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A World Revealed: The Throne of Adulis

July 13, 2014

For me, reading Glen Bowersock’s book, The Throne of Adulis:  Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam (Oxford Univ Press, 2013) was like having a curtain pulled back opening up a previously unknown world.  This is the world of the Red Sea area in late antiquity and the Byzantine period.  (I know, this has nothing to do with the expressed focus of this blog site, on Christian Origins, but this is such a fascinating book, I can’t resist drawing it to the attention of readers.)

The period, ca. 300-700 CE, is outside my own period of any competence, and the geography is little known to me in any depth, the areas surrounding the Red Sea, present-day Ethiopia, Yemen.  But it was a world/time of two major powers in a death-struggle with each other, with each power supporting client rulers, and striking alliances with local rulers to advance their own larger ambitions for geo-political influence.  Plus, local rulers with their own ambitions, and religions wedded with political rulers and so used as a motivation for warfare.  Sound familiar?  But, I repeat, Bowersock takes us back into the world of late antiquity, although there are uncanny resemblances with the present time.

I had no idea that there was a powerful empire (Axum) based in present-day Ethiopia that also exerted (from time to time) rule over the southern Arabian penninsula.  I didn’t know that this Ethiopian kingdom converted to Christianity sometime in the mid-4th century CE, or that Arab peoples of the southern Arabian penninsula converted to Judaism just a few decades later and formed a rather militant Jewish kingdom (Himyar) that carried out a brutal pogrom against Arabian Christians, or that the Ethiopian king took this as a reason to launch an invasion of Himyar (present-day Yemen) to re-establish his rule there, presenting himself as rescuing fellow Christians.  The Persians (Sassanids) backed Himyar, and Byzantium backed the Christian king of Ethiopia in this struggle.

Later, after the Byzantine king had finally crushed the Sassanids (ca. 630s), the resulting power-vacuum in the Middle East allowed Muslim forces to assert themselves.  Muhammed and his followers were resisted by Jews, but initially welcomed by Christians (e.g., when they arrived in Jerusalem).

Aside from opening a world of these and many other fascinating developments (which have repercussions down to the present day), Bowersock’s book is a powerful case-study of how topics, peoples, whole areas and periods can be overlooked, left out of “history” for various reasons.  If you want a fascinating journey without leaving the comfort of your favorite chair, get into The Throne of Adulis.

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  1. Thanks for mentioning this book Larry. I must confess I have not read it and did not know all the details, but I knew that something along the lines you outline happened. In my textbook “Understanding World Religions,” (Zondervan, 2011,p. 334), I provide a map of the Christian world of the 6th century which takes in these areas and argues that today no one remembers large areas of Africa and Asia were once Christian because the expansion of the Church was devastated by the rise of Islam in the 7th century. In writing this my aim was to stimulate interest in this and related issues. It also seems to me that the history of Christianity in China and India is in need of a drastic re-write because the Christian communities are far older than most people realize.

    In my lectures I use some Power Point (ppts) that show the problems caused to our understanding of history created by the maps people normally use to show the “Roman World.” These maps inevitably cut off Nubia and Ethiopia, which while not under Roman control were certainly important areas that ought to be shown beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. Importantly, I point out that both areas became Christian and that Nubian Christianity survived until around the C15 when it was destroyed by Muslim invaders. Ethiopia survived but under very difficult circumstance. I intend to post these ppts on my website where you can find some related materials:

    Irving Hexham

  2. Henry Carmichael permalink

    The kingdom of Axum plays a significant role in David Drake & Eric Flint’s Belisarius series (Alternate History & Military History).

  3. Here is a link to a brief overview of and bib. on Ethiopian Christianity that may be of interest; ‘A Bibliography on Christianity in Ethiopia,’ It is for sale but here is a free download –
    “This bibliography intends to meet the need of researchers and students of Christianity in
    Ethiopia and Africa to have a survey of the most important published materials on the
    subject in recent years. It covers various fields such as philology, religious studies,
    anthropology and the history of Christianity in Ethiopia and roughly covers the last
    forty years. The bibliography centers mainly on the tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox
    Church (EOC), including references to the Eritrean Orthodox Church,…”

  4. Coincidentally, I’m in the process of putting up a little blog on the Red Sea area and related (I was PI of a project there for several years, back in the early 80’s.). The history of this area really fascinating – and Grant has put up a nice summary of some of the Ethiopian links.- thanks to Grant for that summary!) Also, here is a site that I highly recommend from a 1st C. Egyptian writing in Greek, which provides an excellent eye-opener to the early era – The Voyage around the Erythraean Sea – .
    The first European into Ethiopia was a Portuguese priest in about the 17th.C., and his write-up can be found on-line (sorry, I do not have it just here but can send later; tomorrow). Thanks again for the book on Adulus, which I will now search out.

  5. I’ve read this book too and my reaction was very similar. I was familiar with Ethiopia’s conversion to Christianity in the 4th century (Late Antiquity is my favorite period of Church History) but the Najran pogrom of Dhu Nuwas, the Roman and Sasanian interests in Arabia, and the background for Islam blew me away. Definitely a neglected part of history. Bowersock talks about it in this short video here:

  6. Grant LeMarquand permalink

    Hi Larry,
    Thanks for drawing our attention to this work. I will certainly have a look at it. You are correct that Christianity was introduced to Ethiopia in the early 4th c. Two brothers, Aedesius and Frumentius, were shipwrecked off what is now the Somali coast, brought to the court of Axum (the capital of the Ethiopian empire) as slaves and introduced the faith to the royal family. Frumentius served, among other things, as tutor to the son of the king. When the boy (Ezana) became king Aedesius and Frumentius were given their freedom – Aedesius went home to Syria and became a priest; Frumentius decided to go home by way of Alexandria because he wanted to talk to the bishop of Alexandria about sending missionaries to Axum. Athanasius listened, agreed, then laid hands on him and sent him back to Axum. The church has existed in relative isolation from the rest of the Christian world for 1600 years. There are official relationships with other ‘Oriental Orthodox’ churches like the Coptic Church of Egypt, the Syrian and Armenian Orthodox, etc. All are non-Chalcedonian. The Ethiopian church, however, remains distinctive and blends elements of what most would think of as ‘Orthodoxy’ (icons, incense, etc etc) with African elements (drums, dancing), together with the Christian world’s largest canon (88 books including 1 Enoch, Jubilees, etc).
    Bowersock’s book sounds like it fills in a lot of information not well known even by those who study Ethiopian things. Thanks
    Grant LeMarquand, Anglican Bishop of the Horn of Africa (Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia)

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