16 Of History's Best Kept Secrets

Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant, by Benjamin West, (c. 1800). Wikimedia Commons.

15. The resting place of the Ark of the Covenant remains a secret, either captured and lost by the Babylonians or hidden to prevent their acquisition of the holy relic

The Ark of the Covenant, as described in the Bible, was a gold-covered chest belonging to the ancient Israelite people after their escape from Egypt. Carved approximately one year after the Exodus, from a design given by God to Moses, Hebrews describe that “the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant”. Carried before the Israelite people, especially before an army going to war, the Ark was carefully concealed from human eyes by a veil of cloth and animal skins; in fact, when a cart driver named Uzzah dared touch the Ark with his mortal hand, God allegedly killed him on the spot for his hubris. Eventually it was housed in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, known biblically as Zion. A special room was constructed during the building of the temple for the Ark: the Kodesh Hakodashim, or Holy of Holies.

In 587 BCE, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II captured and destroyed Jerusalem, along with the Temple of Solomon. It is unclear precisely what happened to the Ark at this time. With Rabbinical history contesteD, some claim it was hidden to prevent capture, whilst others accept the likely probability of theft by the Babylonians. Second Maccabees, written almost 500 years later, claimed that Jeremiah, “being warned by God” of the impending Babylonian conquest, had his followers bury the Ark in a cave on Mount Nebo “until the time that God should gather His people again together, and receive them unto mercy”. Other authors contend the Ark reemerged later in Egypt, Ethiopia, France, England, and Rome – but there is little beyond circumstantial evidence to support these claims. If, as is most probable, the Ark was taken back to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar’s forces, then it was almost certainly lost during the subsequent sackings of the city and its location, if the Ark still exists intact, its whereabouts remain a mystery.