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Historian Reveals How Ethiopia Opened the First African Embassy in Italy in the 1400s

Geography and religion had in ancient times connected Ethiopia and Italy. Italy was then seen as the nearest major European country by Ethiopian Christians and hence could easily be accessed.

Italian Christians also viewed Ethiopia as very accessible since it was basically the only Christian polity outside Europe, according to history.

Even though many Ethiopians went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, they observed Rome as wealthier and politically attractive.

History says that by the early 1400s, pilgrims and diplomatic representatives from Ethiopia had begun travelling to the Italian peninsula for political and religious reasons.

Through their travels, Ethiopian-European relations were formed and this lasted for more than 200 years.

As the Ethiopians travelled across Europe, they attracted scores of Europeans such as merchants and religious personalities to their highlands as well.

These journeys ensured technological transfer and cultural exchanges between the two. It further forged one of the first Euro-African political alliances between the kingdoms of Ethiopia and Portugal.

The above visits by Ethiopians were mainly believed to be made on unofficial purposes.

In 1402, however, the first visit of a sub-Saharan diplomatic mission to Europe was recorded.

This was when the Ethiopian emperor Dawit (1379/1380–1413) sent an embassy to Europe, which had reached Venice by 23 June 1402, requesting that a number of artisans are sent to his domain.

These official envoys were chaperoned by the Florentine Antonio Bartoli, carrying expensive gifts and asking for artisans to travel with them to Ethiopia.

Some historical records indicated that five artisans departed with the Ethiopian envoy that August, but not documented if they arrived in Ethiopia.

However, the arrival in Ethiopia of the True Cross and a silver chalice made in Venice has suggested otherwise.

Another possible sign of their arrival is an itinerary of a journey from Venice by Rhodes, Cyprus, Jerusalem, Cairo and Axum to the court of Preste John in Shewa, which O. G. S. Crawford, an archaeologist dates to Dawit’s reign.

According to Crawford, that document is the “first unambiguous account of Abyssinian geography which has survived; it certainly refers to the journey of a European, and the route followed can be identified pretty accurately.”

Even though Venice did not receive further embassies, and eventually gave way to Rome as the ultimate centre for Ethiopianist knowledge, Venice continued to facilitate transits between worlds.

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