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Ethiopia & Nubia
The Ethiopian branch of Christianity first emerged in the kingdom of Aksum in the northern corner of the Ethiopian highlands. The person who introduced Christianity to Aksum is said to be Fremnatos - known as Frumentius in Europe, later a saint. He is variously described as a trader, philosopher and theologian.
The story goes he was on his way to India when he was kidnapped in Aksum. He obviously made a good impression, because he ended up being the tutor to the future King Ezana. The King adopted Christianity as the official religion in 333 AD. Fremnatos was rewarded for this by being consecrated Bishop of Aksum at a ceremony in Alexandria. When the Aksum dynasty collapsed the Ethiopian centre of power moved south and east, taking the Christian tradition with it.
QUEEN OF SHEBA
The most popular story connected to the region is the ancient account of the Queen of Sheba. As told in the Old Testament, she travelled from Aksum to Jerusalem to meet the famed King Solomon (King of the Israelites) in Jerusalem.
Click here to listen to a dramatisation of the story of the Queen of Sheba's seduction by King Solomon
"And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to prove him with hard questions. And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones; and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart."
1 Kings, 10, v.1-2, Old Testament.
Although there is no evidence that the Queen of Sheba did come from Aksum, it has become part of the Ethiopian church's central tenets.
"The Ethiopians say she travelled from Aksum across the Red Sea…and visited Solomon there. It was said they had romantic relations and she had a son...and she came back and he was born to the north of Aksum.
When he was old enough, she sent him back to his father to get his blessing and his father blessed him and sent him back to Ethiopia…and this son established a new dynasty…the Solomonic dynasty. The name of the son was Menelik I…
Like all legends they serve the question of establishing an identity, very strong identity. I myself believe this is a post Christian legend…it developed only after the Ethiopians started to have direct contact with the books of the Bible, from about the middle of the 6th Century…
And then it became a very important constitutional device and an act of faith. I cannot publicly speak against it in front of the patriarch of the orthodox church, for example, because then he would say, you are no longer an Orthodox Christian.
In the days of Emperor Haile Selassie you couldn't speak against the tradition because it would be treasonable to talk against it."
Professor Tadesse Tamrat, Professor of History, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia.
Tesfay Berhane offers a guided tour of Axum and the Queen of Sheba's Palace
Listen to a mass, recorded at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Axum
SPREAD OF ISLAM
In the 5th and 6th centuries the scriptures were translated into Ge'ez. The ancient forerunner of the Ethiopian language Amharic. With the spread of Islam in the 7th century the Ethiopian Church fell into something of a decline, although there was a revival in the 13th century. In 1621 the Ethiopian Emperor Susenyos became Catholic. With his abdication however, links with Rome were abandoned and Jesuit priests were banned.
Although autonomous in its rulings, the Ethiopian church remained connected to the Coptic Church until the mid-20th century.
Christianity spread South from the North of Egypt to Nubia (modern day Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan) some two hundred years after the collapse of the powerful Nile Valley kingdom of Meroe in the 4th century AD. It was brought by traders from Egypt and by travelers from Aksum.
Archaeological remains suggest that Christianity was a religion of the poor people to begin with and only later became popular with the elite. A missionary who came to Nubia from Constantinople found everybody well versed in Christian doctrine in 580. Initially the Nubian Church developed under the control of the Egyptian Coptic church. When Islam swept through the North of the continent in the 7th century, the Nubian rulers sought help from the Christian Emperor in Constantinople.
The Arab forces did their best to conquer Nubia but were forced back by the skills of the Nubian archers.
"One day they arrayed themselves against us and were desirous to carry on the conflict with the sword. But they were too quick for us and shot their arrows, putting out our eyes. The eyes they put out numbered 150. We at last thought the best thing to do with such a people was to make peace."
The Arabic writer al-Baladhuri.
The Arabs agreed a peace treaty with the Nubians, which allowed the Nubian kingdoms to flourish as a Christian state for 700 years. The two northern kingdoms, Nobadia and Makuria merged into one - Dongola. Dongola entered something of a golden age; the bible was translated from Greek into Nubian and beautiful churches were built throughout the Nile Valley.
The Church in Nubia finally yielded to Islamic conversion in the 14th century and the massive Cathedral in Dongola was converted into a mosque in 1317.
While the Nubian church dissolved, with only a few architectural remnants to recall its former glory, the Ethiopian Church not only persisted but acquired great significance outside the Horn of Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The ancient nature of the church, combined with the Ethiopian defeat of the Italians in 1896, gave hope and inspiration to the anti-colonial movement in South Africa, and the Gold Coast, as well as to African-Americans suffering from prejudice and segregation.