Excavating sites in the dusty highland mountains of Ethiopia, researchers were stunned when they uncovered a structure that would later be identified as the oldest known Christian church in sub-Saharan Africa. The find sheds new light on one of the Old World’s most arcane kingdoms in history and its surprising early conversion to Christianity.
Scientists from around the world came across the site some 30 miles northeast of Aksum, which was once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Aksum in what is now Eritrea and the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia.
The ancient kingdom was a trading empire that emerged in the 1st century AD and would go on to dominate large swathes of eastern Africa and western Arabia.
Using radiocarbon to date the artefacts found at the church, the scientists were able to estimate the church’s being built in the 4th century AD.
This corresponds to the time when Roman Emperor Constantine I legalised Christianity in 313 AD, going on to convert to the religion on his death bed in 337.
The discovery’s findings have been published in a paper in the journal Antiquity, and confirm the longstanding Ethiopian tradition that Christianity arrived in the African nation at an early date, at a distance of nearly 3,000 miles from Rome.
Huge distances were involved in the spreading of Christianity from Rome, with the new find suggesting the religion was picked up and transported via trading networks that linked the Mediterranean with the Red Sea.
From these links, traders and religion alike trickled down through Africa and south Asia.
Michael Harrower of Johns Hopkins University, the archaeologist leading the expedition, said: “The empire of Aksum was one of the world’s most influential ancient civilisations, but it remains one of the least widely known.”
Helina Woldekiros, an archaeologist at St. Louis’ Washington University who was part of the team explained that the Aksum served as a “nexus point” linking the Roman Empire and later the Byzantine Empire with unscathed lands further south.
These trade links, fulfilled by camel, donkey and boat, introduced silver, olive oil and wine from the Mediterranean to cities along the Indian Ocean, which in turn brought back exported iron, glass beads and fruits.
The kingdom enjoyed huge amounts of powers, with the sovereigns styling themselves on the King of kings – a title viewed as equivalent to emperor.
They regularly extended their political influence into the neighbouring kingdom of Arabia, and eventually gained control over a vast area of Yemen.
Its tight grip on the region, however, began to break at the seams in the 8th and 9th centuries, as its influence faltered and unrest broke out.
The kingdom was eventually forced to contract its control to the Ethiopian highlands, yet it held on to its Christian roots in the face of the spread of Islam in the surrounding areas.
Relations between Christianity and Islam were at first relatively peaceful, with a mutual respect and common links.
A sourness between the two increased over time, and by the 16th century the kingdom was regularly coming under attack from the Somali and then Ottoman armies – though, it managed to retain its strategic and religious autonomy to the highland regions, where the church was found in Aksum.
For early Christians the risk of persecution in the face of the Romans was so high that believers often worshipped in private so as not to be found and killed.
Thus, it has proved difficult for scholars of the period to confirm many facts and details about Christianity from the time.
The find, then, has opened a treasure trove of fresh historical and academic knowledge.
Aaron Butts, a professor of Semitic and Egyptian languages at Catholic University in Washington, D.C said: “This find is to my knowledge the earliest physical evidence for a church in Ethiopia, as well as all of sub-Saharan Africa.”
Professor Harrower’s team have worked on several sites in the region for years, conducting work between 2011 and 2016 at an ancient settlement called Beta Samati, this site having appealed to researchers since it housed temples dating back before the rise of Aksum – their hoping to find some undiscovered artefacts.
Alongside the church, the researcher’s biggest discovery was a huge building 60feet long and 40feet wide that resembled an ancient Roman style of a basilica.
These buildings were often developed for administrative purposes, the basilica being adopted by Christians at the time of Constantine for their places of worship.
Within and near the Aksumite ruins, the archaeologists also found a diverse array of goods, from a delicate gold and carnelian ring with the image of a bull’s head to nearly 50 cattle figurines, all proving the existence of a pre-Christian belief system.
Main image copyright: Getty Images
Written by: Joel Day