Archaeologists have made an important discovery in the Kingdom of Aksum, an ancient power in Northeast Africa, identifying two churches from the time after Aksumite’s conversion to Christianity. These are some of the first churches in the kingdom, dating indeed from this key period.
The Aksumite Kingdom dominated much of the northern Horn of Africa in the first millennium AD, stretching from Ethiopia to Arabia, and was an important contemporary of the Roman Empire. Like its Mediterranean neighbor, Aksumite’s leader – King Ezana – converted to Christianity in the 4th century AD, but churches dated with certainty from this period are rare, according to Phys.org.
However, two churches in the important Aksumite port of Adulis, in present-day Eritrea, help fill this gap.
One is an elaborate cathedral, complete with the remains of a baptistery, which is close to the center of the city and was first excavated in 1868. The other, first excavated in 1907, is located to the East and has a ring of columns suggesting that it once had a dome.
The churches, unearthed again after more than a century
After more than 100 years since these churches were first excavated, archaeologists have re-examined the buildings using modern techniques. Dr. Gabriele Castiglia, of the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archeology in Rome, Italy, is part of the team re-excavating and radiocarbon dating the site. This new data allowed them to accurately reconstruct the history of the churches, and the results were published in the journal Antiquity.
Research has revealed that the construction of the cathedral began between 400-535 AD. while the church was built 480-625 AD. This makes them some of the oldest definitely dated churches of the Aksumite Kingdom and the oldest known outside the central area of the capital. This shows a relatively rapid spread of Christianity in the Kingdom of Aksum.
“Having an accurate chronology for these churches is key to understanding how the process of conversion to Christianity shaped the geographic and cultural area,” said Dr. Castiglia.
The buildings reflect influences from diverse cultures
Crucially, the buildings show that the spread of Christianity was not the result of a single factor, such as King Ezana’s tenure. The churches include elements from many traditions, reflecting the various influences on the conversion of the kingdom. The domed church, for example, is unique to the Aksumite Kingdom and appears to be inspired by Byzantine churches. Meanwhile, the cathedral is built on a large platform in the Aksumite tradition.
Churches can also shed light on the later arrival of Islam. Adulis went through a period of gradual decline and the churches eventually fell into disrepair. The continued use of existing sacred spaces could indicate that a conversion of the region to Islam was also a multicultural phenomenon, with local customs mixed with the new religion.
Together, these buildings show that the religious history of the Horn of Africa was cosmopolitan, with diverse groups influencing the spread of beliefs.