Trinity Cathedral, (Salassie is Amharic for ‘Father, Son, Holy Spirit’) and my introduction to the Eastern Orthodox Church. There is the main body, where men and women enter at different doors and remain segregated; the Communion area, and the Holy of Holies, where, like Judaism, only the High Priest or Celebrant may venture, and where a replica of the Ark of the Covenant is also housed. This is brought out and carried on the head of the chief priest on Sundays and special feast days.

I truly felt that I was in a holy place — here once lay one of the Magi who had probably held Our Blessed Lord in his arms.

I was also introduced to three important symbols — the prayer stick, the cestrum (small hand-held bells) and drum.

Stunning stained glass windows and paintings depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments and St George adorned the cathedral. Freedom explained that St George was the Patron saint of Ethiopia too, and a bronze plaque depicting him slaying the dragon commemorated the liberation of the country from Italy in 1946 by British troops.

Other features were the Abyssinian Lion (I remember it well from the Lyle’s golden syrup tin), and the tombs of the late Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife Menen Asfaw. To my surprise, Freedom showed me the grave of Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline and also a passionate member of the suffragette movement.

After lunch I visited the National Archaeological Museum, which includes a three million-year–old female skeleton and bones of another cave-dweller dating back 4.5 million years.

A 500-year-old goatskin Bible. Picture by Stevie Matthews.

A 500-year-old goatskin Bible. Picture by Stevie Matthews.

A trip to the Ethnographical Museum and Meskel Square rounded off the afternoon. An annual religious festival is celebrated in the square to commemorate the finding of the True Cross of Calvary in the 4th century. Allegedly this relic is buried somewhere in the adjacent Entoto Mountains. I hope it rests in peace and is never discovered.

Without Freedom, I boarded the early flight to Axum, and was delighted to find my seat was next to an archaeologist so I spent a pleasant hour learning more about the town.

Axum is the land of the Queen of Sheba and was the capital of the Kingdom of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in the 10th century. Once the centre of a great empire, and the seat of learning for the ancient Ge’ez language and literature, it is now the prime historical site in the North of Ethiopia.

My guide, Muez, seemed very dour. However, when he realised my interest was because I was a Christian and not just a tourist, he opened up dramatically.

The ficus at King Fasilides Palace. Picture by Stevie Matthews.

The ficus at King Fasilides Palace. Picture by Stevie Matthews.

Our first destination was the Stele Park, where 55 giant steles, carved out of single pieces of granite and dating from pre-Christian times, were situated. They were decorated with symbolic engravings, and many were tombs. I was horrified to learn that if they belonged to a king or queen, the bodyguards were buried alive alongside to continue their role.

A quick call to see the Queen of Sheba’s bath, which although now a reservoir, is often used for baptisms, with the water believed to have healing properties, and to the Archaeological Museum, whetted my appetite for the long-awaited visit to the Church of St Mary of Zion, and the Ark.

It was the Queen of Sheba’s son, Menelek, on a visit to the Holy Land to see his father King Solomon, who brought back the Ark. His grandfather had banned the Pagan practice the country had previously followed whereby young virgin girls were sacrificed to a serpent god, which he was supposed to have slain.

And then came my first disappointment — no entry into the church for women. However, seeing the site, or rather feeling it, was anything but a disappointment. And I could forgive the law makers when it was explained that Our Lady is symbolised as the Ark of the Covenant and therefore the only woman permitted to be present.

There are actually three sites: a grassy area with only a few stones, which was sacked by Muslim soldiers centuries ago, and the ‘old’ church, built by Emperor Fasilides in the 17th century, which was replaced by Emperor Haille Selassie when moisture posed a threat to the treasures. I was permitted to enter this one.

Muez explained that on certain Holy Days a replica of the Ark is paraded through the town. Unfortunately, I had missed this by 48 hours.

St George's Church, Lalibela. Picture by Stevie Matthews.

St George's Church, Lalibela. Picture by Stevie Matthews.

Inside the church I remarked on the huge chandelier and was told that our own Queen Elizabeth had given this as a gift during the Millennium year. The Deacon kindly permitted me to touch the 500-year-old Bible he held, made from goatskin and with incredibly preserved text and artwork.

With a head full of facts, figures and myths, I was not particularly eager to see the ruins of the 52-room Queen of Sheba’s palace on the outskirts of town. However, I was overwhelmed after being taken to a dark cave hewn out of the hillside nearby.

An old gentleman handed me a candle and beckoned I follow. Once inside, I saw five burial niches and was told this was the tomb of Balthazar, his wife and children. I truly felt that I was in a holy place — here once lay one of the Magi who had probably held Our Blessed Lord in his arms. Whatever else about this trip, this cave held a real feeling of identity and authenticity.

The next part of the trip was a flight to Bahir Dar, a large town on the southern shore of Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia.

A relaxing boat trip found me on one of the islands, and a walk to a beautiful thatched-roof monastery, adorned with exquisite paintings in the Eastern Orthodox fashion. Children were chanting the Psalms, which they are taught from a very early age. Local people lined the footpath, selling their handicrafts, with many actually working on them. Of special beauty were the colourful and ornate scarves and costumes of the region.

Back on the mainland, a lovely lakeside lunch in the company of numerous huge, white rabbits was a good base for the hill trek to visit the source of the Blue Nile and the magnificent waterfalls. They are rightly called the ‘Smoking Falls’ — huge volumes of crashing water against a darkening sky, heavy rain and double rainbow indeed made the spray appear as smoke. What a force nature is.

Unfortunately, I tripped on the slippery stones and stumbled into a rather stubborn donkey, and off I went down the side of the hill for a couple of hundred metres. The young boy who had insisted on guiding me earlier had disappeared, having received his tip. But to be in such a spectacular place, witnessing the power of nature and God, who cares about a few bruises?

It did not even matter that when we arrived late at our lodgings (very charming and quaint), the power failed. In the dark it was possible to re-live the wonderful memories of the day.

It was off early again by road and ‘no roads’ to the city of Gondar. There were some spectacular views, especially over lush farmland, not remotely like the drought-torn north of the country, to Lake Tana, many miles in the distance, and a huge monolith on a hillside. It was easy to see why this was known as the ‘Finger of God’.

Gondar was founded mid-17th century and is renowned for its medieval castles and intricate churches. The imperial complex houses the ruins of battlements and towers and King Fasilides’ bath. Today, this is the site for thousands of pilgrims celebrating the Ethiopian Orthodox Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan.

The significance of this UNESCO Heritage Site was overshadowed for me by the incredible ficus vasta trees which surrounded the building and even straddled the walls. For those au fait with Pirates of the Caribbean, the surface roots resembled the grotesque features of Davy Jones.

I was back on the culture trail in the church of Debre Berhan Selassie, with its stunning murals and mosaics. Prayers for salvation from Sudanese invaders in the late 19th century were well-heard for a huge swarm of bees had flown out of the building, attacking the marauders, who fled.

Another early flight was endured for two days in Lalibela, which after Axum, was my most important destination.

But before feeding the mind, the body required refuelling, and Freedom took me to a local restaurant, Ben Abeba. This was owned by a Scottish woman and Ethiopian man, and as the name suggests (Ben is ‘hill’ in Scottish, and ‘abeba’ is ‘flower’ in Amharic), we were high up in the mountains, surrounded by beautiful flowers and spectacular views. The restaurant was busy, with both Ethiopian and Scottish dishes, the favourite with locals being Scotch eggs.

After a short drive we arrived in Lalibela.

Designated a World Heritage Site, the rock-hewn churches were all below ground level and each had a resident priest. My first thought was its resemblance to Petra, as the stone was of the same rose-colour.

To see all 11 churches required two days and my guide through the maze of passages and tunnels, some in total darkness, was a tiny young woman. She had no English and I no Ge’ez, and yet we had an instant bond.

My visit included two of the most famous churches: Bet Medhane Ale, the world’s largest monolithic church, and the isolated Church of St George Bet Giyorgis, which is often included in history books and programmes. Above ground, only the cross is visible. The sheer drop down from roof level gives the real impression of its amazing height.

The following morning, we drove through spectacular mountain scenery to a simple cave church, Na’akutoLa’ab, where a solitary monk-priest gave a wonderful explanation of the religious elements used in the Orthodox church. He, too, had a goatskin Bible over 500 years old, with wonderfully preserved pages.

Then we visited a small rock pool in the back of the church. Water was dropping into this from a hole in the rock. Apparently this came from a spring in the Church of Asheton Maryam, directly above, and pilgrims visit here to be healed of all kinds of illnesses, but especially sorrow and of the mind. I was humbled when the monk-priest sprinkled water on Freedom and myself and gave us his blessing. It was a great honour.

It was a pity to leave this wonderfully tranquil place, and the next stop could not have been more in contrast — the local market.

Never have I seen so many people (many in traditional dress resembling our ‘pearly kings and queens’), animals, grains, spices, honey, fruits and vegetables, but I was saddened at the disregard for the animals. The only kindness seemed to be water, but it was not readily accessible.

I offered up a prayer, which was swiftly granted when a horse reared, whinneyed and set off a stampede led by a very large bull, accompanied by a couple dozen oxen, yaks and goats in full steam, scattering the dealers. About 20 chickens flapped and squawked to add to the confusion.

The afternoon was a visit to the remaining churches, including Bet Abba Libanos, said to have been built overnight by King Lalibela’s wife MeskelKebre with help from angels.

Freedom took me to a coffee ceremony. Now this is something I had witnessed in the airports. I had watched beans roasted, crushed, infused, heated and then beautifully served, but the difference today was that the young lady did not just hand out coffee, it was accompanied by delicious, semi-sweet, wafer-thin bread, and a couple of honey wine drinks. The remaining afternoon was a blur!

With a mind reeling from theology, churches and history, it seemed strange to spend a whole day travelling by air, road and ‘no roads’ to the lakeside ‘resort’ of Langano.

It should have been relaxing, but having a long delay at a police station following the window of our 4x4 being broken by young boys hurling stones, we arrived in the dark and I spent most of the evening stumbling between my tukul (circular wooden lodge), reception and the restaurant. Only the following morning did I realise what a beautiful spot this was.

It was amazing to walk on the lakeside beach, heavily covered with salt deposits and the volcanic waters tinged slightly pink, then cross a small ridge into what resembles rural England — lush green meadows, trees, flowers and bird-song. Back on the beach, previously deserted, hundreds of pink flamingos had appeared.

Unfortunately, my schedule did not permit lingering. Another long day travelling was ahead, broken delightfully by a couple of hours in the Abijata Lake National Park and an opportunity to see some of the indigenous wildlife: ostriches, warthogs, gazelles, baboons, birds, and a stunning black-faced jackal.

As the drive continued, the scenery became more barren and remote. I could almost have been on the Northumberland moors. The temperature had fallen sharply, with torrential rain. Darkness was rapidly enveloping us, as did a swirling, thick mist, making it almost impossible to see. We arrived at Bale Mountain Lodge, three hours overdue, but what a reception.

Owned by a former British Army officer and his wife, the beautiful lodge of 20 or so tukuls was a real home-from-home, with roaring fires in the lounge and wood-burning stoves in every tukul. After a lovely meal I discovered that someone had popped two hot water bottles in the bed and warmed a pair of fluffy slippers by the stove.

The following morning was totally different, with a brilliant blue sky and pleasantly warm. After an early ‘bird walk’, we drove into the higher elevations (up to 4,300m) and saw many of Ethiopia’s rarest animals, such as Mountain Nyala and Menelik’s bushbuck (varieties of antelope) and Ethiopian wolf.

Freedom pulled the 4x4 up sharply, shouting “Wolf”. I swiftly opened my door and rolled out, almost in front of this beautiful creature, sitting with an air of composure I could only marvel at. I hardly dared to breathe as we stared eye-to-eye. Of a similar colour and size to a large fox, he had the look of one of the Magi – knowledge and understanding of centuries with him. I could not photograph him, he deserved more reverence than that. And then, the wolf turned and slowly bounded over the copper-coloured, lichen-covered rocks. What a finale.

I thought of all the wonderful things I had experienced: kind, friendly people who echoed love — for fellow man, nature and their faith; spectacular scenery, the greatest variation of wildlife I have ever seen, centuries-old farming methods, wood and straw houses and modern buildings, and museums and churches of all kinds. What a country.

I looked at the lovely ebony Axum cross Muez had given me, engraved with my name. Had I found the answer I was seeking for the Ark of the Covenant?

If I think about a physical structure, I have to say no. I prefer to think that when Menelik brought it to Ethiopia, he was directed by God to ensure it remained somewhere hidden forever in the mountains. However, there is a very real feeling of holiness in and around the Church of St Mary of Zion.

Jesus said to Thomas, “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe”. So, as I believe in the Word, I believe in the Ark, wherever, whatever or whoever it is.