Romantic images of medieval crusaders and - more recently, Indiana Jones - spring to mind the moment the question is asked: Has the lost Ark of the Covenant been hidden for centuries in Ethiopia?
Ethiopians have long believed it to be so. According to the Kebra Nagast, a 13th-century manuscript recording traditional Ethiopian history, the ark was surreptitiously moved from Jerusalem to Ethiopia in the 950s BC by followers of Menelik, the Ethiopian king said to have been the son of King Solomon and Queen Sheba. That's why, the legend insists, the sacred object is never mentioned in the Bible again after the reign of Solomon.
It's a theory most modern historians have dismissed outright. But in the 1980s, British journalist Graham Hancock became intrigued with the story and devoted nine years to investigating it.
In "The Sign and the Seal," a controversial book that reads more like a thriller than a history tome, Mr. Hancock recounts how he finally became convinced that the ark was indeed spirited out of Jerusalem, kept for sometime in Egypt, and then carried to its final resting place in Saint Mary of Zion Church in Axum, Ethiopia.
From a factual point of view, all that can be confirmed today is that in the carefully guarded sanctuary of the church in Axum rests a sacred object always kept under wraps and seen only by one monk, who dedicates his life to tending it. (This has been the case for centuries - when one monk dies, another is appointed.)
The object is the true ark, its keepers say, but the mystery may never be solved, for the monks also insist that the ark is far too sacred to ever be displayed to the curious.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society