The Ark of the Covenant is the item described in the Bible (Exodus 25:10-22), which held the original Tablets which were broken by Moses, as well as the Second Tablets, which remained intact (Bava Batra 14b). In the years to follow, it accompanied the ancient Israelites throughout their travels and during the construction of Solomon’s Temple a secret chamber, called the Kodesh HaKodashim (Holy of Holies), held the the Ark (1 Kings 6:19).
However, following the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., the Ark suddenly vanished. Captured? Hidden? Destroyed? For centuries, various historians and archeologists have tried in vain to solve one of history’s great mysteries, to locate and recover the Bible’s most famous lost object, Ark of the Covenant.
The Babylonian Conquest and Aftermath
According to ancient apocryphal texts, the Babylonians carried away many of the Temple’s vessels and implements to their capital city a thousand miles away.
And they took all the holy vessels of the Lord, both great and small, with the vessels of the ark of God, and the king’s treasures, and carried them away into Babylon (Esdras 1:54).
However, no mention is made of the Ark itself. Similarly, the Bible makes no mention of the Babylonians taking the Ark, the Menorah, or other key Temple items. In Rabbinic Literature, the fate of the Ark is also open for debate. Some claim it indeed must have been carried off to Babylon, however others maintain that the Ark was actually hidden in a cave beneath the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In fact, there is a tradition that when King Solomon built the First Temple, he foresaw through prophetic insight that it would one day be destroyed. Thus Solomon prepared a vast system of mazes, labyrinths, chambers and corridors underneath the Temple Mount complex, complete with a special room deep in the earth where particularly sacred vessels of the Temple could be hidden when the time arrived.
The question remains, if the Ark and the other implements were hidden under the Temple, why weren’t they recovered and used afterwards for use during the Second Temple period. The common explanation is that the Kohanim felt that as long as Jerusalem was under the foreign subjugation of Greece and then Rome, these vessels treasures could be easily captured and desecrated and so it was decided they would remain in seclusion until it was considered safe to bring them out to be placed in the Temple. To this day, many are indeed convinced that this is where the Ark has been hidden since the time of King Josiah, directly under the site of the Holy of Holies, awaiting the right time to be found.
In 1982, a search was performed in an old tunnel filled with the centuries of debris, which runs perpendicular to the Kotel under the Temple Mount, about 40 feet from where the Ark is believed to be hidden. However, when the Arabs discovered that there was digging under the Dome of the Rock, they began to riot and the dig was stopped. The Israeli government decided to reseal the entrance to the tunnel, and it remains that way to this day.