Field and river

20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20)
Mekelle University, Ethiopia

"Regional and Global Ethiopia - Interconnections and Identities"
1-5 October, 2018

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Konstantin WINTERS, Universität Düsseldorf, Institut für Geschichte, Abt. Mittelalter
Philipp STENZIG, Universität Düsseldorf, Institut für Geschichte, Abt. Mittelalter
Katharina RITTER, Universität Düsseldorf, Institut für Geschichte, Abt. Mittelalter

In 1481, a group of six imperial Ethiopian ambassadors arrived in Rome to make an almost outrageous proposal before the Holy See: that their Emperor himself submit to Papal authority, his clergy to Roman liturgy, and that his army may even take part in yet another military campaign to topple the terrible menace that is the Mamluk Sultanate based in Cairo. Even the greatest optimists among the Roman dignitaries must have had doubts regarding that the offer sounded too good to be true. And when in 1483 a Franciscan monk travelled to Ethiopia in order to negotiate the exact terms for the anticipated imperial submission, neither the infant emperor nor his ruling council seemed to remember any such agreement. Nonetheless, it is this visit, mentioned above, that Paris de Grassi, the papal master of ceremonies, described as an example for the standard diplomatic procedure to be performed in Rome whenever an Ethiopian embassy was to arrive. To gather information on Ethiopians and their culture, he interviewed competent witnesses of the 1481 delegation as late as in 1508, and compiled a concise presentation of the exotic empire on the shores of the Nile – no matter the possibility that the his documentation of Roman-Ethiopian interconnections might be based on a hoax. Indeed, until quite recently, general consensus among European historians considered that the mysterious group of six ambassadors that appeared before the Papal See in 1481 to be a group of bold impostors gaining free board and lodging in that process. And the evidence extracted from Latin sources is clearly supporting that claim. However, a reevaluation of the European sources under consideration by some Ethiopian accounts of the situation reveals a great misunderstanding between both sides based upon an Ethiopian shortage of authorised clergy, a Mamluk occupation of Alexandria, their only source of clerical authorisation, desperate Ethiopian ambassadors willing to act on their own during crisis, individual fates as unfortunate as unlikely, and the Westerner’s painful and unfulfilled desire for a united Christianity that made the alleged deception even more heartfelt.