Mar 10, 2008

Scholar Claims to Have Found Ark of Covenant

By Troy Anderson

Like another famous swashbuckling treasure hunter, he has a fear of snakes. And he's not averse to associating with mystics, charlatans and crooks in his quest for prized artifacts.

But unlike his fictional alter-ego, the "British Indiana Jones" claims he's discovered the genuine Ark of the Covenant — or at least a direct descendant of the vessel constructed to hold the original tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments.

In a newly released book, University of London professor Tudor Parfitt claims to have located the treasured artifact on a dusty shelf of an out-of-the-way museum in Harare, Zimbabwe.

"It was just by chance that I finally managed to track it down to a storeroom in Harare, was able to analyze it and discover that, quite apart from anything else, it's quite probably the oldest wooden object in sub-Sahara Africa," said Parfitt, an expert in Oriental and African studies. "It's massively important in terms of history, even apart from its status as the last surviving link to the original Ark of Moses."

In his book, "The Lost Ark of the Covenant: Solving the 2,500 Year Old Mystery of the Fabled Biblical Ark," Parfitt describes traipsing around the globe, decoding ancient texts and deciphering numerous clues to locate the enigmatic object.

Along the way, the man dubbed the "British Indiana Jones" by friends, colleagues and the Wall Street Journal uncovered genetic evidence confirming claims by the Lemba tribe that its members are descendants of ancient Israelite priests, the lost Ark's caretakers.

Among a host of similarities with the Israelites, the Lemba priests have been the guardians of the ngoma lungundu, a sacred but unassuming wooden drum they say came from the great temple in Jerusalem.

Based on radiocarbon testing dating it to A.D. 1350, Parfitt believes a replacement was constructed from a piece of the original ngoma, which legend says destroyed itself or was destroyed in a pyrotechnic explosion.

But some Bible scholars, archaeologists and Ark experts are skeptical of Parfitt's claims and even of the Ark's existence. Others say the ngoma could be one of multiple replicas constructed in ancient times.

Still others say the description of the drum is a far cry from the gold-covered Ark of the Covenant described in Exodus, complete with its golden cherubim.

J. Edward Wright, a professor of Hebrew Bible and early Judaism at the University of Arizona, conceded it's possible the Babylonians stripped the gold from the Ark after invading Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The Ark is believed to have disappeared from the temple in Jerusalem around that time.

In the ensuing 2,500 years, many treasure seekers have risked their lives and fortunes trying to locate it. And many claims have been made about the location of arguably the most important religious artifact in history.

"The most dominant theory has to do with the St. Mary of Zion Church in Aksum, Ethiopia," said Beatrice Lawrence, an instructor at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. "The theories abound, but there is no evidence to support any theory over the other."

Grant R. Jeffrey, author of "The New Temple and the Second Coming" and 24 other books, said Jewish writings and the Ethiopian Royal Chronicles indicate a replica of the Ark was made before the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem.

The original, they say, was hidden in Ethiopia until 1991, when it was transported to Israel.

The Temple Institute, a group of orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem dedicated to rebuilding the temple, claim the Ark is safely stored in a hidden chamber under the Temple Mount complex, according to the institute's Web site.

Meanwhile, the Sanhedrin Court, the only religious body authorized to determine the temple's correct location, reconvened in 2005.

And renowned biblical archaeologist Vendyl Jones, who claims to be the inspiration for the fictional Indiana Jones, is trying to raise $88,000 to return to Qumran to remove 40 stones blocking entrance to an inner cave where he believes the Ark and other temple treasures are located.

If the Ark is found and authenticated, biblical scholars say, it would be one of the most important archaeological discoveries in history.

"I suppose if they found it, it would be on par with something like the discovery of the treasures of King Tut," said William M. Schniedewind, a professor of biblical studies and northwest Semitic languages at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Parfitt, whose work tracking down the lost tribes of Israel has been featured on "60 Minutes" and the BBC, began to suspect the Lemba tribe possessed the Ark after attending a tribal ceremony in 1987.

At the time, tribal leaders told him about the ngoma, which they said was guarded by the white lions of God and a two-headed snake inside a nearby mountain cave.

Over the next two decades, Parfitt traveled from Israel to Egypt, Ethiopia and the ruins of Great Zimbabwe in search of the ngoma and its secrets. He encountered a cannibalistic tribe in Papua New Guinea, was ambushed and shot at in Africa and narrowly escaped being kidnapped by Islamic outlaws in Yemen.

He experienced a major breakthrough in 1999 when he took DNA samples from 136 male members of the Lemba tribe. In a finding that drew worldwide publicity, a genetic analysis confirmed they were descendents of Aaron, the brother of Moses.

In 2001, Parfitt returned to the Dumghe Mountain cave, but he didn't find the ngoma. He was later told the ngoma had been moved, and he kept searching.

Finally, based on a tip about the transport of artifacts in war-ravaged areas and using a photo of the ngoma taken in the 1940s by a missionary scholar, Parfitt located the sacred object in a storeroom in the Harare Museum of Human Science in Zimbabwe.

The wooden drum had a blackened hole in the bottom and the shattered remnants of wooden rings on each corner. Parfitt also noticed a carved, interlaced pattern described in the biblical Book of Exodus.

While the ngoma still is stored at the museum in Harare, Parfitt is concerned the highly valuable artifact once again may disappear in a nation plagued by violence and corruption.

Parfitt, who was inspired to search for the Ark by a friend, hopes the discovery will bring peace.

"My friend Reuven is a very peaceful man and something of a mystic and visionary," Parfitt said. "His whole excitement about the Ark was based on the idea that the Quran talks about it as being in some way a symbol of legitimacy for Israel. He was always convinced before his death if it was ever found that somehow the Ark might pave the way for peace in the Middle East."