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The kingdom of Aksum: from the 5th century BC

The story of the Queen of Sheba links her with Ethiopia in a legend which echoes historical reality. The Ethiopian national epic, Kebra Nagast ('Glory of Kings'), records the tradition that Solomon and the Queen of Sheba have a son, Menelik, who comes to Ethiopia to found the royal dynasty.

Sheba, now known as Saba, is at the narrow mouth of the Red Sea, only twenty-five miles from the coast of Africa. From about the 10th century BC Sabaeans migrate in increasing numbers across this strait. By perhaps the 5th century they are sufficiently numerous and powerful to establish Ethiopia's first civilization - the Semitic kingdom of Aksum.

The kingdom of Aksum lasts for a millennium and more. Towards the end of that time, in the 4th century AD, its close links with the Red Sea ports (full of Greek merchants trading with the Roman empire) result in an imported creed which will profoundly influence the rest of Ethiopian history. The country becomes Christian.

In a document of 356 there is a mention of Frumentius, the first bishop of Ethiopia. He is consecrated in Alexandria (the beginning of a lasting link between Ethiopia and the Coptic church of Egypt). Tradition says that Frumentius is a young Christian, captured and brought to Aksum, who persuades the king to allow Greeks to build churches in his kingdom.

An island of Christianity: from the 7th century

Ethiopia, as a Christian country, is isolated from the 7th century by the emergence of Islam. Egypt is in Muslim hands from642; and gradually, in subsequent centuries, Muslim sultanates become established on the African coast east and south of Ethiopia.

A strong link survives with Christians elsewhere in the Muslim world. The head of the Ethiopian church is appointed by the patriarch of the Coptic church in Egypt, and Ethiopian monks have certain rights (maintained to this day) in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. But in military terms the medieval centuries are a long struggle against Muslim incursions from several directions.

The gravest danger is in the 16th century. It derives from the strong Muslim sultanate established at Harar. In 1530 its ruler, Ahmad ibn Ibrahim (known to the Ethiopian Christians as Grañ) moves west with an army of Somalis in a holy war against Ethiopia. By the time of his death, ten years later, the holy places and Christian shrines have been sacked and burnt as far north as Aksum.

Another Muslim threat becomes evident at much the same period. For some years the Ottoman Turks have occupied the Dahlak islands in the Red Sea. In 1557 they move on to the mainland, establishing a garrison at Massawa.

Yet somehow, in the fastnesses of its highland plateau, Christian Ethiopia manages to weather the onslaught of Islam - becoming the only region of northern Africa to survive as a Christian state. (The Christian kingdom of Nubia, lying to the north between Egypt and Ethiopia, succumbs to Islam during the 13th century.)

This period of danger and isolation is the time when the legendary figure of Prester John becomes linked with Ethiopia. As a far-away Christian king, of whom no hard facts are known in the courts and monasteries of Europe, the role of the mysterious Prester John seems tailor-made for the Ethiopian monarch. This ruler even holds an extra trump card. There is mention in his lineage of Solomon.

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