The December 2010 issue of the Journal of World History (on Project MUSE) has a very interesting article by Matteo Salvadore on “An Ethiopean Age of Exploration: Prester John’s Discovery of Europe, 1306–1458.” Here are some excerpts (footnotes omitted, links added).
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. The episodes of interaction here considered had lasting consequences for Ethio-European relations: they engendered dynamics of reciprocal understanding based on a common religious identity that ran counter to ideas of African and black inferiority that represented the cultural norm for much of the modern period. Ethiopians became in fact agents of discovery and purveyors of geographical knowledge in an era when the dominating paradigm of difference was grounded not in racial but rather in religious identity….
In 1122 a foreign visitor to Rome was audacious enough to introduce himself to Pope Callistus II‘s (1119–1124) entourage as a representative of “Patriarch John of India.” We know that by virtue of his alleged relation with Prester John the visitor was treated with deference throughout his sojourn. This is the first recorded encounter between a European sovereign and a Patriarch—or Prester—John who, together with his supposed representative, had by all means not even a remote connection to the rulers of Ethiopia. Less than fifty years later, in 1165, Byzantine emperor Manuel Komnenos (1143–1180) received a long letter through which a self-declared Prester John sought alliances with his European peers. It is undisputedly a forgery; the circumstances surrounding the drafting of the letter remain rather obscure, and a variety of theories have been advanced. What we know is that the author—most likely European—compiled a compendium of geopolitical knowledge injected with fragments of information about the distant Orient. In the twelfth century, Prester John is the quintessential representative of a distant and largely unknown Christian might, which by virtue of its faith embodies a very peculiar type of other. Prester John epitomizes a remote Christian world, thought superior to a debased Western Christianity that was losing its confrontation with Islam both in Jerusalem and in Southern Europe. It is telling that certain passages of the mentioned letter that meant to shed light on the reality of his kingdom had been inspired by St. Augustine’s City of God. In an era of defeat and regression for the Christian powers of Europe, Prester John seems to have been an icon used to exorcise the power of Islam and soothe the anxiety of the European elites.
The popularity of the imaginary sovereign was such that in 1177 Pope Alexander III (1159–1181) addressed a letter to “Prester John, the illustrious and magnificent John King of the Indies.” The letter epitomizes the Catholic Church’s effort to expand its rule over the known and unknown lands of the world as well as an attempt to find allies for the anti-Muslim cause. The idea of Prester John engendered a positive European outlook on the unknown and was instrumental to later efforts to explore and map the wider world during the European age of exploration. It stimulated the interest of European monarchs in overseas exploration, particularly in the quest for allies against Islam. In the second half of the thirteenth century, after the acquisition of a greater—or rather, less confused—understanding of the East, European elites relocated the imaginary sovereign from Asia to Africa. A number of chronicles compiled at the turn of the thirteenth century abounded with references to Prester John, yet his actual location became more and more the object of controversy. As the Mongols reached into Europe in 1237 and displayed traits that did not coincide with the European image of Christian piety, the figure of the pious Christian king from the Far East gave way again to that of the heathen barbarian. In the same years travelers to the Far East returned to Europe with information about the exploits of the Mongol Empire. The Mongols were not Christians and the fabulous Christian kingdom was nowhere to be found, yet the myth of Prester John grew larger.
These are some of the contingencies that eventually engendered Prester John’s relocation to Ethiopia, but what is the bigger picture beyond them? The thirteenth century in Europe was a period of unprecedented knowledge production about the Far East. Before the rise of the modern explorer, traders started to gather information from distant lands and carry it through unsafe and discontinuous networks of communication back to Europe. If we look beyond the intricate network of first- and secondhand accounts we see the emergence of a new European awareness of the East: the wave of knowledge production emerged from the cradle of a still-infant capitalist world economy whose expansion facilitated the flow of information between continents and imposed innovative standards of geographic and political knowledge….
As Rome was struggling to regain Jerusalem in the second half of the thirteenth century, Ethiopia experienced the so called Solomonic restoration, a dynastic shift that brought about a period of unprecedented state building. At the end of the thirteenth century, Ethiopia emerged from more than a century of Zagwe rule (1137–1270) that abruptly ended when Yekuno ‘Amlak (1270–1285) was anointed Ethiopian emperor in 1270. At first sight the passage from one dynastic tradition to the other seems to have had a much more political than religious meaning as both dynasties were Christian. However, the restoration initiated a period of dramatic change both in the religious and secular realms. Taddesse Tamrat offered a compelling overview of the period and referred to the changes triggered in the late 1200s as “outward movements of both Church and States.” The Ethiopian nobility initiated an intermittent but long-lasting policy of expansion and consolidation across the highlands and laid out the defining elements of one of the most resilient monarchies in world history by giving birth to a military-religious complex—the sword and the cross—that would define the history of Ethiopia throughout the modern era.
The transformation and political consolidation of the Ethiopian highlands that started with Yekuno ‘Amlak was continued by his successor, Yagbe Ṣeyon (1285–1294), crowned emperor as Solomon in 1285. Did the news of the restoration reach Rome and Nicholas IV’s ear, enticing his curia to reach out to a potential ally? There is not enough evidence to know whether the letter addressed to “Imperatori Aethiopiae Illustri” was indeed directed to the Ethiopian emperor, but we do know that by the end of the thirteenth century the activity within the still-undefined boundaries of an embryonic contact zone acquired momentum. In a way we could argue that the emergence of an Ethio-European encounter was the result of parallel expansionist attitudes emerging on both sides of the contact zone….
Until the end of the thirteenth century, Christian Ethiopia had maintained a good record of collaboration and coexistence with Islam on both the international and domestic fronts. Ethiopian Muslims had long been an integral part of the local economy and had been instrumental to Ethiopia’s contribution to the regional economy of the Red Sea basin. Furthermore, the Ethiopian Church had been receiving its ‘abuna ([fn:] literally meaning “our fathers” in Ge’ez, … used in Ethiopia to identify leading clerics, heads of monasteries, and the head of the Ethiopian Church) from the patriarch of Alexandria as part of a complex process of mediation between different economic and religious interests competing along the shores of the Nile. One could say that until the rise of a new Ethiopian system in the early fourteenth century, the relation between Christianity and Islam in Ethiopia developed along the line of Muhammad’s plea to “leave the Ethiopians alone,” a plea that had been reciprocated with a partial integration of the Ğabarti on the highlands.
This is the backdrop against which a little-known group of Ethiopians officially opened the age of Ethiopian exploration in 1306. The first recorded encounter in the Ethio-European contact zone took place in an era when, on both sides, otherness was shaped by similar anxieties at a moment when both sides were redefining their relationship with Muslims. Presumably, Wedem Ra’ad sent a delegation of thirty Ethiopians to Europe, most likely for the purpose of forging an anti-Islam alliance with European coreligionists.