Archaeologists working in Eritrea have identified the remains of two Christian churches that were once part of the medieval Kingdom of Aksum. Construction on these churches may date as far back as the fifth century AD.
The Aksumite Kingdom was a regional power in the first millennium AD, ruling over a territory encompassed parts of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. Christianity spread into the kingdom by the fourth century, with the Aksumite leader King Ezana (320s – c. 360 AD) converting during his reign. However, little physical evidence remains of this early stage of Christianization.
The research into two churches from the important Aksumite port of Adulis, in modern Eritrea, is helping fill this gap. One is an elaborate cathedral, complete with the remains of a baptistry, that is located near the centre of the city and was first excavated in 1868. The other, first excavated in 1907, is in the east and features a ring of columns that show it once had a dome.
Over a hundred years since these churches were first excavated, archaeologists are re-examining these buildings with modern techniques. Dr Gabriele Castiglia, from the Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana, is part of a team digging them back up and carrying out radiocarbon dating on the site. This new data has allowed them to accurately reconstruct their history, with their findings being published in the journal Antiquity.
“This study provides one of the first examples of Aksumite churches excavated with modern methods and chronological data coming from modern dating methods,” said Dr Castiglia.
The research revealed construction began on the cathedral between AD 400-535, while the domed church was built AD 480-625. This makes them some of the earliest securely dated churches in the Aksumite Kingdom, and the oldest known outside the capital’s heartlands. This shows a relatively rapid spread of Christianity through the Kingdom of Aksum.
“Having a precise chronology for these churches is key to understanding how the process of conversion to Christianity shaped the geographical and cultural area,” adds Dr Castiglia.
Crucially, the buildings show that the spread of Christianity was not the result of a single factor, like a mandate by King Ezana. The churches have elements from many traditions, reflecting the diverse influences on the kingdom’s conversion. The domed church, for example, is unique in the Aksumite Kingdom and appears to be inspired by Byzantine churches. Meanwhile, the cathedral is built on a large platform in the Aksumite tradition.
The churches can also shed light on the later arrival of Islam. Adulis underwent a period of gradual decline and the churches eventually fell into disuse. The researchers did find that the cathedral was later used as a Muslim burial ground. “This is one of the first times we have the material evidence of re-appropriation of a Christian sacred space by the Islamic community,” Dr Castiglia notes.
The continued use of existing sacred spaces could indicate the region’s conversion to Islam was also a multicultural phenomenon, with local customs mixed in with the new religion. Together, these buildings show the religious history of the Horn of Africa was cosmopolitan, with diverse groups influencing the spread of beliefs.
This research is part of a wider project Adulis: Archeological Excavations, Christian Heritage and Training, which focuses on the origins of early Christianity within the Aksumite Kingdom.
The article, “An archaeology of conversion? Evidence from Adulis for early Christianity and religious transition in the Horn of Africa,” by Gabriele Castiglia appears in Antiquity. You can access the article through Cambridge University Press.