Christianity in Ethiopia, had a bloody past to hold onto the Monotheistic ideals they forged in the 4th century.
fighting off both the Muslims and the Roman Catholic Church. Starting from chance. the Christian religion has only become more prominent inside the country, despite the hardships the people that followed the religion have had to face throughout its’ history. This Religion, with its isolation for the western religions and only having theological discussions with its neighbor Egypt, has remained largely unchanged through the centuries. The Romans mishandling of its relations with Ethiopia through the church history, may have been very different inside the Ethiopian church, if the Catholics had handled relations with a gentler hand.The adoption of Christianity in Ethiopia can be dated back to the 4th century in the kingdom of Aksum, under the reign of Emperor Ezana. This was the first of the emperors in the Aksumite empire, to follow Christianity. The kingdom of Aksum was located in modern day northern Ethiopia, just below Egypt, and across the Red sea from Arabia.
With all of these other large countries around them and access to the Red Sea, the kingdom became located on major international trade routes with access to India and the Roman empire. The kingdom was a major navel and trading power from the first to the seventh centuries and it is because of these crucial trading routes, that Christianity was able to be spread to Ethiopia. The man credited with bringing Christianity, was Frumentius. Frumentius was on a Syrian trading ship, as he was a Syrian apostle and was trying to spread Christianity around the world. The ship landed on the Kingdom of Aksum’s shores to stop for supplies, but was soon attacked by soldiers from Aksum. The soldiers killed all of the crew except for two men, Frumentius and his brother. Frumentius and his brother were then brought to the capital and became civil servants to the court and King Ezana’s father, where he and his brother convinced them to convert to christianity. After the death of the monarch, Frumentius and his brother were set free and Frumentius joined the court as the royal administrator.
He became tutor to the crown prince Ezana. He was then permitted to grant religious freedoms to visiting Christian merchants traveling around the country, and also was able to preach, growing christianity’s influence inside of Ethiopia. After his duties were finished and Ezana had taken the throne, Frumentius visited St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria in the year 347. Athanasius ordained Frumentius and he became the first bishop of Ethiopia. Athanasius asked Frumentius to create a cultural adaptation of the Greek Christianity’s biblical-liturgical texts to the language of ge’ze, the traditional language in the kingdom of Aksum. Because of this the link, the Egyptian Coptic church and the Ethiopian churches were born. Frumentius returned to Ethiopia to set up his Church and erect churches inside of Ethiopia.
He baptised the Emperor Ezana, and Christianity became the official religion of the Aksumite Kingdom. This shift can be seen with evidence found by the German-Aksum expedition where two inscriptions were found on stone tablets. They were written by the Emperor Ezana. This tablet is dated before Frumentius’ return and states his ideals for the protection of his kingdom using the ideals of a polytheistic pagan religion. The second table,t dated to the later part of Ezana’s reign says, “I will rule the people, with righteousness and justice, and will not oppress them, and may they preserve this throne which I have set up, for the Lord of Heaven”.
This second tablet is evidence to the shift in the ideals of the Emperor after his baptism and conversion of the country to Christianity. Another artifact of this Empire that shows the shift to Christianity, was the change in the national currency’s design. The first iteration showing on the sides a crescent shape and a circle and the second being etched, with the Greek cross. Even with Christianity being held up as the national religion, that does not mean that people inside of Aksum all had forsaken their beliefs to the old gods.
Paganism still was practiced throughout the country. Even with the advent of Christianity in the country, problems loomed ahead, in the near future. A religious debate started in the country in 451, with the council of Chalcedon. This continued after years of theological debate, about who Christ was in relation to God. The council decided that Christ was both full divine and human, the perfect specimen.
These two natures did not mix and both natures are held up and preserved totally, according to the Roman doctrine. This caused a split in church doctrine in the east, and the Romans wish to unify the church’s doctrine backfire. A new ideal in the Egyptian coptic churches came about, starting a monophysite theology. These churches believed that Christ was of one divine nature and this theology persists even today. Because of Ethiopia’s access to the rest of the Christian world was limited, the church inside of Ethiopia followed the lead of their neighbors of the Egyptian coptic church and denounced the ideas of the council of Chalcedon.
They upheld the belief of a monophysite theology. With the theological debate in Ethiopia not surrounded by Roman influence and not being invited to the council, they were ignorant to the new ideas being brought foreword by the Roman theologists, and this is what led to their monophysite ideals. Egypts influence was strengthened even more soon after the council meeting, with the coming of the nine saints into Ethiopia from Egypt. In the year 500 a party of Syrian monks came through Egypt to Ethiopia. These monks are called, the Nine Saints. These monks left from the Roman controlled religious countries, because of their different ideas about doctrine.
They were forced to leave their respective countries or be prosecuted by the Roman emperor for being anti-Chalcedonian. When they arrived in Ethiopia, they studied the native language of Ge’ze to become familiar with the people and customs of Aksum. After they believed that they had an understanding of the people of Aksum, they set out in different directions around the country to establish institutions that followed the monastic religion. The nine saints changed the way that people worshiped in the country, by destroying the old pagan culture and turning the old pagan monasteries into new monasteries, that followed the Christian faith. The Nine Saints biggest contribution was their work to develop the Ge’ze liturgy and literature. The Saints introduced new vocabulary into the language, but their greatest contribution was the translation of the Bible into Ge’ze. This work had already begun by Frumentius, but only the most basic of texts were translated at that time.
The Nine Saints finished this task and used a syrio-greek text because they were familiar with both languages. Each Saint, most likely, translated one portion of the Bible. This is the reason why there are many differences in the way different parts of the bible are written. After this expansion of Christianity in Ethiopia, there were at least 4 dioceses, each headed by a bishop and ranged in importance. The most important was the metropolitan of Axum and the second most important was the diocese of Adulis.
All of the bishops were from Egypt, and this strengthened the ties between the Coptic Church in Egypt and the Church of Ethiopia. All of this continued until the 7th century, when war caused a severe drop in the supremacy of the Ethiopian Church. The 7th through the 13th century, is known as the “dark ages for Christianity in Ethiopia.
” There are not many definitive informational sources concerning this time period, but some is still known. Arabian conquests helped spread paganism back through the country, and during the tenth century Judith the queen of Samen seized and destroyed Aksum, wiping out all traces of Christianity from the city. This caused, not only the spread of Paganism to the non-christian populous, but also to the already established community of Christians which began absorbing their thoughts and customs with their worship .
This degraded the pure religion that was created by the efforts of the last centuries. In the 13th century, Ethiopia saw another influx of monks from Egypt wanting to restore the old church, to its former prominence in the country. For two centuries, the monks produced a large amount of literary activity, translating even more documents into Ge’ze, including the new testament of the Bible and various church rituals. These were then given to the already established churches inside Ethiopia, giving the churches more material to preach to their communities. With this new scripture, it spurred a resurgence in theological discussion among the Ethiopians.
The church was back on the rise with many more monasteries and churches being built during this period, including the monolithic churches of Lalibela. The first account of these churches was written about by Father Francisco Alvarez in 1540 a portuguese priest who said. “I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed.” These monuments were a testament to the genius and engineering of the Ethiopian people. These churches were built by using only hand tools, but it looks like these monuments were built of a single stone. It was a amazing feat and unfortunately before more people could witness their grandeur, the Muslims partially destroyed them. Because of the new regrowth of the church, the news of this quickly moved out of Ethiopia. After the news of the churches regrowth, and unfounded stories of a powerful and wealthy king named Prester John reached the court of Portugal, this caused portugal’s king to look for new trade routes and aid, to fight the growing influence of the Muslims and to send a diplomatic mission to Ethiopia.
The diplomatic party was sent in the year 1487 and was received well by the Ethiopians, but the Ethiopian court did not allow them to leave the country, but they did allow the missionaries to talk with their countrymen during this time. Also during this time, the Muslims were attacking Ethiopia and in the beginning of the next century, the Muslims began attacking with renewed vigor. After a long expedition around Africa and Asia in search of spices Covilha landed in the court of the Ethiopian Emperor Eskender where he was given lands and lordship, but as was stated before was not allowed to leave the country. After Eskender’s death, his successors continued this trend and did not allow Covilha to leave the country. In 1510, a call for help was sent for aid to the Portuguese from the attacking Muslims, but the messenger was delayed and by the time they arrived In 1520, the Ethiopians had already won some decisive victories against the Muslims and no longer needed the allies that the king of Portugal sent. Because of their lack of need and the time it took for Portugal to send aid, it caused the new ambassadors to not be treated as well as their predecessors. Covilha was also allowed to talk with these ambassadors. Portugal ambassadors were Mateus and missionary Francisco Alvares and upon seeing them it is said, that he wept with joy seeing men from his own country.
At that time, Covilha had been in Ethiopia for thirty years as the Emperor’s prisoner, and stayed the kingdom’s prisoner until his death in 1526. Covilha was valuable to the Kingdom as a interpreter because of his extensive knowledge of all the spoken languages of Christians, Muslims, and Gentiles and for this reason he was kept in Ethiopia for the remainder of his life. After the Portuguese left, the Muslims came back and succeeded in destroying the entire country, but the Emperor refused to surrender and spent the remainder of his life fleeing from one hiding hole to the next, fearing for his life.
In 1541, another Portuguese expedition came to Ethiopia, but were badly beaten by the Muslims. The remaining forces from this expedition rallied the native Ethiopians and with their help pushed the Muslims out of Ethiopia for all time. With the turmoil in the country, the Roman Catholic Church took advantage and in 1547 the empire sent a bishop to the country to try to turn the Ethiopian church to the Roman theology. The first Bishop was named Orviedo.
He was an intolerant man and because of this did not find much success in his mission. The first man to have any success in instituting the religion in Ethiopia was father Peter Paez, who lived in Ethiopia from 1603 to 1622 and was accepted into the court by the Emperor, at the time, Za Dengel. Paez convinced Za Dengal to convert and accept the new rule of the Roman church, but when Za Dengal declared himself in favor of the Roman Church, the people revolted. The people of Ethiopia, that followed the old religion, could not stand the destruction of their theology in favor of the Roman rule and started a rebellion. Emperor Za Dengal was murdered in the revolt. Yaqob succeed Za Dengal but was soon defeated by Susenyos, who then took the throne and brought Ethiopia, the closest it ever was to being converted, to the Roman Catholic Church.
Susenyos was influenced by Paez to follow the same path as his predecessor Za Dengal, and in 1622 made a public declaration to the Roman Catholic Church. He forced the people of Ethiopia to follow the religion and placed a high punishment on those who choose to continue following the old religion. Because of this declaration, more rebellions followed, but unlike his predecessor, Susenyos was able to quell the rebellions. Paez, soon after the declaration, unfortunately, did not see the fruits of his labor because he passed away.
Before his death, Paez asked more more priests and a patriarch to manage the growth of the new religion. This Patriarch was named Alfonza Mendez, but he did not understand the cultural and nationalistic people that he was supposed to preside over, and pushed the emperor for even more control over the church in Ethiopia. In 1626 under Mendez’s guidance, the emperor made a complete surrender to the rule of the Catholic church, and presueded the emperor to pass more intolerant laws stating that all those who did not follow the Roman Churches law were to become the enemies of the state. This caused more rebelion from the people, and the emperor, tired of all the bloodshed, advocated in 1631 to relent and proclaimed the ability for all to follow their own religious inclinations. This angered Mendez and forced the emperor to change back to the original decree, stating that people who did not summit, would be enemies of the state. If it was not for this, the Roman church would most likely still have a place inside Ethiopia, but because of greed or selfishness on the part of the Romans, it started events that would push the entire religion out of Ethiopia, until the present day.
Because of more revolt and bloodshed, Susenyos in the year 1632, advocated the throne in favor of his son Fasilides. Fasilides was strongly against the Roman rule and set about immediately dismantling the Romans’ rule, in favor of the old religion. Fasilides went about restoring the old religion to its former prominice and in 1635 forced Mendez and the rest of the Europeans, out of Ethiopia, and all that would not leave were executed.
Mendez fled to India and then tried to force the Portuguese into providing military aid in restoring the Roman Catholic rule in Ethiopia, but the king refused his requests and soon after, the Roman church ceased its attempts to bring the Ethiopian church under their law. After this, the church of Ethiopia has remained unchanged all the way up until present day. There were few attempts from other religions to bring the Ethiopians under their ideals, but all of these attempts were stopped easily and the Ethiopian church has stayed in prominence to this day.
The steadfastness of the Ethiopian Church is a testament to the will and determination of the people of Ethiopia. The Romans and the Muslims cruelty to the people ended with both attaining the opposite of their goals. Both were pushed out of Ethiopia for the rest of their History. The Romans may have had a chance to hold and grow their influence in Ethiopia, but because of their heavy handed approach, what they caused was rebellion from the people and eventually being pushed out of Ethiopia entirely. The Ethiopian church grew deeps roots throughout the country and even with the plant ripped from the soil, the roots held fast and regrew each time, even stronger.