Episode Guide

Origins | The Cross and The Crescent | Empires of Gold | Cities | The Atlantic Age | Commerce and the Clash of Civilizations

“The Cross and The Crescent”

The second hour of "Africa's Great Civilizations" charts the emergence of two powerful forces of global change, Christianity and Islam. Viewers will learn how pervasively "the Cross and the Crescent" reshaped the landscape and people of Africa between the first and 12th centuries A.D. — and for centuries to come. Setting the stage, host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. takes viewers to the horn of Africa, the meeting place of the Red and Arabian Seas and a trade corridor between Africa, the Middle East and Europe for thousands of years. A book written in Greek in first century A.D., The Periplus of the Eythrean Sea, speaks of the Red Sea's illustrious port Adulis, the gateway to Aksum.

This African kingdom, located in present-day Ethiopia, once stretched into Southern Arabia and was one of the ancient world's most dominant and well-resourced powers, rich with such valuables as frankincense, myrrh, ivory and gold. Gates brings viewers to the excavation of Axum's city center, where he walks among the 100 stelea erected between the third and fourth centuries A.D. to mark the graves of the kingdom's elite. An impressive feat of architectural skill, these stelea were taller than any other monolithic monuments crafted in the ancient world. Ethiopia also was home to an even earlier state, D'mat, where the city of Yeha featured the pre-Christian Temple of the Moon and a towering, 3,000-year-old palace. At this palace's excavation, Gates discovers a blending of African styles with those of the Southern Arabian kingdom of Saba, known for its ties to the biblical Queen of Sheba.

Debunking the myth that Christianity came to Africa with European colonialism, Gates shows that in the northeastern corner of Africa, Christianity is as ancient as anywhere in the world. This is revealed in the early monastic practices of Egypt's eastern desert in the second and third centuries. Some of early Christianity's most important writers and theologians were Africans of Berber descent.

But just as Christianity was beginning to spread south beyond Egypt and Aksum to Nubia, the new religion of Islam was transforming large areas of Africa through conquest and trade. By the beginning of the eighth century, Muslim rulers controlled not only Egypt, but all the former provinces of Byzantium across present day Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, with a base at Tangier from which the Islamic Berber warrior Tariq ibn Ziyad launched his attack on Spain in 711 A.D. The importance of his attack is immortalized in the Rock of Gibraltar at the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, which derives its name from him. Further, these Muslim conquests stimulated a new age of flourishing growth in commerce across the Sahara between West African and North African peoples, which lasted down to recent centuries.

Gates next returns to Ethiopia to tell the story of the rise of the Zagwe dynasty, best known for King Lalibela, later recognized as a saint of the Ethiopian church. He oversaw the construction of several churches belonging to an astounding complex of churches. Hewn out of the living rock in the Ethiopian highlands during the 12th and 13th centuries, these churches were built before many of the great cathedrals of Europe. Tracing the close connections between Ethiopian Christianity and the Holy City of Jerusalem, Gates concludes the second episode among the monasteries at Lake Tana with the story of Menelik, who is believed to have brought the Ark of the Covenant to Aksum. Through Menelik, later Ethiopian royalty have claimed to have a blood connection to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and, through this extraordinary heritage, Christianity continues to play a profound role in the religious life of modern Ethiopia.