Thursday, October 16, 2008

Elias ibn Hanna al Mawsili: The Syriac Columbus

Elias ibn Hanna al Mawsili: The Syriac Columbus

by Fr. Dale A. Johnson

Discovery and Conquest of America a book about the voyages of Columbus, was written toward the end of the 17th century by a Chaldean Syriac speaking priest from Mosul, who had been educated by the mendicant Capuchin friars in Baghdad. His name was Elias ibn Hanna al-Mawsili, "Elias, son of John of Mosul."

Elias spoke fluent Kurdish in addition to Arabic, Turkish and Syriac. During his travels, Elias learned Italian and Spanish as well, and he knew Latin and French from his years with the Capuchins. He made three trips to Rome by sea from Iskenderun, the port city that served Aleppo. It was the third trip that set the stage for the extraordinary adventure that eventually led him to France, Spain, Portugal, Peru, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

In 1668, Elias left Baghdad on a 17 year mission. First he traveled to Rome for the purpose of raising money to rebuild a Chaldean Church in Baghdad destroyed in 1638. This church was important for the establishment of the Roman Catholic presence in the Syrian Orthodox provinces east of the Euphrates. Syrian Orthodox congregations were lured to reunite with Rome as a form of protection against the cruelty of the Ottoman King Murad IV. Unfortunately he destroyed their churches anyway.

He then made his way to Rome, where he stayed six months. From there Elias was sent to France by the Capuchian Fathers, his teachers and sponsors. He was given a letter of introduction to the court of Louis XIV in Paris. It must have been an important letter of international importance for the King to receive this unknown but exotic creature from the East.

Elias, although poor, presented a sword to the king's brother, the duc d'Or-léans. Obviously this was supplied by the Vatican who had an interest in the mission of their eastern star. Elias’ big break seemed to come with the arrival of Sulayman Aga from the Ottoman Court in the summer of 1669. Because, Elias knew Turkish, he became the court translator in Paris. This service to Louis XIV elevated Elias and gave him connections to the royal courts of Europe. Spain and France were carving up the New World for areas of domain. A person like Elias could give an edge to one side or the other. Louis XIV of France ranks as one of the most remarkable monarchs in history. He reigned for 72 years, 54 of them he personally controlled French government. The 17th century is labeled as the age of Louis XIV. But toward the end of his reign he began to challenge the Pope over control of his clergy.

In the 1670s, shortly after meeting Elias, Louis claimed the right of the French king to appoint the lower clergy and collect the revenues of a diocese when it was vacant. Pope Innocent Xl condemned Louis's actions, threatening him with reprisals. Louis responded by calling a special assembly of French clergy and directing them to draw up a Declaration of Gallican Liberties. This document claimed that the pope's authority in France was limited to spiritual matters and that even in spiritual matters, the pope was subject to the decisions of a general council. Elias arrived in this Court as this confrontation was heating up.

Elias was probably and expert in flattery and flattery was known to be the way into the courts of Louis XIV. Elias and the Agha must have made quite an impression on the French Court. The French actor and playwright who probably met Elias and the Agha, Moliere, satirized Ottoman customs in his play the Bourgeois Gentleman.

But Elias needed money for his church in Baghdad. Whatever his mission was to the court of Louis XIV it must have failed. Eventually he was seen as a person with his hand out. So he was sent to Madrid after eight months in Paris to ask for money. He had an audience in Madrid with the queen mother, regent for Charles II, who was still a young boy. He was looked upon favorably by the queen mother. Perhaps she saw this as an opportunity to curry favor with the Vatican and at the same time make the French King look petty and weak. Unfortunately the queen mother had no money to give Elias. She gave him letters to her viceroys in Naples and Sicily, ordering them each to pay him the sum of 1000 pieces-of-eight.

This money was ostensibly to repair a church in Baghdad, damaged 30 years earlier, when Elias had been a small boy in Mosul. So Elias set off to Naples and Palermo. The Spanish viceroys in these two cities refused to give him a lire. Elias seems to have been played for a fool. He was sent on a wild goose chase. He had been turned down by both the French and Spanish.

When he returned to Madrid and informed the queen, "She was very annoyed that her order had not been obeyed. The Spanish Court was chronically in debt. They spent the vast quantities of gold and silver faster than it sailed into Cadiz. More than seven million pieces of eight arrived in 1671 alone.

Having failed in two nations, Elias left Madrid in disgust and went to Portugal. He spent seven months in Lisbon, the city from which "ships sail to the East Indies, to the city of Goa." It is possible he may have considered going to Goa. There were many members of his church in that region and perhaps he could raise the needed money there.

Nevertheless, Elias then returned to the Spanish capital.He was the guest of the duke of Aveiro, Manuel Ponce de Leon, Duke of Arcos. His wife was the duchess who was a talented poet and scholar, Maria de Guadelupe de Lancaster, who must have been interested in Elias's accounts of Mesopotamia, and almost certainly provided him with references to the new viceroy of Peru, the Conde de Castellar, whose wife was a close relation. This was the beginning of a set of relationships to the de Leon family. Ponce de Leon who sailed on Columbus’s second voyage, went on to become the governor of Puerto Rico and owner of vast estates on that island. His wealth created the Duchy of Arcos in Spain. Within this duchy the de Leon family married into both merchant and royal families. Elias is able to win the favor of this family and get his funds for the Chaldean Church of Baghdad. Unfortunately he had to go to the New World to get it.

Elias did not want to go to the New World. "I did not care for this idea at all, but placing the burden on God, and relying upon Him, I asked for the Royal Order, without which no stranger was allowed to go there."

Elias was allowed to go, for a period of four years, to collect alms for the Chaldean communit, although he seems to have overstayed his time by at least two years. The de Leon family gave Elias access to both the written and oral histories of Columbus and the discovery and conquest of America. This writing had deep and profound political importance. It positioned both Spain and the de Leon family in their hold on the New World. The Olivedo family competed for the same lands as the de Leon family. Spain was competing against France for claims on the New World. The writing of Elias was the only Arabic description of the New World, and is therefore important because it gave an international validation to the Spanish claims on the New World.

Elias went to Cádiz, the old Phoenician on February 13, 1675, Elias handed his passport to the admiral of the fleet, Don Nicolás Fernández de Córdoba Ponce de León, a relative of the Duke of Aros, husband of Maria. The fleet of 16 ships hoisted sail and set off into the Atlantic.

We sailed out of the harbor with cannons firing and drums beating, flying flags and banners. Some of the passengers were happy and some were sad at leaving their families.

Just as Columbus did on all his voyages, the fleet first made for the Canaries, to pick up the easterlies. The crossing to the Canary islands took eight days. Out on the Atlantic they passed an English slave-ship out of Brazil midway on their journey. Their first landfall was the coast of Venezuela, after a quick passage of 44 days. Elias describes the pearl beds off the coast of Venezuela, discovered by Columbus on his second voyage. By Elias's time, the pearl beds had been nearly fished out.

Some days later they docked at Cartagena, in present-day Colombia, where they spent 40 days, waiting for word from Peru that the bullion they had come to collect had been safely shipped to the Isthmus of Panama. Then the fleet weighed anchor for Portobelo, in present-day Panama, the great market of South American trade in the 17th and 18th centuries.

When the gold and silver had been safely stowed aboard, the admiral of the fleet sent for Elias so that he might see it: "I saw gold and silver past counting," Elias wrote. "The ships took aboard the silver and gold as well as some merchandise, such as the fine wool they call vicuña, and cacao, which is like coffee in taste and smell, but richer." The fleet set off on the long voyage home, via Cartagena and Havana without Elias.

Elias continued on his mission to Peru. He hired three mules for 90 pieces-of-eight and set off across the isthmus for the city of Panama, following the course of the Chagres River. Elias stayed for a month, made welcome by the bishop, Don Antonio de León y Becerra, who became his good friend. Elias must have come to Panama with money because he made a rather substantial loan to Don Pedro de la Cantera whom he later caught up with in Peru.

Elias then took ship for Peru and he landed at Santa Elena and went in search of the bones of giants. It is exactly what Columbus looked for but never found. There was a Spanish myth that pearls would be found near the bones of a giant. In his journal, Elias writes:

At Santa Elena, ...a certain Indian... told us that about one league from this port there was a large cave where giants were buried. He also said that when the Spanish ships first came to that country and conquered it, the Indians thought their ships were fish and that the sails were fins, because until that time they had never seen a ship. And when they saw horses, they thought they and their riders formed a single being. When I heard the story of what had passed in that country and of the giants buried there, I became very eager to see them far myself. I took with me a company of Indians, twelve men accustomed to bear arms, and we went to look for the cave and see for ourselves the things he had described. When we arrived, we lit the candles we had brought with us, for fear of losing our way in the cave. Then we went in, each man walking with a candle in his hand.

Every 10 paces we left a man holding a light, so that we could find the way back to the entrance. I preceded them, carrying a naked sword. I then came to a place where there were bones and I saw that they were very thick. The skulls were huge. I tried to remove a tooth, a molar, from one of them; it was so big that it weighed 100 mithaal [almost 500 grams, or about one pound]. I looked at the thigh bones and measured one of them and found that it was five spans [45 inches, or 110 centimeters] long. In one of the towns an artist had made a reconstruction of one of these bodies, and it was 25 spans [about 19 feet, or 5.7meters] high. Then we left the cave, marveling at what we had seen. I took the tooth with me.

These were doubtless bones of mastodons and giant sloths (Megatherium), many of which have been found on the peninsula of Santa Elena.

Elias and his party set off for Guayaquil, another port town on the Pacific. They passed through heavily wooded territory, and Elias was much struck by the crocodile-like caimans that infested the rivers in those days: "If a horse or bull comes to drink water from the river, the caiman grabs him by the nose, drags him away and devours him. Other caimans then gather round, tear the prey in pieces and eat him up."

In Guayaquil, Elias ate his first chocolate. At this time chocolate, made from ground roast cacao beans, was most often taken as a drink, as it still is in Spain. "You would imagine it to be coffee in color, taste and smell, but it is very oily, so that it forms a paste. They add as much sugar as is required, and cinnamon and ambergris. Then they mix it to a paste and place it in molds until it sets. They melt the bars of chocolate and drink it like coffee. This fruit is popular with everyone in the land of the Franks, to which it is exported and sold."

Elias spent two months in Quito as a guest of the bishop, Don Alonso de la Peña Monte Negro, whom he had known in Spain where he practiced medicine, achieving a successful cure by using the sap of a large cane he had found growing near Ambato. This was in the tradition of Syriac priests. Mar Marutha and many other priests who preceeded Elias often became famous as physicians.

After two months in Quito, Elias traveled to Otavalo, a town on the equator, and then crossed the páramo, or mountain heights, to Cuenca. The governor of Cuenca had been a shipmate of Elias's on the voyage out from Spain. Departing from Cuenca, Elias made for the gold mines of Zaruma. It may be that this was the real mission of Elias. The French may have sent him as a spy to report on the technologies of extracting gold. Elias wrote " I inspected all the processes by which they extract the gold from the ore. First they remove the gold from the mine and crush it with a water-driven mill. Then they wash the crushed ore and separate the dust from it by means of running water. Then they smelt it and form it into bars," Elias bought about 1800 grams (58 troy ounces) of gold. Obviously he was sent with money to purchase this gold.

Elias took a different route back from the mines of Zaruma, on the advice of the local priest. Elias usually dressed in Oriental fashion, presumably in caftan and turban. He must have been a strange and exotic sight, riding out of the desert and entering the Indian village of Guachanama, like a figure out of the bible.

Elias compares the Rio Colán, that runs through Amotapé, to his native Tigris. Elias was exhausted and stressed from an attack by thieves. He wrote to a friend, the governor of Piura, and asked him to send a litter to carry him to Piura, via Paita. "As soon as he received my note, he sent me a litter, for in that country one becomes extremely tired traveling by horse because of the heat and the sand."

He continued south, heading for Lima. He crossed the River Santa on a balsa raft which he compares to the rafts of inflated skins used on the Euphrates. At last he arrived in Lima, where he lodged with the president of the Peruvian Inquisition, Don Pedro de la Cantera, to whom he had lent 1400 pieces-of-eight in Portobelo. The money was now returned to him with 40 percent interest, "as is the practice of merchants in that country."

The office of the inquisition was very weak in Peru by this time. There was a marked change in the Holy Office's attitude toward the Jews after 1665, and a decrease in the severity of punishments meted out to Jewish heretics. There are several possible reasons for these changes

- Protestantism became a greater threat to Catholicism than Judaism
- The Holy Office served more as a political arm of the Spanish throne than as a defender of the faith
- The disclosure of the venality of some inquisitors in the New World tribunals
- There was a notable decline in the value of the confiscated goods by the tribunals, thus the Inquisition ceased to be a
profitable institution

Information about communications between Jews in Holland and their brethren in Mexico and Guatemala came to the attention of the Suprema between 1596 and 1621. According to the Simancas documents, "in 1640 the tribunals of Lima and Cartagena reported that it has been discovered that many Judaizing Portuguese in the colonies had correspondence (in code) with synagogues in Holland and the Levante assisting the Dutch and the Turks with information and money." The Jews were suspected of plotting to seize the kingdom of Peru from Spain. The attachment of the Jews to Peru was very strong. The Jews aided the Dutch with funds and personnel because they knew they could not oust the Spaniards by themselves. The Netherlands had granted the Jews religious liberties and freedom from persecution. The Jews preferred to live under Dutch hegemony than under that of Spain. By the time Elias arrived in Peru, the crisis had passed and the office of Inquisition was more symbolic than actual.

After resting from the fatigues of his journey, Elias presented his letters of recommendation to the viceroy, Don Baltasar de la Cueva Enríquez Arias de Saavedra, Conde de Castellar, second son of the duke of Albuquerque.

"He welcomed me with great joy and promised that he would help me in any way he could."
Elias spent a year in Lima, living in the house of Don Pedro de la Cantera, who kindly defrayed all his expenses. Elias was anxious to visit the mercury mines at Huancavelica and the silver mines at Potosí, and, thanks to letters of recommendation from his friend the viceroy, he was able to do so.

I went to look at the mine with the governor of Huancavelica. I saw its great size and how the workers cutout the ore and brought it to the surface. They showed me how they extracted the quicksilver. They took me into a room where they had made holes in the floor and put a vessel in every hole; these vessels were joined together and arranged in rows. They had two openings, one at the top and the other at the bottom, but the bottom one was sealed, like a jar. They stack the quicksilver ore in layers over the vessels, as a potter does in a kiln. The room is closed, but it has a high, strong roof with vents to allow the smoke to escape. On top of the ore they pile wood and set fire to it. As it burns it heats the ore to a high temperature so that the quicksilver begins to flow, running down and collecting in the vessels. The workers know when this has happened and extinguish the fire and leave it a day and a night to cool. They next remove the slag and the ashes and deposit them outside and pour the quicksilver out of the vessels.

Elias went on to Lake Titicaca, apparently to visit the king's smelter at Chucuito, then on to Potosí. Potosí, in present-day Bolivia, was the site of the richest silver mine in the world, 4900 meters (16,000 feet) above sea level. This was the main source of the silver that was flooding Europe and the East and causing such severe inflation (See "American Silver, Ottoman Decline," in this issue). The mines were discovered in 1545; by 1572, the Spaniards had set up an elaborate system of artificial lakes - whose total storage capacity reached 6,000,000 metric tons in 1621 - and ore-grinding machines driven by hydraulic power. Elias gives a very detailed technical description of mining and refining, and then describes the mint, the Casa de la Moneda, at some length. He stayed in Potosí 45 days, a long time in such an inhospitable place.

After visiting friends in Charcas Elias returned to Potosí, and then made his way back to Lima by the coastal route. He discovered that in his absence, his friend the viceroy had been dismissed from office and was about to be exiled to Paita, the desert town through which Elias had passed so long before. The viceroy had been charged with embezzlement, and Elias did everything he could to help his friend, comforting his wife and intervening with the authorities. Before the viceroy departed for exile, he left his house and wife in Elias's care, and Elias spent the next year and two months "guarding his house and his wife." He spent this time writing up his travel diaries and working on his history of the discovery and conquest of the New World.

Elias had now been in Peru six years, two years past his original permission. A new viceroy arrived to take office and Elias decided to accompany his friend the Conde de Castellar, 1674 - 1678 Baltasar de la Cueva Enríquez, to Portobelo. They left the port of Callao on September 21,1681, bound for Panama, and arrived safely in 42 days. The viceroy apologized to Elias for being unable to help him further, and wrote him a letter of recommendation to the viceroy of Mexico.

So Elias decided to go to Mexico. A ship was about to leave for Realejo in Nicaragua, and in December 1681 they set sail. The bishop in León, in Nicaragua, turned out to be a man Elias had met in Paris many years before. He was delighted to see Elias and gave him a good riding mule. In the streets of León, he ran into an acquaintance from Lima, who gave him another, and eight days later Elias set off overland for Mexico City. From San Salvador he went to Guatemala, then on to Chiapas in Mexico, then to Oaxaca, where he purchased a substantial amount of cochineal, a red dyestuff made from insects, whose production he describes.

Cochineal is a traditional red dye of pre-Hispanic Mexico. This precious dyestuff was obtained not from a plant, but from an insect that lives its life sucking on a plant. A cactus pad is colonized by a female, who produces some new females that settle around the mother and set up housekeeping. A female inserts the proboscis, a tube, into the pad for obtaining nourishment, and secretes a white, web-like, wax-based material over the area for camouflage and to prevent desiccation. Males are small and live for only a week, just long enough to mate with as many females as possible. Females, which are about one-quarter inch long, are purplish-black inside and silvery outside.

The pigmentation is a bitter, astringent chemical called carminic acid (10% total dry weight), which is extremely effective in repelling potential predators, such as ants; ants find this anthraquinone to be unpalatable. Interestingly, the caterpillar of a pyralid moth (Laetilia coccidivora) eats cochineal scale and stores carminic acid from the scale in its gut, to be used later against its natural enemy ant, Monomorium destructor.

Mixtexs and their successors in southern Mexico farmed cochineal with great skill. They reproduced the plant by planting pads already inoculated with scale; they fertilized the cactus with wood ashes and garbage; they removed competing plants from around the cactus; they kept domesticated animals away by building walls and hedges; they lit fires on cold nights to prevent the insects from freezing; and they even built temporary shelters to shield the insects from heavy rains. Through this process, they also selected for a domesticated form of the scale insect, a form that produce the best dye but was also more susceptible to stress from cold and rain than the wild form.

At last he arrived in Mexico City, where he fell ill for 10 days, probably exhausted by his difficult journey through Central America.

Elias's appearance in Mexico City on July 8,1682, caused a sensation: A contemporary diarist says he was dressed in a silk soutane, or cassock, with a white collar, and wore a turban on his head, like a Turk. When he recovered from his illness, he rented a house, furnished it and purchased some mules. He visited the viceroy every evening for two hours.

Elias stayed in Mexico City for six months. Toward the end of his stay, the port of Veracruz was attacked by pirates, led by Laurent de Graff and Nicolas van Horn, who took the city with great bloodshed and looted it ruthlessly, making off with a booty of 8,000,000 pieces-of-eight. Elias lost his cargo of cochineal, which he had stored in Veracruz, and which was worth 1000 pieces-of-eight. His description of the sack of Veracruz is one of the most graphic passages in his Travels.

Elias wanted to sail westward to the Philippines out of Acapulco with the Manila galleons, then catch an Armenian ship out of Manila to Surat in western India, and so make his way back to Baghdad. At the last minute, these plans had to be canceled, and instead Elias returned eastward to Spain. If he had been able to carry out his original intention, he would have been the first Arab to circumnavigate the globe.

Elias left Veracruz on April 18,1685, and sailed to Cuba, where he spent four and a half months waiting for a ship to Spain. Then he caught a ship bound for Spain out of Caracas and finally entered the harbor of Cádiz. He went to Seville, engaged in a successful lawsuit against a ship captain who had defaulted on a debt, and then journeyed to Rome, where he presented the candlestick to the Propaganda Fide, the church's missionary organization. Pope Innocent XI made him an apostolic protonotary - an honorary position that involved no duties - and other high honors followed.

Elias finally returned to Spain, where he spent his declining years in the port town of Puerto de Santa Maria. Here he finished his Travels and completed his history of The Discovery and Conquest of America. As far as we know, neither did he return to Baghdad nor did he raise money for the churches destroyed by Murad IV.

* A more detailed account of the journey of Elias of Mosul was published in Aramco World by Paul Lunde in 1992. It can be found online at


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