An Ethiopian priest carries a tabot during a Timkat ceremony.

Tabot (Ge'ez ታቦት tābōt, sometimes spelled tabout) is a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, and represents the presence of God, in Ethiopian Orthodox and Eritrean Orthodox Churches.[1][2]: 135 [3] Tabot may variously refer to an inscribed altar tablet (tsellat or tsilit; Ge'ez: ጽላት tsallāt, modern ṣellāt), the chest in which this tablet is stored (menbere-tabot, or throne of the tabot), or to the tablet and chest together.[1][4]

According to Edward Ullendorff, the Ge'ez (an Ethiopian Semitic language) word tabot is derived from the Aramaic word tebuta (tebota), like the Hebrew word tebah.[5] Ullendorff stated that "The concept and function of the tabot represent one of the most remarkable areas of agreement with Old Testament forms of worship."[6]


The tsellat is usually a 15-centimetre (6-inch) square, and may be made from alabaster, marble or wood from an acacia tree, although longer lengths of upwards of 40 cm (16 inches) are also common.[7] This tablet is inscribed with the name of Jesus, and that of the saint to whom it is dedicated.[1]

A bishop consecrates the tabot (not the church building itself),[2]: 135  and every church must have at least one tabot in order to conduct the liturgy.[8] The tabot is kept in the church's Holy of Holies (Qidduse Qiddusan or Bete Mekdes), where only the clergy may enter, and it is wrapped in ornate cloths to conceal it from public view.[8] Only bishops and priests are allowed touch or handle a tabot, or see it without its coverings.[1][4] If a layperson touches a tabot, a bishop must reconsecrate it before a church may use it again.[1]

The Eucharist is administered from the tabot.[1] During church festivals, such as the patronal feast day or during Timket (known as Epiphany or Theophany in English), the priests carry the tabot around the church courtyard in an elaborate procession reminiscent of 2 Samuel, chapter 6, in which King David leads the people dancing before the Ark.[8][9][10] David Buxton describes one such procession, on the festival of Gebre Menfes Qidus:

To the uninstructed onlooker the climax of the service came at the end, when the tabot or ark was brought out, wrapped in coloured cloths, carried on the head of a priest. As it appeared in the doorway the women raised the ilil, a prolonged and piercing cry of joy. When the tabot goes out of the Bete Mekdes ቤተ መቅደስ, everyone goes down to the floor and says a prayer. At first the tabot remained motionless, accompanied by several processional crosses and their attendant brightly colored canopies, while a group of cantors (dabtara) performed the liturgical dance so beloved of the Abyssinians. The dancing over, a procession formed up, headed by the tabot, and slowly circled the church three times in a counter-clockwise direction. Finally the tabot was carried back into the sanctuary; all was over and the assembly broke up. Now in modern times Tabot comes out each time there is a celebration, for example on Jesus' Baptism all churches from the area come together with their tabot and celebrate.[11]

Looting and repatriation of tabots

An uncovered tabot at the Linden Museum in Stuttgart (2008).

Although Ethiopia was never colonised by the British, many tabots were looted by British soldiers during the 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia, also known as the Battle of Magdala, and is a cause of anger among Ethiopians.[12]

The return in February 2002 of one looted tabot, discovered in the storage of St John's Episcopal Church in Edinburgh, was a cause of public rejoicing in Addis Ababa.[13][14] Another was returned in 2003 after Ian McLennan recognised the ancient tabot at an auction in London. He bought it and donated it to the government of Ethiopia.[15]

In February 2024, the Dean of Westminster Abbey agreed in principle to return the tabot which is sealed inside an altar in Westminster Abbey to Ethiopia. This is dependent on the consent of the Royal Household as the Monarch has jurisdiction over the Abbey.[16]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Habtamu Teshome (16 January 2023). "Liturgical Worship, Part Three: Unique Features of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church". Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Sunday School Department. Mahibere Kidusan. Retrieved 2 February 2024.
  2. ^ a b Shyllon, Folarin (July 2014). "Repatriation of Antiquities to Sub-Saharan Africa: the Agony and the Ecstasy". Art, Antiquity & Law. 19 (2): 121–143. ISSN 1362-2331. Retrieved 2 February 2024 – via EBSCOHost.
  3. ^ "Theophany | Timqet". Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church Diocese of the U.S.A. and Canada. 19 January 2018. Retrieved 2 February 2024.
  4. ^ a b "The Ark of Covenant". The Official Website of Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church. 1 December 2021. Retrieved 2 February 2024.
  5. ^ Ullendorff, Ethiopia and the Bible (Oxford: University Press for the British Academy, 1968), pp. 82, 122
  6. ^ Ullendorff, Ethiopia and the Bible, p. 82
  7. ^ David Buxton, The Abyssinians (New York: Praeger, 1970), p. 162
  8. ^ a b c "tabot". British Museum. Retrieved 31 January 2024. Curator's comments… The Tabots remain in the Qeddest Qeddusan and are only brought out of the churches at festival times or in times of calamity, in order to pray for divine help. When they leave the Queddest Qeddusan they are carried on the heads of priests, veiled from public view by richly decorated cloths. Ornate silk umbrellas are held over the Tabots as a sign of respect.
  9. ^ For example, Ullendorff, Ethiopia and the Bible, p. 83; Buxton, The Abyssinians, p. 32.
  10. ^ Donald N. Levine, Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture, (Chicago: University Press, 1972), p. 63.
  11. ^ Buxton, The Abyssinians, p. 65
  12. ^ Alberge, Dalya (1 June 2019). "Westminster Abbey stops Ethiopian priests visiting holy tablet". The Observer.
  13. ^ Johnston, Jenifer (27 January 2002). "Ethiopian joy as church returns Ark of Covenant; Handover may…". Sunday Herald. Archived from the original on 10 August 2011 – via Find Articles.
  14. ^ Okite, Odhiambo (22 April 2002). "Ethiopia: Returning a Tabot". Christianity Today.
  15. ^ Zane, Damian (1 July 2003). "Raided Lost Ark returns home". BBC News.
  16. ^ Simpson, Craig (13 February 2024). "Westminster Abbey to return sacred tablet to Ethiopia after consulting with King". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 14 February 2024.
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