Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion

The Church of Our Lady, Mary of Zion[a] is an Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church which is claimed to contain the Ark of the Covenant.

The dome and bell tower of the New Cathedral of Our Lady Mary of Zion.

The church is located in the town of Axum, Tigray Region in northern Ethiopia, near the grounds of Obelisks of Axum. The original church is believed to have been built during the reign of Ezana the first Christian ruler of the Kingdom of Axum (Present-day Eritrea and Ethiopia), during the 4th century AD, and has been rebuilt several times since then. Women are not permitted entry into the “Old Church”; the Blessed Virgin Mary, representing the archetype of the Ark, is the only woman allowed within its premises.[1]



Since its founding during the episcopacy of Frumentius, the first Bishop of Axum, (known in Ethiopia as Abune Selama Kesatie Birhan or "Our Father of Peace the Revealer of Light"); 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 Ibrahim al-Ghazi, after which it was rebuilt by the Emperor Gelawdewos, then further rebuilt and enlarged by Fasilides during the 17th century.[2][3] Francisco Álvares, who was in Ethiopia before its destruction, describes it as follows:

"a very noble church, the first there was in Ethiopia: it is named Mary of Syon. They say that it is so named because its altar stone came from Sion. In this country (as they say) they have the custom always to name the churches by the altar stone, because on it is written the name of the patron saint. This stone which they have in this church, they say that the apostles sent it from Mount Sion. This church is very large; it has five aisles of good width and of great length, vaulted above, and all the vaults closed, the ceiling and sides all painted. Below, the body of the church is well worked with handsome cut stone; it has seven chapels, all with their backs to the east, and their altars well ornamented. It has a choir after our fashion, except that it is low, and they reach the vaulted roof with their heads; and the choir is also over the vault, and they do not use it. This church has a very large circuit, paved with flagstones like the lids of tombs. This consists of a very high wall, and it is not covered over like those of the other churches, but is left open. This church has a large enclosure, and it is also surrounded with another larger enclosure, like the enclosing wall of a large town or city. Within this enclosure are handsome groups of one storey buildings, and all spout out their water by strong figures of lions and dogs of stone [of different colours]. Inside this large enclosure there are two mansions, one on the right hand and the other on the left, which belong to the two rectors of the church; and the other houses are of canons and monks."[4]

The church of Saint Mary of Zion was the traditional place where Ethiopian Emperors came to be crowned. Which indeed meant 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".[5][6][7]

The church is a significant center of pilgrimage for the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, especially during the “Festival of Zion Mariam” on 30 November (21 Hidar on the Ethiopian calendar).

Tigray War


In mid-December 2020 during the Tigray War, according to Europe External Programme with Africa (EEPA), 750 people who were hiding in the church were brought out and killed by militants. Locals suspected an intention to steal the Ark of the Covenant, but no evidence of that allegations has been found to date.[8][9]

A more recent report by Amnesty International points to war crimes committed by Eritrean troops in and around Aksum, and de facto desacralisation of the church, but these reports have not been confirmed by independent investigation or by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.[10]

The Ethiopian government has blocked forensic investigators from accessing the church grounds.[citation needed]

Ark of the Covenant

The Chapel of the Tablet.
Painting of the Nine Saints (not all in photo) of the Ethiopian Church, as depicted on the mural in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.

The Church of Saint Mary of Zion claims to contain the original Ark of the Covenant.

Accordingly, 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 inner sanctum. The Ethiopian Empress Menen funded the construction of the new present chapel.

According to pious tradition, the Ark came to Ethiopia with Crown prince Menelik I after he visited his father King Solomon in Jerusalem.[citation needed]

On 9 June 1992, a former professor of Ethiopian Studies at the University of London, Edward Ullendorff, declared that he personally examined the ark contained within the church in 1941 while serving as an officer of the British army. He described the ark as empty, and a “Middle- to late-medieval construction [from] when these were fabricated ad hoc."[11][12]

At present, only the guardian monk may view the Ark,[13] 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 Ethiopians and foreign scholars alike to express doubt about the veracity of the claim.[14] 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.[citation needed] 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.[15]




  1. ^ Ge'ez: ርዕሰ አድባራት ቅድስተ ቅዱሳን ድንግል ማሪያም ጽዮን, romanized: Re-ese Adbarat Kidiste Kidusan Dingel Maryam Ts'iyon; Tigrinya: ቤተ-ክርስትያን እመቤትና ማርያም ጽዮን, romanized: Bet-Kristiyan 'Embetena Mariyam Ts’iyon; Amharic: የእመቤታችን ማርያም ጽዮን ቤተ ክርስቲያን, romanizedYe’Imebētachin Mariyam Ts’iyon Bēte Kirisitīyan


  1. ^ "Sacred Sites of Ethiopia and the Arc of the Covenant". Archived from the original on 19 August 2016. Retrieved 26 August 2016.
  2. ^ UNESCO World Heritage Centre. "Aksum - UNESCO World Heritage Centre". Archived from the original on 21 June 2016. Retrieved 26 August 2016.
  3. ^ "Microsoft Word - EOTC - English version.doc" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 29 April 2017. Retrieved 26 August 2016.
  4. ^ Alvarez (1881). Narrative of the Portuguese Embassy to Abyssinia During the Years 1520-1527. Hakluyt society.
  5. ^ Paul Raffaele. "Keepers of the Lost Ark? | People & Places | Smithsonian". Archived from the original on 18 August 2016. Retrieved 26 August 2016.
  6. ^ Carillet, Jean-Bernard; Butler, Stuart; Starnes, Dean (2009). Ethiopia & Eritrea - Jean-Bernard Carillet, Stuart Butler, Dean Starnes - Google Livres. Lonely Planet Publications. ISBN 9781741048148. Archived from the original on 8 August 2016. Retrieved 26 August 2016.
  7. ^ "en_070" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 15 April 2016. Retrieved 26 August 2016.
  8. ^ Hundreds reportedly dead after massacre at Oriental Orthodox church in Ethiopia, Catholic News Agency
  9. ^ Massacre ‘of 750’ reported in Aksum church complex, Tigray, Ethiopia, Church Times
  10. ^ "Eritrean troops massacre hundreds of civilians in Axum, Ethiopia". 26 February 2021.
  11. ^ Hiltzik, Michael (9 June 1992). "Documentary : Does Trail to Ark of Covenant End Behind Aksum Curtain? : A British author believes the long-lost religious object may actually be inside a stone chapel in Ethiopia". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 24 October 2019. Retrieved 24 October 2019.
  12. ^ Jarus, Owen (7 December 2018). "Sorry Indiana Jones, the Ark of the Covenant Is Not Inside This Ethiopian Church". Live Science. Archived from the original on 1 October 2019. Retrieved 24 October 2019.
  13. ^ "Smithsonian magazine investigates the Ark". Archived from the original on 19 October 2014. Retrieved 15 October 2014.
  14. ^ Ethiopian skepticism of the claims to the Ark have been documented since at least the 15th century. See:
    • Pennec, Hervé; Boavida, Isabel; Ramos, Manuel João, eds. (2013). Pedro Páez's History of Ethiopia, 1622. Ashgate Publishing. p. 122. ISBN 9781409482819.
    • Haile, Getachew, ed. (2003). The Geʻez Acts of Abba Esṭifanos of Gwendagwende. Leuven: Peeters. p. 47. ISBN 978-90-429-1740-8.
  15. ^ "L'Arche d'Alliance en Ethiopie ?". Archived from the original on 30 October 2016. Retrieved 26 August 2016.

Other sources

  • Stuart Munro-Hay (2005), The Quest for the Ark of the Covenant, Ch. 6

14°07′49″N 38°43′10″E / 14.13028°N 38.71944°E / 14.13028; 38.71944