Frumentius and Aedesius and the origins of the church in the Horn of Africa

This is a guest column by The Rt. Rev. Grant LeMarquand who is a retired bishop of the Horn of Africa.

The lives of two brothers, Frumentius and Aedesius, are closely intertwined with the birth of the church in the Horn of Africa, in what was once called the kingdom of Axum and now includes the countries of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia.

The story takes place in the early fourth century. A merchant from Tyre, one Meropius, undertook a trade mission to India. During the journey his ship put into a port on the Red Sea and was attacked (Somali pirates are not a new thing). Meropius and the crew were killed, leaving alive only Meropius’ young nephews, Frumentius and Aedesius, who had left the ship and were under a tree. According to the early church historian Rufinus the two boys were brought to Axum, the capital of the empire in the Horn of Africa, where Aedesius became the cupbearer to the king. Frumentius, apparently because of his superior skill, became tutor to his son Ezana. During their time in Axum, these two young Christians began and nurtured a small Christian community, probably at first among those connected with the court, but certainly including the young Ezana.

Eventually Ezana acceded to the throne and the kingdom of Axum gradually but surely became a Christian nation. There is numismatic evidence for Ezana’s conversion, by the way – after he became king, coins Axumite coins were minted with images of the cross on one side.

Frumentius and Aedesius, of course, were granted their freedom. Aedesius made his way home to Syria where he became a priest. Aedesius told the story of the beginnings of the Ethiopian church to the church historian Rufinus, which is how we know the story.

Frumentius, it seems, wanted to go to Egypt, and specifically to Alexandria. The fledgling church in Axum was a great distance from any other church and Frumentius wanted to make sure that these Axumite Christians would somehow be integrated into the life of the universal church. Frumentius thought that the safest way to ensure this result was to speak to the newly consecrated bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius. Frumentius hoped to convince Athanasius to build on the work that he and Aedesius had already begun and to send missionaries to Axum. Of course Athanasius agreed – but he could see no better candidate to be bishop, and so Frumentius was conscripted and consecrated. We can date this event fairly accurately because it must have taken some time between AD 328 (when Athanasius became bishop of Alexandria) and AD 335 (the date of Athanasius’ first exile).

Frumentius returned to Ethiopia and apparently had a long and fruitful ministry. We do not hear much about this period of his life, except that in about AD 356, the Emperor Constantius II of Constantinople wrote to King Ezana and his brother Saizana, apparently wanting Frumentius to be replaced as bishop. Constantius was an Arian and did not approve of any bishop consecrated and appointed by Athanasius (who was now in exile). King Ezana, of course, ignored this letter from Emperor Constantius. Frumentius remained bishop for many years. The good fruit of his ministry is seen in the fact that in Ethiopian tradition he is know known as Abba Salama, Father of Peace. Today, Ethiopia is the home to approximately 50 million Christians, most of them members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

The story of these two brothers provides only one example of how displaced people have become missionaries. We can think of the believers in Jerusalem who scattered after the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8:1), or of the Christians in Uganda who escaped the wrath of the Kabaka (king) of Buganda, but brought the message of the gospel with them. Suffering – even the trauma of losing one’s home – can lead to unexpected fruit for the gospel.


I have begun serving as locum for the English-speaking congregation in Ma’adi, St. John the Baptist’s. Ma’adi has traditionally been a place where foreigners live, but it is also populated by locals and refugees. There are three Anglican services at St. John’s (English-language, Egyptian, Sudanese), though four other congregations rent the building to do all the things churches do. It’s a pretty busy campus because so many people use the church compound throughout the week. The Egyptian and Sudanese services are both held in Arabic, which means being a pastor in the full relational senses requires that I learn Arabic.

In Dallas, we observe the traditional mass of collegiality; but, in Cairo, we have mass and breakfast with one another once a week. Breakfast closes with announcements from the Archbishop followed by prayer. The Bishop is meant to pastor the priests, and the sacramental bond that we share in the priesthood to the bishop is an instrument of his/her episcopal orders. My ministry, technically, is an extension of the action of the Bishop on whose behalf I am a pastor, hence the recent invention of “alternative oversight” wherein I seek to extend the ministry of a Bishop whose beliefs and practices I prefer. The individualization and subjectivization of the priesthood along the lines of conscience is, of course, a historical novelty. In the U.S. church governance is adapting to felt cultural necessity, but here it is interesting to actually see the unity that clergy have with the Bishop, indeed, along the lines of faith but also in terms of friendship. In the U.S., it seems that priests very rarely make time to make friends with their peers and often suffer from loneliness and exhaustion. There are no doubt plenty of the same banal vanities and competitiveness that divide clergy back home moving under the surface here, too, and all in ways that I, as a non-Egyptian, cannot intuit or see. Regardless, they are not divided by faith in the ways that really matter, and that seems to make it possible to meaningfully engage the tedium of other uncertainties and differences that have to be sorted out. Of course, I have only been here for just over two weeks, so what do I know? Honor is also a major cultural thing here that still applies to clergy, whereas in America it does not and our evaluative frameworks for one another shares in the corporate pragmatic culture that permits more open critique of one’s colleagues. There is that difference, too.


I attended a council meeting this week composed of representatives from each of the Christian Churches (Coptic Orthodox, Coptic Catholic, Anglican, and Presbyterian) in Egypt. The meeting opened with prayer and a time of Biblical reflection which was followed by lunch and a lot of tea. They meet weekly to plan ecumenical activities, but I was told that the practice of simply being together was just as important to them. Being together, simply showing up and being at the meeting, is important because the relationships that exist between these Churches do not exist outside the meeting. The group hopes that meeting and sharing in this way over time will change the way that Christians relate to one another in Egypt.

The next day, some Americans stopped by to host a book launch and dinner at the Cathedral which was attended by the clergy and their families. I really enjoyed the grape leaves. During the day, I worked on my sermon and began planning some Advent and Christmas activities for St. John’s. The following day, on my way to vestry, I stopped by the Coptic Museum in hopes of seeing the oldest complete Coptic Psalter, the Mudil Codex (4th c.), but it was not on display at the time for some reason. I did get to see a bunch of icons from the 4th-5th century, though, and that was pretty rad.

Prayer Requests:


  • Prayers for peace in Ethiopia and for the Church’s peaceable witness in Gambella should violence erupt there
  • For discernment for the future of my vocation.


Other ways you can help:
  • Prison ministry (Egypt): For 15 years, the Diocese of Egypt have travelled once a week to visit Kanater to help with material and pastoral needs of the prisoners there, including those on death-row. The largest expenditure that this ministry needs help with is providing plane tickets to the newly released who have no way of returning to their home countries. Click here for more information on the Diocese of Egypt’s prison ministry. To donate to this project, click here.
  • Well Project (Gambella): Clean drinking water is a very serious need in Gambella. The Anglican Church hopes to begin a water ministry at Good Shepherd Cathedral, which is located on the outskirts of town and has no running water or electricity. This ministry would provide clean drinking water to the community around the Cathedral, but we need a lot of financial help to make this happen. A little goes a long way. If you’d like to understand the cost breakdown of this project, click here. To donate to this project, click here.

This is a lively blog written by the Rev. Trent Pettitt as he chronicles his ministry in the Horn of Africa.