Tuesday, November 2, 2010

And Some from the Land of Syene

The Mystery of the Lost Ark: Part 12

In the fourth century AD, Ethiopia was part of the Axumite Empire.  Ezana, their king, became a Christian in 331 AD.  Shortly thereafter, Ethiopia adopted Christianity and built the Church of Saint Mary of Zion, in the city of Axum.  The Ark was taken from Tana Cherkos and placed in Axum’s flagship church. 

Ethiopian Jews, called Falashas, were dominated for centuries by the Christian and Muslim majorities.  As the prophet Jeremiah predicted, they became victims of the sword, famine, and disease.  Pariahs, they dubbed themselves, “the lost tribe of Israel." 

There is no shortage of people around the world claiming Judaic roots.  (For example, the 5,000 black Jews of Zimbabwe claim to be one of the lost tribes of Israel.)  Most claimants remain unrecognized by Israel because there is a lack of conclusive evidence to substantiate their claims.  However, the Israeli government, through their chief rabbi, successfully traced the origin of Ethiopian Jews to the land of Syene and then to Palestine.  Thus, at 4 PM on May 24, 1991, the Israeli Secret Service began Operation Solomon.  Thirty-six hours later, 14,325 Ethiopian Jews, snared in the horrors of civil war, were airlifted to safety in the land of Israel. 

Over 2500 years earlier, Isaiah the prophet foresaw the return of scattered Jews, and most particularly those from the land of Syene, to the resurrected nation of Israel.

Thus says the Lord:
“In a time of favour I answer you,
 on the day of salvation I help you,
 To restore the land
 and allot the desolate heritages.
“I will cut a road through all my mountains,
 and make my highways level.
“See, some shall come from afar,
 others from the north and the west,
 and some from the land of Syene.”

                                     Isaiah 49:8,11,12

Today, the Ark is hidden in the sanctuary chapel, annex to the Church of St. Mary of Zion, in the city of Axum.  The sanctuary, named the Chapel of the Tablet, is located within a fenced compound which is guarded 24/7 by an armed detachment of local militia.  Like the high priest of biblical times, only one man is allowed to enter the sanctuary and approach the Ark.  This man is chosen by his predecessor based on his absolute purity of heart.  The Ark is reputed to have killed men who were unworthy to set foot on the chapel’s holy ground.  Once chosen, this Christian monk may never leave the church grounds for his sole purpose is to serve as guardian of the planet’s holiest of holy objects.

Many believe, at an appointed time, the Ark of the Covenant will be revealed and the dazzling light of God’s presence will appear in a cloud as it did in the time of Moses, King Solomon, and Hananiah.


  1. The official Hebrew version of the Holy Scriptures of Judaism is called the Masoretic Text. The MT’s oldest copy of the Book of Isaiah is dated to 900 AD. The mysterious place in Isaiah 49:12 called “sinim,” when written in the corresponding letters of the English alphabet, had long been a topic of curiosity. Was it Persia, a province in Babylon, a state in the Far East, or the city of Sin mentioned in the Book of Ezekiel? Then in the middle of the twentieth century, archeologists discovered the Dead Sea scrolls. Among the scrolls was a copy of Isaiah dated to 100 BC. It is the oldest copy of Isaiah in existence. The Great Isaiah Scroll unravelled the identity of the mysterious place called Sinim. It was identified as the ancient city of Syene, located in Upper Egypt just below the Nile’s first cataract. Syene was the ancient name of modern day Aswan.

  2. The land of Syene: Originally, Syene was the name of the marketplace on Elephantine Island. It then became the name of the port located across the Nile from Elephantine. For a long time, the two were treated as one and Syene was considered a suburb of Elephantine. It is unknown in what period Syene began to grow at Elephantine’s expense.

  3. Some have questioned the validity of Syene as the mysterious place in Isaiah’s prophecy. The context of Isaiah’s prophecy suggests a remote place at the southern or perhaps eastern extremity of the known world. Most likely, Isaiah foretold of a people coming “indirectly” from the land of Syene. The Elephantine Jews, who were born in the land of Syene, moved to the remote area in and around Lake Tana which was beyond the southern extremity of the Persian Empire. Kushiya was Persia’s southernmost satrapy. Assuming it extended as far south as the 3rd cataract, Lake Tana was more than 1,500 miles south of the Persian border by way of the Nile proper and the Blue Nile.

  4. Scriptural references: Isaiah 43:5-6; Zephaniah 3:10

  5. The Isaiah passage was taken from the New American Bible, St. Joseph Edition, published 1970.

  6. In ancient times, the Delta area was known as Lower Egypt and the area south of the Delta was called Upper Egypt. The terms were based on elevation rather than latitude. Hence, even though Aswan is north of the 1st cataract, it is often described as just below the 1st cataract based on elevation.