How the King of Ethiopia became Christian:
Embedded in his long description of Constantine’s reign in book 10, Rufinus provides back-to-back narratives of the evangelization of Aksum and Iberia. He begins with the story of Aedesius and Frumentius, two Christian youths from the city of Tyre who were shipwrecked along the Red Sea coast and sold into slavery, prob- ably near Adulis, Aksum’s chief port. Their native talent and Greek education came to the notice of the local king (possibly Ella Amida or Ousanas) who made Aedesius his cupbearer and Frumentius the master of his correspon- dence and accounts. They became indispensable servants, and after the death of the king and his testamentary manumission of the youths, his widowed queen asked them to stay on and administer the kingdom during the minority of her young son, Ezana. They agreed, and largely under the direction of Fru- mentius, Christian merchants were granted privileges and places of worship. Once the young king reached his majority, Aedesius and Frumentius returned to the Roman world. Frumentius went to Alexandria, where he reported to bishop Athanasius the favor accorded to Christianity by the new king and the need for a formal mission with a bishop and priests. Recognizing this tremendous opportunity, Athanasius appointed the obvious man for the job, Frumentius, as the bishop. Frumentius then returned to the kingdom where, as Rufinus puts it, “many barbarians were converted” and where “from that time on, there came into existence a Christian people.”
Pre-Christianity in Ethiopia: (Hebrew & Kushite traditions)
Both kingdoms possessed a pre-Christian religious substratum that included, if not clearly established Jewish communities, at least an indigenous receptivity to ideas and practices within the currents of Jewish life in the Mediterranean. Setting aside the traditions enshrined in the Kebra Nagast about the queen of Sheba and Solomon, and their son Menelik and the com- ing of the Ark of the Covenant to Aksum, there is much in the Aksumite reli- gious background that echoes Judaism.28 Abstention from pork appears to be a pre-Christian practice, and concepts about sacral kingship and ritual purity also reflect this influence.
Aksum was the only kingdom in ancient sub-Saharan Africa to mint coins, and one of four contemporary kingdoms in the world to issue gold coins, a testimony of Aksum’s wealth, power, and role in international trade. In approximately the same year as Chrysopolis, the Aksumite king Ezana I made a signifi- cant change in the iconography of his coins.3 Previously, Aksumite kings were shown proudly wearing a diadem while overhead there was a solar disc within a crescent moon, representing the Aksumite gods for the sun and moon, or Mahrem, the warrior-god whom the kings took as their special patron. Ezana abruptly replaced this traditional religious iconography with a new symbol, the Cross, which remained prominent on Aksumite coinage until its end in the seventh century. One of Ezana’s near successors in the mid-fourth century went further and depicted a large cross that nearly filled up the reverse of his coins. This prominence given to the Cross predates any analogous depiction on Roman coinage.
Political role of early Christianity in Ethiopia
Once the kings of Aksum and Iberia had espoused Christianity, it is pos- sible to discern similar dynamics in the relation of the monarchs with local aristocratic power brokers. Christianization served to enhance the centraliza- tion of both kingdoms, a process that had been taking place since the mid- third century. The Aksumite kingdom, focused on the person of the monarch, grew in power by swallowing up and subordinating local tribes and “states.” The hegemonic structure of the kingdom is expressed by the most common title for the Aksumite king, the negusa nagast, or “king of kings.” Much of the political history of the Aksumite state, commemorated in royal inscriptions, consisted of the suppression of local revolts against the authority of the negus by entities longing for their former independence. Other inscriptions boast of the negus’ conquest of new peoples, either peacefully, with the incorporation of the local polity and its aristocracy into the Aksumite state, or militar- ily, resulting in the confiscation of lands, enslavements of the less privileged, and the deportation of the elite.54 As one of Ezana’s inscriptions curtly puts it: “Those who obeyed him, he spared; those who resisted him, he put to death.”55 The kings and chieftains of these new Aksumite possessions evolved into a class of powerful nobles, whose numerous funerary stelae, tombs, and sumptuous aristocratic residences are scattered over the sites of Aksum and the subordinate city of Matara.
The assertion of royal priority in matters of religion strengthened the hands of the monarchs in dealing with the local lords. Even if, as in the case of Iberia, the king was a relative latecomer to Christianity, he quickly became the new religion’s chief promoter. In both kingdoms, an important stage in this process is the construction of the kingdom’s principal church in the capital through the lavish bestowal of royal patronage.
The Coptic Church of Alexandria, father of the Ethiopian Church.
The Aksumite church closely followed the theological stance of its hierarchical leader, the Alexandrian patriarch. Nearly the entire Egyptian (or Coptic) church stoutly supported the cause of patriarch Dioscorus, the “Militant Father” who was exiled after Chalcedon. As a consequence, the fifth-century Aksumite church followed Alexandria into schism, and the Ethiopian church remains non-Chalcedonian to this day.