The Motif of the Apocalyptic Abyssinian (Abstract)

The motif of the apocalyptic Abessinian: From early Islamic hadith to European prophecies during the 5th crusade in Damiette.

My Ph.D. thesis touches three elements which are characteristic of the medieval outlook:

  • the Christian eschatological anticipation of the End of the World;
  • how to express this anticipation within a spatial configuration in medieval world maps;
  • how the attitude towards Islam was shaped within the effort to regain the Holy Land.
  • It should be noted that Latin texts until the 14th century seldomly differenciated between Ethiopia and Nubia due to their limited geographical horizon and lack of European contact with Africa in general and with Horn of Africa in particular. Furthermore, biblical knowledge regarded Ethiopia as being Kush in the south of Egypt. The term Nubia was unknown in Antiquity. It was introduced through Arab astrology just as Abessinia is derived from the Arabic al-Habasha. In classical geography Ethiopia was the third part of India and the border between Asia and Africa was the Nile.


Psalter world map in London, British Library Ms. Add. 28681. fol. 9r (detail).

The prototype of the apocalyptical zone in 15 out of 37 medieval encyclopaedic world maps is the North East which is the habitat of the legendary Gog and Magog. They were enclosed behind the Caspian Gates by Alexander the Great and according to legend, they are to be opened with the coming of the Antichrist who will proceed to destroy the world. As the configuration of the Horn of Africa in SE (mountains with Nubian gate enclosing the habitat, area surrounded by water) proved to be similar to the enclosed habitat in the NE of the world, my aim was to find evidence of the textual and cartographic nature related to the Horn of Africa which may reveal an apocalyptical significance. Out of 8 medieval world maps configuring both NE and SE as a closed zone, a group of 4 maps (Hereford, Ebstorf, Ramsey Polychronicon, Aslake) could be singled out due to the common annotated Nubian text which could be reconstructed. It includes the term caspiarum simile (the Nubian gate similar to the Caspian gates), which reflected a Latin aspiration to regain the Holy Land as the Muslim rule is doomed to perish. These 4 maps have been produced after the fall of Acre in 1291.At the same time the so-called recuperatio literature flourished in Europe, which was designed to deliver blue prints on how to reoccupy the Holy Land. Marino Sanudo Torsello (Liber Secretorum Fidelium Crucis, 1321)and William Adam (Tractatus quomodo Sarraceni sunt expugnandi, 1317 and Directorium ad passagium faciendum, 1332) suggested in their treatises to regard the Christian Abessinians as allies in combatting Muslims. The fact that the idea of having Abessinians as allies against Islam appeared at around the same time as the “transfer” of legendary Prester John in 1323 from Asia to Ethiopia by the Irish Franciscan Simon Symeonis is coincidental. The notion that Ethiopia was a part of India was still widely accepted. It seems that the European disillusionment from the Mongols as a potential ally in the East against Mamluk power lead some to believe that Christians in Ethiopia might substitute as an ally in attacking the Mamluks from the south. One should bear in mind that since the 5th crusade there was a shift in the strategy of regaining the Holy Land as defeating Ayyubid/Mamluk Egypt was considered to be the key to regain Jerusalem.

There was however an additional reason to believe in the Abessinian ability to fight against Muslim power. There is a lesser known narrative from the early Islamic apocalyptic tradition which is the apocalyptic Abessinian – Dhu’l  suwaqatayin  al Habaschi (the thin- legged Abessinian). It states that an Abessinian will destroy the Ka’ba at the End of the Days after Gog and Magog will be killed by Jesus. It reflects with all probability a traumatic memory from the year 570, in which an Abessinian invasion to Mecca using elephants failed. Muslim exegesis attributes the Surah 105 (The elephant) to this event.It appeared first in the early Hadith collection Nu‘aym ibn Hammad (Kitab al- fitan) during the first half of the 9th century and was integrated in the classical Hadith collections of Bukhari and Muslemi soon after.In the History of of the Coptic Patriarchs of Alexandria one finds traces of this motif in the life of Patriarch Cyril (1078- 1092). Early Suriani apocalyptical texts, such as the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, do not include the apocalyptic Abessinian. This motif can be detected however in Coptic and Ethiopian (Ge’ez) apocalyptic texts which are dated from the 14th century and 15th century respectively (Pseudo-Samuel of Qalamoun and the 10th Vision of Apa Shenuda).From early Hadiths until William Adam’s Directorium ad passagium faciendum in 1332 about 20 texts include traces of this motif. Half of them are in Latin and Old French.

The missing link with which the Islamic motif was transferred to the apocalyptic texts of the oriental Christians and finally to the Latin prophecies was probably the corpus of the Pseudo-clementine apocalyptical texts, especially those that were circulating in Damiette during the 5th crusade. The Pseudo-Clementine texts are still mostly unedited.  A  Liber Clementis  including the Abessinian/ Nubian motif is attested by Oliver of Paderborn in his Historia Damiatina (=HD). A comparison between Olivers report of the Arabic Liber Clementis in his HD and the report in Jacques of Vitry’s 7th letter about the Arabic prophecies which were shown to both of them in Damiette by the oriental Christians, indicate that both refer to the same two Arab Pseudo-clementine books. In 1217 Magister Thietmar also made some remarks about Yssini (= Abessini) who may destroy Cairo. It reflects probably a Coptic extension of the Hadith motif which was originally aimed at the destruction of Mecca. The earliest evidence of Arabic written Liber Clementis with the Abessinian motif came from Latin authors who were staying in Egypt with the crusading army in Damiette or from a pilgrim like Magister Thietmar.

Liber Clementis, which is also known as the Apocalypse of Peter, is considered to be the third part of the Arab Book of Rolls or Kitab al Magal. In the 6th chapter of the Karshuni version of Apocalypse of Peter (translated by Alphons Mingana), the Christian ruler, described as a young Lion, may enter on the third day in April which falls on Sunday (i.e. on Easter Sunday 1222) the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and put his crown on the cross. The same date appears in the HD (Chapter 56) when the kings from West and East will meet in Jerusalem. This is a proof of an intertextual relationship between the Karshuni version of the Apocalypse of Peter and the Liber Clementis which circulated in Damiette. Most of the manuscripts were amended and continued by copyists who also functioned as authors and updated the prophecies. These prophecies were supposedly told by St. Peter to his pupil Clement. This pattern of producing apocalyptic texts is characterized by a creative neurosis among the anonymous authors who use cryptic language but allude to events that are still identifiable to their contemporary readers. It is us who have to decypher long cryptic descriptions of longforgotten events.

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, whose military leadership of the crusade was contested. Pelagius inherited the belief, proclaimed by Pope Innocent III., that Islam will soon perish. Due to this apocalyptical expectation, Pelagius dismissed Sultan al-Kamil’s offer to the crusaders to receive Jerusalem and other places in the Holy Land and leave Damiette and Egypt in return. In order to justify his refusal, Pelagius had to construct an eschatological scenario in which prophecies were prescribing the final end of Islam. As a result, fragments of the Liber Clementi served as a template for two new prophecies: La Prophetie de Hannan, le fil Ysaac, and Prophetia filii Agap. With such prophecies relying on texts which express an Oriental Christian apocalyptic expectation of Islam’s demise, no one could imagine that the Abessinian motif of destroying Mecca now described by Oliver as the King of the Christian Nubians (Insuper predixit, quendam regem Christianorum Nubianorum Mecham civitatem debere destruere), originated as an early Islamic apocalyptic hadith announcing the end of Islam. As proof, it is embedded in the prophecy of Agap among two other Islamic apocalyptic motives, namely the cold wind Zamharir (Surah 76:13), misspelled as Zaniel, and the abandoned pregnant camel that did not find any water in the well named Zamzam (Et apparebit camela pascens et pregnans habens fetus et exibit aquam Zamzam nomen cisterne et non inveniet aquam claram ad bibendam). The origins of the motif of this camel comes from Surah 81:4-( wa-idhā l-ʿishāru ʿuṭṭilat = “when the pregnant camel shall be neglected”). The pregnant camel’s right to to drink water from the well is mentioned in Surah 26:155-156. The prophecies were tailored to Pelagius’ physical appearance and Iberian origin. He hoped to strengthen his position as god’s desired leader and to secure obedience among the crusaders army, while deciding the fatal move to lead his army towards Cairo. The Abessinian motif was often extremely misunderstood by the authors of the prophecies and copyists of 7 Latin and more than 15 Old French manuscripts. It was misspelled because Europeans were not familiar with the term Habessa, whose ruler became rex de Alberi, roys de albexi, rois de Calabre , rois dabisme in prophecies when in reality it’s a misspelled rois d abisine.The term abysme seems to be familiar as the name of the Muslim rival of Turpin from Chanson de Roland is called Abisma. In a recent translation of Continuatio Rothelini by Janet Shirley he was named king of Araby instead of king of Abessinia and so the confusion seems to continue. As we know, the English spelling of Abyssina stems from a medieval insinuation that associated the region with the infernal Abyss, so it would be correct to change the spelling to Abessinia.

To sum it up:

  • The medieval cartographic configuration of the Horn of Africa;
  • the apocalyptical insinuation of the common Nubian annotation in 4 world maps, drawn after the fall of Acre;
  • and the transition of an early Islamic apocalyptic motif into anti-Islamic prophecy in which a Nubian or Abessinian king may destroy Mecca and Cairo;

justifies the interpretation that the Horn of Africa, seen in Medieval maps after 1291, became an eschatological zone directed against Islam.

Phil. cand. Mordechay Lewy

Goethe Universität, Frankfurt, Germany

Mordechay Lewy

Mordechay Lewy, Ph. D.

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