Ethiopia’s rich and unique artistic heritage is the product of a series of transcontinental cultural exchanges whose beginnings can be traced back as far as the late first millennium B.C. At this time, South Arabian immigrants began to arrive in the Ethiopian highlands from across the Red Sea, bringing with them a belief in diverse gods, a system of writing, and a tradition of monumental stone building that would profoundly influence the region’s architectural and religious traditions. The most famous early manifestation of this influence still extant is the 60 x 50–foot stone structure at Yeha in modern-day northern Ethiopia, estimated to have been constructed around the fifth or fourth century B.C. Possibly once a temple to a South Arabian deity, this rectangular building was constructed from ten-foot sandstone blocks fitted together without the use of mortar.
Located approximately 30 miles southwest of Yeha, the fertile Hatsebo plain where Aksumite civilization originated began to be populated in the fourth to third centuries B.C., developing into a kingdom between the mid-second century B.C. and the mid-second century A.D. Aksum (Axum) is perhaps most renowned internationally for its enormous monolithic stelae, erected during the third and fourth centuries A.D. as funerary markers for deceased members of its elite. To the faithful of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, it is the place where the Ark of the Covenant was brought by Menelik I, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Israel, as detailed in the thirteenth-century Kebra Negast, “The Book of the Glory of Kings.”
An Alexandria-based trader’s handbook written in the first century A.D., the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, provides one of the earliest testimonies of Aksum’s expanding involvement in trade. Linked to the Red Sea trade routes by its port city of Adulis, Aksum itself was situated further inland, perhaps to allow for better control of the ivory that was one of its most lucrative exports. Aksumite ties through Adulis to the Red Sea would remain vital to the kingdom throughout its history, a factor that contributed to Aksum’s decline in the seventh century when increasing Muslim dominance of the region cut off access to international trade.
The minting of Aksumite coins begins in the third century A.D., and from this point it is possible to date the individual reigns of Aksumite royalty. In the fourth century A.D., the rule of one monarch in particular marked a defining transition in Ethiopian religious and cultural history. Byzantine and Roman historians chronicle how a Syrian Christian named Frumentius, called Abba Salama in Ethiopian versions, came to be captured and later hosted by the Aksumite court, whose king he ultimately converted. Following his conversion, King Ezana (r. 320–350) had the crescent-and-disk of South Arabian polytheism removed from his coins and replaced with the Christian cross.
Christianity was originally limited to Aksum’s royal elite. In the later fifth century it was spread to the general populace through missionaries fleeing into Ethiopia from the Eastern Roman Empire. These evangelizers fled to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church because, together with the Alexandrian church, it continued to maintain the Monophysite doctrine after it was branded heretical in 451 by the Council of Chalcedon. (The dispute over Monophysitism was doctrinally concerned with disagreements over the nature of Christ’s status as both god and man. It came to have substantial political and cultural overtones and was exacerbated by rivalries between Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria.)
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church outlasted its parent civilization and has remained a vital sponsor of religious arts up to the present day. Some of the most renowned Ethiopian Christian arts postdating the Aksumite period are the rock-cut churches of Lalibela and finely painted illuminated manuscripts.