The prospect of an executive order banning visitors and refugees from several majority-Muslim countries piqued my curiosity. When was the first visit to the Americas by an Arab person? I did a little research and found a surprise that offers a bit of perspective.
The reason I’m writing about an obscure historical footnote is not just my personal pleasure in knowing about the obscure events. One point I want to make through this is that there have been and still are a sizable number of Arab Christians. A second point is that the Middle East and the Americas have been at least loosely connected for centuries. A third point is that travelers from other areas who have written accounts can offer some perspective on the societies they visited—and there are many such visitors, although few quite this exotic.
The first known Arab traveler to visit the Americas was Elias al-Museli, who sailed over in 1675 and stayed until 1683. Most of the information below comes from An Arab’s Journey to Colonial Spanish America, The Travels of Elias al-Museli in the Seventeenth Century. Syracuse UP 2007.
The Iraqi Elias al-Museli was from Baghdad. He made an extended visit to Spanish America in the years 1675 to 1683, part of a much longer peregrination that lasted from 1668 to 1683 or so, one that included stays in Venice, Rome, Paris, Madrid and a number of Spanish colonial cities. Museli was a priest in the Chaldean Catholic Church, a Middle Eastern Christian sect that had broken off the existing Assyrian church in 1552 and recognized the pope in Rome. Museli’s visit was enabled by this.
He wrote a short chronicle of his visit, which was found by a Jesuit in a Christian institution in Aleppo in 1905, who translated and published it. Al-Museli’s text included not only the account of his travels, but a history of the Spanish conquest and other details, apparently written while he was in Lima in 1680. It was written in Arabic—the book’s translator says the Arabic wasn’t very good.
Al-Musili would have been very able with languages. He conducted mass in Syriac, and his chronicle says he knew Turkish (Syria and much of Iraq was under Ottoman rule at that time). He might have known some Latin. He developed some fluency in Spanish. He might have picked up some Italian and French during his stays in Italy, France and Spain. His chronicle is almost outrageous in his praise for some of his patrons, so flattery must have helped.
He left Baghdad for Aleppo in 1668, and on to Alexandretta to Venice by way of Cyprus and Crete—on an English ship. He lived for a time in Venice. He visited Rome and had an audience with Clement IX, who wrote letters of recommendation that literally opened doors—and provided monetary support. He went to Paris and lived there for a time, then to Spain, and some other travels. While in Madrid he found the opportunity to travel to the American colonies (the Queen Regent wrote letters of recommendation for him that were nearly magical in providing him with support and opportunity). Permission for non-Spanish to travel to the colonies was granted cautiously. The papacy must have been very interested in consolidating its relation with the Chaldean church, because its representatives went out of their way to be helpful and enable al-Musili’s travels. Overall, he spent several years in Europe. In addition to letters, the pope had given Museli clerical garb that was venerated by the colonial Americans.
He sailed from Cadiz in 1675, in a fleet of 16 galleons, eventually reaching Cartagena. He traveled to the Pacific coast via Panama and over time visited what are now Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and cities such as Lima, Cuzco and Quito, and eventually back across Panama to Mexico (and Mexico City) thence a return to Spain via Havana. He took ship from Cadiz to Rome on a Dutch ship, where he had another papal audience, thence on home. It is not known exactly when or where he wrote his document, nor who might have been his readers.
His chronicle is made up of short sections in chronological order, heavy on the first-person, with a mix of personal experience, description and what seem to be tales borrowed from other sources. He describes the silver mines and the process of using mercury to gain the silver from ore. He experiences anxiety about Inca-style bridges in the mountains. He describes ravenous caimans, but probably never actually saw them. He describes several instances of getting sick and recovering (which he attributed to the grace of heaven). He conducts masses in a number of places, in his Syriac church language, apparently usually great successes although it must have been the curiosity that got so many attendees, several times in the thousands.
One section describes an act of terrorism by heretics—English pirates descending on a Spanish town.
In larger cities like Lima and Mexico City he would have discovered a lively and multicultural society, with Spanish culture thickly underlain by various Indian cultures, and with other elements—the Manila galleon trade by then had gone on for a century, linking Spanish possessions in the Americas with their colony in the Philippines, so there would have been Asians in most of the larger cities, often Filipinos but also people from India, as well as East and Southeast Asia. There was also a considerable African influence from slaves, particularly in the Caribbean islands and coastal areas. Museli considered traveling home by Acapulco to Manila and thence back to Iraq, but decided against it, going back to Europe by the usual Atlantic route. As a parrot fancier, I was intrigued that among his baggage were four talking parrots (one wonders what language!). The parrots were probably intended as gifts rather than as souvenirs.
The remainder of his life is obscure. He may have died in Aleppo. His rich adventures, one hopes, made him a valued storyteller. There’s another lesson here, I think. The Ottomans and the Hapsburgs were long at war (the second Turkish siege of Vienna was 1683), but the two superpowers were not hermetically sealed off from each other, there were contacts and there was curiosity amid the contempt.
There are a number of sites mentioning this man, but as far as I can tell, they all have about the same content, lifted from the book. I downloaded it from Project Muse (which my university library subscribes to).
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Thanks for reading.