Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Ethiopian Church |

Ethiopian Church is drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 66, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Surrounded on all sides by enemies, Christians of the north-east African kingdom have resisted colonization and Muslim domination for more than sixteen centuries

Ethiopian Church - Ethiopia’s enduring faith

Ethiopian Church - Ethiopia’s enduring faith
A Coptic priest (below) holds an ornate cross outside his church in Lalibela, Ethiopia. Christianity in the region can trace its roots back to the fourth century, and the mighty empire of Axum.

Early in the fourth century, a big Roman merchant ship, probably bound for India, put in at Adulis on the African coast of the Red Sea. A riot broke out, in which the local people put to death the entire crew and all the passengers, save for two boys, Frumentius and Edesius. They were traveling with their uncle, a Christian philosopher from Tyre on the east coast of the Mediterranean. Taken as slaves, the pair were sent inland to the royal court at Axum. By a swirl of circumstance, the stranded lads would become Christ’s first popular evangelists to black Africa.

The trek to Axum was short but exhausting, just eighty miles inland, but a climb of seventy-two hundred feet from the sea. Axum was the name of both the capital city and the kingdom, but its ruling dynasty was founding a state that would be known to history as Abyssinia, and later Ethiopia. Its Christian population would resist both European colonization and Muslim domination from that time to this, an achievement unmatched on the African continent. Crucial to that success was its topography. The Ethiopian heartland consists of high, generally fertile plateaus, surrounded by searing deserts and thinly settled prairies. It was a natural fortress whose unique civilization was already well known to the world when Frumentius and Edesius clambered unwillingly into its majestic confines.

At least two peoples provided its earliest recorded population. First came the dark-skinned inhabitants of Kush (later Nubia, and later still Meroe), in the Middle and Upper Nile Valley, south of Egypt, whom the Old Testament deemed the descendants of Noah’s son Ham. These merged with the Semites who arrived from South Arabia, bringing with them the plough, an alphabet and a religion called Judaism, a radical departure from the polytheism and witchcraft they had known.

The Jewish Ethiopians believe themselves descendants of a secret union between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:1—13) that the Bible does not record. This produced a son, Menelik I, founder of the Axumite dynasty, whose heirs would call themselves descendants of Solomon, until the Ethiopian monarchy was extinguished in the late-twentieth century. They add another touch. Visiting Jerusalem for his father’s blessing, Menelik made a duplicate of the Ark of the Covenant, substituted it, and brought the real one home, where it lies to this day in the Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion at Axum, they say. Though none of this is historically verifiable, two facts stand in its favor. What became of the Ark of the Covenant is unknown; it is believed to have been spirited away from Jerusalem to protect it from invaders. Second, the Axumite kingdom repeatedly invaded South Arabia, including Sabea (Sheba), so a royal connection is tenable.

Ethiopian history records that Menelik brought twelve thousand Hebrew settlers with him from Jerusalem, and that devotion to Jehovah soon replaced sun and moon worship. A considerable Jewish population has lived in Ethiopia ever since, known popularly as Falashas (“exiles”), but calling itself Beta Israel (House of Israel).1 That an Ethiopian eunuch, an official of state, should have been visiting Jerusalem for Passover early in the first Christian century was therefore altogether likely, and the deacon Philip’s successful preaching to him of the Christian gospel altogether possible (Acts 8:26—40).

But whether the Ethiopia referred to was Axum or the neighboring kingdom of Nubia is debatable, since it too was sometimes referred to as Ethiopia by the often-vague geographers of the time. Even so, the Ethiopian church has always claimed the eunuch for its own, and his influence on the monarchy made Ethiopia the world’s first specifically Christian government, says Archbishop L. M. Mandefro, author of The Ethiopian Tewahedo Church. The new faith saw the Great Synagogue of Axum rededicated as the Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion, he writes, resting place of the Ark of the Covenant and Ethiopia’s holiest sanctuary. The claim to be the first Christian nation, however, is disputed.2

When the captured Frumentius and Edesius were presented at the royal court more than two centuries later, Mandefro acknowledges, Christianity had not established itself at the popular level in eastern Africa. The Axumites were still erecting monolithic towers to the moon god, one of them over one hundred feet high, possibly the largest block of stone quarried in the ancient world.

The boys made a fine impression. Edesius eventually became the royal cupbearer, Frumentius the royal secretary and treasurer who, encouraged by the king, began baptizing people in significant numbers. When the king died, his widowed queen as regent made Frumentius tutor to her son, Ezana, and gave the former slave senior administrative duties.

Edesius returned to Tyre, became a priest, and told his story to a writer named Rufinus, who recorded it for posterity. But Frumentius, yearning to see the Ethiopians brought to the Lord, descended the Nile to Alexandria, met with the patriarch Athanasius, who consecrated him as a bishop, and returned to Ethiopia, where he became known as Abba Selama, Father of Peace, as well as Abuna (Father), still the title of Ethiopia’s patriarchs. He then produced the first Ethiopian translation of the New Testament. When Ezana became king, he helped spread the Word throughout Axum, and invaded pagan Nubia on the Upper Nile, bringing the faith with him. Thus Christianity sank deep and permanent roots in eastern Africa.

Toward the end of the fifth century, African Christianity surged again under the auspices of foreigners known as the Nine Saints, probably Monophysite refugees fleeing Byzantine persecution in Syria after the Council of Chalcedon. These nine individuals fueled an Ethiopian monastic movement, marked by severe austerity and a tendency toward eremitical (desert-style) practice. It saw some 850 Ethiopian monasteries founded, and the position of head monk established as first office under the patriarch, a post unique to the Ethiopian church.

Due to its Solomonic heritage, the Ethiopian church has retained a particularly Judaic outlook. Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, remains a day nearly as sacred as Sunday. Boys are circumcised. Many Mosaic laws regarding food, cleanliness, and purification are respected. Following the model of the Jewish Temple, an Ethiopian church has a compartment protected by a veil that shelters a model of the Ark of the Covenant, carved from wood, and inscribed with the Ten Commandments, as in the Hebrew Temple. Only a specially authorized priest may enter this holiest of places. When the Ark is carried out during festivals, it rests on a cupboard-like container with an open cupola at the top. In greeting it, priests play primitive musical instruments and dance, again reflecting Hebrew customs. The people shout “ellel” (the Hebrew word haliel means “praise,” familiar to other Christians as halleluja).

As well, the Ethiopian church retained until the twentieth century its ancient connection with Alexandria. The Alexandrian patriarchate reserved the right to assign an Egyptian monk as the bishop of Axum and its successor states. And like Egypt, Axum remained staunchly opposed to the Council of Chalcedon, in fact becoming the numerically largest church to maintain that position. Its official name is the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church, tewahedo meaning “oneness” or “one nature.”

Ethiopia unwittingly played a key role in the rise of Islam, since it was Negus Armah of Axum who sheltered refugees from Mecca during the critical first years of the Muslim movement. (See page 50.) Upon their victory, the appreciative Muslims consequently kept the peace for decades with these neighbors across the Red Sea. However, in the early eighth century, the Muslims gained control of Adulis, Axum’s big port, and the trade-oriented country began a sharp decline. Incessant warfare followed between the Muslims on the coast and Christians in the highlands. “Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of its religion, the Ethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by which they were forgotten,” writes Edward Gibbon in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Ethiopia was not alone in this long sleep. Also Christian was Nubia, the country to the west and north of Ethiopia that straddles the Nile Valley, which would one day form part of modern Sudan and southern Egypt. “It is often forgotten that for nearly a thousand years, Christianity was the official religion of the greater portion of the middle Nile basin,” writes Osbert Crawford, a British archaeologist, in Antiquity magazine.

Nubia’s relations with the Ethiopian highlands were minimal both before and after Ezana’s invasion from Axum in the fourth century.3 Bishop John of Ephesus reports that the emperor Justinian sent an orthodox mission there in about 540, while his wife Theodora quietly dispatched a competing Monophysite one. The Monophysite emissary found this furnace-like region staggeringly hot. “He used to say,” writes Bishop John, “that from nine o’clock until four in the afternoon he was obliged to take refuge in caverns, full of water, where he sat undressed and girt only in a linen garment, such as the people of the country wear.”

The Muslim invaders of Egypt first assaulted the Nubians in 641, but when they encountered Nubia’s skilled archers, they lost all interest in the job. The Arabs called them “pupil-smiters” because they habitually and accurately aimed their arrows at the eyes of the enemy. In 745, when the Muslims imprisoned the patriarch of Alexandria, the pupil-smiters attacked northward into Egypt and reached Cairo, before the Muslims released the patriarch and withdrew. Though centuries of periodic warfare followed, Nubia held Islam in check well into the second millennium. A tenth-century Arab visitor describes the Nubian city of Soba as having “fine buildings, spacious houses, churches with much gold and gardens . . . their bishops come from the patriarch of Alexandria . . . and their books are in Greek, which they translate into their own language.”

Nubia’s last Christian king died in 1323, but its Christianity does not appear to have vanished entirely into Islam. Some scholars theorize that the faith had always been confined largely to the upper class, whose interest may have ebbed when Christian Nubian dynasties intermarried with their Islamic counterparts. Another factor seems to have been immigration from the burgeoning Muslim population in Egypt. Despite the challenges, pockets of Christians survived in Nubian lands, and others would come. The dawn of the third millennium found their spiritual heirs in modern Sudan fighting for their lives against Muslim oppression.

This is the end of the Ethiopian Church category article drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 66, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Ethiopian Church from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at