Little is known about Aksumite religion before the conversion of King Ezana to Christianity. The names of some of the gods who were worshipped have survived. The chief god was Astar, associated with the Greek god Zeus. Mahrem was a war god, like the Greek god Ares, and a patron of the royal family. It is not known how the gods were worshipped, though the remains of a number of religious buildings still exist. The largest such structure still standing is in Yeha. In these buildings, archaeologists have found objects such as pottery animal figures, perhaps placed there as offerings. Stone altars were used for the burning of incense.
According to traditional accounts, two Christian Syrian boys, Aedisius and Frumentius, introduced Christianity to Aksum in the early 4th century. Aksumites captured the boys when they put their ship into port to obtain supplies during a voyage in the Red Sea. They were taken to the capital and employed at the royal court where Frumentius, due to his education, became secretary to King Ella Amida. When the king died, Ezana, who was still a child, assumed the throne, and Frumentius became his teacher and adviser. Frumentius used his position to convert the royal family to Christianity in 333 and to encourage Christian missionaries to spread the religion to the rest of the kingdom. The coins from Ezana’s reign carry a representation of the Christian cross in place of the earlier pagan emblem of a disc and crescent.
Frumentius traveled to Alexandria, in Egypt, to ask Saint Athanasius, the head of the Coptic Church (the Egyptian Christian church), to appoint a bishop for the developing Christian community of Aksum. Athanasius appointed Frumentius bishop and sent him back to Aksum to continue his missionary work. All subsequent heads of the Aksumite church were appointed by the Egyptian patriarch of Alexandria and were Egyptian Copts.
In the 5th century the Coptic Church, including the church of Aksum, split off from the main Christian churches of Rome and Constantinople. Coptic Christians embraced the doctrine of Monophysitism, the belief that Jesus Christ possessed only one, divine, nature and no human nature. This doctrine went against the orthodox Christian doctrine that Christ was both divine and human. The Council of Chalcedon condemned Monophysitism in 451, and since that time the Coptic Church has been independent of other Christian churches.
After the Council of Chalcedon, priests who continued to teach Monophysitism were persecuted in the eastern Roman Empire, and many migrated to Aksum. The influx of priests, along with the support of the royal family, strengthened missionary efforts in Aksum. Many churches and monasteries were founded after 451, some of which are still in use today.
The Aksumite church developed into the Abyssinian Church, the church of Ethiopia. While similar to that of the Coptic Church, the ritual of the Abyssinian Church contains many features different from those of other Christian churches. These may be derived from Aksum’s pre-Christian religion or from ancient Jewish practices, as Aksum’s people were often in contact with Jewish communities in southern Arabia. The Coptic patriarch of Alexandria continued to appoint the head of the Abyssinian Church until the 1950s, when the Ethiopian church became independent from the Coptic Church.
- Religion in African Society (egrejeen.wordpress.com)