The "Kebra Nagast," a 13th-century Ethiopian manuscript, retells the biblical story of the Queen of Sheba's visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem. But after the queen's introduction at court, the narrative takes an unexpected turn: The Ethiopian monarch bears Solomon a son, who eventually returns to Jerusalem and makes away with the Ark of the Covenant.
The twist is fundamental to Ethiopian Christian belief. The Ark containing the Ten Commandments, Orthodox Christians believe, has come to rest in this town of shuffling robes and rising dust that was once the center of the Ethiopian Empire. It was taken out of Solomon's temple by Menelik I, Ethiopia's first emperor, and after centuries of migration across the Arabian peninsula and down the Nile, found its final sanctuary in the church of St. Mary of Sion.
"The Ark is here, it came from Israel," a monk guarding the church informs in a drone. "It was three years to walk the desert, but they came with the wind in three days. Now the Ark is in this church, in the Holy of Holies."
The monk, a man in tattered garments with a pair of mirrored Ray-Bans, quickly denies ever having seen the Ark. Only the "guardian," he explains, a monk who spends his life in solitary contemplation, has access to the Mak'das, "the Holy of Holies" where the Ark, a rectangular case fashioned out of cedar and gold, lies hidden from view.
Outside the church, children beg for money. Indifferent to the monks' warnings, peddlers display their merchandise: "ancient" Aksumite coins, silver crosses, the odd star of David. Some enterprising souls have recently started producing Ark T-shirts and miniature souvenir Arks. Yet cheap as they are, they do little to detract from the country's belief that this forgotten town at the foot of Ethiopia's northern highlands was chosen by God as the final resting place of the Ark.
"Of course the Ark is here," says Abraham Gebregzabhe, a teenage self-appointed guide to St. Mary. "Every day, every night, he [the guardian] stays in the church to guard the Ark."
The evidence in support of the "Kebra Nagast" is scant. Historians are unsure where the Queen of Sheba came from - although many believe she ruled over parts of modern Yemen - and there is no reference in either Jewish or Ethiopian chronicles to the Ark ever leaving Jerusalem, not to mention ending up in Ethiopia.
As a diplomat in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, put it, "the chances of the Ark being in Ethiopia tend to zero."
Yet the belief is strong among Orthodox Christians here. And that belief, scholars note, constitutes perhaps the single most distinctive trait of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church - a 1,700-year-old institution making up 40 percent of the population.
"There is no question that the Ark, or the belief in the Ark, is central to the church," says British historian Richard Pankhurst, founder of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa.
ETHIOPIA adopted Christianity in AD 330, at a time when its empire could hold its own against the might of Persia and the Eastern Roman Empire. For centuries, it was the home of the Falasha Jews, who left Israel some time before the birth of Jesus and settled in small but powerful communities fiercely protective of their religion.
In a book with tenuous claims to historical accuracy, British journalist Graham Hancock has argued that the Falashas - and not the Queen of Sheba's son - took the Ark and traveled with it to Ethiopia.
Their objective, according to Mr. Hancock, was to save the Ark from the moral pollution of King Manasseh, who ruled Israel from 687 to 642 BC, turning the temple into a place of pagan worship.
To many, the question of whether the Ark is in Ethiopia or whether, as a few scholars have suggested, the "Kebra Nagast" was manipulated by the church to magnify its power is largely irrelevant. "The point about the Ark is that it's not a question of truth, but a question of perception," says the diplomat. "It is central to the existence of the Orthodox Church."
On a strictly conceptual level, the belief in the Ark coming to rest in Ethiopia implies the notion of a "second covenant," which God made not with the Jews or with humanity at large, but with the Ethiopian people. While the ordinary Ethiopian Christian does not appear to operate on that assumption, several monks and deacons in Aksum were quite clear on their alleged place in God's order.
"The Ark is the word of God, and God put it here by his grace and his love for the Ethiopian people. God selected this place until the end of time. This is the Holy Land, and the Ethiopians are the chosen people," one explained.
Huddled in the obscurity of his small abode right behind St. Mary of Sion, Kashe Gebre Gevra Amary, Aksum's high priest for 40 years, assures a visitor that God had "kept his word in Aksum" for a reason. Claiming to be 120 years old, the monk says that in his capacity as high priest he had "taken Moses's tablet of the law" out of the Ark twice, handing them to a newly appointed guardian. "The tablet is made of stone," he said, "It is small but heavy. It looks like water, but the color changes. Sometimes it looks like milk."
Helped to his feet by his assistant, the old monk made the sign of the cross. After that, he asked for $20.