Published in First City magazine, Delhi, April 2004

Eight hundred years ago, Europeans believed that a Christian priest-king called Prester John ruled India.

Those were the days of the Crusades. Under the spiritual leadership of the Pope, Christian soldiers fought to reclaim the Holy Lands, especially Jerusalem, which had been under the control of Muslims since the 700s. In the midst of all this turmoil, the Catholic leadership received word about a mysterious Eastern ruler known as Prester John, or Presbyter John, or Priesty Juan, or Priester John, or any one of a dozen or so similar-sounding names, whose empire stretched beyond Persia and Arabia across Three Indias. With an eastern Christian flank opening up, European Christian monarchs hoped to trap and crush the Muslims once and for all.

Who was this Prester John?

According to an old legend, one of Christ’s apostles, St Thomas, was supposed to have traveled to India, there to establish a Christian community that retained many of the ideals of the original church, and which would blossom into an almost perfect Christian kingdom, ruled over by this legendary king, Prester John. The legend of the journey of St Thomas to India was current by the 3rd century AD, and was widespread enough in 833 for Alfred the Great to send two priests with gifts to St Thomas’ shrine on the east coast of India.

The first authentic mention of Prester John occurred in the 1145 chronicle of Otto of Freising. Otto recounted that the first news of Prester John had been brought to the Holy See by the Bishop of Gabala (near Antioch). According to the Bishop’s report, ruling in the East somewhere there was a Christian king named Prester John, who was descended from the Magi, and who ruled over a fantastically wealthy kingdom. Prester John had recently destroyed the armies of Media, Persia and Assyria, and was was heading for the Holy Land to defend Jerusalem against the Muslims, but, according to the report, was prevented from getting there by adverse conditions: his vast army waited in vain for years for the River Tigris to freeze in order to cross it and enter the Muslim lands.

In 1165 the original secondhand report of Otto of Freising’s chronicle was overshadowed by the appearance in Europe of a seemingly authentic letter from Prester John. Prester John described himself as the ruler of the Three Indias, a realm that extended from the Tower of Babel to the rising of the sun; he gave an elaborate account of the marvels and riches of his kingdom, and declared his intention of visiting Rome after defeating the enemies of Christ (the Muslims).

I, Presbyter Johannes, the Lord of Lords, surpass all under heaven in virtue, in riches, and in power; seventy-two kings pay us tribute … Our land is the home of elephants, dromedaries, camels, crocodiles, meta-collinarum, cametennus, tensevetes, wild asses, white and red lions, white bears, white merules, crickets, griffins, tigers, lamias, hyenas, wild horses, wild oxen, and wild men — men with horns, one-eyed men, men with eyes before and behind, centaurs, fauns, satyrs, pygmies, forty-ell high giants, cyclopses, and similar women. It is the home, too, of the phoenix and of nearly all living animals. The Amazons and the Brahmins are subject to him.

This is how his army is described

When we ride abroad plainly we have a wooden, unadorned cross without gold or gems about it, borne before us in order that we meditate on the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ; also a golden bowl filled with earth to remind us of that whence we sprung and that to which we must return; but besides these there is borne a silver bowl full of gold as a token to all that we are the Lord of Lords.

This is how his palace is described

The palace in which our Superemincency resides is built after the pattern of the castle built by the apostle Thomas for the Indian king Gundoforus.

And perhaps the most fantastic of all is the magical mirror that enables him to see and control his vast empire from one spot.

Before our palace stands a mirror, the ascent to which consists of five and twenty steps of porpyry and serpintine … This mirror is guarded day and night by three thousand men. We look therein and behold all that is taking place in every province and region subject to our sceptre.

Apparently this letter had first been sent to the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople, where copies of it had been made and circulated around the courts of Europe. The letter had arrived at a time when the Muslim pressure on the crusader states in the Holy Land was increasing; its promise of relief was a welcome message. In 1177 Pope Alexander II wrote what is generally understood to have been a reply to Prester John, entrusted it to his personal physician, Master Philip, and sent him off on his way to deliver the letter. It is known that Master Philip and his letter got as far as Palestine, but after that all reports of him disappeared. The anxious pope received no reply.

Sometimes the concept of Prester John could be confused with actual living kings. For instance, for a long time many Europeans believed that Genghis Khan was in fact Prester John. The Mongol hordes had invaded the Middle East in 1221 and had seriously damaged the Islamic occupation of the area. This invasion seemed to many to be the actual invasion of Prester John at the head of his Christian army, driving westwards from central Asia in order to drive the Muslims out of the Holy Land. In a contemporary chronicle, a monk wrote of the “rumors sweeping right across Christendom of the coming of King David of India, whose other name is Prester John, to the aid of the crusaders.”

To add to all these reports and rumours, an apparently independent report out of Hungary in 1223 declared that “the king of Hungary informed the Pope that a certain king David, or Prester John as he is being called, has entered Russia with a great multitude of people. He had left India 7 years before, taking with him the body of the blessed apostle; and during this [westward] journey his army killed 200,000 Russians and Rumanians.”

In 1248 a church envoy to the court of the Mongols, a Franciscan friar called Giovanni Capini, further added to the legend of Prester John by reporting that P John was the king of Greater India who defeated the Mongols (this time) by creating men out of copper, filling them with Greek fire, and placing them on horseback, so burning the Mongol army completely.

By the early fourteenth century, most of the European rulers, popes, etc. seemed to have given up hope of finding Prester John anywhere in Asia – after all, by this time numerous diplomatic envoys as sundry other travellers had been through most parts of Asia without finding the wondrous king himself.

It took several centuries for Europeans to, regretfully, admit that Prester John was nothing more than a legend. The question that they asked themselves, and which historians and the curious have asked themselves ever since, is – who wrote the supposed authentic letter from Prester John to the rulers of Europe that turned up in 1165?

There’s a theory that it was written by a cleric with a good knowledge of ancient Latin sources – because of some of the information contained within the letter. The argument goes that it was actually written on behalf of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who wanted to assert temporal power over the spiritual power of the papacy by inventing a magnificent Christian king in a distant land. This would not have been possible if people had not strongly wanted to believe in the tale of a mighty Christian king who would relieve the Holy Lands of the Islamic menace; the many fantastic details of the letter simply related what medieval people believed the mysterious Asian kingdoms were like.

Even when most European travelers in Asia failed to find any trace of Prester John, Europeans still wanted to believe in this king so much they simply moved his kingdom to a different place, then a different place again, in order to keep on believing in him.

Traveling friars insisted that they had been to the country of Prester John perhaps because it made their journeys more fantastic and exciting. Some of the sights and societies they encountered in the Far East were so strange that it must have been easy for someone who so desperately wanted to believe that they’d found the kingdom of Prester John (even if they hadn’t found the man himself). Their reports once they got home simply lent weight to the argument that Prester John existed.

There are many who still believe that Prester John was a historical figure, albeit a distorted one. Theories include but are not limited to:

Prester John’s tale was a cheap rip-off of a medieval romance about Alexander the Great.
Prester John was a Christian-Tibetan llama who ruled the mythical kingdom of Shambala and/or Shangri-La.
Prester John wasn’t Christian at all, but was in fact a Tibetan or Indian or possibly Mongol ruler who just had Christianity attributed to him after the fact.
Prester John was the king of Ethiopia, where more Nestorian Christians could be found.
Prester John was Patriarch John of India, who visited Pope Calixtus II in 1122, with all the rest of the legend being simply embellishment.

The legend of Prester John, apart from its curiosity value, really helped stimulate exploration of the Far East and Asia. Numerous explorers and official diplomatic envoys set out in order to make contact with this wonderful king. If it hadn’t been for Prester John, then quite possibly some of the European contacts with the Asian world in the medieval period would never have been made, or at least left to a much later date.

An understanding of his fabulous mythology helps us appreciate how India was viewed in Europe before Vasco da Gama made his monumental journey in 1498. It also helps us appreciate how myths are created in history and die as soon as they outlive their utility.