Most people who believe in the Christian God would go on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, the Vatican and perhaps some European cities. Who would think of Ethiopia when the word ‘Christianity’ comes up? In fact, the Kingdom of Aksum (the modern day northern Ethiopia) converted to Christianity in 341 AD and was one of the first few countries to make Christianity its official religion. Behind the historical facts of how the religion spread to Ethiopia lies the romantic legend of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. In this article, we are going to visit the ruins of Aksum to trace the tales of the lush and exotic Queen as well as the history of how Christianity came to the country.
Medhane Alem Adi Kasho rock-hewn church in Aksum
The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Aksum
The Queen of Sheba (circa 1001 - 955 BC) is present in many cultures, including the Ethiopian, Jewish, Christian and even Islamic traditions. Her potent yet conflicting images are depicted in many modern fantasies. She is often imagined as a woman with great opulence and eroticism, yet she also carries the image of a noble African queen who uniquely represents black beauty in the Hebrew Bible.
Gina Lollobrigida potraying The Queen of Sheba in Solomon and Sheba (1959)
An artwork depicting the Queen of Sheba as an African queen
The fullest version of the legend of the Queen of Sheba appears in the Kebra Nagast (Glory of the Kings), the Ethiopian national saga, dated between the 6th and 14th centuries and was translated from Arabic in 1322. The story between Sheba and King Solomon (970 - 931 BC) began when Solomon was seeking merchants from all over the world to buy materials to build his temple. Having heard of Solomon’s great wisdom, Sheba sent a merchant called Tamrin to visit the King. Tamrin returned to his Queen and told her about Solomon’s elaborate worships to God and his great skills in building temples. Thus, Sheba paid a visit to Solomon in Jerusalem and ‘test(ed) him with hard questions’, as quoted from Kings 1:10 of the Hebrew Bible.
Edward Poynter's The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon. 1890. Collection of Art Gallery of New South Wales
A 1959 film adaption of the story of Solomon and Sheba
Queen Sheba prepared some challenging riddles for King Solomon to test his intelligence. King Solomon was able to answer all her questions, which left her breathless. As a Queen of great wealth, she was even more blown away by King Solomon’s palace, including ‘the food of his table, the seating of his officials, the attendance of his servants (and) his burnt offerings which he offered at the House of the Lord’. (from Kings 1:10 of the Hebrew Bible).
Solomon and the Queen of Sheba by Giovanni Demin (1789 - 1859)
During her visit, King Solomon made Queen Sheba promise not to take anything from his house and he would not to harm her. One night, before King Solomon went to bed, he placed a bowl of water near Queen Sheba's chamber. Queen Sheba woke up at the middle of the night feeling thirsty as her meal was spicy. She found the water and drank it. Solomon heard noises, woke up and accused her of having broken her oath. The Queen said to Solomon, ‘Ignore your oath, just let me drink water.’ The relationship between King Solomon and Queen Sheba was consummated that night. Before that, she had remained a virgin by choice. Medieval Jewish legends say that as she made the choice to not have sexual intercourse, her legs were hairy.
Queen Of Sheba by Edward Slocombe (1850 - 1915)
On her way home, Queen Sheba gave birth to a son named Ibn-al-Malik (known as Menelik). Before Sheba returned to her Kingdom of Aksum (northern Ethiopia), Solomon had given her a ring as a token of faith. When Menelik grew up, he asked about his father and Sheba gave him the ring from Solomon. Having heard of his father’s wisdom, at the age of 22, Menelik decided to visit Jerusalem and meet King Solomon.
The scene of Queen Sheba visiting King Solomon depicted in Ethiopian art
Menelik finally met his father and stayed in his palace for three years. Before returning to Aksum, Menelik stole Solomon’s Art of Covenant without the permission of Solomon. Inside the Art of Covenant, it contained the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. The King chased after Menelik but failed to retrieve the Covenant. It is believed that the Covenant is still kept in Aksum, hidden in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. Menelik established the ‘Solomonic Dynasty’ in Ethiopia and adopted the Laws of Moses. That is the story of how Ethiopia first came in contact with Christianity.
A modern depiction of the Ark of Covenant
However, the story is only an old tale rather than the true origin of Christianity in Ethiopia. According to official records, Christianity only became Ethiopia’s official religion in 341AD when King Ezana, who ruled Aksum, converted to Christianity himself. Two Syrian Christians called Frumentius and Aedissius went to Aksum and told people about Jesus Christ and the Christian faith. King Ezana, therefore, also started to believe in God and decreed Christianity as the main faith of his kingdom. Frumentius later became the first bishop of Ethiopia and founded the Ethiopian Church.
The Nine Saints
Abuna Yemata Guh church
During the late 5th century, a group of missionaries contributed tremendously to the initial growth of Christianity all over what is now Ethiopia. They were later named the Nine Saints. Their names were Abba Aftse, Abba Alef, Abba Aragawi, Abba Garima (Isaac, or Yeshaq), Abba Guba, Abba Liqanos, Abba Pantelewon, Abba Sehma, and Abba Yemata. They built monasteries and churches all over the kingdom, and Abuna Yemata Guh (image above), the church featured in the previous article of this series, was dedicated to Saint Abba Yemata.
King Ezana of Aksum
The Obelisk of Aksum - burial stelae erected by King Ezana
The Obelisk of Aksum
Regardless of the authenticity of Queen Sheba and King Solomon’s story, locals claim that there are traces of the Queen all over Aksum that have become popular sites for both tourists and locals. For instance, archeologists excavated ruins of Dungur in the western part of Aksum. The mansion from the 4th - 6th centuries is popularly known as the Palace of the Queen of Sheba.
Excavations of the Palace of the Queen of Sheba
Excavations of the Palace of the Queen of Sheba - border of the palace
Another place that every tourist would visit is the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion where the Ark of Covenant is said to be hidden in. The Church is the main place of worship where everyone can enter. Yet, as the Ark is beyond holy, it is not in the main church but hidden in a Chapel nearby. Only one selected priest has the right to see it and bears the responsibility of protecting it. Nobody else can enter the Chapel, not even the Pope. Whether the Ark is really there or not, the vibrant paintings in the main church would make the trip worthwhile. Let’s take a closer look into the church.
The Ark is said to be hidden in the Chapel
The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion
The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion
A 500-year-old Ethiopian Bible that is kept in the church
Paintings in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion
In 2018, around 62.8% of Ethiopia’s population are Christians, which makes over 67 million people. If you are interested in the history of Christianity, consider paying a visit to Ethiopia, one of the oldest Christian countries of the world. In our next article, we will bring you on an exclusive tour to the most famous rock hewn churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia.
Bete Giyorgis (Church of St. George) in Lalibela