So what changed? Well, ancient astronaut theorists like Erich von Däniken started probing the Bible for miracles that might be interpreted as technological wonders, and the Ark’s ability to zap people dead fit the bill. This, in turn, inspired Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who had read Chariots of the Gods, and they drew from it in developing Raiders of the Lost Ark. Once the Indiana Jones movie popularized the Ark, the floodgates opened and suddenly everyone from Graham Hancock to Scott Wolter to Evangelical adventurers started hunting the Ark everywhere from Jerusalem to Ethiopia to America.
And now Justin “Baron Ambrosia” Fornal and Emiliano Ruprah have added their flailing efforts to three decades of failure in another futile quest to find the Ark. To do so, they apparently bought a used copy of Graham Hancock’s The Sign and the Seal and recreated his journey to Ethiopia in search of the Ark. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen a cable documentary do exactly the same thing. We saw it on a 2016 episode of Forbidden History, a 2013 episode of Ancient Aliens, and I know that there were a few stand-alone specials I’ve seen over the years, though their titles escape me.
To hunt the Ark, our heroes use a map they claim had been drawn by the geographer al-Idrisi (though, since they use only old sources, they pronounce his name as El Edrissi, following Victorian standards). The map shown on screen, however, is in English, a strange miracle considering al-Idrisi was a Moroccan Arab working in Norman Sicily. The map is a nineteenth century historical reference map of Egypt and the Middle East. I have a copy of it in one of the books on my bookshelf. I have seen it many a time. It is most certainly not al-Idrisi’s world map, of which only six medieval or early modern copies exist, most made centuries after the original had been lost. I’ve worked with digital scans of al-Idrisi’s map many times, especially in tracing the history of the Mountains of the Moon and in translating the geography section of the Akhbar al-zaman, so I know it well. They are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT MAPS. For being a supposed map “expert,” Fornal is a lying asshole who is either utterly ignorant of his topic or happy to fabricate evidence for the cameras without concern for the audience.
For comparison, I provide at left (or at top if you are reading this on your phone) the map shown on TV and at right a 1456 copy of al-Idrisi’s 1154 map:
Our heroes declare Egypt to be Israel’s “one true ally,” which I imagine is a surprise to the Jews, for whom Egypt was the historical enemy from the Exodus as well as one of the great powers that worked to destroy the Kingdom of Judah in their battle with the Babylonians. Judah suffered as a vassal of Egypt, according to the Biblical account, though this could occasionally be used to help counter Assyrian and Babylonian incursions, at least until Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem. They at least got right the fact that many expelled Jews from the diaspora did escape to Egypt, but only because it was the enemy of their enemy, not because Egypt was their “one true” friend. This, of course, depends on how much credence you give the Biblical history.
Our friends examine the case of the Elephantine papyri, which established that a Jewish settlement had been established by the Achaemenid (Persian) pharaohs on Egypt’s Elephantine Island in the 600s BCE, but these papyri do not directly establish immigration from Jerusalem after Nebuchadnezzar a century later, nor do they mention the Ark. Our heroes visit Elephantine and gawk in awe at its ruins, and in so doing they subtly transition from asking if the Jews brought the Ark to Elephantine to assuming that they did and then asking where they would have taken it next to escape the Babylonians that they claim were chasing them. This part isn’t true. The Babylonians hadn’t invaded Egypt since 605 BCE, and the Elephantine temple was destroyed in 410, during a dispute over land with people living nearby. They are creating a dramatic narrative of Babylonian menace where one doesn’t exist. The Persians were still in charge.
In explaining their reasoning for assuming that the Jews headed to Ethiopia, they rely on what they call Ptolemy’s world map, but they show a 1482 reconstruction based on Ptolemy’s Geography. Everything about this segment is basically wrong. The Jews of c. 400 BCE were certainly not using Ptolemy’s world map in any form. The 1482 version used here is 1,800 years too late, but Ptolemy himself developed his geography around 150 CE, some 550 years after the events our blundering hosts are attempting to retrace. After a commercial they admit that Ptolemy’s map originated in 150 CE, but somehow, they are OK with conflating 400 BCE and 150 CE, revising their analysis to allege that the Ark left Egypt “at some point,” without specifying when that might be. The show also cheerfully elides the complex history of Jews and Christians in Ethiopia, happily assuming that the audience will not question why a Jewish relic is now in Christian hands, since the audience will likely accept unhesitatingly the suggestion that Christianity inevitably replaced Judaism and succeeded to its divine mysteries.
The men visit the island of Tana Qirqos, an island in Lake Tana, which has appeared in many previous Ark-hunting documentaries. It’s an old religious settlement where supposed relics of the Ark, including the altar of the Ark and the priest’s breastplate, are storied. Nothing is different on this visit except that with each new documentary claiming “outsiders” are forbidden to visit and no one can see the artifacts, the collection of idiots who have been let in to film grows and the credibility of the monks hiding inside declines. Really, how sacred can it be if any nutjob with cash can come and take pictures? Our idiots are slack-jawed, believing themselves in the presence of Biblical treasures, questioning nothing, though the writers for the show dutifully forced Fornal to say “locals believe” before their extreme claims.
Our heroes visit Axum to stand in awe before the church where the Ark is kept, and they act like this is a shocking revelation. As I mentioned, the Victorians wrote about it without apparent interest, and I’ll add that the Coptic clergyman Abu Al-Makarim mentioned it in his History of Churches and Monasteries around 1200 CE. Today, the Ethiopians claim that the Ark is too sacred for anyone to see, but in medieval times that wasn’t the case. Abu Al-Makarim saw it taken out for a religious ritual, or else had a report from someone who had:
The Abyssinians possess also the Ark of the Covenant, in which are the two tables of stone, inscribed by the finger of God with the commandments which he ordained for the children of Israel. The Ark of the Covenant is placed upon the altar, but is not so wide as the altar; it is as high as the knee of a man, and is overlaid with gold; and upon its lid there are crosses of gold; and there are five precious stones upon it, one at each of the four corners, and one in the middle. The liturgy is celebrated upon the Ark four times in the year, within the palace of the king; and a canopy is spread over it when it is taken out from [its own] church to the church which is in the palace of the king…. (Fol. 105a-106b, trans. B. T. A. Evetts).
So, anyway, that’s what’s apparently in the church in Axum, though whether the original or a copy, there is no way to tell. The Ethiopians did, however, have a golden box, apparently. But our heroes believe that the Ethiopians are liars who were “clever” and created propaganda to make people think that the Ark is in Axum when in reality they have hidden it in a church carved into the side of a mountain 1,500 years ago. They climb the mountain, complaining of the difficulty of the climb, though the observant viewer would note that the cameraman had no difficulty preceding them up the rock face to film them. At the top of the mountain, they visit the rock-cut church, which is interesting and beautiful on its own, but which has no relationship to the Ark. The whole adventure was a huge waste of time.
Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum conclude that the Ark is likely hidden “somewhere close,” though they decline to provide any reasoning for this “gut” feeling. Even though the holy men in the church explicitly told our heroes that the Ark is not there, they nevertheless end the show by triumphantly announcing that they had discovered “a brand-new location [where] the Ark may have been hidden” and ludicrously claiming that their failed pseudo-documentary has paved the way for the Ark to “someday be found.”
Long and short of it: (a) The supposed location of the Ark has been commonly known since medieval times. (b) Basically, nobody in the West cared until Indiana Jones made the Ark popular again. (c) Cable TV hosts have done a worse job “finding” the Ark than medieval priests. (d) I have seen more or less this exact same episode at least four times, and I wish that cable would get off its lazy ass and stop remaking the same shows over and over again. (e) If you are going to make it anyway, at least pretend like you give a shit about the facts you are pretending to use. I can’t fathom why the production company would spring for an all-expenses paid trip to Egypt and Ethiopia and then fake all the evidence that brought them there. The whole conceit of the show is maps, so I expected that the MAPS would be one thing they would actually get right.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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