A triptych depicting Jesus, the Apostles, and Saint George and the dragon; Mary with Jesus and the Last Supper; and crucified Jesus and the Apostles, Ethiopia

DeA Picture Library/Art Resource

A triptych depicting, from left, Jesus, the Apostles, and Saint George and the dragon; Mary with Jesus and the Last Supper; and crucified Jesus and the Apostles, Ethiopia, eighteenth–nineteenth centuries

In the past thirty years a scholarly revolution has altered our notion of the first thousand years of Christianity. We no longer see it as an exclusively European religion, rooted in the Mediterranean basin and destined to reach its apex in the Latin West. Instead, scholars have turned to Africa and Asia to discover ancient variants of Christianity whose vast, largely forgotten presence once dwarfed the fragile beginnings of the Catholic Church in Europe. We used to think that Christianity spread almost entirely in the Greek and Latin worlds. Now we realize that ancient Christianity was like a great comet: its luminous trail once swept across the globe, from the Horn of Africa to the coast of Tamil Nadu, and from Mesopotamia to the court of the emperor of China. Christian communities, linked by tenacious networks of trade and diplomacy, could be found in all those places.

Invitation to Syriac Christianity—which will be published next year and was edited by Michael Penn and his colleagues Scott Johnson, Christine Shepardson, and Charles Stang1—gives some idea of the richness of one such major variant of Eastern Christianity. What we call the Syriac world was made up of a network of independent churches spread through many regions of the Middle East (from modern eastern Turkey to Iran and Central Asia), which, though they diverged in doctrine, shared Syriac as their language of worship and of culture. Syriac developed east of the Mediterranean, in a world that had formed earlier than Greece and Rome. It grew out of Aramaic, which had once been the lingua franca of the Persian Empire and was spoken by Jesus Christ himself, and it was further honed in Edessa (modern Şanlıurfa, in eastern Turkey), in a region poised between Rome and Persia. Even in areas where Syriac was not spoken, it became the “international English” of the various Christianities that flourished in Asia from the third century until the thirteenth.

The extracts in Invitation to Syriac Christianity, an anthology of texts drawn from a thousand years of worship, controversy, and missionary work, are carefully chosen, well translated, and clearly explained. It is a treasure trove from which the reader can pull out every aspect of a truly global Christianity. We read religious poetry whose imaginative roots lie deep in the ancient Near East. We follow the transfer of Greek philosophy from Greek into Syriac and then into Arabic. A stray remark in the letters of Timothy I (780–823), the katholikos (all-embracing leader) of the Church of the East (often known as the Nestorian Church), gives us a glimpse of a worldwide church: Timothy reminded a bishop who sought comfortable retirement in Baghdad that his colleagues were on the road to China and India, and that Timothy had just founded yet another bishopric for Tibet! At a time when the frontiers of Christian Europe had barely reached the heathlands of northern Germany, Timothy was the head of a church that, in numbers as well as in outreach, dwarfed that of the West.

This timely reminder of a Christianity wider than Europe is particularly relevant to the study of the first centuries of Islam. The Middle Eastern regions where Syriac Christianity had been predominant were swallowed whole by the Empire of Islam. By far the most intimate and continuous dialogues—and, often, the most courteous—between Muslims and Christians took place among members of the Syriac churches and their new neighbors and masters. Invitation to Syriac Christianity enables us to follow this meeting of minds. It amply validates the approach of Jack Tannous in his groundbreaking book The Making of the Medieval Middle East: Religion, Society, and Simple Believers,2 which did justice to the vigor and diversity of the Syriac Christianity with which the early Muslims came into contact.

Tannous is far from alone in this swing to the East. Syriac is increasingly taught in the universities of America and Europe; research on Syriac topics has been encouraged among students of the Christian churches and of the early centuries of Islam. Young scholars whose knowledge had hitherto been limited to Latin and Greek have begun to work in the challenging field of Eastern Christianity, drawing on sources in Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, and Georgian. But there is even more to discover if we turn to the southern end of the Red Sea and to the Horn of Africa, far south of the Mediterranean. Christianity may have been introduced to this region—traditionally called Ethiopia but now divided between the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the State of Eritrea—by travelers and merchants from Roman Egypt and Syria; around 340 it was adopted by Ezana (321–360), the negus (king) of Aksum. Though Greek was known throughout the Red Sea, the Kingdom of Aksum was far from a mere clone of Byzantium. It had a language and tradition of empire all its own.


The royal capital, the city of Aksum, was flanked by gigantic obelisks, one of which was nine stories high. These needles of solid granite were the tallest complete blocks of stone ever raised by human effort. Some are still standing, in the midst of a region now torn by a bloody civil war. Ezana’s Ethiopia looked across the straits to Yemen and tapped into the wealth of the regions bordering the Indian Ocean. But above all, it drew on the well-watered Ethiopian Highlands behind it (the “Roof of Africa”) for an abundant supply of long-spear-wielding warriors. By the end of the fourth century, Aksum—an empire on the edge of the world by Greek and Roman standards—was, along with Rome and Persia, regarded as one of the great kingdoms of the earth.

Ezana’s Christianity was largely restricted to his court. But it was an unabashed Christianity, not subject to the restraints that had muffled his equally zealous contemporary Constantine, who contended with aristocrats and traditionally minded public servants reluctant to give up their ancestors’ religion. Constantine’s coins were tantalizingly neutral: signs of Christianity barely appear on them. Not so those of Ezana, which were of solid gold and marked by crosses. Ezana’s Christ and that of his successors was frankly a god of war: one negus appealed to “the Lord strong and brave, the Lord mighty in battle” and to “Jesus Christ…the victorious, in whom I believe, who has given me a strong kingdom.” What is even more remarkable is the tenacity with which this sense of ancient grandeur survived for the next thousand years.3

Around 600, the complex polity of Aksum, with its enormous monuments, collapsed. The world of the mountains—a realm of terrifying storms and lightning, of vertiginous mountains fretted by torrents that rendered travel impossible during the summer rains—replaced the ancient urban centers around the Red Sea. A charismatic Christianity, based on direct imitation of the heroic holy men of late antique Egypt and Syria, slowly pushed its way inland toward Equatorial Africa to challenge the traditional religions as guardians of the earth.

We are told, in legends passed on for centuries in monastic circles, that the curses of holy men uprooted magic trees; a blow on the ground from their staffs opened springs that brought water to entire valleys; in their presence the wild regions around the source of the Nile, where the first Portuguese travelers in Ethiopia would later walk at night with their swords drawn for fear of leopards, became a peaceable kingdom. The abbot Takla Haymanot (1215–1313), the great monastic founder and evangelizer of the south, was always shown accompanied by an obedient lion.

Among the successors of Ezana, the sacred and the profane were thought to mingle in a manner far more dramatic than in Byzantium or Rome. Medieval accounts of Ethiopia spoke of the life of the negus as an uncanny mixture of raw violence and Christlike serenity: it was said that from childhood he was trained as a priest; only when he had drawn human blood with his spear could he become a king.

The Kebra Nagast (The Glory of the Kings) added a further layer to the majesty of the kings of Ethiopia. The book is a rewriting of Old Testament history on a grand scale, in order to present Ethiopia as the superior of Israel and as the noblest Christian kingdom on earth. The Kebra Nagast claims that the Ethiopian royal family was directly descended from King Solomon through Makeda, the queen of Sheba, who was, in fact, queen of Ethiopia. The book then describes how the Ethiopian entourage of the queen took the original Ark of the Covenant back to their mountain home in Africa. Because they believed that they possessed the true ark, the kings of Ethiopia claimed to rank higher than all other kings—higher even than the emperors of Byzantium. According to the Kebra Nagast, the Byzantine emperor and the negus met in Jerusalem in the sixth century to divide the world between them, with the negus taking the lion’s share.

Ethiopian Christians believe that the Kebra Nagast was first written in Coptic, stored in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and translated into Arabic before a version in Geʿez, the official language of the Ethiopian church, was produced in the fourteenth century. Scholars now think that, while an Arabic predecessor may have existed, the Coptic one is fictitious; the translation of the text into Geʿez likely occurred between 1314 and 1322, around the time the warrior king Amda Seyon I fought his way through the Muslim coastal cities to the Red Sea. Amda Seyon recorded his deeds in a monastic manuscript in language worthy of the bellicose stone inscriptions of Ezana a thousand years earlier:


I, King Amda Seyon, went to the sea…. When I reached there, I mounted on an elephant and entered the sea. I took up my arrows and spears, killed my enemies, and saved my people.

It was with a sense of standing on the top of the world that the kings of Ethiopia reached out to Western Europe at the turn of the fifteenth century. These encounters are the subject of a brilliant book by Verena Krebs, Medieval Ethiopian Kingship, Craft, and Diplomacy with Latin Europe.

In 1402 ambassadors sent by the negus Dawit II (1370–1412) arrived in Venice. They brought with them the skins of a gorilla and a zebra, along with four live leopards. What had they come for? It has always been assumed that the negus had reached out to Europe for what Europeans of the time expected him to need: a military alliance against the Muslims and technological aid such as gunpowder.

But this was not at all the case. Krebs has recovered something of the implications of Dawit’s embassy, drawing with great skill on a manuscript, first published in 1999, that gives the Ethiopians’ own account of it. In this text, called the Homily on the Wood of the Holy Cross, King Dawit’s aims are clearly spelled out. He wanted not military alliances, but relics to endow his churches; not technology, but precious brocades—which “do not seem to have been woven with a hand of earthly creatures”—to pile on his altars and distribute to his entourage on state occasions. Krebs makes plain that this was not the story “of an indigent, powerless or even passively receptive kingdom…. Instead, we find a mighty African realm addressing its peers in the voice of a self-confident Christian empire.” Dawit’s embassy was the gesture of a great king on the model of Solomon, reaching out “selectively, deliberately and purposefully—to obtain treasures bearing witness to a faith shared with the foreign but indistinct realms of ‘Frankland.’”

Nor was the religious aspect of subsequent encounters marked by any sense of inferiority on the part of the Ethiopians. Around 1416, during the Council of Constance, when the Western Schism was ended and hopes for a general union of the churches were in the air, three Ethiopian monks made an appearance. These monks—Peter, Bartholomew, and Anthony—were the first Ethiopians to cross the Alps. They appear, of all places, in the exquisite Très Riches Heures of the duc de Berry. On the page that shows the Exaltation of the Cross, time and distance are shrunk. The Holy Cross in its precious crystal reliquary is adored, on one side, by Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena. On the other side stand our three monks. Dressed in dark robes and holding iron crosses—as they would always have done in Ethiopia—they also have the cross tattooed on their foreheads. They stand there as representatives of an ancient Christianity come to comfort a divided Catholic Church in its time of need.

An ancient staff cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia


An ancient staff cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia

But the most revealing encounter came a little later, in the reign of the negus Zara Yaqob, which began in 1438. In 1441 Ethiopian monks visited Rome. They told Pope Eugenius IV (fortunately, perhaps, only in Geʿez and not in any language that the pope or his court would have understood) that the Ethiopians were somewhat surprised that they had received no word from any pope in eight hundred years. It was time for that negligence to be remedied. However, they reassured Eugenius that they would report back to their master that the pope seemed to be a good Christian.

Zara Yaqob, like many of his ancestors, had been trained as a priest. He wrote copiously on the cult of the Virgin Mary and on the Incarnation. He filled many parchment sheets in the royal scriptorium with denunciations of sorcery and condemnations of non-Christian forms of tattooing and talismanic prayers. He took theology seriously and needed to be sure that the pope was staunch on such matters. Zara Yaqob died in 1468, fifteen years after Constantinople fell to the Turks. He would have known that his kingdom was the last of the great empires of the Christian East, and that it was still standing.

A book like Krebs’s makes one want to know more about that faraway kingdom. And here we are well served by Samantha Kelly’s Companion to Medieval Ethiopia and Eritrea. Each chapter conveys a sense of discovery. As Kelly reminds us, we are dealing with a field marked by “the continual expansion of the available source base” due to the ongoing digitalization of Ethiopic manuscripts in Ethiopia itself and in libraries throughout the world.

Yet perhaps the most exciting contribution of the Companion is a new view of Ethiopia itself. Christian Ethiopia has tended to be treated as an isolated mountain hideaway where time stood still; Edward Gibbon, at his most sonorous and most wrongheaded, wrote, “Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion, the Aethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten.” The reverse was true. Medieval Ethiopia (which includes much of modern Eritrea) was a frontier society, penetrated in all directions by routes that led from the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean deep into Equatorial Africa. This reenvisioning of medieval Ethiopia is, perhaps, the most challenging aspect of the Companion. In the words of one contributor to Kelly’s volume, “Let us hope that the image of an archaic, never evolving and isolated country is no longer acceptable.”

Royal and clerical writings in Ethiopia had projected the image of a monolithic Christian population. Yet fruitful work by historians and archaeologists has revealed a landscape filled with Muslim mosques and cemeteries, as well as with circles of megaliths, silent witnesses to a pagan presence rendered largely invisible by official accounts and previously ignored by modern scholars. Far from being safely isolated in their mountain retreat, the Christians of Ethiopia were forced to uphold their identity in a land of great diversity. The proud notions of Solomonic rule, which encouraged kings such as Dawit II and Zara Yaqob to reach out to Europe, were not static or unchallenged. Behind the noble phrases we can hear the creaking of a mighty edifice of belief as it swayed in a gale.

Here we should remember that the Ethiopian church had inherited from the theological controversies of the fifth and sixth centuries a peculiarly embattled form of Christianity. Along with the population of Egypt and large segments of the Syriac churches of western Asia, the Ethiopians had opted for what is now called the Monophysite (or Miaphysite) view on the mingling of human and divine in the person of Jesus Christ. Despite constant pressure from the Byzantine emperors, Monophysites rejected the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon of 451 (a state-run affair, held where the ferry from Istanbul now lands at Kadıköy, within sight of the imperial palace), preferring their own, uncompromising view. They insisted on the total, inseparable unity of Christ and God—leaving the Latin and Byzantine churches to the error of worshipping what the Monophysites considered to be a strangely dichotomized Christ, shorn of the fullness of His divine power. Ethiopia, the only kingdom in the world of Eastern Christianity that, despite a constant Muslim presence, had remained independent of Islam, was a Monophysite empire. What did this mean?

We should appreciate that a seemingly abstract theological statement could develop over time into a deeply felt imaginative map. To assert that human and divine were inextricably joined in Christ was to bring God in His full strength down to earth, where He was needed. It was to imply that at certain times and places, and in certain people, heaven and earth were joined with monolithic solidity, so that not so much as a hairline crack separated the divine from the human sphere. The negus Zara Yaqob fostered the cult of the Virgin Mary with such passion because he saw in her a being in whom human and divine, body and soul, reflected each other perfectly: “The Holy Spirit has not separated from her even for a moment and the blink of an eye.”

If that was so for Mary, it was even more so for her son, Jesus. The Chalcedonian definition of Christ’s being seemed to present Him as tainted by human weakness and uncertain of His purposes. To a good Monophysite such as Zara Yaqob, the notion that Christ was a man of “two minds, two tongues”—who might doubt, hesitate, even (who knows?) deceive or be deceived—was deeply repugnant. Only a Christ in His full divine glory could guard an Ethiopia exposed to the unceasing wind of change.

To understand the resilience of such views, it is best to go to the villages and monasteries of present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. Ever since the Middle Ages, the sign of the cross has been a distinguishing feature of Christian identity in what was (and is nowadays) a far from exclusively Christian land: great processional crosses, handheld crosses, crosses worn round the neck or tattooed onto the skin. Usually treated as somewhat folksy products, these crosses have now been subjected to close study by Maria Evangelatou in A Contextual Reading of Ethiopian Crosses Through Form and Ritual. This is a book of stunning beauty, designed to fill the eye with crosses of all shapes and sizes and with vivid images of the occasions, sacred and profane, in which the cross is used. But it is far more than an art book. It is a careful meditation on the imaginative and social function of the cross in the daily life of Ethiopian believers.

Here we find the grand themes that preoccupied the rulers of late medieval Ethiopia translated into exquisite shapes to adorn the skin, to hold in the hand, to carry in moments of glory. They cover the body or wave in the air like great square patches of lacework, for these crosses—the three-dimensional ones, at least—are made up of plaques of woven metal. Even when they are not twined together from separate strands, the complex surfaces are cut so as to give the impression of being held tight by intricate weaving. Such crosses are not reminders of a distant Passion. They are almost living things, seemingly drawn ever tighter by the tension of their knotted threads. This was how God and humankind had been joined in Jesus, in Mary, and, it was hoped, eventually in all believers.

In between the gold, silver, iron, and wood of such crosses, the light that poured through the empty spaces of the delicate web could be seen as glimpses of divinity shimmering behind the fretted surface of the material world. To believe that heaven and earth, spirit and matter, God and humanity could come so close, that some primordial, unfissured unity might again return to earth, was not an ignoble dream. It was one that would be sorely needed as the rulers of Ethiopia entered, standing tall (and with them the many forgotten millions of the Christians of the East), on the first tragic stages of the European Age of Discovery.