What I’m about to tell you, at first glance, may seem strange. When the Portuguese ships under the command of Vasco da Gama for the first time sailed to Mozambique, the natives met them very favorably.
In reality, they wanted to kill the team members and seize their ships.
And to lure the sailors inland, to Kilwa, the natives informed them that there have been living Christians, Armenians. The record about this is preserved in the manuscripts of the ship chronograph Gaspar Korra.
Crocodiles in Armenian Miniatures
References to Africa in the Armenian manuscripts appear since the 5th century. In the “History of Armenia”, Movses Khorenatsi wrote about the Armenian military leader Zarmair Nahapet, who was leading an Ethiopian regiment during the Trojan War.
And, wishing to emphasize the importance of the commander, the historian noted that he fell only by the hand of Achilles. An ordinary soldier was not powerful enough to kill him!
It is known that immediately after the creation of the Armenian alphabet, Mashtots sent his students for further study into the three “silicone valleys” of the ancient world, Athens, Antioch, and Alexandria of Egypt.
The Alexandrian school is poorly studied despite the fact that there are a lot of interesting materials on it, including the Gospel of the Queen of Vaspurakan Mlke (Armenian: Մլքե թագուհու ավետարան, the Gospel of the Queen Mlke).
So, on the miniatures of this manuscript priceless for the whole Christian world (it is stored on the island of St. Lazarus, in Venice), crocodiles and palms are depicted. Or, simply put, the Nile Valley!
Armenians at all times had excellent knowledge of the outside world, including the oldest continent. During the early Middle Ages, Armenians obtained geographic information about Africa mainly from Greco-Roman sources.
But in Armenian manuscripts, there is a lot of original information about the peoples and tribes of the continent.
Moreover, the Armenians played a huge role in the history of a number of African countries.
Expressing figuratively, the meeting of African Christian peoples (Ethiopians, Eritreans, Copts) and Armenians took place at the Holy Sepulchre.
They accepted the commandments of the Lord and even after the separation of churches in the Council of Chalcedon (451) remained close to the Armenians.
In Jerusalem, they are called ” the guardians of the Armenian patriarch.” Representatives of these people are still accompanying the Armenian procession to the Holy Sepulchre.
Estuaries of Nile
The most inhabited areas of Africa were the estuary and delta of the Nile. And the most developed state and cultural center of the continent was, of course, Egypt. Here, the Armenians emigrated massively after the fall of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia.
For centuries, from the very beginning of the Fatimid dynasty (910-1171), Armenian generals were viziers at the royal court, diplomats representing the interests of the country in a number of states, and also made a great contribution to the formation of the statehood of Egypt at the end of the 19th century.
For example, one of the prime ministers of the country was an Armenian. Armenians played an enormous role in the spread of Christianity in Egypt.
I would especially like to mention the author of the Arabic-language “History of the Propagation of Christianity in Africa” by Abu-sal-al-Armani, who told about 800 churches located throughout the territory from Egypt to Ethiopia.
By the way, in the Cairo Church of Gregory the Illuminator, a unique khachkar with the inscription of the 10th century is being kept to this day.
The Armenian community has grown considerably after the Armenian Genocide, when Armenians, mainly the intelligentsia, from Constantinople, İzmir, and other cities of the Ottoman Empire moved to Cairo and Alexandria. Well-known figures of the Armenian culture including Arshak Alpoyadzhyan, Siranuysh, Arpiar Arpiaryan, and Yervand Otyan were among those people.
Armenian schools and newspapers have been started, which, by the way, still work to this day. On the tombstones of the Armenian cemetery in Cairo, you can find many well-known names.
The Era of Travellers
In the 17th century, once a Patriarch of Constantinople Hovhannes Tutundzhi described his journey to Ethiopia. Having presented the Ethiopian king with a gift from Jerusalem, Tutundzhi was awarded the special goodwill of the king.
He was the first foreigner who managed to realize the dream of Alexander the Great, that is, reach the headspring of the Blue Nile.
Tutundzhi told the Ambassador of Louis XIV in Cairo, Benoit de Meye, about his trip, through which Europe obtained topographical information about the sources of the Great River. However, Tutundzhi was only one of many Armenians who told the world about this exotic country. On the other hand, Armenians brought the latest European knowledge and technology to Ethiopia.
For example, the Constantinople negotiator Hovhannes Tovmajanyan (18th century), having assumed the post of the treasurer of Queen Mentevaba, was the first in this country to use an abacus and was indignant that his predecessor (by the way, also an Armenian, but from Sebastia) had used beans in calculating.
It was at the insistence and with the direct participation of the Armenians that a mission to Portugal was organized on behalf of the Ethiopian king for diplomatic and military support.
A special role in this in 1515-1526 played the diplomat at the court of the Queen Helen, Abun Matevos, who managed to establish diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Portugal.
And in 1538, two other Armenians, Antonio Fernandez and Gaspar Surano, brought into the country a regiment of Portuguese mercenaries of 400 men led by Cristóvão da Gama (incidentally, the son of a great traveler Vasco da Gama), who arrived to help the king with stopping the invasion of the Ottoman Empire.
Since 1632, when the Jesuits were ordered to be expelled from Ethiopia by decree of King Fazilidas, the entrance to the country was strictly closed to the Europeans. Armenians were not included in the ban. French traveler François Bernier cited evidence of how an Armenian suit of a merchant or cleric became a pass to the “forbidden” country.
There are cases of the Capuchins and Franciscans trying to use this “visa” in 1638 in 1655-1667 respectively. 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 order of the King of Ethiopia, Theodore II, an English diplomatic mission was carried out to the fortress of Magdala.
At the request of the Queen of England, mediators from Jerusalem, bishops Sahak Astvatsatryan and Timoteos Saprichyan, took up the problem.
The history of the activity of this peacekeeping group, “The Two-Year Travel in Abyssinia”, was published in Armenian and English languages by the order of the Queen.
The Global Network
In his work “Material Civilization and Economy” (volume 2, “Games of Exchange”), a French historian and the founder of the Annals school Fernand Braudel explained the success of the three hundred-year (1500-1800) activity of Armenian merchants by the presence of a brilliantly organized global trade and economic network with support points throughout all transit routes from the Indian Ocean to Amsterdam.
In the absence of the Suez Canal in the “era of travelers”, maritime transit routes passed along the entire coast of Africa. In the travel records of Hovhannes Tovmajanyan, a curious case is cited.
Returning from India, he was shipwrecked near Madagascar. The situation was complicated by the fact that the Franco-English war was going on. The ship was English, and it was necessary to approach the French island of Bourbon (now called Réunion).
The Italian missionary who met them insisted on Tovmajanyan negotiating with the Governor General of the island, Mr. Dumas. Having guessed about the merchant’s nationality by the dress, the governor greeted him in the New Julfa Armenian dialect.
“Are you an Armenian?” Tovmajanyan was surprised. “No, a Frenchman,” Dumas replied, “I just worked in Bengal as a scribe for Armenian gentlemen. I owe them my present position.”
One can only guess what interests made the French prime minister appoint the clerk a Governor General! It probably was because the Armenian merchants possessed the “world trade network”, which led to the emergence of the rudiments of the new philosophy of cosmopolitanism or, as some now say, globalization. The earliest literature we know of on this is the 18th-century book of an English traveler Edward Brown on his journey to India.
In Egypt, he met an Armenian jewel merchant Yeprem Sati, “a genius that was impossible to not be loved”. During the conversation, this Christian urged the interlocutor that there should be no borders between the states, “for the Lord did not create them.”
“My doctor is a Spanish Jew, a Greek does my house works, my secretary is an Italian, the two servants are Swiss, the groom is from Lorraine, the cook is a French… And we all consider ourselves to be relatives.”
“A traveler cannot know where his death can suddenly catch up,” Yeprem Sati argued, “A traveler is by nature a citizen of the world. And anyone who is only capable of loving the patch of the land they were born on when they have the whole world before them is pathetic to me.”
Meruzhan Karapetyan, ethnographer, scientific director of the Armenian Digital Library at AUA, author of works on demography and ethnography of medieval Armenia.
Journal “Yerevan”, N11, 2009