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1493-1633 - Contact with European Christendom

From the fifth to the fifteenth century little was known in Western Europe about Abyssinia or its Church. Egyptian Muslims had destroyed the neighboring Nile River valley's Christian states in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Tenuous relations with Christians in Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire continued via the Coptic Church in Egypt. The Coptic patriarchs in Alexandria were responsible for the assignment of Ethiopian patriarchs -- a church policy that Egypt's Muslim rulers occasionally tried to use to their advantage. For centuries after the Muslim conquests of the early medieval period, this link with the Eastern churches constituted practically all of Ethiopia's administrative connection with the larger Christian world.

A more direct if less formal contact with the outside Christian world was maintained through the Ethiopian Monophysite community in Jerusalem and the visits of Ethiopian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Ethiopian monks from the Jerusalem community attended the Council of Florence in 1441 at the invitation of the pope, who was seeking to reunite the Eastern and Western churches. The Ethiopian priests, accepted as representatives of the mythical Prester John, sustained the Divine nature of Christ, while the Latin Church maintained that He possessed two natures in one.

From this incident followed the curious adventure of the Portuguese in Ethiopia, based upon the wish of the Western King to learn more of this much-talked-of Prester John. Westerners learned about Ethiopia through the monks and pilgrims and became attracted to it for two main reasons. First, many believed Ethiopia was the long-sought land of the legendary Christian priest-king of the East, Prester John. Second, the West viewed Ethiopia as a potentially valuable ally in its struggle against Islamic forces that continued to threaten southern Europe until the Turkish defeat at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

Portugal, the first European power to circumnavigate Africa and enter the Indian Ocean, displayed initial interest in this potential ally by sending a representative to Ethiopia in 1493. The Portuguese sent out by John II having opened a passage into Abyssinia in the fifteenth century, an emissary (Bermudes) was sent to extend the influence and authority of the Roman pontiff, clothed with the title of patriarch of Ethiopia.The Ethiopians, in turn, sent an envoy to Portugal in 1509 to request a coordinated attack on the Muslims. Europe received its first written accounts of the country from Father Francisco Alvarez, a Franciscan who accompanied a Portuguese diplomatic expedition to Ethiopia in the 1520s. His book, The Prester John of the Indies, stirred further European interest and proved a valuable source for future historians.

Then came the invasion of Abyssinia in 1528 by the Mohammedans, who, under the leadership of Mohamed Gragne, drove the Christians into the highlands. Unconquered, but driven back, cut off from the sea, from that moment the Abyssinians were deprived of contact with the Western world. The Jesuits sent out thirteen of their number in 1555, but the Abyssinians stood so firm to the faith of their ancestors that the Jesuits were recalled by a bull from St. Peter's. Another Jesuit mission was sent out in 1603, and led to twenty years of intrigue, civil war, and slaughter.

The first Portuguese forces responded to a request for aid in 1541, although by that time the Portuguese were concerned primarily with strengthening their hegemony over the Indian Ocean trade routes and with converting the Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism. Nevertheless, joining the forces of the Christian kingdom, the Portuguese succeeded eventually in helping to defeat and kill Gra˝.

Portuguese Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in 1554. Efforts to induce the Ethiopians to reject their Monophysite beliefs and accept Rome's supremacy continued for nearly a century and engendered bitterness as pro- and anti-Catholic parties maneuvered for control of the state. In December 1624, the Abyssinian Church formally submitted to the see of Rome; but the people rebelled. At least two emperors in this period allegedly converted to Roman Catholicism. The second of these, Susenyos (reigned 1607- 32), after a particularly fierce battle between adherents of the two faiths, abdicated in 1632 in favor of his son, Fasiladas (reigned 1632-67), to spare the country further bloodshed. The expulsion of the Jesuits and all Roman Catholic missionaries followed. After several years of struggle and bloodshed, the emperor abandoned the cause of Rome, and the Roman patriarch abandoned Abyssinia in 1633. This religious controversy left a legacy of deep hostility toward foreign Christians and Europeans that continued into the twentieth century. It also contributed to the isolation that followed for the next 200 years.

The Romish Church renewed its missions in 1828, and, by stirring up intrigues, compelled the withdrawal of Protestant missionaries in 1842. In 1849 the Roman Catholic missionaries were expelled. In 1859 the king of Tigre and Samen sent an embassy of submission to the pope, and 60,000 natives were reported to have entered into the papal communion. In 1885 Theodore became king of Abyssinia, and was at first favorable to missions, who had meanwhile recommenced their operations.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:38:58 ZULU