Ethiopian Church History - 7th to 12th Century

ETHIOPIAN CHUCH HISTORY (7th - 12th Century) #

The rise of Islam and its impact on Ethiopia #

The period following the rise and the rapid expansion of Islam in the near and the Middle East was a very critical one for the Christian kingdom of Axum. The whole civilization and culture of Axum, as well as its economic life, was based on its international maritime connections, Ever since the Egyptian Pharaoh Ptolemeys had taken a scientific and economic interest in the Red Sea area, Axum had become an integral part of the Hellenic world. Axum held the same position also during the Roman and Byzantine Empires. It was indeed not a mere coincidence that the Church in Axum was established immediately after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of his Byzantine dominions. There seems to be no doubt, now, that there were many individual Ethiopian and foreign Christian’s residing in the Aksumite kingdom, even before the formal establishment of the Church there. But the crucial step taken by Ezana to adopt the new religion and to make it a state Church followed upon a similar imperial decision by Constantine. It was also from the Eastern Mediterranean that the first Christian missionaries come to Axum. Abune Salama and others such as the Nine Saints came from the Byzantine world, and endowed the Aksumite Church with its earliest characteristics. These regular contacts continued down to the seventh century, and all-important economic, political, and religious developments in the Byzantine world were also reflected in Axum. With the rapid Muslim conquest, however, these historical channels of communication were almost completely cut off. Only with the Alexandrian Church did Christian Ethiopia continue to have precarious contact.

Before the rise of Islam, Axum was an extensive maritime and commercial Empire. In its heyday, it ruled many districts in the southwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula, across the Red Sea. It controlled the land of the Beja, a people who inhabited northern Eritrea and what northeastern part of the Republic of the Sudan. In the west, the political and military sphere of influence of Axum had already reached the Nile valley by the fourth century A.D. Beyond the River Takazz’e, the district of Semien and probably also the region as far as Lake Tana were within its territorial limits. However, it was in the south, in the predominantly Agew populated areas of Tigrai, Wa’ag, Lasta, Anogot and Amhara where the heritage of Axum struck its deepest roots. When almost completely excluded from the Red Sea trade, and having lost its maritime international orientation, the kingdom of Axum turned towards this Agew interior, and made it the center of a distinctive Christian culture over the centuries.

The rulers of Axum had acquired strong footholds in these central highlands already before the establishment of the Christian Church in the kingdom. They sent numerous expeditions of war and conquest into these areas from where they obtained tribute and a continuous supply of ivory, gold, and slaves. The Aksumite governor of the Agew was responsible for the long-distance caravan route to Sassou-some where near Fazolgi in eastern Sudan -from where Axum obtained much gold. These precious commodities were used for the international trade across the Red Sea in which Aksum was most active.

After their conversion to Christianity the kings of Aksum consolidated their power by establishing churches and military colonies in these central highlands. There are still today a number of churches many of them dug out of the living rock in Tigrai and Lasta-which are attributed to the early Christian kings of Aksum. These churches and military settlements became centers of still further movements of small family groups from the more crowded parts of northern Ethiopia. In this way, the areas as far south as the region of northern Shoa were gradually affected by these slow population movements. Local traditions indicate that already in the tenth and eleventh centuries a number of small isolated Christian families had been established in the districts of Menz, Merhabite, Muger, and Bulga in northern Shoa. The spear head of Aksumite expansion may have even further south and east. This seems to be suggested by the geographical distribution of some of the Semitic languages of Ethiopia-Amharic, Argobba, Harari, Guragi, and Gafat.

All these regions in which the Aksumite were expanding were originally pagan lands, and the people spoke different Cushitic language. We have no historical data to show how these people lived, and how they were socially and politically organized before the advent of Aksumite rule. When the Aksumite conquered them, however, they imposed upon them their own religion, language, and Political organization. It was this Aksumite impact on the Agew and Sidama interior of the Ethiopian region which resulted in the creation of a number of small, predominantly pagan kingdoms of which we have distant echoes in the traditions of early and late mediaeval Ethiopia. Among these, were the political units of the Athagaw (=Agew) mentioned in the inscriptions the Aksumite kings against whom fought long wars of resistance; the Semenoi (that is, the ancient people of Semien) who also fought against, and were conquered by the Aksumite; the pagan kingdom of Gojjam, (also of Agew extraction),which was only integrated into the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia in the fourteenth century; and the legendary kingdom of Damot (probably inhabited by Southern Cushitic or Sidama peoples),which was still very strong between the tenth and thirteenth centuries in the whole region south and south-west of Shoa.

The beginnings of the Zagwe' Dynasty #

One of these political units, the kingdom of Bugna in Lasta, later emerged in the twelfth century as the most dominant single power in the region, and took control of the inland Empire that was once ruled by Aksum. The new rulers are collectively known as the Zagwe Dynasty in Ethiopian history and the y ruled the world of the Christian kingdom until the last quarter of the thirteenth century. The power of Aksum had declined, and her commercial supremacy in the Red Sea area had been taken first by the Persians and later by the huge Muslim Empire which dominated the whole of the near and Middle East and Northern Africa. The descendants of the ancient rulers of Aksum thus lost their Red Sea ports and much of the semi- desert coastal strip, and they seem to have concentrated their attention on their inland provinces south of Aksum. Even Aksum was apparently abandoned as a political center by the ninth century, and the center of gravity of the Christian kingdom moved to the region of southern Tigrai and what is today northern Wollo.

For about three centuries this area remained the center of the kingdom, which revived, once again, with a new identity as a land-locked Christian Empire. It entered a new period of conquest and expansion, and, according to an Arab historian of the tenth century, its political sphere of influence reached the region of Harar and Zeila. The same historian tells us, however, that in the middle of the same century the kingdom had suffered a number of military reverses, and the southern part of its territory was conquered by an apparently pagan queen, the queen of the Banu al-Hamuiyya, who had diplomatic and commercial relations with the Muslim kingdom of Yemen. The new political situation seems to have brought about a period of decline and internal conflict in the Christian kingdom. But the kingdom held on in the northern part of its territories unit the new Zagwe rulers took over in the middle of the twelfth century as we have mentioned earlier.

The term “Zagwe dynasty” means the dynasty of the Agew. As already stated above its rulers came from the district of Bugna, in Lasta. Their homeland was apparently one of the most important strongholds of the Agew people in their centuries-old relations with the Semitized Agew kingdom of Aksum. It was probably here that the armies of ancient Aksum were confronted with very strong movements of resistance when they were expanding southwards. It was also probably here that the Aksumite governor of the Agew had his headquarters from where he protected the long-distance gold trade of Aksum in the sixth century. All the dialectical groups of the Agew peoples consider this region as the land of their ancestors, and as a point of dispersal in their traditions of population movements. It was therefore not accidental that the Agew dynasty of Christian Ethiopia should emerge from precisely the same area.

The Agew people of Wa’ag and Lasta had already been within the Aksumite kingdom since the early centuries of the Christian era. It has already been said above that many churches in this area are attributed to the early Christian kings of Aksum. It was also in southern Tigrai and in Angot (northern Wollo), just next door to Wa’ag and Lasta, that the Christian kingdom had its political center for three centuries after the decline and fall of Aksum. The Agew peoples of these areas had therefore been profoundly acculturized by the Aksumite kingdom, and they had even adopted Christianity as their religion. The Agew kings of the Zagawe dynasty were therefore completely Christian from the start. They had, however, successfully resisted complete assimilation, particularly in a linguistic sense. Thus, although it is certain that they used Ge’ez as the language of their church services; they apparently continued to use their Agew mother tongue for their daily needs. Signs of this bi-linguality are clearly seen in some of the land charters given by the Zagwe kings in Ge’ez. In the major aspects of their rule, however, the Zagwe kings continued the cultural and political legacy of Aksum.