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The Mysterious Legend of Prester John

Ravi loves writing within the realm of relationships, history, and the bizarre—where boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense.

About the middle of the twelfth century, a rumor circulated among the Europeans that a Christian ruler in Asia, or Africa, would join the European Christians to help fight Muslims in the crusades. He was named Presbyter Johannes,

About the middle of the twelfth century, a rumor circulated among the Europeans that a Christian ruler in Asia, or Africa, would join the European Christians to help fight Muslims in the crusades. He was named Presbyter Johannes,

A Mysterious Letter

In the twelfth century, a mysterious letter suddenly appeared in Europe. The letter was written by a king named as Presbyter Johannes, better known as Prester John.

The letter said Prester John ruled over a vast eastern Christian kingdom. He describes his land as "three Indias" in which no crime existed, and peace ruled supreme. His land abounded with flowing rivers of milk and honey, with its people proficiently making potions of herbs that keep evil spirits away. As Prester John described his riches,

“Our men have abundance of all kinds of riches; …. We liken none on the face of the earth to us in riches. When we go to war in force against our enemies, we let carry before us fifteen large, magnificent crosses made of gold and silver, with precious stones therein, one in each car, instead of standards, and behind each one of them twelve thousand men of arms, and a hundred-thousand-foot soldiers, without counting the five thousand who have to do with bearing food and drink.”

These were the times of the crusades. Just a year back, the County of Edessa, the northernmost Crusader state, was captured by Zengi, the Seljuk governor of Mosul. The loss of Edessa sent shockwaves across Europe. The Moslems were winning, and the European Christians were desperately in need of a powerful Christian ally in the East who could fight the Moslems tooth and nail.

The letter turned out to be a masterful medieval forgery. Still, it became so popular that more than 100 manuscript copies of the letter were made throughout the Middle Ages in several languages. The legend of Prester John triggered frantic explorations among the Europeans in the lands of Africa and Asia, ushering in a new era in world history.

Prester John ruled over a vast eastern Christian kingdom. He describes his land as "three Indias" in which no crime existed, and peace ruled supreme.

Prester John ruled over a vast eastern Christian kingdom. He describes his land as "three Indias" in which no crime existed, and peace ruled supreme.

The Origins of Prester John

The Prester John legend's origins can be traced to Bishop Otto of Freising in the 12th century. Otto claimed he heard the story from Bishop Hugh of Jabala in Syria. According to the bishop, Prester ruled in the Far East, beyond Persia and Armenia. He descended from a royal lineage that went back to the three Magi mentioned in the Nativity story of the Bible. As he says,

“He is said to be a descendant of the Magi of old, who are mentioned in the Gospel. He governs the same people as they did and is said to enjoy such glory and such plenty that he uses no scepter save one of emerald. Fired by the example of his forefathers, who came to adore Christ in the manger, he proposed to go to Jerusalem, but he was, they say, turned back for the aforementioned reason.”

Later in the 13th century, Alberic of Trois-Fontaines, a monk and chronicler, talks about a letter from none other than Prester John, addressed to several Christian rulers, including Manuel I Komnenos, the Byzantine emperor, and Frederick I Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor.

The letter contained much more details about Prester John's kingdom than Otto's account. The letter talks about the king's power, who had more than 72 vassal kings swearing allegiance to him. Prester also described the fertility of his lands, including the exotic flora and fauna abounding his territories, as he says,

“And our land stretches from the extremities of India, where the body of Thomas the Apostle rests; and it extends through the wilderness to the setting sun, and reaches back, sloping to deserted Babylon, near the tower of Babylon.”

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As the centuries passed, the contents of the aforesaid letter became even more fantastical. The prospect of a powerful Christian kingdom that could help in subduing the formidable Muslim army became so tempting that in the 12th century, Pope Alexander III sent a message to the legendary king through a physical emissary. Mysteriously, the man never returned.

But the search for the Christian king had begun in full earnest among the Europeans that lasted well until the 17th century.

. The prospect of a powerful Christian kingdom that could help in subduing the formidable Muslim army became so tempting that in the 12th century, Pope Alexander III sent a message to the legendary king through a physical emissary.

. The prospect of a powerful Christian kingdom that could help in subduing the formidable Muslim army became so tempting that in the 12th century, Pope Alexander III sent a message to the legendary king through a physical emissary.

The Search for the Christian King

In 1221, the Fifth Crusade aimed at capturing Jerusalem and the Holy Land failed. But the Bishop of Acre, while fleeing back to Europe, had brought with him a piece of good news that raised the hopes of the demoralized Christian Army.

He had finally found "King Dravid, "an eastern king and apparently the son or grandson of Prester John, who had just conquered the Muslim Khwarazmian Empire, which ruled over Persia then.

The bishop was not entirely wrong. While King David was a king from the East, he was not a Christian. The Europeans learned it the hard way when his armies brutalized Europe with devastating ferocity. He was Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire.

Today it is hard to believe that the Europeans mistook Genghis Khan as the savior of Christianity. But in the 13th century, any powerful ruler who was a non-Muslim could be a good bet to be Prester John. Initially, the Europeans tried to form alliances with the Mongols, hoping this would turn the tide against Islam. But the excessive brutality of the Mongols shocked them into submission.

With all hopes of finding Prester John in Asia shattered, the Europeans turned towards Africa. So, in 1321-1324, a missionary Dominican named Jordanus de Severac wrote in his book “Mirabilia” about Ethiopia being the land of Prester John. The explorer Prince Henry the Navigator also traveled to Ethiopia for this very reason.

Ethiopia was indeed a Christian kingdom but far weaker and even lesser in treasures than the legendary Prester John. The kingdom of Ethiopia was too weak to be the savior of Christendom. However, Ethiopia became one of the reasons for early European exploration of Africa, culminating in its brutal colonization in the later centuries.

The legend of Prester John continued to haunt the European psyche well until the 17th century. Apart from medieval texts, Prester John appears even in modern works like William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing" and Umberto Eco’s “Baudolino.”

Today it is mostly accepted that Prester John never existed. Still, there is no denying that the legendary king ushered in an age of exploration and discovery, transforming the map of the world to the form we see it today.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Ravi Rajan

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