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During a recent visit to the Holy Land, our guide, who was well-versed in archeological credibility, was asked about the Ark of the Covenant and prevailing notions of where it is. It is his belief that the Ark remains where it was in its early days: the Old City of Jerusalem, buried under a site holy to both Jews and Muslims: the Temple Mount; it is also important to Christianity.

It is the most logical answer. It is not the only one. More on that in a moment.

The Ark, of course, is the vessel designed directly under orders from God to Moses into which were placed the tablets (or remnants) inscribed with the Ten Commandments.

This is explained in Exodus 25, which says the Lord ordered the Ark to be built with acacia wood that was then overlaid with gold (exterior and interior). A pole was to be inserted through four rings to carry it and it was decorated -- again, under specific orders from God -- with angels -- cherubim (putting to the lie claims that images representing heavenly entities constitute idolatry).

About four feet by two-and-a-half feet, and two-and-a-half-feet-deep, the Ark was carried by priests during the Jews exodus from Egypt.

It is believed to have contained Moses' staff, the first Torah scroll, Aaron's rod, and a vase with some of the manna, along with the pieces of the original tablets (which Moses of course had broken) -- making it the holiest conceivable relic, save perhaps for the Shroud of Turin and authentic pieces, if they are verified, of Christ's Cross. One can only imagine the power.

It is what caused waters to part when the Israelites crossed the Jordan and was likewise carried seven times around the city of Jericho, causing the walls of that city to collapse and granting the Israelites victory.

Confiscated at one point by the Philistines, the Ark is believed to have traveled to cities such as Ashdad, Gilgal, and Shiloh during its long history -- until it disappeared, mysteriously, after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylonians nearly six hundred years before Christ was born. It had been brought to Jerusalem by King David, who built a tabernacle for it and whose son Solomon housed it at the first Temple in that famous, sacred room known as the "Holy of Holies".

While that temple was destroyed centuries before the birth of Christ, a subsequent temple was erected at what most believe was the site of the original.

This is the Temple that Jesus prophesied would also be destroyed and it was located at Temple Mount or what the Muslims -- now in control of a mosque there -- call the "Dome of the Rock."

According to some sources, notes the Jewish Virtual Library, Josiah, one of the final kings to reign in the First Temple period, learned of the impending invasion of the Babylonians and hid the Ark. Where he hid it is also questionable. According to one tradition (or "midrash"), he dug a hole under the wood storehouse on the Temple Mount and buried it there.

Another account says that Solomon foresaw the eventual destruction of the Temple and set aside a cave near the Dead Sea, in which Josiah eventually hid the Ark -- this object with inconceivable spiritual ramifications.

Other possible current locations include:

-- Mount Nebo (see 2 Maccabees 2:4-7), where the Prophet Jeremiah hid the Ark of the Covenant in a cave at this spot in Jordan from which it is said Moses viewed the Promised Land.

-- the Basilica of John Lateran in Rome -- the Pope's church.

-- the Hill of Tara in Ireland, brought there by what some thought was the "lost tribe of Israel."

-- Chartres Cathedral in France, fifty miles west of Paris, where the Knights Templars were rumored to have transported the Ark after the Crusades and where there is a relic said to be the tunic Mary wore at Jesus' Birth.

Some even tried to say it was brought from southern France during World War One to America.

The most popular alternate to Jerusalem is an Orthodox Church at Axum in the east-central African nation of Ethiopia, not far from the border with Eritrea. The alleged object is currently kept under guard in a treasury [left] near the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion and is used occasionally in ritual processions. The claim here is that the Ark was brought by Menelik, believed to have been the son of Solomon and the first Jewish emperor of Ethiopia, while a forgery was left at the Jerusalem Temple.

On June 25, 2007, the Orthodox patriarch of Ethiopia said he would unveil the true Ark, but the next day rescinded the promise and said only that he could vouch for its current status. Had the patriarch been smitten -- chastised -- as others in history have been when they sought to move it or touch it or unveil it? It is in the news of late; a leaky roof at the site has some wondering if this alleged relic will be moved during repairs.

Others claim the Lemba people, an ethnic group from Zimbabwe, brought it to South Africa.

But the guess from here -- especially considering the history, and all the incredible tension over this spot -- is that the Ark is indeed buried somewhere at Temple Mount -- so hot a spot, in fact, that many believe a third Temple will one day be built there, announcing the end times; both Israelis and Palestinians claim sovereignty over it; it is a central reason for conflict; it is certainly a spot so holy to both Jews and Muslims (Mohammed was said to have ascended from here) that any destruction or confiscation or reconstruction could provoke a nuclear war. Moreover, some even postulate that it colocated with the original Mount Zion. It is a spot where some Jews believe the world was created and expanded into its current form. Due to the extreme political sensitivity of the site, no real archaeological excavations have even been conducted on the Temple Mount itself. According to the Jewish library, an archaeologist named Leen Ritmeyer claims to have found the spot on the Mount where the Holy of Holies was located during the First Temple period. "In the precise center of that spot is a section of bedrock cut out in dimensions that may match those of the Ark," we are told.

And we don't know anything about that.

What we do know is that at the Mount are caves, reservoirs, and chambers that can't be excavated due to destruction it would cause to the holy site. One, known as Cistern 1 (located under the northern side of an upper platform) is speculated to have had a function connected with the altar of the Second Temple (and possibly of the earlier Temple). There are also vaulted rooms that have not been searched. Some of the caves run for miles.

It's a good guess -- the best guess -- that the Ark is somewhere below in such a chamber or cave. For certain: the spiritual force attached to such a relic would be difficult to imagine, as would the ramifications of its discovery. In the Christian era, the Blessed Mother stood as an "ark" when her womb held the Child. Carrying the Savior of mankind, she became the new "Holy of Holies," as revealed near Old Jerusalem at Bethlehem.

[Further note: The oldest known complete version the Ten Commandments, from the Dead Sea scrolls -- which were themselves found in a cave (at Qumrum) -- will be on rare display in New York City between December 15 and January 3 at the Discovery Times Square exhibit. After that, it will be returned to a protective vault in Jerusalem and may never be publicly exhibited again.]

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