by Gordon Franz
Eyewitness Testimony that the Ark of the Covenant is NOT in Ethiopia
Robert Cornuke claims that the Ethiopians have the real Ark of the Covenant in Axum, and he believes it too. On one segment of the December 13, 2011 broadcast of the History Channel program, “Proving God,” Cornuke pointed to the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum and said: “Right there is where the Ethiopians say – and I personally believe – the Ark of the Covenant rests today!”
(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0x5ygaq51c&feature=relmfu [1 hour, 11 minutes, 02-09 seconds]).
This idea is not original with him. In fact, there was a book that popularized this view entitled The Sign and the Seal, by Graham Hancock (1992). Hancock is a British journalist that propagated the same idea ten years before Cornuke’s book was in print. Hancock was also interviewed on the Bible Archaeology Search and Exploration (BASE) Institute’s video, and quoted in Cornuke’s book and dissertation, about the Ark of the Covenant.
Globe-trotting with Michael Hiltzik of the L. A. Times
Michael Hiltzik, an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, exposed the weaknesses of the theory that the Ark was in Ethiopia. The article recounts Hiltzik’s travels to London, Ethiopia, and Jerusalem to interview people and to ascertain whether there was any credibility to Graham Hancock’s claims that the real Ark of the Covenant was in Ethiopia. Among others, he interviewed Dr. Edward Ullendorff, Emeritus Professor of Semitic Languages and of Ethiopian Studies at the University of London, later retired to Oxford. He was the leading expert on Ethiopia and the Bible and Ethiopian Studies. He passed away on March 6, 2011.
Concerning the object in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum, Dr. Ullendorff confidently stated: “They have a wooden box, but it’s empty.” [It is] “Middle- to late-medieval construction, when these were fabricated ad hoc.” The mystery around it, and not allowing people to see it, is “mostly to maintain the idea that it’s a venerated object.” Hiltzik followed-up and asked him how he knew the object was not the Ark since access is not permitted. The object is gated and guarded by a lone guard. Ullendorff revealed: “I’ve seen it. There was no problem getting access when I saw it in 1941. You need to be able to speak their language, classical Ge’ez. You need to be able to show that you’re serious!” (1992:H6).
In personal correspondence with me, Ullendorff wrote: “The real Ark of the Covenant was, of course, never in Aksum” (personal correspondence, April 6, 2006, emphasis original).
I am very suspicious of the story, recounted in Cornuke’s book and dissertation, of an Ethiopian monk named Haile Selassie, the curator of the Axum Museum, who allegedly saw the ark and gave a description of it. My suspicion was raised when it was reported that money changed hands before the monk had the opportunity to investigate the object and report to Cornuke. The storyteller does not want to disappoint his patron (2005:107-108, 114-117)! I believe Professor Ullendorff has more credibility than the monk.
Was the Ark of the Covenant ever on the Island of Elephantine?
Cornuke, following Hancock’s theory, believes the Ark of the Covenant was in a temple built by Jewish soldiers and disenfranchised priests who brought the Ark to the Island of Elephantine in the Nile River during the reign of King Manasseh in the first half of the 7th century BC (Cornuke 2005:28-29, 67-68). Dr. Bezalel Porten, professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and one of the leading scholars on the Elephantine papyri, wrote an important article in Biblical Archaeology Review that asked the question “Did the Ark Stop at Elephantine?”
After a lengthy discussion of the many flaws in Hancock’s theory that the Ark was in the Jewish temple at Elephantine, Porten concluded: “The notion that these figurative priests spirited the Ark away from Jerusalem to rescue it from the clutches of Manasseh is nothing but bald speculation; it is not historical reconstruction. None of the evidence cited to support this unscholarly speculation holds up under careful scrutiny” (1995:76-77). This article, in a popular, widely circulated archaeological magazine, was readily available to Cornuke and his research team, yet they never interact with issues raised by Dr. Porten, nor did they even mention the article in their book (Cornuke and Halbrook 2002) or Cornuke’s dissertation (Cornuke 2005:16-133).
The Conclusion of the Matter: The Ark of the Covenant is NOT in Ethiopia!
The scholarly consensus is that the Ark of the Covenant did not travel to the Island of Elephantine and was never in Ethiopia. Dr. Ullendorff is a very credible and respected eyewitness who saw the wooden object in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum and affirms that it is not the Ark of the Covenant! Hiltzik’s article, written ten or more years before Cornuke wrote his book (Cornuke and Halbrook 2002) and dissertation (2005) was available in the public domain but Cornuke and his associates, did not interact with it. This article would have provided clues for Cornuke to follow-up on and investigate.
The fact that Cornuke and his research associates overlooked two important articles that were readily and publically available demonstrates a lack of research skills, at the very least. This does not bode well for somebody who is promoted as having an earned Ph.D. and is passed off as an archaeologist who uses his CSI skills to investigate the Bible.
For links to other critiques of Cornuke’s ideas, see:
2005 “Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant and Mount Sinai in History and Tradition” (Ph.D. diss., Louisiana Baptist University, May 2005).
Cornuke, Robert; and Halbrook, David
2002 In Search of the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman.
1992 The Sign and the Seal. The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. New York: Crown.
1992 Does Trail to Ark of Covenant End Behind Aksum Curtain? Los Angeles Times (June 9), pages H1 and H6.
1995 Did the Ark Stop at Elephantine? Biblical Archaeology Review 21/3: 54-67, 76-77.
About the author
Gordon Franz is a Bible teacher who holds an MA in Biblical Studies from Columbia Biblical Seminary, SC. Since 1978, he has engaged in extensive research in Biblical archaeology and has participated in a number of excavations in and around Jerusalem, including Ketef Hinnom and Ramat Rachel as well as the excavations at Lachish, Jezreel, Hazor, and Tel Zayit. He has taught the geography of the Bible and led field trips in Israel for the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies, the Institute of Holy Land Studies, and the IBEX program of The Master’s College. He also co-teaches the Talbot School of Theology’s Bible Lands Program. Gordon is on the staff of the Associates for Biblical Research.