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Book Review of The Sign and the Seal by Graham Hancock
Reviewed by Gary Greenberg
From the BASNY Explorer

One doesn’t have to buy the author’s central thesis, that the Ark of the Covenant is presently located in the Ethiopian city of Axum, to enjoy this book. The story of his search and the excursions into Ethiopian history are well worth the price of admission.

Mr. Hancock served as East African correspondent for the Economist and spent some considerable time in Ethiopia. While there, at the invitation of the government then in power, he had produced a coffee-table book about Ethiopia Unfortunately, that government was overthrown and the rebels controlled much of the territory that Hancock needed to explore in the course of his search. His connection with the former leaders created a number of barriers, and he had substantial concerns about his safety. The political situation in Ethiopia supplies a backdrop for his story.

Ethiopia presents two interesting problems for people interested in biblical archaeology and Jewish history. First is the famous legend that the Queen of Sheba came from Ethiopia and had children by Solomon. Second is the unexplained presence of a large black Jewish population in Ethiopia, many of whom were recently rescued and brought to Israel in Operation Solomon.

According to a thirteenth century Ethiopian text called Kebra Nagast (“Glory of Kings”), Solomon and Sheba had a son named Menelik. As the book tells it, Menelik removed the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple and brought it to Ethiopia, where it has remained ever since. Former emperor Haile Selassie claimed to be a direct descendant of Sheba and Solomon through Menelik.

In the course of his search, Hancock also interviewed members of the Ethiopian Jewish community, the Falashas, and to my surprise, they too have a story about the ark coming to Ethiopia, but it differs substantially from that of the Kebra Nagast. In the local Jewish tradition, the Falashas were the Jews who first entered Ethiopia but did so only after a lengthy stay in Egypt where they had built a temple near Aswan. That temple was destroyed and they moved into Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, the Ark was first kept in a tent on the Island of Tana Kirkos, but approximately sixteen hundred years ago it was removed to Axum. To the extant that the Jewish version may have a kernel of truth, the story of a Temple in Aswan would refer to the famous Jewish temple in Elephantine, an island in the Aswan territory, which was destroyed in the late fifth century BC, dating the Falasha arrival in Ethiopia to around 400 BC

There is one more major factor that I find interesting in regard to the conflict between the Jewish and Christian versions of the Ark’s arrival in Ethiopia. It appears that around 980 AD a Jewish Queen named Gudit (or Judit) successfully led a united federation against the Christian leaders. Her dynasty, very possibly Jewish, dominated northern Ethiopia, although before long, it apparently reverted back to Christianity. Subsequently, there appears to be a very intense cultural, military, and political rivalry between the Christians and the Jews. It is only after this period that the Christian version of the ark story appears to have been written down. One might wonder how much the conflcit between Jew and Christian affected the developement of the respective legends about the Ark coming to Ethiopia.

Throughout Hancock’s journey we meet numerous people, Christian and Jewish, many of them versed in ancient folk lore and filled with tales of ancient Ethiopian traditions. For me, these interviews were the most interesting part of the back. And all through the journey, we are periodically reminded of the background political turmoil afflicting the country, lending just the touch of danger that we expect for our archaeological adventurers.

Although Hancock finally arrives at Axum to see the Ark, it is never brought out to him. He can not provide direct proof for his thesis, nor do we have any idea what the supposed Ark looks like. What we do know is that throughout Ethiopia, churches contain a tabot, a symbolic replica of the ark. They are among the countries most sacred symbols and no Christian church would be without one.

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