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The ‘Ark of the Covenant’ found, in suburban Harare


Deep in the heart of the southern African nation of Zimbabwe, there is a legend: a box-like object the Lemba people claim can summon lightning, level mountains, and is fatal to those who touch it except special circumcised priests. Known as the “Ngoma lungundu,” or the “Box that thunders,” it is said to be empowered by the very voice of God.

Sound familiar? According to some, this object is the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, otherwise known as the thing that served as the McGuffin for Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But rather than simply a silver screen icon or unsolved Biblical mystery, a few believers maintain it’s at the Museum of Human Science in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare. Guess who couldn’t resist seeking it out?

Of course, there was the issue that it was in, well, Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has the 15th-lowest Human Development Index in the world, lower even than Haiti and Sudan, and street crime is a serious problem as visitors – especially Western ones – are targeted due to the perception they’re rich. With the average Zimbabwean earning $589 per year, food insecurity is a very real problem, as are diseases such as cholera, malaria and HIV/AIDS. Then there’s the fact the country’s leader, 90-year-old Robert Mugabe, has ruled with an iron fist since Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980. His massive portrait hanging in the arrivals hall of Harare International Airport, he’s not exactly the friendliest of autocrats.

Castle beer in Zimbabwe

But the lure of the Ark proved too strong – as did the opportunity to visit a country where a whole meal can run as little as $2.

Touching down after a nonstop flight from Amsterdam, the first word that pops into the mid of many visitors is “decay.” Once one of Africa’s busiest airports – offering flights as far afield as Australia and the United Kingdom – barely 600,000 passengers now travel through Zimbabwe’s primary international gateway per year, with numbers continuing to decline. Hotels, consequently, have gradually fallen into disuse, with just a few dozen now serving the entire city of over 1.6 million. A large part of the issue is economic mismanagement, which led to a world-record inflation rate estimated at a mind-boggling 6.5 sextillion percent in 2008. The collapse of domestic markets led Zimbabwe to abandon its currency in 2009, and half a decade later, the US dollar is used almost exclusively.

Hopping into an old white Datsun SUV after meeting Mbafana, a friendly man with a deep voice who looked like he’d have a great career playing rugby, to say the road was littered with potholes would be an understatement. B-b-b-b-b-u-u-u-u-m-m-m-m-m-p! Days earlier, the Zimbabwean government had signed a $400 million deal with a South African company to upgrade roads. One could only hope future visitors would be treated to less whiplash-inducing conditions.

The fact that it was late winter back home in Germany meant it was late summer here, though temperatures in Harare – known as Salisbury until 1982 – vary little throughout the year. Reaching the corner of Fife Avenue and Ninth Street, we pulled into the Small World Lodge, an outfit that caters to backpackers and other would-be adventurers. At $12 a night for a dorm bed, it surprisingly is not the cheapest accommodation in town – nor the sparsest – but had the essentials: a bed and a pillow. The outdoor shower (lovingly called the “banana shower” by staff) nestled among the fluorescent green palms was a fun touch that, were this Europe, would give one hypothermia within seconds. But this was Africa.

Guest House, Harare, ZimbabweThe journey thus far draining all reserves of energy, sleep came easily. Come morning would be a date with destiny.

The question of what happened to the Ark of the Covenant has fascinated theologians and archeologists for centuries. Its location is last mentioned in the Old Testament where, in the 18th year of his reign, King Josiah ordered the caretakers of the Ark to return it to the temple in Jerusalem. Some 40 years later, the Babylonians raided the temple. The Ark’s location is never discussed in the Bible again.

But there are other potential sources that shed light on the Ark’s fate. The Apocryphal Book of Maccabees (written around 100 B.C.) says the prophet Jeremiah, “being warned by God” before the Babylonian invasion, took the Ark and hid it in a cave, informing his followers that it should remain hidden. The location of the cave is not revealed, however.

The Maccabees story is where the Lemba legend picks up. According to them, a clan known as the Buba took the Ark to Africa for further safekeeping, spiriting it through present-day Yemen along the way. But God became angry, they believe, and the Ark self-destructed. Using a core from the original, a new one was then built.

So how did the object purported to be the Ark come to the Museum of Human Sciences? It was discovered in a cave by Swedish-German missionary Harald von Sicard in the 1940s. Decades later, it was radio-carbon dated to roughly 1350 A.D. which, interestingly, coincides with the sudden and mysterious end of the Great Zimbabwe civilization. British officials put the vessel on display at a museum in Zimbabwe’s second city (but cultural capital in the eyes of some), Bulawayo, before it was transferred to Harare. It’s been in its present location ever since.

Banana shower, guest house, Harare, ZimbabweWaking early, eyes rested easily on the smattering of other beds above and below in what in previous times was obviously a storage garage (if the bay doors directly behind were any indication). Mbafana had agreed to return to the lodge’s small parking lot at 9 a.m., leaving just enough time to try out the “banana shower.” While the cool water was refreshing amidst the muggy heat (it was the end of the wet season, after all), the lack of a towel meant a naked man was running around much longer than he would have preferred. Whoops.

Mbafana was just as cheery as he’d been the night before, hopping behind the wheel of the Datsun with all the earnestness of a diligent schoolboy on his way to class. The roads in the city center were a bit better than near the airport, but it was still a bumpy ride zigzagging through surprisingly thick traffic sans seatbelts. Crowds of people in shorts and other loose-fitting clothes, including men carrying bags and women balancing a menagerie of objects on their heads, thronged the sides of the roads. The young men standing about selling newspapers in the middle of intersections were, unquestionably, among the bravest human beings on the planet.

Zimbabwe once boasted the highest literacy rate in Africa, and places of learning abound in Harare. Located in the southeastern part of the city, the Museum of Human Sciences looks rather like a university lecture hall from the outside, with a boxish brick design that immediately brings to mind an American public school as seen in Hollywood films. Walking inside with Mbafana, we were greeted by a professorial-looking man with round spectacles at the front desk, and a smiling female security guard nearby. It was Sunday in this devoutly Christian country, but the museum was open nonetheless. The symbolism of glimpsing perhaps the most famous artifact in Abrahamic religion on the day traditionally known as the Sabbath was not lost.

“Good morning, how are you doing today, sir?” the man asked. We exchanged idle banter for the next few minutes, sharing views on everything from the weather and impressions of Harare, to how busy the museum normally is. But the main question, of course, was the status of the Ark.

“Yes, it is here,” the man said, his voice suddenly severe. It was as if the temperature of the room had suddenly chilled by several degrees. “Many come to see it. Some for the wrong reasons.”

It was among the most ominous things ever uttered.

While admission to the museum is $3 for locals, foreigners must fork over $10 to enter. Zimbabwe’s economy operates almost exclusively cash-only, but it was a small price to pay to see – literally – a supposed piece of Heaven. The caveat: explicitly no photos, period, as at least five signs all screamed with big red “x” symbols over cameras. An encounter with the Ark would have to be eyes-only.

My heart was pounding. “Good luck,” called the man at the desk as Mbafana and I stepped into the exhibit halls. Destiny was only a few meters away.

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ cinematic version of the quest for the Ark may have been fraught with peril, but fortunately no booby traps greeted us as we traversed the halls. Instead, we encountered exhibit after exhibit documenting the history of pre-colonial, colonial and modern Zimbabwe. It was all quite fascinating, but the air remained buzzing with the electricity of anticipation for what lay ahead.

Rounding a corner in the midst of an exhibit on the Lemba and their contributions to Zimbabwe before the arrival of the British, I suddenly ran nearly smack into a large display case. Backing up several paces, my mouth dropped open as I gazed upon a large stone box, beside which was a placard with the words “Ngoma lungundu” in big bold letters. There it was: the Ark of the Covenant. Good God.

Roughly 60 centimeters long by 30 centimeters high, the simple stonework was heavily cracked and chipped, devoid of any exterior engravings other than a faint interwoven design near the top that called to mind a rope. The original Ark of the Covenant was said to be made of gold and inlaid with precious jewels; this vessel looked more like a broken pot. It was also not box-shaped at all, but curved like a drum. Though there were holes where poles could conceivably be inserted, none were to be found at the present time. The top was missing, allowing one to see inside the holy vessel. And inside was… nothing. No Ten Commandments, no Aaron’s rod, nothing. So which part was from the original Ark, as the Lemba believed?

Emotions swirled like a maelstrom within me. I’d come halfway around the world for… this? I didn’t know what to think.

Mbafana joined me a few seconds later.

“Was this what you were looking for?” he asked.

“It was,” I answered.

He paused for a moment. “It’s nice.”

“It is.”

“I think there are other things more interesting.”

“Like what?”

“People are more interesting. The past is… gone.”

I smiled. “True.”

We moved on to the rest of the museum. I reflected on his words. There were indeed many more interesting things I’d learned about in my short time in Zimbabwe, Mbafana not least among them. Maybe I hadn’t really “found” the Ark. But I’d discovered something far more valuable: a friend.

Benjamin Mack with guide, Zimbabwe

That, and some great weather.

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