February 7, 2023

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Early African Churches in Adulis Shed Light on Religious Transitions – ARTnews.com

A recent study reexamining two churches in Northeastern Africa is shedding light on the spread of Christianity and Islam in the region. As a result of this most recent excavation, archaeologists have identified some of the earliest securely dated churches in the Aksumite Kingdom.

Using modern techniques, including radiocarbon dating, a team led by Gabriele Castiglia from the Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana, has collected new data on two churches located in the Aksumite port of Adulis (now in present-day Eritrea).

One of the churches, an elaborate cathedral near the city center with remains of a baptistry, was constructed between 400–535 CE, the researchers found. The second, residing east of the city and featuring a ring of columns that would have supported a dome, was erected in 480–625 CE. Those datings make the churches some of the earliest securely dated churches in the Aksumite Kingdom, and the oldest known outside the capital’s heartlands. The findings were published this month in the journal Antiquity. The churches were originally excavated in 1868 and 1907, respectively.

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A group of workers excavating a plot in an arid section of the ground using a wagon and other tools. In the background, there is a construction site.

The Kingdom of Aksum was a major ancient power in Northeastern Africa. In the first millennium, the Aksumite Kingdom ruled much of the northern Horn of Africa, from Ethiopia to Arabia. In the 4th century, Aksumite leader King Ezana converted to Christianity. The spread of Christianity was not the result of a single factor such as a mandate, but rather reflected a diverse influence among a converting nation.

Though the churches demonstrate a relatively rapid spread of Christianity through the Kingdom of Aksum, the buildings themselves include elements from different traditions. The domed church, for example, appears to have been inspired by Byzantine churches, while the cathedral was built on a large platform reflecting the Aksumite tradition.

During the later arrival of Islam in the Aksumite Kingdom, Adulis went through a period of gradual decline that left the churches unused. The cathedral, however, was reappropriated as a Muslim burial ground. The continued use of these sacred spaces also show that the the region’s conversion from Christianity to Islam was just as much of a multicultural phenomenon that mixed local customs and incoming religious practices.

Altogether, these two churches indicate diversity in aesthetic traditions, which occurred among gradual shifts in religious practices in the Horn of Africa.