Around 330 A.D., nearly 20 years after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal in the Roman empire, two young Syrian men appeared at the court of Emperor Ella Amida in Aksum, the capital of an ancient kingdom based in modern-day Ethiopia. The young men had survived a shipwreck and impressed the emperor with their piety and wisdom and, as a result, the emperor’s widow would later ask the young men to serve as advisers as she ruled in the place of her young son Ezana.
The Syrians eventually converted the royal family to Christianity. One of them, Frumentius, became the first Bishop of Ethiopia. This, according to the fifth century church historian Rufus, is how the powerful ancient Aksumite kingdom (in modern day Ethiopia) converted to Christianity. Until this week we had no archaeological evidence to suggest that it was true and many historical reasons to conclude that the story was almost entirely made up. But a new discovery in the hills of northern Ethiopia proves, for the first time, that at least the chronology of the legend is accurate.
A team of archaeologists based in Aksum (sometimes called Axum), the capital of the ancient Aksumite kingdom, have discovered the oldest known church in sub-Saharan Africa. Radiocarbon analysis of objects found at the site revealed that the church was built in the fourth century, a period that saw an explosion in religious construction and church-building. While Christian legend has always claimed that Christianity arrived early to Ethiopia, this church and its contents offer the first tangible evidence of the accuracy of these stories.
The discovery shows that Christianity had spread, likely through trade networks, across the Mediterranean and 3,000 miles south of Rome. Michael Harrower of Johns Hopkins University, who led the excavations, told Smithsonian Magazine that “The empire of Aksum was one of the world’s most influential ancient civilizations, but it remains one of the least widely known.” But most people have never heard of the Aksumites, much less know how significant Ethiopian Christianity is for our understanding of Christianity in general. Beyond what these discoveries mean for those interested in Christianity, the excavations reveal a great deal about the significance of the region for local politics and as a nexus of trade.
The first known Ethiopian convert to Christianity is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. According to Acts 8:26-40, Philip baptizes an unnamed Ethiopian eunuch who is associated with the Aksumite court of Queen Kandake (the “Queen Mother,” who was probably Mawidemak). According to the Ethiopian Orthodox church, Roman merchants settled in Aksum and Adulis in the third century, where they set up prayer houses where they “openly practiced Christianity.” Ezana, the prince converted to Christianity by the Syrian Frumentius, expedited the process: he replaced the Aksumite symbol of the sun and moon with that of the cross. Many of the coins minted by his successors bear Christian slogans like “He conquers through Christ” and “thanks be to God.” And even after the empire’s decline in the eighth and ninth centuries and the arrival of Islam it remained resolutely Christian.
Much of the early period, including the legends of Ezana, are shrouded in mystery, but this new discovery of the presence of Christianity in Aksum, published this month in Antiquity, allows us to firmly and reliably date the arrival of Christianity to the region for the first time. The team uncovered a Roman style basilica (60 x 40 feet) at Beta Samati, about 30 miles northwest of Aksum, and 70 miles to the southwest of the Red Sea. It is architecturally similar to those erected in the Roman empire during the reign of the Constantine around the same time. There’s no doubt about the identification of the structure: just outside the eastern basilica wall the archaeologists found an inscription that reads “Christ [be] favorable to us.” Inside the church and nearby, the archaeologists unearthed a wide array of artifacts that have civic, religious, and mercantile significance. A stone pendant bearing the word “venerable” and adorned with a cross offers further evidence of the spread of Christian iconography and imagery in the region but some of items collected—like the nearly 50 cattle figurines—are linked to pre-Christian pagan religious practices. Many of these items are similar to those found in neighboring and even distant regions which hints at trade links between the kingdom of Aksum and Rome, Eritrea, and elsewhere.
The discovery of the church isn’t only about dating the spread of Christianity in the ancient world, however. The Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahïdo Church broke away from other denominations of Christianity when it rejected the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. Its different doctrinal history means that it has preserved a number of important ancient religious texts that otherwise would be completely lost. Unlike the King James Bible, which contains 66 books, the Ethiopic Bible (which is written in Ge’ez) contains 84 books.
It contains a number of books attributed to biblical figures like Enoch (the great-grandfather of Noah) and the apostle Peter, as well as other apostolic traditions. The books associated with Enoch—which many scholars believe to have influenced Christian beliefs about the afterlife, angels, and the nature of Jesus—only wholly survives in Ge’ez. Without Ethiopic Christianity, historians would know a lot less about second temple Judaism, early Christianity, and the world that shaped Jesus’s thought and religious beliefs.
Of course, the discovery doesn’t prove that Frumentius influenced a young king and converted an empire. But for the first time we have concrete evidence for the arrival of Christianity into the sub-Saharan region. Given the importance of Ethiopic Christianity to the history of Christianity, this is an important historical development.