They were slaughtered trying to prevent real-life invaders from the lost ark – an artifact so powerful and sacred that they were forbidden to see it.
The harrowing mass murder of at least 800 people in an Ethiopian church in Tigray highlighted the apparent whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant, one of the greatest mysteries of religion and legendary material in cinema.
The ark – a large wooden chest covered with gold that is said to contain the Ten Commandments of Moses – was kept in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem for centuries, but disappeared after Jerusalem was looted in 586 or 587 BC, according to the Old Testament .
Since then, his whereabouts have remained unknown – with rumors, including the fact that he was stolen by the Knights Templar and hidden in a rebuilt French cathedral, as well as being buried alongside Alexander the Great in Greece.
However, Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia have long maintained that the ark was kept in a chapel at the Church of St. Mary of Zion in the holy city of Axum, in the north of the country.
According to legend, the ark was brought to Ethiopia in the 10th century BC after being stolen by the team of Menelik, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Israel – who considered the theft allowed by God because none of his men were killed.
The ark is said to be so dangerous that it was always covered while being moved – and in Axum, only virgin monks ordained to be its guardian are allowed to look at it.
There was never a photograph of him, only illustrations based on the description of Exodus chapter 25, verses 10-21, of a gold-plated “acacia wood” box loaded on two poles.
Even the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is “forbidden to see”, so the then chief, His Holiness Abuna Paulos, told Smithsonian Magazine in 2007. “The ark guardian is the only person on earth who has this incomparable honor”, He said at the time.
The guardian “prays constantly by the ark, day and night, burning incense before it and paying homage to God,” Aksum’s then high priest told the magazine.
“Only he can see; everyone else is forbidden to set eyes on him or even go near him. ”
Thousands gather at the church of Zion in late November to commemorate the day when Ethiopians believe the Ark of the Covenant was brought there – one of the reasons why so many people were there during the November massacre, which was only recently reported .
“When people heard the shooting, they ran to the church to support priests and others who were protecting the ark,” Getu Mak, 32, a university professor, told The London Times. “Certainly some of them were killed for doing this.”
Reports of destruction and looting of priceless artifacts by the troops have raised fears that the ark would be the target. “Everyone was concerned that it would be taken … or just disappear, including me,” Mak told the UK newspaper.
It was not clear how the church ark was saved, nor what happened to its guardian.
Some historians also insist that the sacrifices were made to defend a worthless replica.
Edward Ullendorff, a late professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), previously told the Los Angeles Times that he saw the ark during World War II and was “a wooden box, but it is empty”.
“Medieval buildings from the middle to the end, when they were manufactured ad hoc,” he said in the 1992 interview, saying that the mystery around it was “mainly to maintain the idea that it is a venerated object”.
Before his death, Ullendorff told Professor Tudor Parfitt that “it didn’t differ at all from the many chests he had seen in other churches in Ethiopia,” Parfitt told Live Science in 2018.
“It wasn’t old and it certainly wasn’t the original chest,” said Parfitt.
Ethiopians have long rejected these reports, insisting that people display counterfeits to protect the royal ark, with their faith stronger than ever.
“If you attack Axum, you first attack the identity of the Orthodox Tigrayans, but also of all Ethiopian Orthodox Christians,” said Wolbert Smidt, an ethno-historian specializing in the region. “Axum itself is considered a church in the local tradition, ‘Axum Zion'”.