Encounters Between Ethiopia and Europe, 1400–1660

By the early 1400s, diplomatic representatives and pilgrims from the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia had traveled to the Italian peninsula for political and religious reasons. In doing so, they inaugurated an era of Ethiopian–European relations that unfolded for more than 200 years: Ethiopians reached multiple locales across Latin Europe to forge political alliances, acquire technology, and pursue religious knowledge. They drew the attention of European observers, especially those with an interest in the overseas. Secular and religious personalities, but also average merchants, began their quests for the Ethiopian highlands, lured by the tales of their visitors who were believed with growing certainty to be subjects of the mythical Prester John, the imaginary Christian sovereign believed to rule the Indies. Their journeys enabled cultural exchanges, technological transfer, and the forging of one of the first Euro-African political alliances, that between the kingdoms of Ethiopia and Portugal.


In the 15th century, Ethiopian pilgrims flocked to Rome, and diplomatic representatives found hospitality in the Venetian Republic and at the Aragonese and papal courts. Concurrently with Ethiopian arrivals in Europe, European adventurers and representatives began reaching Ethiopia, eventually leading to the establishing of Portuguese–Ethiopian relations. The exchanges climaxed with a Portuguese military intervention to support the Ethiopian monarchy against the sultanate of Adal in 1541. In the decades following the conflict, Jesuit missionaries began operating in the country: after a difficult inception in the 1620s, the fathers experienced ephemeral successes, followed by a dramatic expulsion that ended early modern Ethiopian–European relations.

African Cosmopolitanism in the Early Modern Mediterranean: The Diasporic Life of Yohannes, the Ethiopian Pilgrim Who Became a Counter-Reformation Bishop

The article chronicles the diasporic life of the Cyprus-born Ethiopian priest Yoḥannǝs (1509–65), who, after traveling far and wide across Europe and to Portuguese India, eventually settled in Rome and served the papacy for over two decades. Rare language skills and a cosmopolitan coming of age enabled his remarkable ecclesiastical career as an agent of the Counter-Reformation. Shortly before an untimely death, Yoḥannǝs became the second black bishop and the first black nuncio in the history of the Roman Church, rare appointments that would not be accessible to black Africans again until the 20th century. His unique experience represents a significant addition to the available historiography on blacks in early modern Europe and calls into question some commonly held assumptions in African diaspora studies.

The Ethiopian Age of Exploration: Prester John’s Discovery of Europe, 1306-1458

Before the age of European expansion overseas and the Portuguese circumnavigation of Africa, Renaissance Italy became a common destination for scores of Ethiopian monks and dignitaries. These travelers presented themselves on the European scene as active agents of transcontinental discovery: interested in learning more about a region they regarded as the ultimate center of organized Christianity, they became the protagonists of an Ethiopian age of exploration. This article examines the dynamics of interaction between Italian elites and Ethiopian travelers throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Gaining the Heart of Prester John: Loyola's Blueprint for Ethiopia in Three Key Documents

An anonymous painting adorns the sacristy of Rome's Chiesa del Gesù, the ultimate testament to the Society of Jesus' grandeur and power in the late sixteenth century. The oil canvas portrays one of the most iconic moments in Jesuit history: Pope Paul III's (1534–1549) issuance of Regimini Militantis Ecclesiae, the bull that formally instituted the Society of Jesus on September 27, 1540. The scene is well known and celebrated in countless other artistic renderings, but this particular painting is the only one to include a black figure in the crowd surrounding Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556) and Paul III. Although unconfirmed, circumstantial evidence suggests that the figure is Tasfā Ṣeyon (1510–1552), an Ethiopian monk who sojourned in Rome between 1536 and 1552. Known in Rome as Pietro Indiano (Peter the Indian) or Pietro Abissino (Peter the Abyssinian), he was a leading African personality of sixteenth-century Europe and the most prolific African intellectual of his time. His inclusion in the painting next to such towering figures as the pope and Loyola indicates the standing that Ethiopians enjoyed at the highest levels of the Roman Church and, it will be argued, the centrality of Ethiopia for the early years of the Society.

The Jesuit Mission to Ethiopia (1555-1634) and the Death of Prester John

“There is only one Catholic Church in the world and it can only be one under the Roman Pontiff and not under that of Alexandria.”1 Thus spoke Ignatius of Loyola in 1555, addressing the Ethiopian Emperor Galawdéwos in relation to the Ethiopian Church’s tradition of dependence on the Egyptian Coptic Church. Since its beginnings, with few exceptions, the head of the Ethiopian Church, known as abun or metropolitan, was an Egyptian cleric appointed by the patriarch of Alexandria. In Loyola’s eyes, the dependence on Alexandria was one among many “errors and abuses” making Ethiopian faith an aberration and requiring the attention of Jesuit proselytism.

Muslim Partners, Catholic Foes: The Selective Isolation of Fasilädäs’s Ethiopia

This paper is dedicated to an appraisal of Ethiopia’s relations with the Catholic and Muslim worlds in the aftermath of the failed Jesuit mission in the country (1555–1632). It contrasts Ethiopia’s policy of isolation from Catholic Europe and the resulting failures of the Franciscan order to re-establish a missionary presence in the Horn with the Ethiopian monarchy’s proactive pursuit of diplomatic ties with various Muslim societies of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean basins.

A Modern African Intellectual: Gäbre-Heywät Baykädañ’s Quest for Ethiopia’s Sovereign Modernity

Gäbre-Heywät Baykädañ (1886-1919) grew up at a Swedish mission in Eritrea and studied in Germany and Austria before he was recruited as an interpreter for a German diplomatic mission to Addis Ababa. He soon became an important figure in Menelik's entourage. After Menelik's death and the 1916 coup, he was first appointed controller of the railways and later collector of customs in Dérre Dawa, where he died. Most experts have portrayed Gäbre-Heywät as a European-educated intellectual who, fascinated with European civilization, took a harsh stance vis-à-vis the condition of his own country. This paper argues that his ideas were much more than a simple mimicry of European modernity and offered an original perspective on the challenges that Ethiopia was facing as part of its incorporation into the capitalist world economy. He struggled to see his country turn modern, while maintaining its cultural and political independence: his ultimate goal was Ethiopia's 'sovereign modernity'. The paper therefore rejects the notion that Gäbre-Heywät was Eurocentric. His thought was very much the product of a new world view that characterized intellectual production in Menelik's Ethiopia. Notes, ref., sum. in French and Italian.

Travelling and Reporting on the Borders of Dark Africa: Italian Expeditions to Ethiopia and the Bollettino della Societá Geografica Italiana, 1867-1896

In 1869, the opening of the Suez Canal and the acquisition of the Bay of Assab by the Italian company Rubattino laid the foundation for what would later become the Colonia Eritrea. In the following years, from this bridgehead, Italian travelers started to venture into the interior, attracted to the Ethiopian plateau by commercial opportunities, missionary zeal, fascination with the unknown and the exotic. Through their travel accounts, these occasional ethnographers introduced the Italian public to the genre of modern travel writing, while contributing to a global discourse about the colonial other.
The Italian production of knowledge about Ethiopia in the late 19th century struggled to reconcile competing discourses: some scholars and travelers framed Dark Africa, others considered Ethiopia part of the Orient, while the early modern notion of Ethiopians as faraway Christians surrounded by heathens also persisted. This chapter examines the role played by Italy’s leading geographical society, the Società Geografica Italiana, and its bulletin, the the Bollettino della Società Geografica Italiana, in the early days of Italian colonial exploration.

©2018 by Matteo Salvadore.