What I am about to tell you may seem strange at first glance. When Portuguese ships, led by Vasco da Gama, first reached Mozambique, the locals greeted them very warmly.
In reality, however, they wanted to kill the crew members and capture their ships. To lure the sailors into the interior of the continent, to Kilwa, they were told that there lived Christians – Armenians. This event is recorded in the manuscripts of the ship chronographer Gaspar Correa.
Crocodiles in Armenian Miniatures
Mentions of the Black Continent appear in Armenian manuscripts from the 5th century. Movses Khorenatsi, in his “History of Armenia”, writes about the Armenian military leader Zarmair Naapet, who led the Ethiopian regiment in the Trojan War.
Moreover, wanting to emphasize the importance of the commander, the historian notes that he fell in that war from the hand of Achilles – a common warrior couldn’t have possibly killed him!
It is known that immediately after the creation of the Armenian alphabet, Mashtots sent his students for knowledge to the three “Silicon Valleys” of the ancient world – Athens, Antioch, and Alexandria of Egypt.
The Alexandrian school is poorly studied by us, despite the fact that there are plenty of interesting materials about it. The Gospel of the Vaspurakan Queen Mlke is worth mentioning alone!
So, the miniatures of this manuscript, priceless for the entire Christian world (it is kept on the island of St. Lazarus, in Venice), depict crocodiles, palm trees… in other words, the Nile Valley!
Armenians have always had excellent knowledge of the outside world, including the oldest continent. In the early Middle Ages, our ancestors mainly gleaned geographical information about Africa from Greco-Roman sources.
However, Armenian manuscripts contain a lot of their own, original information about the peoples and tribes of the continent. Moreover, Armenians took a huge direct part in the history of several African countries.
Figuratively speaking, the meeting of African Christian peoples (Ethiopians, Eritreans, Copts) and Armenians took place at the Lord’s Tomb. They accepted the Lord’s commandments and even after the division of churches at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), they remained close to the Armenians.
In Jerusalem, they are called “guards of the Armenian patriarch” – representatives of these nations still accompany the Armenian procession to the Lord’s Tomb today.
At the mouth of the Nile
The most inhabited territories of Africa were the mouth and delta of the Nile. And the most developed state and cultural center of the continent was, of course, Egypt. Armenians massively emigrated here after the fall of the Cilician kingdom.
For centuries, from the very beginning of the Fatimid dynasty era (910-1171 AD), Armenian commanders were viziers at the royal court, diplomats representing the interests of the country in several states, and also made a significant contribution to the formation of the Egyptian state (at the end of the 19th century).
For example, our compatriot became the prime minister of this country… Armenians also played a huge role in the spread of Christianity in Egypt.
I would especially like to mention the author of the Arabic-language “History of the Spread of Christianity in Africa” Abu-sale-al-Armani, who told about 800 churches located from Egypt to Ethiopia.
By the way, in the Cairo Church of Gregory the Illuminator, there is still a unique khachkar with an inscription from the 10th century.
The Armenian community grew significantly after the genocide, when Armenians from Constantinople, Izmir and other cities of the Ottoman Empire, mostly intellectuals, massively resettled in Cairo and Alexandria.
Well-known figures of Armenian culture worked here – Arshak Alboyajyan, Siranush, Arpiar Arpiaryan, Yervand Otyan…
Armenian schools and newspapers were opened, which, by the way, are still in operation. In short, on the gravestones of the Armenian cemetery in Cairo, you will find many well-known names.
The Era of Travelers
In the 17th century, the former patriarch of Constantinople, Ovannes Tutundzhi, described his journey to Ethiopia, who was favored by the Ethiopian king for bringing him the relics of St. Eustathius from Jerusalem.
He was the first foreigner who managed to realize the dream of Alexander the Great – to reach the sources of the Blue Nile.
Tutundzhi told about his journey to the ambassador of Louis XIV in Cairo, Benoit de Maillet, through whom Europe learned the topographical data about the sources of the Great River. However, Tutundzhi was just one of the many Armenians who told the world about this exotic country.
On the other hand, our compatriots brought the latest European knowledge and technologies to Ethiopia.
For example, the Constantinople merchant Ogan Tovmadzhanyan (18th century), having accepted the post of treasurer of Queen Mentewab, was the first in this country to use the abacus and was upset that his predecessor (also an Armenian, but from Sebastia) used beans for accounting in the old fashion.
It was at the insistence and with the direct participation of Armenians that a mission was organized on behalf of the Ethiopian king to Portugal – for diplomatic and military support.
A special role in this was played by our compatriot, a diplomat at the court of Queen Elena – Abuna Matevos, who managed to establish diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Portugal.
In 1538, two other Armenians – Antonio Fernandez and Gaspar Surano – led a regiment of 400 Portuguese mercenaries led by Christopher da Gama (by the way, the son of the great traveler), called to help the king stop the invasion of the Ottoman Empire.
Starting from 1632, when by the decree of King Fasilidas the Jesuits were expelled from Ethiopia, the entrance to the country was strictly closed to Europeans. Armenians were not affected by the ban. The French traveler François Bernier cites evidence of how the Armenian merchant or cleric’s costume became a pass to the “forbidden” country.
There are known cases when this “visa” was tried to be used by Capuchins in 1638 and Franciscans in 1655-1667. Often, seeking to resolve interstate conflicts, European rulers turned to Armenians.
It is enough to recall one of the biggest scandals of the Victorian era, when by the order of the King of Ethiopia, Theodore II, the English diplomatic mission was imprisoned in the Magdala fortress.
At the request of the English queen, mediators from Jerusalem – bishops Saak Astvatsatryan and Timoteos Saprichyan – took up the solution to the problem.
The activities of this peacekeeping group “Two-Year Wanderings in Abyssinia” were published in Armenian and English by the queen’s order.
French historian, founder of the “Annals” school Fernand Braudel in his work “Material Civilization and Economy” (volume 2, “Games of Exchange”) explains the success of the three hundred-year (1500-1800) activity of Armenian merchants by the presence of a brilliantly organized global trade-economic network, which had support points along all transit routes from the Indian Ocean to Amsterdam.
In the “age of travelers”, in the absence of the Suez Canal, sea transit routes passed along the entire coast of the Black continent. For example, the travel notes of Ovanes Tovmadzhanyan provide an interesting case.
Returning from India, he was shipwrecked near Madagascar. The situation was aggravated by the fact that the Franco-English war was ongoing – the ship was English, but it had to dock at the French island of Bourbon (now Reunion).
The Italian missionary who met them insisted that Tovmadzhanyan negotiate with the governor of the island, Mr. Duma. Guessing the merchant’s nationality by his clothes, the governor greeted him in the Novodzhulfa dialect of Armenian.
“Are you Armenian?” Tovmadzhanyan was surprised. “No, I’m French,” he replied. “I just worked in Bengal as a scribe for Armenian masters. I owe my current rank to them.”
One can only guess what interested the “Armenian master” Khodja Petros in the French Prime Minister Chuezola, that he appointed the scribe as the governor-general! It is precisely the possession of a “global trade network” that led to the emergence of the beginnings of a new philosophy of cosmopolitanism, or as it is now called, globalization, among Armenian merchants.
At least, I have not come across earlier works that justify this philosophy than the book by the English traveler of the early 18th century Edward Brown about his journey to India.
In Egypt, he met with a major Armenian gemstone trader, Yefrem Sati – “a genius who was impossible not to love”. During the conversation, this Christian persuaded his interlocutor that there should be no borders between states, “for the Lord did not create them”.
“My doctor is a Spanish Jew, a Greek runs the household, the secretary is Italian, two servants are Swiss, the groom is from Lorraine, the cook is French… And we all consider ourselves relatives”.
“A traveler cannot know whether at sea or on some shore death will suddenly overtake him,” reasoned Yefrem Sati. “For he is by nature a citizen of the world. And I pity the one who is capable of loving only the patch of land on which he was born when he is given a huge amazing world”.
Meruzhan Karapetyan, ethnographer, scientific director of the Armenian Digital Library at AUA, author of works on the demography and ethnography of medieval Armenia.
“Yerevan” Magazine, No. 11, 2009
Anna Lorenz | Photo: from the archives of the Mekhitarist congregation of St. Lazarus Island, Erik Stepanyan
Translated by Vigen Avetisyan