The Ark of the Covenant
The Steven Spielberg movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981, finishes with a memorable scene. Throughout the movie, Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford, has been in pursuit of the Ark of the Covenant, the gold-covered wooden chest which, according to the Hebrew Bible, contains the stone tablets with the original version of the Ten Commandments (“Though shalt not kill …” etc.) Avoiding capture by German soldiers, and outsmarting a French competitor, Indiana Jones eventually brings the Ark back to the United States. Not realizing what they have laid their hands on, an overzealous government bureaucrat ships it off to an enormous warehouse where it, presumably, never again will be found.
Compare this story to the one Coptic Christians in Ethiopia tell. The Ark of the Covenant, they insist, is not at all lost, and it is not in a warehouse in the United States. It can instead be found in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, in Axum, in the Tigray province, Ethiopia. It was brought here by Menelik I, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, after he had paid a visit to his father in Jerusalem. And the Ark of the Covenant has been here ever since. Since it is associated with such awesome powers, however, only one person – a guardian monk – is allowed to see it. Our Lady Mary of Zion is nevertheless a place of pilgrimage for members of the Coptic Church, especially during the festivities commemorating Mary on November 30 every year.
There are striking similarities between the Hollywood version of this tale and the Coptic version. In both cases, the Ark is a source of divine power. The divine object, moreover, has been appropriated by an imperial power and brought to the very center of the empire. This feat, moreover, has in both cases been accomplished by a young hero. At the same time, the Covenant is hidden from public view. This does not mean, however, that it has stopped radiating its power. In both cases it continues to provide divine support for the empire and its rulers. Whether the Ark in question actually exists is a far less important matter. It is the myth, conveyed by the legend and the movie, which provides legitimacy to the empire.