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"Preste" as the Emperor of Ethiopia, enthroned on a map of East Africa in an atlas prepared for Queen Mary, 1558. (British Library)
The legends of Prester John (also Presbyter John), popular in Europe from the 12th through the 17th centuries, told of a Christian patriarch and king said to rule over a Christian nation lost amidst the Muslims and pagans in the Orient. Written accounts of this kingdom are variegated collections of medieval popular fantasy. Reportedly a descendant of one of the Three Magi, Prester John was said to be a generous ruler and a virtuous man, presiding over a realm full of riches and strange creatures, in which the Patriarch of Saint Thomas resided. His kingdom contained such marvels as the Gates of Alexander and the Fountain of Youth, and even bordered the Earthly Paradise. Among his treasures was a mirror through which every province could be seen, the fabled original from which derived the "speculum literature" of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, in which the prince's realms were surveyed and his duties laid out. 
At first, Prester John was imagined to be in India; tales of the "Nestorian" Christians' evangelistic success there 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. After the coming of the Mongols to the Western world, accounts placed the king in Central Asia, and eventually Portuguese explorers convinced themselves they had found him in Ethiopia. Prester John's kingdom was the object of a quest, firing the imaginations of generations of adventurers, but remaining out of reach. He was a symbol to European Christians of the Church's universality, transcending culture and geography to encompass all humanity, in a time when ethnic and interreligious tension made such a vision seem distant.
Origin of the legend
Prester John from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493
The stories of Saint Thomas proselytizing in India, which date back to at least the 3rd century, had obvious influence on the legend's development. Distorted reports of the Assyrian Church of the East's movements in Asia had a hand as well. This church, called "Nestorian" by Europeans who mistook it as adhering to the teachings of Nestorius, gained a wide following in the Eastern nations and engaged the Western imagination as an assemblage both exotic and familiarly Christian.  Additionally, a kernel of the tradition may have been drawn from Saint Irenaeus's quotes, recorded by the ecclesiastical historian and bishop Eusebius,  on the shadowy early Christian figure John the Presbyter of Syria, supposed in one document to be the author of two of the Epistles of John.  The martyr bishop Papias had been Irenaeus' teacher; Papias in turn had received his apostolic tradition from John the Presbyter. Little links this figure to the Prester John legend beyond the name, however.
Whatever its influences, the legend began in earnest in the early 12th century with two reports of visits of an Archbishop of India to Constantinople and of a Patriarch of India to Rome at the time of Pope Callixtus II (1119 – 1124). These visits apparently from the Saint Thomas Christians of India cannot be confirmed, evidence of both being secondhand reports. Later, the German chronicler Otto of Freising reports in his Chronicon of 1145 that the previous year he had met a certain Hugh, bishop of Jabala in Syria, at the court of Pope Eugene III in Viterbo.   Hugh was an emissary of Prince Raymond of Antioch seeking Western aid against the Saracens after the Siege of Edessa, and his counsel incited Eugene to call for the Second Crusade. He told Otto, in the presence of the pope, that Prester John, a Nestorian Christian who served in the dual position of priest and king, had regained the city of Ecbatana from the brother monarchs of Media and Persia, the Samiardi, in a great battle "not many years ago". Afterwards Prester John allegedly set out for Jerusalem to rescue the Holy Land, but the swollen waters of the Tigris compelled him to return to his own country. His fabulous wealth was demonstrated by his emerald scepter; his holiness by his descent from the Three Magi.
Otto's story appears to be a muddled version of real events. In 1141, the Kara-Khitan Khanate under Yelü Dashi defeated the Seljuk Turks near Samarkand. The Seljuks ruled over Persia at the time and were the most powerful force in the Muslim world, and the defeat at Samarkand weakened them substantially. The Kara-Khitan were not Christians, however, and there is no reason to suppose Yelü Dashi was ever called Prester John. However, several vassals of the Kara-Khitan practiced Nestorian Christianity, which may have contributed to the legend.  The idea was introduced into the academic mainstream by Lev Gumilev in his popular book about Prester John, "Searches for an Imaginary Kingdom" (1970).
Whatever the case may be, the defeat encouraged the Crusaders and inspired a notion of deliverance from the East, and it is possible Otto recorded Hugh's confused report to prevent complacency in the Crusade's European backers; according to his account no help could be expected from a powerful Eastern king. 
Letter of Prester John
Depiction of the Kerait ruler Wang Khan as "Prester John" in "Le Livre des Merveilles", 15th century
No more of the tale is recorded until about 1165 when copies of the Letter of Prester John started spreading throughout Europe. An epistolary wonder tale with parallels suggesting its author knew the Romance of Alexander and the above-mentioned Acts of Thomas, the Letter was supposedly written to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus (1143 – 1180) by Prester John, descendant of one of the Three Magi and King of India.  The many marvels of richness and magic it contained captured the imagination of Europeans, and it was translated into numerous languages, including Hebrew. It circulated in ever more embellished form for centuries in manuscripts, a hundred examples of which still exist. The invention of printing perpetuated the letter's popularity in printed form; it was still current in popular culture during the period of European exploration. Part of the letter's essence was that a lost kingdom of Nestorian Christians still existed in the vastnesses of Central Asia.
The reports were so far believed that Pope Alexander III sent a letter to Prester John via his emissary Philip, his physician, on September 27, 1177. Of Philip, nothing more is recorded, but it is most probable he did not return with word from Prester John.  The Letter continued to circulate, accruing more embellishments with each copy. In modern times textual analysis of the letter's variant Hebrew versions have suggested an origin among the Jews of northern Italy or Languedoc: several Italian words remained in the Hebrew texts. At any rate, the Letter’s author was most likely a Westerner, though his or her purpose remains unclear.
In 1221 Jacques de Vitry, Bishop of Acre, returned from the disastrous Fifth Crusade with good news: King David of India, the son or grandson of Prester John, had mobilized his armies against the Saracens. He had already conquered Persia, then under the Khwarezmian Empire's control, and was moving on towards Baghdad as well. This descendent of the great king who had defeated the Seljuks in 1141 planned to reconquer and rebuild Jerusalem.  
The bishop of Acre was right in the fact that a great King was conquering Persia; however "King David", as it turned out, was no benevolent Nestorian monarch nor even a Christian, but the pagan warlord Genghis Khan. His reign took the story of Prester John in a new direction. The Mongol Empire's rise gave Western Christians the opportunity to visit lands they had never seen before, and they set out in large numbers along the Empire's secure roads. Belief that a lost Nestorian kingdom existed in the east, or that the Crusader states' salvation depended on an alliance with an Eastern monarch, explains the numerous Christian ambassadors and missionaries sent to the Mongols. These include the Franciscan explorers Giovanni da Pian del Carpine in 1245 and William of Rubruck in 1253.
The link between Prester John and Genghis Khan was elaborated upon at this time as the Prester became identified with Genghis' foster father, Toghrul, king of the Keraits, given the Jin title Wang Khan Toghrul. Fairly truthful chroniclers and explorers such as Marco Polo,  Crusader-historian Jean de Joinville,  and the Franciscan voyager Odoric of Pordenone  stripped Prester John of much of his otherworldly veneer, portraying him as a more realistic earthly monarch. Joinville describes Genghis Khan in his chronicle as a "wise man" who unites all the Tartar tribes and leads them to victory against their strongest enemy, Prester John.  William of Rubruck says a certain "Vut", lord of the Keraits and brother to the Nestorian King John, was defeated by the Mongols under Genghis. Genghis made off with Vut's daughter and married her to his son, and their union produced Möngke, the Khan at the time William wrote.
According to Marco Polo's Travels, the war between the Prester and Genghis started when Genghis, new ruler of the rebellious Tartars, asked for the hand of Prester John's daughter in marriage. Angered that his lowly vassal would make such a request, Prester John denied him in no uncertain terms. In the war that followed, Genghis triumphed and Prester John perished. 
The historical figure behind these accounts, Toghrul, was in fact a Nestorian Christian monarch defeated by Genghis. He had fostered the future Khan after the death of his father Yesugei and was one of his early allies, but the two had a falling out. After Toghrul rejected a proposal to wed his son and daughter to Genghis' children, the rift between them grew until war broke out in 1203. Genghis captured Toghrul's daughter Sorghaghtani Beki and married her to his son Tolui; they had several children, including Möngke, Kublai, Hulagu, and Ariq Boke.
The major characteristic of Prester John tales from this period is the kings' portrayal not as an invincible hero, but merely one of many adversaries defeated by the Mongols. But as the Mongol Empire collapsed, Europeans began to shift away from the idea that Prester John had ever really been a Central Asian king.  At any rate they had little hope of finding him there, as travel in the region became dangerous without the security the Empire had provided. In works such as The Travels of Sir John Mandeville   and Historia Trium Regum by John of Hildesheim,  Prester John's domain tends to regain its fantastic aspects and finds itself located not on the steppes of Central Asia, but back in India proper, or some other exotic locale. Wolfram von Eschenbach tied the history of Prester John to the Holy Grail legend in his poem Parzival, in which the Prester is the son of the Grail maiden and the Saracen knight Feirefiz. 
A map of Prester John's kingdom as Ethiopia
Though Prester John had been considered the ruler of India since the legend's beginnings, "India" was a vague concept to the Europeans. Writers often spoke of the "Three Indias", and lacking any real knowledge of the Indian Ocean, they sometimes considered Ethiopia one of the three. Westerners knew Ethiopia was a powerful Christian nation, but contact had been sporadic since the rise of Islam. Since no Prester John was to be found in Asia, European imagination moved him around the blurry frontiers of "India" until they found an appropriately powerful kingdom for him in Ethiopia. 
Marco Polo had discussed Ethiopia as a magnificent Christian land  and Orthodox Christians had a legend that the nation would one day rise up and invade Arabia,  but they did not place Prester John there. Then in 1306 thirty Ethiopian ambassadors from Emperor Wedem Arad came to Europe, and Prester John was mentioned as the patriarch of their church in a record of their visit.  The first clear description of an African Prester John is in the Mirabilia Descripta of Dominican missionary Jordanus, around 1329.  In discussing the "Third India", Jordanus records a number of fanciful stories about the land and its king, whom he says Europeans call Prester John. After this point, an African location became increasingly popular; by the time the emperor Lebna Dengel and the Portuguese had established diplomatic contact with each other in 1520, Prester John was the name by which Europeans knew the Emperor of Ethiopia. 
The Ethiopians, though, had never called their emperor that. When ambassadors from Emperor Zara Yaqob attended the Council of Florence in 1441, they were confused when council prelates insisted on referring to their monarch as Prester John. They tried to explain that nowhere in Zara Yaqob's list of regnal names did that title occur. "No matter," says Robert Silverberg, author of The Realm of Prester John. "Prester John was what Europe wanted to call the King of Ethiopia, and Prester John is what Europe called him."  Some writers who used the title did understand it was not an indigenous honorific; for instance Friar Jordanus seems to use it simply because his readers would have been familiar with it, not because he thought it authentic. 
While Ethiopia has been claimed for many years as the origin of the Prester John legend, most modern experts believe the legend was simply adapted to fit that nation in the same fashion it had been projected upon Wang Khan and Central Asia during the 13th century. Modern scholars find nothing about the Prester or his country in the early material that would make Ethiopia a more suitable identification than any place else, and furthermore, specialists in Ethiopian history have effectively demonstrated the story was not widely known there until well after European contact. When the Czech Franciscan Remedius Prutky asked Emperor Iyasu II about this identification in 1751, Prutky states the man was "astonished, and told me that the kings of Abyssinia had never been accustomed to call themselves by this name."  In a footnote to this passage, Richard Pankhurst opines that this is apparently the first recorded statement by an Ethiopian monarch about this tale, and they were likely ignorant of the title until Prutky's inquiry. 
End of the legend
When 17th century academics like the German orientalist Hiob Ludolf proved that there was no actual native connection between Prester John and the Ethiopian monarchs,  the fabled king left the maps for good. But the legend had affected several hundred years of European and world history, directly and indirectly, by encouraging Europe's explorers, missionaries, scholars and treasure hunters.
Though the prospect of finding Prester John had long since vanished, the tales continued to inspire through the 20th century. William Shakespeare's 1600 play Much Ado About Nothing contains an early modern reference to the legendary king,  and in 1910 British novelist and politician John Buchan used the legend in his sixth book, Prester John, to supplement a plot about a Zulu uprising in South Africa. The book was popular, and exists as an excellent example of the early 20th century adventure novel. Perhaps due to Buchan's work, Prester John appeared in pulp fiction and comics throughout the century. For example, Marvel Comics has featured "Prester John" in issues of Fantastic Four and Thor.
Charles Williams, a prominent member of the 20th century literary group the Inklings, made Prester John a messianic protector of the Holy Grail in his 1930 novel War in Heaven. The Prester and his kingdom also figure prominently in Umberto Eco's 2000 novel Baudolino, in which the titular protagonist enlists his friends to write the Letter of Prester John for his stepfather Frederick Barbarossa, but it is stolen before they can send it out. Eventually Baudolino and company determine to visit the priest's wonderful kingdom which turns out to be everything and nothing like they expected.
1. See Speculum in medieval titles like the Speculum maius of Vincent de Beauvais, the Mirrour of the Blessed Lyf of Iesu Christ (about 1400) and A Mirror for Magistrates (1559), and other works.
2. Silverberg, p. 20
3. Eusebius. Historia Ecclesiastica, book III, xxxix, 4.
4. According to the 5th century Decretum Gelasianum.
5. Silverberg, pp. 35–39.
6. Silverberg, pp. 29–34.
7. Halsall, Paul (1997). "Otto of Freising: The Legend of Prester John". Internet Medieval Sourcebook. Retrieved June 20, 2005.
8. Silverberg, pp. 3–7
9. Silverberg, pp. 12–13
10. Silverberg, p. 8
11. Silverberg, pp. 40–73.
12. Silverberg, pp. 58–60
13. Bar-Ilan, Meir (1995). "Prester John: Fiction and History". In History of European Ideas, volume 20 (1-3), pp. 291-298. Retrieved June 20, 2005.
14. Jacques de Vitry; Huygens, R. B. C. (Ed.) (1970). Lettres de Jacques de Vitry. Leiden.
15. Silverberg, pp. 71–73.
16. Silverberg, p. 86.
17. Polo, Marco; Latham, Ronald (translator) (1958). The Travels, pp. 93–96. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-044057-7.
18. Jean de Joinville; Geffroy de Villehardouin; and Shaw, Margaret R. B. (translator) (1963). Chronicles of the Crusades. New York: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044124-7.
19. Odoric of Pordenone; Yule, Henry (translator); Chiesa, Paolo (introduction) (December 15, 2001). The Travels of Friar Odoric. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. ISBN 0-8028-4963-6.
20. William of Rubruck; Jackson, Peter; Ruysbroeck, Willem van; Morgan, David (editors) (1990). The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck. London: Hakluyt Society. ISBN 0-904180-29-8.
21. Marco Polo, pp. 93–96.
22. Silverberg, p. 139.
23. Halsall, Paul (March 1996). "Mandeville on Prester John". Internet Medieval Sourcebook. Retrieved June 20, 2005.
24. Mosely, C. W. R. D. (1983). The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, pp. 167–171. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-044435-1.
25. John of Hildesheim (1997). The Story of the Three Kings. Neumann Press. ISBN 0-911845-68-2.
26. Wolfram von Eschenbach; Hatto, A. T. (1980). Parzival, p. 408. New York: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044361-4.
27. Silverberg, pp. 163–164.
28. Marco Polo, pp. 303–307.
29. Silverberg, pp. 176–177.
30. Silverberg, pp. 164–165.
31. Jordanus, Mirabilia, chapter VI (2).
32. Silverberg, pp. 188–189.
33. Silverberg, p. 189.
34. Silverberg, p. 166–167.
35. Arrowsmith-Brown, p. 115.
36. Arrowsmith-Brown, p. 115 n 24.
37. Ludolf, Hiob (1681). Historia Aethiopica.
38. Shakespeare, William (1600). Much Ado About Nothing, act II, scene 1.
1. Arrowsmith-Brown, J. H. (translator), Prutky's travels to Ethiopia and other countries. London: Hakluyt Society, 1991. The section concerning Prester John is pp. 115-117.
2. Wilhelm Baum, Die Verwandlungen des Mythos vom Reich des Priesterkönigs Johannes, Klagenfurt 1999
3. Charles Beckingham, Prester John, the Mongols and the Ten Lost Tribes, Aldershot 1996, ISBN 0-86078-553-X — Assembly of the essential source texts and studies.
4. Umberto Eco, Baudolino ISBN 0-15-602906-5 — Baudolino and his ragtag friends engage in typical scholastic debates of the period, trying to determine the dimensions of Solomon's Temple and the location of the Earthly Paradise. And when the Emperor needs support for his claims to a saintly lineage, who but Baudolino can craft the perfect letter of homage from the legendary Prester John, Holy (and wholly fictitious) Christian King of the East?
5. Nicholas Jubber, The Prester Quest, Doubleday, 2005, ISBN 0-385-60702-4
6. Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, which tells much of Prester John's supposed history, written in 1298. See especially Book I, Chapters 46-50, 59; and Book II, Chapters 38-39.
7. Robert Silverberg, The Realm of Prester John, Ohio University Press, 1996 (paperback edition) ISBN 1-84212-409-9
8. Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science: During the First Thirteen Centuries of Our Era, Volume II, pp. 236-245, Columbia University Press, 1923, New York and London, Hardcover, 1036 pages ISBN 0-231-08795-0
9. Michael Uebel, Ecstatic Transformation: On the Uses of Alterity in the Middle Ages, Palgrave/Macmillan, 2005. ISBN 1-4039-6524-2. Contains discussion of the Letter of Prester John and full English translation.
10. Robert Anthony Vitale, editor, Edition and study of the "Letter of Prester John to the Emperor Manuel of Constantinople": The Anglo-Norman rhymed version, College Park, Maryland, 1975