By Stuart Munro-Hay
Not very much is known of the early centuries of church history in Ethiopia. After the royal adoption of Christianity, numbers of people may have simply followed the lead of the monarchy. Beyond this predictable guidance from a powerful ruler towards his subordinates, we have no idea which particular features of the new faith may have made it appeal to the Aksumites, but in time Christianity became a strong influence in Ethiopia. Constantius II’s attempt (Ch. 4: 5) to subordinate Frumentius to his Arian appointee in Alexandria was unsuccessful, and Frumentius, under the names Feremnatos or Abba Salama, is still revered in Ethiopia as the founder of the faith. The lists of the metropolitans (which do not always include the same names) show a continuous line of Abuns of whom nothing at all is known (Guidi 1871; Zotenberg 1877; Chaine 1925; Ayele Teklahaymanot 1984; Munro-Hay, forthcoming). Other bishoprics were established, including Adulis. One incumbent of the latter see, Moses is known from a travel account dated to the fifth century (Derrett 1960; Desanges 1969).
The main event of the period and one which had a profound effect on Christian Ethiopia was the arrival of missionaries, like the so-called `Nine Saints’. They came largely, it seems, from the eastern Roman Empire, doubtless fleeing from persecutions there (Sergew Hable Sellassie 1972: 115ff). After 451 AD the Council of Chalcedon had condemned the monophysite belief, but Alexandria and its dependent churches continued, despite the persecution, to hold to the doctrine of Christ’s single nature. The Ethiopian hagiographies refer to an influx of `Roman’ Christians at about this time as the Tsadqan, or `Righteous Ones’. They, and the Nine Saints, and doubtless others like them, possibly including some Syriac-speaking Roman subjects, began or continued the spreading of Christianity into the Ethiopian countryside, and established their hermitages in places which are still local cult centers. Two of these missionaries, Abba Liqanos and Abba Pantelewon, are commemorated by churches in the environs of Aksum itself, on small hills which may have previously been pagan sanctuaries. Pantaleon’s monastery is said to have been the place where king Kaleb retired after his abdication (Budge 1928: III, 914). The missionary Abba Afse went to Yeha, site of the largest and most important Sabaean temple in the region. A number of these wandering monks are said to have suffered persecution from the pagan inhabitants of the land, before their miracles, and some timely help from the royal armies in the case of the Balaw-Kalaw or Bur people near Matara (Sergew Hable Sellassie 1972: 125-6; Schneider 1963: 168) persuaded the populace of their virtue.
Monasteries like Debra Damo were also founded by the sixth century (though the surviving church is thought to be rather later — Buxton 1970: 102). This particular monastery is supposed to have been founded by Kaleb’s son Gabra Masqal on the site where another of the Nine Saints, Aregawi, settled. He was the founder of monasticism in Ethiopia, and it becomes frequent in the hagiographies to hear of people retiring to either hermitage or monastery. Both Kaleb and his son Wa`zeb followed Ezana’s example in emphasizing their faith by the epithet Gabra Krestos, servant of Christ, in their inscriptions (Ch. 11: 5).
Biblical quotations appearing in the inscriptions indicate that the translation into Ge`ez was well underway by the fifth to seventh centuries. The Aksumites received apocryphal books as well; the Book of Henok (Enoch) and others are only preserved in their entirety in their Ge`ez versions (Ullendorff 1968: 34). Some works dealing with the rules and regulations of monastic communities were also translated; these would have helped in the establishment and regulation of the Aksumite monasteries.
By the sixth century, if the Ethiopian legends are to be believed, the liturgical music attributed to Yared was being used (Ch. 13: 4). Ethiopian church ritual today contains many extraordinary features, which may well date even to pre-Aksumite times. There is also a strong Jewish element, owing to Jewish influences received, it seems, before the introduction of Christianity. The modern `Ethiopian Jews’ the Falashas, present, according to Ullendorff (1973: 106-7), a remarkable mixture of pagan, Jewish and Christian elements from Aksumite times. Their `Judaism’ would not be more than a reflection of those Jewish elements imported into Ethiopia from South Arabia, which have been added to both pre-Christian and Christian beliefs.
Abuna Aregawi gets a ride from an obliging python.
The distance and irregularity of patriarchal supervision must have allowed many things to be retained in, or adopted by, Ethiopian Christianity, which Alexandria might not have entirely condoned. Thus there is a very individual slant to Ethiopian church ceremony. Deacons (called dabtara) dance before the tabot or ark at festivals, whilst the music of drums and sistra, local violins and trumpets accompany the splendid chants of Yared. The sistrum was used in ancient Egypt and may have entered Ethiopia from there; though its use doubtless spread in later times through the worship of Isis in the Roman empire. Special festivals, like Timkat, a ceremonial re-baptism, and the keeping of the Jewish Sabbath, annoyed the Catholic Portuguese and contributed to their failure in Ethiopia. Circumcision is practiced, priests marry, magical spells with a Christian overtone are employed for defense against demons, and innumerable fast and feast days swell the church calendar. Much of this must have existed already in the Aksumite kingdom, and from what evidence we have it seems that the Ethiopian church quickly became one of the great institutions in the country.
The Aksumites do not seem to have been plagued with many heresies, but there is an interesting account which does mention one. When the Byzantine bishop Longinus, in the 580s, was in the southern Nubian kingdom of Alodia, he came across persons who had been converted to the heretical belief of Julian of Halicarnassus (who held that Christ’s body was incorruptible), by Aksumite missionaries (John of Ephesus, ed. Brooks 1952: version 180; Vantini 1975: 20 for an English translation). Perhaps these had been sent in the days when Aksum still claimed suzerainty over the Noba; the last incidence of such claims is that of Wa`zeb in his inscriptional titulary. In any event, Longinus persuaded those who advocated this heresy that they were wrong and received their recantations. The account, preserved by John of Ephesus, is interesting in that it tells us that in the sixth century Aksumites were propagating the Christian faith in Africa and Arabia.
Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity
- 2-1. The Legends of Aksum
2-2. Aksum in Ancient Sources
2-3. The Rediscovery of Aksum in Modern Times
- 3-1. The Landscape
3-2. Origins and Expansion of the Kingdom
3-3. The Development of Aksum; an Interpretation
3-4. Cities, Towns, and Villages
3-5. The Inhabitants
3-6. Foreign Relations
- 4-1 The Pre-Aksumite Period
4-2 Early Aksum until the Reign of Gadarat
4-3 Gadarat to Endubis
4-4 Endubis to Ezana
4-5 Ezana after his Conversion, to Kaleb
4-6. Kaleb to the End of the Coinage
4-7. The Post-Aksumite Period
- 5-1. The Site
5-2. The Town Plan
5-3. Portuguese Records of Aksum
5-4. Aksumite Domestic Architecture
5-5. The Funerary Architecture
5-6. The Stelae
- 7-1. The King and the State
7-2. The Regalia
7-3. Dual Kingship
7-5. The Royal Titles
7-6. The Coronation
- 8-1. Population
8-2. Agriculture, Husbandry, and Animal Resources
8-3. Metal Resources
8-4. Trade, Imports and Exports
8-5. Local Industries
- 9-1. The Origins
9-2. Introduction and Spread of the Coinage
9-3. Internal Aspects of the Coinage
9-4. The Mottoes
9-5. The End of the Coinage
9-6. Modern Study of the Coinage
- 10-1. The Pre-Christian Period
10-2. The Conversion to Christianity
10-3. Abreha and Atsbeha
10-4. Ecclesiastical Development
- 11-1. The Inscriptional Record
11-2. The Military Structure
11-4. The Fleet
11-5. The Aksumite inscriptions
- 15-1. The Failure of Resources
15-2. The Climate
15-3. External and Internal Political Troubles
15-4. The Najashi Ashama ibn Abjar
15-5. The NatsaniDaniell