When the typical American thinks of Christianity, he or she usually visualizes a religion of Western Europe and the New World. If we consider the issue for a moment, however, we must realize that Christianity is actually a Near Eastern religion. Its spread into Europe and especially into the New World came relatively late. Indeed, Christian missionaries were preaching in Africa, India, and even China when the English were still mostly pagans.
Christianity took root in Africa long before it dominated Europe. In apostolic times, Philip converted an Ethiopian eunuch who was the treasurer of “Candace” (Acts 8:26-40). (“Candace” is not a name but a title given to the queens of the African monarchy of Meroe, in Nubia, in the modern Sudan.) Presumably, he returned thereafter to his assignment at court, perhaps founding a small Christian community in the Sudan in the first century AD. African tradition maintains that this eunuch–whom it knows as Qinaqis–preached in Ethiopia as well. In the following centuries, Christian teachers and merchants slowly entered Africa along the trade routes of the Nile valley, the Red Sea, and North Africa, which became home to both Tertullian and Augustine, two of the greatest early Latin Church Fathers.
In the early fourth century, a Christian merchant named Frumentius was captured by pirates in the Red Sea and sold into slavery to Ezana, the pagan king of Ethiopia. As a slave at court, Frumentius demonstrated great skill, eventually (like the biblical Joseph) becoming an important minister of the king, who converted to Christianity around 347 AD. Frumentius was then consecrated as the first bishop of Ethiopia. Thus, only a few decades after the Roman emperor Constantine embraced Christianity, Ethiopia had become a Christian kingdom. Although full conversion took centuries, Christianity has remained fundamental to Ethiopian identity ever since.
The Ark of the Covenant
But Ethiopian traditions link their country to biblical history at an even earlier period. The Queen of Sheba and King Solomon are said to have had a son, David Menelik. Upon the apostasy of Israel after the death of Solomon, say the legends, Menelik was commanded by an angel to take the Ark of the Covenant and a group of faithful Israelite priests and flee to a new promised land, Ethiopia. Ethiopia thus became the true Israel. Through David Menelik, medieval Christian Ethiopian kings claimed descent from Solomon, preserving their Solomonic dynasty until the twentieth century. The Ark of the Covenant, which David Menelik brought to Ethiopia, is said still to exist in a church there, from which it is carried in procession once a year, guarded by a beautiful canopy from the gaze and touch of the profane.
Although the links have sometimes been tenuous, Ethiopians have maintained ties with the Coptic Church of Egypt for centuries. Nonetheless, Ethiopian Christianity has remained independent in many ways. Like the Egyptian Copts, Ethiopians accept a monophysite Christology that was condemned as heretical by the forerunners of the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholics in the fifth century. Ethiopian independence is most clearly manifest in their canon of scripture. In addition to the traditional books of the Bible, Ethiopian scripture includes the book of Enoch. Although fragments have been found in Aramaic in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the book of Enoch has been preserved in its entirety only in Ethiopic manuscripts.
Christian influence in Ethiopia manifests itself at all levels of society. The great churches at Lalibela, for example–dating to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries–represent a unique form of Christian architecture–churches entirely carved from rock. Christian themes infuse Ethiopian art in the fine metalwork of religious implements as well as in painting and manuscript illumination. Biblical figures are often depicted as Ethiopians, with black African features and traditional garments, just as medieval and Renaissance Europeans painted Christ and his apostles as northern Europeans dressed in then-contemporary clothing.
Today there are some thirty million Ethiopian Christians throughout the world. In Jerusalem, Ethiopian monks, priests and pilgrims are a common sight. Tall and ruggedly handsome in their white pilgrim robes, they can be heard singing psalms in Ethiopic and shouting “hallelujah” in a city where they have maintained a small independent Christian community for over a millennium and a half.