St Mary of Zion: Africa’s Oldest Church

St Mary of Zion church (

The Church of St Mary of Zion with the Treasury containing the Ark of the Covenant in the background (left) is the oldest church (Christian church) on the African continent. First built in the 4th century AD in Aksum, Ethiopia. It is the most important church in Ethiopia.

In the 4th century AD, the Axumite prince Ezana, the first Christian ruler of the Kingdom of Axum (Present-day Eritrea and Ethiopia), was instructed in Christianity by two Syrian monks shipwrecked on the Red Sea coast. The prince promoted Christianity when he became King Ezana, and he is regarded as a saint in both the Ethiopian Orthodox and Catholic churches. The original church is believed to have been built during the reign of Ezana, and has been rebuilt several times since then, including during the reign of Fasilides in the 17th century. St. Mary of Zion was the traditional place where Ethiopian Emperors came to be crowned. And indeed, if an Emperor was not crowned at Axum, or did not at least have his coronation ratified by a special service at St. Mary of Zion, he could not be referred to by the title of “Atse” or Emperor of Ethiopia.