by Thomas Manuel
In 1320, Giovanni Mauro da Carignano, the rector of a church in Genoa, made a map of the Mediterranean world that marked near the Nile Valley a land called Terra Abaise inhabited by “Christiani Nigri”. Terra Abaise or Abyssinia was apparently inhabited by black Christians. How did Carignano know this? Apparently, he met them. A 15th century text says that in 1306, a group of 30 ambassadors from Abyssinia travelled to Italy to meet the Pope Clement V and talk diplomacy. The historian Matteo Salvadore writes that if this group is accepted as an embassy, they would be “the first recorded African embassy to a European sovereign.”
This was the first of a series of attempts by the Ethiopian empire to make contact with the Christian nations of Europe based on their common religious identity. While it is of little moral solace that those ages were more divided based on religion than race, Salvadore makes a great case for the Ethiopians being welcomed as Christian allies without any derogatory assertions around their colour or allegations of barbarism.
In 1402, another group of Ethiopians showed up in Venice. This group was led by an Italian who had travelled to Ethiopia as a trader but had there been commissioned by the Ethiopian negus or emperor Dawit 1 to lead a diplomatic mission back to Italy. The main aim of the mission seemed to be religious. They came back with chalices, crosses, holy relics and other sacred objects. It also seems to be the case that, as a result of this mission, a fragment of the True Cross (the one that Jesus died on) was sent to Ethiopia by the Doge of Venice. But along with these pious requests were also more pragmatic ones – requests for artisans and technologies to help aid in the expansion and development of the empire.
In 1427, the Ethiopian negus Yeshaq sent a mission to the King of Aragon in Valencia to open diplomatic channels and to request that skilled artisans be sent to his country. The Aragonese king was clearly delighted to make contact with this nation and even went so far as to propose a royal marriage between the two nations to make the alliance between them official. He also sent craftsmen and artisans. But sadly, neither the people nor the letter made it back to Yeshaq. They would’ve had to travel through Egypt and at that point of time, it was unlikely that Muslim rulers of those lands would’ve looked kindly on communications between these Christian states. In the end, the proposed marriages never took place, leaving us another fascinating counterfactual to ponder.
By this point, it is clear that the Ethiopian nation was taken seriously as equals in Europe. In 1441, the Pope Eugene IV organizes an ecumenical council in Florence to discuss among other things the union of the various churches. But the delegation of Ethiopian monks that attended came from the Jerusalem convent of the Ethiopian church and had no sanction to discuss something as grand as a merger. Their deposition at the council speaks volumes for their deferent-but-equal attitude to the Western church:
“It is evident that all the people who departed from you ended up in ruin; but we, of all heresies departed from the Roman chair, are still strong, powerful and free. [. . .] Our strangeness is to be imputed to the long distance and to the perils dividing us and for the negligence of our past pastors. However we do not have recollection of your visits, for the purpose of taking care of our lost flock, we think it is for more than 800 years that the Popes have not dispatched somebody to tell us “may God bless you”.” (Translation by Salvadore)
By this time, Rome had become a regular site of pilgrimage for Ethiopian monks who wished to study and research. The Santo Stefano degli Abissini was dedicated to taking care of them. In fact, Ethiopian Christianity seems to have so been so well-respected that one 16th century commentator wrote, “We who profess Christianity ought to be ashamed of ourselves, since the Ethiopians seem to surpass us in regard to the cult and observance of the religion.”
The joyous welcome meted out to Ethiopian delegations definitely has something to do with the conflation of the ruler of Ethiopia and the mythical figure of Prester John. For those who have never heard of Prester John, he was a kind of Christian legend: a far-away Indian king of a powerful Christian kingdom surrounded by infidels. No such kingdom or king has been found to match the picture painted of him. Many scholars have argued that the myth was invented for political reasons. With the rise of Ethiopia in European consciousness, Prester John moved from being an Indian king to an African one. (Of course, it’s good to remember that back then, the Indies or India basically meant everywhere from East Africa, the Middle East, central Asia to actual India).
What’s even more interesting is that the Ethiopians had a similar myth regarding a king of the Franks who would come to their aid and put to an end to their enemies. Salvadore argues, very intriguingly, that “on both sides of the Ethio-European contact zone the figure of a distant and powerful Christian king became the main character of an inventive ploy meant to resolve the tension between the present and future conditions of Christianity in the face of a Muslim onslaught. ”
Over the course of the 1500s, the requests from Ethiopia did take a military slant with more fervent requests for weapons and aid against the neighboring Muslim nations. They were essentially asking for a joint anti-Muslim crusade. A joint military action did finally end up taking place but it wasn’t a crusade. In 1541, the Portuguese came to their aid against the onslaught of the neighbouring kingdom of Adal. If they hadn’t interfered, the Ethiopian nation would’ve probably fallen. But with this intervention, Ethiopia also became an official destination for the Jesuits from Portugal who aggressively tried to convert the inhabitants to catholicism. Of course, this kind of behaviour quickly changed the attitude to Europeans and the idea of Christian brotherhood across nations mostly went up in smoke.
1. Matteo Salvadore, The Ethiopian Age of Exploration: Prester John’s Discovery of Europe, 1306 –1458, Journal of World History, 2011.
2. Matteo Salvadore, The African Prester John and the Birth of Ethiopian-European Relations, 1402–1555, Routledge, 2017