Prester John was for several centuries once one of the most famous people in the world, despite not having ever existed. His non-existence however didn’t stop him having a great and possibly horrific legacy to those who believed in him in possibly the biggest example of the phrase “Be careful what you wish for”.
Before anyone starts thinking about the founding figures of the worlds major religions, most of them can be proven historically to have existed irrespective if you believe in their religious teachings or the miraculous events attributed to them. Prester John though is more like the worst case ever of Chinese Whispers, the idea that if you have a line of people and you give the first a verbal message, by the time it reaches the last person then it is impossibly different from the original message.
Prester John or as he was known at the time in Latin, Presbyter Johannes, is a legendary Christian patriarch and king popular in European chronicles and tradition from the 12th through the 17th centuries. He was said to rule over a Nestorian (Church of the East) Christian nation lost amid the Muslims and pagans of Asia, in which the Patriarch of the Saint Thomas Christians resided. The details are as sketchy as they are bizarre, a collection of medieval popular fantasy, depicting Prester John as a descendant of the Three Magi, ruling a kingdom full of riches, marvels, and strange creatures.
If there is a kernel of truth about Prester John, it likely lies in India. The subcontinent saw the Apostle of Jesus, Thomas, reach relative evangelical success there. As time progressed the location of Prester John shifted to Central Asia and finally to Ethiopia.
Though its immediate genesis is unclear, the legend of Prester John drew strongly from earlier accounts of what was known as the Orient and of Westerners’ travels there. Particularly influential were the stories of Saint Thomas the Apostle‘s proselytizing in India, recorded especially in the 3rd-century work known as the Acts of Thomas. Amongst Europeans, this text inculcated in Westerners an image of what we now know as India being a place of exotic wonders and offered the earliest description of Saint Thomas establishing a Christian church there, themes that loomed large over later accounts of Prester John.
Equally to blame were reports of a Church of the East which is also known as the Nestorian church and centered in Iran. With quite a wide following in parts of the Middle East and Asia, it formulated in European minds as an assemblage both exotic and familiarly Christian. Particularly inspiring were the Nestorians’ missionary successes among the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, the most famous of which were of course The Mongols but there were many others including the Kerait tribe which has seen thousands of conversions to Nestorian Christianity shortly after the year 1000. By the 12th century, the Kerait rulers were still following a custom of bearing Christian names, which may have fueled the legend.
It has been theorised that this account may be based on the historical events of 1141, when the Kara-Khitan Khanate under Yelü Dashi defeated the Seljuk Turks near Samarkand. The Seljuks ruled over Iran at the time and were the most powerful force in the Muslim world, and the defeat at Samarkand weakened them substantially. While the Kara-Khitan at the time were Buddhists and not Christian, and there is no reason to suppose Yelü Dashi was ever called Prester John.
However, several vassals of the Kara-Khitan practiced Nestorian Christianity, which may have contributed to the legend, as well as the possibility that the Europeans, who were unfamiliar with Buddhism, assumed that if the leader was not Muslim, he must be Christian. The defeat encouraged the Crusaders and inspired a notion of deliverance from the East.
Prester John recedes into the background for a while until about 1165 when copies of what was certainly a forged Letter of Prester John started spreading throughout Europe. It was supposedly written to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus (1143–1180) by Prester John, descendant of one of the Three Magi and King of India. The many marvels of richness and magic it contained captured the imagination of Europeans, and it was translated into many European and Middle-Eastern languages. It circulated in ever more embellished form for centuries in manuscripts, a hundred examples of which still exist. The invention of printing perpetuated the letter’s popularity in printed form; it was still current in popular culture during the period of European exploration. Part of the letter’s essence was that a lost kingdom of Nestorian Christians still existed in the vastnesses of Central Asia.
The credence given to the reports was such that Pope Alexander III sent a letter to Prester John via his physician Philip on September 27, 1177. Nothing more is recorded of Philip, but it is most probable that he did not return with word from Prester John or else we would have heard something about it. The Letter continued to circulate and with every reprint or new generation more embellishments wered added. In modern times, textual analysis of the letter’s variant Hebrew versions has suggested an origin among the Jews of northern Italy or Languedoc: several Italian words remained in the Hebrew texts. Regardless, the author of the Letter was most likely a Westerner, though his or her purpose remains unclear.
In 1221, Jacques de Vitry, Bishop of Acre, returned from the disastrous Fifth Crusade with good news: King David of India, the son or grandson of Prester John, had mobilized his armies against the Saracens. He had already conquered Persia, then under the Khwarezmian Empire’s control, and was moving on towards Baghdad as well. This descendant of the great king who had defeated the Seljuks in 1141 planned to reconquer and rebuild Jerusalem.
At this time it is entirely understandable why European so desperately wanted to believe in Prester John. The Crusader kingdoms were under pressure, Islam was making deep inroads into the Christian world in areas such as Anatolia (Turkey) and Iberia (Spain).
The Bishop of Acre was correct in thinking that a great King had conquered Iran; however King David, as it turned out was Chinggis Khan, known to many as Genghis Khan. His reign took the story of Prester John in a new direction. Though Genghis was at first seen as a scourge of Christianity’s enemies, he proved to be tolerant of religious faiths among those subjects that did not resist the empire, and was the first East Asian ruler to invite clerics from three major religions (Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism) to a symposium so that he might learn more about their beliefs. The Mongol ruler was also reputed to have a Nestorian Christian favorite among his many wives, whom the Europeans imagined as influential in the disastrous Mongol sack of Baghdad.
The Mongol Empire‘s rise which unified much of the world, gave Western Christians the opportunity to visit lands that they had never seen before, and they set out in large numbers along the Empire’s secure roads. Belief that a lost Nestorian kingdom existed in the east, or that the Crusader states‘ salvation depended on an alliance with an Eastern monarch, was one reason for the numerous Christian ambassadors and missionaries sent to the Mongols. These include Franciscan explorers Giovanni da Pian del Carpine in 1245 and William of Rubruck in 1253.
The link between Prester John and Genghis Khan was elaborated upon at this time, as the Prester became identified with Genghis’ foster father, Toghrul, king of the Keraites, given the Jin title Ong Khan Toghrul. Fairly truthful chroniclers and explorers such as Marco Polo,Crusader-historian Jean de Joinville, and the Franciscan voyager Odoric of Pordenone stripped Prester John of much of his otherworldly veneer, portraying him as a more realistic earthly monarch.
Odoric places John’s land to the west of Cathay en route to Europe, and mentions its capital as Casan, which may correspond to Kazan, the Tatar capital near Moscow. Joinville describes Genghis Khan in his chronicle as a “wise man” who unites all the Tartar tribes and leads them to victory against their strongest enemy, Prester John.
William of Rubruck says a certain “Vut”, lord of the Keraites and brother to the Nestorian King John, was defeated by the Mongols under Genghis. Genghis made off with Vut’s daughter and married her to his son, and their union produced Möngke, the Khan at the time William wrote. According to Marco Polo’s famous work, Travels, the war between the Prester and Genghis started when Genghis, new ruler of the rebellious Tartars, asked for the hand of Prester John’s daughter in marriage. Angered that his lowly vassal would make such a request, Prester John denied him in no uncertain terms. In the war that followed, Genghis triumphed and Prester John perished.
The historical figure behind these accounts, Toghrul, was in fact a Nestorian Christian monarch defeated by Genghis. He had fostered the future Khan after the death of his father Yesugei and was one of his early allies, but the two had a falling out. After Toghrul rejected a proposal to wed his son and daughter to Genghis’ children, the rift between them grew until war broke out in 1203.
Of course, the Mongols under Genghis Khan and then even more so under his prodegny Hulegu, went on to conquer and destroy much of the Middle-East and almost eradicated Islam as a force. Whereas all of this must have appeared fantasic to European powers just as with the Soviet Union allying up with Nazi Germany, sooner or later, when the baddest guys have dealt with everyone else, they inevitably turn their attention to you and it wasn’t long before the Mongol horseman swept through Ukraine, Russia, Poland and Eastern Europe.
After this, the major characteristic of Prester John tales from this period is the king’s portrayal not as an invincible hero, but merely one of many adversaries defeated by the Mongols. But as the Mongol Empire collapsed, Europeans began to shift away from the idea that Prester John had ever really been a Central Asian king. At any rate they had little hope of finding him there, as travel in the region became dangerous without the security the Empire had provided.
Eventually it became clear that there was no Prester John in Asia, it had all been wishful thinking and accumulative misunderstandings. However, the Western Europeans weren’t quite ready to give up on the Priest King just yet.
Prester John had been considered the ruler of India since the myth originated but “India” was a vague concept to the Europeans. Writers often spoke of the “Three Indias”, and lacking any real knowledge of the Indian Ocean, they sometimes considered Ethiopia one of the three. Westerners knew that Ethiopia was a powerful Christian nation, but contact had been sporadic since the rise of Islam. No Prester John was to be found in Asia, so European imagination moved him around the blurry frontiers of “India” until it found an appropriately powerful kingdom for him in Ethiopia. There is evidence that suggest that Prester John’s kingdom was re-imagined into Ethiopia around 1250.
Marco Polo had discussed Ethiopia as a magnificent Christian land and Orthodox Christians had a legend that the nation would one day rise up and invade Arabia, but they did not place Prester John there. Then in 1306, 30 Ethiopian ambassadors from Emperor Wedem Arad came to Europe, and Prester John was mentioned as the patriarch of their church in a record of their visit. Another description of an African Prester John is in the Mirabilia Descripta of Dominican missionary Jordanus, around 1329. In discussing the “Third India”, Jordanus records a number of fanciful stories about the land and its king, whom he says Europeans call Prester John.
Most likely due to increasing ties between Europe and Africa as 1428 saw the Kings of Aragon and Ethiopia actively negotiating the possibility of a strategic marriage between the two kingdoms.
On 7 May 1487, two Portuguese envoys, Pêro da Covilhã and Afonso de Paiva, were sent traveling secretly overland to gather information on a possible sea route to India, but also to inquire about Prester John. Covilhã managed to reach Ethiopia. Although well received, he was forbidden to depart. More envoys were sent in 1507, after Socotra was taken by the Portuguese. As a result of this mission, and facing Muslim expansion, regent queen Eleni of Ethiopia sent ambassador Mateus to king Manuel I of Portugal and to the Pope, in search of a coalition.
Mateus reached Portugal via Goa, having returned with a Portuguese embassy, along with priest Francisco Álvares in 1520. Francisco Álvares’ book, which included the testimony of Covilhã, the Verdadeira Informação das Terras do Preste João das Indias (“A True Relation of the Lands of Prester John of the Indies”) was the first direct account of Ethiopia, greatly increasing European knowledge at the time, as it was presented to The Pope.
By the time the emperor Lebna Dengel and the Portuguese had established diplomatic contact with each other in 1520, Prester John was the name by which Europeans knew the Emperor of Ethiopia. The Ethiopians, though, had never called their emperor that. When ambassadors from Emperor Zara Yaqob attended the Council of Florence in 1441, they were confused when council prelates insisted on referring to their monarch as Prester John. They tried to explain that nowhere in Zara Yaqob’s list of regnal names did that title occur. However, their admonitions did little to stop Europeans from calling the King of Ethiopia Prester John. Some writers who used the title did understand it was not an indigenous honorific; for instance Jordanus seems to use it simply because his readers would have been familiar with it, not because he thought it authentic.
Ethiopia has been claimed for many years as the origin of the Prester John legend, but most modern experts believe that the legend was simply adapted to fit that nation in the same fashion that it had been projected upon Ong Khan and Central Asia during the 13th century. Modern scholars find nothing about the Prester or his country in the early material that would make Ethiopia a more suitable identification than any place else, and furthermore, specialists in Ethiopian history have effectively demonstrated that the story was not widely known there until well after European contact.
Finally during the 17th and early 18th centuries, it was finally agreed across Christendom that there as not and never had been a Prester John though his myth and legend continue to this day.