For over five centuries, the legend of the Christian priest-king gave hope to several European rulers in their struggle with Islam. It was the year 1165 when the copies of unknown letters began to circulate around Western Europe. The letters mentioned mythical towers, a fountain of youth, and tricks to win against the Islamic struggle. Though nobody at the time knew, who this king was, however, the letters were all penned under the name- Prester John. And thus began the legend.
People started looking for this man around the world but little did they know, that the person they were looking for didn’t exist at all!
In easy words, the history of Prester John is the history of a man who never existed.
His name first appear in 1145 and began to reappear from time to time to help rulers in their struggle with the growing Islamic invasion from the West. Prester John or John the Priest was initially thought to be a ruler from India, Asia, but later it became widely accepted that his kingdom lays in Africa. When the curious explorers began locating him, his kingdom began to move to the lesser-known regions. But despite this, it was the belief in his existence that helped Europeans and shaped its history.
Tales of the Nestorian Christians preaching success and of Thomas, the Apostle’s subcontinental travels as documented in works like the ‘Acts of Thomas’ probably provided the first seeds of the legend. Before the legend of Prester John, European rulers never invested in exploration. In fact, it had a profound effect on Europe for the next 4 centuries. It ignited the age of exploration and in their attempt to locate the legendary kingdom, they discovered Asia and Africa instead. It also inspired intercontinental diplomacy and indirectly started the civil war.
It is believed that when Europe was fighting wars against Islamic crusaders to protect what they call the Holy land of Christianity, they were looking for like-minded allies who could help them win this religious war. They were particularly looking for a rumored powerful Christian king who had defeated the Muslim invasion in the far East. But in reality, it was instead the converted Mongol tribe that fought the army. However, without the proper broadcast of news, it rather spread unreliably from person to person.
And by the time it reached Europe, the Mongol tribe was already replaced with a Heroic Christian army. And when these unknown letters were received by the rulers, they were already inspired by their epic vision. Who actually wrote these letters remain unknown but it strongly stereotyped European alignments and their goals. Whatever it was, over the centuries, the strong myth of Prester John was enough to propel the leaders. They first started looking for the legendary kingdom on their local maps and when they were unable to locate it, they began the so-called ‘Age of Exploration.’
Later they set the explorers to go East and they, in turn, discovered the newly formed Silk route. They weren’t looking for the mythical king himself, but for his descendants who might have survived. On their way, they recognized the Asian Mongols weren’t the believers of Christianity and that there is no way that Prestor John would have been one of them. Thus, they started exploring through the far East and so located Africa. Because Africa has converted to Christianity in the 4th century itself, it served as a perfect home to the legendary king.
But diplomacy turned this assumption into reality. The Ethiopians received European hospitality and were eager to work with them. Though Ethiopians knew that Prestor John do not belong to their history, yet the diplomatic benefit made it a perfect opportunity to do business with the Europeans. As a result, soon an alliance was announced between the two nations. But over years, Europeans recognized that Ethiopia was not a powerful ally they were searching for.
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Not only this, the Europeans believe that the Ethiopian Christianity was heretical and deemed for a conversion to which the latter denied. And so ignited the plot of the civil war between the two territories. By 1630, the alliance between the two nations was broken. And so by the next few centuries, the legend of Prestor John began to fade away.
Since then Prester John appeared in several pulp fiction and comics. For instance, Marvel Comics has featured “Prester John” in issues of Fantastic Four and Thor. He is also mentioned in DC’s comic Arak: Son of Thunder. He is also mentioned in the Vertigo imprint comic Fables.
Today, Prestor John’s legacy has turned into a myth that changed Europeon’s history. The prospect of finding Prester John had long since vanished, yet his tales continue to inspire Europeans even today.