Monday, November 1, 2010


The Mystery of the Lost Ark: Part 10

The Jews on Elephantine Island, in the land of Syene, were shocked by the news of their impending doom.  Their leader, Hananiah, summoned the Elephantine council of seventy to discuss their dilemma.  “We have gathered here today in the very temple that the great pharaoh, Psammetichus II, permitted our ancestors to build.  After Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Solomons temple and the city of Jerusalem, Jeremiah the prophet commanded our forefathers to transport the Ark of the Covenant to this temple for safekeeping.  Our fathers befriended the Persian kings.  When Cambyses conquered Egypt, he destroyed all the Egyptian temples but left our temple unscathed. He even recruited our fathers as mercenaries.  But now the Persians threaten to destroy our entire race.  Moreover, Persian law will not allow Hamans proclamation to be rescinded.”

Meanwhile, a short distance away, another type of meeting was being held.  The chief priest of the temple, devoted to the worship of the Egyptian ram god, was stirring up a frenzy among his followers. The Jews on Elephantine were his rivals and he was licking his chops in anticipation of their annihilation.  

They are foreigners who commit acts of blasphemy against the mighty Khnum,” raved the chief priest.  “Their practice of sacrificing sacred sheep has violated our temple and offended the all powerful ram god.  Khnum has passed judgment and his sentence is death, the extermination of the Jewish race!  At long last, my brethren, our religion has been vindicated.

And the congregation chanted, Kill the Jews!  Death to the foreigners!

Back at the Jewish temple, the council of seventy discussed a number of proposals.  After much deliberation, they voted on a course of action.  Hananiah announced their decision to all the Jewish citizens on the island.  We have been entrusted with the physical embodiment of Gods presence on earth.  Should we move the Ark to the temple in Jerusalem so it will no longer be a burden on our shoulders?  We think not.  The Ark would surely be jeopardized if we moved it to a Jerusalem devoid of walls.  Remember, all pockets of Judaism are the target of Hamans decree and the Holy City is not exempt.  We have decided that our only recourse is to move the Ark out of Egypt and beyond the borders of neighbouring Kush, Persias southernmost satrapy. 
“Our most able-bodied seamen will transport the Ark upstream to a destination somewhere above the Niles sixth cataract.  This voyage will require sailors of superior strength and stamina.  The Nile’s cataracts are unforgiving.

“We have also voted unanimously to defend our homes.  Therefore most of us will remain on the island.  We are prohibited from openly defending ourselves because our adversaries are protected by law but there are more subtle methods of defence.  Ultimately, we will rely on the God of our fathers to deliver us from our enemies.”   

Hananiah was appointed to lead the expedition up the Nile.  He chose boats that were 10.2 metres long, 2.3 metres wide, and a metre deep.  They were made of imported Lebanese cedar.  These vessels were equipped with two masts and sails of heavy, woven linen.  They had ten oars and a paddle in the stern, connected to a tiller, for steering.  Each boat had the capacity for eleven men with enough cargo to supply them for a hundred days.

In Egypt, where no canals existed between a shipbuilding site and the river or sea, boats were built and then dismantled and carried piecemeal to the waters edge where they were reassembled.  Hananiahs vessels had that distinction.  It was essential that they were portage-worthy in view of the dangerous voyage that lay ahead.   


  1. A passage from a letter dated November 25, 407 BC which was sent to the Persian governor of Judah by the Jewish garrison on Elephantine Island: “And during the days of the king of Egypt our fathers had built that temple in Elephantine the fortress and when Cambyses entered Egypt he found that temple built. And they overthrew the temples of the gods of Egypt, all (of them), but no one damaged anything in that temple.” (translated by B. Porten & J.C. Greenfield)

  2. The king, mentioned in the above passage, was Psammetichus II who recruited Jewish mercenaries in 593 BC during his triumphant campaign against the king of ancient Ethiopia. (The Letter of Aristeas 13)

  3. There is archaeological evidence of a Jewish temple on Elephantine. Jewish temples were not synagogues. A temple was built for the express purpose of housing the Ark of the Covenant.

  4. For a more in depth look at the chain of events described in the first paragraph of this article, click The Times of the Persians on the sidebar. Be sure to read my notes and references which are published under comments.