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The Early Christian Basilicas of Ancient Aksūm (modern Ethiopia and Eritrea) Grasso, Valentina A.


More than a dozen structures attest to the spread of Christianity in the kingdom of Aksum, located in Ethiopia and Eritrea from the fourth century CE to the seventh century CE. The Aksumite King ʿEzana converted to Christianity in the early fourth century CE. The conversion took place shortly after Constantine’s own conversion and at a time when the neighboring kingdom of Ḥimyar located in South Arabia (modern Yemen and Saudi Arabia) converted to a Jewish-sympathizing monotheism around 380. Literary sources attribute Aksūm’s conversion to Christianity to the influence of the first bishop of Aksūm, a man named Frumentius, who was ordained by Athanasius. Local tradition states that at the end of the fifth century, nine saints/monks who had fled persecution in the eastern Roman Empire contributed to the founding of monasticism in the region. Early churches of Aksūm include the two tombs of the sixth-century negus Kaleb and his son Gäbrä Mäsqäl, located at a site known as Endā Kaleb. Southeast of Aksūm, the Basilica of Arbaʿətu ∃nsəsa presents a similar rectangular structure with three naves. Archaeologists have also identified two churches near Betä Giyorgis, a hill northwest of Aksūm, but only one of the two has been properly excavated. Archaeologists have also found a small basilica that has been tentatively dated to the sixth century at Endā Qirqos at Ḥawəlti-Melazo, ten kilometers south of Aksum. Outside of the capital of Aksūm, archaeologists have identified a basilica in the Ethiopian village of Agula (ca. 150 kilometers southeast of Aksūm). Several sites have been uncovered in Eritrea, at Adulis (near modern Zula), Mätära (ca. 150 kilometers northeast of Aksūm), Toḵonda, and Qoḥayto (both near modern Adi Keyh, ca. 20 kilometers north of the city of Mätära). The most recent addition to the early Christian archaeology of Ethiopia is the basilica of Betä Sämaʿti’, located near the modern village of Edaga Rabu. Radiocarbon analysis, along with the study of pottery, has demonstrated that the basilica was used as early as the 4th century CE and is thus one of the oldest basilicas in the Horn of Africa. The basilicas of Aksūm have an East-West oriented rectangular tripartite plan. A stone podium, an altar on the eastern side of the building, and monolithic pillars dividing the central nave from the aisles are usually present. The width and length of the nave and the number of columns can vary, and so do the narthex and apse.

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