The Lateran Basilica and the Ark of the Covenant (

No biblical relic has fascinated the curiosity of Christians such as the Ark of the Covenant. Constructed during the Exodus by the Israelite craftsmen Bezalel and Aholiab under Moses’ direction, the Ark was meant to be the tangible sign of God’s presence with Israel. It contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the rod of Aaron that had blossomed, and a jar of manna preserved from the Israelites’ time in the wilderness. So holy was this object that to touch it meant instant death (cf. 2 Sam. 6:7). After the building of Solomon’s Temple, the Ark was kept inside the Holy of Holies as the supreme cultic object of Israelite religion. The only person to see it was the High Priest, who entered its presence once a year to sprinkle it with the blood of atonement on behalf of the Israelite nation.

The Ark was lost sometime during the 7th – 6th centuries B.C.; most think it was lost during the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C., but some scholars suggest it went missing even earlier. The Ark was never part of the Second Temple; when the Roman general Pompey the Great took Jerusalem in 63 B.C., he entered the Holy of Holies and found nothing except the Menorah and some liturgical vessels.

The absence of the Ark has always vexed Jews and Christians, who have come up with various theories throughout the ages as to its location. Many believe it to be buried somewhere beneath the Jerusalem Temple Mount, while others say it is hidden on Mount Nebo. A popular tradition holds that the Ark is kept in the church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum, Ethiopia, while many evangelical Christians believe it is buried beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

One interesting medieval tradition is that the Ark is kept inside the high altar of the Lateran Basilica in Rome. This—along with other Temple objects—was allegedly brought to Rome after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D as spoils of war. Constantine later gave these sacred objects to Pope Sylvester, who placed them in the Lateran Basilica.

In the early 12th century, the canons of the Lateran Basilica prepared a document called the Descriptio Lateranensis Ecclesiae (“Description of the Lateran Church”). The Descriptio was like a medieval guidebook, explaining to pilgrims and tourists what they would find on a visit to the Lateran church. After describing the history of the Lateran and listing many of the martyr relics kept within, the Descriptio tells us:

In the Lateran Church, which is the capital of the world, which is the patriarchal or imperial see, there is a pontifical throne of the Apostolic church, and the principal altar of the same church is the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant; or rather, as they say, the Ark is on the inside, and on the outside it is hidden by an altar, which measures the same as the Ark in length and width, between four columns of red porphyry, beneath a certain beautiful canopy, in which indeed, as they say, is a great sanctuary…This very Ark, with the candelabra and other temple objects, Titus and Vespasian carried off from Jerusalem…[1]


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