Raider of the Lost Ark

Richard Pankhurst

  • The Pale Abyssinian: A Life of James Bruce, African Explorer and Adventurer by Miles Bredin
    Flamingo, 290 pp, £7.99, March 2001, ISBN 0 00 638740 3

Ethiopia was by the Middle Ages the only Christian country outside Europe and thus of great interest to medieval Christendom. Since the early 12th century, the Ethiopians had been in possession of a chapel in Jerusalem and a station in the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Both were visited every year or so by Ethiopian pilgrims, whose coming, and obvious devotion, gave rise to the idea in Europe that they might serve as useful allies in the Crusades.

This belief was reinforced by the legend of Prester John, which held that there was a powerful Christian monarch somewhere in the East, whose overriding ambition was to liberate the Holy Sepulchre from the infidels. Further support for the story came from a fictitious letter suggesting that a mysterious and remarkably wealthy monarch, named Prester John, had extended a cordial invitation to the rulers of Europe to enter his service, and that he had promised in return to grant his European supporters high administrative office and large estates. Strenuous attempts were made to locate the fabulous ruler, who was thought to hold court somewhere north of India. He could not, however, be found, which was scarcely surprising since he did not exist.

Belief in an Asian Prester John then evaporated, and was replaced by the idea that the much sought-after monarch was in fact the Christian emperor of Ethiopia, of whose existence Marco Polo had learnt in the 13th century. The first European ruler to react to this change of location was Henry IV, who in 1400 wrote a letter to the ‘King of Abyssinia, Prester John’. The fascination with Ethiopia did not stop there, for news broke, in 1441, that an Ethiopian delegation was to attend that year’s Council of Florence. The Pope was reportedly much moved, even though the delegation turned out to consist of no more than two monks, sent not by any Ethiopian monarch but by their local community in Jerusalem.

Interest in Ethiopia was, however, by then well and truly aroused – and could be satisfied only by actual travels to the country. None of the first Europeans to get there left behind a reliable account of what they found, if they left one at all. The first to do so was a Portuguese priest, who went as chaplain to a diplomatic mission, sent following a request from the Ethiopian Empress for an alliance with Portugal as a defence against the aggressive policies of the Ottomans. Francisco Alvares’s Verdadera Informaçam das terras do Preste Joam das Indias, published in Lisbon in 1540, is available in English as The Prester John of the Indies (1954). It remains to this day indispensable for any understanding of medieval Ethiopia, containing descriptions of the ancient capital Aksum, with its obelisks, and the monolithic rock-hewn churches of Lalibala, as well as of the then Emperor’s court, which was constantly on the move. It also gives invaluable accounts of virtually all aspects of the country’s political, religious, economic and social life.

The Portuguese mission did not succeed in saving Ethiopia from an Islamic invasion, which was itself followed in due course by a Portuguese military expedition, the collapse of Muslim rule and the arrival after the mid-16th century of successive groups of Jesuit missionaries. Jesuit attempts to eradicate traditional Orthodox beliefs and practices led, however, to great discontent and rebellion, and in 1632 the Jesuits were expelled, first from the capital and later from the country as a whole.

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