Egypt was well situated to be the first part of Africa to receive Christianity.  Geographically closest to the cradle of Christianity, it had also been subjected for several centuries to Persian, Greek and Roman rule.  The highway from Assyria through Egypt, predicted by Isaiah (19:23), was open and every sort of international influence found its way in.

            Jews in the 1st century

The first from Egypt to become Christians were Jews who travelled to Jerusalem.  They were there at Pentecost (Acts 2:10), and Apollos of Alexandria became a noted preacher (Acts 18:24-28).  Cyrenaica in eastern Libya, where Alexander the Great in 320 B.C. had settled 30,000 Jews, was a further outpost of Greek and Egyptian culture. Cyrenians were present at the first Christian Pentecost and at the Church of Antioch (Acts 11:20; 13:1). Simon of Cyrene, who helped carry Jesus’ cross, apparently became a Christian with all his household, since he is mentioned as “the father of Alexander and Rufus” (Mk 15:21; cf. Rm 16:13).

Mark is the only Evangelist to mention this fact and, although it is likely that he wrote in Rome, his connection with Egyptian Christians may be the origin of the tradition that he founded the Church of Alexandria.  This tradition is mentioned by Eusebius in the 4th century, but the silence of Clement of Alexandria (d. 220) and Origen (d. 254) throws doubt on Mark’s having personally and directly founded a church at Alexandria.  Mark, however, remains the patron of the Egyptian Church. His supposed relics were taken to Venice by Venitian merchants in 828, but Pope Paul VI restored them in 1968 and they now lie in the Orthodox Coptic cathedral in Cairo.

            Greeks in the 2nd century

The Jewish Christians of Egypt suffered from the opposition of their fellow Jews as well as from the Greeks and Romans who regarded Christianity as a Jewish sect and turned against it at the time of the Jewish revolts.  But since Alexandria was an intellectual centre where all philosophies and religious movements met, Greeks began to study and embrace Christianity by the middle of the 2nd century. In Alexandria they formed a theological centre called a “catechetical school” which became very influential in Egypt and the whole Christian world.

The Alexandrian Church was headed by a bishop who was assisted by twelve presbyters who were in effect auxiliary bishops.  Some of these presbyters were itinerant preachers and looked after the Christian communities growing up in other towns of Egypt.  Bishop Demetrius of Alexandria (188-232) was the first to ordain resident bishops for these towns.  But the resident bishops were subject to Alexandria in the same way as were the itinerant auxiliaries.  This is how Alexandria became a patriarchate.

            The Copts in the 3rd century

When Dionysius was bishop (247-65) the Church began to spread rapidly among the indigenous Copts of the Nile delta and valley.  Fleeing the persecutions of Septimus Severus (202) and Decius (250), Coptic Christians spread their faith far up the Nile valley.

As in the Maghrib, these persecutions produced many lapsed Christians who desired to return to the Church when religious freedom was restored.  Bishop Peter of Alexandria drew up a mild reconciliation process to which Meletius, bishop of Lycopolis objected.  The rigorists would have split the Church but for the skill of Athanasius, who was elected bishop of Alexandria in 328.  He was reputed as an ascetic himself; this enabled him to succeed in the decisive factor in the battle, winning the support of the monks.


Arising at the time Constantine accorded the Church public freedom in the Roman Empire, monasticism became the spiritual backbone of the Church when its new freedom left the door open for worldly interest and corruption to come in.  St. Anthony of Egypt (d. 356), whose life was written by St. Athanasius, was the model for thousands after him of one who gave up a rich inheritance and went off to the desert to pray and be strengthened in his spirit.  After many years of fasting, praying and combatting evil spirits who came to attack him in the form of wild beasts, visitors found him not wasted but vigorous in body and mind.  He guided those who came to him and came out occasionally to preach and combat the Arian heresy, dying at last at the age of 105.

St. Anthony’s followers were hermits, each living apart, but going to their master every so often for guidance. Pakhom (Pachomius) was another spiritual master who had lived as a monk since 313 in the Thebaid region of southern Egypt.  From 320 at Tabennisi he began organizing his many followers in to communities which numbered many thousands in his lifetime.

The monks and desert fathers were generally not learned men, and the collections of their sayings are reflections on the Christian life as they experienced it.  Theological analysis of the Christian life was introduced by outsiders such as Evagrius Ponticus who came to Egypt from Hellespont (in Turkey) in 383) to become a monk.  He wrote a good systematic study of eight capital vices, but got into trouble with the bishop of Alexandria for carrying Origen’s teachings to an extreme rejection of the body; for example he held that the resurrection will be only provisional, and that the soul must again be separated from the body in order to see God.

John Cassian was another monk-theologian from the outside.  Born in what is now Rumania, he visited the Egyptian monasteries between 386 and 400 and wrote his Institutions and Conferences, which had a strong influence on Western monasticism.  His writings are noted for their practical wisdom, but also for a semi-Pelagianism whereby the monk was to desire and initiate the process of his perfection by his own efforts and thereby earn God’s help to complete the work.

Monasticism prospered during the age of the desert fathers, but declined with the ebb of the Church in Egypt under Arab rule.  A scant few monasteries remain in use, but a revival of interest with an influx of new members has been taking place in recent years.

            The theologians of Alexandria

Besides monasticism the other focal point influencing the life and destiny of the Church in Egypt was the theology of Alexandria.  The theologians of the 3rd century, notably Clement and Origen, tried to attract non-Christians to Christ as the summit of all wisdom; they exploited the allegorical method to find symbols of Christ throughout the Old Testament.  They also freely made use of the writings of philosophers, recognizing any truths they contained as “seeds of the Word”.   This open attitude, which won the Greeks to the Church, contrasted sharply with the anti-worldly stand of early theologians in the Maghrib, notably Tertullian.

The 4th and 5th century Alexandrian theologians were preoccupied with controversies with political overtones about the Trinity and the metaphysical make-up of Christ.  Arius was a priest of Alexandria who taught that Jesus was less than the Father and not divine.  The controversy he stirred up led to a number of local councils and condemnations and finally to the Council of Nicaea in 325, in which Athanasius of Alexandria, then still a deacon, played the leading role.  The Council settled on the term homoousios (“of the same substance”) to express the relationship of the Father and the Son.  It also recognized the special status of the sees of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, recognizing the patriarchal role of Alexandria, with no mention of Constantinople, which was still Byzantium, a suffragan see of Thrace.   As bishop of Alexandria 328-373), both in his see and during three periods of exile, Athanasius continued to preach and write against Arianism and used his great popularity to consolidate the unity of the Church in Egypt.

The Council of Constantinople in 381 declared a patriarchate next in rank after Rome, an action which was not well received by either Rome or Alexandria.  In 401 Theophilus of Alexandria put it to the test by humiliating St. John Chrysostom of Constantinople at the Synod of the Oak.

A major controversy between the sees took place when Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, challenged the teaching of Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople.  Nestorius held that the divine and human natures of Christ were so separate that terms like theotokos (Mother of God) are inappropriate; Mary could only be the mother of the human compartment.  Cyril argued that such separation amounts to saying that the Word did not become flesh but only dwelt in flesh, and took up the case with the Pope.  Further litigation led to convocation of the Council of Ephesus in 431, which condemned Nestorius’ teaching and deposed him from his patriarchate.

The controversy did not die down, especially as Egyptian and Greek national feeling were involved, and Dioscorus, who succeeded Cyril in 444, took issue with the new patriarch of Constantinople, Flavian, and got him deposed and exiled at the Robber Council of Ephesus in 449 for dismissing the archimandrite Eutyches, who refused to admit the two distinct natures of Christ.  Pope Leo I, however, condemned Dioscorus’ procedure, and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 deposed him for defiance.  Mainly because of offended national pride, most of the Egyptian bishops and theologians would not accept Chalcedon or the Council of Constantinople II of 553, which simply reiterated Chalcedon.  Theologians of Rome and Constantinople accused the Egyptian Church of monophysitism, a position which says that Christ has only one nature, with the divine absorbing the human.

Since Dioscorus and the Council of Chalcedon, the schismatic party predominated in Egypt.  Up to 518 the emperors attempted to effect a reconciliation, then resorted to repression.  From 537 to the coming of Islam there were two patriarchs of Alexandria, one Coptic and the other Melkite (from malik, “king” or “emperor”).

The thirty years preceding the Arab conquest were especially hard times for Egypt.  In 609-10 the country was the battleground between the forces loyal to Emperor Phocas and those supporting the coup of Heraclius. Heraclius’ success was soon marred by an invasion of the Persians who captured all his eastern territories, including Egypt, in 616-18.   The Persian conquest was devastating, but once in control the Persians allowed the Copts to practice their religion freely.  Heraclius’ control of the sea and his well planned strike at the heartland of Persia led to the Persians’ evacuation of Egypt in 627.  The restoration of the Byzantines, however, was the occasion of a new and bitter persecution of the Copts.  The leader of this persecution was Cyrus, known to the Arabs as Muqawqis (“the Caucasian”) who was at once the Melkite patriarch of Alexandria and the Byzantine governor of Egypt.  This persecution was relieved


Christian merchants from Egypt undoubtedly were in Ethiopia from early times, but the founding of the Church there is the work of the Syrian Frumentius (known to the Ethiopians as Fremantos).   Around 335 he and some friends were sailing in the Red Sea to India when they put ashore in Eritrea to get water.  They were captured and brought to Axum, then the capital of Ethiopia.  Working in the service of the king and, after his death, of the queen regent, Frumentius was free to conduct worship for the Christian merchants and to preach. Through his influence the new king Ezana joined Christianity.  Ezana may also have been desirous to impress and gain favour with the successors of Constantine, who were now officially Christian.

Frumentius was then allowed to go back to Syria.   On his way he reported to Patriarch Athanasius in Alexandria, appealing to him to send a bishop for the new Church in Ethiopia.  Athanasius was so impressed by the layman Frumentius that he ordained him bishop about 340 and sent him back to Ethiopia.  From this early connection the Ethiopian Church has always recognized the authority of the Alexandrian patriarchate.

When Frumentius came back he did not gain wholehearted support from King Ezana, who kept his role as the head of the traditional religion as well as being the patron of Christianity. Frumentius’ congregation must have consisted only of a section of the royal court and the foreign resident merchants with their families.   Greek was the major language in the Church and most of the clergy were foreign.

Over a century after Ezana’s conversion, at the end of the 5th century, the Ethiopian Church began to develop through the efforts of two groups of Syrian and Egyptian missionaries, the Sadqan and the Nine Saints.   These were monks, and the first thing they did in their communities was to translate the Bible and liturgical books into Geez and to train local candidates for the services of the Church.   Their monasteries became centres of evangelization in the surrounding areas, and tremendous progress was made.   The only drawback was that they represented the monophysite rejection of Catholic Christianity and put Ethiopia in a schismatic position from the beginning.

Across the Red Sea from Ethiopia Christianity had entered Yemen at least by the 4th century.  Judaism also entered Yemen, maybe simultaneously. Competition developed, in which the Jews were supported by Persia in an effort to offset Byzantine (Christian) influence in the area.   A Jewish massacre of the Christians of Najrân in 523 provoked Ethiopian intervention at the bidding of Emperor Justinian.  The Ethiopians then ruled Yemen until 575.

Abrahah, the Ethiopian governor, built a cathedral in Sanâca which was the admiration of all from far and wide and threatened to be a rival shrine to the Kacba in Mecca. On the eve of a certain festival two pagan Meccans urinated in the cathedral to desecrate it.  Abrahah then organized a punitive expedition against Mecca which was unsuccessful.   This was in 570, the year of Muhammad’s birth.  The next chapter will describe Ethiopian relations with Muhammad’s followers.


In the 6th century, when it officially accepted Christianity, Nubia included three kingdoms: Nobatia, from Aswan southward to the next kingdom of Maqurra, with its capital at Old Dongola, and Alwa, with its capital near the present Khartűm.  Monophysite refugees form Syria settled near Aswan after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and around the same time some Ethiopian Christians settled in Alwa.

Nobatia formally embraced Christianity in 543 subsequent to a mission sent to it by the monophysite Empress Theodora of Constantinople.   Maqurra accepted Christianity in 569 and in the same year the king of Alwa invited missionaries to evangelize his land, where many ancient temples were then converted into churches.   Byzantine influence was strong in culture, politics and religion, but a distinctively Nubian culture developed which can be seen in the many ruins explored before the completion of the Aswan dam.


            The people

The society which Christianity entered in the Maghrib, or Northwest Africa, was a complex mixture of several cultures and peoples.   Just as in Egypt the indigenous base was the Coptic people with an overlay of Jewish and Greek and later Arab cultures, so there was an indigenous stratum in the Maghrib with various later overlays from the outside.  The earliest still surviving ethnic stratum which once covered North Africa from west of the Nile to the Atlantic and most of the Sahara is a somewhat heterogeneous people who usually call themselves Tamashek, known to the Greeks as Berbers (barbaroi = “non-Greek-speaking”, pejoratively “barbarian”), and to the Arabs as Tuareg.  The Nigerian Hausa term Ba-Ture (pl. Turawa), now meaning “white-man” probably also originally meant these white skinned Tuareg. The Black Tuareg, whom the Hausa commonly call Buzaye (sing. Buzu), were once the slave class of the Tuareg and now are assimilated into Tuareg society.

On top of this Berber base came a wave of Punic (= Phoenician or Lebanese) immigration.  The Phoenicians came first as occasional traders at least 1,000 years before Christ, and made permanent settlements from the 6th century before Christ, to judge by the Punic tombs at Carthage.

Punic Carthage was a threat to the growing power of Rome, and was conquered by Rome in 146 B.C.  Punic, however, remained a common market language in the Maghrib long after the Roman take-over.  In addition to the Berber, Punic and Roman cultures there were sizable settlements of Jews all across North Africa dating from the time of Solomon, who sent ships to Tarshish (probably a place in Spain) with the help of Hiram, King of Phoenicia (1 Kg 10:22).  In 115 the Romans put down a Jewish revolt in Cyrenaica, causing a further migration of Jewish refugees westward.

            Early Christianity

Carthage, the principal city in the Maghrib, received Christianity through Rome.  The earliest reference is an account in 180 of the trial and martyrdom at Carthage of some Christians from Scili, a nearby town.  In 197 Tertullian said that Christianity had penetrated all ranks of North African society.  In 202 Perpetua and Felicity were martyred in Carthage during the persecution of Septimus Severus. By 212 the Church had advanced further and Tertullian claimed that Christians were the majority in every town.   Tertullian himself was an outstanding representative of Roman Africa and the greatest Latin theologian before Augustine.  In his later life he embraced Montanism, a sort of Pentecostal movement which was heretical in its moral rigorism (e.g. by condemning second marriages as adultery and flight during persecution as apostasy, and forbidding cosmetics and attendance of games or plays) and more especially in its claim that the Church of the Holy Spirit had come to replace that of Jesus, just as the latter had replaced Judaism which belonged to the era of the Father.

At a council held in Carthage in 225 there were 70 bishops from the provinces of Proconsularis (including Byzacena and Tripolitania) and Numidia.  Each small town had its own bishop, while Carthage held primacy over all the North African dioceses from the Atlantic as far as Cyrenaica, which came under Alexandria.   In each province of this territory, moreover, the senior bishop held a local primacy.  Christianity had taken over the towns and villages across the whole of the Maghrib.  Only the desert nomads and the Berbers in the mountains were never evangelized or only got a cultural veneer of Christianity, an omission which ultimately spelt the ruin the Church in the Maghrib.

The success of Christianity is explainable in part from the fact that the Roman traditional religion was essentially a provincial cult, involving local spirits and ancestors, which had been foisted on an cosmopolitan empire for which it was not adequate.  Experiments were made everywhere to syncretize it with other local cults, and every new eastern religion was examined and enjoyed some popularity.   Only a monotheistic religion had international potential, and Judaism and Christianity were the only competitors.  Judaism at this time was spreading fast and came near to dominating the empire, but Christianity was much more adaptable and fast outstripped Judaism.  Jews were as much alarmed as pagans at the spread of Christianity in its first three centuries and were among its fiercest persecutors.

Troubles in the Church in the Maghrib arose during the Decian persecution of 250-1.  St. Cyprian, who had become bishop of Carthage in 249, had to go into hiding, while many Christians, clergy and laity alike, lapsed by sacrificing to the gods of the empire (the sacrificati) or by fraudulently getting a receipt saying that they did so (the libellatici). When the persecution was over, Cyprian called a council and ruled that the libellatici should do a lengthy public penance before being readmitted to Communion, but that the sacrificati could be given Communion only on their death-bed. The council also ruled that baptism administered by lapsed priests was invalid.  This decision brought about a controversy with Pope Stephen I. Neither side gave in, and a showdown was temporarily averted by the martyrdom under the Emperor Valerian of both Pope Stephen, in 257,m and Cyprian, in 258.

            Donatism and Augustine

The Diocletian persecution, beginning in 303, produced many more lapsed Christians until the accession of Constantine in 305 brought the persecution to an end.  But in Africa the martyrs (witnesses) who had been imprisoned and tortured for the faith continued the custom of granting “peace” or remission of public penance to penitents who came to them, on the basis that their own holy suffering substituted for the compensatory exercises of piety still required of the repentant sinner.  Many of these martyrs were enamoured of their own prestige and came into competition with the bishops in regulating the discipline of the Church.  In 311 Caecilian was ordained Bishop of Carthage to succeed Mensurius.  The martyr faction detested them both and contested the validity of the ordination because it was performed by Felix of Aptonga, a bishop who had surrendered sacred books during the persecution.  A council of 70 African bishops influenced by Donatus and the rich widow Lucilla who was an enemy of Caecilian, supported the martyrs and ordained Majorinus to replace Caecilian as bishop of Carthage.

Caecilian refused to give in, and his opponents appealed to Constantine.  The Emperor had Pope Miltiades try the case in a synod in 313, which judged in favour of Caecilian.  Two appeal trials, in 314 and 316, gave the same judgement. During this time Majorinus died and Donatus succeeded him.  Donatus energetically spread the rigorist cause, especially among the Berbers of Numidia, and soon most towns which still had a Catholic bishop also had a rival Donatist one.  When in 317 Constantine ordered the confiscation of Donatist churches, which by then were many, a revolt broke out.  The Emperor backed down in 321, but by then the Donatist guerrillas, called Circumcellions, were in action and would not stop.  Various attempts at conciliation or repression were made, and the movement was even favoured by the emperor Julian the Apostate (361-63). Donatism was predominant in all but the coastal Roman strongholds when St. Augustine entered the scene by writing a tract against the Donatists in 393.

Augustine’s famous career had carried him from the study of rhetoric in Carthage, where he experienced a tumultuous personal life, on to Manichean negativism and a conversion to Christianity by contact with St. Ambrose in Milan, and once more back to Africa as member of a religious community dedicated to prayer and study, then as a priest and in 395 as bishop of Hippo.  From Hippo Augustine first threw his energy into campaigning against Donatism.  In well argued pamphlets he defended the validity of sacraments administered by unworthy ministers, the holiness of the Church in spite of the inevitable presence of weeds among the wheat, and the need for union with the historic Catholic Church.  He was instrumental in having the Emperor summon a conference at Carthage in 411 attended by 286 Catholic bishops (of the 470 in Africa at that time) and 279 Donatist bishops, where the Emperor’s representative judged against the Donatists.  At this time of his life Augustine also favoured government action in repressing the Donatists (Augustine repudiated this idea later in life), especially since the Donatists, besides their popularity, had their private armed forces, the Circumcellions, to help maintain their position.

After the conference of 411 Donatism waned, and Catholicism prospered.  Augustine turned his polemics against Pelagianism which was just being introduced to Africa by its authors Palagius and Celestius. Augustine wrote some of the most famous Christian treatises on grace to answer the Pelagian contention that man can choose good and reach God by his own efforts alone.  Augustine also, perhaps inspired by the success of monasticism in Egypt, supported the foundation of houses of religious life. Yet all this prosperity of the Church was about to crash.

            The Vandals

The year 430 was a turning point for the Church in the Maghrib.   At that time the number of Catholic bishops was 600, the maximum it ever attained. In the same year Augustine died at the age of 76.   While he was dying the Vandals, who had come from Germany across Spain into the Maghrib, were besieging Hippo.

The Vandal invasion was occasioned by the revolt of Boniface, the Roman Count of Africa, against the young emperor Valentinian III.   Appeals from both rebels and loyalists in Africa brought Gaiseric and his hordes pouring into the rich land which was the granary of Italy and whose agricultural development has never been equalled since.  In 439 they took Carthage, and in 455 sacked Rome.  The Vandals were Arian and in Africa they installed their teachings, ritual and clergy, and persecuted the Catholics.  In Vandal controlled Proconsularis the number of Catholic bishops was reduced from 164 to 3.

The chaos which prevailed during the Vandal rule did not stem from the invaders alone, but principally from the nomadic or mountaineer Berbers who took advantage of the situation.  In fact the 14th century Arab writer Ibn-Khaldűn observes that it is a law of history in North Africa that the nomads on the edge of the desert cast covetous eyes on the rich cultivated zone reaching up to the Mediterranean and, when this zone is weak, come in to plunder and settle there themselves.  When they in turn grow soft a new wave of desert-hardened nomadic warriors displaces them.

The Romans maintained forts along the border (limes) of the territory they controlled and, except for certain intervals, kept the nomads at bay.  Militarily, such a system was necessary, but there was also a lack of solidarity in the civilized society because of the gap between landowners and peasants which deprived the society of a strong incentive to resist the nomadic plunderers.  Hence, when the Roman presence in North Africa collapsed, the non-Christianized and non-Romanized Berbers just poured in and wrecked havoc. Gaiseric tried to control and use them and, since he did not tolerate non-Christians in his army, he required the Kabyle Berbers who joined his army to have a cross tattooed on their foreheads, cheeks and hands, a custom which was kept up well after these people were absorbed into Islam.

            The Byzantines

Vandal power dwindled under Gaiseric’s successors, and in 534 the Byzantine emperor Justinian I broke the Vandals’ last hold on Africa.  At a synod then called at Carthage 217 bishops were present, down from 565 in the year 411.  It took the Byzantines 50 years of brutal repression to assure their control of the land, but the extent of their control was far less than what the Romans had before.  In Tingitana they held only Ceuta, in Caesariensis only the town of Caesaria, in Sitifensis only the eastern half.  Numidia, Proconsularis and Byzacena were theirs and the northern stretch of Tripolitania.  During the following 50 years the Church, now with the Greek language and Byzantine rite, once more began to sink roots and send out branches, in some case to Berbers who never had contact with Christianity before, such as in Tripolitania and Fezzân.

On the eve of the first Arab incursion the Church was solidly established only in a few urban centres.  On the political scene the Byzantines had only slight control over the independence-loving Berbers, and the Byzantines themselves were falling apart.  When the 15 year old emperor Constans II came to power, Gregory, the Exarch of Africa, revolted and when the Arabs came he had to face them alone.

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The Spread of Islam
Through North to West Africa

Chapter 2 —»