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IDEA HISTORY / African and African-European personalities were central in building what we today call Europe – from the dawn of time to the present day. Africans founded cities in Spain and Italy before ruling the Roman Empire. And Ethiopia also helped Europe advance in the 1400th century.


When I went down into the basement of the Royal Palace in Palermo, Europe's oldest royal residence, a handful of years ago, I discovered that the foundation of the building was not what I had thought. Actually, I had traveled here to the capital of Sicily to study the Arabic-inspired "Norman Palace" (Norman Palace), which was developed by the Scandinavian-born King Roger II. Here. Here, in the middle of the Mediterranean, he invited the Arab geographer Muhammed Al-Idrisi from Ceuta in North Africa. This was in the middle of the 1130s, in the middle of the so-called "Crusade". And here in Palermo, it was Al-Idrisi who finally, in 1154, completed the foremost world map ever seen in Europe.

Today, Italian politicians use the top floors of this magnificent palace, atop Palermo, as parliament. But that was not how it started. The building is built layer upon layer. Under these modern chambers I discovered the Renaissance superstructure, and under this the Norman floors, then the Arab layers, before I found Roman walls down in the basement. But what surprised me down there at the bottom was what turned out to be under the Roman stones. Namely the basics: the Phoenician foundation from the 730s BC (BC). Palermo was founded by African Phoenicians from Carthage, from present-day Tunis in Tunisia. Carthage on the north coast of Africa was the great power of the Mediterranean for over half a millennium before the Roman Empire emerged.

A couple of years later, I came to realize that it was not just northwestern Sicily that a central southern European city was founded by emigrants from Africa. When I walked into the Picasso Museum in Málaga, at the southern tip of Spain, a couple of years later, I suddenly discovered a sign pointing down to the city wall in the basement. And also here, under Picasso's paintings, and under the walls of the Romans, I could touch the 2800-year-old walls that had been laid down by the Phoenicians. They founded Picasso's birthplace by calling it the "salt city" (after the Phoenician "mlk", salt) around the year 800 BC. The relatively new Málaga Museum shows how German archaeologists began digging in the 1950s to confirm the hypothesis that the Greeks had founded the city. But instead of Greek art, Phoenician coins and a number of Egyptian objects appeared. Such as a gold ring from the 6th century BCE, engraved with the Egyptian goddess of war Sekhmet and with a hieroglyphic reference to the pharaoh Necho I.

African St. Moritz

Only now in the 2000s, as with the relatively new Málaga Museum, does Europe's complex and exciting past finally come to light, when the past is presented freely for a colonial agenda. As in the new book by Olivette Otele, Professor of History at the University of Bristol and Vice President of the Royal Historical Society in the United Kingdom: I African Europeans. An Untold History she shows how central African and African-European personalities have been in building what we today call Europe, from the dawn of time to the present day.

Otele begins with the Roman Empire and the influence of the legendary St. Moritz (Maurice) from Thebes in southern Egypt, on the border with present-day Sudan. According to the records of Bishop Eucherius, Moritz, on the orders of Emperor Maximian, around the year 286 led a legion to the then Agaunum in southwestern Switzerland (the city changed its name to Saint-Maurice in 1003). The mission was to defeat the rebels in the Alps. But Moritz was a Christian and refused to kill the innocent. He and his soldiers then chose martyrdom under the sword of the Roman emperor.

Moritz was a Christian and refused to kill the innocent, and chose martyrdom instead.

One can discuss the historical evidence for the story, like most other things within the religions. The concrete result was that Moritz became the most important saint in European Christianity – especially until the Reformation and the transatlantic slave trade made it less relevant to worship an African. But a millennium ago it was different: in the 900th century, Emperor Otto I built the Magdeburg Cathedral in present-day Germany and named it after the African St. Moritz. To this day, a Moritz statue from the early 1200th century stands inside the cathedral, and the legion leader has clear African features. I have discovered something of the same myself, for example in the East German and Protestant-Lutheran town of Halle: The oldest church in this medieval town is the Catholic Moritz Church, from the 1420s. And inside this church it is filled with paintings and statues of African Moritz, who are credited with introducing "Christian values" on the European continent, a century before the first Roman emperor converted to Christianity.

If one follows the New Testament, such a narrative is not surprising: The Acts of the Apostles (8: 26–40) states how a courtier from Ethiopia, the treasurer of the African queen Kandace (a possible reference to the historically strong queens of present-day Sudan) , is converted to Christianity by one of Jesus' disciples, the Apostle Philip. The Ethiopian man, whom Philip discovers while reading the book of Isaiah, becomes the first foreigner to be baptized and converted to Christianity. Only later in the Acts of the Apostles does the story come that the first European, a Roman soldier, is converted.

Over the centuries, the story of the African saint Moritz has contributed to the gradual Christianization of European states. In the Renaissance, the Moritz story was also clarified through magnificent paintings.

York, Uk: The Ivory Bangle Lady. A Rich Woman Was Buried In Today's York In The 300s, Which At That Time Was Called Eboracum And Was Under The Roman Empire. DNA studies show that she seems to be from North Africa, and that she has an African background. A long line of Roman soldiers who accompanied the Roman emperor to northern England in the early 200s were from Africa. Ill: Aaron Watson / University Of Reading.

Ethiopia was the world's first Christian state

We see something similar with the story of the priest king John (Prester John), a Christian king from eastern Africa who was to come and save the Europeans. The legend had something to do with it: Recent archaeological finds indicate that Ethiopia was the world's first Christian state. Coins issued by the Ethiopian king Ezana in the 330s have now been found, and they have the sign of the cross engraved as a clear sign of what was the state's main religion.

Ethiopians explored Europe 600 years ago.

Olivette Otele is the first black woman in Britain to be awarded a professorship in history. It says something about what has been missed by research in the last couple of centuries. She continues her statements through a wealth of other examples, from Roman times to the present day. Oddly enough, she does not refer to the last couple of decades' research on the African-born "Ivory Bangle Lady" – the woman with the ivory bracelet. A DNA study from 2010 of this wealthy woman's skeleton, buried in Roman York in the 300s, shows that the woman is from North Africa. Interestingly, the African-born woman seems to have been involved in introducing Christianity to the British Isles, centuries before the official conversion. For on an ivory in her grave it is engraved: "Hail, sister, live with God" (sister bird live in god).

Moritz Statue: This Statue Of African St. Moritz Was Created Around 1250. It Stands Inside St. Cathrine
Of Alexandria And St. Moritz Cathedral In Magdeburg, Right By The Tomb Of Otto The Great (D.973), The
First Emperor of the German-Roman Empire.

Emperor Severus, Duke of Medici and Cervantes

The African connection of the city of York becomes less surprising when we read this to another person Otele mentions, namely the African-born emperor Septimius Severus (145-211). He was born in the city of Leptis Magna (Al-Khums) in present-day Libya, and had a Phoenician father and a Phoenician (Punic) as his mother tongue. Severus came to rule the entire Roman Empire (193-211) – and together with his wife Julia Domna (from Syria) he moved to York in the British Isles in the year 208 to gain control of Hadrian's wall and the empire as such. An illustration from this time shows both Severus and Julia Domna with dark and curly hair. Yes, curls became so popular with women in the region in the 200s that curling irons were used – shows an exhibition from the Yorkshire Museum. Power created fashion, then as now.

Another that Otele mentions is the rhetorician Marcus Cornelius Fronto (ca. 100–160), born in Cirta in Numidia, present-day Algeria. He had a background as an amazigh ("berber"). Like the North African church teacher Augustine, Fronto referred to himself as African: "an African of the African nomadic tribe." He became known for his correspondence with the literate Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

It will be just as interesting when Otele continues his review of African-Europeans in the Renaissance. As when she refers to the first Duke of the Florentine Republic (present-day Tuscany), the dark-skinned Alessandro de Medici (1510–1537, «il moro», «the Moorer»). Alessandro allegedly had an African mother, which a number of portraits of him seem to indicate. She goes on here from Cathrine Fletchers The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de 'Medici (2016)

Otele shows how white Europeans' views of Africans were completely different from what developed with the introduction of the systematic racism ideology in the 1700th century. For example, one of the three "wise men" who are said to have brought gifts to the Child Jesus was portrayed as an African during the Renaissance. In the introduction to the classic Don Quixote (1605–15), which according to the novel itself was recorded by the Arab historian Cide Hamete Benengeli, Miguel de Cervantes recorded a tribute to the African-born Juan Latino (1518–1594), who taught Latin at the universities of Granada. In the introductory poem "Urganda the Unknown", Cervantes writes about "el negro Juan Lati", the Latin scholar with whom Cervantes felt linguistically inferior. The poet Latino himself referred to in his writings as born in "Ethiopia", a name that gave positive associations in Christian Europe at this time.

Ethiopia first discovered Europe

A new book that deals specifically with Ethiopia's strong influence on Europe before the Enlightenment, is Verena Krebs' Medieval Ethiopian Kingship, Craft, and Diplomacy with Latin Europe. In a recent interview with The Smithsonian, Krebs, who teaches history at the Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, said that she had actually finished writing a completely different type of book with a classic colonial perspective – where Ethiopia was the weak point in meeting the Europeans. But then she got a bad conscience – she acknowledged that she should write a truer account, based on what the sources actually showed. So she discarded the entire finished book, then wrote a new one.

And in this new presentation, it emerges how it was rather European kings who throughout the 1400th century asked for economic and military help from the legendary and powerful Ethiopia. From 1450, King Alfonso of Aragon and Naples wrote three times to Emperor Zera Yacob (1399–1468), begging for both military and financial assistance. Ethiopia was then at its most powerful. Jacob was the most powerful leader in history in the Solomon dynasty, claiming to be a descendant of the Queen of Sheba and her children with King Solomon, according to Bible accounts.

Africans In Halle: In Halle, In The Former Ddr, stands The Catholic Moritz Church, which was completed in 1411. Here you will find this painting of three Africans along one long wall. Possibly this may be a depiction of the three Ethiopian long-distance travelers who participated in the Konstanz Council from 1416. Photo: Dag Herbjørnsrud

As early as 1306, there is the first account that Ethiopian pioneers traveled to Europe on a "voyage of discovery." The cartographer and church leader Giovanni da Carignano in Genoa, in northwestern Italy, is said to have met over a dozen Ethiopian travelers from the Christian Orthodox Church. By order of the Ethiopian emperor Wedem Ra'ad (who ruled in the period 1299–1314), they are said to have been sent out to make contact with the Roman Catholic pope. They are said to have been led to Avignon in France, where the pope then lived. Whether they actually arrived is not yet documented, but if nothing else, Carignano drew a remarkably precise map of Ethiopia and the white and blue Nile. Matteo Salvadore depicts this in The African Priest John and the Birth of Ethiopian-European Relations, 1402–1555 (2017)

Both Salvadore and Krebs show how it was not "Europe that discovered Africa", but rather how it was "Ethiopia that discovered and explored" Europe first, especially from 1402.

Interestingly, Columbus (originally from Genoa) shows in his diary to visitors from "India" to Rome, and their interest in Christianity. This is to explain why he set sail across the Atlantic. However, Krebs points out that this "India" as southern Europeans referred to, may as well be Ethiopia. At least she shows how it was Emperor Dawit (who ruled from 1382 to 1413) who sent the first documented and official diplomatic ambassadors to Europe, who reached Venice in June 1402.

Both Salvadore and Krebs show how it was not "Europe that discovered Africa".

Krebs also points out that it was not "technology" the emperor was interested in, as previous researchers have mentioned, but the many Christian artifacts that the Roman Catholic Church possessed. The Ethiopians brought with them four leopards, a giant pearl, spices and more as a gift to the Catholic Church, as Krebs shows that the Ethiopian historian Taddesse Tamrat mentioned as early as 1972. In August 1402, the Venice Senate retaliated by sending Ethiopian gifts own envoys back.

Visiting Europe

Throughout the 1400th century, there were also a number of expeditions from Ethiopia to what is today called Italy, Germany, Spain and Portugal. As early as 1416–1418, three Ethiopian envoys were present in southern Germany to attend the Council of Constance: the monks Petros, Barthalomeus, and Antony were granted travel guarantees by the pope in Rome. The German council participants reacted with astonishment and joy to see these envoys from Ethiopia, from the land of the priest king John. Imagine that they had come all the way up to them in the cold north! Something has changed in Europe in the last 700 years…

To Olivetti Hotel

Ethiopian Christians were also present during the Great Ecumenical Council of Florence in 1441. These were apparently sent from the Ethiopian Embassy in Jerusalem, and they apparently belonged to one of the reform movements within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Interestingly, in the 1430s and 1440s, Ethiopia had a strong "Protestant" movement, known as the Stephanites. Their founder was Abba Estifanos of Gwendagwende (1380–1450). He argued against the church's saints – decades before Martin Luther was to do something similar in Wittenberg.

Africans i Odyssey and in Norway

Cancer is in Medieval Ethiopian clearly that she challenges a Eurocentric and colonial perspective. In sum, there is a wealth of information that both Otele and Krebs bring out in their new books. This is how they well complement the historian Onyeka Nubias England ›s Other Countrymen. Black Tudor Society (2019), which brings out the African diversity in the British Isles from the end of the 1400th century to the beginning of the 1600th century. Not unlike what Yacoub Cisse and Ann Falaht did with Africans in Norway for 400 years (2011), which this year has been published in a new edition.

African Phoenicians founded European cities 2800 years ago.

All these new research-based books on Europe's past appear strangely new in the 21st century. It is as if Europeans themselves do not know "where we come from". And if we do not know ourselves, how can we understand others?

After all, Africa is not a "different place". African Phoenicians founded European cities 2800 years ago. Ethiopians explored Europe 600 years ago. Only later came colonization, imperialism and racial science.

St. Moritz And St. Erasmus: Saint Moritz Was Painted And Understood As An African Saint Through
Several Centuries. He was the Saint of the Roman Catholic Emperors. Here he meets St. Erasmus. This
The Painting From The 1520s Was Ordered By Albrecht Von Brandenburg And Made By The Renaissance Painter
Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528). Ill .: Wikicommons

Much of today's need to correct condescending stories about Africa and Africans could have been avoided if Europeans had known Odyssey. Towards the end of this epic work, in chapter 19, a disguised Odysseus will explain to his beloved Penelope that he really lives after many years away from home. Who is it then that he uses as his foremost proof, one that he knows she knows? Yes, Odysseus refers to his African companion Evrybates: the herald whom he describes as "black" and with "curly hair": "Among his servants, Odysseus honored him most."

And why did Odysseus honor him so? Yes, because "they thought alike." Evrybates and Odysseus could be different in appearance, but they were similar in mind.

May Europe one day live up to the ideals and the cultural heritage the continent invokes. Also this week, new African refugees drowned on their way to Europe. The Mediterranean is no longer an ocean that connects, but an ocean that separates. An ocean that kills. The sea of ​​death. The sea of ​​death.

Dag Herbjørnsrud
Dag Herbjørnsrud
Former editor of MODERN TIMES. Now head of the Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas.

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