The two Christian missionaries that showed up in the ancient northeastern African empire of Axum in the fourth century could not have been more unlikely. Kidnapped while traveling with a relative, the two young brothers were brought as slaves to the royal family’s household. But within a few years, an unexpected chain of events cast religious and political power into their hands. While the region had been familiar with Christianity for decades, the religion was soon to spread across Axum. Indeed, the brothers’ relationship with the kingdom’s future kings and their passion for spreading the gospel would alter the history and religious composition of what is now modern-day Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Today, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church these young men founded more than 15 centuries ago has survived estrangement from Rome, the spread of Islam, and repeated colonialization attempts. In a continent where Western Protestant theology and Catholicism looms large, the history of this institution offers a look at African Christianity that has existed for nearly as long as the church has itself.
A Great Power of the Ancient World
At its height, the Axumite Empire (A.D. 100–940) was one of the four great world powers along with Persia, Rome, and China. Due to its proximity to the Middle East, its strategic location adjacent to the Red Sea, and its open and outward-looking civilization, it played an important role in regional affairs. Between the third and the sixth centuries, the kingdom enjoyed control over large areas encompassing modern-day northern Sudan, southern Egypt, Djibouti, Yemen, and southern Saudi Arabia.
Axum was a wealthy empire known for its sophisticated irrigation, masonry, and its unique currency. Indeed, archeologists have discovered Axumites coins as far away as India. But the country’s commercial interests went even further—extending as far as China. Axum also drew the respect of the Roman Empire. By the fourth century, the relations between Byzantines and Axum become so significant that Constantine proclaimed equal treatment of Axumites and Romans.
Axum was also known for its writing system. Today, Eritrea and Ethiopia have the distinction of being the only two countries in Africa which use their own indigenous writing system: the Fidel (Geez). In fact, one of the earliest translations of the Bible was in Geez, a Semitic language, which is still used in Eritrean and Ethiopian liturgies. While not part of the biblical canon, the book of Enoch is only wholly extant in the Geez language. In the fourth century, Geez became the first Semitic language to be vocalized, a process where a sound/letter is turned into a vowel. (Much later, Semitic languages Hebrew and Arabic developed their own linguistic conventions to represent vowels.)
Axum was also respected for its justice-oriented political system. The Abyssinians (who we know today as Ethiopians and Eritreans) were known by the Greeks and Arabs as people of justice. Herodotus called them “the most just men.” Centuries later, when the first Muslims faced persecution, the prophet Muhammad instructed his followers to, “go to Abyssinia, for the king will not tolerate injustice and it is a friendly country, until such time as Allah shall relieve you from your distress.” The third caliph, Osman, was among the refugees.
Abyssinia was also an early home to the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Judaism entered Abyssinia with the Queen of Sheba and later with Jewish exiles and merchants from Yemen and Egypt. (The Jewish community still exists today, although many emigrated to Israel in the 1980s.) One of the earliest Christian baptisms recorded in Scripture was the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 who took his new faith with him to his homeland. Islam came to Axum before it went to its second holiest city, Medina. This migration is known as the First Hijra, when Muhammad’s first followers fled persecution in Mecca.
Christianity Comes to Axum
In A.D. 316, two brothers, Frumentius and Aedesius, were sailing on the Red Sea with their uncle Meropius, a Christian philosopher from Tyre. Earlier that year, the Romans had infringed on a treaty that allowed them to use the port of Adulis. So, when Meropius’s ship came to port, Abyssinian locals massacred the entire crew, only sparing the brothers so they could take them as slaves. The brothers became part of the royal household where they earned King Ella-amida’s trust as gifted teachers and administrators. In time, the king named Aedesius his cupbearer and Frumentius his treasurer and secretary. Ella-amida died shortly after the birth of his sons Ezana and Se’azana, leaving much of their care in the hands of his queen and his two trusted servants, who would introduce the young royals to Christianity.
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Source: Christianity Today