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Christianity, having begun in 1st Century Roman Palestine, in the next few centuries spread rapidly across the Roman Empire and beyond, including beyond the southern boundary of Roman Egypt, via the Red Sea and the Nile. The Kingdom of Axum in what is now Ethiopia under influence from missionaries from Egypt became Christian as early as in the fourth century AD, earlier than much of Europe, establishing a literate, Christian civilization with monasteries and bishops that survives in Ethiopia to this day.

However, if Christianity could spread that far south that early, at least 2 centuries before it had to contend with Islam as a rival, why did it stop there the next thousand years or more? Why didn’t it spread further into Sub-Saharan Africa until brought there by Europeans from the sixteenth century onwards?

PS Thank you TED and MA Golding for your replies. My gut reaction is that TED is basically right, that there was something to do with the level of development of a society that made it easier for it to adopt a scripture based religion like Christianity.

What is now Ethiopia was already in contact with civilizations in Arabia and the Nile Valley which probably made it different from societies further south in sub-Saharan Africa at that time, although we know little of them due to lack of written records and the limited amount of archaeology that has been done.

I do not think presence or absence of 'colonialism' is as important. Christianity in around the 4th Century managed to spread not only within the Roman Empire but to Germanic tribes beyond the frontier of the Empire like the Goths and Vandals (even if they initially adopted 'Arian' rather than Catholic Christianity), to Mesopotamia and as I have said to Ethiopia, which was never conquered by the Romans and established its own independent kingdom.

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    I don't think you can hope to answer the question without first managing to explain how & why Christianity spread to Ethiopia (and elsewhere) in the days before the missionaries had colonial powers backing them. – jamesqf Jul 29 at 17:26
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    @jamesqf: That's an easy one: Mark went there. – Denis de Bernardy Jul 30 at 4:29
  • @Denis de Bernardy: That really doesn't explain anything. Given that Mark (or anyone Christian missionary) went there, why did anyone listen, rather than treating him as we treat say the Krishna cult people? – jamesqf Jul 31 at 4:43
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There wasn't anything for it to spread south to.

OK, there is one exception that Mr. de Bernardy pointed out in the comments. Somalia is south of Ethiopia (when it wasn't part of its empire), and there were conversions there. Many people living there were Jewish and Christian, and some of the Jewish converts may have reached as far south as modern Tanzania. After Mohammed, most of the folks in Somalia converted to Islam, and stayed with that religon throughout the middle ages. Of course this region had strong trading and cultural contacts with the Middle East. So I think Somalia may be useful as the exception that proves the rule.

Christianity is what is often called a religion of the book. It is a scriptural religion, which means it really is designed for use within a literate society. That isn't to say that illiterate people can't follow it, but someone in the society needs to be able to read from scriptures.

Additionally, converting to a trans-national religion isn't all about belief. More fundamentally, its a good way to acknowledge existing trade and cultural ties with another country/state/region, and to actively strengthen them. If no such ties exist, and the country's people and rulers don't want them, there's no real use to them for that country's religion.

Somalia aside, there were no other literate societies in Africa south of Ethiopia in the Middle Ages. We don't even know of many states at all south of there. There was the Bachwezi in the Great Lakes area around 1300, and Great Zimbabwe in South Africa from around 1100, but both appear to have been illiterate societies, the later with no known external contacts with any other society. The other known pre-colonial native African states south of there (Lunda and Luba) were founded after the 1400's, and their contacts north would have likely been with Islamic societies.

Map showing pre-colonial African kingdoms enter image description here Larger version

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    I'm not sure the lack of literate societies entirely explains it. There's historical precedent for missionaries inventing entirely new alphabets in order to bring Christianity to an illiterate people; see the Glagolitic alphabet, Old Permic, or (much later) Cree syllabics. – Michael Seifert Jul 29 at 13:53
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    Your answer was my gut reaction too, but I'm struggling to make any sense of why Somalian traders didn't convert too and then spread the stuff all the way down to the Swahili coast and Zimbabwe. They were trading with the West through Egypt, after all, and Egypt was Christian at the time. Plus, the lack of literacy didn't stop Islam from spreading all the way down to Kilwa. Trade, rather than literacy, purportedly played a key role in Islam spreading there -- why wouldn't that have been the same for Christianity? – Denis de Bernardy Jul 29 at 13:56
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – T.E.D. Jul 29 at 14:32
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I suspect that after the king of kings of Aksum converted to Christianity the government gradually converted all the people to Christianity. And whenever Aksum conquered a new region efforts would have been made to convert the population. One area where Aksum expanded was into South Arabia. But if Aksum converted a lot of Arabs to Christianity the effort was wasted when the Muslims conquered all of Arabia about AD 630, and began converting everyone to Islam.

The Muslims conquered Egypt a few decades later and began expanding south, but were blocked by the Christian states in the Sudan such as Makuria. But Muslim traders introduced Islam and the country gradually converted to Islam by about the 14th century or so. Then any Ethiopian efforts to expand west into the Nile valley would have been strongly resisted by the mainly Muslim population.

Meanwhile Arab traders established many trading posts and cities along the east coast of Africa and naturally introduced Islam, which spread from those communities rapidly or slowly in various cases.

So by then the Ethiopians would have had to expand directly south avoiding the Muslim realms in the Nile valley to the west and the Muslim lands along the African coast to the east, or else having to risk fighting fierce Muslim opposition to Christian conquests.

So part of the reason why Ethiopia didn't convert more southerly regions of Africa was that Ethiopia didn't conquer more southerly regions of Africa. Ethiopia had a window of opportunity of about 500 or 1,000 years when it could theoretically have conquered large regions of Africa and formed a vast empire and converted most of the inhabitants to Christianity, but didn't use that opportunity.

So some might say that Ethiopia wasted that window of opportunity to conquer and convert vast areas of Africa. But other persons might suppose that Ethiopia wasn't a military superpower for most or all of those 1,000 years and didn't have the military and logistical capability to conquer much larger areas that Ethiopia did sometimes conquer during periods of Ethiopian strength.

And it is possible that Ethiopian traders and missionaries did convert many Africans in distant regions, and that the later success of Muslims in converting Africans to Islam might have been made easier by some people in those regions already being Christian or part Christian.

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    Same comment as on TED's answer: why didn't Somali traders, who dealt with Greeks and Romans over in (Christian) Egypt not convert to Christianity and propagate it all the way down to the Swahili coast and Zimbabwe? Why did the Arabs and Yemeni propagate Islam southwards but the Egyptians, Ethiopians, Somali, Yemeni, etc. not propagate Christianity southwards? (Yemen was under Ethiopian/Christian rulership before the Arab conquests.) – Denis de Bernardy Jul 29 at 19:03
  • @Denis de Bernardy: But there's the flip side of the question. Why would anyone (or any substantial number of people, anyway) convert to Christianity in the first place, absent some compulsion from colonial powers? – jamesqf Jul 30 at 4:16
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    @jamesqf: Good question. Which, going with it and applied to Islam, would suggest that Islam shouldn't have spread much either. Yet it did, all the way down to Kilwa. Hence my question and, arguably, objection: why did trade propagate Islam and not Christianity? – Denis de Bernardy Jul 30 at 4:21
  • @DenisdeBernardy - FWIW, I did address that in the chat after things got excessive in the comments, and edited it into my answer (short answer is: some of them did). So I don't think not addressing Somalians should really be a hit against either question. – T.E.D. Jul 30 at 18:11
  • @T.E.D.: Yeah, I noticed. But quite frankly I'm still awaiting a documented answer that basically goes: it did spread, if only a little bit, but then Islam spread on top of it and overran it for all practical intents -- without trying to coerce that in a narrative about illiteracy that, frankly, I'm not inclined to take for granted. (Which might lead to another question that might want addressing at the same time: why didn't Islam overrun Christianity in Ethiopia too?) Or something that basically refutes that hunch. – Denis de Bernardy Jul 30 at 18:39

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