The Portuguese crown had actually sent an ambassador to Ethiopia (aka Abyssinia) in the 1480s, before news of sailing around southern Africa had arrived back in Lisbon. (This first ambassador, Pedro de Covilham, had been sent in response to Ethiopian diplomatic missions, but his journey was not documented.) A second group as envoys to Ethiopia (or "Prester John") set out from Goa, a Portuguese fort in India, the capital of their brand-new Indian Ocean empire. Francisco Alvarez wrote an account of this second mission. Accompanying the Portuguese was an Armenian, Mateus (or Matthew), who had been sent by the Ethiopian queen mother Eleni to Lisbon seeking an alliance against Muslims on the Solomonid state's frontier, and had sailed to India in a Portuguese armada. By the time the embassy arrived in Africa, the Ethiopian king, Lebna Dengel (or Dawit II) had in 1516 successfully repulsed the Muslim army of Harar and even destroyed one of the state's castles. (See pp 45-47 in Northrup) (Additionally, the Ottoman Empire conquered the Mamluk Empire in Egypt between 1517 and 1519, removing one opponent from the Ethiopians, but essentially becoming a new threat.)
Francisco Alvarez was a priest accompanying the Portuguese diplomatic mission.
... we set sail for the Red Sea [from India] and arrived at the island of Macua [7 April 1520], which we found empty ... The main land is about two crossbow shots [away] ... the Moors [Muslims] of the island had carried off their goods for safety: the mainland belongs to Prester John. ... [A Christian Ethiopian arrived] and said that the town of Arquiquo belong to Christians, and to a lord who was called Barnagais [governor of the seacoast], a subject of Prester John, and that the Moors of this island ... whenever Turks or Roumys [Ottomans] who do them injury came to this port, all fled to the mountains .... [and our] coming was only for the service and friendship of the Prester John and all his people, and that they might go and be in security.
The following day ... the captain of ... Arquiquo came to speak to the [Portuguese leader] Captain General, and he brought him a present of four cows: and the Captain General received him with much show and honor, and gave him rich stuffs, and learned from him more details about the Christianity of hte country, and how he was already summoned by the Barnagais, the lord of that country.... This [Ethiopian] captain ... brought a very good horse, ... wore a cloak over a rich Moorish shirt, and with him there were thirty horsemen, and quite two hundred men on foot. ... At a distance of 7-8 miles [from Arquiquo], in a very high mountain, there is a very noble monastery of friars... called Bisan. The friars had news of us, and [the next day seven friars arrived]. The Captain General went out to receive them on the beach with all his people with much pleasure and rejoicing, and likewise the friars showed that they felt much pleasure. They said that for a long time they had been looking forward to Christians, because they had prophecies written in their books, which said that Christians were to come to this port ... and there would be no more Moors [Muslims] there.
[After some delay--due to Ethiopian Easter prohibitions on travel--setting up a meeting with the governor] they [the captain and the Barnagais] saw each other and spoke in a very wide plain, seated upon the ground upon carpets. Among many other things that they talked of, the principal one was that both gave thanks to God for their meeting, the Barnagais saying that [Ethiopians] had it written in their books, that Christians from distant lands were to come ... to join with [the Ethiopian] and that there would be no Moors [Muslims] there: and since God fulfilled this, that they should affirm and swear friendship. They then took a cross ... and the Barnagais took it in his hand, and said that he swore ... in the name of Prester John [i.e. Lebna Dengel, or, Dawit II, Solomonid monarch of Ethiopia, or "The Negas"] and his own, that he would always favor and help to favor and assist the men and affairs of the king of Portugal and his captains who came to this port [and keep all Portuguese in the lands safe]. The Captain General swore in like manner to do the same for [Ethiopians] and gave to the Barnagais arms, clothes, and rich stuffs: and the Barnagais gave the Captain General a horse and a mule, both of great price. So they took leave of each other very joyful and contented, the Captain General to the ships, and the Barnagais to Arquiquo. The Barnagais brought with him quite two hundred horsemen, and more than two thousand men on foot. [The Portuguese fired cannon to celebrate, and one cannon ball bounced amongst the Ethiopian soldiers, hitting no one. The aristocrat remarked that "no one was safe unless God pleased."]...
They [Portuguese] then prepared the present which was to be sent to the Prester ... what we now brought was poor enough, and we took for excuse that the goods [including the gilt letter from the Portuguese king] which we brought had been lost in the ship St. Antonio, which was lost near Dara in the mouth of the straits. These were the goods which we took...: first, a gold sword with a rich hilt, four pieces of tapestry, some rich cuirasses [torso armor], a helmet and two swivel guns, four champters, some balls, two barrels of powder, a map of the world, .... we went to rest about two crossbow shots distance above the town, in a plain at the foot of the mountain. There they soon sent us a cow, and bread and wine of the country. We waited there because they had to send to us ... riding horses and camels for the baggage. This day was Friday, and because in this country they keep Saturday and Sunday [as the Sabbath, no work on these days] we remained ... the two days. [The Ethiopian ambassador who had been to Lisbon and back, Mateus, argued] that we should do much better to go to the monastery of Bisam: and that from that place we should get better equipment than from the Barnagais. [The Barnagais was not upset, and] gave us eight horses and ... thirty camels for the baggage. ...
[During the journey along the road] we found a very large caravan of camels and many people who were coming to Arquiquo, because they only travel in caravans for fear of robbers. These were all amazed at the road we had traveled.... From here we set out next morning, always travelling by dry river beds, and on either side very high mountain ridges, with large woods of various kinds of trees, most of them without fruit: ... [except] tamarinds, like clusters of grapes, which are much prized by the Moors, for they make vinegar with them, and sell them in the markets like dried raisins. ...
[The author gets suspicious of Mateus, leading them into more desolate areas to the monastery] ... much more precipitous ground ... and larger woods ... the camels shrieked as though sin was laying hold of them. ... at midday the wild animals were innumerable and had little fear of people. Withal we went forward, and began to meet with country people who kept fields of Indian corn [not maize] and who come from a distance to sow these lands and rocky ridges which are among the mountains: there are also in these parts very beautiful flocks, such as cows and goats. The people that we found here are almost naked, so that all they had showed, and they were very black. These people were Christians, and the women, wore a little more covering, but it was very little. Going a little further in another forest which we could not pass on foot, and the camels unladen, there came to us six or seven friars of tht emonastery of Bisam, among whom were four or five very old men ..... [The Portuguese kissed the oldest's hand, per custom.] From their age and from their being thin and dry like wood, they appear to be men of holy life. They go into the forests collecting their millet, both that grown by their own labour, and the produce of the dues paid to them by those who sow in these mountains and forests. The clothes which they wear are old yellow cotton stuffs, and they go barefooted. ...
[After arriving at a monastery--smaller than Bisam--there is some discussion over whether they will be able to travel at all in the next three months.] A few days after our arrival the people fell sick, both the Portuguese and also our [African] slaves, few or none remained who were not affected, and many in danger of death from much bloodletting and purging. ... [Mateus died.] We took him with great honor to bury him at the monastery, and did the office for the dead after our custom, and the [Ethiopian] friars after their custom. [A servant also died, and the local monks claimed Mateus' property.]
The manner of these monasteries ... all are situated on the greatest and highest cliffs.... where no one can ascend. ... The land around these rocks is all covered with very great forests .... In the narrow valleys which belong to this monastery there are orange trees, lemon trees, citron trees, pear trees and fig trees of all kinds ... peach trees, cabbages, coriander, cardamom, wormwood, myrtle and other sweet-smelling and medicinal herbs, all ill profited by because they are not good working men: and the earth produces these like wild plants .... The monastery house looks quite like a church building, constructed like ours. [Several vaulted rooms make up the house] other curtains before the side doors, from wall to wall. They are curtains of silk. .... The bells are of stone ... suspended by cords passed through them, and they strike them with sticks made for the purpose.... They have also other iron bells, not round ... [and] small ill-made bells, which they carry in their hands at processions .... In all churches and monasteries they ring for matins [prayers] two hours before dawn. They say the prayers by heart .... They burn butter in chandeliers, for they have not got oil. They pray or chant very loud, without art of singing.... [several pages of description of religious sacraments follow].
[Bisam] monastery is the head of six monasteries, which are around it in the mountains [as far away as 10 miles] all are subject to it, which are governed and ruled by it. ... I had always hear say that there were in this monastery three thousand monks, [but doubted that] in my judgment the monks did not exceed three hundred, and most of them were very old. ... This monastery ... have this rule ... that no females enter them ... neither women, nor she-mules, nor cows, nor hens.... And the cows [killed for a particular ceremony] are killed a long way from the wall....
The country is ready to produce everything, as is seen from that which is uncultivated: they do not plant or grow anything except millet and bee-hives. ... In the district ... in the valleys between the mountains, very large herds of cows, kept by Arab Moors, and there go with each herd forty or fifty Moors, with their wives and children: and their headman is a Christian, because the cows that they keep belong to Christian nobles of the country of the Barnagais. These Moors have nothing else for their labor than the milk and butter which they get from the cows, and with this they maintain themselves and their wives and children. [These men would try to sell cows to us.] The revenues of the monastery are very large ... [thirty miles out] in which they sow much millet, barley, rye, and all these pay dues to the monastery, and they are also paid on the herds. On the skirts of this mountain there are many large villages, and most of them belong to the monastery ... an infinite number of places .... [Each town paid the monastery a horse every three years, or fifty cows in lieu of one horse.]
[Travel to the town of Manadeley] a town of very great trade, like a great city or seaport. Here they find all kinds of merchandise that there is in the world, and merchants of all nations, also all the languages of the Moors, from Giada, from Morocco, Fez, Bugia, Tunis, Turks, Roumys, Greeks, Moors of India, Ormuz, and Cairo.... While we were in this country the Moors, inhabitants of this town, were complaining, saying that the Prester John had by force levied upon them a thousand [gold coins], saying that he borrowe dthem to tradde with, and that each year they were to give him another thousand.... In this town a grea fair is held on Tuesday of each week, of as many things as can be named, and of an infinite number of people from the neighboring districts.
At a day's journey from this church of Imbra Christo are edifices, the like of which and so many, cannot, as it appears to me, be found in the world, and they are churches entirely excavated in the rock, very well hewn. The names of these churches are these : Emanuel, St. Saviour, St. Mary, Holy Cross, St. George, Golgotha, Bethlehem, Marcoreos, the Martyrs. The principal one is Lalibela. This Lalibela, they say, was a King in this same country for eighty years, and he was King before the one before mentioned who was named Abraham. This King ordered these edifices to be made. He does not lie in the church which bears his name, he lies in the church of Golgotha, which is the church of the fewest buildino-s here. It is in this manner : all excavated in tlie stone itself, a hundred and twenty spans [hands] in length, and seventy-two spans in width. The ceiling of this chui'ch rests on two supports, two on each side, and one in the centre, like fives of dice, and the ceiling or roof is all flat like the floor of the church, the sides also are worked in a fine fashion, also the windows, and the doors with all the tracery, which could be told, so that neither a jeweller in silver, nor a worker of wax in wax, could do more work.
The tomb of this King is in the same manner as that of Santiago of Galicia, at Compostella, and it is in this manner : the gallery which goes round the church is like a cloister, and lower than the body of the church, and one goes down from the church to this gallery; there are three windows on each side, that is to say, at that height which the church is higher than the gallery, and as much as the body of the church extends, so much is excavated below, and to as much depth as there is height above the floor of the church. And if one looks through each of these windows which is opposite the sun, one sees the tomb at the right of the high altar. In the centre of the body of the church is the sign of a door like a trap door, it is covered up with a large stone, like an altar stone, fitting very exactly in that door. They say that this is the entrance to the lower chamber, and that no one enters there, nor does it appear that that stone or door can be raised. This stone has a hole in the centre which pierces it through, its size is three palms. All the pilgrims put their hands into this stone (which hardly find room), and say that many miracles are done here. On the left hand side, when one goes from the principal door before the principal chapel there is a tomb cut in the same rock as the church, which they say is made after the manner of the sepulchre of Christ in Jerusalem.
.... This church and its chapels have their altars and canopies, with their supports, made of the rock itself, it also has a very great circuit cut oat of the rock. The circuit is on the same level as the church itself, and is all square : all its walls are pierced with holes the size of the mouth of a barrel. All these holes are stopped up with small stones, and they say that they are tombs, and such they appear to be, because some have been stopped up since a long time, others recently. The entrance of this circuit is below the rock, at a great depth and measure of thirteen spans, all artificially excavated, or worked with the pick-axe, for here there is no digging, because the stone is hard, and for great walls like the Porto in Portugal.
After five months of traveling in Ethiopia, the Portuguese embassey finally makes contact with Prester John's (aka Lebna Dengel's) people.
... Prester John had sent to call us, and that we should bring what we had brought for him, and also all our baggage, as he wished to see it. ... We dressed ourselves and arranged ourselves very well, God be praised; many people came to accompany us. So we went in order [to the king's great camp] wherewe saw tents pitched in a great plain .... [with probably 20,000 people in the camp. [After passing through many rings of the camp] there were four captive lions ... bound with great chains. In the middle of the field, in the sahde of these first arches, stood four honorable men, among whom was one of the two greatest lords that are in the court of the Prester.... [the other on the front fighting Muslims]. On this there came an old priest ... [the] Cabeata, and he is the second [ranked] person in the kingdoms. ... the Cabeata asked the ambassador what he wanted and where he came from. [He relayed the answers to the Prester, who remained inside a great tent. Each gift brought was] delivered to the Prester piece by piece, [including] the four bales of pepper which were for our own expenses. [A member of the court named all the gifts, and said that] all were to give thanks to the Lord because Christians had come together as Christians ... And the great crowd of people who were near by gave a great shout in praise of God, and it lasted a good while [and then the Portuguese were dismissed, without meeting the Ethiopian king].
[Four days later] we were hoping that they would send to call us to speak to the Prester, he set out on a journey with his court [about six miles away]. A monk came, saying ... if we wished to go to where the King had [gone], that the ambassador should buy mules on which to carry our goods [and purchase any things we needed. This was a huge insult to the ambassador, who was a Portuguese noble, and considered buying and selling goods beneath him.] The ambassador replied to him that they had not come to be merchants, but they came to serve God and the Kings, and to bring Christians together. ... the ambassador adn those that came with him were servants in the house and court of the King of Portugal, and that they served the Kings in honorable services and wars, and not in merchandise. ...
In the court were sixteen Europeans, who had escaped from being Ottoman prisoners of war in Arabia. They inform the delegation that the members of the court are opposed to the embassy. "Prester John" continues to avoid the Portuguese, his men asking why he had not received many wonderful things from the Portuguese king. Another meeting is arranged with the Prester's men.
[The head of the court servants] brought his messages with a drawn sword in his hand. The first message which came was, How many we were, and how many matchlocks [muskets] we had brought? ... Who had taught the Muslims to make muskets and bombards [cannons], and whether they fired with them at the Portuguese, and the Portuguese at them, and who most afraid, the Moors or the Portuguese? ... With respect to making matchlocks and bombards, that the Muslims were men who had knowledge and skill like any other men. They asked if the Turks had got good bombards, the ambassador replied, that they were as good as ours, but that we were not afraid of them, because we were fighting for the faith of Jesus Christ.... [It was then suggested that the Portuguese] should make a fortress in Masua and in Suaquem, and in Zeila, and [the king] would send all the provisions necessary ... because the Turks were many and we were few, and besides this, by having a fortress in the Red Sea, it would be easy to make a journey to go to Jerusalem. ... [The king also asked that the Portuguese should sing and dance to music, and practice swordplay.]
On the following Sunday there came to our tent many messages from Prester John to the ambassador, and all were about the arms which the King of Portugal had sent him, and whether he had sent them to India. The ambassador told him that the arms, and all other things which the King had sent would arrive this year.....[He asked for swords and armor, too, via messenger.]
The author shows the Ethiopians all the priestly materials he has brought along, including priestly clothes and all the prayer ritual objects, including holy wafers. Questions follow about the organization of the Catholic Church, their doctrines, and whether priests marry. The author was finally in the presence of Lebna Dengel, but remained separated by silk curtains, so he only heard the monarch's voice (which had to be translated).
On Tuesday we were all summoned ... and remained before the first gate ... a good three hours.... [They walked through gates with curtains.] Beyond these curtains we found others of still richer texture.... Having passed these last we found a large and rich dais of very splendid carpets. In front of this dais were other curtains of much greater splendor ... and there we saw Prester John sitting on a platform of six steps very richly adorned. He had on his head a high crown of gold and silver... there was a piece of blue tafeta before his face which covered his mouth and beard.... [He held a silver cross and] was dressed in a rich robe of brocade, and silk shirt of wide sleeves.... In age, complexion, and stature, he is a young man, not very dark. He complexion might be chestnut .... They said that he was twenty-three years of age... his face is round, the eyes large, and nose high in the middle, and his beard is beginning to grow. In his presence and state he fully looks like the great lord that he is.
[The Portuguese captain's letters had been translated, and the monarch read them] If these letters are from the captain-major, how do they speak for the King of Portugal? The ambassador gave him for answer: How could the captain-major write without speaking for the King his sovereign, whose captain-major he was in the Indies. ... [he said] he should rejoice if the King of Portugal would order forts to built in Masua and Suaquem [and the Portuguese should capture Zeila] .... [the ambassador replied] there was no obstacle to taking Zeila nor all the other towns, because where the power of the King of Portugal reached, the towns became unpeopled, and they did not wait even in the shadow of the ships. [and once fortresses were built, the Portuguese] might conquer Jiddah and Mecca, and all other places as far as Cairo, and the navigation would be defended from the Rumys and Turks.... This seemed good to the Prester, and he again said that he would give the provisions and all that was necessary for this expenditure and fleet.
Shortly thereafter, the Ethiopian court picked up and moved away. The Portuguese delegation sometimes moved with it thereafter, sometimes made for the coast (trying but failing to be picked up by passing Portuguese ships), suffered a split between their people, and learned of the Portuguese king's death, staying in Ethiopia for five years. The Ethiopian Queen Mother Eleni also died in this time.
While we were at the town of Dara, Prester John sent us a map of the world, which we had brought to him four years ago.... [asking what the words on the map were. After they labeled the map in Amharic, the king met with the author] to say that the King of Portugal and the King of Castile [Spain, the Habsburg emperor] were soveriegns of few lands, and ... would not be strong enough to defend the Red Sea from the power of the Turks and Rumys; and that it would be well if [France, Portugal, and Spain would divide up the duties of building fortresses in Ethiopia].
Lebna Dengel sent a letter to the king of Portugal to be delivered:
[A]nd now I
do not wish for ambassadors from the kings of Egypt, nor
from other kings who used to send them, but only from
your highness [King of Portugal], which I much desire, because the Moorish
kings do not hold me as a friend on account of the faith,
but only on account of their trade and merchandise, from
which much profit accrues to them, and they take away
from my kingdoms much gold, of which they are great
friends, and of me little ; and their pleasures do not rejoice
me, only I trade with them because it was the custom of
my predecessors. And if I omit to make war upon them,
and to destroy them, it is in order not to destroy the holy
house of Jerusalem, in which is the tomb of Jesus Christ,
which God has left in the possession of the vile Moors ; and
Look, Sir, and do not weary
against the Moors and Pagans, for, with the help of the
Lord God, you will destroy them ; do not say that you have
less forces than your father, because they are many, and
God will assist you. I have got men, gold and provisions
like the sands of the sea and the stars of heaven. Both of
The grace of God, and the blessing of Our Lady, Mother of God, be with you and with all. Amen.
Source: Francisco Alvarez, Narrative of the Portuguese Embassy to Abyssinia, H.E.J. Stanley, trans. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1881).