The Ethiopian Age of Exploration: Prester John’s Discovery of Europe, 1306-1458
By Matteo Salvadore
Journal of World History, Vol. 21:4 (2011)
Introduction: Before the age of European expansion overseas and the Portuguese circumnavigation of Africa, Renaissance Italy became a common destination for scores of Ethiopian monks and dignitaries. These travelers presented themselves on the European scene as active agents of transcontinental discovery: interested in learning more about a region they regarded as the ultimate center of organized Christianity, they became the protagonists of an Ethiopian age of exploration. This article examines the dynamics of interaction between Italian elites and Ethiopian travelers throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
The episodes of interaction here considered had lasting consequences for Ethio-European relations: they engendered dynamics of reciprocal understanding based on a common religious identity that ran counter to ideas of African and black inferiority that represented the cultural norm for much of the modern period. Ethiopians became in fact agents of discovery and purveyors of geographical knowledge in an era when the dominating paradigm of difference was grounded not in racial but rather in religious identity.
Top Image: Portrait of Lebnä-Dengel by Cristofano dell’Altissimo