Ethiopia throbs with religious fervor. On Sundays in Lalibela, Aksum and Gondar, I was alone in thousand-strong crowds of monks and nuns, hermits and business owners, energetic children and bent-double grandmothers. They wrapped themselves in white or burnt orange and poured into the churches that dot the landscape.
It is a society with a more profound spirituality than anywhere else I have been to—one where worship is woven into nearly every aspect of life. And during my trip, it became clear that this veneration of the church was born from a belief that Ethiopia has been chosen by God as the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.
There is only one man alive who has seen the alleged Ark in all its biblical glory. It is, according to Ethiopian lore, hidden in a church in Aksum—a small city in the northern highlands—and guarded by a single monk. Nobody else enters the room and only after his death will the monk leave the grounds.
The Ark itself is central to Christian and Jewish religious history. According to the Bible, Moses placed stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments into a box made of acacia wood, aka the Ark. King Solomon then built the First Temple in Jerusalem to house it, where it was venerated for hundreds of years.
And then it disappeared.
Jewish tradition says it was lost when the Babylonians sacked Solomon’s temple in the 4th century B.C. But for millennia, Ethiopian Christians have claimed that the Ark was actually taken to Ethiopia for safekeeping. And while it was mostly in Aksum, for 400 years it was hidden on two different lakes to protect it from invading tribes.
Ethiopia is a landlocked country, but north of Addis Ababa is a lake so vast it feels like the sort of clear blue sea the Ancient Mariner would be at home on. Here on Lake Tana is a tiny island in swimming distance of the shore, where Ethiopian priests supposedly left their precious Ark for 350 years.
And then there is Lake Ziway. South of Addis and home to the Zay people, Ziway was a rumoured shelter for the Ark for 70 years when it was hidden amid the pelicans and flamingos of the Great Rift Valley.
I visited lakes Tana and Ziway to see if there was any trace of the Ark’s journey in these shorefront towns—and to understand how the belief that they were communities chosen by God has impacted the lives of the local people.
Lake Tana feels like a place untouched by modernity. Dhows—elegant, elongated Indian Ocean boats made from wood with billowing lanteed sails—drift past 14th century monasteries and territorial hippos rear their heads out of the glassy water. It is where acacia trees shade medieval churches, and orthodox Christianity and skulking hyenas have both found a home.
We set sail on on a blindingly bright morning from the city of Bahir Dar. It would take three hours on a rickety boat to get to Tana Kirkos, where the Ark was allegedly kept.
We hugged the coastline, which changed from dry, over-farmed fields to rich groves of palm trees. Throughout the journey, we spotted brightly colored churches, which looked freshly painted and were dotted like Smarties amid the wooden huts the locals lived in.
“Any money we earn is spent on the churches,” said Dawit, who captained our boat. “It is part of our tradition to give everything we don’t need to survive to the local church.”
The silvery bulge of a particularly magnificent dome glinted in the sunlight for the last half hour of our journey. As we got closer, it came into focus above a canopy of leaves, partly obscuring a smaller orange dome beside it. That was Tana Kirkos.
But I would soon discover a not-insignificant spanner in the works—my gender. Women are still regarded with profound suspicion by the Ethiopian church, largely because of our ability to ignite a dangerous passion in the monks who guard the Ark. The safest solution, they decided, was to ban all women from most Ark-related religious sites. This inexplicably includes female animals, with only roosters, billy goats and male pigs allowed near certain sites.
We juddered to a stop on the sandy beach and a priest kindly allowed me off the boat but motioned for me to sit on a rock while the men explored. “There are many young monks on the island, and they are still learning,” he explained in Amharic. “Women cannot be allowed to inflame their passions.”
“This is a very special place. The Ark came here from Aksum for safekeeping many years before Jesus was born,” he continued. “But during King Ezana’s time, which was 1,600 years ago, he took it north again. This is a holy island. The baby Jesus and Mary spent time here during their exile.”
None of this is verifiable but as I watched the men climb higher to see this world-renowned chapel and monastery, filled with scrolls, books and paintings on the Ark, I was filled with envy. I leaned back on the rock and stared at an eagle circling overhead, idly wondering if it was female.
They came back and told me about the replica of the Ark, known as the Tabot, which is paraded around the island during the festival of Timkat, and a shrine on the patch of land where Mary and Jesus allegedly slept.
From there, we set sail for Dek Island in the heart of the lake, where we camped amid fruit groves on the edge of a small, dilapidated village. We were woken at 4 a.m. by the haunting Christian calls to prayer and later that morning, sailed to the northern tip of the island to Narga Selassie—one of Ethiopia’s least visited and most beautiful churches.
Watched over by a thin guard wearing a single loincloth and clutching a machine gun, we climbed up through Jungle Book-like ruins to a round, cream-colored church. There, a white-robed priest opened a set of engraved wooden doors to a room covered in floor-to ceiling murals depicting the journey of the Ark. It was unmistakably African—the Madonna and Child were joined by a wandering lion and the Ark awaited its new home under a dry acacia tree.
“This place is blessed,” the priest explained. “No bad deeds can occur on the island as the magic of the Ark will last forever. That is why so many people live here still even when there is no work.”
We then sailed on to Gondar and flew down to Addis, where we picked up Eden Sahle—a young Ethiopian journalist who would join us in the Great Rift Valley lakes. As we drove south, the road filled with Marabou storks—that most unattractive of birds—and women balancing plastic drums of water precariously on their heads.
After a swim and a glass of thick, sweet mango juice, we climbed into our second boat—this time for Tulu Gudo, an island in the middle of Ziway. The two lakes are not particularly alike—Ziway’s water is mud brown and warm, with thousands of birds clustered around its edges and the occasional whip of a crocodile’s tail disturbing its surface. But like Lake Tana, colorful churches cluster on the shoreline.
“This is a holy lake,” explained Eden. “During the 10th century, the Ark was going to be destroyed by the non-Christian Queen Gudit, so it had to be hidden on Ziway. Priests walked all the way to Ziway from Aksum carrying the Ark. It was there for 72 years until Queen Gudit was defeated in a war.”
I had the faintly ridiculous hope that Eden and I—in an all-female recreation of Indiana Jones—might find some relic of the Ark on the island. We climbed off the boat, sweating in the midday heat, and started walking uphill through thick leaves to the mountain-top church where the Ark had been kept.
As we climbed, a distant hum of women singing became louder and turned into the unmistakable sound of an ululation. We had unwittingly stumbled upon a funeral march and hundreds of mourners shrouded in white began overtaking us and pouring into church.
We tried to be inconspicuous in the shade of a tree, but eventually two priests approached us, offering to show us around their small museum. They unlocked the smudged glass cases to lift up heavy, illustrated parchment books detailing the trip the Ark took.
Later, we walked around the church, which was still heady with incense from the funeral service—but through the smoke I could make out murals of the Ark being carried 600 miles from Aksum to Ziway. Here too, the priest insisted its presence had kept their communities safe from drought, war and plague.
It is, of course, impossible to say whether the Ark and its tour of the Ethiopian lakes has any basis in truth. People have debated its whereabouts for centuries—some, such as British writer Graham Hancock, believe it has indeed been in Ethiopia since the 4th Century BC. Others, such as National Geographic Society fellow Fred Hiebert, says looking for the Ark is a quest that is ultimately doomed to failure. If there is an Ark-like object in Ethiopia, how do you determine if it’s the one from the Bible? Lying as it does at the crossroads between myth and reality, whether the Ark even exists depends largely on your religious beliefs.
But what is without doubt is the profound spirituality its journey has instilled in the Ethiopian people. It is as if the Ark has trailed a magic dust around the country, transforming these two lakes into almost mythical places.