In the Biblical book of Exodus, the ark is introduced as the “ark of testimony.” God gives precise instructions to the Israelites for building this small box or chest out of wood. It was covered in gold, and on the lid were two golden cherubim with their wings facing each other to form an enclosed area. This central area was called the “mercy seat,” and this is where the high priest sprinkled goat’s blood on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) to appease God’s righteous anger. The mercy seat is where God was supposed to manifest himself as a cloud or bright light.
The two stone tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were written were housed inside the ark. These tablets were called the “law” or “testimony” of God and were tokens of God’s covenant with the people of Israel. Thus, the ark held the most important relics of Judaism and was considered the visible sign of God’s presence and protection. The ark became a symbol of the incarnate word of God to many Christians as well.
Great and mysterious powers are attributed to the ark. Those who transported it could be supposedly lifted into the air, and some who touched the ark died immediately. The Israelites carried it before them into war — sometimes this helped them to victory, but not always. The Philistines defeated the Israelites and captured the ark, but they soon returned it because the ark seemed to destroy their own god’s idol and made them sick. Perhaps these are the stories to which the Raiders movie alluded.
The Jews carried the Ark of the Covenant during their 40 years of wandering. When they finally settled in Canaan, King David took it to Jerusalem. His son, Solomon, built the Temple of Jerusalem and placed the ark inside. In 586 BCE, the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadrezzar II destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem, and from that point on, the location of the ark is unknown.
One popular theory is that the ark was taken to Ethiopia by the son of the Queen of Sheba and King David. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe that they guard the actual ark in the Church of Saint Mary of Zion in Axum. Unfortunately, they do not allow any outsiders to enter their sanctum, so no one can verify these claims.