Wherever the Armenians were and whatever they were engaged in, one thing is clear – they were good at establishing contacts between different cultures and peoples. Diplomacy was certainly in the blood of the Armenians. And it is not surprising that in the history of Ethiopian foreign policy, one Armenian merchant played a sufficient role to be remembered in history.
This was the era of the regency of Empress Helena (or Eleni) in the 15th-16th centuries. Eleni is known as the greatest ruler in African history. In many ways, the memory of hers was preserved thanks to her efforts in improving relations between Ethiopia and Europe – in particular, with Portugal.
Ethiopia, an ancient Christian country in Africa (the only Christian country in the continent), was surrounded by Muslims and sought support from King Manuel I of Portugal. Most of all, the queen feared the Ottoman Empire and therefore wanted to send a delegation to Portugal to sign an alliance.
But there was one serious problem – the Ethiopians did not have any experience of distant wanderings, having limited themselves to travel to Jerusalem. And not only that, but very few people could speak Portuguese and were able to pass through Islamic countries on the way. And generally, Ethiopians were poorly known in that world.
And then, a worthy candidate was found – Armenian merchant Matevos Abreham from Cairo. Historian James Bruce called him a prudent and trusted man who had had experience of long journeys up to India.
Eleni completely trusted Matevos, gifting him a cross made of the wood from the True Cross and calling him in one of her letters “one of the main members of the court.” In a letter to King Manuel, she described him as “the most educated person of our people.”
In 1509, Matevos began his journey. From a port in the Gulf of Aden, he headed to Portuguese India to board a ship from there to Portugal itself. On the way, however, he was arrested by the Muslim authorities in Chaul but was immediately released by the order of Afonso de Albuquerque, the Governor of Portuguese India. He was not opposed to the relations with Ethiopia and, having learned that Matevos was traveling with a piece of the Cross, ordered that he be welcomed with a spiritual procession and provided with everything he needed.
All the streets of Goa, where Abreham was sent, were filled with people, and the viceroy himself with the chief officers met him and invited him to the palace. Learning in a secret conversation with Matevos about Ethiopia’s plans to fight the Muslims, de Albuquerque promised to send Matevos to the metropolis and gave him a gold box to store the Cross.
On the way, however, Matevos was not very lucky. Since the trip was a secret and Matevos himself was not an Ethiopian, the captain of the ship considered him an impostor Ottoman spy and even tried to chain him, but the Armenian merchant was acquitted in Lisbon. King Manuel received the ambassador worthily but hesitated with the decision. Therefore, the Armenian remained for several more years in Europe.
During this time, he had an audience with Pope Leo X at which he spoke a lot about Ethiopia. Based on this meeting, chronicler Damian de Gus wrote a book about the travels of Matevos, thanks to which Europe’s interest in the distant Christian country in Africa increased.
In 1515, the king agreed to help Eleni. The way back was more difficult for Matevos, however – it was necessary to return to Goa and join the navy sailing to the coast of Africa, from where it was necessary to travel through the deserts to return to the queen’s court.
Due to the fighting with the Ottomans, Matevos was stuck on the way for many years. He could not get out of the port of Massawa, where only a few believed that he was Eleni’s ambassador.
However, the local Ethiopian Christians recognized him, calling him “Arbuna Mattheus” (Father Matevos) and sincerely rejoicing at his arrival. This convinced the new governor of India Diogo Lopes de Sequeira – he promised to help Matevos.
The very arrival of Matevos in Massawa was considered the fulfillment of the prophecy that Christians would arrive in this territory. The Portuguese accompanying Matevos compared him with the Apostle Matthew.
Alas, Matevos was not able to return as he caught an infection. He bequeathed all his property to the Empress before his death. The Portuguese decided to complete his mission and delivered a return message to Emperor Dawit II (Libne Dengel) who no longer needed Eleni’s regency. It was 1520, 11 years after the journey began.
Matevos was no more, but his great work was completed. It was his visit to Portugal and the representation of Ethiopia in Europe that led to the dispatch of a Portuguese expeditionary force to assist Ethiopia in 1541. This saved the country from defeat from the Muslims.
Artur Hakobyan, Antitopor