Using Religion as a Diplomatic tool
The Ethiopian empire adopted Christianity as far back as the 4th century, historical records show failed attempts at concrete diplomatic agreements involving Christian European nations and Ethiopian Christians. The most striking thing about this is that, communications between European Christians and Ethiopian Christians were usually interrupted by a Muslim led Egypt at the time. Diplomatic envoys sent from the Ethiopian empire to Christian states in Europe rarely succeeded in delivering their message as they were either captured or killed whilst passing through Egypt. Of course, a few made it across and some sort of communication was established, but this was quite rare. The dangers associated with attempting to travel to Europe through Egypt was largely attributed to the reign of the Ayyubids – a Muslim dynasty that controlled regions of Egypt circa the 11th and 12th century and the Mamluks – another Muslim dynasty that defeated the Ayyubids.
I argue that, the development of the Ethiopian empire would have been far more exponential had there been no interruptions to communication and trade with European Christians. In the 15th century, around the time that Portugese traders were beginning to establish trade relationships with the Kingdom of Kongo (now present day Angola/ Congo), the Ethiopians were already sending convoys to Venice (present day Italy) in search of relics, artefacts and to foster a stronger Christian union.
This largely annoyed the Mamluks, who feared the rise of a Christian coalition involving their next door neighbour (Ethiopia). This was further revealed in a letter between Yeshaq 1 of Ethiopia and the King of Aragon (Alfonso V) (Who controlled parts of Italy and Spain), where Yeshaq proposed an alliance against the Muslims that would be sealed by marriage. Yeshaq’s plan suggested that Alfonso send one of his children to Ethiopia, where the marriage would occur. Now history seems a bit fuzzy here, some sources suggest that Yeshaq’s men delivered the message, but the men bearing Alfonso’s response perished in Egypt. Whilst others argue that it was Yeshaq’s men who perished in Egypt. Either way, the communication was interrupted as usual and the alliance was not formed.
Nonetheless, by the turn of the 16th century the Ethiopian empire had enjoyed some sort of ‘mutually beneficial’ relationship with Christian nations in Europe and this would play a very important role in the coming centuries. Many European states saw them as civilised equals primarily because they had adopted Christianity and thus offered that sense of cultural similarity. This is one of the reasons why the Portugese supported the Ethiopians with 500 Musketeers during a 14year war with the Adal Sultanate – A muslim state around the region that constitutes present day Somalia.
To end on an ironic note, despite the early relationships fostered with Venice – It must have been quite the shocker when Mussolini of Italy decided to invade Ethiopia in the 1930’s.
Matteo Salvadore, ‘The Ethiopian Age of Exploration: Prester John’s Discovery of Europe, 1306-1458’, in: Journal of World History 21:4 (2010), 593-627.
Ethiopian Itineraries Circa 1400-1524 Crawford, O.G.S. (Editor) Published by Hakluyt Society At The University Press, Cambridge(1958)
Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia Paul B. Henze C. Hurst & Co. Publishers, 2000 – Ethiopia