In the Bible, it could be seen only by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies. Anyone who lay an unauthorised finger upon it would instantly drop dead. It was the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, where it vapourised its Nazi captors.
Now a British academic believes he has unravelled the mystery behind one of antiquity’s most sought-after objects — the lost Ark of King Solomon’s Temple.
Tudor Parfitt, professor of Hebrew at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, has located an object he believes could be the successor to the original Ark.
Parfitt found a sacred wood drum (called a ngoma) in a dusty storeroom of the Museum of National Sciences in Salisbury, Zimbabwe. Carbon-testing has dated the ngoma to around 1350CE, making it the oldest wooden object found from sub-Saharan Africa.
The oral tradition is that the South African tribe, Lemba, brought it from Israel. They believe they are descendants of Middle Eastern Jews and DNA research has confirmed their origins as well as discovering that the Lemba priestly clan (Buba) carries the Cohanim markers.
According to some apocryphal Jewish traditions, the Ark was whisked away from Jerusalem by priests to a secret location before the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in 587 BCE. Accepting that his hypothesis “cannot be absolutely robust”, he said that “parts of it are quite solid. If you accept the Ark may have gone into Arabia, if you accept that the regular Islamic Arabian references to it may have some historical basis, and if you connect those with the Lemba oral tradition, there is a storyline, a kind of history, scratched from very little.”
Parfitt’s new book - "The Lost Ark of the Covenant" - is an adventure story. His visits take him around the world to such places as Papua New Guinea, to meet the Gogodala, a python-eating tribe of ex-cannibals who also claim to be Jewish.
The drum, says Parfitt, is “embedded in an oral tradition which has repeatedly been proven to be pretty accurate against all the odds. The Lemba said they were from the Middle East and no one believed them, but the genetics proved that they were. They said they were Jewish, and again, the genetics demonstrated they most probably were.
“They also claim to have come in a boat as a group of seven, and again that was proven by genetics to be absolutely spot on. These are all very good confirmations of the general accuracy of their oral tradition.”
The article details more of the story: the ngoma self-destructed, burst into flames and from the remnants of the destroyed ark, they build another. It was carried on poles, never touched the ground, priests protected it, fire and noise were linked to it, it was carried into battle and was of a similar size and shape as described in Deuteronomy.
Parfitt believes that the biblical Ark was not quite what it appears. It was a drum-like object which doubled as a primitive cannon, releasing a kind of early, perhaps saltpetre-based explosive. “The Ark did blast things,” he said. “It was a kind of weapon, it is obvious from the text.”