How Did the Kingdom of Aksum Give Birth to Ethiopian Christianity?

Under King Ezana and his successors, the Kingdom of Aksum became Africa’s first Christian state. This was the dawn of Ethiopian Christianity.

Jun 10, 2024By Greg Pasciuto, BA History

aksum ethiopian christianity


Picture an ancient state — let’s say around 1,700 years ago. Under its ruling dynasty, this state converted to Christianity, becoming one of the earliest places to do so. Its rulers, whether out of genuine religious conviction, political opportunism, or both, styled themselves as great defenders of the one true faith.


No, this isn’t the Roman Empire. It’s actually one of its contemporaries: The Kingdom of Aksum. This grand state, located in modern Eritrea and Ethiopia, made a name for itself as a major trading hub in late antiquity. Aksum’s religious conversion marks the beginning of the long history of Ethiopian Christianity. Today, the ancient kingdom may have long since crumbled, but its legacy, in the form of Ethiopian Christianity, is still alive and thriving.


Before the Dawn of Ethiopian Christianity in Aksum

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Map of the Kingdom of Aksum during the 6th century CE, superimposed on top of modern countries’ borders. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica


Archaeological evidence places the foundation of the Kingdom of Aksum at some time during the 1st century CE. At its height, the kingdom’s territory stretched from Ethiopia and Sudan in the west across the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula. Researchers believe that Aksum’s identity as a country was inseparable from its status as a trading hub. It had trading connections with all of the great Mediterranean and Middle Eastern powers of its day, including Rome, Egypt, and Arabia. Aksumite coins have been discovered across the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean.


Before the coming of Ethiopian Christianity, religion in Aksum resembled that of pre-Islamic Arabia. Ethiopians worshiped many gods, each with a different attribute or function. Even after the kings of Aksum instituted Christianity, some pre-Christian beliefs and rituals persisted. Later kings, however, would likely have denied any “pagan” influences in their culture.

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Fourth Century Changes: The Arrival of Frumentius

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Ancient ruins in Tyre, Lebanon, the birthplace of Frumentius. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica


Tradition cites the 4th century CE as the beginning of Ethiopia’s Christian era. Everything is said to have started with the arrival of a merchant from the north — a man by the name of Frumentius. The narrative goes that Frumentius and his brother came from Tyre, in modern Lebanon. The brothers were on a boat in the Red Sea, when the ship unfortunately ran into trouble. Local pirates harassed the Phoenician travelers and took them captive. From there, they were enslaved, eventually making their way to the royal family of Aksum.


Even though they were slaves, Frumentius and his brother won the favor of Aksum’s king and queen with their knowledge. Frumentius became a more committed Christian in Ethiopia, advocating for Roman and Greek merchants in the country. He also obtained a valuable position at the Aksumite court. It was here that he would meet the crown prince, Ezana, becoming his teacher.


King Ezana’s Conversion

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King Ezana of Aksum, after converting to Christianity, Source: Austria-Forum


The future King Ezana of Aksum was young when his mother introduced him to Frumentius. Although still enslaved, Frumentius had considerable freedom to instruct Ezana on important topics. The Levantine merchant-missionary must have left a meaningful impact on the crown prince, given what was to come.


Sometime during the first half of the 4th century (possibly the 330s), Frumentius traveled north to Alexandria, Egypt. He met with the Coptic Church’s patriarch, Athanasius, with one request: that a bishop be appointed for Africa south of the Nile. Athanasius approved and made Frumentius himself Aksum’s head missionary. He was free to begin conversion efforts among the Aksumites.


Before Prince Ezana had reached legal maturity, his father died. His mother ruled in his place for the first several years of his kingship. When Ezana was old enough, he not only accepted the crown but also the Christian religion. Frumentius himself was allegedly the one who baptized the new Aksumite king. Ethiopian Christianity had dawned.


Later Developments: Aksum’s Expansion

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Aksumite coins featuring the image of King Kaleb I, early 6th century CE. Source: The British Museum


As the king who initiated the development of Ethiopian Christianity, Ezana is the best-known of Aksum’s rulers. But he wasn’t necessarily its most ambitious. That distinction could arguably go to Kaleb I, who reigned 200 years after Ezana. Under Kaleb’s rule, the Kingdom of Aksum reached its zenith, conquering new territories and strengthening its trading and religious networks.


Kaleb came to power around 514. He appreciated both Ethiopian and Greek culture and inscriptions in Greek have been found in Aksum’s ruins. He was also a contemporary of the Byzantine emperors Justin I and Justinian and Kaleb developed economic and diplomatic ties with them both. Aksum came to not only dominate the Red Sea region, but it made a name for itself as a global economic power.


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Inscription in Arabian script detailing Kaleb’s campaign on the Arabian Peninsula. Source: Institute of Advanced Study


Aksum’s conquest of southern Arabia (modern Yemen) was the greatest achievement of Kaleb’s reign. Allegedly, an Arabian leader called Dhu Nuwas had converted to Judaism and went about persecuting local Christians. Given Aksum’s historical supremacy in the region, Kaleb could not let this stand. The king sent an army to Yemen, conquered the territory, and defeated Dhu Nuwas. Aksum’s direct domains now extended to the other side of the Red Sea.


How accurate is the narrative of an Arabian Jewish warlord persecuting Christians en masse? We really have no way of knowing the full answer. Perhaps it had a more symbolic meaning, representing the triumph of Christianity over other religious traditions. Regardless, the conquest of Yemen cemented Kaleb’s legacy as a great Christian king. The modern Ethiopian Orthodox Church recognizes him as a saint, as do Ethiopian Catholics.


The Decline of Aksum

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Aksumite ruins with several stelae still standing, Source: Heritage Daily


The Kingdom of Aksum stayed Christian for centuries after kings such as Ezana and Kaleb were gone. But its society started to decline around the 7th century. Archaeologists have not discovered any Aksumite coins from this time period, and the rulers of Aksum had long since stopped building monuments. Aksum’s territories would recede when Islamic armies conquered the Arabian Peninsula. The kingdom continued to trade, but it was losing control over its merchant networks.


It was not just the Muslim conquests or local invasions that contributed to the fall of Aksum. Scholars suspect climate change may have played a role, too. Without their access to the Red Sea, the Aksumites had to produce more of their own goods, including food. Agriculture and irregular periods of rainfall combined to degrade Ethiopia’s soil. By the middle of the 10th century, Aksum could not sustain itself any longer.


The Legacy of Aksum and Ethiopian Christianity

Ethiopian triptych depicting Jesus, Mary, the Apostles, and Saint George, 18th or 19th century. Source: The New York Review


When a once-powerful society collapses, very rarely does everything it once upheld cease to exist. Sure, a country’s culture might undergo dramatic changes, but the past never entirely fades away. This was true of the Roman Empire, and it is equally true of the Kingdom of Aksum.


Ethiopian Christianity survived Aksum’s fall. If anything, it became even more vibrant. Historical and archaeological evidence from Ethiopia’s next dynasty, the Zagwe, is hard to come by. What little evidence is available, however, suggests continued Christian devotion and state patronage of the religion. The eleven rock-cut churches of Lalibela (Link to Lalibela Article 6476), for example, are a testament to early medieval Ethiopian Christianity and Aksumite architectural styles.


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Ethiopian Orthodox priests in a procession, 2021. Source: Oxford Center for Mission Studies


The final dynasty to rule Ethiopia, the House of Solomon (1270-1974), went even further in upholding Orthodox Christianity. The Solomonic emperors crafted an intricate narrative linking their rule to both the Kingdom of Aksum and Biblical figures like King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The emperor was seen as being divinely approved; it was his duty to protect and promote Ethiopian Christianity. A 14th-century epic, the Kebra Nagast, chronicles the imperial family’s legendary genealogy in great detail.


The old city of Aksum still exists, as well. It continues to occupy a central place in Ethiopian Orthodoxy, as it did over a thousand years ago. Many Ethiopians believe the sacred Ark of the Covenant rests in Aksum’s largest church, the Church of Our Lady, Mary of Zion. We have no way to verify this claim, but the legend testifies to Aksum’s importance as a spiritual center for Ethiopian Christianity.

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By Greg PasciutoBA HistoryGreg is a Stonehill College graduate and aspiring writer and editor from Boston, MA. When he isn’t working his full-time job, you might find him reading, completing creative word searches, or just looking to learn new skills for life. His historical interests are particularly centered on the history of religion and the interactions of different cultural groups. Not limited to a single geographic region, Greg enjoys uncovering the stories of cultures all around.