The kingdom was filled with gold, magical gems that could restore sight, and the Fountain of Youth. It also was home to a variety of miraculous beasts including huge ants which dug up gold, fish that exuded imperial dye and salamanders which lived in the heart of fires. And its king, Prester John (‘prester’ meaning ‘priest) was so powerful he could alter the course of the Nile. But where was this kingdom with its powerful king? It was a question that haunted Europeans for centuries.
The legend of Prester John and his kingdom obsessed many people over the centuries, most particularly from the 12th century onwards after reports of his existence came from a German chronicler, Otto of Freising who recounted in his Chronicon of 1145 that the previous year he had met Hugh, Bishop of Jabala in Syria at the court of Pope Eugene III in Viterbo. Prince Raymond of Antioch had sent Hugh to seek aid against the Saracens and request a second crusade. Hugh reportedly told Otto of Freising about a Nestorian Christian, Prester John, who was both priest and king and had regained Ecbatana in a battle and had set out for Jerusalem until floods on the Tigris halted him. He also claimed that Prester John was both wealthy and descended from the three Magi. In 1165, a letter purportedly written by Prester John to the Byzantine Emperor began circulating throughout Europe filled with the marvels and richness of his kingdom and it captured the imagination of Europeans. It also prompted Pope Alexander III to write a letter that he entrusted his physician, Master Philip of Venice in 1177 and Master Phillip wrote back to the Pope describing his journey. What became of him once he reached Ethiopia is not known.
There was intense speculation about the exact location of Prester John’s kingdom. Originally it was thought to be in India and other parts of Asia, but European ideas about those regions were very vague. Eventually, speculation moved to Ethiopia, a once powerful Christian region, now obscure since the expansion of the Muslim faith. Explorers, including Marco Polo, and missionaries from Portugal and other countries followed that theory until the 17th century. Prince Henry of Portugal, known as Prince Henry the Navigator, was among those interested in locating Prester John’s kingdom. He was intent on exploring Africa with the purpose of converting the people to Christianity. He set up a navigation school in Sagres and funded many voyages to Africa by explorers eager to exploit his desire to convert souls. Their interest was more focused on acquiring riches, either through the slave trade or other resources discovered there.
But who exactly was Prester John? How did he rise to power and where did he spring from? Those questions were posed alongside of the questions of the kingdom's location. Many ideas were put forward.
One idea was that the battle referred to by Hugh may have been that fought at Qatwan, Persia, in 1141, when the Mongul khan, the founder of the Karakitai empire in Central Asia, defeated the Seljuq sultan Sanjar. The title of the Karakitai rulers was Gur-khan, or Kor-khan, which may have been changed phonetically in Hebrew to Yoḥanan or in Syriac to Yuḥanan, thus producing the Latin Johannes, or John. Though the Gur-khans were Mongol Buddhists, many of their leading subjects were Nestorians, and, according to a report by the Franciscan missionary Willem van Rysbroeck in 1255, the daughter of the last Gur-khan and wife of King Küchlüg of the Naiman, a Central Asian people, was a Christian. Küchlüg, whose father’s name was Ta-yang Khan (Great King John in Chinese), was defeated by the great Mongol ruler Genghis Khan in 1218.
When I wrote The Quest of Hope, the third book in the Renaissance Sojourner Series, I chose to use one avenue that was pursued in the book, The Prester Quest, by Nicholas Jubber, published in 2006, which was part travelogue and historical narrative that explored the notion that Gebre Mesquel Lalibela was the true identity of Prester John. Lalibela was Emperor of Ethiopia during the Zagwe Dynasty, reigning from 1181-1221. The complex monolithic churches located in what was then Roha and now called Lalibela, are attributed to his reign, though some buildings could have earlier origins. The churches are rough-hewn out of rock and have become a UNESCO heritage site.
You can read more about the Renaissance Sojourner Series on the book pages of my website here. www.kristingleeson.com
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
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