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Tabot (Ge'ez ታቦት tābōt, sometimes spelled tabout) is a Ge'ez (that is, an Ethiopian Semitic language) word referring to a replica of the Tablets of Law, onto which the Biblical Ten Commandments were inscribed, used in the practices of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Tabot can also refer to a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. The word tsellat (Ge'ez: ጽላት ṣallāt, modern ṣellāt) refers only to a replica of the Tablets, but is less commonly used.
According to Edward Ullendorff, the Ge'ez word tabot is derived from the Aramaic word tebuta (tebota), like the Hebrew word tebah. "The concept and function of the tabot represent one of the most remarkable areas of agreement with Old Testament forms of worship."
A tabot is usually six inches (15 cm) square, and may be made from alabaster, marble, or wood from an acacia tree—although David Buxton states the maximum length of 40 cm is more common. It is always kept in ornate coverings to hide it from public view. In an elaborate procession, which has often reminded literate onlookers of the sixth chapter of 2 Samuel where King David leads the people dancing before the Ark, the tabot is carried around the church courtyard on the patronal feast day, and also on the great Feast of Timket (known as Epiphany or Theophany in Europe). 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 Meqdes 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.
Although Ethiopia was never colonized by the British, many tabots were looted by them during the 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia, also known as the Battle of Magdala, which is a cause of anger among Ethiopians. During the looting of the Ethiopian capital of Magdala in 1868, British soldiers took hundreds of tabots. The return in February 2002 of one of these, discovered in the storage of St. John's Episcopal Church in Edinburgh, was a cause of public rejoicing in Addis Ababa. Another was returned in 2003 after Dr. Ian McLennan recognised the ancient tabot at an auction in London. He bought it and donated it to the government of Ethiopia.
- Edward Ullendorff, Ethiopia and the Bible (Oxford: University Press for the British Academy, 1968), pp. 82, 122
- Ullendorff, Ethiopia and the Bible, p. 82
- David Buxon, The Abyssinians (New York: Praeger, 1970), p. 162
- For example, Ullendorff, Ethiopia and the Bible, p. 83; Buxton, The Abyssinians, p. 32.
- Donald N. Levine, Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture, (Chicago: University Press, 1972), p. 63.
- Buxton, The Abyssinians, p. 65
- "Ethiopian joy as church returns Ark of Covenant; Handover may" by Jenifer Johnston, The Sunday Herald, January 27, 2002 (hosted by Find Articles)
- "Ethiopia: Returning a Tabot" by Odhiambo Okite, Christianity Today, 22 April 2002
- Damian Zane, "Raided Lost Ark returns home", BBC News, 1 July 2003, 11 may 2013
- C.F. Beckingham and G.W.B. Huntingford, "Appendix III, The Tabot" in their translation of Francisco Alvarez, The Prester John of the Indies (Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1961), pp. 543–8.
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