In the 16th century, a Portuguese embassy reaches the court of King Lebna Dengel in Ethiopia—a king the Portuguese insist on calling The Prester, to the Ethiopian king’s bafflement.
Who is this Prester that these insistent Birtukan keep going on about? (for this is how the Ethiopians call the Portuguese, as they stumble on the letter -P-).
The Portuguese have entered their era of great discoveries. They wish to secure the spice route to India, and oust the Ottoman Turks from the Red Sea. They seek an alliance with the fabled Prester John—a mighty Priest-King who rules over a powerful kingdom in Africa.
This cultural encounter, today forgotten, was of great significance at the time, both for the Ethiopians and for the Portuguese. In today’s Ethiopia there are ruined castles, palaces as well as bridges spanning the Blue Nile—but there also lingers on the memory of the community of Ethiopian-Portuguese born from the marriage of Portuguese soldiers and Ethiopian women—the ብርቱካን (Birtukan).
Later, this name is also given to the fruit these same Portuguese have brought to the country: the orange.
[The word Portugal is also the root for the word orange in Persian پرتقال (porteghal), the Bulgarian портокал (portokal), the Albanian portokall, and the Greek πορτοκάλι (portokali). As it is in the Turkish portakal and the Romanian portocală. The Georgian ფორთოხალი (pʰortʰoxali) and the Arabic البرتقال (bourtouqal)…]
Today, there are many Birtukan in Ethiopia… at least in name: a quick Google search for the term yields 199 000 pages, and there are 16 000 results for people named ‘Birtukan’ on Facebook alone.
Oranges of Prester John recounts the bittersweet tale of the forgotten community that once thrived in the Ethiopian Highlands— What is left today of the ብርቱካን (Birtukan) of Ethiopia?
Le Prêtre Jean et l’Ethiopie (émission sur France Culture, en français)