Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian kingdoms in the world. Christianity was first introduced in Ethiopia during the fourth century by King Ezana (Abraha), one of the most popular kings of Axumite Kingdom.
King Ezana ruled between 330 and 356 AD. He inherited the throne following the death of his father. According to the Kibrenegest, a manuscript which records the biography, works and adventures of Kings who ruled ancient and modern Ethiopian empire, since Ezana and his brother Sayzana were too young to hold the throne, their mother Sawya (Sophia) served as queen regent.
Though both brothers were legitimate to inherit the throne, Ezana had the upper hand in passing decisions concerning the Kingdom of Aksum. How was Ezana converted to Christianity? His father has chosen St. Frumentius or Aba Salam (the father of peace), a Syrian monk as his tutor and this afforded ample opportunity for the child to be molded in Christian norms.
In addition to teaching Ezana, the monk has played decisive role in the introduction of Christianity in Aksum through offering training for people to be priests and bishops. The converts were very instrumental in spreading the word of God for the Axumite society and other conquered territories. He is also accountable for baptizing King Ezana and his brother Sayzana. Growing up learning religious and moral lesson, King Ezana had been attracted to Christian faith and obliged to be baptized. After being baptized, the King has changed his name to Abraha meaning in Geez language ‘Light bearer. Thus, after he took his father’s throne, he declared Christianity as state religion of his Kingdom.
Since then, King Ezana became the first King in Africa to receive Christianity and made his Kingdom the first Christian Kingdom in the continent. He minted coins with the sign of cross on them so as to spread his religion throughout his Kingdom and neighboring kingdoms and trading partners. Due to this, the coins are noted as the first coins ever found in the world to possess the Christian symbol.
Yonas Kebede, History Lecturer at Addis Ababa University told The Ethiopian Herald that the declaration of Christianity as state religion of the Aksumite Kingdom has paved a way for Ethiopia to be one of the ancient Christian Kingdoms in the planet.
‘‘King Ezana could be remembered by many accomplishments. The most notable is his effort to adopt Christianity. It was extremely difficult to change the mind of the people who believe in polytheistic religion into Christian. But through his wisdom and skillful leadership, he had managed to achieve what he had planned,’’ he said.
Beyond declaring Christianity, King Ezana had inherited to succeeding generations many remarkable accomplishments. According to Yonas, Ezana had made his Kingdom one of the four superpowers of that time. The kingdom was strong economically, politically and militarily during Ezana’s rule.
‘‘Aksum was very dominant in all sectors. It controlled the Red Sea route which continues as the busiest trading channels till this time. Coins which were minted by King Ezana ,and which were later found in India and Greek showcase how much strong the Kingdom was. Not only this, he is credited for the expansion of Aksum’s territory up to present day Sudan, Somalia, Kenya and Southern Arabia.’’
King Ezana was wise enough to record his personal achievements and the success of his Kingdom in curved stones. He used to write on curved stele in Geez (which was the official language of the Kingdom), Greek and Sabean languages. He used to record his battle front adventures and other administrative issues.
‘‘The stele was magnificently curved pillar which contained ancient mystery. It depicts his conversion to Christianity and his declaration Christian faith as his state religion and his remarkable victory over the Kush, a powerful neighboring Kingdom of that time. Any tourist who want to bear eye witness to Aksum could pay homage to the stele standing upright,’’ Yonas added.
As expressed above, Ezana was successful in military feat. He had conquered many Kingdoms in East Africa using his mightiest military power. The whole of Red Sea route was under his control. According to Yonas, the Kingdom of Meroe (Nubia) which is now Sudan was competitor of Aksumite Kingdom. Having understood this, King Ezana declared war on Meroe and achieved colorful victory. The victory gained there had helped him to expand his territory and to control more resources and trade routes.
Moreover, Historian Yonas Kebede hails King Ezana’s diplomatic skill that he was very smart in persuading the then leaders and society to come together for common interest. Likewise, his wise treatment of those people who were colonized after fierce battles was highly admired. They were safe from slavery, discrimination and oppression as long as they proved willing to respect the rules and regulations of the Kingdom. As he was very humble and generous King, he used to resettle them in fertile land around Aksum and allow them to assimilate with Aksumite societies.
‘‘It was really unthinkable at that time a king would treat his subjects in such civilized manner. His leadership wisdom had entitled him to conquer more territories and to expand trade transactions,’’ he insisted.
Besides, King Ezana is known by his granite obelisks which are still standing in the city of Aksum. Ezana is also praised for finding the Ark of the Covenant from Tana Kirkos, near Bahir Dar, Amhara State’s capital. He it brought back to Aksum, to be secretly housed or placed in the Cathedral of St. Marry of Zion, which was built by him.
Another accomplishment of the King is constructing rock-hewn churches in different parts of his territory. One of the incredible rock-hewn churches ever built by King Ezana is Abrha we Atsbha church that was notched out of mountain between 335 AD and 340 AD. The church was built in memory of himself and his twin brother Sayzana (Atsbeha). Local traditions believe that mummified bodies of the twin Kings were buried in the church.
Robel Tizazu, a tour guide for his part said that the 1800 years old church depicts many artifacts which could amuse tourists.
‘‘Abreha we Atsebeha is more than a church. It is fascinating museum that has contained centuries old mesmerizing heritages. Abrha we Atsbeha has an amazing murals, paintings, ancient manuscripts and crosses. More than anything, the architectural style of the church is extremely breathtaking.’’
Not only Abreha we Atsbeha, he built many other rock-hewn churches. Among them is Cherkos Wukro, located 500 meters away from the town of Wukro and 13 Kms away from Abreha we Atsbeha. Cherkos Wukro has splendid architectural style. Like other churches and monasteries in Tigray, Cherkos Wukro was burnt by Yodit Gudit, a non-Christian queen who is believed to have demolished the obelisk of Aksum, monuments and other heritages.
King Ezana is still considered by many Ethiopian Orthodox Church followers as a Saint. His immense sacrifice in adopting, preserving and inheriting Christianity has helped him to claim the sainthood status. Accordingly, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church commemorates the feast of King Ezana (Abrha) and his brother Sayazana (Atsbeha) on October 14th. During this important day, there is joyful festivity in the church of Abreha we Atsbeha.
Robel remembers the festivity as wonderful religious carnival that many followers, who converge from different parts of the country, spend unforgettable time.
‘‘ Once I did go there. Big tents were erected to accommodate tens of thousands of pilgrimage.
After attending the church ceremony, people eat and drink to their hearts' content. As I have witnessed many times, local and foreign tourists express their joy and amusement during this wonderful day.’’
To sum up, Ethiopia has untapped tourism potential which was accumulated in its 3,000 years history. Not only the life and works of Kings but also there are many cultural, historical and natural wonders which could attract millions of tourists from around the world. Having realized this, the government through Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Culture and Tourism Bureaus and other partners are tirelessly striving to promote the nation’ tourism heritages. As a result, the tourist flow is increasing from time to time. Thus, if the government fulfills basic infrastructures, the smokeless industry will be a huge foreign currency generator in the coming years. In addition, peace and stability highly important for tourism development should be sustainable. And every Ethiopian must contribute his/her due part in ensuring peace.
BY TSEGAY HAGOS