Exploration Mysteries: Ark of the Covenant

Our knowledge of the Ark of the Covenant typically comes from one of two places: Sunday school or Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It appears countless times in the Old Testament, associated with incredible supernatural wonders of God. However, all record of this extremely important artifact to the Jewish and Christian faiths seems to have vanished after the Old Testament era. 

What was the Ark of the Covenant?

Over three millennia ago, the Ark of the Covenant made its first appearance in the Book of Exodus. Moses climbs Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. God carves His laws onto the stone tablets, giving them to the people of Israel after their deliverance from slavery in Egypt.

He also gave orders for the construction of a vessel in which to place the Ten Commandments.

“Have them make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out and make a gold molding around it,” said God in Exodus Chapter 25.

A cubit was an ancient unit of measurement from the elbow to the end of the middle finger, about 457mm (18 inches). So the Ark was about 131cm by 79cm by 79cm.

He also commanded that “the cherubim are to have their wings spread upward overshadowing the cover with them…” This cover was called the “mercy seat” or “kapporet.” Golden rods passed through four gold rings attached to the Ark’s four corners, allowing the vessel to be carried. 

ark of the covenant

Mini ark of the covenant. Photo: Igor Rodrigues/Unsplash


The Tabernacle

The Israelites hauled the Ark wherever they went. Only the priestly class, known as the Levites, could carry it. While the Israelites were in the desert, the Ark remained in a tent, behind a curtain. This was the tabernacle.

Eventually, the Ark came to Jerusalem via King David’s conquest. His son, King Solomon, built the First Temple and constructed an innermost area of the Tabernacle called the Holy of Holies. This too lay behind a curtain and was so powerful and sacred that no one except the high priest could be in its presence once a year, during the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). 

The Ark held not only the Ten Commandments but also manna, a heavenly food God gave the Israelites in the desert, and Aaron’s staff during the Exodus from Egypt. Essentially, God’s power lay within it, so no one was permitted to touch or open it. Those who tried died painfully. When the Philistines stole it, they suffered horrific diseases and death. Its supernatural powers also included bringing the Israelites military victories against their enemies and enacting miracles in times of desperation. 

What happened to it?

References to the Ark seem to stop at a single point: the Babylonian invasion in 587 BC. The Book of Ezra describes the Temple of Solomon as sacked and destroyed. Strangely enough, there was no record of the Ark on the inventory of stolen treasures. Surely, news of this most valuable treasure would have become public. This led historians to believe that the Ark was secretly moved to another location. 


In the ancient world, Jerusalem lay at the epicenter of warfare and conquests. There were two main invasions linked to the Ark’s disappearance, by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon and an Egyptian pharaoh named Shishak.

The Book of Maccabees (one of the apocryphal books of the Bible) describes the prophet Jeremiah hiding the Ark in a cave at Mount Nebo before Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. Mount Nebo is where Moses saw the Promised Land before dying. If we accept what the Book of Maccabees says, it is possible that the Ark is in fact buried within Mount Nebo, in modern-day Jordan. Unfortunately, the government keeps tight restrictions on excavations.

Joshua in the Bible

Joshua passes the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant. Painting: Benjamin West (1800)


As for Shishak, he invaded after King Solomon passed away. He got away with taking the Temple’s treasures, but there was no mention of the Ark in this case. The Indiana Jones movie highlighted this detail about how the Ark disappeared. 

Another popular theory is that it lies under where the Temple stood. However, this refers to the Temple Mount, perhaps the most sacred and disputed piece of land in the world. Right now, the Jewish and Muslim populations in Israel fight over the Temple Mount. Both claim ownership because of their religious beliefs. No excavations are allowed, and it is unlikely that this will change anytime soon. 

The Ethiopian connection

Perhaps most famously, the Ark is said to be in the hands of the Ethiopian people. According to the Kebra Nagast, their nation’s saga written in the 13th century, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba had a child named Menelik. He went to Jerusalem to meet his father for the first time. When Menilek went back to Ethiopia, Solomon sent a group of young men to accompany him. They supposedly took the Ark with them, putting a fake in its place.

Menelik proclaimed the Ark as a sign from God that His favor now rested with the Ethiopian people, who shared Israel’s inheritance. Menelik’s descendant was supposedly none other than Haile Selassie (1892-1975). His ancient lineage was actually written into the constitution. 

Ethiopian church where the Ark is supposed to lie

The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Ethiopia. Photo: Shutterstock


The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Ethiopia claims to house the Ark. No one is allowed to see it, not even the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. They say that only a single monk is allowed in its presence, to guard it. In the early 2000s, the patriarch Abune Paulos did express his desire to reveal the Ark to the world but later changed his mind.

Up to now, it remains unconfirmed that anyone has seen it, except for an ex-University of London professor. As a young soldier, he forced his way in to see it during World War II. He later said he found a model of the Ark, similar to those in other Ethiopian churches.

Another claim comes from the Lemba of South Africa, who state that the Ark passed through their lands. A replica of the Ark was in fact found in a cave in the 1940s, which sparked interest in the possibility that the Ark traveled that far. 

Excavations in Kiriath-Jearim, Israel found a possible shrine where the Ark could have been. Yet, this investigation did not draw any definitive conclusions.


Is the Ark hiding away in a warehouse somewhere, as in the movie? Or is it simply waiting for us to discover it in a long-lost cave in the desert? We might not know for a while. Many claims remain unconfirmed. Since the Ark is sacred to several religions, it would be difficult to gain access to possible locations to start a search. 

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu is a writer at ExplorersWeb.

Kristine has been writing about Science, Mysteries and History for 4+ years. Prior to that, Kristine studied at the University of Leicester in the UK.

Based in Port-of-Spain, Kristine is also a literature teacher, avid reader, hiker, occasional photographer, an animal lover and shameless ramen addict.