christianity comes to ethiopia -- 6/7/22

Today's selection -- from A History of Ethiopia by Harold G. Marcus. In the third century C.E., the new faith of Christianity came to Axum in modern-day Ethiopia:

"Events … brought not only commerce but also Christianity to Axum's shores [within modern-day Ethiopia]. They avoided both the coin and the cross -- not so the ruling elites, whose interests came to include both.

"From the third century, or even before, Axum's Hellenized elites had learned about the new faith from Christian traders. At court, the ideology was discussed philosophically but also, as befitted a place of power, in economic and political terms. Context was paramount: by the early fourth century, Christianity had become the established religion of the eastern Roman Empire. Since Roman trade dominated the Red Sea, it was inevitable that Christianity would penetrate Axum. Conversion was slow and occurred first in the towns and along the major trade routes. The shift was heralded, during the first third of the fourth century, by coins suddenly embossed with a cross and then by monuments carrying imperial inscriptions prefaced by Christian incantations.

Saint Frumentius of the Axumite Kingdom

"According to Ethiopian church tradition, two Syrian boys, Aedisius and Frumentius, brought Christianity to Ethiopia. Shipwreck victims, they were brought to court as slaves and put to work by Emperor Ella Amida (r. ca. end of the third century A.D.). Over the years, their piety, reliability, and especially Frumentius's sagacity and wisdom as royal secretary and treasurer earned the monarch's gratitude, and his will manumitted them. His widow, as regent, asked them to remain in the palace and advise her until her infant son, Ezanas, was ready for the throne. While so engaged, Frumentius sought out Christian merchants, urged them to establish churches, and cooperated fully with them to spread the gospel.

"When the young king came to power (ca. 303), Frumentius traveled to Alexandria to urge the patriarch to assign a bishop to Ethiopia to speed its conversion. He must not have been surprised -- since his life had normally been astonishing -- to hear the prelate nominate him. And back Frumentius went to Axum sometime around 305 (?) to begin a lifetime's work of evangelism, in so doing wresting Ezanas from his traditional beliefs. As linked to trade, Christianity proved a boon to the monarch.

"Around 350, Emperor Ezanas followed his commercial star westward into the Nile valley to secure Axum's trade in ivory and other commodi­ties. He acted because the Sudanese state of Meroe, in its decline, was unable to protect the caravan routes from raiding by the nomadic Beja. The Axumite army encountered little resistance as it made its way into Sudan (Kush), and, at the confluence of the Atbara and Nile, Ezanas raised a stela on which he described the ease of his conquests and thanked the Christian God for His protection. For the next few centuries, no state is known to have challenged Axum's trading monopoly on the African side of the Red Sea.

"The trade not only brought prosperity but stimulated important cultural changes. Greek remained the courtly language, but Ge'ez was increasingly the language of the people, and often royal inscriptions used the vernacular. There were Ge'ez versions of the Old and New Testa­ments, which tradition claims were translated from the Antioch version of the Gospels during the period of the 'Nine Saints,' who came from greater Syria toward the end of the fifth century."



Harold G. Marcus


A History of Ethiopia, Updated Edition


University of California Press


Copyright 1994 by the Regents of the University of California


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