Ancient Christian Church Unearthed in Ethiopia Fuels “Oldest Ever” Claims

A recently found Christian church in Ethiopia is altering our view of the spread of Christianity. Many people know when and where Christianity originated, but where and when it expanded is less widely understood. According to, the finding of one ancient church in northern Ethiopia implies that the faith spread there quite early on and that it was perhaps one of, if not the first areas where Christianity took root.

Archaeologists from many nations have unearthed what is thought to be the oldest church ever discovered in Sub-Saharan Africa. The structure is located in Beta Samati, northern Ethiopia, some 30 miles northeast of Aksum, the Aksumite empire’s capital. The empire began in the first century AD and extended through commerce to encompass a huge portion of Eastern Africa as well as a portion of western Arabia.

Following the finding of carbon dating materials in the church, researchers established that the church was erected in the fourth century AD. To provide some context, that was around the time that the Roman Emperor Constantine first authorized Christianity, and Rome was around 3,000 miles away from Aksum.

Researchers are uncovering the oldest Christian basilica in sub-Saharan Africa. (Ioana Dumitru)

The Aksumite empire served as a link between the Roman Empire, and later the Byzantine Empire, and points south, making it part of a vast network of trade routes. Traders and other travelers would have traveled through the area from a variety of locations, which is the best explanation for how and why Christianity spread so swiftly; despite this, little is known about the Aksumites.

Ethiopian Christians in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Photo by Tiksa Negeri

However, it is known that King Ezena converted the empire to Christianity in the middle of the fourth century, and that this church was erected soon after. The structure is fairly enormous, measuring around 60 feet long and 40 feet broad, and is designed in the form of an old Roman basilica.

Inside the edifice, several secular and religious objects were discovered, including crosses, animal figurines, stamp seals, and tokens that were most likely used for commerce. They also discovered a gold ring with Roman influences and a stone pendant with a cross on it. The things they unearthed, on the whole, revealed a combination of Christian and pre-Christian ideas, as would be expected early in the development of the church.

A stone pendant with a cross and the term “venerable” in Ethiopia’s ancient Ge’ez script found. (Ioana Dumitru)

The Aksum Empire was a dominant force until the eighth and ninth century, when it began to decline, eventually reducing to dominate just northern Ethiopia. Despite this, the Christian religion remained strong in the region even as Islam began to grow. The territory was besieged by invaders from Somalia and the Ottoman Empire by the sixteenth century, although it remained Christian. Even now, approximately half of Ethiopians identify as members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

Gold and carnelian ring depicting a bull’s head from the excavation site. (Ioana Dumitru)

Much more historic, albeit less venerable, Christian churches may be found in Ethiopia, many of which originate from the Medieval period. Eleven of them are in the town of Lalibela and are notable for their subterranean construction. The village is located in the mountains, and its churches are located at the bottom of square holes that can be 40 or 50 meters deep.

The structures contain holes chiseled into a cross form to let light into the interior, which is cut out of solid stone. Those churches are far newer than the one at Beta Sameti, and there are numerous theories as to how they came to be erected.

The two most frequently believed ideas are that they were either erected by the Knights Templar or by King Lalibela, who desired a means to welcome Christians to his “new Jerusalem” following a visit to the holy place. Some believers believe that the churches were cut at Lalibela’s order by a team of angels.

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