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Search for the Ark of the Covenant

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Since the temple’s primary purpose had been as a resting place for the ark, and since there can be little doubt that the ark mysteriously disappeared from the temple, it follows that any search for the ark must begin in the temple. There, cloaked in the thick darkness of the Holy of Holies, sprinkled with blood, it lay hidden until some unknown date between the tenth and sixth centuries B.C.

When precisely did the ark disappear? And where did it go? A belief popular among rabbis and Jewish scholars holds that it was likely taken by force during one of several military catastrophes Israel suffered after the death of Solomon. King Solomon had earned God’s wrath by following the foreign gods of his thousand wives and concubines. Though Solomon escaped the consequences of his apostasy, not long after his death disaster struck Israel. The first hit came in 926 B.C., when Solomon’s son, King Rehoboam, saw his kingdom overrun by the armies of Shishak, king of Egypt, who looted the temple and stole priceless treasures of gold and silver (1 Kings 14:25–26). The last saw Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar invade Israel in 598 B.C. and in two separate attacks penetrate deeply into the temple court (2 Kings 24:10–13), carting off all the temple treasures and destroying the bronze furnishings of the sanctuary. In between came frequent invasions, when barbarian hordes helped themselves to minor temple treasures; still, in none of the biblical accounts does the ark turn up among the spoils of war.

It is possible, of course, that the ark might have been stolen or destroyed during one of these incursions, without its disappearance ever being noted in the public record. Rank-and-file Jews never saw it anyway, and no one but the high priest ever entered the Holy of Holies to minister before the ark, and then only once a year. More likely, full disclosure of the ark’s loss came much later, when Jews returning to Israel from the Babylonian exile attended the dedication of the second temple.

This temple, completed between 517 and 515 B.C. and built above the razed foundations of the first,[1] differed from the original primarily in that its sanctuary did not contain: the ark and the mercy seat. When it became known that the centerpiece of temple worship could not be returned to the second temple, the Hebrews must have understood the ark had not been taken to Babylon. To the horror of the returning exiles, the most precious object of the Jewish faith had simply vanished. Its disappearance could now be positively traced to the time of the first temple.

Jewish traditions offer several possibilities for how and when this might have happened. The Talmud states that the ark was “buried in its own place” by King Josiah between 640 and 609 B.C., a mere decade before the Babylonian invasion.[2] This supports the popular notion that the ark took its leave before Nebuchadnezzar’s looters arrived, likely hidden by Levite priests below the Holy of Holies, deep within Mount Moriah’s labyrinth of secret caverns.[3] Others believe Solomon himself, foreseeing the first temple’s destruction, built these caches (known collectively today as the Well of Souls) as a hiding place for the ark.

Some fringe Jewish traditions credit the ark’s sudden disappearance to rescuing angels, descending just prior to the destruction of the first temple to whisk it off to heaven. Other groups believe one of the prophets, who, forewarned by God of the Babylonian invasion, buried the ark in the mountains outside Jerusalem. Second Maccabees, a work excluded from the Hebrew Bible but included in the canon of the Greek and Latin Christian churches, reports that the prophet Jeremiah stowed the ark in a cave on Mount Nebo, the same mountain Moses climbed to see the promised land. Jeremiah indeed lived at the time of the destruction of the first temple, and, say some scholars, he may have anticipated Nebuchadnezzar and concealed the ark, the tabernacle, and the altar of incense on Nebo, some thirty-five miles east of Jerusalem.[4] Another early compilation of ancient Jewish law known as The Mishnah, reports that Levite priests buried the holy relic “under the pavement of the wood house (a fuel repository for burnt offerings kept somewhere on temple grounds) so that it might not fall into the hands of the enemy.”[5] Despite the provocative nature of these reports, most contemporary scholars have rejected them as thinly veiled attempts to propagandize expatriate Jews (perhaps in a post-exilic effort to fan Hebrew interest in their national homeland).

Another school of thought contends that, had the ark been hidden in or around Mount Moriah (site of both temples and the current Temple Mount), it would almost certainly have been dislodged in A.D. 70 and removed by the Romans at the razing of the second temple. From there it would have been taken to Rome with the other temple treasures and, once Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, placed in the hands of the Catholic Church. To be sure, some purported eyewitnesses claim that it remains locked in the crypts below the Vatican.[6] Others say the ark and the temple treasures one day will be found in the recently excavated Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem, in underground vaults of the ancient Nea (“New”) Church, built in the sixth century A.D. by emperor Justinian.[7]

A common thread runs through each of these scenarios: While the ark certainly disappeared and remains hidden somewhere, it was never proven to have perished. If the ark really had been destroyed, even the most liberal critics argue that the catastrophe certainly would have been noted in the Bible. Yet Scripture never even hints at such a terrible event; the ark simply ceases to be mentioned.

Still the ark continues to tantalize the imagination. Some say evidence of its significance can still be seen, and felt, in the New Testament. No less than the Book of Revelation seems to affirm the importance of the earthly ark by its clear reference to the heavenly prototype (Rev. 11:19), which, in turn, gives reason to contemplate that the ark has a future role to play in God’s divine purpose. “The Ark,” says Bible prophecy scholar Randall Price, “is most likely hidden in some secret location, awaiting the proper time on God’s calendar to make its reappearance.”[8]

Here again, the story circles back to the ageless question: Where is the ark? The bulk of Jewish scholarship argues that the ark lies hidden somewhere within the holy city or, failing that, in Israel proper. This prejudice explains why history’s most prominent ark excavations have focused on Jerusalem or on one of Israel’s Old Testament landmarks. The reigning theory among rabbis maintains that the ark lies buried beneath the Dome of the Rock, probably in one of the subterranean passages honeycombing Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (or the Haram al-Sharif, one of Islam’s holiest places).

This theory has been almost impossible to test since the ultimate Jewish sacred site has admitted no Jewish worship since the destruction of the second temple in A.D. 70. And with the construction on the Dome of the Rock in the seventh century A.D. — effectively placing the entire Temple Mount under Islamic control — access to the site has evaporated. Even when the Six-Day War of 1967 briefly returned the Temple Mount to Israel, jurisdiction quickly reverted to the Muslims, who to this day aggressively guard the site (as well as caves and structures beneath) against outside contact.

For religious Jews — who look to the discovery of the ark as a prophetic signpost of Israel’s return to splendor — it seems tragic (and a bit ironic) that, in an era of technology that might lend itself to successful exploration of the Mount, opportunities to explore do not exist. Or do they?

In 1867, a young lieutenant assigned to Britain’s Royal Engineers cut a tunnel under the exterior walls of the Temple Mount in a clandestine maneuver to secure the ark. Predictably, the clamor of sledgehammers and pickaxes below the Al-Aqsa Mosque disturbed the prayers of the Muslim faithful above, triggering a hail of stones and ending in a bloody riot.

Years later, in 1910, another Englishman, Montague Brownslow Parker, paid hefty bribes to gain secret access to the southern part of the Temple Mount. A clandestine excavation ensued, in which Parker and his team used ropes lashed to the Shetiyyah, or “foundation stone” (floor of the Holy of Holies), to lower themselves into the Well of Souls. Yet once again the racket alerted a mosque attendant, who, inspecting the ruckus, recoiled to see foreigners hacking at holy ground with picks and shovels. He sounded the alarm, bringing enraged Muslim vigilantes racing to the scene. The explorers fled Jerusalem with an angry mob at their heels.[9]

The next reported attempt took place nearly a half century later, in the days immediately following the Six-Day War. Israeli forces ejected Jordanian troops from Jerusalem to regain control of the Temple Mount for the first time in almost two thousand years. For one brief month (June 1–July 7), the chaplain of the Israel Defense Forces, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, enjoyed complete jurisdiction over the site, though, regrettably, he didn’t know what to do with it. His team of engineers spent two weeks surveying and mapping the Mount, but the mostly military detail had no clue how, or why, they should access the subterranean structures beneath. “I put them (engineers) inside the Temple Mount the first day after the liberation,” he said, “but I didn’t know what to look for! We could enter the Dome of the Rock to investigate beneath the rock itself; we could go everywhere, but we didn’t.”[10]

A month later, thinking to appease the Arab League and stave off a bloody jihad (holy war), Defense Minister Moshe Dayan returned the Mount to Islamic authority. His decision infuriated religious Jews, who already had initiated plans to tear down Islamic structures on Judaism’s most holy site and start the process of building the third temple. An unprecedented opportunity clearly had been squandered, and fifteen years passed before another opportunity arose.

In July 1981, Rabbi Meir Yehuda Getz began construction on a new synagogue behind the Western Wall, facing the Temple Mount, when he accidentally broke into an underground catacomb known as the Warren’s Gate cavern. This large, vaulted room, dating from the first temple period, once had been used for bringing in wood and materials for sacrifices and other temple rites. More importantly, according to Jewish tradition, Warren’s Gate stood west of the temple and opened almost directly in front of the Holy of Holies.

Suspecting he’d stumbled upon a direct access to the deep caverns that once served as a cistern to the Mount, Getz mustered a ten-man excavation team and began clearing the great hall. For the next year and a half, his team worked feverishly in secret, wary of Muslim backlash and going to great lengths to avoid detection. The work progressed rapidly until, days before the team sensed it might penetrate the Holy of Holies, the local media broke the story. Outraged Islamic “Wakf” authorities dispatched a mob to attack the excavators; the Muslim Council called a general strike to halt the search, and the passage was quickly sealed.[11] To this day the vaults beneath the Temple Mount remain off-limits, as Israel and PLO engage in a vicious fight over Palestinian statehood and Sovereignty over these holy sites. The Mount itself continues its legacy as perhaps the world’s preeminent archaeological riddle.

Other Site, Other Searches

Faced with such a state of affairs, it’s not surprising that archaeologists, explorers, and fortune hunters have bundled up their picks and shovels and taken their excavations elsewhere. One such expedition involved an American named Larry Blaser, who searched the caves of Ein-Gedi, where, Jewish tradition tells us, David once hid from Saul. Another American, Vendyl Jones, dug among the caves of Wadi Jafet Zaben, north of Qumran, and unearthed a stash of reddish material thought to be a special incense used in temple worship. Neither excavation yielded evidence of the ark.[12]

In the 1920s, American Antonia Frederick Futterer looked for the ark on Mount Nebo, where the Book of Maccabees suggests Jeremiah buried the sacred relic just prior to the Babylonian invasion. During his survey. Futterer claims to have found a secret passage blocked by a wall etched with an ancient hieroglyph, which a Hebrew translator supposedly interpreted to read: “Herein Lies the Golden Ark of the Covenant.” Curiously, Futterer never named the translator nor reproduced the inscription. And he never returned to the “secret passage” to retrieve the ark.

Sixty years later another American explorer, Tom Crotser, borrowed the Futterer sketch to launch yet another search of Mount Nebo, by now located just inside the border of the modern state of Jordan. Though he found nothing resembling Futterer’s secret passage, his team moved on to neighboring Mount Pisgah, where Crotser said he found a gully blocked by a sheet of tin, concealing a narrow passage. From the gully the team hacked its way through a rock wall into an underground crypt, containing, insisted Crotser, a gold-covered, rectangular chest with carrying poles matching the biblical description of the ark. Predictably his color photographs of the object remained off-limits to all but a select circle of friends, who curiously refused to comment on the images. One who did, the respected archaeologist Siegfried H. Horn, rudely dismissed Futterer’s so-called “ark” as nothing more than a modern, machine-fabricated, brass-plated box that had no relation to the ancient artifact.[13]

At least one modern-day inquiry placed its bets on the caves of the Mount of Olives, located directly across from the Temple Mount. While it’s true that the Mount of Olives features many caves dating from the first temple era, the mountain, on both sides of the Kidron Valley, is riddled with Jewish, Christian and Muslim Crypts. Owing primarily to Jewish laws of purity, it remains highly doubtful that Israel’s Holiest object would have been buried in the midst of a Future cemetery.[14]

And then there are claims by amateur archaeologist Ron Wyatt, author of Discovered – Noah’s Ark, of finding the ark of the covenant under the escarpment of Mount Calvary. Wyatt suggests that when Jesus died on the cross, his blood ran through the socket hole to Mount Calvary, dripped through a crack in the mountain, and finally landed on the mercy seat of the ark, located in a cavern below. In so doing, he said, Jesus’ death consummated, in the most literal and exalted terms, the final blood atonement of God’s ultimate High Priest — Jesus Christ! Wyatt says he broke through a layer of rock in a cave to reach the ark in a secret chamber. But when his Polaroid snapshots of the object didn’t turn out, he said he had to return at a later date with a borrowed “colonoscope” to drill a hole through the stone case surrounding the ark. This time, he claimed, he probed the case to conclude he had, indeed, found the sacred object.[15] Here I must say that my good friend, Bob Stuplich, accompanied Wyatt to this site and saw nothing.

So while many searchers have released numerous books and videos of their “discoveries,” suffice it to say there is no hard evidence to suggest that the ark still resides in Jerusalem, under the Temple Mount, in a cave on Mount Calvary, or anywhere else in modern-day Israel.

Not until I began evaluating some of the theories, then visiting the relevant sites, did I seriously begin to doubt that any of these excavations would ever produce the ark. Even so, the more I learned, the less feasible it seemed that, after centuries in which these ancient landmarks had been repeatedly looted, explored, and excavated, the ark hadn’t been found by someone. As in my searches for Mount Sinai and Noah’s ark, a fresh look at the subject convinced me that the so-called experts had it wrong and that the ark of the covenant likely lay someplace few suspected.

I discovered that the bulk of the theories, in fact, had been based more on legend and myth than a clear and unbiased reading of the Bible. While I had hoped I might find unexamined clues by searching Scripture, it was while reading The Sign and the Seal that I found myself entertaining an altogether different scenario, one that proposed a bizarre set of propositions—the weirdest being that the ark had been either abducted or smuggled out of Jerusalem in the years before the first temple burned and then taken to a foreign land.

In the same way I’d learned to trust my instincts in my years as a police investigator, this notion struck me as far more plausible than the other theories. Of all the ideas tossed about by scholars and archaeologists, it was a curious legend from the biblical land of Cush that caught my attention, then caused my heart to swell. From among an endless collection of legends and theories, I found my gaze slowly turning to North Africa, to a country whose national identity seemed intertwined with the holy ark.


This excerpt is from Robert Cornuke’s book Search for the Ark of the Covenant, available from the K-House Recourse Center.

Original article: Search for the Ark of the Covenant