The Ethiopian Tabot

In Hollywood movies, the ark of the covenant is usually uncovered by a whip-wielding hero abseiling into a cave, but in Edinburgh they do things rather differently. The Rev John McLuckie has found it while clearing out a cupboard.

The Scottish Episcopal church vicar was searching a dusty recess at the church of St John the Evangelist, a notable landmark in the city's Princes Street, when he found the Ethiopian ark - or a sacred representation of it, at least - in a Victorian leather box at the back of the cupboard.

The Guardian, Dec 6 2001

The Tabot is carried into the chancelA Tabot is a consecrated wooden altar slab, made of wood or stone, which symbolises the Ark of the Covenant (containing the Ten Commandments) and represents the presence of God in every Ethiopian church. It is the Tabot rather than the church building which is consecrated. Removal of a Tabot is an act of sacrilege comparable to the removal of the Reserved Sacrament in an Anglican or Roman Catholic church.

In the aftermath of the battle of Magdala in April 1868, a Tabot was acquired by Captain William Arbuthnot (1838-1892) of the 14th Hussars. He was Aide de Camp and Military Secretary to General Robert Napier, the leader of the expedition, created Lord Napier of Magdala in July 1868. Arbuthnot was a grandson of Sir William Arbuthnot, a Lord Provost of Edinburgh, who is buried in St John’s graveyard. On his return to Britain, recognising the religious significance of the artefact, Arbuthnot presented the Tabot to St John's Church (1868).

It remained here, its true meaning apparently unrecognized until it was found in 2001 by the Associate Rector, Rev’d John McLuckie, who realised what it was, having spent some time in Ethiopia as a student.

The tabot was handed back to representatives of the Ethiopian Orthodox church on 27th January 2002. The Ethiopian delegation included Archbishop Bitsu Abune Isaias from Ethiopia, Arch Mandrite Nibure-id Abba of the London based Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido church and the Attaché d'Affaires of the Ethiopian embassy. A joint Eucharist was held, at the end of which  the Holy Tabot was carried in, wrapped up and covered by liturgical umbrellas. Speeches were made before it was handed over to the Archbishop. Music, dancing and a riot of colour created spectacular scenes of joy within the church.

The Tabot was then taken back to Ethiopia where people lined the streets from the airport
into Addis Ababa and a national holiday was declared.

A gift is presented to John Armes by Archbishop Isiaias Archbishop Isaias, of Ethiopia, presents a gift to Rector John Armes, right, at the handover of the tabot, which is on the head of Arch Mandrite Nibure-id Abba. Photograph: The Scotsman.

Read a fuller account, including more historical background and an account of a visit to Ethiopia by members of our congregation (PDF file).