Ethiopia-art - 2/18/98
"The Abyssinian Empire - Africa & Europe 600-1600ish" by Jan van Seist.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
The Abyssinian empire - Africa & Europe 600-1600ish
written for Storm Tidings,
the newsletter of the shire of Adamastor (Cape Town) in the kingdom of Drakenwald,
by Jan van Seist
Beloved gentles of our most fair shire, once again I take up my pen and inflict upon you yet another of my somewhat dodgy histories. As our shire is undoubtedly the foremost shire in all Africa, I feel that I have been somewhat remiss in not venturing on an African theme until now. I hope that in this article you will find the fault remedied and that you will look upon this unworthy composition with a kind and benevolent eye.
Our story opens in the Middle-East in the early 7th century. The armies of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Empire are chasing each other backwards and forwards across the desert, while the Abyssinian Empire unobtrusively minds its own business in East Africa. Into this peaceful scene steps a young Arab by the name of Mohammed. God dictates a couple of letters to him and he sends them off to the local emperors. The Roman letter is filed somewhere in the byzantine depths of the Constantinople civil service, but the Persian emperor takes his personally and, before you can say Zoroastrian fire-worshipper, it is repression time for Mohammed and his friends.
On Mohammed's advice a large group of his more prominent followers decided that this was a good time for a holiday in East Africa. They wandered off to Abyssinia and were made welcome by the Abyssinian emperor, Armah. Soon after their arrival, a Persian embassy turned up and offered Armah all the gold he could eat in return for his guests. The Emperor was outraged at this slur on his hospitality and, after making several anatomically improbable and often quite painful suggestions on the theme of “what you can do with your bribes, particularly the sceptre with the sharp nobbly bits”, he sent the Persians packing. In the years to follow the Abyssinian people were able to watch quietly from the sidelines as the armies of Islam put the Persians to the sword, marched to the gates of Byzantium, conquered North Africa and pushed north into Spain. I am sure there is a moral there somewhere.
For next 400 years or so the Abyssinians got on fairly well with their Moslem neighbours. They had the odd war every now and then but for the most part they traded happily with each other and Abyssinian pilgrims were free to visit their friends in Egypt or to traipse off to Jerusalem or beyond. Then came the crusades. In 1099, all Christendom rejoiced as the mighty armies of the crusade freed the Holy Land from the infidel. All Christendom that is except the Greeks, Abyssinians, Copts, Armenians, Methodists etc. etc. who were kicked out of the better churches for not being good Catholics. The Emperor of the time was less than impressed by this unchristian behaviour and lodged a complaint with the Pope. The Pope wrote a nice letter back (addressed to the Emperor of India: geography was not Alexander III's strong point), explaining that his hands were tied but that if the Emperor and all his court were to come to Rome and prostrate themselves at his feet he might be able to consider their request.
The Pope’s inaction did not distress the Abyssinians unduly as, by the time his letter had been lost in the post, their problems had already been solved. Their old friends, the infidel, had persuaded the crusaders to leave and Saladin had very nicely granted the Abyssinians their own section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He also threw in a station in the Grotto of the Nativity, safe passage across Egypt and a free set of steak knives. For some reason, the Abyssinians were less than enthusiastic supporters of the subsequent crusades.
Despite their geographical difficulties, the Abyssinian empire never quite lost touch with the rest of the Christian world. They maintained trading relations with Constantinople and its neighbours and had a special relationship with the Egyptian Copts. From time to time, the Sultan of Egypt would persecute the Copts (as Sultans will) and the Copts would appeal to the Abyssinian Emperor for help (as persecuted religious minorities do). The Egyptian and Abyssinian armies would march up and down the border banging their kettle drums and blowing their trumpets. Then, just as war seemed inevitable, the Emperor would inform the Sultan that he was considering damming the Nile. The Sultan would write back advising the Emperor not to be too hasty. A large dam could have many unforeseen environmental consequences and required careful planning, oh, and by the way we have stopped persecuting the Copts. The dam and the war would both be shelved until the next time.
Unfortunately, as no-one of consequence cared about Copts or spoke to Greeks (orthodoxy being a bit too unorthodox), most of Europe’s nobility were unaware of their connections. Of course, some of them had been to court functions where the Byzantine emperor had wandered around telling anyone who cared to listen that Prester John was a personal friend of his. However, they usually responded with comments like “that’s nice” and changed the topic to prevent him embarrassing himself. As far as the leadership of Western Europe was concerned, Abyssinia was a strange and semi-mythical empire with a habit of popping up when least expected. For example, early in the 14th century, Pope Clement V had been sitting quietly in his study in Avignon, writing rude letters to the Antipope, when a letter from the Abyssinian Emperor arrived with his morning mail. In his letter, the Emperor Wedem Arad expressed his sadness about the recent events that had divided the Western church and offered to mediate. The Pope expressed his sadness that he coudn’t burn all the schismatical scum in Rome and filed the letter in his wastepaper basket.
In the middle of the 15th century, the greatest minds in Christendom were gathered at the Council of Florence when there was a knock on the door. Assuming it was the Mormons, all the delegates promptly hid under the furniture. They were surprised, relieved and a little embarrassed when it turned out to be an embassy from Abyssinia. The Abyssinian embassy appears to have made a big impression on all those who saw it. Mind you, embassies from mythical kingdoms led by black priests in jewel-encrusted robes of the finest cloth, supported by servants carrying gold plated bibles and ornate crucifixes and accompanied by “musicians” playing the ubiquitous Abyssinian kettle drums had a tendency to stand out in 15th century Florence. When reports of the embassy reached the King of Portugal, he called aside his sea captains and gave them a short speech along the lines of “the mythical Christian kingdom of Africa is real, it’s rolling in gold and I want it. What are you waiting for?”. At the same time, unknown to the King, lots of non-royal Europeans had much the same idea and instead of sailing around Africa took the quicker overland route.
The first Portuguese explorer to reach Abyssinia decided to stay there - probably because he was too embarrassed to go home. Can you picture Captain Covilha returning to his lord and king and saying “Sire, I have discovered the fabled empire of Prester John, not only does it exist but it is already full of Frankish tourists, Greek merchants and second-rate Italian artists seeking inspiration”? Not the sort of thing to go down well with kings that have spent a fortune on your expedition and waited several years for your report. However, as a result of Covilha’s voyage, Abyssinia discovered Portugal, the mythical land of ships and cannons and other useful things.
Around 1500, threatened by invasion on all sides, the Abyssinian regent, Queen Eleni, smuggled out a message to the Portuguese colony in India. An Armenian by birth, the messenger was cunningly disguised as an inconsequential merchant and arrived safely in India. He strolled up to the Governor’s palace, demanded admission and announced that he was the ambassador of Prester John and that he had a secret message for the King of Portugal. When the Portuguese stopped laughing, they threw him in jail and forgot about him. After a year or so, a new governor arrived, heard the story and decided to send him to Portugal anyway. The crew on the ship thought the whole thing was a big laugh and appear to have had a lot of fun playing practical jokes on the “impostor” during the long and otherwise boring voyage home. Shortly after the messenger’s initial interview with the king, the ship’s officers had a very long interview with the king followed by an even longer stay in one of his correctional institutions. He was not amused.
King Emanuel I agreed to the Abyssinian request for military assistance and by all (Portuguese) accounts his forces arrived in the nick of time. However, Emanuel chose to decline Queen Eleni’s suggestion of an exchange of marriages between the Abyssinian and Portuguese royal families. It seems that, although he liked the idea in principle, Emanuel felt that an infusion of Abyssinian blood into the Portuguese royal household at that time was likely to lead to lower standards.
The Portuguese remained in Abyssinia until shortly after 1600. Although their military assistance was useful, they were not the easiest of guests. The Abyssinian church belonged to the see of St Mark (Alexandria) and not St Peter (Rome) and had done so for a millenium and a half, so the Portuguese had a tough time explaining to the Abyssinians that they were all subservient to the Pope. On the secular front, the Portuguese also found it difficult to explain to the Emperor that the land they occupied in Abyssinia belonged to Portugal and not Abyssinia. For some reason, he had difficulty with this concept. By the mid-17th century it became obvious to all concerned that the relationship was doomed to failure and the Emperor Fasilidas gave the order for a trial separation. Those Portuguese who had not been separated took the hint and started the long walk home through Egypt. Abyssinia was not troubled by the Portuguese again.
Copyright 1997 by Dr. Ian van Tets
University of Cape Town,
Republic of South Africa
Permission granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided author
is credited and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.