Zimbabwe “Ark of the Covenant” Unveiled

Last year, the Daily Express ran a wonderful headline:

Has Mugabe Stolen the Lost Ark?

According to the paper:

The decayed wooden object ­lying neglected on a shelf in a museum storeroom didn’t look like anything too exciting. But for Tudor Parfitt, Professor of Jewish Studies at London’s School of African and Oriental Studies, its discovery was the culmination of a search that had taken him more than 20 years.

The professor was convinced that this object, which resembled a damaged, ancient African drum, was in fact the lost Ark of the Covenant.

….But now, almost a year later, Parfitt is worried. Since the publication of his book and the broadcast of the documentaries, the whereabouts of his intriguing discovery are once again unknown. Parfitt says he has been told by sources close to family members of the autocratic Zimbabwean president Robert ­Mugabe that the object is now in the possession of one of Mugabe’s relations, perhaps even Mugabe himself.

Parfitt had identified a cult object – the Ngoma Lungundu – belonging to the Lemba, an ethnic group claims Judaic descent (a claim backed by their customs and by DNA evidence). The object was dated to the fourteenth century, but Parfitt suggests it was modelled on an older object. Although it looks far less impressive than the Ark as described in the Bible, Parfitt has an explanation:

…In Deuteronomy Moses describes how he builds the Ark himself out of Shittim wood, now more commonly known as red acacia, a tree that grows on Mount Sinai.

But Exodus suggests that a much more elaborate, golden Ark was built by Bezalel, Moses’s chief architect and craftsman. Parfitt has found other sources in ancient Hebrew Rabbi texts that suggest this more elaborate golden Ark was built later and mostly kept in the Temple, perhaps once the tablets had been transferred into it.

…”The golden one made by Bezalel was ceremonial and was only ever taken to battle once, when disaster befell it and it was captured, as ­described in Samuel.”

Alas for Parfitt, however, Mugabe appears to have been displeased by the suggestion that he’s an Ark thief; the Zimbabwe Standard reports that he declined to attend a ceremony at which the Ngoma Lungundu was unveiled:

The professor at the University of London’s prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies may have raised Mugabe’s ire after accusing him of looting the Ngoma Lungundu from the Museum of Human Sciences two years ago.

…When he made his own inquiries, Parfitt’s sources told him the vessel was no longer in the museum but in the President’s personal treasure chest.

Parfitt said he later learnt that the Mugabes had not taken the object, but for security reasons, it had been placed in a government vault. This was after he had put the allegations in black and white.

“I am sorry for that. I asked the Vice-President (John Nkomo) to facilitate a meeting with the President. I really wanted to say sorry.

“It would also have been good for me to meet him because he is a historian.”

I haven’t read Parfitt’s book, although I did see a TV documentary he made on the subject and I wasn’t quite convinced. Of course the Biblical text, like any other historical document, needs to be assessed critically, but Parfitt’s method of chosing which bits to take literally and which bits to reinterpret seemed rather arbitrary. He rightly points out that it is difficult to imagine desert refugees creating an ornate golden Ark, but were the Israelites ever really desert refugees anyway? I can see how there might have been simple Ark-like object venerated by Israelites in the pre-State period, whether or not there was a historical Moses in the desert, and that this might have been replaced by a far more ornate object when the First Temple was established. But the Lemba trace their history back to Yemen about 2500 years ago – that means that they were Jews who had drifted there during either the Babylonian Exile or later, during the Second Temple Period. That’s centuries after the First Temple had been built; why would they have a unique unembellished tradition about what the Ark was supposed to look like, let alone the object itself? And why is there no account or tradition of Yemenite Jews ever having had either the Ark or a replica?

But these are just amateur musings, and such scepticism is not particularly welcome in Zimbabwe just now; the RFI reports that:

Zimbabwe’s director of National Museums Godfrey Mahachi says that the fact that the relic has been found here places Zimbabwe in a very special position.

Ten years of political turmoil has scared the tourists away, but authorities hope the Ark, and the World Cup in June, could bring them flocking back.

Two fought-over cult objects for the price of one!