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date: 06 December 2023

Archaeology of Christianity in Ethiopia and Eritrealocked

Archaeology of Christianity in Ethiopia and Eritrealocked

  • Tania C. TribeTania C. TribeCentre of African Studies, SOAS


Christianity entered Ethiopia via the Kingdom of Aksum in the 4th century ad, within the context of the international trade linking the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean during the 1st to 7th centuries. Adopted by King ‘Ezana and the Aksumite elite, it gradually spread among the general population of the Ethiopian and Eritrean highlands. This social process intensified after the 5th century with the arrival of numerous missionaries from the Roman and Byzantine Empires. Archaeologically, this process is manifested through changes in the form, decoration, and use of objects; for example, crosses began to appear on Aksumite coins and ceramics, were used as pendants, or were inscribed on pre-Christian sites of symbolic and ritual importance. The Christianization process also expressed itself through the adaptation of old temples to the new practices and the appearance of rock-hewn churches, often in a basilica form. Indigenous types of round architecture would also gradually become common practice. During the Middle Ages, Christianization accompanied the emergence of the state and the construction of rulership in large areas of the Ethiopian highlands. Two main Christian dynasties emerged at that time: the Zagwe, based in and around the monumental architectural complex of Lalibäla, comprising eleven rock-hewn structures that all now function as churches; and the Solomonic dynasty, whose first ruler, Yəkunno Amlak, had his family domains on the Wadla plateau, centered around the cave church of Wašša Mika’el. This was located twenty-three miles southeast of Lalibäla, carved into an outcrop of rock in the middle of a broad valley surrounded by low hills and containing friezes of hunting and herding scenes in low relief, suggesting the space had been occupied prior to its conversion to a Christian church, as well as a cycle of religious wall paintings dateable to the 13th century. More distant regions of Ethiopia, such as southern Šäwa and parts of the provinces of Bägemdər and Goǧǧam, were only Christianized as late as the 14th and 15th centuries.


  • Archaeology
  • East Africa and Indian Ocean

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