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Les Arméniens dans le commerce asiatique au début de l'ère moderne

Sushil Chaudhury
Kéram Kévonian

III. Les Arméniens dans le commerce régional et inter-régional / Armenians in Regional and Inter-Regional Trade

9. Armenian Involvement in Ethiopian-Asian Trade 16th to 18th Centuries

Richard Pankhurst

Texte intégral

1Ethiopia’s involvement in Armenian Asian trade, between the 16th and 18th centuries, though geographically peripheral to Asia, was historically both interesting and relevant to the continent’s economic history. Armenian commercial links between Ethiopia and the East were by no means fortuitous, for they had deep roots in both history and geography.

Religious Contacts

2The Ethiopian State was, it should be recalled, an offshoot of the ancient Aksumite Empire, which had been converted to Christianity in the early fourth century. The country thus shared with Armenia the distinction of being one of the world’s two earliest Christian kingdoms. Their churches, both located in the East of Christendom, had moreover taken a similar position in relation to the Council of Chalcedon, in 451 (Hable Sellassie, 1972, 110-112).

  • 1 British Library, Orient 743, f. 276b. See also Wright, 1877, 105-109.

3Ethiopian Christian clerics, who were deeply versed in the history of their faith, were well aware of Armenia’s unique position in Christendom, and of the two Church’s doctrinal similarity and anti-Chalcedonian position. Both peoples over the centuries had furthermore had many important points of religious contact. One of Ethiopia’s leading religious leaders, Saint Ewostatéwos (c.. 1273-1352), had travelled to Armenia, where he had died, after which disciples had returned home, bringing at least one Armenian with them (Tamrat, 1972, 206-207). Numerous Ethiopians and Armenians also met in the course of their annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Tangible evidence of such contact is seen in the dictionary-like listing of Armenian words in several learned Ethiopian manuscripts,1 as well as in the fact that a number of Armenian religious manuscripts were bound in casing re-cycled from the parchment of Ethiopian manuscripts. These were used because the latter were stouter that those of the Armenians (Isaac, 1976, 179-194). Ethiopian-Armenian contacts also found expression, according to the theory propounded by Professor Dimitri Olderogge (1974, I, 195-203), in the possible adoption of a number of Ge’ez, or Ethiopic, letters in the Armenian alphabet (cf. Turaev, 1913, 7-8. Conti Rossini, 1942a, 195).

4Armenians, for all these reasons, were well received in Ethiopia, by both Church and State. Allowed Communion, as well as burial, by the former, they were readily acceptable by the latter. Armenians in Ethiopia were thus treated, for centuries, as honoured visitors, as well as servants, advisors, trade agents, and even diplomatic envoys.

Geographical Contacts

5By the Middle Ages, Ethiopia, as a result of Arab and later Ottoman expansion along the Red Sea coast, no longer administered any ports directly. The country, however, remained an important Red Sea and Gulf of Aden power, whose contacts with the Indian sub-continent were much facilitated by the justly famous Trade Winds. Ethiopia was thus involved in extensive Eastern, or Asian, commerce, above all with Aden, Bombay, Surat, and several other Indian ports. The Land of Prester John, as Western Christendom chose to call Ethiopia, enjoyed close commercial contacts with India, as well as with Arabia. Ethiopian exports included ivory, gold, and civet musk, not to mention slaves of both sexes, which were shipped in large quantities to India. The sub-continent in return supplied the far-off African kingdom with cottons, silks, and spices, besides jewels and other luxury goods.

6Such commerce owed much also to the fact that Ethiopia lay within proximity of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. These together formed a major commercial and navigational route, which linked Egypt, and the Mediterranean region with Arabia, Persia, India, and China (Pankhurst, 1961, 307-321). Much of this trade passed by way of the Red Sea port of Massawa, which constituted northern Ethiopia’s main point of commercial access to the sea, as well as through the Gulf of Aden ports of Zayla and Berbera, which handled much of the import-export trade of Ethiopia’s southern and eastern provinces (Pankhurst, 1974, 205-311).

Geopolitics: Arab Expansion, and the Advent of the Ottoman Turks

7The Armenian presence in Ethiopia, and in the country’s Asian trade, must also be seen in the geopolitical context of the time. The rise of Islam, in the early 7th century, had been followed by the Muslim conversion of the eastern Horn of Africa. The Christian Ethiopian realm, centred primarily in the highlands of the interior, was thereafter often isolated by, and in conflict, with the Muslim lowlands to the east. With the coming of fire-arms, to which the rulers of the coast had easier access than those of the interior, the Christian emperors became increasingly isolated, and threatened, by the advance of Islam. Ethiopia (to some extent like Armenia) was thus at times a beleaguered Christian empire faced, and at times almost surrounded, by powerful Muslim enemies.

8This Christian-Muslim dichotomy, in and around Ethiopia, underwent a major development, in the 16th century, as a result of the advent of two super-powers, Portugal and the Ottoman Empire. Each of them sided with, and attracted the support of, its local co-religionists. This transformed local Ethiopian struggles into a wider, Middle Eastern, conflict, which provides the geopolitical background to much of this study.

9The Ethiopian Christian State, confronted with the potential Ottoman threat, turned at first, almost inevitably, to its powerful European co-religionist State, Portugal. Relations between the two countries, however, soon deteriorated, for the Portuguese tried to insist that Ethiopia accept the supremacy of the Pope of Rome. Catholic pressure on the country became even more intense, in the late 16th century, with the coming of the Jesuits. They succeeded in converting two successive Ethiopian Emperors, Za Dengel (1604) and Susneyos (1606-1632), to Catholicism, but, provoking great popular opposition, were later expelled. Susneyos’s son and successor Emperor Fasiladas (1632-1667), dramatically reversing his father’s policy, then sought some sort of a reconciliation with Islam, as well as an alliance with the Mughal Empire in India, and with the Dutch in Batavia.

The Cultural Context

10Christian Ethiopians had long been isolated by Islam, and, unlike many of their neighbours, were for the most part ignorant of Arabic, the principal trading language of the Middle East. Ethiopian Christians were moreover generally inexpert in commerce, and, because of their feudal background, tended to look down business as an inferior occupation. Trade therefore tended to be dominated by Muslim or foreign merchants, many of them Armenians, and it was on them that the rulers of the country often turned, as we shall see, when seeking commercial or diplomatic contacts with other lands (Pankhurst, 1961, 281-288).

Matthew, Trader and Envoy of Empress Eléni

  • 2 The precise nationality of the merchant, variously known as Matthew and Abreham, has been the subj (...)

11It was in the early 16th century, little more than a decade after the Portuguese made their appearance in the Indian Ocean, that a notable Armenian trader, entered Ethiopian imperial service.2 Power was at that time exercised by Empress Eléni, who acted as Regent during the minority of her grandson Lebna Dengel (1508-1540). Faced by the potential threat from the Ottoman Turks, she decided to seek an alliance with Portugal. Having shortly earlier received envoys from the latter country, she deemed it expedient to despatch a return embassy to its King, Dom Manuel I. Her problem, as Albert Kammerer, a later historian of these events, rightly observes, was that Ethiopians were unaccustomed to travel abroad-except on pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Kammerer, 1929-1935, II, 250). She therefore encountered “difficulty”, as Charles Rey, another 20th century author, puts it, in finding “a suitable ambassador, for no Abyssinian could speak Portuguese, and moreover it would have been extremely difficult for any of them to penetrate the Moslem countries surrounding Abyssinia” (Rey, 1929, 32).

12Eléni therefore chose for this arduous, yet crucially important, task an Armenian merchant called Matthew (Mattheos), also known as Abreham (Abraham). Believed to have come from Cairo, he is said to have had previously traded at the coast for at least one Ethiopian previous ruler, perhaps Emperor Na’od (1494-1508) (Thomas, Cortesâo, 1938, 54-55. Beckingham, Huntingford, 1961, I, 397, 499). Matthew, according to the uncorroborated account of the 18th century Scottish traveller-cum-historian James Bruce, was:

“a person of great trust and discretion, who had been long accustomed to go to the several kingdoms of the East upon mercantile commissions for the King and for his nobles. He had been at Cairo, Jerusalem, Ormus, Isphahan, and in the East Indies on the coast of Malabar; both in places conquered by the Portuguese, and in those that yet held out under their native princes” (Bruce, 1790, II, 130-131).

13Turning to the question, often raised at the time, why Eléni selected a foreigner rather than “an Abyssinian nobleman” to undertake the mission—a choice which, as we shall see, was to surprise many of the Portuguese—the Scotsman (ibid., II, 135) adds:

“it is obvious from the character I have already given him, there could be nobody in the empress’s power that had half his qualifications; and, besides, an Abyssinian nobleman would not have ventured to go, as knowing very well that everywhere beyond the limits of his country he would have been without protection, and the first Turk in whose power he might have fallen would have sold him as a slave. In no other character is any of his nation seen, either in Arabia or India, and his master has no treaty with any state whatever. Add to this, that an Abyssinian speaks no language but his own, which is not understood out of his own country; and is absolutely ignorant even of the existence of other far distant nations.”

14Eléni placed her entire confidence in Matthew. This is evident from the fact that she entrusted him with a cross made from a piece of wood said to have come from the Cross on which Christ was crucified, as well as a letter in which she declared him “our ambassador,” “a brother in our service,” and “one of the principal personages at our court.” She therefore begged Manuel to consider “all the words which our ambassador brings you from us as said by our own person,” and added: “Do not displease him, for he is the most learned man among the notables among our people and that is why we sent him to you.”

15Eléni’s letter, one of the most important ever written by an Ethiopian monarch, warned Manuel that the Muslims in Egypt were building up a huge army to attack the Portuguese. She went on to offer him an alliance, to be cemented by the marriage “of your daughters to our sons or better your sons to our daughters,” so that the two powers, acting in unison, could “exterminate the vermin of Moorish infidels from the face of the earth” (Hable Sellassie, 1974, I, 554-558). This strongly worded epistle involved its bearer in no small risk, for he had to pass through Muslim territories where, Bruce says (1790, II, 133), it would have:

“brought home to him a charge of the deepest dye, both of sacrilege and high-treason, that he meditated against the Ottoman Empire, whose Raya [i.e. tax-paying subject] he was; and, there can be no doubt, had these letters been intercepted and read, Matthew’s embassy would have ended under some exquisite species of torture.”

16Undeterred by such dangers Matthew duly set forth from Eléni’s court in Shawa, around 1509, on what was to prove the last and in all probability the most difficult enterprise he had ever undertaken. He travelled, together with his wife and at least two Ethiopian colleagues, in the utmost secrecy. Making his way by land to the Gulf of Aden port of Zayla, he sailed thence for Portuguese India, there to join a ship bound for Portugal. While in the Indian region of Chaul he was, however, arrested by the Muslim authorities, who, fearing to incur the wrath of the Portuguese Viceroy, the redoubtable Afonso de Albuquerque, nevertheless reported the matter to him.

17The governor, according to his son Brás de Albuquerque, was “much gratified” at the news that an envoy from what the Portuguese then considered the Land of Prester John, was in India, for King Manuel, his sovereign, had “often” written to him to “do his utmost” to obtain information concerning that country (Birch, 1875-1884, III [1880], 250; IV [1884], 36, 48). Albuquerque himself also saw valuable strategic possibilities in an alliance with a Christian power “within twenty days’ sail of India” (ibid., III, 250). He therefore “lost no time” in ordering Matthew to be brought to him, and, when he heard that the latter was approaching Goa harbour with a piece of the True Cross, “commanded all the Fidalgoes and Captains to proceed to meet him in their boats,” and himself:

“went to the beach to receive him, with all the clergy and inhabitants of the city, with crosses in procession, and there they took up the Wood under a canopy to the Cathedral Church, and after all had given great thanks to Our Lord because he had shewn hitn so desirable a thing as this was, the opening of a road whereby communication could be made with the Prestes João, Afonso Dalboquerque ordered that the ambassador should be entertained and supplied with all necessary things for the expense of himself, his wife, and a young man and woman of Abyssinia who were in his suite” (ibid., Ill, 251).

18Bruce was thus apparently not exaggerating when he wrote that “the whole streets of Goa were filled with processions; the troops were all under arms; the Viceroy and the principal officers met Matthew at his landing, and conveyed him to the palace, where he was magnificently lodged and feasted.” Two days after his arrival, Matthew was closely interrogated by the Viceroy, who inquired what route his visitor had taken, and what message he had brought from his master for the King of Portugal. To this:

“The ambassador replied that he had come by way of Zeila, and that only in the same hour in which the Prestes João [an apparent reference in fact to Queen Eléni] had summoned him to depart had he disclosed also to him his route, without giving notice of it to anyone, and had then put inπto his hands the letters for the King of Portugal without saying anything to him beyond this, that he was to make his way to India, and beg the Captain General to give him a passage to Portugal; for had it been known in the Court of the Prestes João that he was setting forth with a message for the King of Portugal, in no wise could he have passed through the country of the Moors without great peril. The message which he brought was that the Prestes João, his Lord, sent him word to desire the marriage of his children with those of the King of Portugal, as it were in exchange; and to offer him troops and supplies for the destruction of the House of Méca and all these he would order to be conveyed to, and delivered at, any port of his country, whichever he might select; that the Wood of the True Cross which he brought was sent to the King by the Warden of Jerusalem, with whom he was in friendly communication; and all these matters which had he asserted could be proved to be true by the letters” (Birch, 1875-1884, III [1880], 252-253).

19Albuquerque, fully satisfied with these replies, declared that it was not his custom to open letters directed to his lord, the King of Portugal, nor to make trial of the ambassadors who were on their way to him, but that he would despatch Matthew on his journey “immediately so that he might make the passage in the ships which were just on the point of sailing for Portugal. And in order that this Wood of the True Cross might go with greater ceremony and reverence before the King, [he] ordered a casket of gold to be made for its reception” (Birch, 1875-1884, III [1880], 253).

20Though Albuquerque himself was convinced of Matthew’s good faith, some of his critics could not apparently understand why the Ethiopian monarchy had made use of a foreigner as its envoy. Seeing, as Brás de Albuquerque recalls, that the visitor was “white, and of good bearing,” they argued that he could not in fact be an Ethiopian envoy, but must be an impostor: “a Moor,” and “a spy sent by the Grand Sultan” of the Ottoman Empire (Birch, ibid., III, 251). The younger Albuquerque was, for his part, shocked at such allegations—which, as we shall see, were long to bedevil Matthew’s embassy. Recalling that its leader “conversed upon matters of the Faith like a man who was brought up among Christians,” he exclaims:

“What an astonishing thing it is that our people should have doubted this man to be a true ambassador from the Prestes João, and decided hastily that he was a Moor. These are the works of Satan, who ever seeks to exercise his influence in the quarter where he perceives he can do the greatest injury” (ibid., III, 251-252).

21Doubts as to Matthew’s credentials are, however, perhaps understandable, for as Rey says (1929, 35-36), the envoy, “in order to avoid suspicion,” had travelled “without retinue or ostentation of any sort,” and it seemed inconceivable that such a meanly dressed person could be the envoy of the “mighty Prester John.” Suspicion that Matthew was a Muslim spy was revived in the course of his journey to Europe. Matthew, records Brás de Albuquerque, accordingly “received very bad treatment” at the hands of Bernaldim Freire, the captain of the ship on which he sailed, and, on reaching Mozambique, was actually “put in irons,” at the wish of another Portuguese seaman, Francisco Pereira, and subjected to many indignities (Birch, 1875-1884, III [1880], 253-254). On reaching Lisbon, Matthew was, however, vindicated. King Manuel “gave him a very good reception,” the younger Albuquerque reports, “and always treated him in the manner due to an ambassador.” It was significant also that the envoy’s enemies, Bernaldim Freire and Francisco Pereira, were both incarcerated, and kept in detention throughout Matthew’s stay in the Portuguese capital (ibid., III, 254).

22King Manuel was, however, unwilling to come to any immediate decision on Eléni’s request for an alliance. Matthew was therefore obliged to remain two years in Europe. During this time he was interrogated not only by the King’s agents, but also by representatives of the Papacy, after which he travelled to Rome, and was received in audience by Pope Leo X (Kammerer, 1929-1935, II, 257). The envoy, though a merchant rather than a scholar, answered many questions about the country. One of his questioners, Manuel’s chronicler Father Damião de Goes, later wrote a brief account of Matthew’s journey, and of the faith and government of the far-off country from which he had come: Legatio magni Indorum Imperatoris Presbyteris Iohannis. This work, which appeared in 1532, ran through several editions, and, like the Matthew’s verbal statements, contributed significantly towards increasing European interest and awareness of the distant Christian country the Armenian served.

23Meanwhile, in the Spring of 1515, Manuel finally decided to despatch the requested embassy to Ethiopia. A reply to Eléni’s letter was accordingly drafted, and an envoy, Duarte de Galvão, a former ambassador to France and Germany, was designated to travel with Matthew to deliver it. The journey, it was recognised, would be by no means easy. In view of hostilities with the Turks, it would be necessary to take ship first to Goa, and then join a Portuguese naval fleet bound for the African coast. After that the travellers would have to proceed by land over desert and mountain to the Ethiopian capital.

24The two ambassadors, Matthew and Galvão, duly reached Goa, whence they sailed, on 8 February, 1517, with a Portuguese fleet commanded by Albuquerque’s successor, Lopo Soares de Albergaria. Passing by the island of Socotra, which like the rest of the area was under enemy control, they entered the Bay of Bab el-Mandeb on 17 March, and then sailed to the Arabian port of Jeddah before turning towards the African shore. The vessel on which Matthew was sailing was, however, later blown off course, and on reaching the Dahlak islands, only a few hours from the African coast, was becalmed there for a whole month. Matthew, realising that he was so near his destination, asked to be put ashore at the nearby mainland port but refused however to land without the Portuguese ambassador, who was elsewhere with the rest of the fleet, and they therefore sailed back towards the Arabian coast. Galvão, however, shortly afterwards died, on the island of Kamaran, whereupon Soares, seeing no alternative, decided to disembark Matthew, the surviving ambassador, at the African port of Massawa. Two vessels were detailed for this purpose, but on arriving at the Dahlak islands a small group of Portuguese landed, despite Matthew’s warnings of possible danger, and were promptly attacked by the local Muslim chief. Those killed included a son of Galvão, a Portuguese captain, who thus died within a few days of his father. This disaster so discouraged the survivors that they abandoned the plan of proceeding to Massawa lest they were subjected to a further attack at that port. Matthew, only two or three hours from his destination, was thus for a second time prevented from reaching the coast of Africa (Birch, 1875-1884, III [1880], 269-272).

25No opportunity for Matthew to return to the Red Sea was afforded until the beginning of 1520, when a new governor of the Indies, Diogo Lopes de Sequeira, undertook another naval expedition to those waters. He sailed from Goa on 13 February, with a large fleet, and took with him Roderigo da Lima, who served as Galvão’s successor as ambassador, Matthew, who had by then been absent from Ethiopia for eleven years, and Francisco Alvares, a Portuguese priest, who was to write the history of the embassy (Beckingham, Huntingford, 1961, I, 39, 42). Lopes de Sequeira and his fleet, which consisted of twenty-six vessels, reached the island port of Massawa on 9 April, without encountering any opposition, for the local Muslims had fled. He and his companions did not have long to wait for proof of the authenticity of Matthew’s story. On the following day, a deputation of Ethiopian Christians arrived from the nearby mainland port of Arkiko, and, according to a contemporary Portuguese account, the Carta das novas, they:

“asked Alexandre de Ataide who was interpreter, if they [the Portuguese] had news of a man called Matthew, who had gone in search of them. They replied “No,” and asked what man this Matthew was, and who had sent him here. And they said ‘No’ in order to draw out all the truth they could from them, to see if he was a genuine ambassador of the Prester John, because of the doubts there were in this matter. They [the Ethiopians] said that he was a man from Cairo, of whom the Prester John made much use, and that by his orders he was constantly coming to those parts to fetch many things; and that he was also a factor for Queen Helena [i.e. Eléni], mother of the said Prester, and came to fetch all the things she needed from those seaports, to wit, Massawa, Decamim and Dahlak; and that the Prester John had sent him with his embassy and messages to the King our Lord. Then the Captain-major [Sequeira] told them how he [Matthew] had come with him, and had him summoned to the ship Saõ Pedro, on board which he was.”

“Matthew came; whereat they [the Ethiopians] showed very great pleasure, ans kissed his hand. And Matthew with many tears gave thanks to Our Lord, because He had brought him there in time to show that his embassy was genuine; and [said] that now he counted for naught all the trouble he had been through, with other very fair words. And he told them to tell the Captain [i. e. chief] of Harkiko to send at once for the Barnegais [i. e. the Bahrnegash, or Ethiopian governor of the sea province] and the friars, for although those days were feast-days, it was a very great service to Our Lord for them to come and meet the Christians. And they went away very joyfully to give this news. And the next day many people came to see Matthew, and they asked for “Abuna Matheus,” which is to say “our Father Matthew.” And they all kissed his hand and his robes, and showed him other signs of great reverence” (Thomas, Cortesão, 1938, 70).

26Sequeira, much pleased with this development, thereupon, at last “showed great favour to Matthew,” who, as Alvares says, “had [earlier] come in disgrace” (Beckingham, Huntingford, 1961, I, 54-55). On the following day the local ruler of Arkiko came to Massawa to pay his respects, whereupon, according to the Carta das novas, three chairs were put out, and he, Sequeira and Matthew “all three sat down.” The chief then “gave thanks to Our Lord that their prophecies were fulfilled which said that the Christians should reach the port of Massawa.” After further exchange of courtesies, he announced that “the Barnegaes would be there within two or three days’ time, who was coming for nothing else but to make that same peace and friendship with him, and to see the ambassador Matthew” (Thomas, Cortesão, 1938, 72).

27The next day a group of seven monks arrived from the famous monastery of Dabra Bizén, situated nearby on a mountain overlooking the coast. They too were apparently well acquainted with Matthew. The Carta das novas states that “they rejoiced greatly” to see the latter, and “showed him great reverence.” Alvares likewise recalls that he was informed that the monks “went to visit the Portuguese [...] since they understood that Matthew was with them, [...] and he was one with their brethren,” and “the said monks did great honour to Matthew, kissing his hand and shoulder, because such is their custom, and he also was much delighted with them” (Beckingham, Huntingford, 1961, I, 57).

28The Bahrnegash himself made his appearance shortly afterwards, on 17 April. Matthew and one of the Portuguese, Antonio de Saldanha, went forward to receive him, and then brought him to Sequeira, who, now fully accepting Matthew’s status as Empress Eléni’s envoy, explained to the Ethiopian governor at some length how:

“the Queen Helena, mother of the Prester John, inspired by the Holy Spirit, had sent to the King our Lord her ambassador Matthew, who was there present, so that they might both be united in one will and true friendship, and do what should be for the service of Our lord and the greater increase of His holy faith. And though certain other captains of the King our Lord had at his command striven to reach that port and to bring back the said ambassador, they had not been able to do so till now, when God was pleased to open up that way, as the said ambassador would be able to tell him more at large.”

29The chief, evidently well satisfied with this speech, “replied to everything and to each point severally,” as the Carta das novas says, “giving many thanks to Our Lord that the prophecies” they had of an alliance with other Christians “were fulfilled, ” and added:

“the Prester, having genuine hope of this, had sent to the King our Lord his ambassador Matthew with his embassy. And the concern of the Christian Kings should be the same as that of His Highness, for it was the Prester John’s, and his own also, to make war against the Moors, the enemies of his faith” (Thomas, Cortesão, 1938, 84-85).

30The chief, according to Alvares, then gave the Portuguese his assurance that he would “take the Ambassador Matthew into his safe keeping,” and would do the same for all the Portuguese who wished to travel with him to the Emperor’s court. This promise made a deep impression on the Portuguese, who, Alvares recalls, had hitherto “all held Matthew to be not a real ambassador, but false and a liar.” On hearing the words of the Bahrnegash, however, they “clamoured and asked of favour of the Governor, each man for himself to be allowed to go with Matthew on an embassy to the Prester John, and here they all affirmed by what they saw that Matthew was a true ambassador” (Beckingham, Huntingford, I, 60-61). The Portuguese had indeed become so favourably disposed to him that the Carta das novas refers to his embassy as a “mighty work” of the Lord, and likened him to St. Matthew the Apostle, who, it enthusiastically declared, had “first declared and preached the holy faith in these parts” (Thomas, Cortesão, 1938, 89).

31Matthew, whose long years of trial and tribulation had thus been justified in the eyes of his former critics, then led the Portuguese inland. Their first stop was at the Bizén monastery, which Matthew seems to have wished to visit on business. On arriving there he wrote “to the court of the Prester, and to Queen Elena, and to the Patriarch” to inform them of the Portuguese arrival (Beckingham, Huntingford, 1961, I, 72). Before any reply could be received, however, Matthew fell victim of some epidemic, and died, after much suffering, at the nearby village of Jangarara, on 23 May. On his deathbed he reportedly bequeathed all his property to his patron Empress Eléni (ibid., I, 73). The Portuguese, who had thus lost the man whose steadfast resolution had brought their mission to success, duly reached the Ethiopian capital. There they met Emperor Lebna Dengel, who, since Matthew’s departure, had come of age. In a letter to King Manuel he subsequendy gave full recognition to the latter’s status as envoy. “I did not send him,” he wrote, “but Queen Helena sent him who governed me as my mother, because at that time I was [only] eleven years of age” (ibid., II, 496). Lebna Dengel thus provided final testimony, if such were still needed, that Matthew, so long regarded with disbelief and suspicion, was in fact a loyal servant of the age-old Christian African Empire whose cause he had espoused. His visit to Portugal, for all its difficulties, had been of paramount importance, and led, in due course, to the coming in 1541 of a Portuguese expeditionary force which saved the Christian Ethiopian State from a defeat by the Muslims (Beshah, Aregay, 1964, 45-52).

32It should moreover be argued, in conclusion, that embedded in Matthew’s story is valuable evidence of Armenian involvement in Ethiopia’s late 15th and early 16th century on-going trade with India and the East. Matthew, though remembered primarily as an envoy rather than as a trader, was, in fact essentially a merchant, engaged in the country’s import-export business. Though based in Ethiopia, and hence in Africa, rather than in Asia, he deserves consideration in the history of Armenian participation in Asian trade.

Continued Armenian Commercial and Other Connections

33Though evidence for this period of Ethiopian history is sketchy, there is reason to suppose that Armenian merchants—and traders—were active in Ethiopia throughout the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Armenians thus participated significantly in Ethiopia’s continuing trade with India and the East. An Armenian presence in Ethiopia, during the reign of Lebna Dengel’s son Emperor Galawdéwos (1540-1559), is suggested in the latter’s chronicle. It states that when he established a new capital, in the province of Waj, he built a particularly fine palace, the work, it is reported, of “Syrian and Armenian artists” (Conzelman, 1895, 47, 143).

34Galawdéwos, not long after this, was killed in battle with a Muslim army, in 1559. His head, it is said, was taken to the Muslim walled city of Harar, where it was placed on a stake, but was subsequently taken down by a merchant, and brought to Antioch, and interred there in the grave of St. Claudius the martyr (Basset, 1881, [17], 108-109. Budge, 1928, III, 745-746). Bruce (1790, II, 203), possibly relying on local tradition, though perhaps only on his imagination, claims that it was in fact an Armenian who accomplished this honourable act. The statement was repeated long afterwards by the German scholar Philip Paulitschke (1888, 224), who, however, unfortunately does not cite any authority for the report. Reference to the subsequent presence of Roman Catholic Armenians in Ethiopia, during the reign of Galawdéwos’ successor, Empress Minas (1559-1563), is found in the writings of the Jesuit Pêro Paes. He reports that two such individuals were expelled, apparently for supporting the Catholic cause, while another was beheaded (Beccari, 1903-1917, III [1906], 62-63).

35Another Armenian, in this case undoubtedly a merchant, is known to have arrived in Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Susneyos (1607-1632). This trader, shortly after his visit, in 1612, provided the British East India Company with the first detailed information on the country since the time of Matthew’s contemporary Alvares. The merchant, whose identity is unknown, reveals that the Emperor had his capital in Dambeya, north of Lake Tana, at a “very great city,” presumably Gorgora, which he describes, with a trader’s eye, as twenty-five days’ journey from Zayla and fifty from Cairo. His report, which indicates the extent of Ethiopia’s involvement in Eastern trade, states that the capital was visited each year by ten caravans from the coast, eight of them “great” ones, and two from Cairo. They brought with them “all kinds of Indian clothing, and likewise of our English commodities,” among them broad cloth, kersies, velvets, damasks, satins, taffaties, “and all other sorts of silk stuffs,” besides lead and tin. Exports consisted mainly of civet, ivory, wax, gold and rhinoceros horn (Danvers, 1896, 192-194). Further indication of the possible presence of Armenian business activity in Ethiopia in this period is suggested by the Portuguese Jesuit Manoel Barradas. Early in the following century he noted that “an Egyptian or Armenian” had been responsible for discovering a silver mine in Tegré province (Pankhurst, 1996, 25).

The Country’s Isolation from the West

36Politico-religious events of the early 17th century had profound effects on the Ethiopian scene. Emperor Susneyos, anxious like Lebna Dengel before him to obtain military assistance from Portugal, embraced the Roman Catholic faith in 1622, and, encouraged by the Jesuits, attempted the forcible conversion of his subjects. This led to so much discontent, however, that he was obliged to abdicate in 1632, in favour of his son Fasiladas. The latter proceeded to banish the Jesuits, first from the capital and later from all the entire country. He also forbade Afreng, or Franks, from entering the country, which for the rest of the century was virtually entirely isolated from the West. The ban on Franks, it is important to note, did not, however, apply to Armenians or other Orthodox Christians. Proof of this is to be found in the memoirs of the French traveller Jean Thévenot. He reports that while in Cairo in 1656 he met one of Emperor Fasiladas’s envoys, a certain Mika’él from Syria, who declared that his master was such a bitter enemy of the Catholics that a Frank could enter the country only if he “passed for an Armenian or Copt” (Thévenot, 1689, II, 754-759).

37While deliberately cutting off contacts with the West, Fasiladas sought to maintain, and even to strengthen, ties with neighbouring lands to the East, which were for the most part Muslim. Links with such countries were economically important, for he sought to export slaves, ivory, civet and gold to them (Pankhurst, 1961, 359-345), and to use the proceeds from the sale thereof to import fire-arms and luxury goods not otherwise available. This trade, as in the past, was largely in the hands of foreigners, many of them Armenians, who dealt partly on their own account and partly as servants of the King (ibid., 284-286).

  • 3 Alishan (1893, 458, 471) cites also Matthew.

38The magnitude of such Armenian involvement in business was not lost on the 17th century German scholar of Ethiopian affairs Hiob (Job) Ludolf. Contrasting this trade with the lack of commercial interest displayed by the native population, he remarks: “The Ethiopians are in no way addicted or expert in the Art and Intrigues of Merchandizing; for they that will not Travel into Forreign Parts must yield their gains to others.” Trade in consequence, he explains, was largely carried out by Arabs from across the Red Sea, as well as by “the Armenians [who] not much differing in their form of Worship, from the Abessines, carry the greatest Trade, as being great Dealers in all parts of the World” (Ludolf, 1684, 397). Though most such merchants have long been forgotten, reference to one of them is given by the 19th century Armenian author Alishan. He states, though without apparently citing any authority, that a certain Mkrititch, son of Hovhannès, traded in Ethiopia in 1664, as a representative of Avatic [= Avetik] Melkonian in Spain (Alishan, 1893, 471).3

Khoja Murad, Ambassador to the Mughal Empire

  • 4 Cf. E., van Donzel, supra, chap. 8.

39Probably the most important foreign trader operating on the Fasiladas’s behalf was another Armenian, variously referred to as Chodia, Chodgia, Chowagia, or Gosia, i.e. khoja/khodja (khavaja, “a man of distinction, a rich merchant”) Murad, Morad, Moraad, Murat or even Amurat. Following nobly in the footsteps of Matthew a century earlier, he undertook several important, and well documented, commercial-cum-diplomatic missions for the Ethiopian State. Though faced, as we will see, by almost overwhelming difficulties, he succeeded in bringing it contact with both the Mughal Empire and the Dutch in Batavia (van Donzel, 1979).4

40Murad, who was born at Aleppo, around 1596 according to one source or 1618-1619 according to another, spent the first part of his life in that city, where he was married. Later, however, he made his way to Ethiopia, where he seems to have arrived around 1646 (Somigli di San Detole, 1928-1948, 1-2, 411; II, lix). Within a decade or so of his coming he was handling perhaps the greater part of Fasiladas’s export-import trade. The French traveller François Bernier, who met him at Mocha on the South Arabian coast in 1658, states that the Armenian, together with a Muslim Arab trader called Sidi Kamil also in the King’s service, were sent there from the then Ethiopian capital, Gondar, “every year,” They came to sell a large number of slaves, and to purchase Indian goods with the money thus obtained. Murad also took with him “annual presents from his master to the English and Dutch East India Companies,” and the gifts which these trading Companies sent back to the Emperor in return (Constable, 1891, 134-135).

41The Armenian, whose exploits are mentioned by several writers of his time, seems to have been a friendly and hospitable man, He “accommodated” Bernier in half his Mocha apartment, and reported to him on the political situation in Ethiopia after the departure of the Jesuits. The picture he drew was, however, so depressing that the Frenchman was dissuaded from journeying to Gondar as he had planned, for, he reports:

“I was informed that Catholics were not safe in that country, since the period when, through the intrigues of the Queen-Mother, the Portuguese were slaughtered, or expelled [...] and that, in fact, an unhappy Capuchin had been recently beheaded at Suaken, for having attempted to enter the Kingdom. It seemed, indeed, that less risk would be incurred if I adopted the disguise of a Greek or an Armenian; and that when the King knew I could be of service to him he would probably make me a grant of land, which might be cultivated by slaves, if I possessed the means of purchasing them; but that I should, at the same time, be compelled to marry immediately, as a monk, who had assumed the character of a Greek physician, had already been obliged to do; and that I could never hope to obtain permission to quit the country” (Constable, 1891, 2).

42Murad, who, as an Armenian, was naturally not subjected to any such disabilities, gradually played an increasingly prominent role in Ethiopian affairs. After the accession of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1659, Fasiladas decided, around 1664, to despatch a mission to Delhi, and entrusted it to Murad and the afore-mentioned Sidi Kamil (Sarkar, 1947, 32), who were accompanied by a Mughal subject (Constable, 1891, 141-142). Before their departure Fasiladas assembled many valuable presents. These included slaves—then one of Ethiopia’s most prized exports—and a zebra, an animal then scarcely known abroad. Its variegated markings were to fascinate all who saw it, and civet musk. Bernier, who marvelled at the animal’s skin, describes the presents as consisting of:

“twenty-five choice slaves, nine or ten of whom were of a tender age and in a state to be made eunuchs [...]; fifteen horses, esteemed equal to those of Arabia, and a species of mule, whose skin I have seen: no tiger is so beautifully marked, and no alacha [a piece of cloth] of the Indies, or stripped silken stuff, is more finely and variously streaked; a couple of elephant’s teeth [i. e. tusks], of a size so prodigious that it required, it seems, the utmost exertion of a strong man to lift either of them from the ground; and lastly, the horn of an ox, filled with civet, which was indeed enormously large, for I measured the mouth of it at Delhy, and found that it exceeded half a foot in diameter” (ibid., 135-136).

43Mention of the zebra, which had by then unfortunately died, is also made by the Venetian traveller Niccolao Manucci. Much captivated by the unusual appearance of its skin, he states that the Emperor’s gifts had included “a mule striped naturally in various colours, so beautiful that a tiger could not be striped in a more lovely manner.” It was, he adds, “of a truth [...] a wondrous thing, fit to be presented to any great ruler.” The other gifts, he confirms, included “two elephant tusks very handsome, to lift one of which four men had as much as they could do,” some “horns of oxen, full of civet,” and a number or fine horses (Irvine, 1907-1908, II, 111). For yet another description of these gifts we are indebted to the French traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier. He claims to have dined with the “ambassador of the King of Abyssinia,” i.e. Murad, to whom he presented a pair of silver-decorated pocket pistols. Tavernier, whose account compliments that of the above eye-witnesses, states that the Emperor had despatched thirty “beautiful horses,” though only fourteen actually reached India, “a number of young slaves of both sexes,” and, what was “the most important and worthy to be admired,” but difficult to envisage:

“a tree of gold 2 feet 4 inches high, and about 5 or 6 inches round the stem. It had ten or twelve branches, some of which were nearly half a foot long and an inch broad, others being smaller. In some parts of the large branches there was to be some roughness, which in a manner resembles ends. The roots of this tree which had been thus naturally formed, were small and short, the longest not being more than 4 or 5 inches” (Ball, 1889, II, 159-160).

44Murad’s mission to Delhi was from the outset, sadly, fraught with almost insurmountable difficulties. Fasiladas, whose long reign of over thirty years was drawing to a close, seems to have had little control over Tegré. Perhaps for this reason he decided that the Armenian and his companions should avoid the normal route via the port of Massawa, which could easily have been reached in forty days, and to travel instead by the longer and more difficult route to the more southerly, and “out-of-the-way,” port of Beylul. This took “more than two months,” and necessitated traversing “desolate country,” a reference to the arid Danakil lowlands. The Emperor seems moreover to have been unable, or unwilling, to provide his envoys with much gold: money as such did not exist. Being, however, “anxious,” as Bernier says, that they should “appear in a style suitable to the occasion,” he supplied them with “thirty-two young slaves, boys and girls,” to be sold at Mocha (Constable, 1891, 135-136).

45The journey, as was to be expected, proved exceedingly hard, and the envoys, on reaching Beylul, were obliged to wait a long time in the heat for a vessel. They were, Bernier reports, “in want of many of the necessities of life and some of the slaves died.” A boat did, however, eventually arrive but, on reaching Mocha, the travellers found the market for slaves “had been that year overstocked,” and, being obliged to dispose of the surviving children to pay for the remainder of the journey, had to sell them “at a reduced price,” and also parted with the civet. They then embarked on an Indian vessel bound for Surat, where they arrived after “a tolerable passage” of twenty-five days. “Several slaves and many horses” nevertheless died, probably, Bernier supposes, “from want of nourishment.” An even greater loss was occasioned by the death of the zebra, whose skin the envoys succeeded, as we have seen, in preserving (Constable, 1891, 136). Another and entirly unexpected difficulty befell the ambassador almost immediatly afterwards, for, Bernier relates:

“They had not been many days on shore [...] when a certain rebel of Visapour, named Seva-Gi, entered the town, which he pillaged and burnt. The house of the ambassadors did not escape the general conflagration; and all their effects they succeeded in rescuing from the flames or the ravages of the enemy were their credentials; a few slaves that Seva-Gi could not lay hold of, or whom he spared because they happened to be ill; the mule’s [i.e. zebra’s] skin [...] and the ox’s horn which had already been emptied of its civet” (ibid., 136-137).

46Murad and his companion were thus reduced to virtual destitution. This was, however, perhaps not without some recompense, Bernier cynically notes, in that it drew attention away from the fact that they had already been obliged to dispose of the civet intended for Aurangzeb. The travellers were, however, obliged to beg the governor of Surat for their subsistence, as well as for money and carts with which to continue their journey to Delhi (Constable, 1891, 137). Murad, at this juncture, was also assisted by Dirk van Adrichem, the director of a Dutch commercial establishment, who wrote a letter of introduction to Bernier, without realising that the latter had in fact been the Armenian’s guest at Mocha some years earlier. Recalling his “agreeable surprise” at seeing Murad shortly after his arrival in Delhi, the Frenchman observes:

“I embraced my old friend with affection, and promised to render him all the service in my power. Yet, though my acquaintance among the courtiers was pretty extensive, I found it difficult to be useful to these empty-handed ambassadors. The mule’s skin, and the ox’s horn, wherein was kept arrack, or brandy extracted from raw sugar, of which they are exceedingly fond, constituted the whole of their presents; and the contempt which the absence of valuable presents would alone inspire was increased by their miserable appearance” (ibid., 138).

47The ambassadors, by all accounts, indeed presented a pitiable sight. They “had no money,” Manucci states, “to hire a house, but put up in the public saraé,” or hostel, “and walked the streets having no palanquin,” or hand-carried litter (Irvine, 1907-1908, II, 113). Bernier (Constable, 1891, 138), describing the envoys’ reduced circumstances, likewise declares:

“They were seen about the streets in a paleky [i. e. litter] clad in true Bedouin fashion, and followed by seven or eight bare-footed and bare-headed slaves, who had no raiment but a nasty strip of cloth passed between their buttocks, and the half of a ragged sheet over the left shoulder, which was carried under the right arm, in the manner of a summer cloak. Nor had the ambassadors any other carriage than a hired and broken-down cart; and they were without any horse except one belonging to our Missionary Father, and one of mine that they sometimes borrowed, and which they nearly killed.”

48In this period of adversity the envoys lived, perforce, almost entirely on charity. Murad, who displayed great fortitude, nevertheless proved up to the challenge, for, Manucci notes, whenever “the Armenian met an acquaintance, he would draw from him some present to equip himself” (Irvine, ibid.). Bernier was moreover a ceaseless source of support. Saddened by his old friend’s predicament, he exerted himself “in vain [...] for a long time,” on behalf of the “despised personages,” who were “regarded as beggars and could excite no interest,” Eventually, however, their fortunes turned, for, the Frenchman continues:

“One day when closeted with my Agah [i. e. lord] Danechmend-Kan, who is minister for foreign-affairs, I expatiated so successfully upon the grandeur of the Ethiopian Monarch, that Aureng-Zebe was induced to grant the ambassadors an audience, and to receive their letters” (Constable, 1891, 143-144).

49The Emperor, according to Bernier, in fact sent twice for the envoys, in part “to increase his stock of knowledge by their conversation,” though “his chief anxiety was to be made acquainted with the state of Mahometanism in the country.” Having expressed a desire to see the zebra skin, he had it placed in one of his fortresses—much to the disappointment of Bernier who had “counted upon one day presenting it to one of our Virtuosi in Europe” (Constable, 1891, 138-139). Sorry for the loss the ambassadors had suffered on the way to his court, Aurangzeb presented them both,

”with a ser-apah or vest of brocade, a silken and embroidered girdle, and a turban of the same materials and workmanship; gave orders for their maintenance, and at an audience when the Emperor gave them their congé, which soon took place, he invested each with another ser-apah, and made them a present of six thousand roupies, equal at present to nearly six thousand crowns: but this money was unequally divided, the Mahometan receiving four thousand roupies, and Murat, being a Christian, only two thousand” (ibid).

50By this unequal division, comments Manucci, the Mughal monarch showed his favour to his co-religionist, “although he had a very ugly face and was very short” (Irvine, 1907-1908, II, 113).

51Aurangzeb also entrusted the ambassadors with costly gifts for their master, namely:

“an extremely rich ser-apah, two large comets, or trumpets, of silver-gilt; two silver kettle-drums, a poniatd studded with rubies; and gold and silver roupies to the amount of about twenty thousand francs” (Constable, 1891,139).

52With these funds Murad and his companion purchased “spices, fine cotton cloths, for shirts for the King and Queen and for the King’s only legitimate son, who was to succeed the throne, alachas, or silken stuffs, striped, some with gold and some with silver, for vests and summer trousers; English broadcloths, scarlet and green, for a couple of abbs, or Arabian vests, for their King; and last, quantities of cloth less fine in their texture for several ladies of the seraglio and their children. All these goods they were privileged, as ambassadors, to export without payment of duty.” The result, Manucci comments, was that the envoys, who had “come to the Mughal country poor and despised,” were able “to turn their faces towards Ethiopia with considerable wealth” (Irvine, 1907-1908, II, 112). Aurangzeb also provided the ambassadors with a copy of the Koran, and “eight other books,” which Bernier refers to as “treatises written in defence of the Mahometan creed,” two thousand rupees for “the repair of a mosque in Ethiopia, which had been in ruins since the time of the Portuguese,” who had “demolished” it (Constable, 1891, 140).

53The story of Murad’s mission to Aurangzeb is corroborated by the official Mughal chronicle of Saqi Must’ad Khan, which makes, however, no mention of Murad, no doubt because he was a Christian. The text records that the “envoy of the King of Habash,” whom he names as Sidi Kamil, and several ambassadors from Arabia, arrived “with letters and presents” in March 1665, after which they were “shown high honour by the grant of robes and cash.” Celebrations “continued for five days,” after which, on 23 April, the envoys were “given congé, after being presented with suitable rewards in cash and kind” (Sarkar, 1947, II, 137-138).

54During his stay in the Indian capital, Murad, like Matthew a century earlier, proved an invaluable source of information on Ethiopia. He was frequendy invited with Bernier to the house of Danechmend Khan, who “asked many questions” about Fasiladas’s Empire. They also talked at length on the Ethiopian Emperor’s “magnificence,” as well as the “strength of his army.” Reiterating the extent of Ethiopian hostility towards Roman Catholics, Murad warned Bernier, as he had done earlier in Mocha, that if the latter visited Ethiopia he would be compelled to marry, as the European priest disguised as a Greek physician had earlier been to do (Constable, 1891, 141-143).

55Murad’s embassy, for all its difficulties, represented an important event in the history of Ethiopian relations with the East. The mission was followed by a second, despatched by Fasiladas’s son and successor Emperor Yohannes I (1667-1681), which reached Delhi in February or April 1671. Whether or not the Armenian was involved in it is uncertain (though by no means improbable) for, unlike the earlier embassy, no European account of it is extant, and the Mughal historian once more only mentions a Muslim ambassador, Muhammad Rumi, possibly a Turk, as leading it (Sarkar, 1916, III, 138; 1947, 67).

Ambassador to the Dutch East Indies

56Murad, who was to devote most of the remainder of his life to the service of the Ethiopian State, undertook the first of three diplomatic and commercial missions to the Dutch East Indies around 1673 (Legrand, 1728, 162). In that year Emperor Yohannes I addressed a letter in Arabic to Jan Maetzuyker, governor of the Dutch East India Company. It stated that the latter was sending his “servant, the Armenian Murad,” with four horses and two “stripped asses of the woods,” i.e. zebras (Ludolf, 1681, II-7; 1691, 568; 1693, 9-11). Murad, on this occasion, travelled once more to Mocha whence, according to Ludolf, he took an Indian vessel to Surat, and then sailed on 7 September 1674 on a small Moorish ship bound for Malacca (Ludolf, 1691, 261). There he left the zebras and horses with the Dutch East India Company’s representative at the port, William Volger, who had them shipped separately. The Armenian duly reached Batavia on 3 February 1675 and five days later was afforded a great reception, which contrasted greatly with the shabby treatment he had received at Delhi. Dressed for the occasion in a long costume of purple silk with a red cap and white turban, he was escorted by leading members of the Dutch administration and driven by carriage to the governor’s palace, where he was greeted by a nine-gun salute. At the ensuing audience he spoke to Maetzuyker about his adopted country, and then stepped out into the garden with his Dutch hosts to inspect the zebras which attracted a large crowd (van Donzel, 1979, 45-46).

57The Armenian’s visit created considerable interest, and was later recalled by a German traveller, Emmanuel Nawendorff. He reported, in 1678, that Murad, whom he incorrectly refers to as an “Arab,” came with credentials “written in Arabic,” and “specially bred horses and forest donkeys,” i.e. zebras, “so beautiful that no painter can depict them.” Declaring that he had himself seen two of these beasts, the German states that they were “afterwards sent as gifts to the Emperor of Japan,” who in return sent the Dutch East India Company a present of 10,000 tael of silver and a number of fine Japanese coats (Ludolf, 1691, 261). Murad remained in Batavia for over six months until 30 August 1675, when he sailed for Surat, with a rich assortment of gifts for his master. They consisted of twelve yards each of scarlet, green and blue cloth, twenty rolls of Chinese golden cloth, forty of Chinese damask of various colours, and six of Persian velvet; two large mirrors with ebony frames; a complete set of armour for a cavalry-man; two “good muskets,” two cartridge cases; two cases of shot; twelve flints for striking fire; six swords; two large mariner’s bells; and ten sacks of pepper for the ambassador’s ten servants (van Donzel, 1979, 39-60). The journey back to Ethiopia took two years.

58A year or so after his return to Ethiopia, Murad served, in 1678, as an interpreter for a visiting Armenian cleric called Hovhannes, who arrived in Gondar with a letter of introduction from the Patriarch of Alexandria, besides many gifts, described by the Ethiopian royal chronicle as of “inestimable value.” They reputedly included a bone of the hand of the Ethiopian monk Ewastatewos, who had died in Armenia three centuries earlier (Guidi, 1903-1905, 39-40). Hovhannes subsequently came in contact with the French traveller Thévenot. The latter quotes him as stating that the Ethiopian monarch had in his service an Armenian, who had taught the Abyssinians how to make gunpowder, bombs and other weapons. The Frenchman also stated that Yohannes’s son Emperor Iyasu I (1682-1706) had sent an envoy—we may suspect Murad—to Persia, with various gifts, among them a “most beautiful donkey of variegated colours,” presumably another zebra (Ludolf, 1691, 265-266). Murad, who remained in Ethiopia after the Armenian ecclesiastic’s departure, was by then a significant personage at court. He was in all probability the unnamed Armenian whom Giovanni Battista della Fratta and Pietro della Fratta, two Italian missionaries at Massawa, met at the port some time prior to December 1680 and referred to as “Vizier to the Emperor” (Somigli di San Detole, 1928-1948, 1-2, 411; II, lix).

Hiob Ludolf’s Attempt to Re-open Contact with Ethiopia

59Ethiopia’s isolation from the West was a matter of grave concern to the German scholar Ludolf. Excited and heartened, however, by report of Murad’s first embassy to Batavia, he drew up an open letter in 1683 to the Ethiopian people, in the hope of encouraging them to re-enter the European-based comity of nations. He despatched copies to various interested parties, among them the Dutch East India Company, which distributed it to persons likely to pass it to merchants or others travelling to Ethiopia (Weyers, 1838, 377-472. Van Donzel, 1974, 26-38). Among those to whom the letter was given were two Arab merchants at Mocha, one or other of whom probably passed a copy to a son of Murad’s who, like his father, used to travel from Ethiopia to Arabia on business. Murad junior, who came into possession of the paper around 1685, took it to Gondar, and presented it to the newly enthroned Emperor, Iyasu I. The latter at about the same time received a similar letter from Egypt—whether another copy of Ludolf’s address or not, is unclear. The monarch was reputedly “surprised and confused” by these documents. If we can believe a later report by Khoja Murad to the Dutch, the monarch feared that should the Abuna, or Patriarch, the clergy, and nobles know of their contents he would be suspected of being in relation with the court of Rome or other Catholic prince. This was particularly the case as the letter from Egypt was interpreted as a request for him to reconcile himself with the Roman Catholic Church. The Emperor, according to Murad, who claims to have been present, thereupon burnt the letters with his own hands, and thus, the Armenian claims, probably saved his son’s life (Ludolf, 1693, 30).

Murad’s Second Embassy to the Dutch

60Despite his fear of intercourse with the Roman Catholic West, Iyasu soon saw possible advantage in reopening contact with Holland, which his father Yohannes I had initiated by the despatch of Murad’s embassy to Batavia a decade and a half earlier. He therefore decided in 1689 that the Armenian, though by then an old man—over seventy years of age according to one source or more than ninety according to another—, should embark on a second mission to the Dutch East Indies. He was accordingly entrusted with a letter to Johannes Camphuis, governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, which described the envoy as the Emperor’s “servant Chodja Murad,” and stated that he had been despatched with five horses “of the most noble pedigree,” two ostriches, and twenty slaves (Ludolf, 1693, 13-15).

61Murad’s arrival in Batavia in 1690, his second visit to the island, coming as it did in the wake of Ludolf’s writings, led to a renewal of Dutch interest in Ethiopia. The Armenian was accordingly closely questioned by the secretary of the Dutch administration, Paulus de Roo, who subsequently drew up a detailed report on their conversations. This document, dated 18 March 1692, states that the ambassador was then seventy-four years old, but still robust, and with an excellent appetite (van Donzel, 1979, 61-82). De Roo’s questions were farreaching, and, in view of the Armenian’s considerable knowledge, provide uniquely important documentation on Ethiopia at the height of its isolation from the West.

62The Dutch, much impressed by Murad’s bearing, as well as by the obvious sincerity of his answers, sent the Armenian back to Ethiopia, as on the previous occasion, with numerous gifts. These included twelve bundles of cloth, much of it red and green; twenty-four cubits of red cloth from Holland; two suits of Chinese silk; twenty bundles of cloth, some red, saffroncoloured, and interwoven with silver; two mirrors each a cubit high and wide with decorated frames; two bells, one weighing 841 and the other 247 pounds, both “made from five metals;” four cannons ornamented with gold; ten double-edged swords; two hundred stones for striking fire; 244 pounds of caryophyllus nuts; 244 pounds of nutmeg; 154 pounds of mace; 240 pounds of cinnamon; 1,250 pounds of pepper; and nine flasks, containing one pound of cinnamon oil, one pound of sandalwood oil, four pounds of camphor oil, two pounds of nutmeg oil, two pounds of mace oil, and two pounds of caryophylus oil (Ludolf, 1693, 20-22).

63De Roo’s report on his talks with Murad duly reached Holland where it created considerable interest. Ludolf, recognising that the Armenian’s remarks constituted the first extensive account of Ethiopia since the departure of the Jesuits, published it in full together with the letters of Emperors Yohannes and Iyasu to Batavia, and the Dutch response thereto in 1693, as an Appendix to his great history of Ethiopia, which had appeared a decade earlier. Murad, like Matthew a century and a half earlier, had thus played a major role in enlightening Western Europe on the situation in Ethiopia and on the aspirations of its rulers.

64The old Armenian meanwhile had continued his journey to Ethiopia, with all the gifts entrusted to him. On reaching the Turkish-occupied port of Massawa, however, the local ruler, na’ib Musa, sei2ed these on the grounds that he had the right to levy taxes on all goods passing through his domains. The incident was considered sufficiently important to be recorded in Iyasu’s chronicle for 1693, which refers to the Armenian as “the merchant Murad,” thus explicitly indicating that he was, like Matthew before him, a trader as well as a royal emissary. The text states that he had for “a long time done business, by sea, with Egypt, Syria and India,” and had, since the time of Fasiladas, imported “a large quantity of the most beautiful clothes and objects,” After the seizure of the gifts, Murad is said to have sent a message to Iyasu to the effect that “na’ib Musa has levied customs tax on the King’s goods.” The monarch, on hearing this, was “greatly irritated,” and his “countenance changed.” He sent orders to the rulers of Hamasén, the highland province overlooking Massawa, that they should proclaim by herald that no one should go down to the port with honey, milk, grain or other necessities of life until he himself arrived to attack the place. Anyone transgressing this command, the chronicler adds, was liable to death, and to the pillage of his house and property. On receipt of these instructions the chiefs of Hamasén blocked the supply of provisions to the na’ib, who, learning that the Emperor was about to attack, is said to have been “terrified.” He reportedly “trembled, not knowing what to do,” and was “seized with pains like a woman about to give birth.” Coming to the conclusion that “there was nothing he could do to save himself, except to return the belongings of the King, and to make peace with him,” he “hastened” to effect this act of restitution, “added objects a thousand times more numerous”, and brought them to the King at Aksum. There, prostrating himself before the monarch, he cried, “Have pity on me, O King my master, and pardon me everything which I have done and which should not have been done to a King.” The nobles then begged Iyasu to forgive him, and the Emperor, after reproaching him for his conduct, pardoned him (Guidi, 1903-1905, 171-172).

65The above account, which shows the importance attached to Murad by the Emperor, as well as the Armenian’s on-going significance as a trader, was later retold, by Bruce. He observed that there was “not indeed a more merciless, thievish set of miscreants” than the Massawa rulers (Bruce, 1790, II, 456-457). After the release of the presents, Iyasu had the bells from Batavia hung at the church of Dabra Berhan Sellasé just outside Gondar, where they can be seen to this day. Bells of that size having probably never been seen in the country they created a great impression, a contemporary manuscript observing that, when struck they made sufficient noise to be “heard throughout the world” (Conti Rossini, 1942b, 112-113). Despite Murad’s resolution, and the successful outcome of his mission, commercial contacts with far away Batavia failed to materialise. When the Dutch despatched their vessels to the Red Sea to trade with Ethiopia, they returned, according to the French author Joachim Legrand (1728, 162), “with the same cargo that they had brought.”

Murad’s Third Mission to Batavia

66Ethiopia’s continued commercial isolation caused Emperor Iyasu to decide, around 1694, on despatching the aged Armenian on his third and last visit to the Dutch East Indies. Murad duly arrived in Batavia in September 1696, bearing an Arabic letter from the Emperor, and a gift of seven horses, twenty slaves, and 400 ounces of silver—probably in the form of Austrian coins, the precursors of the Maria Theresa thaler (Du Four de Longuerue, 1750, 340-341). The coming of the Armenian again aroused considerable interest in Batavia. Murad was once more subjected to close interrogation, this time on the basis of a questionnaire prepared by Ludolf, which, strangely enough, had been translated into Persian.

67The first queries were essentially of a personal nature. Murad was asked whether he regarded himself as a merchant, a soldier or a court official. He responded that he was neither a trader nor a warrior, but served his lord and master the Emperor of Ethiopia, who had sent him abroad for foreign affairs. Asked about his religion, and whether he had been accompanied by any priests, he answered that he was a Christian, but had no ecclesiastics with him, only laymen, five Christians and two Muslims. In reply to a question about his journey from the Emperor’s capital, he explained that he had travelled for two months through the highlands, after which he had descended into the inhospitable coastal lowlands, where he had spent two days before sailing from Massawa to Mocha. The next question, as to the whereabouts of the Emperor and his army, was particularly interesting. Murad, in reply, explained the location of the monarch’s new capital, Gondar, which was still virtually unknown in Europe. In response to further questions, mainly on political matters, he described the extent of the realm, and specified the precise tax paid by the various provinces in gold, salt, cloth, butter, honey and other goods (Valentyn, 1724-1726, 75-88).

68Despite the veracity, as we now know, of Murad’s replies, some of the Dutch, like the Portuguese on meeting Matthew a century and half earlier, began to doubt whether their Armenian visitor was in fact an accredited Ethiopian envoy. There was so much skepticism that the Dutch Minister, Melchior Leydecker, wrote to Ludolf in February 1697, expressing his opinion that the letter allegedly sent by the Emperor was a forgery. The German scholar, though convinced of the genuine character of the Armenian’s earlier embassies—to which he had devoted much attention in his published work—curiously enough joined in the criticism. He replied in December, expressing reservations as to the authenticity of the latest missive, and declaring:

“I confess that Murad, whom you say to be suspect to you, is this time suspect also to me. So far as the first and second missions are concerned, I do not think that there was committed any fraud. But now I am afraid that this good Murad has wanted to catch the gifts for himself.”

69As for the Emperor’s presents, Ludolf declared:

“The gifts he brings now, horses, slaves, etc. arc not typical of Ethiopia, as were once those multi-coloured mules: he may easily have procured them.”

70Ludolf s next doubt concerned Iyasu’s letter, which, he declared:

“does not really contain anything memorable; on the contrary, the words are almost the same as those of the preceding letter (such was the poverty of words of this author), so that I almost believe that it has not been composed in Ethiopia, but in Arabia by someone who did not know more.”

71Ludolf’s last point touched upon the letter’s seal, which, he wrote:

“is not that of the King of Ethiopia, as you correctly surmise, but has undoubtedly been affixed by some Arabic impostor, and that a quite inexperienced one. Bah, how poorly the fraud has been done” (van Donzel, 1974, 237-238).

72Such suspicions, voiced by the learned Ludolf, led to a change of Dutch policy vis-à-vis Murad. It was decided that the Armenian should be accompanied on his return journey by two agents of the Dutch East India Company, and that they, instead of he, should be entrusted with the usual presents for the Emperor. This plan was, however, entirely unsatisfactory. One of the Dutchmen abandoned the journey on reaching Surat. The other travelled as far as Mocha, found he could not enter Ethiopia without the Emperor’s permission, whereupon he refused to allow the Armenian to take the gifts without him. Murad was therefore obliged to sail for Africa alone, without any presents, and, for undisclosed reason, failed to return to Mocha when expected. The Dutchman thereupon sailed off with the gifts, leaving the mission to Ethiopia unaccomplished (Legrand, 1728, 162-163, 365-366).

73Murad’s return from Batavia, it is significant, did not pass unnoticed by the Jesuits in Egypt, who, though essentially hostile to the Armenian, did not in any way share Dutch doubts as to the legitimacy of his mission. Farther Giampiero Levert, who tried to enter Ethiopia by way of Massawa in 1699, later claimed that he had been frustrated by the arrival at the port of “the ambassador of the Ethiopian King,” whom he refers to as Amurat (Somigli di San Detole, 1928-1948, II, 423). On reaching Suakim, a port further north, the missionary was likewise prevented from proceeding inland, and, apparently again with Murad in mind, blamed his difficulty on a “renegade,” who had obstructed him “for political, and worldly, reasons,” and “did not wish to allow the Franks to pass” (ibid., II, 414).

“Baba” Murad

74Murad, having undertaken at least one diplomatic mission to the Mughal Empire, three to the Dutch East Indies, and almost certainly several others (including ones to Egypt and Syria, according to the chronicle), lived on into the early 18th century. He was by then, contrary to Ludolfs suspicions, not only an important trader, but a highly regarded personage at the Gondarine court. Ethiopia at that time was still closed to the West, and popular hatred of Roman Catholics had far from abated. Emperor Iyasu was, however, secretly far less intolerant than his subjects, especially the clergy. Suffering from a troublesome skin complaint he sent a Turkish envoy to Cairo to bring him a physician. The emissary duly contacted Charles Poncet, a French doctor in the city, who agreed to travel to Ethiopia. Poncet, who met Murad in 1699 and 1700, described the Armenian as “one of the prime,” i.e. chief, “ministers of the Emperor,” who had a “fair house” at Emfraz city, and added:

“Murat is a venerable old man, of a hundred and four years of age, who for the space of more than sixty years has been employ’d in the most important negotiations to the Mogul and the other courts of the Indies. The Emperor has so great a consideration for him that he commonly calls him Baba Mourat, that is to say ‘Father Mourat’” (Foster, 1949, 133-134-143).

75Murad’s benevolence was further seen, in 1701, when two French Jesuits, Fathers Grenier and Paulet, arrived in Gondar and hid for some time in his house, almost certainly with the Emperor’s knowledge (Legrand, 1728, 374-375). Ludolf meanwhile continued to hope that contact with Ethiopia could be achieved through the written word. He accordingly wrote a second open letter in 1701. Addressed this time to the Bahrnegash, or ruler of the sea province, and written in Ge’ez, it recapitulated the history of Murad’s three visits to Batavia, and told how the East India Company (as we have seen) had sent “two very able Dutchmen,” with a letter to the Ethiopian Emperor, but that the Armenian had left them at Mocha, saying: “It is not permitted to you to enter Ethiopia without permission from the King of Kings,” after which he had left, and failed to write to them. This action, Ludolf claimed, had caused the Dutch “misgivings,” and had made them wonder “whether he was a trustworthy man or an impostor and deceiver. For we do not know and understand,” he continued somewhat naively, “why and on what ground the Dutch would have been forbidden to enter the country of the Abyssinians, since they are friends of the Kings of the Abyssinians.” The Dutch, he concluded, were not Afreng, or Franks, and did “not harm anybody,” but traded “for the benefit of all men.” He therefore had “no doubt” that the Emperor would “enter into friendly relations with them, and gladly grant them permission to enter and leave his kingdom.”

76 Despite his implied criticism of Murad, Ludolf accepted the probable necessity of partially using Armenian envoys. He advised that the Emperor should send a letter to Holland in Ge’ez, together with a translation, duly sealed, with “an Ethiopian, a learned and intelligent man, together with an Armenian interpreter or another who knows Arabic or Persian or Indian in order to converse with them, since there are only a few in that country who know Ge’ez or Amharic.” This letter was no more successful than its predecessor, and, like it, remained unanswered (van Donzel, 1974, 236).

Murad ibn Mazlum

77Poncet’s visit to Gondar was significant in prompting Emperor Iyasu to decide on the hitherto unimaginable step of despatching an ambassador to King Louis XIV of France. This was the first Ethiopian mission to be sent to a Roman Catholic State since Matthew’s journey to Portugal almost two centuries earlier. Iyasu, who was well aware of the opposition which his plan, if known, would arouse among the Ethiopian priesthood, as well as of the dangers the envoy might expect from his Muslim neighbours, acted in the utmost secrecy. To conceal the pro-Catholic character of any return mission, he advised Poncet that the French should make use of “an Armenian or Greek” envoy rather than one of their own nationals (Legrand, 1728, 402). Old Murad, until then the Emperor’s principal roving ambassador, was by then apparently too infirm to attempt the proposed journey. It was therefore decided that his nephew, Murad ibn Mazlum, also known as Murad ibn Magdelon or Murad Shalabi (Tedeschi, 1966, 107), should be entrusted with the task of travelling to Paris with Poncet. The latter, who attributed the choice to nepotism, comments that “it was not difficult” for the elder Murad, as a “minister” of State, to “procure his nephew to be nam’d ambassador,” and that this was not surprising “because in Ethiopia they more willingly make use of strangers than people of their own country for embassies” (Foster, 1949, 140).

78The above explanation was subsequently endorsed by Bruce (1790, II, 466, 479, 485). He declares that since no “Abyssinian [...] was willing to leave his country [...] unless the very few priests who go for duty’s sake to Jerusalem,” Ethiopian letters were carried by foreign “factors.” He adds that as “prudence, sobriety, and good conduct, skill in languages and acquaintance with countries” were the main qualifications of such envoys, “old Murat probably meant that his nephew should begin his apprenticeship with the mission to France.” Be that as it may, the choice of the young man for this difficult mission indicates the confidence with which the Murad family was regarded in Ethiopian court circles. Murad junior was accordingly “declar’d publicly” as envoy, and “order’d to prepare his presents.” These included a young elephant, several horses, and a number of “Æthiopian children,” i.e. young slaves. Iyasu then gave the Armenian “orders and credentials,” and, “having cloathed him with a mantle of ceremony in a public audience, commanded him to depart” (Foster, 1949, 140-151).

79The younger Murad was then about forty years old (Beccari, 1903-1917, I, 196-197). A native of Diyarbekir, in Asia Minor, he seems to have served as a cook-valet there, and at Cairo, before sailing with his master to Jeddah. On the latter’s return to Egypt, he had, however, decided to join his uncle in Ethiopia. Murad junior had accordingly crossed the Red Sea to Massawa, where, to raise funds for his journey inland, he was reported to have distilled brandy (Legrand, 1728, 163). The later French historian of these events, Joachim Legrand (= Le Grand), considered him “far less able than the old Murad,” but Bruce (1790, II, 485), who thought he was “probably old Murat’s servant,” comments that he was “not the worse ambassador for this.”

80The embassy of Poncet and Murad the younger, like that of Murad the elder to India half a century earlier, was fraught with difficulties. The envoys, while traversing Tegré, had the “misfortune,” Poncet recalls, of seeing their elephant die. The next stage of the journey was also “unfortunate” in that the horses for France likewise perished. The Armenian had therefore to send back to Gondar for replacements (Bruce, 1790, II, 151). Poncet, disconcerted by the resultant delay, and impatient to arrange for the Red Sea passage, decided to travel on to Massawa alone. Murad meanwhile was unexpectedly delayed on account of the death of the Emperor’s son. When the Armenian failed to appear as expected, the Frenchman, fearing to miss the monsoon, sailed alone to Jeddah. Assuming that his colleague would not be able to arrive before the following year’s trade winds, he then proceeded to Egypt without him.

81Murad, however, shortly afterwards succeeded in crossing to Arabia, but suffered severely at the hands of the ruler of Mecca, who seized the children in the Armenian’s care. To complete his misfortune, the vessel bearing the other presents was shipwrecked (Bruce, 1790, II, 151, 155). Despite these tribulations the Armenian succeeded in reaching Cairo only one day after Poncet’s arrival there. He was, however, by then virtually destitute, and had lost most of the presents. All he retained was in fact a little civet, and two elephant ears and a trunk, as proof that he had been in possession of a live elephant for the King of France (ibid., II, 389, 431).

82By the time he reached Cairo, French policy had moreover changed. The French Government had decided against receiving an Ethiopian embassy, for, as Bruce remarks, “in France they looked upon it in the same light as they did an embassy from Algiers or Tunis, which did no honour to those who sent it, and as little to those that received it.” The French Consul, according to Poncet, therefore advised two Jesuits, Grenier and Paulet, bound for Gondar to dissuade any envoy they might meet from proceeding to Egypt. A final difficulty facing Murad arose from the fact that the Consul Benoît de Maillet, the Jesuits in Cairo, and other members of the local French community, were in bitter conflict and conspiring among themselves (Bruce, 1790, II, 486).

83Murad junior, who found himself thus entwined in a web of French intrigue, nevertheless spoke with authority as the Emperor’s accredited envoy, and his words clearly reveal his imperial master’s desires. He declared that Iyasu was anxious to obtain “able artisans to make the arts flourish again in his domains.” More specifically, he requested a military engineer, a cannon-founder, an armourer, a “good doctor or surgeon,” a watchmaker, a gardener, and a worker in glass, as well as architects, masons, carpenters, and locksmiths (Legrand, 1728, 398, 408). On a more personal level he reported that the monarch needed enough waterproof cloth to make two suits; and, more generally, advised that his master would welcome such presents as rifles, if possible decorated with silver; distorting mirrors; pictures of French palaces and streets, and of the French royal family, painted in brilliant colours, with the King wearing an Ethiopian-style crown (ibid., 409-411).

84Murad’s statements, though bearing the hallmark of authenticity for anyone familiar with the Ethiopian scene, failed to make much impression on the divided French community in Cairo, which felt that the embassy had little likelihood of success in view of the French Government’s change of policy. Poncet, who wanted all the glory and rewards of the mission for himself, regarded Murad with jealousy, and sought to discredit him. He went so far as to call the Armenian “a declared enemy of all the Franks,” and a man who would “do his utmost to prevent them being received in Ethiopia” (Legrand, 167). Generalising this argument he asserted that the persons the Ethiopian ruler employed for his embassies would never allow an envoy from abroad to visit the country lest this reduced their own profits (ibid., 375). Poncet’s enemies, on the other hand, made great play of Murad’s humble and non-Ethiopian origin. Echoing suspicions of earlier Armenian or other envoys from Ethiopia, they argued that a former cook-valet in Cairo could not have been entrusted by an Ethiopian monarch with a mission of state importance (Beccari, 1903-1917, XIV [1914], 168-170). Some contended that Poncet must have “recruited a worthless man at Massawa to establish his own tide as ambassador of the Negus” (Kammerer, 1947-1952, II-[2] [1949], 442). The Jesuits Grenier and Paulet were likewise quoted as having described Murad the younger a “wretch and a rogue” (Legrand, 1728, 375).

85De Maillet, though apparently accepting Murad as an envoy, sought to humiliate him. The Consul accordingy quarrelled with Murad on points of etiquette, and then demanded to see the Emperor’s letter, which the ambassador refused to permit. Shortly afterwards the Pasha of Cairo, secretly advised, as some alleged, by de Maillet, summoned Murad, and opened the letter which the Armenian’s critics promptly dismissed as a forgery (Bruce, 1790, II, 487. Caix de Saint-Aymour, 1886, 116-138. Cf. Kammerer, 1947-1952, II-[2] [1949], 443). Attacks on Murad as an impostor, and on his letter as a forgery, served to reinforce the decision, already made in Paris, that the embassy from Ethiopia should be discouraged. It is, however, significant that de Maillet, though seemingly accepting the charges against the Armenian, nevertheless decided that the mission should proceed to France, albeit without Murad who was, however, “not refused a certain official character” (Caix de Saint-Aymour, 1886,139).

86Poncet, accompanied by one of de Maillet’s staff and Father Verzeau, the local head of the Jesuits, eventually sailed, in September 1701, with the Emperor’s letter, and the residue of the presents from Ethiopia. The envoys were duly received by King Louis XIV, after which Poncet and Verzeau sailed to Rome, where they were received by the Pope. Murad, was, however, obliged to remain in Alexandria, though, significantly, at French consular expense (Legrand, 1728, 163. Beccari, 1903-1917, XIV [1914], 171-172, 256-257, 306). As a result of the mission it was decided in Paris that the French vice-consul in Damietta, Le Noir du Roule, should be despatched to Ethiopia through the Sudan. After much further wrangling in which Murad received the support of the Jesuits, it was further agreed that the Armenian and Poncet, who were by then reconciled, should undertake an alternative expedition with a Jesuit, Father Du Bernat, by way of the Red Sea (Beccari, ibid., 351, 368).

87De Maillet, who gave the Poncet-Murad expedition his full support, wrote a letter to Emperor Iyasu on 15 September 1703, which was significant in affording Murad a recognition earlier noticeable by its absence. The Consul, seeking to excuse himself for the bad treatment earlier accorded to the envoy, claimed that when the Armenian had arrived in Cairo with an epistle from the Ethiopian ruler, he, de Maillet, had received Murad with all possible honours, and had provided him with both a house and a daily sum of money. He added that he had only dissuaded the Armenian from proceeding to France on account of warfare in Europe, which rendered the seas dangerous. The letter Murad had brought, he explained, had, however, been safely taken to France and a reply to it was accordingly brought by Poncet, who would personally explain “the feelings of esteem and tenderness” which his royal master felt for the Emperor (Beccari, 1903-1917, XIV [1914], 346-347).

88De Maillet, who was obviously convinced of the need to propitiate Murad’s uncle Khoja Murad, also wrote to the latter on the same day, thanking him for his earlier kindness to Poncet, and requesting further assistance from him in the future. Recalling the “barbarism” into which Ethiopia had fallen, as a result of its isolation from Europe, and the corresponding “glory” that would ensue from renewal of such contact, he declared himself confident that the Armenian would explain these matters to the Emperor. The Consul stated that he was well aware that the monarch had to take account of “entirely negative elements” among the population, who were “the enemies of the Europeans.” He nevertheless felt sure that they could be made to realise the difference between the French and the Portuguese, and assured the Armenian that the French had no intention of interfering in their religion, but sought only to re-establish relations between two Christian peoples, and to assist the Ethiopians by providing them with the arts and sciences of Europe (Beccari, 1903-1917, XIV [1914], 344-345).

89Murad the younger, whose status had thus at long last won official French acceptance, accordingly made plans to return to Gondar. He summoned his wife and son from Aleppo (Legrand, 1728, 412), and then sailed in October from Suez to Jeddah (Beccari, 1903-1917, I, 356, 365, 368). The local Pasha, learning of his arrival, however, prompdy imprisoned him, and Poncet was deprived of both his money and the letters he was carrying (ibid., XIV, 404. Caix de Saint-Aymour, 1886, 205-206). The Armenian’s plan to return to Ethiopia was therefore postponed, if not abandoned, and seems to have been finally brought to an end by Iyasu’s deposition—and the resultant collapse in Ethiopian government in March 1706 (Beccari, 1903-1917,I, 344-345). Murad himself died mysteriously shortly afterwards, in 1707, and Poncet, after a number of adventures, made his way to Persia, where he died in penury in the following year (Legrand, ibid., 434. Caix de Saint-Aymour, 1886, 208. Beccari, ibid.). Le Noir du Roule’s mission was no more successful, for its leader was seized and done to death while passing through Sennar in 1704 (Legrand, ibid., 169).

90News of the Armenian’s tribulations, and of the subsequent detention of Le Noir du Roule in Sennar, duly reached Iyasu’s successor Emperor Takla Haymanot (1706-1708), who wrote an indignant letter to the Pasha and lords of Cairo. Recalling the arrest of Murad “the Syrian,” who had been sent to Egypt “on our part,” the Emperor declared that the Egyptian rulers had thereby “violated the law of nations,” as “ambassadors of kings ought to be at liberty to go wherever they will;” and it was “a general obligation to treat them with honour, and not to molest or detain them.” Warning the Pasha of the possibility of reprisals, he added:

“We could very soon repay you in kind, if we were inclined to revenge the insult you have offered the man Murat sent on our part; the Nile would be sufficient to punish you, since God hath put into our power his fountain, his oudet, and his increase, and that we can dispose of the same to do you harm; for the present we demand of, and exhort you, to desist from any future vexations towards our envoys, and not to disturb us by detaining those who shall be sent towards you, but you shall let them pass and continue their route without delay, coming and going wherever they will freely for their own advantage, whether they are our subjects or Frenchmen and whatever you shall do to or for them, we shall regard as done to or for ourselves” (Bruce, 1790, II, 526-527).

91This letter, as Bruce (1790, II, 528-530) was the first to point out, is “remarkable” in establishing once and for all that Murad was acknowledged by the Emperor as his ambassador, and that the Armenian, so far from the being the adventurer some Frenchmen suggested, was in fact, like his uncle—and Matthew before him—a loyal servant of the Ethiopian State, in whose service he had suffered greatly.

Armenian “Factors”

92Though the two Murads were the principal Armenians in Ethiopian employ in the 17th and early 18th century—as well as the historically most visible—other Armenian traders continued to visit the country as of old. Testimony to their importance is provided by Bruce (1790, III, 131) who, writing in the late 18th century, states that “the King [i.e. Emperor] and great men” had “factors,” or commercial agents, whom they used to “sell or barter such of their revenues as are paid in kind.” Writing enthusiastically of such “factors,” he declares:

“These men are chiefly Greeks, or Armenians, but preference is almost always given to the latter. Both nations pay caratch, or capitulation, to the Grand Signior, (whose subjects they are) and both have, in consequence, passports, protections, and liberty to trade wherever they please throughout the empire, without being liable to those insults and extortions from the Turkish officers that other strangers are. [...] The Armenians, of all people of the East, are those most remarkable for patience and sobriety. They are generally masters of most of the eastern languages, are of strong, robust constitutions; of all people, the most attentive to the beasts and merchandise they have in charge: exceedingly faithful and content with little.”

93Such Armenian traders, for the most part, lived, and died, without leaving any record. Mention is, however, made below of a few who, for one reason or another, are mentioned in the literature of the time.

Avedik Baghdasarian’s “Way to Travel to Abyssinia”

  • 5 Cf. infra, K. Kévonian, chap. 16.
  • 6 Venice, St. Lazarus Ms. 1453.

The travels of such traders were doubtless facilitated by the notable Armenian scholar, Avedik Baghdasarian [trslAvetik’ Paltasarean]5 also known as Avedik de Baltasar, of Diyarbekir, who travelled widely in the East between 1664 and 1719. He reached Ethiopia, with one of his compatriots, Asdwadzadur Vartabed [trslAstowac’atowr Vardapet] of Kharpert nicknamed Tempug or Tembuk, and, wishing to assist his countrymen to visit the country, wrote an account of his journey in Armenian: Image (This is the Way to Travel to Abyssinia). The account is included in his Concise... Geography (Image), the manuscript of which is preserved by the library of the Mekhitarist Fathers in Venice (The Reader, 1897, 459-463. Alishan, 1897, 1220-1229).6

Agapri, a Merchant of Bombay

94Armenian interest in Ethiopia was manifested, at around this time, by a Bombay merchant called Agapri or Agapyri, who met a Greek in Emperor Iyasu’s service in 1699, and sent him back to the port of Massawa, with one of his own agents. The latter lent the Greek seven hundred dollars, and waited at the port in the hope of obtaining permission from the Emperor to enter Ethiopia, but this never arrived, reportedly because of opposition to foreigners on the part of the Gondar monks (Legrand, 1728, 365-366. Foster, 1949, 169).

An Anonymous Courtier-cum-Diamond Merchant

95Another Armenian involved in Ethiopia, in the 18th century, was a young man of unrecorded name, who was brought to the country by his father during the reign of Emperor lyasu II (1730-1755). The Armenian, while still a “mere youth” was sent by the monarch on missions to Massawa and Arabia. On Iyasu’s death he was appointed by the monarch’s mother, Empress Mentwwab, as “gentleman of the bed-chamber,” or companion to her grandson Emperor Iyo’as, and later promoted to the rank of Blatténgéta Teqaqen, or Chamberlain, but was later expelled, on account of a palace power struggle, after which he made his way to India. There, according to Bruce, who later met him at Loheia in Arabia, he turned to business, and purchased “a considerable number of diamonds, and other precious stones to sell,” but failed to bring them back to Ethiopia, as he had hoped (Bruce, 1790, II, 665-667, 690, 706).

The Jeweller Hovhannes Tovmadjian

96A more prominent 18th century Armenian jeweller, who visited Ethiopia in 1764, was Hovhannes [Yohannes] Tovmadjian. He travelled to the country from Egypt with his son Boghos, and served for a year and a half, at Gondar, as Empress Mentewwab’s treasurer, after which he wrote a valuable and amusing memoir of his stay in Ethiopia (Pankhurst, Nersessian, 1982, 79-104).

Karapet Habeshi

97One last Armenian trader of this time deserves mention, a Cairo-based trader called Karapet Habeshi, i.e. Karapet “the Abyssinian,” who reportedly travelled with a caravan to Ethiopia annually. He later retired to Constantinople, where he lived by 1816 to the age of around ninety. He by then been succeeded by his son, who likewise led a caravan to Ethiopia almost every year (Combes, Tamisier, 1835-1837, I, 273-275. Brayer, 1836, II, 429, 446).


98Armenian merchants in Ethiopia left virtually no records, and, because of their unexalted profession, were largely ignored by historians of the past. Such merchants were nonetheless important, and may justify us in conceptualising the Unknown Armenian Merchant—an opposite number, so to speak, of the Unknown Soldier of later times. A trader, who travelled widely, confronting—and overcoming—innumerable obstacles, often in the service of the Ethiopian Christian state.

99The Ethiopian experience is historically interesting in that it has preserved, entwined in the rich tapestry of the country’s age-old history, the names, and identities, of at least half a dozen notable Armenian traders-cum-merchants: Matthew; Murad, senior and junior; Agapri; Tovmadjian; Karapet... Despite the anonymity of most of their travelling compatriots, it is apparent, from the above survey, that Armenians played an important role in the period under discussion, both as ordinary merchants, doing extensive import-export business on their own account, and, as agents, and envoys, of the Ethiopian Christian monarchy. Ethiopian rulers accepted them as fellow Orthodox Christians, and visiting Armenians, who often attended Ethiopian churches, could easily identify themselves with the country because of their common faith.

100Though in several cases based primarily within Ethiopia, many such merchants operated mainly outside the Christian African Empire, in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, India, or elsewhere. Acting as merchants, but also on occasion as envoys of the Ethiopian state, they travelled widely between the Christain African Empire and Egypt, Arabia, India, and other eastern lands. Covering immense distances, these intrepid Armenians often faced great geographical and other difficulties and hardships. They suffered also in that their role in the Ethiopian state was largely misunderstood by naive or malicious Europeans unfamiliar with Ethiopian realities. Armenian merchants, and royal envoys, nevertheless played a significant role in linking the country politically, as well as commercially, with Asia, where their compatriots were likewise active. Such contacts with Asia, and above all with India, were, it should be emphasised, from the Ethiopian point of view of major, on-going commercial importance. The sub-continent supplied the African country with most of the latter’s textiles, cotton as well as silk, and numerous spices; and it was to India that Ethiopia exported a very considerable proportion of its ivory and gold, as well as many slaves.

101Ethio-Armenian contacts, in the period under discussion, provide the historical context for subsequent relations between the two peoples. Though such links lie outside the scope of the present chapter, it is not without interest that the crowns of at least two 19th century Ethiopian emperors were fashioned by Armenian jewellers, that Ethiopia’s first national anthem was composed by an Armenian musician, and that virtually the only nationalist publication produced in the country during the fascist occupation was written by an Armenian author.



Alishan, Gh., 1893.Image (Sisakan, or a Description of the Land of Siunik), Venice, Mekhitarist Printing House.

Alishan, L. [= Alishan, Gh.], 1897. “Un viaggio armeno traverso l’Abissinia”, Atti del Reale istituto veneto di scienze, lettere ed arti, Venice, 7 (9).

Aubin, J., 1976. “L’ambassade du Prêtre Jean à D. Manuel”, Mare luso-indicum, Paris, Geneva, 3.

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1 British Library, Orient 743, f. 276b. See also Wright, 1877, 105-109.

2 The precise nationality of the merchant, variously known as Matthew and Abreham, has been the subject of some discussion. He was described as an Armenian both by the contemporary Portuguese author Damião de Goes, who saw him on several occasions, and by Emperor Lebna Dengel’s envoy Saga Za-Ab. This identification has been accepted by virtually all subsequent historians. Matthew on one occasion spoke of himself as the “brother” of the Coptic Patriarch of Ethiopia, which, however, probably meant only that he was a Christian, i. e. a brother of the latter in Christ. Another contemporary, the Portuguese Francisco de Albuquerque, on the other hand, referred to him, somewhat vaguely, as a Christian Jacobite. This designation has been followed by a recent scholar, Jean Aubin (1976, 26). The present author, however, finds the latter’s augument unconvincing and remains convinced that Matthew was almost certainly an Armenian.

3 Alishan (1893, 458, 471) cites also Matthew.

4 Cf. E., van Donzel, supra, chap. 8.

5 Cf. infra, K. Kévonian, chap. 16.

6 Venice, St. Lazarus Ms. 1453.


Addis Ababa University, Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa. (Éthiopie)

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