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A huddle grows around the high priests, with one young priest bearing an ikon, or holy picture, while others hold ornate gold and silver crosses. (Paul Raffaele)

Keepers of the Lost Ark?

Christians in Ethiopia have long claimed to have the ark of the covenant. Our reporter investigated

He also mentioned that the ark had not been held continuously at Aksum since Menelik's time, adding that some monks hid it for 400 years to keep it out of invaders' hands. Their monastery still stood, he said, on an island in Lake Tana. It was about 200 miles northwest, on the way to Aksum.

Ethiopia is landlocked, but Lake Tana is an inland sea: it covers 1,400 square miles and is the source of the Blue Nile, which weaves its muddy way 3,245 miles through Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt to the Mediterranean. At the outlet where the water begins its journey, fishermen drop lines from primitive papyrus boats like those the Egyptians used in the pharaohs' days. I glimpsed them through an eerie dawn mist as I boarded a powerboat headed for Tana Kirkos, the island of the ark.

Slowly the boatman threaded his way through a maze of tree-covered islands so dense that he began to wonder aloud whether we were lost. When, after two hours, we suddenly confronted a rock wall about 30 yards high and more than 100 yards long, he cried, "Tana Kirkos" with obvious relief.

A fish eagle circled and squawked as a barefoot monk clad in a patched yellow robe scurried down a pathway cut into the rock and peered into our boat. "He's making sure there are no women aboard," my translator said.

The monk introduced himself as Abba, or Father, Haile Mikael. "There are 125 monks on the island, and many are novices," he said. "Women have been banned for centuries because the sight of them might fire the young monks' passions."

Another monk, Abba Gebre Maryam, joined us. He, too, wore a patched yellow robe, plus a white pillbox turban. A rough-hewn wooden cross hung from his neck, and he carried a silver staff topped by a cross. In response to my questioning, he elaborated on what Abuna Paulos had told me:

"The ark came here from Aksum for safekeeping from enemies well before Jesus was born because our people followed the Jewish religion then," he said. "But when King Ezana ruled in Aksum 1,600 years ago, he took the ark back to Aksum." Ezana's kingdom extended across the Red Sea into the Arabian peninsula; he converted to Christianity around A.D. 330 and became hugely influential in spreading the faith.

Then Abba Gebre added: "The baby Jesus and Mary spent ten days here during their long exile from Israel." It was after King Herod ordered the death of all boys under the age of 2 in Bethlehem, he said. "Would you like to see the place where they often sat?"

I followed him up a wooded path and onto a ridge where a pair of young monks were standing by a small shrine, their eyes closed in prayer. Abba Gebre pointed to the shrine. "That's where Jesus and Mary sat each day while they were here."

"What proof do you have that they came here?" I asked.

He looked at me with what appeared to be tender sympathy and said: "We don't need proof because it's a fact. The monks here have passed this down for centuries."

Later, Andrew Wearring, a religious scholar at the University of Sydney, told me that "the journey by Jesus, Mary and Joseph is mentioned in only a few lines in the Book of Matthew—and he gives scant detail, though he does state they fled into Egypt." Like its former parent institution the Orthodox Coptic Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox faith holds that the family spent four years in western Egypt, Wearring said, in the Nile Valley and the Nile Delta, before returning home. But western Egypt is over 1,000 miles northwest of Lake Tana. Could Jesus, Mary and Joseph have traveled to Tana Kirkos? There's no way to know.

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