An ancient church unearthed in Ethiopia suggests that Christianity spread to that country earlier in history than originally thought.
For Christians, that news shouldn’t be surprising. The New Testament recorded an early interaction between Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples, and an important Ethiopian traveler. Acts 8:26-39 tells how Philip met an official employed by the Queen of Ethiopia. The official was reading scripture. Philip explained to him how the prophecies described Jesus as the Messiah and Savior. The Ethiopian, it says, believed and was baptized.
An international group of archaeologists worked at a site called Beta Samati from 2011 to 2016. It lies near Aksum in northern Ethiopia. Aksum was the capital of the Aksumite Empire, which arose in the first century A.D. The scientists report discovering a 60-foot-by-40-foot rectangular building modeled after a Roman basilica (public building). Inscriptions and artifacts from the building prove it was a place of Christian worship. After dating some artifacts found inside the ruins, the researchers say the building was constructed in the early fourth century. That makes it the oldest known Christian church in the region.
The construction aligns with the time when Constantine was emperor of Rome. He legalized Christianity in A.D. 313. One of his successors, Theodosius, made Christianity Rome’s official religion some years later in A.D. 380. The discovery at Beta Samati convinced researchers that Christianity was already thriving in sub-Saharan Africa by that time.
Not much is known about the Aksumites. Archaeologists and historians agree that they were traders. Aksum stood on a major trade route connecting Africa to the busy cities and ports along the Mediterranean Sea. From there, merchants also traveled the Silk Road east to China and the rest of Asia. These trade routes tied together the ancient world, passing along not only fabrics, tools, and spices, but also ideas.
The discovery of a Christian church existing some 3,000 miles from Rome so soon after the events of the New Testament suggests that Christ was working through His followers. Before He ascended, He told them to tell the world about Him. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
The Aksumite Empire began to fade in the eighth and ninth centuries. But Christianity in Ethiopia did not. Even as Islam spread to the region, Christians kept the faith. Today, almost half of all Ethiopians still consider themselves Orthodox Christians.