Bishop Gregory (hgr) wrote,
Bishop Gregory

мой завтрашний доклад в Тюбингине (in abs[tin]entia)

The Ark of the Covenant in the early Ethiopian Christianity



The Ark of Covenant, Tabotä Səyon (“Ark of Zion”) is one of the most prominent features in the medieval and modern Ethiopian Christianity. There is the unique artifact claimed to be the genuine Ark of Moses preserved in the special chamber in Aksum, and there are many tabots, the wooden equivalents of the Byzantine antimensia, considered as the replicas of the unique Tabot in Aksum and used as a necessary utensil for the Eucharist service.


What are the origins of the unique Tabot in Aksum? The main hagiographical legend on its provenance subsists as the core narrative of the large national epic Kəbrä nägäst (“Honour of kings” [ed. Bezold 1905; cf. Lourié 2000]). But what are the origins of this legend itself?

One of the recent scholars, the late Stuart Munro-Hay in his article in the Encyclopaedia Aethiopica (2003) is rather skeptical: “It seems, he says, as if the A[rk of the] C[ovenant] was an addition of the 15th cent. at the earliest” [EncAeth I, 340-1, esp. 340]. In fact, Munro-Hay is too skeptical even concerning Kəbrä nägäst itself. He ignores some recent data allowing to date the extant Ethiopic version of Kəbrä nägäst to the early 14th cent. [Chernetsov 1981, 2000; Kropp 1996] and not to the 15th cent., as Munro-Hay does. In turn, the Ethiopic version of the Kəbrä nägäst is not the earliest one. According to the colophon, it is a translation of a lost Arabic text of the 13th century.

The first evidence that the genuine Ark of Moses is preserved in Aksum goes back to the 12th cent., to a description of the Coptic author Abū al-Makārim (in Arabic) [cf. analysis in Lourié 2000 and attribution in Zanetti 1995].

Going further, in the epoch preceding the composition of  Kəbrä nägäst, we have to deal with its sources. These sources are referring to two important epochs: that of the union between Aksum and Constantinople in the war against the Jewish state in South Arabia, in the 520s, and that of king Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Here we have to review both.


1. Aksum Zion


Before we turn to the literary sources dealing with the Ark of the Covenant, a few words about the architecture of the Aksumite capital with its religious dominant the Church of Mary called “Mary of Zion”. I will sum up the results of recent diggings and analyses of both literal and oral local traditions (cf. Heldman 1992, 1993).

This Church capital of Aksum is datable precisely to the epoch of the union with Byzantium, that is, the 6th century. This time was the formative epoch of the Aksum state, as it is well testified by the historical sources and the hagiography. Despite their different attitudes toward the Council of Chalcedon, Aksum and Byzantium shared the cults of the same contemporary saints, including not only the martyrs of Nagran, in South Arabia, and their martyr bishop Arethas but even the king of Aksum Ella-Asbeha (Kaleb, or, in Greek, St Elesbaan). The same king Kaleb was the builder of the Church of Mary in Aksum Zion.

This Church was constructed as a new Temple of Solomon in a new Zion. However, there was nothing peculiar to Aksum in such a dedication. Since the very beginning of the Christian state, that is, from the times of Constantine the Great and the earliest Christian states in Armenia and Georgia, it became normal to create a new Christian capital as a “New Jerusalem”. Especially in the 6th century this idea of Translatio Hierosolymi has been renewed in Constantinople: here, the great church of St Sophia created by Justinian in 537 was presented as a new Temple of Solomon. There is a firm Byzantine hagiographical tradition related to this principal shrine of Justinian.

Therefore, the closest ally of Byzantium of Justinian, the Christian Empire of Aksum, has had to posses a Jerusalem and a Temple of Solomon of its own. No wonder. 

The real wonder is the Ark of the Covenant. As such, it disappeared from the Byzantine liturgical practices, replaced by its different substitutes. Some of these substitutes we will mention later. Regardless to these substitutes, in Byzantium the Ark as such disappeared. In Aksum, it did not. Why? How did the Aksumites get their Ark that they put in a sacral chamber near the Church of Mary of Zion, in Aksum?


2. Byzantium in Kəbrä nägäst


 The image of Byzantium in Kəbrä nägäst is ambivalent. However, it is Byzantium and precisely the Church of St Sophia to whose authority Kəbrä nägäst attributes its core narrative about king Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. According to our source, this narrative was found by the patriarch of Constantinople as a manuscript in the Church of St Sophia under the rule of Constantine the Great.

No wonder, again. Any Christian monarch who establishes a new Christian kingdom, such as Aksumite king Kaleb, is to be venerated as a “New Constantine”. Constantine the Great is the ultimate source of legitimacy of many Christian dynasties throughout the world. We have some examples in 6th century Nubia, very close to Aksum.

Therefore, according to Kəbrä nägäst, the origin of the Ark of the Covenant in Aksum is testified by the Church of Constantine the Great.

This is not to say that Kəbrä nägäst considers its contemporary Byzantium as orthodox.

There is a problem of dating the Byzantium and South Arabian (Nagran) stuff of Kəbrä nägäst. In 1976, Irfan Shahîd proposed an early date, that of the 6th century, judging from the dates of the events described (the war of Aksum, supported by Byzantium, against the South Arabian Jewish kingdom of Dhu-Nuwās). I have argued elsewhere (Lourié 2000) for a bit later date, the 7th or even the early 8th century. However, many realities of the 6th century are preserved in Kəbrä nägäst quite well.

Such is the case of the history of the “fall” of the orthodox faith in Byzantium. After holy kings Constantine and Helene, Kəbrä nägäst said, Byzantium continued to be orthodox for about 130 years. Then, it succumbed to the heresy of Nestorius and Hibas of Edessa. The date of this “fall” is, of course, that of the Council of Chalcedon (451) which took place roughly about 130 years after the reign of Constantine. However, this mention of Hibas of Edessa as one of the most principal heretics is a hallmark of the 6th century. In the later Ethiopian historiography the name of Hibas sunk into oblivion, and even in the manuscripts of  Kəbrä nägäst it is corrupted (but recovered by Ignazio Guidi).

Be that as it may, the reference to Byzantium is unable to explain the origin of the ark itself in Ethiopia. Therefore, let us turn to the core legend of Kəbrä nägäst.


3. The core legend of Kəbrä nägäst: king Solomon and the Queen of Sheba


The core legend of Kəbrä nägäst elaborates on the old theme of the meeting between king Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and the following birth of their common son. In our legend, this son has the surname Menelik whose etymology is still unclear, despite several hypotheses of the scholars and popular etymologies in the Ethiopian folklore. However, Menelik’s official name, according to Kəbrä nägäst, is David.

This David will steal (of course, because of a direct revelation from God) the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem to put it in the new Zion in Aksum. In this way, he will become the founder of the Aksumite dynasty of the Solomonides (definitively interrupted only by the communist revolution in 1974) and the founder of Ethiopian Zion. Aksum becomes another “city of David”, like Jerusalem, while of another David, the grandson of the former.

This legend is in basic agreement with different data suggesting that, before the first arrival of the Christianity to Aksum in the 4th century, there was here some kind of Judaism, co-existing with some pagan religion. However, our current methods are unable to differ between the genuine priestly Jewish traditions and their elements within the early Jewish-Christian traditions that might influence Aksum from Alexandria even long before the 4th century.

Therefore, it is difficult to say whether this legend is genuinely Jewish or Jewish-Christian. In its present form, in Kəbrä nägäst, it has some features peculiar to the time of composition of Kəbrä nägäst itself.

For instance, explaining the reasons of giving the Ark to Ethiopia, our legend say about two other sons of Solomon and their lots. The names of these sons are Jeroboam and Adrami, both seem having nothing to do with any Biblical prototype. Origin of these names is unclear (“Adrami” may be a corruption of “Adoram”, cf. 2 Sam 20:24).

The kingdom of Jerusalem will inherit Jeroboam, and to his posterity will be given Theotokos. The kingdom of “Rome” (and so, that of “New Rome”, Byzantium) will inherit Adrami, and to his posterity will be given the Holy Cross. It is interesting here, that the cults of both Theotokos and Holy Cross were modifications of the Old Testament cult of the Ark of Covenant.

Namely, the cult of Theotokos as the true Ark of the Covenant is the main feature of the legend and the feast of the Dormition. This cult of some early Christian origin has been lost somewhere before the early 4th century, but then rediscovered in Jerusalem in the middle of the 5th century.

The cult of the holy wood of the Holy Cross, too, has many features of that of the Ark, sometimes explained in details by such authors as Ephrem the Syrian (in Carmina Nisibena) and Isaac of Nineveh, but clear even in the early legends about finding of the Holy Cross.

Kəbrä nägäst is as if implying that every part of the future Christian universe will inherit an Ark of the Covenant of its own, but, of course, only Ethiopia takes the genuine one.


4. Symbolic meaning of the core legend


Once Kəbrä nägäst explicitly states: “The name of Solomon means, in the mystical language, according to the prophetic interpretation, Christ. In the same way as Solomon constructed the Temple of God, Christ resurrected his flesh and made it Church” (ch. 66).

Christ as the true Solomon is a well known topic going back to early Christian times. Our legend is, therefore, dedicated to the mystical marriage between Christ and Church with the birth of the salvaged faithful… We do know such imagery in the early Christian literature, such as in the Banquet of Methodius of Olympus.

Indeed, we will see that the Queen of Sheba is the image of the Church, but not necessarily the Christian one. The identification between Solomon and Christ may be a Christian actualization of an older identification of Solomon as a messianic figure. In this case, the Queen of Sheba will be the image of the Jewish community, a precursor of the Christian Church.

The key to interpretation of the figure of the Queen of Sheba is her name in Kəbrä nägäst, Makeda. This name is unknown outside Kəbrä nägäst and its derivates.

Since the 19th century until the middle of the 20th century only two hypotheses were predominant: that “Makeda” is a severe corruption of either “Candace” (Acts 8:27) or “Macedonia” (with putative connection with Alexander the Great). My own hypothesis is the third. It takes into account the fact ignored by the two former: that the word “Makeda” is used throughout Kəbrä nägäst also to designate the mount Zion in Aksum, “Mount Makeda”.

Such wording as “Mount Makeda” sounds as reminding of the verse of Exodus (15:17, KJV): “Thou shalt bring them in, and plant them in the mountain of thine inheritance, in the place, O LORD, which thou hast made for thee to dwell in, in the Sanctuary [miqdoš], O Lord, which thy hands have established”. “Sanctuary” is here equated (at least, metonymically, as pars pro toto) with “Mountain”, and the whole verse is certainly meaning the Temple Mount, the Mount of Sanctuary.

Is it possible that Ethiopic “Makeda” is a corruption of Hebrew miqdoš? I think, yes. The Ethiopic form is here a calque from the lost Arabic one, and so, its Ethiopian vocalism is rather arbitrary. The Arabic form must go back to some Egyptian one, ether Greek or Coptic (but, in the latter case, the Coptic is nevertheless a calque from the Greek one). In Greek, any transliteration of miqdoš would suppose the ending –os. But this ending is often dropped in Egyptian Greek (s. Gignac 1976). So, some Egyptian Greek form with consonants m.k.d., passing through Arabic, might result in Ethiopic Makeda.

This possible etymology fits perfectly into the frame of our legend, the holy marriage between Messiah Solomon and the Church-Sanctuary.

If my guess is true, we have an argument for the Jewish background of the Ethiopian legend on the Ark of the Covenant in Aksum and even to attribute the very artifact of the Ark to the Ethiopian pre-Christian Judaism.

Unfortunately, these guesses are not enrooted in a firm ground. It is still very probably that the Ethiopian legend and the whole cult of the Ark in Aksum are of a Jewish-Christian origin. And, in any way, these legends are deeply influenced by many Jewish-Christian traditions of different epochs.



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