Could the Ark Described at Edessa Be the Biblical Ark of the Covenant?
The year was 165 AD, and the location was the Edessan necropolis at Sogmatar, in what was then northern Syria. In this year King Wa'el of Edessa had an inscription carved upon the sacred hill of Sogmatar, which said:
In Sebat of the year 476 (of the Seleucid era) ... we set up this pillar (netsib) on this blessed mountain and erected a seat (kersa) for the one who maintains it. The governor will be a budar ... and he will give the seat to the one who is going to maintain it ... If he withholds the seat or the pillar is ruined, god will be the judge.
Before we come onto the meaning of this inscription, lets first look at the hill of Sogmatar. It is the central focus of the Edessan royal necropolis, which lies in a very remote location in the barren rolling hills to the southeast of Edessa (modern Sanlurfa in Turkey). And the strange thing about this man-made hill, is that it is the same size and shape as Silbury Hill in England. Why and how this similarity arose, is open to speculation.
Figure 1. The identical man-made hills of Silbury and Sogmatar. (Photo credit: Ralph Ellis)
Pillars and Thrones
It was upon this man-made hill at Sogmatar, that this inscription was found. But what does it mean? The translation by Han Drijvers mentions a netsib bun 'pillar'. But Steven Ross in his analysis of Roman Edessa calls this same pillar a betyl-omphalos stone. Now this is interesting, for it implies that the Edessan netsib bun 'pillar' was the same as a Judaic matseb-ah hbum. The latter is a term that refers to both a pillar and to a small pyramid (a small conical stone, an omphalos stone).
The most famous matseb was the ‘pillar of Jacob’ that Jacob anointed with oils when he was at Haran in northern Syria, as narrated in Genesis 28:18. This ritual appears to be very similar to the anointing of Hindu lingams, which are also basted with oils in exactly the same fashion. So the Syrian netsib and the Judaic matseb must have been small conical stones basted with oils. So was Jacob venerating a Hindu lingam? Possibly, but since the Hindu lingam is often basted with a Minoan rhyton, it would appear that this ritual has travelled from west to east rather than vice versa. And the most likely conduit for this transfer of veneration and ritual, would be the Indian campaigns of Alexander the Great - especially as the Greeks were also closely identified with a similar matseb omphalos stone, as we shall see.
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Figure 2. A Hindu lingam, basted with oils, in exactly the same fashion as Jacob's Pillar (Jacob's small conical stone). (Photo Credit: Lotus Sculptures)
Thus the Sogmatar inscription mentions a small omphalos stone, but it also mentions a seat. But it is highly likely that the Syriac kersa 'seat' was actually derived from the Judaic korsa aork, which refers more to a royal throne than to a common seat. But what type of throne was this? Was it a throne for a king, or a throne of the gods? And where might we find a sacred stone and a divine throne in close proximity to each other? The answer can be seen in the throne of Apollo, who is often depicted sitting on a sacred stone. Remarkably, we not only see this stone on Greek coinage, but it is now in the Delphi museum (although this is a very ancient copy of the original).
Figure 3. Left: A Greek coin of Seleucus III showing Apollo seated upon the sacred omphalos stone of Delphi. Right: This stone (or an ancient copy of this stone) still exists at Delphi. (Photo credit: Ralph Ellis.)
So the netsib-matseb conical-stone and the kersa-korsa throne were intimately related objects - they were both thrones of the gods. But it was not just the Greeks who had a sacred stone that was also a throne, so too did the Israelites.
So when might we encounter a sacred stone within Judaism that was intimately connected to a seat or a throne? For the answer, we only need to turn to the Book of Exodus which says:
And thou shalt make a mercy seat of pure gold ... And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings ... And thou shalt put the mercy seat above upon the Ark of the Covenant, and in the ark thou shalt put the (two stones) that I shall give you. (Exodus 25:17-21)
Steven Spielberg's incarnation of the Ark of the Covenant from the feature film "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark" (CC BY NC SA 2.0)
Interesting. So the other ancient reference to a combination of a seat and a stone from this region, refers to the Ark of the Covenant itself. That this 'mercy seat' was made of stone is implied by the name Kaporeth (Kaforeth) trpk which was derived from kep or kef Pk meaning 'stone'. So this was a stone seat, just like the omphalos was a stone seat or throne. But these are not the same artifact at all, readers will exclaim, because the Ark of the Covenant was a wooden box containing sacred stones while Apollo is seated on the sacred stone itself. These are different depictions, and therefore components of completely different traditions.
That would be the correct deduction, were it not for the fact that we have images of the sacred stone that was placed on the top of the hill at Sogmatar, near Edessa. These images are from the coins of King Wa'el of Edessa, the same king who commissioned the inscription. The coins depict a cube inside a small temple, and archaeologists and numismatists call this strange artifact a 'cubic betyl stone'.
Figure 4. Two examples of the Edessan betyl 'stone', housed in a small temple. The king here is King Wa'el, the same king who wrote the inscription. (Photo credit: Forum Ancient Coins.)
But is this cube really a stone? Readers may see that in the upper image the cube rests on small feet, while in the lower image it rests on spoked wheels. So is this cube a stone? Surely it would be too heavy for small feet or wooden wheels. Sometimes I despair at the illogicality displayed by academics, because it is fairly obvious that these images actually portray a wooden box: a box that contained the sacred icon of the god. The cube is called a betyl, but this does not refer to a stone, instead it is derived from beth-el la tyb meaning ‘house of god’. Thus the cube is not made of stone, it is an Ark of the Covenant that 'housed' the sacred stone icons of the gods.
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Figure 5. A computer generated image of the Ark of the Covenant. This image conforms to the specifications and measurements given in the Book of Exodus.
In the biblical quote above, the Ark of the Covenant was also being called a 'seat'. In which case, it is fairly safe to say that the Edessan kersa-korsa ‘seat’ was actually an Ark of the Covenant, while the Edessan netsib-matseb stone(s) were the two sacred stones that were placed inside the Ark. Quite obviously, the Edessan monarchs had a Judaic Ark of the Covenant at Edessa. And yet since this royal family became so influential in Judaea and Jerusalem, then perhaps we can also surmise that they had the Ark of the Covenant. Not a mere copy, but the original Ark from the Exodus.
But how could the kings of Edessa have come across the Ark of the Covenant? The history is tortuous, but as is described in detail in The King Jesus Trilogy, the Edessan monarchy were Judaeo-Egyptians who had been exiled to Parthia in the 1st century BC, and then further exiled to northern Syria in the early 1st century AD. It was in Edessa that this royal family converted to Nazarene Judaism, and it was from Edessa that they set out to conquer Judaea. They began this conquest with acts of philanthropy, with Josephus Flavius recording that the Edessans furnished the Temple of Jerusalem and donated its solid gold menorah. (The Syriac historians say that the Adiabene and Edessan royal family were one and the same.)
Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant, Benjamin West (Public Domain)
So yes, this is a family who would have been very interested in acquiring an ancient Judaic artifact like the Ark of the Covenant. And although we have no definitive evidence for the route the Ark may have taken, we have plenty of circumstantial evidence for the travels of these conical sacred stones. The original stone was the Benben stone of Heliopolis. But a very similar stone is mentioned in connection with the patriarch, Jacob - as we have seen. A very similar stone then appears in Delphi in Greece, but it seems to have migrated to Parthia (Persia) in later generations, possibly via the campaigns of Alexander the Great. But this is interesting, because the Edessan royal family came from Parthia; so is this how they acquired their sacred stone? The Edessan royalty then took this stone to Sogmatar, which is only 20 km northeast of Haran - the place where Jacob anointed his stone many centuries previously. So was Jacob at Sogmatar? Did this sacred hill exist way back in antiquity, rather than it being built in the Romo-Parthian era as the history books suggest?
The next thing to consider, is whether these Greco-Edessan-Parthian omphalos stones could even fit into the original Ark of the Covenant. According to the Torah, the Ark measured 2.5 x 1.5 x 1.5 cubits. Since it was proven in the book Thoth, Architect of the Universe that the Torah was referring to the Egyptian thoth or royal cubit, which measured 52.4 cm, then the Ark measured 1.31 x 0.79 x 0.79 meters. Now while such a chest could not have housed the huge and ornate omphalos of Delphi, it could easily have contained a stone similar to the smaller Delphi omphalos.
The Omphalos Stone, Delphi (CC BY SA 2.0)
That the original omphalos stone was actually fairly small, is perhaps proven by the later coinage of Emperor Elagabalus. In 218 AD, just a few generations after the Edessan coin was minted, a Syrian king from this very same region became Emperor of Rome. This was the slightly deranged Emperor Elagabalus, who was also the high priest of the Elagabal. Surprisingly, the Elagabal was this very same conical omphalos stone, and so the coinage of Elagabalus depicts yet more images of this sacred conical stone. As can be seen in fig 6, the stone is definitely conical and it is being driven around Rome in a chariot. A big heavy stone would require a cart, not a chariot (the stone is exaggerated in size, so it can be easily seen on the coin). Again, the suggestion is that the true omphalos stone(s) were small enough to travel in a chariot and small enough to fit inside the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, for two of them to fit in the Ark, they would need to measure less than 0.75 m high and 0.65 m across the base (2.5 x 2.1 ft). This is about the same size as the smaller Delphi omphalos, but still quite a weight for a small wooden box.
Figure 6. A coin of Emperor Elagabalus, showing the Elagabal omphalos stone placed in a chariot. Note the stone has the emblem of the Phoenix embossed upon it, which demonstrates that this was a Sun-stone (possibly a meteorite). (Photo credit: Forum Ancient Coins.)
One final thing to explore, is the strange powers that the Ark of the Covenant is said to have possessed. Since we have conclusively linked the Ark of the Covenant with the Elagabal omphalos stone(s), did these mysterious powers emanate from the Ark itself, or from the sacred stones it contained? The Elagabal stone was supposed to be a highly magnetic meteorite, and several pieces of evidence for this were discussed in the book King Jesus, including the Arthurian tale of a sword getting stuck on this sacred stone. Although it would be entirely natural for an iron or steel sword to get stuck on a magnetic rock, in exactly this fashion, such a reaction would be totally inexplicable to the vast majority of people in the Middle Ages.
If two highly magnetic omphalos stones had been placed inside the Ark of the Covenant, then the Ark would also appear to be highly magnetic. Nothing can stop a magnetic field, not even something as substantial as gold (although some ferromagnetic materials can redirect the magnetic field). And so if someone approached the golden Ark with a ferrous artifact, like a sword, it would be instantly attracted to the Ark. Anyone unfamiliar with magnetism might become highly alarmed at such a powerful and invisible force acting upon them, and to an uneducated soldier it would seem like the very hand of god himself had just reached out and grasped their sword. How else can something move, when there is nothing touching it and nothing visible? This was not like wind, which you can feel with your hand, because if you placed your hand next to the Ark you would feel absolutely nothing. But if you brought a horseshoe close to the Ark, god himself would grab hold of it and try to take it from you!
If magnetism was the basis of the Ark of the Covenant's other-worldly powers, then many people would regard this small chest as the abode of the gods. People could come and witness that amazing power. And so the Ark became the seat of social influence and political power, for anyone who owned it. And in the 1st century the Ark was owned by King Izas Manu VI of Judaea and Edessa, who is more commonly known in the biblical accounts as King Jesus Em Manuel of Judaea.
Copyright © 2015 Ralph Ellis
Top image: The Ark Passes Over the Jordan, James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836 - 1902) (Public Domain)
By Ralph Ellis