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Translating Faith

Ethiopian Pilgrims in Renaissance Rome

Samantha Kelly

ISBN 9780674294172

Publication date: 03/05/2024

A revealing account of the lives and work of Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims in sixteenth-century Rome, examining how this African diasporic community navigated the challenges of religious pluralism in the capital of Latin Christianity.

Tucked behind the apse of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome is the ancient church of Santo Stefano. During the sixteenth century, Santo Stefano hosted an unusual community: a group of Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims whose faith and culture were both like and unlike those of Latin Europe. The pilgrims of Santo Stefano were the only African community in premodern Europe to leave extensive documents in their own language (Gǝʿǝz). They also frequently collaborated with Latin Christians to disseminate their expert knowledge of Ethiopia and Ethiopian Christianity, negotiating the era’s heated debates over the boundaries of religious belonging.

Translating Faith is the first book-length study of this community in nearly a century. Drawing on Gǝʿǝz and European-language sources, Samantha Kelly documents how pilgrims maintained Ethiopian Orthodox practices while adapting to a society increasingly committed to Catholic conformity. Focusing especially on the pilgrims’ scholarly collaborations, Kelly shows how they came to produce and share Ethiopian knowledge—as well as how Latin Christian assumptions and priorities transformed that knowledge in unexpected ways. The ambivalent legacies of these exchanges linger today in the European tradition of Ethiopian Studies, which Santo Stefano is credited with founding.

Kelly’s account of the Santo Stefano pilgrim community is a rich tale about the possibilities and pitfalls of ecumenical dialogue, as well as a timely history in our own age marked by intensive and often violent negotiations of religious and racial difference.


  • An epic piece of scholarship on a global encounter of the highest importance: cultural and religious translation between Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics in Renaissance Rome. Focusing on the dynamics of textual collaboration, predominantly in Gǝʿǝz, Kelly persuasively restores the contributions of Ethiopians to these exchanges. Brilliant, complex, and written with sustained lucidity, this is a game-changing book.

    —Kate Lowe, coeditor of Black Africans in Renaissance Europe


  • Samantha Kelly is Professor of History at Rutgers University. She is the author of The New Solomon and The “Cronaca di Partenope” and editor of A Companion to Medieval Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Book Details

  • 512 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press