The Ark of the Covenant was one of the holiest and most awesome objects in Judaism, the religion of the Hebrews. As described in the Bible, it was a box designed to God's specifications to hold the Ten Commandments.
The Ark was carried by the Hebrews on their journeys through the desert. When it was at rest, God would come down to it in the form of a cloud, and would occasionally speak to Moses, the leader of the Hebrews. Eventually it was placed in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem when they settled down in Palestine. But what happened to it after that is a mystery. The Bible doesn't mention it again, and neither do any of the other Jewish writings, except for one or two tantalising clues. It is strange that something so important and holy should just disappear without a mention. Various different reasons have been proposed.
What's an Ark?
Most of us are familiar with the Bible story of Noah's Ark and know that the ark was a type of boat. The Ark of the Covenant is not a boat, however - it is a box. The English word 'ark' comes from the Latin arca and meant a place for keeping things safe. In Hebrew, there were different words for Noah's Ark (teyvah) and the Ark of the Covenant (aron), and there was no confusion, but the translators of the Bible decided to use the word Ark for both.
So this Ark was a box.
In the book of Genesis, it is described how God made a covenant (an agreement) with Abraham. His descendants would be a chosen people, and God would lead them to a land where they could live in peace (after they had kicked out or conquered all the people who lived there already, of course). In exchange, the Chosen People would have to live by the rules that God set them.
The book of Exodus describes how the Hebrew people left the land of Egypt, led by Moses, and went to the chosen land of Palestine. Along the way they spent some time in the desert, and at Mount Sinai God decided to give his people the list of laws that they had to keep as their side of the bargain. You'll have heard of the Ten Commandments, but in fact God gave his people hundreds of commandments, ranging from the practical (if you happen to see your enemy's cow or donkey running loose, take it back to him) to the bizarre (do not wear clothes made of two kinds of material).
On another of Moses's trips up the mountain, God gave him two tablets of stone on which he had inscribed the principal ten commandments. Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets and found that, in his absence, the Hebrews had got bored, constructed a golden model of a calf and were busy worshipping it. Moses flew into a rage because this went against God's very first commandment, which they knew well about, and which Moses had the text of in his hands. In his fury, he smashed the stone tablets to the ground and they broke into pieces. Moses had to go back up the mountain and ask God for another set. This time, God insisted on Moses chiselling out the tablets himself, after which God wrote the commandments on them.
Among the commandments given by God, which are all recorded in the Bible, were detailed instructions on building the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:10-22). Into it they were to place the new stone tablets which Moses had chiselled out and which God had inscribed. This would act as a reminder to them of their agreement with God.
They also placed in the Ark the staff that Aaron had turned into a living tree as a demonstration of God's power, and a golden jar of manna, the food which God had provided to keep them alive in the desert. These were symbols of God's power and the help He would provide to His people.
The Ark was a rectangular box of acacia wood (also known as shittim wood). The Bible gives its dimensions in cubits - two and a half cubits long, one and a half cubits wide and one and a half cubits high. We don't know exactly how long the cubits used by the Hebrews were. If we use the Ancient Egyptian value of 524mm used in the pyramids, then in modern units the Ark would have been about 130cm x 80cm x 80cm, about the size of a modern chest freezer. It was covered all over in beaten gold - the Hebrews seem to have carried a lot of gold with them when they left Egypt, having begged it from their Egyptian neighbours before their journey.
The box had four legs1, and two rings on each side. Two long poles were put through the rings, so that the Ark could be carried by four men. The Hebrews spent many years as a nomadic people, so they needed a way of moving the Ark. The description of the lid is not quite as clear, but it had two 'winged creatures' (sometimes known as 'cherubim') on it, one at each end, facing each other and with their wings stretched out to cover the lid. The space between the winged creatures was where God would appear as a cloud, and speak out of the cloud to give his people instructions.
The Ark was so holy that ordinary Hebrew people weren't allowed to see it. It was kept in a special tent2, and even within the tent it was in a special cordoned-off part behind a curtain. When the Ark was to be moved, this curtain was draped over it, so that the people could not see it.
Further Stories of the Ark
The Ark was powerful. In the book of Joshua, it was used to cross the River Jordan and to enter into the Promised Land. The priests carrying the Ark stepped into the river and the water ran dry - all the water upstream piled up, leaving a dry crossing point. The priests stood there while the people crossed. Then when everyone was across, the priests stepped out of the river and the river went back to the way it had been. A neat trick!
The Walls of Jericho were destroyed by a ritual which showed the Hebrews' faith in their god: each day, the priests carried the Ark around the walls of the city, and they blew trumpets. On the seventh day of this, the walls suddenly collapsed. While this story is generally told as the trumpets causing the walls to fall, it was the power of God as represented in the Ark that did it.
Later, in a battle against the Philistines, the Hebrews were routed and the Ark was captured. When news of this reached the Hebrew leader Eli, the shock was so great that he fell backwards off his chair, broke his neck and died. But the Ark itself was not happy in the possession of the Philistines. First, it knocked over the statue of their god, Dagon. Then they were afflicted with a plague of tumours. Eventually after seven months of affliction, they returned the Ark to the Hebrews, after placing in it a guilt offering of five golden models of tumours and five golden rats.
The Ark was dangerous. Not only were the normal people not allowed to look at it, but they couldn't touch it either. Even the priests who carried it could only do so by holding the poles. In one story, while the Ark was being transported on a cart, one of the oxen pulling the cart stumbled and a man by the name of Uzzah took hold of the Ark to steady it. He was struck down by God for his insolence. The God of the Hebrews was not a tolerant god.
Eventually the Ark reached Jerusalem. King Solomon built a glorious temple and the Ark was placed inside it.
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Ark
The Ark was the holiest item in the religion of the Jews, representing God's presence with his people. But it is not mentioned again in the standard Protestant Bible.
The Roman Catholic Bible is slightly different, including certain books known as the 'Apocrypha' which are not accepted as God's word by the Protestants. Among these is the Second Book of the Maccabees. It says the following:
Now it is found in the descriptions of Jeremias, the prophet, [...] how the prophet, being warned by God, commanded that the tabernacle and the ark should accompany him, till he came forth to the mountain where Moses went up, and saw the inheritance of God. And when Jeremias came thither he found a hollow cave: and he carried in thither the tabernacle, and the ark, and the altar of incense, and so stopped the door. Then some of them that followed him, came up to mark the place: but they could not find it. And when Jeremias perceived it, he blamed them, saying: The place shall be unknown, till God gather together the congregation of the people, and receive them to mercy.
Note that this is reporting what was written in another document, the 'descriptions of Jeremias', a work that no longer exists. Even if you believe the Book of the Maccabees is God's truth, the descriptions of Jeremias are not necessarily accurate. So we have a tantalising rumour that the Ark was removed from the temple.
The Jewish writings (Gemara, Horos 12) gives a story similar to the one about Jeremias, saying that King Josiah took the Ark to a safe place because he knew about the impending Babylonian invasion.
Solomon's Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th Century BC, and there was weeping and gnashing of teeth for the loss of the Temple, but no mention of the Ark. The Temple was eventually rebuilt as the Second Temple, and in the description of it the absence of the Ark was specifically noted. But if the Ark had been taken or destroyed, it would have been a calamity for the Hebrews. This suggests that the Ark was already gone from the First Temple before it was destroyed. If so, where did it go?
Nobody knows. Various places have been suggested over the years:
According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the official Christian religion of Ethiopia, the Ark was taken out of Jerusalem by Menelik, ruler of Ethiopia and the son of Israel's King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Solomon had a copy made of the Ark and gave it to Menelik to bring back to his own country, but somebody switched the copy with the original and brought the genuine article back to Ethiopia. It is now in a small chapel attached to the Cathedral of St Mary of Zion, in Aksum.
The problem with this story is that the Ark is still considered to be a sacred object so the priests that guard it do not put it on show. If you call at the Church, they will assure you that they have the Ark, but will not let you in to see it.
As described above, there are certain Biblical writings which suggest that the Ark was taken and put into a cave in a mountain, but it is not clear which mountain. Some take this to mean the Temple Mount itself, the hill on which the Temple of Solomon was built in Jerusalem. There is a known cave under the hill, called the 'Well of Souls', but the Ark is not there. Most of those who think it is still in Jerusalem suspect there are tunnels under the Temple Mount and that the Ark was moved to them for safekeeping. But the whole area is considered sacred, both to the Jews and the Muslims, so permission to dig is unlikely to be granted any time soon.
The most famous location for the Ark was in the blockbuster Stephen Spielberg movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. In this, Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford, discovers the Ark in the 'Well of Souls', but instead of being in Jerusalem, it is in the ancient Egyptian city of Tanis, which is shown to be somewhere in the deserts of Egypt. Jones takes the Ark to America but it is taken off him by the FBI 'for investigation' and is never seen again. In fact, Tanis was built on the mud of the Egyptian Delta and is not a desert city, so it is unlikely there are hidden underground chambers waiting to be discovered there. Any such chamber is likely to have filled up with water and mud years ago.
According to Professor Tudor Parfitt, the Ark is likely to have looked very different from the description in the Bible. He says that the scribes who wrote down the Bible's Book of Exodus would never have seen the Ark, so they described something they would have seen - an Egyptian gold-plated shrine. The real Ark, according to a different passage of the Bible (Deuteronomy 10:3-5), was made single-handedly by Moses out of wood. Parfitt has found a race of Jews, the Lemba, living in Zimbabwe - although they look pure African, genetic analysis shows they are indeed descended from Jewish priests. They claim to have left the land of Israel just before the Babylonian invasion (at the time the Ark disappeared).
The Lemba also say that they brought with them a very holy object which they called the Ngoma Lungundu. They don't claim that it is the Ark of the Covenant, but Professor Parfitt does - it has many of the attributes, including being carried in front of the army during war and striking fear into the enemies.
The main problems with this theory are two. Firstly, the original Ngoma Lugundu was destroyed many years ago. The current one is a copy made about 600 years ago, and may be the latest in a whole series of copies. If it is the Ark, it is only by association. Secondly, the Ngoma Lungundu is not a box, it is a large drum. It looks very African and not at all like something made by a Middle Eastern culture in about 1500 BC. The drum is in storage in a museum in Harare, Zimbabwe at present.
In around 1100 AD, the Crusaders conquered the Holy Land, taking it off the residents and establishing a short-lived Christian Kingdom. Its capital was Jerusalem. A special order of Knights was set up called the Knights of the Temple, normally known as the Templars. It's not clear from the accounts exactly what they did, or why they were there, but they spent a lot of time poking around the Temple Mount.
Some people speculate that the Templars found the Ark and brought it back to England, hiding it near to their centre of operations in Temple Herdewyke, Warwickshire. Historian Graham Phillips claims to have found secret signs in a nearby church. These led him to a well where he found a mysterious stone tablet with inscriptions in an unknown script, although there is no sign of any golden box. Could this be the actual stone tablet, carved by Moses and inscribed by God? The proof of this will be left as an exercise for the reader.