On the way back to the boat, we passed small log huts with conical thatched roofs—the monks' cells. Abba Gebre entered one and pulled from the shadows an ancient bronze tray set on a stand. He said Menelik brought it from Jerusalem to Aksum along with the ark.
"The Jerusalem temple priests used this tray to collect and stir the sacrificial animals' blood," Abba Gebre went on. When I checked later with Pankhurst, the historian said the tray, which he had seen on an earlier visit, was probably associated with Judaic rituals in Ethiopia's pre-Christian era. Lake Tana, he said, was a stronghold of Judaism.
Finally, Abba Gebre led me to an old church built from wood and rock in the traditional Ethiopian style, circular with a narrow walkway hugging the outer wall. Inside was the mak'das, or holy of holies—an inner sanctum shielded by brocade curtains and open only to senior priests. "That's where we keep our tabots," he said.
The tabots (pronounced "TA-bots") are replicas of the tablets in the ark, and every church in Ethiopia has a set, kept in its own holy of holies. "It's the tabots that consecrate a church, and without them it's as holy as a donkey's stable," Abba Gebre said. Every January 19, on Timkat, or the Feast of the Epiphany, the tabots from churches all over Ethiopia are paraded through the streets.
"The most sacred ceremony occurs at Gonder," he went on, naming a city in the highlands just north of Lake Tana. "To understand our deep reverence for the ark, you should go there."
Gonder (pop. 160,000) spreads across a series of hills and valleys more than 7,000 feet above sea level. On the advice of a friendly cleric, I sought out Archbishop Andreas, the local leader of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. As Andreas ushered me into a simple room in his office, I saw that he had the spindly frame and sunken cheeks of an ascetic. Despite his high position, he was dressed like a monk, in a worn yellow robe, and he held a simple cross carved from wood.
I asked if he knew of any evidence that the ark had come to Ethiopia with Menelik. "These stories were handed down through the generations by our church leaders, and we believe them to be historical facts," he told me in a whisper. "That's why we keep tabots in every church in Ethiopia."
At noon the next day, Andreas, in a black robe and black turban, emerged from a church on a slope above Gonder and into a crowd of several hundred people. A dozen priests, deacons and acolytes—clad in brocade robes in maroon, ivory, gold and blue—joined him to form a protective huddle around a bearded priest wearing a scarlet robe and a golden turban. On his head the priest carried the tabots, wrapped in ebony velvet embroidered in gold. Catching sight of the sacred bundle, hundreds of women in the crowd began ululating—making a singsong wail with their tongues—as many Ethiopian women do at moments of intense emotion.
As the clerics began to walk down a rocky pathway toward a piazza at the center of town (a legacy of Italy's occupation of Ethiopia in the 1930s), they were hemmed in by perhaps 1,000 more chanting and ululating devotees. At the piazza, the procession joined clerics carrying tabots from seven other churches. Together they set off farther downhill, with the trailing throng swelling into the thousands, with thousands more lining the road. About five miles later, the priests stopped beside a pool of murky water in a park.
All afternoon and through the night, the priests chanted hymns before the tabots, surrounded by worshipers. Then, prompted by glimmers of light sneaking into the morning sky, Archbishop Andreas led the clerics to celebrate the baptism of Jesus by playfully splashing one another with the pool's water.
The Timkat celebrations were to continue for three more days with prayers and masses, after which the tabots would be returned to the churches where they were kept. I was more eager than ever to locate the original ark, so I headed for Aksum, about 200 miles northeast.
Just outside Gonder, my car passed Wolleka village, where a mud-hut synagogue bore a Star of David on the roof—a relic of Jewish life in the region that endured for as long as four millennia, until the 1990s. That was when the last of the Bet Israel Jews (also known as the Falasha, the Amharic word for "stranger") were evacuated to Israel in the face of persecution by the Derg.