MedianewsSunday March 3 LONDON – Like another famous swashbuckling treasure hunter, he has a fear of snakes.He’s not averse to associating with mystics, charlatans and crooks in his quest forprized artifacts. But unlike his fictional alter-ego, the “British Indiana Jones” claims he’sdiscovered the genuine Ark of the Covenant – or at least a direct descendant ofthe vessel constructed to hold the original tablets inscribed with the TenCommandments.
In a newly released book, University of London Professor Tudor Parfitt claims tohave located the treasured artifact on a dusty shelf of an out-of-the-way museumin Harare, Zimbabwe. “It was just by chance that I finally managed to track it down to a storeroom inHarare, was able to analyze it and discover that quite apart from anything else,it’s quite probably the oldest wooden object in sub-Sahara Africa,” saidParfitt, an expert in Oriental and African Studies.
“It’s massively important in terms of history, even apart from its status as thelast surviving link to the original Ark of Moses.”
In his HarperCollins’ book, “The Lost Ark of the Covenant: Solving the 2,500Year Old Mystery of the Fabled Biblical Ark,” Parfitt describes traipsing aroundthe globe, decoding ancient texts and deciphering numerous clues to locate theenigmatic object.
Along the way, the man dubbed the “British Indiana Jones” by friends, colleaguesand the Wall Street Journal uncovered genetic evidence confirming claims by theLemba tribe that they are descendants of ancient Israelite priests, thecaretakers of the lost Ark. Among a host of similarities with the Israelites,the Lemba priests have been the guardians of the ngoma lungundu, a sacred butunassuming wooden drum they say came from the “great temple in Jerusalem.”
Based on radiocarbon testing dating it to 1350 A.D., Parfitt believes areplacement was constructed from a piece of the original ngoma, which legendsays destroyed itself or was destroyed in a pyrotechnic explosion.
But some Bible scholars, archaeologists and Ark experts are skeptical ofParfitt’s claims and even of the existence of the Ark. Others say the ngomacould be one of multiple replicas constructed in ancient times.
Still others say the description of the drum is a far cry from the gold-coveredArk of the Covenant described in Exodus complete with its golden cherubim. J. Edward Wright, a professor of Hebrew Bible and early Judaism at theUniversity of Arizona, conceded it’s possible the Babylonians may have strippedthe gold from the Ark after invading Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The Ark is believedto have disappeared from the temple in Jerusalem about that time.
In the ensuing 2,500 years, many treasure seekers have risked their lives andfortunes trying to locate it. And many claims have been made about the locationof arguably the most important religious artifact in history.
“The most dominant theory has to do with the St. Mary of Zion Church in Aksum,Ethiopia,” said Beatrice Lawrence, an instructor at Hebrew Union College-JewishInstitute of Religion in Los Angeles. “The theories abound, but there is noevidence to support any theory over the other.”
Grant R. Jeffrey, author of “The New Temple and the Second Coming” and 24 otherbooks, said Jewish writings and the Ethiopian Royal Chronicles indicate areplica of the Ark was made before the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem.
The original, they say, was hidden in Ethiopia until 1991, when it wastransported to Israel. The Temple Institute, a group of orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem dedicated torebuilding the temple, claim the Ark is safely stored in a hidden chamber underthe Temple Mount complex, according to the institute’s Web site.
Meanwhile, the Sanhedrin Court, the only religious body authorized to determinethe correct location of the temple, reconvened in 2005.
And renowned biblical archaeologist Vendyl Jones, who claims to be theinspiration for the fictional Indiana Jones, is trying to raise $88,000 toreturn to Qumran to remove 40 stones blocking entrance to an inner cave where hebelieves the Ark and other temple treasures are located. If the Ark is found and authenticated, biblical scholars say it would be one ofthe most important archaeological discoveries in history.
“I suppose if they found it, it would be on par with something like thediscovery of the treasures of King Tut,” said William M. Schniedewind, aprofessor of biblical studies and northwest Semitic languages at the Universityof California, Los Angeles.
Parfitt, whose work tracking down the lost tribes of Israel has been featured on“60 Minutes” and the BBC, began to suspect the Lemba tribe possessed the Arkafter attending a tribal ceremony in 1987.
At the time, tribal leaders told him about the ngoma, which they said wasguarded by the white lions of God and a two-headed snake inside a nearbymountain cave.
Over the next two decades, Parfitt traveled from Israel to Egypt, Ethiopia andthe ruins of Great Zimbabwe in search of the ngoma and its secrets. Heencountered a cannibalistic tribe in Papua, New Guinea, was ambushed and shot atin Africa and narrowly escaped being kidnapped by Islamic outlaws in Yemen.
He experienced a major breakthrough in 1999 when he took DNA samples from 136male members of the Lemba tribe. In a finding that drew worldwide publicity, agenetic analysis confirmed they were descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses.
In 2001, Parfitt returned to the Dumghe Mountain cave, but he didn’t find thengoma. He was later told the ngoma had been moved, and he kept searching.
Finally, based on a tip about the transport of artifacts in war-ravaged areasand using a photo of the ngoma taken by a missionary scholar in the 1940s,Parfitt located the sacred object in a storeroom in the Harare Museum of HumanScience in Zimbabwe.
The wooden drum had a blackened hole in the bottom and the shattered remnants ofwooden rings on each corner. Parfitt also noticed a carved, interlaced patterndescribed in the biblical Book of Exodus.
While the ngoma is still stored at the museum in Harare, Parfitt is concernedthe highly valuable artifact may once again disappear in a nation plagued byviolence and corruption. Parfitt, who was inspired to search for the Ark by a friend, hopes the discoverywill bring peace.
“My friend Reuven is a very peaceful man and something of a mystic andvisionary,” Parfitt said. “His whole excitement about the Ark was based on theidea that the Koran talks about it as being in some way a symbol of legitimacyfor Israel. He was always convinced before his death if it was ever found thatsomehow the Ark might pave the way for peace in the Middle East.”