The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion is the most important church in Ethiopia, and claims to contain the Ark of the Covenant. It is located in the town of Axum in the Tigray Province. The original church is believed to have been built during the reign of Ezana, the first Christian emperor of Ethiopia, during the 4th century AD, and has been rebuilt several times since then.
The dome and bell tower of the new Cathedral of Our Lady Mary of Zion, built by Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1950s
Since its founding during the episcopacy of Frumentius the Church of Mary of Zion has been destroyed and rebuilt at least twice. Its first putative destruction occurred at the hands of Queen Gudit during the 10th century. Its second, confirmed, destruction occurred in the 16th century at the hands of Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi, after which it was rebuilt by the Emperor Gelawdewos, then further rebuilt and enlarged by Fasilides during the 17th century.
St. Mary of Zion was the traditional place where Ethiopian Emperors came to be crowned. And indeed, if an Emperor was not crowned at Axum, or did not at least have his coronation ratified by a special service at St. Mary of Zion, he could not be referred to by the title of "Atse".
In the 1950s the Emperor Haile Selassie built a new modern Cathedral that was open to both men and women next to the old Cathedral of Our Lady Mary of Zion. The old church remains accessible only to men, as Mary, symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant allegedly resting in its chapel, is the only woman allowed within its compound.
The church is a significant center of pilgrimage for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, especially during the main Festival of Zion Maryam on 30 November (21 Hidar on the Ethiopian calendar).
Ark of the Covenant
St. Mary of Zion claims to contain the original Ark of the Covenant. Reportedly, the Ark was moved to the Chapel of the Tablet adjacent to the old church because a divine 'heat' from the Tablets had cracked the stones of its previous sanctum. Emperor Haile Selassie's wife, Empress Menen, paid for the construction of the new chapel.
According to tradition, the Ark came to Ethiopia with Menelik I after he visited his father King Solomon. Only the guardian monk may view the Ark, in accordance with the Biblical accounts of the dangers of doing so for non-Kohanim. This lack of accessibility, and questions about the account as a whole, has led foreign scholars to express doubt about the veracity of the claim. The guardian monk is appointed for life by his predecessor before the predecessor dies. If the incumbent guardian dies without naming a successor, then the monks of the monastery hold an election to select the new guardian. The guardian then is confined to the chapel of the Ark of the Covenant for the rest of his life, praying before it and offering incense.
In popular culture
The claims concerning the ark have appeared in many documentary series such as History channel's Ancient Aliens. Also, it has been the subject of books such as The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant by Graham Hancock released in 1992, along with two books written by Stuart Munro-Hay entitled The Ark of the Covenant: The True Story of the Greatest Relic of Antiquity and The Quest for the Ark of the Covenant: The True History of the Tablets of Moses released in 2000 and 2006 respectively. Also most recently, A Prophetic Look at Ethiopian Jews from a Nubian Perspective: Their Connection to the Ark of the Covenant was released in 2014 an independent author known under the pen name of "Queen of Sheba".
Tekle Giyorgis I, in the churchyard