King Ezana of Axum
approx. 315 AD ~
The First Ethiopian Christian King
by Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
( Last updated: 09/09/2010 19:06:55)
“I declare Christianity as the official state religion of Axum!” shouted King Ezana. He might have not said those exact words but he said something similar to that. King Ezana (also known as Abreha or Aezana) was the first Christian King of Ethiopia, or more specifically, the King of the Axumite Kingdom. He made Christianity the state religion of Axum, making Axum the first Christian state in the history of the world. Axum (also spelled as Aksum) was the first great kingdom in Ethiopia (East Africa) as well as a powerful ancient kingdom in Africa. It was also the ancestor kingdom of modern Ethiopia. Axum’s capital, Aksum, is now the modern town of Aksum, Ethiopia.
Axum became an important kingdom around 50 AD and slowly became stronger and stronger. Axum became richer due to their port on the Red Sea, Adulis. It was the center of many traders. The people got imports and goods from countries ranging from Egypt to China to India to Rome. Axum also became more powerful and between 300 and 600 AD, Axum was seen as the most powerful kingdom in Eastern Africa. . They had experienced a respect for Judaism since the time the Queen of Sheba returned from visiting Solomon, from whom Axumite kings claim descendent. Monotheistic leanings held ground against the general animistic polytheism. Many Jews found their way to Ethiopia after the great Diaspora of 70AD. The religious shifts allowed the arrival of shipwrecked Christians to enter a field ripe for conversion. With a heritage that was said to trace back to King David, the leaders adopted the name “King of Kings” for themselves.
Ezana ruled from c. 330 – 356 AD. It is said that he succeeded his father, Ella Amida, and started ruling Axum when he was just a child with his mother as his supervisor and regent. When he was a child, he had a tutor who was a Syrian Christian called Frumentius. Frumentius was one of Ezana’s father’s counselors. Frumentius later converted Ezana and Ezana became a Christian at around 333 AD. Frumentius even baptized Ezana and his brother, Sheazana. Frumentius gave Ezana the name of Abreha, meaning Lightbearer, and Sheazana, the name of Asbeha, meaning Dawnbreaker. Sheazana co-ruled Axum with Ezana and both of them were often called Abreha and Asbeha. Ezana then made the state religion of Axum, Christianity. He made Frumentius the head of the Ethiopian Church. Frumentius and Ezana were both responsible for the increase in Christians in Axum. Ezana even made coins with crosses on them to spread his religion around the kingdom. These were the first coins in the world to have the Christian symbol on them.
Ezana also had success in military campaigns. He conquered many kingdoms along the Red Sea and its area. It is also recorded that in the 300 ADs, he conquered the Kingdom of Kush, which is now modern Sudan. Meroe, also fell into the hands of the Axumites. In 350 AD, Ezana invaded the island of Meroe and conquered it. Not only was Ezana successful in battle, he created several amazing and beautiful structures such as King Ezana’s granite steele (obelisk), which is the tallest standing steel, standing up to about 78 feet. Ezana is also credited as finding the Ark of the Covenant from the island of Tana Kirkos. He brought it back to place it in the Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion which he built and gave it to Ethiopian Christians.
Although Ezana made the state religion of Axum, Christianity, in the 600 ADs, Muslims started conquering the countries and kingdoms in Africa. As a result, Muslims and the religion of Islam surrounded the Christians in Axum. From 600 AD to around 900 AD, there was a big war between the Axumites and the Muslims, that is, the Christians versus the Muslims. The Axumites lost and the Muslims triumphed. However, Christianity thrived underground with bursts of revival. In the 13th century, 100 years after a flurry of massive European cathedrals were built, eleven churches in Lalibela, Axum were being carved from solid rock
Today, about 60% – 75% of Ethiopians are Christians (mostly in the South) and only about 25% – 40% of Ethiopians are Muslims (mostly in the North). Frumentius’ and Ezana’s perseverance to spread the religion of Christianity have not been wasted. In Ethiopia, the only country to remain continuously independent in Africa from antiquity, Christianity is still as strong as the monolithic churches whose seeds were planted by King Ezana of Axum.