The Portuguese read about the Persian Gulf as one of the places that Marco Polo had visited and described in his travels two centuries previously. In the year 1520 the Portuguese, intent upon protecting their Indian sphere of commercial influence, took possession of the Isle of Hormuz. Fifty-one years later, in the year 1571, the Portuguese Province of the Order of Saint Augustine created a special Augustinian Congregation of East India, based at Goa (India)
In the following year twelve missionaries were sent, and a few of them established an Augustinian priory (convento) at Hormuz in 1573. A substantial part of the Portuguese fort at Hormuz still exists. Its walls and towers, although damaged, are still impressive, in particular the underground water cisterns. Hormuz is a large island that is today part of the coastline of Iran immediately opposite the tip of the Musandam Peninsula in Oman. This island lies at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. It is strategically situated at the narrowest point of this waterway through which forty per cent of the crude oil of the world is shipped today. The area is still called the Straits of Hormuz.
Image (above): This is an artistic impression of Hormuz in the book by Braun-Hogenberg entitled, Civitates Orbis Terrarum ("Cities of the World"), published in 1577 at Cologne, Germany. Ancient maps and drawings of the settlement can be seen at: http://www.dataxinfo.com/hormuz/illustrations.htm In the year 1571, the Portuguese province of the Augustinians created a special Augustinian Congregation of East India, based at Goa (India). In the following year twelve missionaries were sent, and a few of them established an Augustinian priory (convento) at Hormuz in 1573. The Augustinians purchased some houses from a local Hebrew and founded a church and priory, and later added a small hospital. Dedicated to the honour of Mary under the title of Our Lady of Grace (a popular Augustinian title for the Virgin Mary), in the East this priory (convento) was the second in size only to the Augustinian house at Goa.
The Augustinian ministry at Hormuz included pastoral care of the Portuguese, attention to the Islamic people, and the reconciliation of Christians who were not then in union with Rome. Bishop Bugnini (See the link listed at bottom of this page) quoted the first Augustinians there as saying that Hormuz produced only "salt stones" and that "even the water had to be brought from the outside." The Augustinian priory on Hormuz had strategic importance. It was of great value as the point of entry into Persia during the entire time of its existence. It was also a place of temporary stopover for many other travellers who came from Europe via Iraq en route to the Orient. While being missionaries struggling in a culture hostile to Christian missionary activity, the Augustinians were also chaplains to the Portuguese soldiers, and were helped financially thereby. In return, the Augustinians gave diplomatic and commercial services to their fellow Portuguese.
The Augustinians were among the few Europeans locally who knew the language of the country and thus were able to address the court of the Shah. Among the first Augustinians who came to Persia via Hormuz were Simón de Moraes O.S.A., the founder of the Augustinian house (convento) in Hormuz. In 1582, Simón de Moraes O.S.A., travelled from Goa to Persia to bring a letter from King Philip II of Spain to the then reigning Shah of Persia. Other Augustinians were part of similar official delegations from the King to the Shah in the years that followed. (See also the Augnet pages about Nicholas Melo O.S.A.)
As with much of the Middle East, Far East and the Asian Pacific, Catholic Church involvement continued only as long as an imperial European government controlled the area. It ended when local Islamic forces occupied the island and destroyed the Portuguese fortress. This Augustinian foundation at Hormuz lasted until 1621, when the Portuguese in Hormuz were defeated by a Persian Army of Shah Abbas the Great. He was given protection by the British Navy, which blockaded the arrival of any Portuguese reinforcements. The year 1622 saw the end also of two other Augustinian foundations in the Gulf of Persia, at Bandar Abbas and Queixome.
In 1571 the Portuguese province of the Augustinians established a special "Augustinian Congregation of East India", with the Portuguese settlement at Goa (now in India) as its base. From there they intended to send missionaries throughout the Portuguese settlements in the Middle East and on the coast of India. On the present-day national boundaries this covered the territory of Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Macao (China). Under this plan twelve Augustinians arrived at Goa in 1572, and in 1573 a small number of them moved to the defended Portuguese island city of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Hormuz was not Persia as such, but the location for moving on to the Persian mainland. At Hormuz the Augustinians in 1573 started a school where the missionaries studied the Persian language. After this preparation they were able to advance into Persia by opening a priory (house) in 1602 at Isfahan, which today is in central Iran.
Isfahan stands 1,570 m above the sea level and is 414 kilometres south of Tehran. The founding Augustinians there included Fathers Girolamo della Croce O.S.A., Cristobal del Espiritu Santo O.S.A. and Antonio de Gouveia O.S.A.. Dating back some 2,500 years, Isfahan has been the capital of Iran in three historical periods. The golden age of Isfahan was in the Safavid era (1501 - 1736), which covers the few years of Augustinian presence there. It was the logical venue for an initial Augustinian missionary venture to Persia. In 1601 Philip III, who was then the King of both Spain and Portugal, wrote to Shah Abbas of Persia inviting him to: (1) declare war against the Turks, (2) open greater commercial channels with the Portuguese, and (3) open Persia to Catholic missionaries. The king entrusted this negotiation to three Augustinians, and they favourably impressed the Shah. He gave them permission to build a church and priory, and this then happened in 1604. For this the Augustinians used a large building that was already standing, with marble fountains and rooms coloured in gold and blue.
The Augustinian priory at Isfahan was very hospitable. Priests and missionaries of other religious orders, international travellers, and local and foreign Christians were received with charity. The number of Augustinians in the priory at Isfahan was never very high. It usually contained three or four Augustinian priests, or five at the most. From that priory depended the missions of Congo, Soar, Dobba, Curiate and Bahreim. Thanks to the financial generosity of the Portuguese king, the Augustinian priory at Isfahan did not need to be financially self-sufficient, and in fact it was able to be generous to Christian visitors and to all the poor Christians in Isfahan. Wisely the Augustinians expected no financial assistance from the Shah, who allowed their presence for political and commercial reasons rather than because of any interest in their beliefs.
They were tolerated by the Shah for a secondary goal of being linguists who provided the Shah with links to Europe, but were not wanted for their primary goal of coaxing local Mohammedans to become Christian. Their missionary work was almost impossible in Isfahan, and conversions to the Christian faith were very few. In a culture almost universally Islamic, both social and family pressures made it very difficult for any local inhabitant to become a Christian. Bishop Bugnini (see link below) quotes one of the founding Augustinians there, Girolamo della Croce O.S.A. as having written, "Once we asked some Mohammedans why they did not become Christians. They answered, 'If the king does not become Christian, no Islamic can become Christian.'Even the preliminary work of approaching the Moslems was impeded by prejudices against Christian doctrines, and was fraught with many dangers.” Any intemperance in language, excess of missionary zeal, or perceived criticism of Islam (regardless of whether intended or not) could result in a missionary's expulsion from Persia, or even his death. The Augustinian, Antonio de Gouveia O.S.A., knew the Persian language fluently, and became a friend of the Shah. In the book by Bishop Bugnini, it is stated that, on one occasion in 1607, the Shah "hugged him and kissed him several times, offered him a drink with his own hands, and even invited him to visit his harem."
The situation was tenuous and volatile, however, and soon changed for the worse. In 1608 Shah Abbas sent his ambassador Ghengis Beg, accompanied by Antonio de Gouveia O.S.A., (one of the founding Augustinians at Ispahan) to Spain to King Phillip III to renew his request for an alliance against the Turks. As well as the usual range of presents, the two messengers took fifty bales of silk to sell on behalf of the Shah, who badly needed funds. In what may have been an appropriate diplomatic gesture at the time, the two messengers decided to give the silk to Phillip III, rather than to sell it to him. When, however, five years later they returned to Isfahan with neither a Portuguese alliance nor with any money from the sale of the Shah's silk, they found the Shah already aware of the news they came to give him - and he was not amused. As soon as Ghengis Beg fell to his knees to kiss his feet, the Shah gave him a strong kick on the chin. The Shah then had Beg executed. His tongue, lips, ears and nose were removed before he was killed. Antonio de Gouveia O.S.A. thought it wise to take stress leave and to quit Persia. He died peacefully in Portugal in 1628. In the meantime this same Shah had defeated the Portuguese in battle in 1622, destroyed their fortress at Hormuz, and expelled them from Hormuz, Bandar Abbas and Queixome. The politics between Portugal and Persia that had initially tolerated missionary entry into Persia had thus irretrievably soured within fifty years, and this then caused the violent expulsion of all Portuguese from Persia.
This web page relies much on material in the link recommended hereunder.
History of the Christian Church in Iran. This web page summarises a book of 471 pages written in Italian in 1981 by Bishop Annibale Bugnini, the Apostolic Pro-Nuncio in Iran. In this large site, Gladys Warda also reviews Bugnini's book, and not always favourably. The Portuguese Augustinians in Persia during the sixteenth century receive a good coverage. (PDF: AX271)http://www.jaas.org/edocs/v12n2/review.pdf