Early Recorded History and the Arrival of Christianity
Ethiopians have a record of their rulers that stretches back 5000 years. The only civilization we know of in Ethiopia from most ancient times is that which was borrowed from Egypt. The earliest records extant do not take us beyond the founding of the priestly dynasty of Thebes. At Napata (in Ethiopia) Amun-Ra, King of the Gods, ruled supreme with Maut and Khonsu. The temple there was built on the model of the Karnak sanctuaries; the ceremonies performed there were those of the Theban cult. The priest-kings, above all, as formerly in their native land, were the heads of a purely sacerdotal polity. It was only later in history that the monarchy became elective in Ethiopia. The election took place at Napata, in the great temple, under the supervision of the priests of Amun-Ra, and in the presence of a number of special delegates chosen by the magistrates, the literati, the soldiers, and the officers of the palace. The members of the reigning family, "the royal brethren", were brought into the sanctuary and presented one after another to the statue of the god, who indicated his choice by a signal previously agreed upon. The choice of the priests could undertake nothing without the priests' consent, and was subject to them for life. Arq-Amen seems to have broken through this tutelage and secured complete independence for the throne.
(A case can be made that Moses was trained as a priest in the Pharoh’s court before his vision of the God of the Jews in the burning bush. Moses may have used his knowledge of the Egyptian religion to fashion some of the objects and rituals used by the Chosen People in the desert. This may be the tenuous link between the first religion of Ethiopia and the present day Ethiopian Orthodox rites which have connections to the Ark of the Covenant.)
Around 500 BC, as international trade began in earnest, Axum became the chief city of Ethiopia. Migrations from the Saudi Arabian peninsula and Sudan combined at this location. Axum became the greatest ivory market in Northeast Africa. Later, Axum conquered parts of Yemen and southern Arabia and remained a great power until the death of the Prophet Mohammed.
Christianity was adopted in the fourth century when a ship from Rome was destroyed and the lives of two Syrian boys were spared -– Frumentius and Aedesius. They served as regents to the young emperor and, through conversations with merchants, determined that they should become Christians. Frumentius began building Christian churches and asked the emperor finally to let him go to Alexandria to ask Patriarch Athanasius to send a bishop to Axum.. Emperor Ezana converted to Christianity as practiced in Alexandria. (which subscribed to Arius’s doctrine stating that Christ was created by the Father and so finite).
The Ethiopians did not have secure borders with the pagan tribes in the south and eventually pressure from these tribes forced the Ethiopian emperors to adopt the life of nomadic military commanders living in makeshift cities. The priests were forced to become monks and hermits.
After some time these tribes were pacified and Ethiopia recovered enough to take the provinces of Amhara, Lasta, Gojam and Damot. At a similar time the capital was moved to the south to the Amhara province.
The Legend of Prester John
Prester John is featured in a medieval legend that originated sometime in the 1140s (about the time of the Second Crusade). According to rumor, or fervent belief, the ultimate Christian king, Prester John, ruled over the perfect Christian kingdom, somewhere in Asia (or perhaps in Africa - no one was really sure). According to an old legend, readily adapted to the Prester John legend, one of the apostles, St Thomas, was supposed to have traveled to India (or thereabouts), to establish a Christian community that retained many of the ideals of the original church, and which would blossom into an almost perfect Christian kingdom, ruled over by this legendary king, Prester John. (The legend of the journey of St Thomas to India was current by the 3rd century AD, and was widespread enough in the 833 for Alfred the Great to send two priests with gifts to St Thomas' shrine on the east coast of India.)
It wasn't only the western Europeans who believed completely in the presence of this magnificent Christian king who ruled a perfect Christian society somewhere in the East. The Moslems believed he existed, too, and were generally terrified of the thought that one day Prester John was going to rouse his armies and march westwards to recapture the Holy Lands for the Christians. (During the 700s Moslem invasions had enveloped the Holy Lands, the Crusades being the Christian west’s attempt to get them back) The Christian west, of course, fervently hoped that one day Prester John would march at the head of his armies westwards to meet the European Christians in the Holy Land. Prester John was already supposed to have driven Islam out of central Asia.
The first written account of Prester John occurred in the 1145 chronicle of Otto of Freising:
"We also saw there at that time [Dec 1145] the aforesaid Bishop of Jabala in Syria.... He said, indeed, that not many years since, one John, a king and priest living in the Far East, beyond Persia and Armenia, and who, with his people, is a Christian, but a Nestorian, had warred upon the so-called Samiards, the brother kings of the Medes and Persians. John also attacked Ebactanus I. When the aforesaid kings advanced against him with a force of Persians, Medes, and Assyrians, a three-day struggle ensued, since both sides were willing to die rather than to flee. At length, Prester John so he is usually called put the Persians to flight and emerged from the dreadful slaughter as victor. The Bishop said that the aforesaid John moved his army to aid the church of Jerusalem, but that when he came to the Tigris and was unable to take his army across it by any means, be turned aside to the north, where he had been informed that the stream was frozen solid during the winter. There he awaited the ice for several years, but saw none because of the temperate weather. His army lost many men on account of the weather to which they were unaccustomed and he was compelled to return home. He is said to be a descendant of the Magi of old, who are mentioned in the Gospel. He governs the same people as they did and is said to enjoy such glory and such plenty that be uses no scepter save one of emerald. Fired by the example of his forefathers, who came to adore Christ in the manger, he proposed to go to Jerusalem, but he was, they say, turned back for the aforementioned reason."
(from Medieval Sourcebook: Otto of Freising: The Legend of Prester John)
The next encounter by Europe of the Ethiopian monarch would be four hundred years later and this time a strategic, but ill-fated, bargain would be struck.