The man who says he has the lost Ark

In the Bible, it could be seen only by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies. Anyone who lay an unauthorised finger upon it would instantly drop dead. It was the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, where it vapourised its Nazi captors.

Now a British academic believes he has unravelled the mystery behind one of antiquity’s most sought-after objects — the lost Ark of King Solomon’s Temple.

Tudor Parfitt, professor of Hebrew at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, has located an object he believes could be the successor to the original Ark.

Found in a dusty storeroom of the Museum of National Sciences in Salisbury, Zimbabwe, the item is a ngoma, a sacred drum made of wood. According to oral tradition, it was carried from Israel by the Lemba, a South African tribe who believe they are descendants of Jews from the Middle East.

The extraordinary discovery is related in Professor Parfitt’s new book The Lost Ark of the Covenant, an adventure story which takes him across the world, including to Papua New Guinea, where he meets the Gogodala, a python-eating tribe of ex-cannibals who also claim to be Jewish.

DNA research has traced the Lemba’s origins to the Middle East. More remarkably, a genetic marker largely found only in Cohanim, descendants of the ancient Jewish priesthood, is present in the same proportions among the Lemba’s own priests, known as the Buba.

The ngoma, Professor Parfitt told the JC, is “embedded in an oral tradition which has repeatedly been proven to be pretty accurate against all the odds. The Lemba said they were from the Middle East and no one believed them, but the genetics proved that they were. They said they were Jewish, and again, the genetics demonstrated they most probably were.

“They also claim to have come in a boat as a group of seven, and again that was proven by genetics to be absolutely spot on. These are all very good confirmations of the general accuracy of their oral tradition.”

According to that tradition, “they brought with them the original ngoma which they say is the Ark, which looks and acts like the Ark. The story was that it self-destructed, it burst into flames in the courtyard of the king. From the ruins of this destroyed Ark, they constructed a new one.”

The author of previous books on the Lemba and lost Jewish tribes, Professor Parfitt was struck by resemblances between Lemba traditions of the ngoma and the biblical account of the Ark. Like the Ark, the ngoma was carried on poles, never allowed to touch the ground, protected by priests, linked with fire and noise, carried into battle and of similar size and shape to the wooden Ark of Moses in Deuteronomy.

But Professor Parfitt believes that the biblical Ark was not quite what it appears. It was a drum-like object which doubled as a primitive cannon, releasing a kind of early, perhaps saltpetre-based explosive. “The Ark did blast things,” he said. “It was a kind of weapon, it is obvious from the text.”

According to some apocryphal Jewish traditions, the Ark was whisked away from Jerusalem by priests to a secret location before the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in 587 BCE. Accepting that his hypothesis “cannot be absolutely robust”, he said that “parts of it are quite solid. If you accept the Ark may have gone into Arabia, if you accept that the regular Islamic Arabian references to it may have some historical basis, and if you connect those with the Lemba oral tradition, there is a storyline, a kind of history, scratched from very little.”

Carbon-testing has now dated the ngoma he discovered in Salisbury last year to around 1350CE, making it the oldest wooden object found from sub-Saharan Africa. That tallies with the Lemba story of a new Ark constructed after the explosion of the original.

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