Lost Biblical treasures have long held a certain mystique and an air of impenetrable mystery. They provide a somewhat irresistible combination of the allure of lost, ancient artifacts, mixed with a healthy dose of curiosity, romantic notions of faraway exotic lands, and the mystery of whether these relics ever even existed at all. Among such treasures, certainly one that has proven to be one of the most well-known and highly sought after is the fabled Lost Ark of the Covenant. For centuries the quest for this enigmatic artifact has drawn adventurous souls to far flung locales, so far to no avail, but what if the Ark at some point ended up in a land vastly removed from its origins in the Middle East and with virtually no connections to the Christian and Jewish religions that its history is so heavily imbued with? What if it ended up in the far-east country of Japan? As we shall see, sometimes the place where these artifacts end up could possibly be the last place anyone would imagine.
The fabled Ark of the Covenant is perhaps best known to most as the Nazi face melting MacGuffin from the popular film Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it is an actual artifact with a long tradition of mystery. The Ark itself was an ornate, gold gilded chest that held the stone tablets onto which had been written the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God. The Ark was said to be built around 3,000 years ago based on plans that were revealed in a vision from God Himself that Moses had while Israel was camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai. The Book of Exodus says that after the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, Moses was called to the top of Mt. Sinai by God and was given two tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, after which he later received his vision outlining the design of the Ark in order to transport the tablets. The Ark is said to be made up of intricately gold plated acacia wood, and to be adorned with a crown of pure molded gold and two large, golden angels. The Bible describes its dimensions as approximately 131×79×79 cm or 52×31×31 inches. The Ark was carried with the use of two poles that were put through four rings arranged at its four feet.
Far from being merely a vessel in which to carry the tablets, the Ark was believed to be the throne of God, and that wherever it went, He went as well. The Ark was only carried by priests, and was always concealed from view by blue cloth and lamb skins, and not even the priests themselves were allowed to look upon it. The Israelites carried the Ark with them during their 40 year trek across the desert, during which it was usually carried around 2,000 cubits in front of their army, and it proved to be a powerful weapon in their plight.
There are numerous accounts of the Ark unleashing its alleged mighty powers. In 1,400 BC, when Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan River into The Promised Land, the Ark is said to have caused the waters to stop flowing and dry out, allowing them all to pass unhindered. On another occasion, the Israelites besieged the city of Jericho, with God commanding that the Ark be carried around the perimeter of the city once a day for seven days while blowing on trumpets crafted of ram horns. On the seventh day, the Israelites gave out a thunderous shout, and the once formidable walls of the city of Jericho spectacularly collapsed to the ground, allowing the Israelites to enter.
The Ark would go on to be used against the Philistines in battle, with the hopes that this powerful weapon would help the Israelites ultimately win. However, God had not ordered the Israelites to go to war with the Philistine army, and was displeased that the Ark would be used without His consent. Subsequently, the Israelites lost the war and the Ark was captured by the Philistines, who hoped that they would now be able to harness its vast holy powers. Unfortunately for them, rather than a great ally, the Ark proved to be a curse upon them, causing misfortune wherever it went, such as disease and even a plague of mice. After seven months of the Ark bringing them nothing but misery, the Philistines returned it to the Israelites and it was taken to the village of Beth-shemesh. Here it would once again display its power when a large group of curious villagers decided to look upon it and were immediately struck down by its wrath.
The Ark would ultimately end up in Jerusalem, where it was housed in a temple built by King Solomon. In 587 BC, the Babylonians descended upon the city, destroying everything in their path, including Solomon’s Temple, where the Ark was kept. It is not known what happened to the Ark of the Covenant after this, and it has through the years become one of the most mysterious and most highly sought after ancient relics in the world, with countless quests to try and locate it. Next to the Holy Grail itself, there is perhaps no other Biblical relic that has inspired so many to try and hunt it down. Was the Ark destroyed? Was it hidden away before the sacking of Jerusalem? Was it stolen? Did it ever really even exist at all? These are questions for which no one has any definitive answers, but there are many who have tried to figure them out.
Since the Ark’s disappearance there have been numerous theories as to its whereabouts, with its location estimated to be in wildly varying places, and occasional claims to have even found it. One recurring theory is that the Ark was whisked away by the Knights Templar, but where they hid it remains unclear, with the Chartres Cathedral crypt, the Languedoc region of France, or the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland being popular choices. Other theories revolve around the idea that during the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians, the Ark was spirited away and hidden somewhere in a vast warren of passages beneath the First Temple. Since this site is home to the Dome of the Rock shrine, which is sacred in Islam, it is impossible to conduct any sort of excavation here to see if the story has any truth to it.
One very prominent theory is that the Ark was moved to a secure place far from Jerusalem, in Ethiopia. In Aksum, Ethiopia there is a place called the Church of St. Mary of Zion, where the Ark is said to be interred. A lone monk has been given the duty of guarding this sacred relic, never leaving the church and constantly, dutifully keeping watch over it. It is said that the monk devotes his entire life to the Ark’s safekeeping, after which another will be given the duty upon his death. It is difficult to determine just how genuine this claim is, as no one but the solitary monk is allowed to enter the church, and only this one guardian is allowed to lay eyes upon the Ark. The church could be housing anything or nothing at all. No one knows.
Over the years, the Ark’s location has been believed to be in places as far-flung as Jordan, Egypt, South Africa, the UK, France, Ireland, Rome, and the United States, but one of the weirdest ideas is that it somehow made its way to Japan, where it is said to have ended up at Mt. Tsurugi, in Tokushima prefecture on Shikoku Island. Mt. Tsurugi is 1,955 meters (6,413 ft) high, and is considered a sacred mountain that is inextricably tied to an ancient religion known as Shugendo, which features elements of both Shinto and Buddhism. But how does this tie to the Lost Ark of the Covenant? Why would this relic so linked with Judaism and Christianity wind up here of all places?
The theory was first put forward by literary scholar and historian Masanori Takane, who in the early 1930s claimed to have found numerous strong parallels between the Bible and an ancient 8th century Japanese text on myths surrounding Shinto spirits and the formation of the Japanese Islands, called the Kojiki. Upon making his revelation, Takane carried out exhaustive research on the history, philosophy, and theology surrounding the two, and also delved deeply into geography and local names and folklore until he finally came to the firm conclusion that the Ark of the Covenant was buried somewhere at Mt. Tsurugi.
Takane was so convinced that he had cracked the mystery on where the Ark was hidden that he began an excavation at Mt. Tsurugi in 1936, which amazingly uncovered mysterious stone artifacts, paving stones, tunnels, and a brick arch. These findings were promising, as they seemed to lend credibility to the idea that ancient peoples may have attempted to hide something within the sacred mountain, and thus the excavation became an obsession for Takane, who would spend the next 20 years tirelessly digging in hopes of finding the Ark.
Over the years, Takane’s exciting initial findings attracted other would be archeologists to Mt. Tsurugi to try their hand at finding the Ark as well. One such expedition in 1952 attracted a good amount of attention when a former naval admiral by the name of Eisuke Yamamoto discovered what appeared to be marble corridors within the mountain, as well as human mummies that had decomposed. Weirdly, both Takane and Yamamoto suddenly and inexplicably stopped all further excavations and attempts to find the Ark shortly after this discovery. Why? No one really knows.
One more excavation was carried out by a treasure hunter named Yoshun Miyanaka in 1956, but his efforts were brought to a halt by the creation of a nature preserve called Tsurugi-san Quasi-National Park, which includes Mt. Turugi and much of the surrounding area in 1964. This new status as a nature preserve made it illegal to conduct archeological digs on Mt. Tsurugi, and so Miyanaka was forced to abandon his valiant search empty handed. It also meant that no one else would be able to look for the Ark here, and all of the the artifacts, tunnels, corridors, and mummies that were found within the mountain will likely forever remain an enigma.
As odd an idea as it may seem that the legendary Ark of the Covenant made its way to all the way to Japan, there are some interesting parallels between its appearance and that of Japanese omikoshi, which are portable shrines that are typically carried about during festivals. Omikoshi are carried on the shoulders with the use of two poles, which are attached to the bottom, very much like the way the Ark was carried, with its two poles similarly attached to the bottom rings of its “four feet.” Additionally, whereas the Ark featured two gold statues of a type of winged angel known as kruvim, Japanese omikoshi also feature a gold statue of a heavenly bird known as a ho-oh. The size of the Ark is also almost exactly the same dimensions of a typical omikoshi, and omikoshi are typically overlaid with gold, just as with the Ark.
There are also other interesting links between the customs of ancient Israel surrounding the Ark and those of Japan. For example, it was said that King David and the Israelites sang and danced in front of the Ark to the sounds of music, and during festivals, Japanese sing and dance around omikoshi with music playing as well. In one festival in Kyoto at the Gion shrine, men perform a ritual where they carry an omikoshi across a river, a remarkably similar scene to the ancient Israelites carrying the Ark through the Jordan River during their exodus. In some areas, the bearers of omikoshi sanctify themselves with sea water before carrying it, which is very similar to the ancient Israelite custom of performing a sanctification ritual before carrying the Ark. Additionally, when the Ark was carried into Jerusalem, it is said that David distributed a loaf of bread, a piece of meat, and a raisin cake to every single Israelite, which seems to somewhat resemble the Japanese custom of passing out sweets to everyone at the conclusion of a festival. At the festivals of many Shinto shrines, the priests who carry the omikoshi wear white, linen robes just as the Israelite priests who carried the Ark did. Is this all just mere coincidence, or was the design of omikoshi and the customs surrounding them possibly influenced by ancient contact with Israelites carrying the Ark of the Covenant?
To this day, it is not known where the Ark of the Covenant is, nor even any truly concrete evidence to show that it was ever even real. What is known is that as long as the allure and mystique of this great lost religious artifact remains, people will continue to search for it far and wide. Maybe, just maybe, it is hidden away in some dark, subterranean corridor beneath Japan’s Mt. Tsurugi, far from its native land and just as mysterious as ever.