Who was Pedro Paez?

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The publication by the Hakluyt Society in London of the original  Spanish edition of Paez’s Historia da Etiopia, and of a new English translation – both hitherto unpublished, are therefore notable events – if only for the book’s size – the translation is a two-volume edition of no less than 1,330 pages, weighing close on two kilos!

Pedro Paez’s Historia da Etiopia  has an interesting, but little-known history. The book’s origin, as the editors of the new edition, Isabel Boavida, Hervé Pennec and Manuel João Ramos explain, lay in a now largely forgotten inter-missionary rivalry – a conflict between the Dominicans , who were Spanish, and the Jesuits, many, but not all of whom were Portuguese. Both groups claimed supremacy for their long-established missionary activity in Ethiopia.

Much of the conflict centred on the writings of a Dominican friar, Luis de Urreta (c.1570-1636), who sought to strengthen support for his faction by emphasising the importance with which Ethiopia had long been regarded in the West. He did this in a Historia of his own which appeared in Valencia in two volumes in 1609-11, and quoted a number of fictitious and  indeed  largely incredulous  reports on what many people in Europe then still regarded as the mysterious Kingdom of Prester John.

Paez and several other Jesuits had travelled widely in and around Ethiopia, and were therefore much better informed than Urreta, whose errors, “lies”, and “great confusions” they sought to expose or correct.  Paez’s   Historia was thus in large measure a revision of Urreta’s Historia, and its chapters are largely arranged in the same order – which is not necessarily the most convenient for the modern reader.

Paez’s Historia, as readers of the newly published English translation will appreciate, is, however much more than a  mere correction or re-working of Urreta, for it makes extensive use of earlier Jesuit records as well as the writings of Ethiopian royal chroniclers – which were then virtually unknown outside the country. Paez’s study, which revolutionized Ethiopian historiography and geography prior to the 17th century when it was written, contains valuable insights into Ethiopian political, social and religious life of the time.

The authors also discuss prevailing views on Paez. They note that he deserves recognition as one of the first foreign visitors to the source of the [Blue] Nile, but argue that the idea of him as a great     architect and builder is exaggerated.

Paez’s translator, Christopher Tribe, and the publisher, the Hakluyt Society, are to be congratulated for providing us with a vitally interesting new source for Ethiopian studies. Their two-volumes, in both Spanish and English, are excellently documented, beautifully presented, and altogether a joy to perceive.