The next day I tried again, led by a friendly priest to the gate of the ark chapel, which is about the size of a typical suburban house and surrounded by a high iron fence. "Wait here," he said, and he climbed the steps leading to the chapel entrance, where he called out softly to the guardian.
A few minutes later he scurried back, smiling. A few feet from where I stood, through the iron bars, a monk who looked to be in his late 50s peered around the chapel wall.
"It's the guardian," the priest whispered.
He wore an olive-colored robe, dark pillbox turban and sandals. He glanced warily at me with deep-set eyes. Through the bars he held out a wooden cross painted yellow, touching my forehead with it in a blessing and pausing as I kissed the top and bottom in the traditional way.
I asked his name.
"I'm the guardian of the ark," he said, with the priest translating. "I have no other name."
I told him I had come from the other side of the world to speak with him about the ark. "I can't tell you anything about it," he said. "No king or patriarch or bishop or ruler can ever see it, only me. This has been our tradition since Menelik brought the ark here more than 3,000 years ago."
We peered at each other for a few moments. I asked a few more questions, but to each he remained as silent as an apparition. Then he was gone.
"You're lucky, because he refuses most requests to see him," the priest said. But I felt only a little lucky. There was so much more I wanted to know: Does the ark look the way it is described in the Bible? Has the guardian ever seen a sign of its power? Is he content to devote his life to the ark, never able to leave the compound?
On my last night in Aksum, I walked down the chapel road, now deserted, and sat for a long time staring at the chapel, which shone like silver in the moonlight.
Was the guardian chanting ancient incantations while bathing the chapel in the sanctifying reek of incense? Was he on his knees before the ark? Was he as alone as I felt? Was the ark really there?
Of course I had no way of answering any of these questions. Had I tried to slip inside in the darkness to sneak a look, I'm sure the guardian would have raised the alarm. And I was also held back by the fear that the ark would harm me if I dared defile it with my presence.