How Ethiopians Built The Church

One of my uncles was so hostile to Christianity, he refused every rite of passage associated with the church. When my grandfather grilled him on why he wasn’t making it to his confirmation classes, this uncle broke down all the ways Christianity perpetuated white supremacy in South Africa, how it endorsed apartheid and was a continuation of the Great Colonial Game Show: you want the bible or the gun?

One of my grandmothers wholly rejected Christianity. So much of her thinking and African cosmos helped me ground my spirituality outside the Church, even as a kid, even as I attended a Catholic school and pinned to wear those fancy white wedding dresses.

So, by the time I hit puberty, it was game on. Along with everything else I rejected as part of a white supremacist project, Christianity went out the door. 

The way I remember it, I stopped processing my hair and gave up on Jesus in pretty much the same teenage breathe. 

Haven’t looked back since. And yet… 

I now have a much more nuanced appreciation and respect for Christianity, even though I’m clear-eyed about the damage the Church has done on the continent (alongside many other organized religions) in the name of “civilization.”

Rock-carved church of Lalibela. Image: TripAdvisor

And I wonder what my relationship to Christianity and Christmas would be, had I grown up understanding how much pre-Colonial Black Africans shaped and built the church in Ethiopia. 

As early as the fourth century, Emperor Ezana of Aksum (modern northern Ethiopia) embraced Christianity and became the first leader worldwide to put the cross on Aksumite currency. Coins from that era are some of the earliest examples of Christian material culture. 

Ezana converted for strategic reasons. His empire sat at the nexus of a trade route linking the Romans (later Byzantines) by donkey, camel and boat with folks along the Indian Ocean. The animals and boats carted silver, olive oil and wine from the Mediterranean in exchange for fruit, iron and glass beads.

So Emperor Ezana was in it for the trade. And to solidify his rule. 

He exploited Christianity as a tool to unify the rich and distinct groups within his empire. Over centuries and long after Aksum fell, shifting powers from the Zagwe dynasty (ruled till about 1270) to the early Solomonic period (1270–1530) and beyond built on Ezana’s early Christian learning monasteries, administrative state and architecture. 

Ethiopia today still boasts some of the oldest and most impressive churches anywhere.

What would growing up with that knowledge have offered me as a rebellious teen? 

Hard to say. But I’m clear about what happens when history is only partially told. When the truth about complex human stories are manipulated to advance one specific (and often false) narrative. Like how Christianity has been used to force Africans into “civilization” and co-operation with white supremacy. 

When black Africans helped shape the very beginning of Chrisitian civilization. When black Africans created some of the earliest blueprints for Christian architecture and coinage. 

Christmas is days away. I love that its a secular holiday for many. And so deeply respect its place as a religious holiday for others. Funny story though, many Orthodox Ethiopians won’t celebrate till January 7, a date that corresponds to the Julian calendar.

Christian or Not. Orthodox or not. Happy Holidays Love.


p.s. more about pre-colonial Chrisitianity in Ethiopia here and here

p.s.s. What’s your earliest Christmas story? I share more in our newsletter for storytellers writing from the margins, Get Paid & Published. Sign up here.