For centuries, people have tried in vain to locate and recover the Bible's most sacred objects. Among the most sought-after of these religious antiquities is the famed Ark of the Covenant.
This legendary artifact is the ornate, gilded case said to have been built some 3,000 years ago by the Israelites to house the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. Biblical accounts describe the Ark as large, about the size of a 19th-century seaman's chest, made of gold-plated wood, and topped with two large, golden angels. It was carried using poles inserted through rings on its sides.
The Ark has been linked to several of the Old Testament's miracles. It is said to have cleared impediments and poisonous animals from the path of the Israelites during the Exodus. When the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, the Bible says that the river stopped flowing the moment the Ark-bearers set foot in it.
And many believe that when the Israelites besieged Jericho, they carried the Ark around the city for a week, blowing trumpets until, on the seventh day, the walls fell down, allowing easy conquest. (This is what archaeology is telling us about the real Jesus.)
But in 597 and 586 B.C., the Babylonian Empire conquered the Israelites, and the Ark, at the time supposedly stored in the Temple in Jerusalem, vanished from history. Whether it was destroyed, captured, or hidden–nobody knows.
One of the most famous claims about the Ark's whereabouts is that before the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, it had found its way to Ethiopia, where it still resides in the town of Aksum, in the St. Mary of Zion cathedral. Church authorities, however, say only one man, the guardian of the Ark, is allowed to see it, and they have never permitted it to be studied for authenticity.
Another claim is that the Ark was hidden in a warren of passages beneath the First Temple in Jerusalem before the Babylonians destroyed it in 586 B.C. But that theory can't be tested either, because the site is home to the Dome of the Rock shrine, sacred in Islam. Digging beneath it simply isn't an option.
Other more dubious claims exist, too. But perhaps the most famous quest for the Ark was on the big screen. In the 1981 movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, adventure hero Indiana Jones must find the Ark before the Nazis, who intend to use its power for world domination.
Searches for such biblical relics are compelling, says archaeologist and National Geographic Society fellow Fred Hiebert, but ultimately doomed to failure. Even if there is an ancient, Ark-like object in Ethiopia, he asks, how do you determine it's the one from the Bible?
"We are talking about things [at] the crossroads between myth and reality," he said. "I think it's great to have stories like [that of] the Ark of the Covenant. But I do not believe, as a field archaeologist, that we can use the scientific method to prove or disprove [them]."