I have done it again. I bought another book. I happened to be in the library browsing through the 'Books for Sale' when I saw it. And I just couldn't resist it. It was a tattered paperback priced at all of twenty pence. So what was this irresistible tome? It was a copy of John Buchan's adventure story 'Prester John'. The last time I read this book was when I was preparing for the Royal Naval Apprentices entrance examination. This was the set book for the English Literature paper. That was way back in 1942 - so long ago that I can't remember much of the plot. That's a lie - I can't remember any of the plot. But having bought the book, I started to wonder. Who was Prester John? Or was he just a figment of the author's imagination? So I started to delve.
The story of Prester John seems to start way back in medieval times, when maps of the world produced in Europe seemed to be more fiction than fact. They showed the Atlantic Ocean dotted with islands inhabited by fairies, and the seas filled with gigantic sea serpents frolicking in the waves. The blank parts of the map that represented the unexplored regions were filled with fabulous beasts - dragons, unicorns and one-eyed giants. Africa and Asia were as unknown as the dark side of the moon. What prevented explorers from venturing southwards and eastwards was the Islamic Empire that spread from southern Spain along the North African coast and eastward as far as the eye could see. The crusaders had gained a foothold in Palestine and Syria, but the Islamic menace was still there.
There was a record of an enigmatic priest-king known as 'Prester John' in 1145 when a French bishop told the Pope of "a certain John, a king and a priest who dwells beyond Persia and Armenia in the uttermost East, who, with all his people, is a Christian". He was supposed to be a lineal descendant of the Magi and ruled over the peoples that they governed, and inspired by the example of his forefathers who came to adore Christ, he had planned to go to the aid of Jerusalem, but was prevented from crossing the Tigris because the river was frozen.
And then, around 1165, copies of a letter, written in Latin, began to circulate around Europe. How the letter arrived no one knew. It was addressed to the Emperor of Byzantium, and was from someone who styled himself modestly as 'prester' - that is, presbyter or priest - who claimed to be the ruler of a distant land. The letter was hardly modest, though, for it started "From Prester John, by the grace of God, most powerful king over all Christian kings." And then it went on to extol his virtues. "If indeed you wish to know wherein consists our great power, then believe without doubting that I, Prester John . . . . exceed in riches, virtue, and power all creatures who dwell under heaven. Seventy-two kings pay tribute to me. I am a devout Christian . . . . We have made a vow to visit the sepulchre of our Lord with a very great army to wage war against and chastise the enemies of the cross of Christ." And it continued - "Our magnificence dominates the three Indias, and extends to Farther India, where the body of St. Thomas the Apostle rests. It reaches through the desert toward the place of the rising sun, and continues through the valley of deserted Babylon close by the tower of Babel . . . .", and so on.
The Europeans in the Holy Land must have jumped for joy when they heard of this Christian monarch who ruled an immense kingdom near India (that is, all the unexplored lands beyond the River Tigris) who was willing to come to their aid. To the modern reader, the claims made in this letter seem so absurd, bounding on the ridiculous, but, to people living in the twelfth century, anything could exist in those unexplored areas. And so there was a new addition to the map of Asia, the 'Wondrous Kingdom of Prester John'. But more was to come. In 1177, excited travellers from the East brought back news that, not only did Prester John want to be instructed in the Catholic faith, he also wanted to build a church in Rome and construct an altar in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The Pope was ecstatic. He wrote a letter to this legendary monarch, and gave it to Dr Philippus, his private physician, to deliver. The physician set off on his mission - he was never heard of again.
The next instalment of the story came in 1221, when rumours began to circulate of a great Christian army which had been trouncing the Muslims in the East, and who would soon join up with its Christian counterpart, so that, together, they could launch a final attack which would remove the Saracens from the face of the Earth. But according to these rumours, it wasn't Prester John, who would have been well over one hundred years old at this time, but his grandson, David, who led this army. No one really believed that this would happen, but a year later an army did arrive. Unfortunately, the leader of this horde was neither Prester John nor David. It was Genghis Khan, king of Mongolia and anything but a Christian, with an army bigger than any that had been seen since the days of the Romans. This army spread over Eastern Europe, but Genghis Khan had to return to Asia to settle a political squabble in his homeland. And once the Mongols had retired, their leader made it clear that he had no intention of taking the West into his already vast empire. The routes to the Orient were now open for European explorers and traders, and so the search for the kingdom of Prester John began in earnest, together with the idea of converting the pagan Mongols to Christianity and hoping that they would then join in the Holy War against the Muslims. One of these travellers was a Venetian, Marco Polo, who claimed to have found the long-lost kingdom of Prester John. According to him, this land was a large area to the North of Mongolia once ruled by a king known as 'Prester John' who had been murdered by one of his vassals, a man by the name of Genghis Khan. The current ruler of this Christian kingdom was a God-fearing man who also held the title of Prester John. Now, would Marco Polo tell a lie about a thing like this? He was not the sort of man to invent fanciful tales. So, did he find the Kingdom of Prester John or not? No one can say for certain.
However, there is another twist in this tale. Many historians think that the Kingdom of Prester John is just an embroidered description of the Christian Church in Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, which was founded shortly after the death of Christ. This region is ringed by almost impenetrable mountains, and was never attacked by the Muslims because, they said, when the prophet Mohammed announced his mission to all rulers of the world it was only the ruler of Abyssinia who was courteous enough to reply. The Abyssinian king ruled over a large area rich in mineral resources, and included among its people a tribe of pygmies and another of extremely tall people. Both are now extinct. The Abyssinian monarchs claimed to be descendants of King Solomon, a claim upheld by Haile Selassie who ruled in the twentieth century. After all, the first Abyssinian king, Menelek, is said to have been the son of the Queen of Sheba, born after her visit to King Solomon as related in the Bible in the Book of Kings. So, was Prester John just an inflated yarn based on an Ethiopian king? Who knows? Though when the ambassador of Abyssinia arrived in Rome in 1441, he denied that his sovereign was named 'John'. "No!" he said. "No! His name is Zareiacob, meaning 'Descendant of the prophet Jacob'."
So, who was Prester John? Did he ever exist? After all the books, encyclopedias and web sites that I have looked at, I still feel that your guess is as good as mine.
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