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Volume 43, Number 3May/June 1992

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The New World Through Arab Eyes

Written by Paul Lunde

In the year 1493, a sailor from the kingdom of Portugal named Rui Faleiro came forward, with a friend of his named Fernando Magallan. The latter was on his way back from the East Indies, which are at the limit of the clime of Asia, when he...was driven by the wind to an island in the Atlantic. He calculated its latitude and then God smoothed his way and he returned to Spain. He was eager to return to that island and explore it.

Now it happened that Rui Faleiro was the guest in the city of Seville of a certain man skilled in seafaring named Christopher Columbus. Rui Faleiro fell ill and began to tell Christopher about those islands, saying: 'In the Ocean Sea I found some islands and they are in such-and-such a latitide." A few days later he died.

Christopher Columbus then fitted out a ship and sailed the Atlantic intent on the discovery of the islands about which Rui Faleiro had told him. After many days and great difficulties, he reached an extensive land among those islands and explored it.... After he had examined it and learned its latitude and seen the Indians who dwelt there and made friends with them and given them gifts, he decided to return to Spain. He took six of those Indians with him and after a number of days arrived in Spain.

He went before the king, who was named Don Fernando, and the queen, who was named Doña Isabel. He showed them the Indians and told them of everything he had seen and of the country he had discovered.... Some days later the king ordered a ship to be given to Christopher Columbus and that he be accompanied by a learned man, versed in many matters, named Don Alonso de Ojeda, so that this man too should explore the Indies and see whether or not everything Columbus had said was true....

In their company was a man named Amerigo Vespucci, from the city of Florence in the country of Italy. This man was a ship's captain and was very skillful and intelligent. He drew that country and its Indians on a sheet of paper and presented it to the king. Thenceforth, they called that country - which is in the fourth clime - "America," for the historians have said that anyone who discovers a country or founds a city may call it after himself. The truth is that it should have been called after Columbus, for it was he who both initiated and carried out the expedition....

A few days after his return, [Columbus] died in a city called Valladolid, the capital of the rulers of Spain. They held a funeral service for him with full honors. They carried his body to Seville, his native city, and buried him there.

So reads the first Arabic - as opposed to Ottoman Turkish - account of the discovery of America. It was written toward the end of the 17th century by a Chal­dean Christian Arab from Mosul, who had been edu­cated by the Capuchin friars in Baghdad. His name was Elias - in Arabic, Ilyas - ibn Hanna al-Mawsili, "Elias, son of John of Mosul."

Elias and his brother 'Abd al-Masih both spoke fluent Kurdish in addition to Arabic, Turkish and a spoken form of Syriac. During his travels, Elias learned Italian and Spanish as well, and he probably knew at least some 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 Peru and to the silver mines of Potosí.

In 1668, Elias left Baghdad in the company of an Ottoman artillery officer, Michael Condoleo, known as Michael Agha. Despite being well-escorted and armed, their little caravan was attacked in the desert by about 100 Bedouin, whom they succeeded in driv­ing off with their muskets. From Damascus, Elias went to Jerusalem to visit the holy places, and then made his way to Aleppo and finally to Iskenderun, where he boarded an English ship bound for Venice. The voyage to Venice, via Cyprus, Crete, Zante, Corfu and Cephalonia, took 70 days - almost twice the time it took Columbus to sail the Atlantic on his first voyage in 1492.

After 40 days in quarantine in Venice, Elias spent another 20 enjoying this most beautiful of Mediterra­nean cities, then made his way to Rome, where he stayed six months. He then departed for France.

Elias was received in Paris by Louis XIV, a signal honor and one rather difficult to explain. Had Elias been charged with a secret diplomatic mission of some sort? Louis XIV did not normally receive hum­ble travelers, however exotic. The fact that Elias pre­sented a sword to the king's brother, the duc d'Or-léans, also seems to indicate an official mission, but on this Elias is silent.

In the summer of 1669, an envoy from the Ottoman court named Sülayman Ağa arrived in Paris. When it transpired that the Turkish-language skills of the court translator were not up to the task of dealing with formal Ottoman, Elias acted as translator. He must have met Antoine Galland, the famous translator of The Thousand and One Nights, who accompanied Sülayman Ağa on his voyage back to Istanbul, and he may even have met Molière, who satirizes the entourage of Sülayman in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

After eight months in Paris, Elias set off for Spain. He had an audience in Madrid with the queen mother, regent for Charles II, who was still a young boy. He presented his credentials and 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 in the siege of 1638, when Elias had been a small boy in Mosul. It was for the same pro­fessed purpose that Elias eventually went to South America - to gather alms for the Chaldean commun­ity, utterly destitute and without resources.

So Elias set off once more, this time to Naples and Palermo. The Spanish viceroys in these two cities refused to give him a penny.

When he returned to Madrid and informed the queen, "she was very annoyed that her order had not been obeyed," but was herself unable to find 2000 pieces-of-eight for Elias. Despite the vast quantities of gold and silver flowing into Spain from the mines of Mexico and Peru, the Spanish court was chronically in debt at this time, and this was even more true of the vice regencies of Naples and Sicily. Although the armada that arrived in Cádiz in September 1671 brought 7,326,420 pieces-of-eight worth of silver and: gold, there was apparently not even enough money in the treasury for the queen and her son, the future ruler, to visit the Escorial, the magnificent 16th-century monastery-palace of Philip II. The king, who was 11 years old at the time, wished to inspect the damage caused by the great fire that year, in which so many Arabic and other manuscripts were lost.

Elias left Madrid in disgust and went to Portugal. He spent seven months in Lisbon, the city from which the mughamirun, or "intrepid explorers," had set out on their mysterious voyages so long before, and from which now, Elias says, "ships sail to the East Indies, to the city of Goa."

Elias then returned to the Spanish capital. He must have made powerful friends, for he stayed with the duke of Aveiro. The duchess was a talented poet and scholar who financed the Jesuit Eusebio Kino's recon­naissance of Sonora and Arizona and was actively involved in missions to China, India, the Philippines, Mexico, Peru and the Marianas. She must have been interested in Elias's accounts of Kurdistan, and almost certainly provided him with references to the new viceroy of Peru, the Conde de Castellar, whose wife was a close relation.

Elias also met the king's aya or governess, the Marquesa de los Velez. It was through her that he obtained his passport to the "Indies." The queen, probably humiliated by her viceroys' non-compliance with her order, asked the Marquesa de los Velez to find out from Elias what he wanted - short, of course, of the 2000 pieces-of-eight he had been promised. Elias con­sulted his friends, and they advised him to ask for a passport 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."

Spanish America was normally strictly off-limits to non-Spaniards, and it was only by means of an order from the crown that Elias was allowed to go, for a period of four years, to collect aims for the Chaldean community. The concession of a passport to a non-Spaniard was a great honor, and it is to this that we owe Elias's account of his travels - one of the very few accounts of viceregal Spain by a non-Spaniard. It is also the only Arabic description of the New World, and is therefore unique.

Elias went to Cádiz, the old Phoenician city from which Hanno and others had set out to explore the Atlantic 2000 years before, and now the port of embarkation for the New World. On February 13, 1675, Elias handed his passport to the admiral of the fleet, Don Nicolás Fer­nández de Córdoba Ponce de León - a family name to reckon with. Elias was assigned a cabin in the flagship, stowed his gear and locked the door, and the same day the fleet of 16 ships hoisted sail and set off into what Elias calls al-Bahr al-Muhit, the All-Encompassing Ocean.

"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." Elias is silent about his own feelings; they must have been intense. He was already a long way from Bagh­dad and his family, and now was setting off into the unknown.

"Every three years," says Elias, "this fleet sails to a country of the Indies called Peru, which is 1500 leagues distant …. The merchants fill the galLeóns with every sort of merchandise and sell it there and on their return... bring back treasure valued at 20 or 25 million...."

Just as Columbus did on all his voyages, the fleet first made for the Canaries, to pick up the easterlies. The crossing to the islands took eight days. They did not stop there, but continued on their way, passing an English slaver out of Brazil midway on their journey. Their first landfall was the coast of Venezuela, after a remarkably 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 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 em­porium of South American trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. Portobelo was a center for both profits and pestilence - "the grave­yard of the Spanish," where it was normal for half of a ship's crew to die of fever. Here the feria, or market, took place, with goods from Spain being exchanged for gold and silver and  other things from America. Finally the merchants from Peru arrived, with 25,000,000 pieces-of-eight worth of bullion. While the fleet still lay at anchor in the harbor, it was attacked by French pirates who made off with 200,000 pieces-of-eight; by the time Spanish warships could give chase, they were long gone.

In Portobelo, Elias first encountered the South American fauna. He de­scribes the nigua or chi­goe (Pulex penetrans), a burrowing flea, and explains how to combat it: "The place where it has penetrated [the skin] must be found and it must be removed with a needle without breaking it. A lit coal is placed on it and it explodes like a firecracker. If it cannot be removed, it dies inside the flesh and decays, and the man dies."

Then there were the vampire bats: "There is also a kind of large nocturnal bat in that country which attacks men while they sleep and bites them and sucks their blood. It fans its victims with its wings so that he will sleep soundly while it sucks his blood, until he is drained and half-fainting."

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. He must have found the queen's inability
to raise 2000 pieces-of-eight even more perplexing now that he had seen the fabled riches of the Indies with his own eyes.

"The galLeóns 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. But Elias 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. On the way he encoun­tered "sympathetic grass," against which he had been warned by the governor of Portobelo. When a man passed through it, it rose up and slashed him, the wounds always resulting in death. "I don't believe it," Elias recorded, "and won't until I see it with my own eyes!" Fortunately, when he did, the grass responded to the command "Down, o dog!" and Elias passed safely to the city of Panama.

Old Panama had been burned down by the British buccaneer Sir Henry ("Bloody") Morgan three years before Elias' arrival at "New Panama," about eight kilometers (five miles) from the old city. Like the old, the new city was built of wood. Elias stayed for a month, made welcome by the bishop, Don Antonio de León y Becerra, who became his good friend. Don Antonio was busily engaged in rebuilding Panama, supervising the construction of the fortifications.

Elias then took ship for Peru, sailing "The Blue Sea," or "The Southern Sea," as the Spanish called the Pacific. It is strange to think that although this was probably the first time anyone from Baghdad gazed west across the Pacific, Baghdadi merchants sailing the China Sea had undoubtedly gazed east across the same waters and wondered what lay in that direction.

They stopped at the island of Gorgona, where the conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his 13 paladins had been marooned, and from which the conquest of Peru was launched. Elias and his companions were caught in a vicious whirlpool and only saved by a miracle. Finally, after a month at sea, they made the port of Santa Elena. Elias had had enough of the sea, and he and his friends decided to continue their jour­ney on foot:

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, although the cave so bravely investigated by Elias has apparently eluded modern investigators.

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."

Then he tells how the Indians capture caimans: "They take a piece of wood half a cubit long, sharpen both ends and tie a piece of strong cord to the middle. This piece of wood is seasoned and polished like a sword until it is hard as steel. Then one of the Indians goes and sits in hiding beside the river so that when the animal comes out and sees the Indian it opens its mouth in order to eat him. The Indian then crams the piece of sharpened wood into the animal's mouth. As the creature tries to close its jaws they are impaled on the end of the stick. The more it bites, the deeper the points sink into its flesh. The Indians pull it to land with great difficulty and turn it over on its back to pre­vent it from walking. Then they cut it to bits."

Elias watched while the Indians demonstrated their method. As he did, a young Indian boy slipped into the water and was immediately gobbled up. They suc­ceeded in capturing the caiman responsible and executed it, first removing from its belly pieces of the unfortunate youth for burial.

In Guayaquil, Elias ate his first chocolate - probably the first Arab ever to do so. 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. It was during his stay there that Elias lost his giant's molar, to his great regret. He also practiced amateur medicine, achieving a success­ful cure by using the sap of a large cane he had found growing near Ambato, and he also bought a little allu­vial gold, probably panned in the Rio de Santa Barbara and washed down from the slopes of the nearby vol­cano, Mount Pichincha.

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. He was very glad to see Elias and, to entertain him, he organized a bullfight: "He wanted to hold a fiesta to amuse me; in the land of Spain they call this entertainment 'the festival of the bull.' This is how they do it: First they surround a plaza with wooden fencing to protect the houses. Then they place benches, one above the other, I mean like a stair­case, and everybody gathers together and sits on these benches, each person buying a place for the sake of the spectacle. Then they bring one of the wild bulls of the country into the plaza in a cage and loose him. The plaza is surrounded with people and he runs ner­vously about, but sees no way to escape. Next a horse­man with a lance in his hand enters and teases the bull. The bull alternately charges him and flees, and at last they kill it; but sometimes the bull kills the horse and its rider with its powerful horns..."

Departing from Cuenca, Elias made for the gold mines of Zaruma, traveling via Loja through pouring rain on a rough passage through the mountains. Zaruma, says Elias, "is on the top of a mountain, sur­rounded by gold mines. 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 here, so he was evidently prospering. His interest in mining technology seems unusual, and one wonders again, as in his reception by the French king, whether he may have had other motives for travel than gathering alms to rebuild a church in Baghdad.

Elias took a different route back from the mines of Zaruma, on the advice of the local priest. It was a desert road, and he hired two muleteers to show him the way. The first night on the road, they tried to kill him, presumably to steal his gold, but Elias disarmed them and they fled. At the next town, the Indians were amazed at his bravery. "They were astonished at me because of my full beard, and said that I must be very brave to have passed through that country"

We know that 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 a dream.

When he reached Amotapé, the local priest told Elias that the thieves who had attacked him had also murdered the priest's brother on the same road. Elias compares the Rio Colán, that runs through Amotapé, to his native Tigris. 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, and near Saña the country changed to heavy forest. As Elias says, "Entering this forest is a formidable undertak­ing, for it has no beginning and no end." His muleteer dozed off and they lost their way. Elias sensibly stayed where he was, lighting a signal fire and tying a white banner to the tallest tree. The next day, a search party found them, having sighted Elias's banner.

The road to Trujillo was difficult too, "with few camping places and nothing to eat." Elias alternately rode and was carried in his litter. He rested in Trujillo, where he was warmly welcomed, as always, but after only 10 days set off again.

He crossed the River Santa on a balsa raft - this word occurring here for the first time in the Arabic language - which he compares to the rafts of inflated skins used on the Euphrates. He traveled through fields of sugarcane, wheat and maize and noted the workshops where excellent woolen cloth was made. At last he arrived in Lima, where he lodged with the president of the 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." Where he got 1400 pieces-of-eight in the first place, Elias does not say.

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 became fast friends with the viceroy and his wife, and when Elias fell ill, probably from fatigue, the viceroy sent to enquire after his health twice a day and provided him with sweets. One is struck, reading the travels of Elias, by the civility he encountered every­where in South America and his numerous friendships with both prelates and secular leaders. He had a gift for friendship, and was extremely loyal - as we shall see.

It was probably in Lima that Elias first began to take an interest in the history of South America. Good li­braries were available, and any number of learned men. Describing the situation of the continent's natives when the Spanish arrived, Elias writes, "... no one knew the True God; some worshiped idols, some wor­shiped the sun, moon and stars. They had no alphabet and did not know how to read and write. When they wished to present a petition to their king, they used to express their desires by drawing pictures on a piece of cloth .... Their weapons were bows and arrows, spears, and slings for throwing stones. They had no domestic animals, like horses, mules and donkeys... nor did they have bulls, cows, sheep or chickens. They do have an animal like a camel, but smaller, about the size of a donkey, with its hump on its chest, which they use to carry loads for them and whose flesh they eat. It does not have much endurance - each day it travels no more than four leagues, and when it gets tired, it falls asleep and foams and spits on its companions. When one of the Indians died, they used to make a high tomb for him, about two cubits high and three cubits long. Then they would put the tools of his trade in the tomb, together with a kind of wine made from millet."

Modern historians might be interested in the refer­ence to Inca pictographs, the existence of which, though long denied, has recently been asserted.

Elias spent a year in Lima, living in the house of Don Pedro de la Cantera, who kindly defrayed all his expenses. This was a great advantage, for Lima was an expensive town - a chicken, says Elias, cost one and a half pieces-of-eight.

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. He crossed the high Puna de Pariacaca, crossed the famous and perilous suspension bridge slung over the Puni River, and in 10 days arrived at Huancavelica:

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.

The quicksilver was destined for the silver mines, where it was used in the mercury amalgamation pro­cess to refine the silver.

Traveling onward to Cuzco, Elias crossed another suspension bridge, over the Apurímac: "A bridge woven of tree-roots and branches spanned the river. It was one cubit wide, a little more or less, and 20 cubits long. We crossed it with great difficulty and fear. The burdens were unpacked from the mules and the Indi­ans carried them to the other side on their backs, one by one, whipping the mules to make them run across the bridge. The bridge was made of planks laid cross­wise and if the hoof of a mule slipped between, the Indians simply picked up the planks and let the mule fall through the gap into the water. The mule then swam to the other side of the river."

They passed through the extensive sugar estates in Abancay and arrived in Cuzco. Elias was much impressed with Indian craftsmen, and astonished at the huge blocks of stone worked by the Incas without iron tools. Elias made a special expedition in the region to examine the ruins of other Incan buildings and tombs. He stayed five months in Cuzco, then left for the silver mines of Condoroma and Caylloma. Again, he gives a good technical description of the method of silver refining, about which he was end­lessly curious.

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 - the most south­erly point in his travels - 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. It must have been a strange sight to see Elias carefully writing out his Arabic manuscript, in the house near Surco, so far from his native country.

Elias's account of the dismissal and exile of the viceroy sheds important light on a little-known epi­sode in the history of viceregal Peru; unlike the dry chancery prose of the documents in the Archive of the Indies in Seville, it is filled with life and color.

Elias had now been in Peru six years. A new viceroy arrived to take office and Elias decided to accompany his friend the Conde de Castellar 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. They put in at Golfo Dulce in Costa Rica to take on fresh water. Elias went ashore to bathe in a freshwater stream and found gold dust mixed in the sand in the stream bed. He showed it to the cap­tain of the ship, who told "him that the Spanish were well aware of the gold, but did not exploit it because of their fear of the Indians. Six days later, anchored in the port of La Caldera, Elias asked some sailors to fetch him oysters. He found a large pearl in one, the size of a chick-pea. "I said to the captain: 'How can you be so indifferent? How can there be pearls in this sea, lying unharvested?' And he said to me: 'This too is because of our fear of the Indians.'"

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. He crossed the Gulf of Fonseca in a canoe and made his way through Indian villages - all of which he names - to San Salvador. He describes the method of indigo cultivation, another product that, like sugar, had once been an Oriental monopoly, but was now being pro­duced more cheaply in South America.

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. 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 - as far as we know!

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. He took the rather odd gift of dried onions to the governor: Apparently onions did not grow well in Cuba. Then he caught a ship bound for Spain out of Caracas and finally, after a relatively easy passage, entered the harbor of Cádiz. "There were men-of-war belonging to the king of France anchored outside the harbor and men-of-war belonging to the king of Spain anchored in front of them. When we passed into the harbor between the men-of-war and saluted them with cannon fire, both the French and the Spanish ships returned our salute. The cannons continued to fire from both sides until the smoke from them was like fog. Then we entered the harbor and cast anchor."

Elias was allowed to pass through customs without having his chests opened. He brought with him four parrots and a silver candlestick of "wonderful work­manship." 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.

After many other adventures, Elias finally returned to Spain, where he spent his declining years in the charming Atlantic port town of Puerto de Santa Maria. Here he finished his Travels and completed his history of The Discovery and Conquest of America. These two books must have been the last works of Arabic litera­ture composed in al-Andalus; it is fitting that they should be devoted to the New World, on the far side of the Sea of Darkness.


 Historian and Arabist Paul Lunde, author of the whole issue of Aramco World , is a frequent Contributor to the magazines with some 50 articles to his credit over the past two decades, including special multi-article sections on Arabic-language printing and the history of the Silk Roads. His immediate research for this issue was carried out in Seville, Rome, London and Cambridge, and he wrote from his base in Seville’s Barrio do Santa Cruz, a stone’s throw from the city’s cathedral—once a mosque—and from Alcázares Resales, the Moorish palace complex that remains today one of the residences of Spain’s Christian kings.

This article appeared on pages 56-65 of the May/June 1992 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1992 images.