The Motif of the Apocalyptic Abyssinian IV: The Interplay of Muslim and Christian Traditions

This is the fourth of five blog-posts going back to a paper at the International Congress at Leeds in 2017: I. Giving the Horn of Africa an eschatological meaning in mappae mundi after the fall of Acre 1291 II. The north-east edge of the world on medieval mapsIII. The “thin-legged Ethopian” in muslim sources IV. The interplay of Muslim and Christian traditions V. Conclusions

The evidence of an existing Liber Clementis, written in Arabic with the Abessinian/Nubian motif is reported by Latin authors who were staying in Egypt with the crusading army in Damiette. During the 5th crusade, parts of the Liber Clementis, including several early Muslim motifs, such as the apocalyptic Abessinian, were translated and edited into Latin, Old French and Provençal upon the initiative of Cardinal Legate Pelagius. His military leadership sanctioned by the pope was contested by the king of Jerusalem. As a result he needed to strengthen his position. Pelagius inherited the belief, proclaimed by Pope Innocent III., that Islam will perish soon. Due to this apocalyptical expectation, Pelagius dismissed twice the Sultan’s offer of granting Jerusalem and other sites in the Holy Land to the crusaders in exchange for Damiette. The king of Jerusalem and leaders of the military orders were inclined to accept the proposal. In order to justify his refusal, Pelagius had to construct an eschatological scenario in which the final defeat and the end of Islam was predicted. The Pseudo- Clementine prophecy that the End of the world is approaching in 1222, called for urgent action. As a result, Pseudo-Clementine fragments of the Liber Clementis served as a template for two new prophecies: La Prophetie de Hannan, le fil Ysaac, and Prophetia filii Agap. These prophecies predict the destruction of the Muslim centers in Cairo and Mecca. The prophecies of Hannan and Agap were tailored to Pelagius’ physical appearance as being tall and slim and to his Iberian origin. He hoped to strengthen his position as god’s desired leader and to secure obedience among the crusaders, while deciding the fatal move to lead his army towards Cairo. The Hannan prediction, which exists in a single manuscript in Old French and in Provençal respectively, set the destruction of Islamic rule in Egypt in May (1221). In the Agap prophecy the destruction was set however in July the same year. This difference implies that the Hannan vision became soon obsolete and therfore it was taken out of circulation. It had to be replaced by another prophecy and this was the Agap prophecy. Most scholars do not distinguish between these prophecies and do not consider them as manipulated derivatives of Liber Clementis.

Oliver of Paderborn, Historia Damiatina, ed. Hermann Hoogeweg, Kap. 35, S. 232.

In Damiette the chain of transmission of the apocalyptic Abessinian branched out in two directions .The first direction was following Oliver of Paderborn who described the motif of a certain king of the Christian Nubians who must destroy Mecca and who will also disperse Muhammad’s bones.Nubia and Ethiopia were interchangeable names to Europeans. Abessinia was almost unknown to Europeans during the 5th crusade. This branch of the motif’s transmission survived in disguise in Oliver’s phrase quendam regem Christianorum Nubianorum. Oliver obviously preferred the use of Nubian over the even less familiar Abessinian. The fact that Vincent of Beauvais borrowed his chapter on Damiette from Oliver in his widely disseminated work Speculum Historiale (in more than 230 manuscripts) was a guarantee that the Nubian destroyer of Mecca played a role since Marino Sanudo and PaolinoVeneto borrowed from Vincent the relevant passage on Damiette.

The second direction was conditioned by the authors of the manipulated prophecies of Hannan and Agap who adopted from the Arab Vorlage the unfamiliar term of al Habesha.This term was mispelled and later corrupted by the many copyists who produced within 100 years 8 Latin and more than 16 Old French manuscripts of the Agap prophecy. Thus, the ruler of Abessinia became rex de Alberi, roi de Calabria, roys de albexi or rois dabisme in the prophecies. The last one could have been spelled also rois d’abisine. The term abysme which means Hell was probably more familiar to the copyists from Chanson de Roland since the name of the Muslim rival of Turpin is called Abisme.

Cite this article as: Mordechay Lewy, "The Motif of the Apocalyptic Abyssinian IV: The Interplay of Muslim and Christian Traditions," in Africana, 05/12/2017,

Mordechay Lewy

Mordechay Lewy, Ph. D.

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