How Christianity Came to Africa: Blacks of the Ancient Mediterranean

Between 10,500 to 7,300 BC, the area known today as the Saharah Desert was lush and habitable due to monsoonal rains falling on the land. There were enough waterways and wetlands to support crocodiles, hippopotamuses, and other aquatic beast as well as terrestrial creatures such as elephants and lions. Animal herders from the Nile River valley took advantage of the geographic bonanza and brought their domesticated animals to graze on the expansive pastures. Rock art paintings in southern Algeria and Libya depicts human inhabitants hunting wild game, herding cattle, dancing, and engaged in other activities. There was no division between North and Sub-Saharan Africans as we have today.

The monsoonal rains fell more and more southward around 5,000 to 4,300 BC. The lack of these steady rains drove both man and beast to migrate to where they could survive. Many went to the South and West between the Niger River and the Atlantic Ocean and became the ancestors of modern West African peoples and kingdoms. Others went back to the Nile Valley where they would establish Pharaonic Egypt and the Ethiopian and Nubian societies. Another group of Saharan migrants came to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea where it was still possible to grow crops and herd animals.

Ancient Africa in the Roman period

Africans living closest to the Mediterranean shoreline and along the Nile came in contact with Asians from the Levant and Southern Europeans. Control of lucrative trade routes and coastal cities led to invasions and wars in the region. Eventually, the Macedonians and, later, Romans would dominate Northern Africa’s power and wealth. With trade came the exchange of ideas. Not only Greco Roman paganism and Judaism, but the worship of Egyptian deities (in particular Isis) could be found in any corner of the Mediterranean world. Elements of North African beliefs continued well into the early Christian period (St. Augustine’s mother, Monica, may have been named for the Libyan/Punic god Mon).

The dark complexioned natives did not disappear from this region. In the East, Nubian kingdoms at Egypt’s southern border were too formidable for would be conquerors for hundreds of years after the Arab invasion of Africa in the 7th century. Not only did the Romans rely on rival African nations to finally defeat Carthage. They rebuilt the ruined port city. Since the time of Herodotus and Homer, Greeks held “Ethiopians” in curiosity and high esteem. These people with black skin, thick lips, and tightly curled hair were the subject of many pieces of art and often characters in literature. Romans sometimes derided them as they fought against imperial rule. Nevertheless, black Africans served in legions and became full citizens in every social level of the empire.

An African, possibly of Carthage

The native population along the Mediterranean coast was made up of lighter complexioned people due to colonization and race mixing. Children of Asiatic Hyksos and Phoenician fathers were born and raised free even if their mothers were enslaved. Numidians and Thebans serving in imperial armies could take wives and concubines as they wished. Going more toward the Sahara and Nubia, the population tended to be darker and more native African. Major cities such as Carthage, Alexandria, and even Athens and Rome attracted people of all sorts trying to make a way in the world.

Natural forces brought Africans to the Mediterranean shores and Nile Valley and Delta. Curiosity, trade and conquest brought them in contact with Asians and Europeans. All of humanity in this region were blessed with pluralism and the exchange of ideas. They were also cursed with imperial brutality and domination. Anyone from Cornwall, to Caesarea, to the First Cataract would have been in search of a better kingdom than the one they were living in. Such a promise would not have to be forced on anyone. Instead, some would welcome and believe even to the point of dying for it. Despite over 300 years of cruel suppression, Africa and all of the Roman Empire was fertile ground for the Christian faith.

An African citizen of the Roman Empire

Sources:

Basil Davidson, Africa in History, Collier Books/Macmillan Publishing, New York 1974

Basil Davidson, African Civilization Revisited, Africa Word Press, Trenton NJ, 1991

Frank Snowden, Before Color Prejudice, Harvard U. Press, Cambridge MA & London1997

Frank Snowden, Blacks in Antiquity, Harvard U. Press, Cambridge MA, 1970

David Wilhite, Ancient African Christianity, Routledge, Taylor & Francis, New York & London, 2017

Chancellor Williams, The Destruction of Black Civilization, Third World Press, Chicago IL, 1987


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