Did the Ark of the Covenant really exist? Baruch Halpern, a Penn State professor of ancient history says it’s plausible for a variety of reasons. But don’t go grabbing your pick axe and launching your own expedition just yet. He cautions, “You have to remember why this scripture was written in the first place, and see the Ark’s symbolic power to people as a sacred object. If you try to over-explain it, you lose the power of the story.”
Whose story? Oh right, the Bible’s, the Torah’s and the Quran’s. That’s great. But most of us in the U.S of A. were raised on a different version of the Ark lore. We were raised on Raiders of the Lost Ark.
So what parts, if any, did Spielberg and crew get right?
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the back story on the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant is that an Egyptian Pharaoh named Shishak looted the Temple of Solomon and took the Ark to a lost city called Tanis.
Taking a lost object to a lost city is potent movie magic for sure, but it’s also steeped in some real history. Some. In fact, Tanis was rediscovered,
in real life (in 1939,) by a French archeologist – just like the movie! No, his name wasn’t Belloq. It was Pierre Montet. Oh, and they didn’t find the Ark there, but they did find some other cool stuff.
From National Geographic:
The tombs held dazzling funereal treasures such as golden masks, coffins of silver, and elaborate sarcophagi. Other precious items included bracelets, necklaces, pendants, tableware, and amulets.
Statues, vases, and jars also filled the tombs, all part of an array that still bears witness, after thousands of years, to the power and wealth of Tanis’s rulers.
One of the kings, Sheshonq II, was unknown before Montet discovered his burial chamber. But he wore elaborate jewelry that once adorned the more famous Sheshonq I, who is mentioned in the Bible.
“That shows you that [the kings of Tanis] were very important at least during that time period,” Silverman said of the biblical reference.
But why did Lucas, Spielberg and company latch on to the whole Shishak thing in the first place? Well, it’s because Shishak’s historical claim to infamy is derived from the Biblical account of his looting of Solomon’s Temple. Yet there is no reference to the Ark being among the treasures taken, in the Bible or otherwise. And this is where the word “lost” gets attached to “Ark of the Covenant.” But is it likely that Shishak took it? Let’s consider that.
The Ark was the most significant spiritual object in Judaism; besides carrying the Ten Commandments, which were the foundation of Jewish law, it was also a “radio to God,” as Belloq so eloquently put it to Indiana Jones in Raiders.
Still, in the real world, history’s silence on the Ark’s whereabouts is compelling, leading most scholars to believe it was hidden before
Shishak swept through the lands of Israel and Judah. After all, I’d probably file a police report if you stole my T.V., let alone my Ark of the Covenant. Most scholars agree the ancient Israelites would’ve done the same.
Well of Souls
Another bit in Raiders that made the Ark too cool for school was its connection to the evocatively named “Well of Souls.” This was also nabbed from the pages of history, but the movie took a bit of license. (Specifically, in Raiders, it was supposedly in Egypt.)
Here we find a tasty intersection of fact and legend. The Well of Souls is spiritually similar to the Kabbalistic (Jewish mysticism) tradition of the Guf, a place where souls gather, as if in a well. But in real life, the physical location of the “well” has been discovered. No, I’m not making this up. It’s just that cool. The Well of Souls is in Jerusalem, and depending on the current political/religious climate in the Holy City, you may even be allowed to enter.
I know, right?
But why do people think this is the spot to assign such mystic significance? For instance, the Guf of mystic legend is supposedly in another dimension, so why would people conflate it with an earthly location?
Quite simply, history. Specifically, oral tradition and scripture. Islam, Judaism and Christianity all recognize the area around the Well of Souls as a spiritual “hot spot,” a place where God or angels have repeatedly interacted with humankind.
Stop here for a second. Name any location on earth where you can go to the exact spot where scripture says God or angels have been said to interact with humankind. Not just Christian scripture. But Jewish and Islamic as well. You might imagine burning bushes, mountain tops, wildernesses, and other equally “lost” locations. In other words, Christians, Jews and Muslims might agree that Moses talked to God at the top of Mt. Sinai, but not the exact spot. Mt. Sinai is a pretty big place, after all.
Why is this so cool? Because it is one of those rare places in three major world religions where scholars agree something supernatural has
happened repeatedly. Imagine what might be accomplished, for better and for worse, if people could just get past the friction of their fanatical beliefs long enough to allow some scientific testing of the area. A project like that would have fascinating potential.