Biblical Ark of the Covenant in Zimbabwe

The news reports that the long-lost Biblical Ark of the Covenant has been found in Zimbabwe has re-ignited interest in its guardians – the Lemba tribe.

But where does fiction finish and fact begin? “Until the story of the hunt is told by the lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” African proverb.

What’s claimed to be an ancient replica, a direct descendant of the Biblical Ark of the Covenant went on display at Harare’s Museum of Human Science,  Zimbabwe, February 2010.

An opening ceremony was held to mark the exhibition of the ‘Ark’ otherwise known as Ngoma Lungundu (The drum of the ancestors), Government ministers attended.

Can it be The Ark, as some experts have claimed? And how could it have ended up in Zimbabwe?

Detail from an Ark illustration by Gerard Hoet

But first…

Why is the Ark still important, still talked about?

According to the Bible, the Ark of the Covenant contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the word of God. The Ark had power – Kings consulted it, people were forbidden to look at it.

It played a part in the Battle of Jericho – helping to knock down a city wall. Later, when captured by the Philistines it broke a statue of their God Dagon and made the Philistines ill, giving them hemorrhoids or maybe tumors.

So the Philistines sent it back to the Israelites. The Ark was set in the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite. Unfortunately, the men of Bethshemesh were curious:

“And he smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men: and the people lamented, because the LORD had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter.”

It was placed in King Solomon’s Temple. In 586 BC, the Babylonians entered Jerusalem and destroyed Solomon’s Temple. The Ark of the Covenant was lost.

The 'Ark’ - Ngoma Lungundu

But the Ark is an object of fascination and importance to many, so stories of its survival have circulated for two thousand years or so. In recent times the hugely popular movie Raiders of the Lost Ark renewed public interest.

In 2008 scholar Tudor Parfitt popularised one of the lesser known Ark stories. In his ‘The Lost Ark of the Covenant’ book he told us that the ancestors of the Lemba people of South Africa and Zimbabwe  carried the Ark away from Jerusalem then hid it in Africa.

Is there any truth to Tudor Parfitt’s tale?

Tudor Parfitt is Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at the school of Oriental and African Studies in London. His life’s work has been about tracking down the lost tribes of Israel in Africa and Asia. He’s a respected academic.

The Lemba people are  black Africans, based in Zimbabwe,  who claim Jewish ancestry. Their story is not new – in the 1950’s missionary Von Sicard wrote about the Lemba – but it is fascinating.

The Lemba seem to follow many Jewish customs, including; circumcision, not eating pork and Lembas are encouraged to marry within their own tribe of 80,000 or so.

Using new technology, Tudor and other researchers have proved that the Lemba’s stories about their Jewish past may have a basis in fact.  Genetic tests confirmed that the Lemba are physical descendants of the lost tribe of Israelites known as the Cohen.

This may sound suprising, but see the links below for more information about the African Jews – many tribes claim Jewish connections.

So the Lemba have Jewish origins, but are they guardians of the Ark?

In Lemba oral tradition stories relate that they carried a vessel, their Ngoma Lungundu (The drum of the ancestors), into Africa from a great temple in Jerusalem. Ngoma Lungundu was found by Von Sicard in the 40’s, and then lost.

Three years ago, on a forgotten shelf in a museum Tudor rediscovered the Ngoma Lungundu and had a fragment carbon dated. He   says the vessel was built almost 700 years ago and may have included the remains of the original Ark.

In his earlier book written about the Ngoma Lungundu, Von Sicard examined the parallels between the Ngoma Lungundu story and the Old Testament story of the Israelite Ark of the Covenant.

Tudor Parfitt

But Tudor has gone further and drawn criticism for suggesting that the drum may be an Ark or at least a direct descendant of the vessel constructed to hold the original tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments.

Critics remind him that Biblical accounts do not suggest the Ark resembles a drum. Paul Hubbard from the Prehistory Society of Zimbabwe rejected Tudor’s claims on the basis that  Tudor’s ‘Ark’ that resembles a drum is actually a drum – a sacred Venda African drum and does not have Jewish origins.

Talking to the Today programme in the USA, Tudor said: “A fair person would say there really is something here”.

Tudor may really be onto something… but maybe it’s not Ark shaped. Drums are revered objects in many cultures.


The tale of the Lemba and the Ark tells us that:

Ancient cultures travelled more widely than modern cultures may realise. That if you want to pass knowledge down the ages, frown on marriage outside of your tribe.

That PR coups and movie-tie ins help academics to sell books. And that sometimes, stories dismissed as myth can turn out to be true. Extrageographic Magazine


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