When people think of the best film/TV franchises of all time, there are a number that spring to mind. Franchises such as Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Harry Potter etc. One that I think isn’t considered enough in this debate is the Indiana Jones franchise, which turns 40 years old in 2021. Even I, who consider the franchise top tier, often forget just how good some of them are. The series about a boring professor of archaeology who runs off and has these amazing, thrilling adventures is very appealing, it makes me want to go off and have fantastic history artefact-based adventures. This got me thinking, just how real are some of the artefacts that Indy searches for? Well, let’s find out, starting with the main object of significance in the first of the Indiana Jones films, Raiders of the Lost Ark. What exactly is the Lost Ark?
This article contains mild spoilers. Great for a refresher but not so good if you’ve never seen the film (but why haven’t you watched it? Go watch it now!).
What is the Lost Ark in the film?
The Lost Ark in the film is a name given to the Ark of the Covenant, which has been lost for thousands of years. The Ark itself is a wooden chest, gilded with gold, that contains the remnants of the Ten Commandments after Moses smashed them at the base of Mount Sinai. The instructions for making the Ark were handed down to the Hebrews by God and they carried the Ark as they made their way to the Promised Land. The Ark was said to have great power, Marcus Brody stating in the film that “the Bible speaks of the Ark levelling mountains and laying waste to entire regions”. The Hebrews settled in a city called Canaan, where the Ark was kept in the Temple of Solomon. Later, an Egyptian Pharaoh named Shishak stole the Ark and took it to the city of Tanis, in Egypt. He placed the Ark into the Well of Souls, which was a room specifically built for holding the artefact. They also built the map room of Tanis, where the Staff of Ra could be used to light where exactly in the city the Ark is hidden. God later buried Tanis in a sandstorm that lasted for a year, erasing it from knowledge, which made the Ark of the Covenant the Lost Ark. Adolf Hitler became interested in the rumour of the Arks immense power, despite it being a Jewish relic, hoping that an army with the Ark at its head would be invincible. The Nazis discovered where the lost city of Tanis was located and began digging fruitlessly trying to find it. They needed the Staff of Ra to locate the Well of Souls, which was missing. The headpiece of that staff was found by Abner Ravenwood, who mentored Indy and was the father of Marion Ravenwood. One last thing worth mentioning is how exactly Indiana knew not to look at the Ark at the end of the film. Well, this could be explained by Indiana’s Christian background and going to Sunday School. There are passages of the Bible that show God not being best pleased if his followers don’t show the right level of respect. For example, in 1 Samuel 6:19, 70 people were killed by God for looking into the Ark. The movie explanation for Indy’s optical shyness however is that Imam, the old dude that translates the Staff of Ra, tells Indy and Sallah that the headpiece warns not to touch the Ark or look into it. In my research, it seems that this scene was deleted from the final film but was included in the novelisation.
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What is the Lost Ark in real life?
Well, the answer to what the Lost Ark is in real life really depends on whether you believe in God, the Bible etc. We can say for certain though that the Ark of the Covenant was an object mentioned frequently in the Bible. Mostly the main essence of what the Ark is and where it came from is the same in the film as it is in the Bible. However, the commandments inside the Ark are actually whole in the Bible, being a second set that God gave Moses after he had a hissy fit and smashed the first set (though some traditions say that the remains of the first were also placed in the Ark). The Israelites carried the Ark in the Bible and there are stories of if doing all sorts of magical God stuff. The killing of 70 being one, the Ark also caused tumours and a plague of mice was sent over the land when the Philistines stole it. It also killed a man who put out a hand to stable it when it wobbled and flattened the wall of Jericho. The Ark was eventually placed in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, more or less like the film. However, rather than being stolen by the Egyptians, it was thought to either have been hidden or taken when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem.
Where is the Lost Ark now?
Well…lost. Want more than that? Well, we can say that it probably isn’t in Tanis (which isn’t a lost city in real life, just ruined) and most probably isn’t in a crate in Area 51, like in the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The real-life Pharaoh Shishak did invade Jerusalem, but the Ark is still in Jerusalem 300 years after the invasion, according to the Bible. If it existed, it was probably taken and/or destroyed by the Babylonians when they destroyed Jerusalem, so it would be in the ruins of Babylon if it wasn’t destroyed. There are some historical sources that claim that God warned the prophet Jeremiah that Jerusalem was about to be sacked, so he hid it in a cave on Mount Nebo (no, not the Star Wars Naboo, meesa thinks that’s would be a berry long way). There is a church in Ethiopia that claims to have the Ark, although they keep it hidden from the public eye (convenient, that). However, an expert in Ethiopian Studies called Edward Ullendorff was allowed to examine the Ark in 1941 and claims it is a later medieval reproduction. There are also theories that the Ark is in Southern Africa, Chartres Cathedral in France (taken there by the Knights Templar), the village of Rennes-le-Château in Southern France, the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome before it burned and in Tutankhamun’s tomb, as a chest called the Anubis Shrine was discovered there that was similar to the Ark.
Were the Nazis really after the Ark of the Covenant?
I couldn’t find any evidence that the Nazis were after the Ark of the Covenant, however, they did have an interest in archaeology and items that were said to have immense power. This wasn’t necessarily Hitler specifically, in fact, the most well-known Nazi involved with the investigation into archaeology and the occult was Heinrich Himmler. The Nazis were keen to bring about a sense of national pride and to confirm that the ancestors of the Aryan race were in-fact superior to everyone else. The Ahnenerbe Organisation was perhaps the most famous of the Nazi groups that focused on archaeology. They dug many historically important Germanic cult sites and areas important to their Nordic roots. They made a trip to Tibet with hopes of finding links to their ancient Aryan ancestors, studied Finnish pagan witches, and even searched for Atlantis, which they believed the Aryan race was involved in. There is also some evidence that Heinrich Himmler believed in the Holy Grail and thought that Thor’s Hammer (Mjölnir, as all you Marvel nerds know) was “an early, highly developed war weapon of our forefathers”.
What is the headpiece for the Staff of Ra?
The Staff of Ra was made up purely for the film and seems to have no real-life alternative, as we have established that the Ark probably isn’t in the fictional Well of Souls in the ruined, not buried city of Tanis. However, the Egyptian deity Ra is a real-life religious god. Ra was the god of the sun (hence the light shining through the gem part of the Staff of Ra thing), kings, the sky and order. Ra is humanoid with a falcon head, considered the giver of life and often portrayed with a sun disk above its head. But of course, most importantly, Ra is the inspiration behind the Egyptian god card “The Winged Dragon of Ra” in Yu-Gi-Oh!
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Avid fan of many geeky exploits, Callum likes to delve deep into the lore of fantasy and sci-fi, including The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games and many more.