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 eighth century. 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, who had an empire that stretched beyond Persia and Arabia across the 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 travelled to India, 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 widespread enough in 833 CE 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 Persia and Assyria, and 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 — Muslims. Besides describing his realm, his army and his palace, the letter also described a magical mirror that enabled him to see and control his vast empire from one spot.
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. In 1248, a church envoy to the court of the Mongols enhanced the legend of Prester John by reporting that he had defeated the Mongols by creating men out of copper, filling them with Greek fire, and placing them on horseback, burning the Mongol army completely.
By the early 14th century, most of the European rulers, including popes, seemed to have given up hopes of finding Prester John anywhere in Asia — after all, by this time numerous diplomatic envoys and 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.
Even when most European travellers 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, from Tibet to Japan to Ethiopia, in order to keep on believing in him.
The legend of Prester John, apart from its curiosity value, really helped stimulate exploration of the far east and Asia. 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. His mythology helps us appreciate how India and Christianity, was viewed in Europe before Vasco da Gama made his historic journey in 1498.