Editor’s note: In this fourth part of a series, “The Searchers,”
Corbett looks at the connection between the Black Jews of Ethiopia, known as the
Falashas, and the Ark of the Covenant.
When 17,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted from the slums of Addis
the pristine air of Tel Aviv during Operation Solomon in May 1991, it
evoked strange stories, particularly that the Falashas had escaped with
Ark of the Covenant from St. Mary of Zion church in Aksum.
However, as much as the Ethiopian Jews would have savored taking the
coveted religious object back to Jerusalem, the powerful Ethiopian
Church, not the ostracized Falashas, were in control of security of the
“terrible, golden container,” which had been taken out of Solomon’s
From the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indy’s professorial skills
begin to shine here:
INDY: The Ark of the Covenant, the chest the Hebrews used to carry
the Ten Commandments in.
EATON: What do you mean “The Ten Commandments”? You mean the Ten
INDY: Yes, the actual Ten Commandments. The original stone tablets
Moses brought down out of Mount Horeb and smashed, if you believe in
sort of thing. (The men were impressed but impassive).
INDY: Either you guys go to Sunday School?
MUSGROVE: Well, I, I?
INDY: Now, look, the Hebrews took the broken pieces and put them in
Ark. When they settled in Canaan, they put the Ark in a place called the
Temple of Solomon.
BRODY: In Jerusalem.
INDY: Where it stayed for many years. Until, all of a sudden, whoosh,
INDY: Well, nobody knows where or when.
In the late Louis Rapoport’s extraordinary book, “The Lost Jews,” he
the connection between Beta Israel and the Ark:
RAPOPORT: “The Ark is the ‘pivot round which the Abyssinian Church
revolves,’ according to Lake Tana explorer R.E. Chessman. There is a
replica of the Ark, called the tabot, in every Ethiopian church, which
represents the original Ark of shittim wood that contained the stone
tablets Moses brought from Mount Sinai. Every year the Christian priests
take out the replica during the Feast of Timkat, or Baptism. (In 1999,
Timkat was celebrated in Aksum on Tuesday, Jan. 19). As the Ark passes,
the people prostrate themselves before it. Ethiopian priests, who
are the Levites’ successors — the Falasha priests claim to be the
descendants — still dance as David did before the tabot. For the legend
the Ark is the cornerstone for the priests’ claim that Ethiopians were
elect of God — in place of the Jews, who had rejected the “messiah” –
and, therefore, the Ark was in their custody.
“How do the Beta Israel refer to the Ark? The Ark’s power to defeat
Israel’s enemies is commemorated in one Falasha prayer: And it came to
pass when the Ark set forward that Moses said, ‘Rise up, Lord, and let
enemies be scattered.’ And in the Apocalypse of Baruch, which is
in the Falasha liturgy, it is related that ‘God raised up
who captured ‘Zion’ — the Ark, whose wood was like a white pearl
multi-colored images, according to the vision of the 14th century
“One Beta Israel story, recorded in the 19th century by a Protestant
missionary, says the Christians did place the Ark in Aksum, but “only
a Falasha approaches it does the wall before it open up, whereupon he
prostrates himself in front of the Holy Ark.
“The Falashas’ belief in the Ark’s powers led them to march unarmed
Aksum in 1862, where they prayed the walls of the cathedral holding the
would tumble down and they would then take it back to Israel, where it
belonged. They were laughed at and beaten, and many died on the road.”
During the Corbett-Harron expedition in November 1990, although the
were demolished leading from the capital of Addis Ababa to the north and
the search for the Ark had been canceled, the trail was still warm,
knowing that the Black Jews were still in the country.
Most sources told us that thousands were still abandoned in the Lake
Tana-Gondar areas, barely surviving while Ethiopia was being laid waste
armies from the north, central and the south.
On the last day in the war zone, Harron and I were almost ready to
our search for these forgotten peoples.
Then a miracle happened on Nov. 15, 1990, when we celebrated Sigd,
Ethiopian Jews’ day of prayer to return to their homeland, Israel, and
freeing of the Jews from Babylonian captivity. It’s a celebration unlike
any other in Ethiopian or Jewish history.
CORBETT’S DIARY: Thursday, Nov. 15, 1990, ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia:
“As we drove through the weaving traffic, we reached the Asmera road,
which seemed to be blocked off and Sherry Yano (with CPAR — Canadian
Physicians for Aid and Relief) was told by one of the few traffic cops
I’d seen in Addis, that the road was off-limits because of a celebration
at the Israeli
“So parking the land cruiser, we started walking along the road,
with people going to and fro with many children in their Sunday best,
with women with great umbrellas and long, white dresses, and
“Everyone had a wide smile on their faces and there was an
“Even the youngsters were different.
“I kept my vidcam recording this scene, and while the kids were
they allowed the three of us to be part of their celebration walk.
“On the side of the hill, guarded by what I knew to be an Israeli
the white-robed throng poured through the gates from the embassy, well
hidden in the trees.
“Their lilting voices lifted into heaven.
“I felt a part of these radiant people.
“As we walked along, we inquired about where the leaders’ compound
was, and first a smiling man and then a young boy pointed the way.
“Just then a small car pulled up and two of Sherry Yano’s friends
“They, too, had a radiant look.
“One young woman, Jody, in a white wrap-a-round, and she, too, was
bubbling about the celebration on the Israeli embassy grounds and how
she had joined in dancing with thousands of Falashas.
“The small car now held all five of us as we turned down a narrow
and stopped in front of a locked compound.
“Stepping through a narrow gate opening, I saw at least 100 men,
women and children in their finest clothing, sitting alongside a neat
feasting on injerra and other typical Ethiopian food; chatting away, but
didn’t feel out of place.
“Lyle and I were introduced to Andy (I was to learn later his last
Goldman), a tall, twentysomething man from just outside Washington,
who was with the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry with their
headquarters in New York City.
“Andy said he preferred to be anonymous because this was such a
issue, so I called him Andy No-Name because he didn’t mention his
in any conversation. And I didn’t ask.
“Others were just as hesitant, even to the edge of paranoia.
“Walking up the steps to the living quarters of the neat bungalow, a
in a brightly colored dress, was sopping injerra in a bean mixture –
– and was offering me a bite.
“In crowded rooms there were the celebrants. Andy No-Name led us to
particular room, slowly opening the door and there were a dozen Falasha
“There were 14 altogether in the small room. One was a woman and one
teenage boy, who was, undoubtedly, a server of the special boiled meat
the rites of the animal slaughter earlier in the day.
“No one said a word as I moved my vidcam around the room, but there
was no noticeable annoyance at an intruder in their inner circle.
“After leaving this sacred area, I passed through a roomful of women,
sitting on the floor drinking tea, and as I moved through I kicked a
full of cups and quickly apologized for my big feet.
“They laughed and nodded at me.
“In the rear of the bungalow were more housing quarters with a dozen
families in one spacious room. There appeared to be a sense of unity and
purpose even in such cramped quarters.
“Then Andy No-Name asked me to sit down on a pile of leaves and we
talk, without the vidcam rolling.
“He explained the hardships of the Ethiopian Jews from the war-torn
of Gondar and Lake Tana, but there were survivors and they all wanted to
to Israel and they had, in small numbers.
“Then it was a good thing I was sitting down, for when I asked how
Falasha Jews were in this one place in Addis, he replied: “About 22,000.
There are between one and two thousand still remaining in Gondar.” Did
say 22,000? I had heard him correctly and no doubt within a couple of
months’ time, all the Falasha Jews — Beta Israel — in Ethiopia would
all in one place, ready to go home to Israel.”
The 1990-1991 drama of the civil war was forever overshadowed on
Friday-Saturday, May 24 and 25, when Israel airlifted thousands of
Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa in a lightning operation before the
closed in on the capital.
The 21-hour airlift of about 17,000 Falashas was launched in secrecy
military censors barring all news reports from Israel until after the
plane took off from Addis.
Military sources said the ‘Lost Jews’ were flown out in 30 unmarked
civilian and air force planes, under the code name, Operation Solomon.
first great airlift in 1984 had been dubbed Operation Moses.
However, the greatest regret was they had left behind the Ark of the
Covenant, still “resting” in a church in the northern town of Aksum.
NEXT: Graham Hancock’s bestseller details his search for the Ark and
other searchers such as Roy Wyatt and Vendyl Jones.
P.S. In October, 1999, Corbett will lead a new expedition to Aksum.
you’d like to join him as a team member, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org