GREAT FIGURES OF THE MISSIONARY WORK – The masons of Prester John

Joaquim Magalhães de castro

I learned about Ethiopia and its historical relationship with Portugal – the first European interlocutor of the mythical Christian kingdom – thanks to a little book by Elaine Sanceau that I discovered in a bookstore, a good number of years ago.

Sanceau, a master at teaching history by telling stories, provided me, as it were, with the entrée of a delicious meal that should be savored slowly. Ethiopia is definitely a country that one learns to like. The script for this inaugural journey included Asmara – “a Rome in the Horn of Africa” – and Lalibela, known for its stone carved churches dating back to the 12th century. I also visited the castles of Gondar, remodeled over time but still with its own headquarters: Gorgora Nova, on the shores of Lake Tana.

As it is known from the historical compendiums, in 1487 Afonso de Paiva and Pêro da Covilhã were sent by king D João II, by land, in search of the lands of Prester John and to obtain information about the Indian and the precious spices that were transacted there.

The contact was made and, a proof of it, Portuguese architectural legacy in Ethiopia is vast and extends over a region that has Lake Tana as reference point, situated on a plateau at 1800 meters altitude, well inside the country. At the top of the hills one can see intriguing monumental clusters, all in ruins. They all obey the same architectural pattern: a very high stone wall surrounding a square-shaped castle. They coexist with the defensive structures, ruins of Catholic churches resulting from the various Jesuit missions that, from 1557, entered Ethiopia and remained there until 1634. This legacy reflects, after all, a pioneering and lasting contact begun with the journey of Pêro da Covilhã, still in century XV, and that would extend through the centuries. Missionaries and soldiers closely followed the Ethiopian Coptic rulers in their struggle against Muslims, Eritreans and others. At a later stage the disastrous evangelizing action of the former would lead to fratricidal civil wars that would forever mark the history of Ethiopia.

Since 1543 a clearly mestizo Lusitanian community has come to live in this Christian kingdom associated with the myth of Prester John. Inevitably, this contact resulted in significant changes in a way of life based on tented camps. From then onwards there would be built stone and lime buildings, like the European castles, in a quadrangular form, with two or three floors. It was the Portuguese who transmitted to the Ethiopians the technique of stone and mortar construction. Ironically, the phenomenon would reach its maximum expression after their expulsion from Ethiopia, and subsequent establishment of the first sedentary capital in Gondar.

Among the various castles, palaces, churches, monasteries, public or private buildings where the Hindu, Arab and Portuguese Baroque cultural influence is noteworthy, there is Gorgora Nova, the work of the priest architect Pêro Pais, one of the discoverers of the source of the Blue Nile. With its portico and cloister (like the Jesuit buildings), its importance was such that, between 1611 and 1618, it functioned as a royal encampment, where Emperor Susenyos lived. Parts of the palace, the residence of the Jesuits and the cathedral, all of which were completed by 1622, are still part of the complex. Although it had recently been the target of a deep archaeological intervention by Spanish technicians, Gorgora Nova was in a pitiful state. The little that remained of the vault of the church of the Jesuits, for example, was supported by a few wooden logs that kept everything around them from falling apart.

Besides Gorgora, there stand out, for their historical value, places like Guzara, Fremona, Azazo, Dabsan, Aringo and Debra Mai, just to name a few. It would be incomplete if we did not mention many of the resulting Ethiopian customs and customs and the various bridges of the region attributed to the Portuguese architects, near the Falls of Tisisat and those of Alata and Avala-Andahé, both on the Blue Nile.

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