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Archaeologist says he knows where Ark of Covenant stood

Published Jan. 6, 1996|Updated Sep. 15, 2005

(ran LA edition of LT)

One of the great mysteries for biblical scholars and believers alike is exactly where the Ark of the Covenant stood in the temple King Solomon built in Jerusalem nearly 3,000 years ago.

The Ark of the Covenant itself _ the wooden chest used to store the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments are believed to have been written _ has been lost in the dust of history. But an archaeological architect in England contends that the place of honor the Ark once occupied is clearly visible today on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, inside the Muslim shrine known as the Dome of the Rock.

In an article published in the current edition of Biblical Archaeology Review, Leen Ritmeyer describes how he used measurements, Bible texts and rabbinical commentary to deduce that the Ark stood in a rectangular depression carved in the rocky outcropping below the dome. The niche _ 2 feet, 7 inches by 4 feet, 4 inches _ is clearly visible to worshipers and tourists who visit the site, he said.

"For me, it's the cherry on the cake of my research," Ritmeyer said in a telephone interview with Religion News Service from Harrogate, England.

Ritmeyer, an architect known for his reconstructive drawings of numerous archaeological sites in Israel, had previously published an article in Biblical Archaeological Review describing the location of the original Temple Mount, the platform on which Solomon's Temple was built. His latest findings are a continuation of that research.

"I now believe that, without having gone in search of it, the research has directed us to the very spot where the Ark of the Covenant stood within the Holy of Holies," he writes in the January-February 1996 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

There has been much archaeological speculation about the exact site of Solomon's Temple and the location of the Holy of Holies, the chamber in which the Ark was placed. Few researchers have claimed to pinpoint the original location of the ark. And while Ritmeyer says his research proves the truth of certain Bible verses, Biblical Archaeology Review editor Hershel Shanks views his work in a different light.

"The meaning, at least for me, is that it brings us closer to that biblical world in a very tangible way," Shanks said.

"I don't think it's going to convert anybody. I don't think it's going to have any political significance in modern times," he said. "But I think it's extraordinarily meaningful to people who love the Bible, who love biblical history, who are passionate about exploring our common . . . religious past."

Solomon's Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. A second temple, built on the ruins of the first and expanded by Herod the Great, was destroyed in A.D. 70. Many scholars agree that both temples stood somewhere on the elevated ground now topped by the Dome of the Rock and the Mosque of Al Aksa, but they disagree on exactly where the temples stood.

Archaeological surveys of the rock mass directly below the dome are prohibited by Muslim authorities, who have controlled the site since the seventh century, when the Christian church that occupied the site was replaced by a mosque. Palestinian Muslim religious leaders who are currently in charge of the site have rejected archaeological evidence and Jewish claims that a temple was ever on the Temple Mount.

The Temple Mount is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, who believe that it is the site where Abraham brought his son to be sacrificed. Muslims believe the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven from the bedrock known as "es-Sakhra" on the Temple Mount site.

Using measurements made by a German scholar in 1910, photographs and his own observations, Ritmeyer detailed where he believes the walls of the Holy of Holies were within the temple _ above "es-Sakhra." He declares that a spot right in the center of the Holy of Holies is where the Ark rested _ the same dimensions as God gave Moses for constructing the sacred container in Exodus 25:10: "They shall make an ark of acacia wood; it shall be 2{ cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high."

A cubit is a unit of measure that equals 20.5 inches.

The Ark, ancient Israel's most sacred ritual possession, accompanied the wandering tribes of Israel over the centuries, until King David brought it to Jerusalem and his son, Solomon, ultimately erected the temple. The Ark was installed in an enclosure known as the Holy of Holies, which was entered only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, by the high priest.

Ritmeyer said his discovery about the Ark's placement also is confirmed in Scripture. In two verses of the first book of Kings in the Hebrew Bible, the "place" of the Ark is mentioned.

"If you put it on natural rock, it would be wobbling about, wouldn't it?" asked Ritmeyer. "You've got to prepare a flat place on which the Ark would be able to sit, without rocking. My research has proved that 1 Kings 8, verse 6 and 21 are true. I found the placement of the Ark."

Ritmeyer said he used the Bible's measurements in 1 Kings 6:20 to locate the Holy of Holies _ 20 cubits by 20 cubits.

"All that I've found confirms that the record in Kings about Solomon building a temple and preparing a place for the Ark of the Covenant is true," he said.

And what he has found, Ritmeyer said, can be seen by any tourist who visits the site. The rock is surrounded by a fence, but "the depression is only about 10 feet away from the fence," he said.

"It has been there all along," he said. "I have looked at the rock so many times. It took me 21 years to know how to look at it."

Other specialists in the field of biblical archaeology welcome Ritmeyer's analysis but say questions about the location remain.

"His guess is as good as anybody else's," said Avraham Biran, director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.

Barry Gittlen, professor of biblical and archaeological studies at Baltimore Hebrew University, agreed.

"He could be right. He could be wrong," said Gittlen. "There is, unfortunately, no really good method or set of data by which we can assess whether or not he's really, really correct."

Although the findings may excite "average people" interested in the Ark, archaeologists are tempering their enthusiasm, explained Gary Byers, executive director of Associates for Biblical Research, an evangelical Christian ministry based in Ephrata, Pa.

Ritmeyer's method of gathering information from texts and ancient archaeological evidence puts a new spin on an old problem, he said.

"He's probably given us the best look, the best suggestion as to where the Ark of the Covenant and the temple itself actually stood," said Byers. "Without being able to get in there and do accurate measurements, he has really provided us a wealth of information and some really plausible suggestions."

But Byers, like the other archaeologists, said there's more work to do.

"He may have solved the problem, but we can't say definitely yes, he has," he said.

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