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Ethiopia and Early Christianity

A team of archaeologists from various schools have been digging around in northern Ethiopia (from 2011 to 2016).  They have discovered the oldest known Christian church in sub-Saharan Africa: it dates back to the 4th century AD.  It and other discoveries indicate that Christianity came to the Aksumite kingdom earlier than anyone had thought.

The ruins of the church were found 30 miles NE of Aksum, the empire’s capital. Aksum emerged as a trading center in the first century AD linking the Mediterranean, east Africa, Arabia, and points east in extensive commerce.  The church was built in the 4th century AD, roughly during the time when the Roman emperor Constantine I decided to turn a more tolerant eye to Christianity.

The kingdom began to decline in the 8th to 9th centuries AD and rebuffed attempts to convert the population to Islam.

What researchers have discovered is the earliest physical evidence for Christianity in Ethiopia.  Today nearly 50% of all Ethiopians belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo Church.

The church is built on the footprint of a Roman era basilica (60’x40′).  Archaeologists found other things as well: a pendant made of stone carved with a cross and an inscription in Ethiopic asking “Christ [to be] favorable to us.”

For years we knew of a tradition which recounted that Christianity came to Ethiopia in the 4th century AD.  Most scholars, however, considered it more myth than fact.  Now there is hard evidence that Christianity existed there in the 4th century AD.  And if that is when the building is built, how much earlier are the first converts made?  Perhaps in the 3rd century AD.

For years scholars have known that trade routes played a key role in moving Christians and their gospel through and beyond the Roman Empire.

 

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