Ethiopia claims one of the oldest national traditions in Christendom. In the second quarter of the fourth century, the Ethiopian king, Ezana, together with his court, converted to Christianity. At the request of Ezana, St Athanasios, bishop of Alexandria, appointed Ethiopia's first bishop. Royal initiative thus founded a national church episcopally dependent on Alexandria. We know little about the pace of popular conversion, but Christianity did become embedded in the farming communities of the Ethiopian highlands, where it remains a deeply popular religion.1 Royal dominance and popular commitment were the two poles of historic Ethiopian Christianity. Performing the role of mediator between these were, on the one hand, the Egyptian-appointed bishops, and on the other - and more importantly - the monasteries, which dotted the landscape, both geographical and cultural.
Ethiopian history unfolded on a high tableland, much intersected by mountain ranges and deeply fissured river valleys, which, during the principal rains lasting from mid-June to mid-September, is extremely difficult to traverse. The Ethiopian plateau lies at the southern end of the Red Sea and at the headwaters of the Blue Nile, the source of Egypt's annual flood. Christianity came to Aksum, then the principal town on the northern plateau, as part of the Hellenistic culture of the traders who plied the Red Sea in the early centuries of the era.2 The Aksumite kingdom was the most powerful state in the southern
1 For this, as for so many other issues, see the masterly work by Taddesse Tamrat, Church and state in Ethiopia, 1270-1527 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972). Also useful, but more problematic, is SergewHable Sellassie, AncientandmedievalEthiopianhistory to 1270 (Addis Ababa: United Printers, 1972).
2 Good accounts of Ethiopia's classical history are S. Munro-Hay, Aksum: an African civilization of late antiquity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991); Munro-Hay, 'Aksum. History of the town and empire', in Encyclopedia Mthiopica (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2003), 1, 173-9; and D. W Phillipson, Ancient Ethiopia: Aksum, its antecedents and successors (London: British Museum Press, 1998).
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