The Legend of Prester John

How this mythical character galvanized explorers of medieval Europe into centuries of discovery is a story which will be retold many times by historians.  Not many people know that Vasco Da Gama for example carried letters of introduction from his king, to this legendary Prester John, so that they could have a healthy discussion when they met in the Indian continent, which by the way was one of the locales this immensely rich Prester John was ruling over.

Vasco Da Gama did meet a king, the Zamorin at Calicut, in 1498, a story which we all know very well, and the Zamorin seemed curious meeting a voyager who had traveled so far and so long but brought nothing along, by way of gifts. During their second meeting he asked the empty handed Gama why he who claimed to be from a wealthy land had brought nothing. The embarrassed captain replied that his voyage was one of discovery and that he as an ambassador and explorer and had just a letter to deliver. The Zamorin then asked Gama if he hoped to discover stones or men and that if indeed the Gama had planned to meet people in an inhabited land, he should have brought something along to break the ice.

From the above we note that the famed navigator was on a voyage of discovery (which later went on to start an immensely profitable trade and establishment of many colonies) and that he was looking for the Christian kingdom of one Prester John. Who then was this Prestor John residing in the east and what was his huge allure to the Western world? The mere fact that this single character played such a tremendous role in the history of nations is something which continues to astound people and students of history.

Presbyter Johannes, for that was supposedly his name, came into the limelight in the 12th century, just after the first crusade and the start of the second which was not going well for the Christians. He became a favorite of the clergy, who took to quoting his deeds, mainly because he was a crusader and a foe of Muslims. Was he a Mongol, Ethiopian, an Indian (In perspective, it must be noted here that India in those days was a vague term in the west, geographically covering much of the east, including Africa) king or none of those? Recall now that this was a period when the relations between the kings and the church was somewhat troubled, while at the same time, the crusades needed a united front and state support.

It all started with the visit of a person from the Syro- Malabar Church of Malabar in the 12th century, a period when the first of the crusades were winding down. Stories of travelers were just starting to come in, and getting recorded, but were not circulated or well known as yet, for the art of printing was still many centuries away. The words of a man of the church on the other hand was therefore one of much credibility and when indeed a Priest, claiming to be the Malabar Prelate or Patriarch, landed up in Rome, it was a matter of some importance to Pope Callixtus II.

Many of you would know the fact that Malabar was a place of refuge for many troubled people since time immemorial. Persecuted Jews came to the land in the ancient times, so also a large number of Persian Syrian Christians.  It is also the place where a large number of St Thomas Syrian Christians lived since the Apostle ‘Doubting’ Thomas or St Thomas came there in the 1st century. Soon the group comprised the St Thomas Nazranis and the Syro Knanayites and many more. They were evangelically administered from Shengly (Shingly – Cranganore) and possibly Mylapore in Madras which gained some fame as the ‘See (seat) of Thomas’, for that is where the remains of St Thomas were interred. It was believed that the Metropolitan Bishop or Patriarch of the Malabar Church was located in Mylapore, but we will come to that a little later. The Bishop who decided to make a yearlong bone breaking journey from Mylapore or Shingly in Malabar to distant Constantinople was one named Mar John. It is not clear if he was a person from Malabar (I would assume so), a Tamil or of mixed extract. He was going to Byzantium to attend a ceremony recognizing his appointment as the Patriarch of the Indies.

While at Constantinople, some of the clergy from Rome were also there, in discussions with the Byzantine emperor, and taking a liking for this chap from a distant land, invited him to visit Rome and meet the Pope. That he did and what happened next is the precursor for the origination of the myths and legends of a fairy tale like kingdom in the Indies. The meeting as recorded in the Pope’s chronicle was quoted by a monk named Alberic as ‘De Adventu Patriarchae Indorum (on the arrival of the Patriarch of the Indians)’. The record was popularized later by Fredrich Zarncke and corroborated by an independent mention in a letter from Odo of Rheims who was a witness to the event. It is not necessary to get into greater details, for reasons of brevity and it will suffice to mention that it was nothing short of fantasy and full of mentions of all kinds of miracles. One could question if a serious man would say such things or if it was all concocted by others later. I find it pretty difficult to believe that Mar John said all this, but if one were to critically analyze the letter, you will find quite a few nuggets of interest. It is not my intention to revisit the St Thomas epoch or this meeting in greater detail, that I will do another day, from a historic perspective, but we will get to the times of Mar John, which is close to a nine hundred years after St Thomas.

We know for example that Mar John travelled a whole year before reaching Constantinople in 1122, to receive the Pallium (a woolen vestment of honor) from the Byzantine emperor where he learned from the Romans that Rome was the ‘capital of the whole world’. He then went on to meet the pope and live in Rome for a year. At the papal meeting, he narrated that he hailed from Ulna (or ultima) a heavenly utopian place inhabited by many Christians, full of gold and riches, filled with people of good virtues, totally free of vices and so on. Not far on a hilltop was the church of St Thomas around which there were 12 monasteries. There is also a mention of the pope’s disbelief hearing that St Thomas ( his body which is displayed in the St Thomas Church)  opened and closed his hand miraculously to receive offerings, which the Bishop dispels by solemnly swearing on the holy gospel (according to the other witness - Odo of St Remy’s).

Did the copyist write the uttered sound correctly when he wrote Ulna or ultima? Was it Melia for Meliapur (now Mylapore which was considered Ultima Thule) or was it Adayar? Was it a location in Malabar such as Shingly, Kalikut or Piravom, some other ulnad (interior state)? Was it elsewhere, perhaps Urfa in Mesopotamia? Was it Kollam or Quilon? Was it perhaps the mythical kingdom of Mahabali which the Keralites remember even today? We will discuss all this another day, but suffice to say for now that Mar John filled the minds of the clergy in Rome with wonder and convinced them of the existence of a rich world in the South of the Indies. 

We should now take note of the 1141 battle of Samarkand in Central Asia when the Seljuk Turkish sultan Sanjar’s forces were decimated by the army led by a Chinese warrior Yehlu Tashih, the Gur Khan al-Sini, a Buddhist. Otto of Freising who heard about this battle from the Gabulan Bishop visiting Rome in 1144, mentioned a Prester John in 1145 for the first time in his Chronicle or history of the two cities. In the Chronica, Otto reports a meeting he had with Bishop Hugh of Jabala, who told him of a Nestorian Christian king in the east named Prester John. In it is said that this monarch would bring relief to the crusader states: this is the first documented mention of Prester John (The rest of the article will shorten this to PJ).The PJ die was thus cast and the spin started.

By 1165 the Prester John story went viral as we say today, following the surfacing of a letter comprising many paragraphs, considered to be addressed to King Emmanuel of Rome. Arguments and debates ensued as to who and where PJ was located. As time went by, travelers returning from Asian trips added stories of this PJ to their own, embellishing them even more. Prester John even got a biblical connection as the descendant of Gaspar the Indian, one of the three magi from biblical lore.

The letter and its various translations and versions cover so much geographical ground that fingers can point anywhere in the east, which perhaps was the intention of the letter’s creator. There are subtle references to India and in the inputs from Mar John, see some examples below

And our land stretches from the extremities of India, where the body of Thomas the Apostle rests and it extends through the wilderness to the setting sun, and reaches back, sloping to deserted Babylon, near the tower of Babylon. Seventy-two kingships serve us in bondage, and of those but few are Christians and each of them has a king, by itself, and these are all tributary to us.

And there is this fantastic nonsense about how pepper is collected - In another kingdom of ours there grow all kinds of pepper, and they are collected and exchanged for wheat, and skins, and cloth, and men’s food; and those regions are wooded, as if thickly planted with willows, and all full of serpents. And when the pepper ripens, all the people come from the nearest kingdoms, and bring with them chaff, and refuse, and dry branches; and they kindle the wood round about; and when a mighty wind blows, they set fire within and without the wood, so that not one of the snakes may escape; and so within the fire, after it has been thoroughly kindled, all the snakes perish, save those that reach caves; and when all the fire has died out, all come, men and women, small and big, with forks in their hands, and fling all the snakes out of the forest, and make high heaps of them sky high. And when they have finished shaking that refuse, the grain that is gathered from among the fagots is dried, and the pepper is boiled, but how it is boiled no one from another country is allowed to know.

The palace wherein our majesty dwells was made in the form and likeness of that which the Apostle Thomas ordained for Wyndofforns, king of India; and its wings and structures are exactly like it.

In 1221, Jacques de Vitry, Bishop of Acre, who returned from the disastrous Fifth Crusade brought in good news: King David of India, the son or grandson of Prester John, had mobilized his armies against the Saracens, thus connecting PJ again with India.

With the advent of printing, many copies of the PJ letter were circulated, and the supposed original in Latin was translated extensively. Since then some 250 versions of the PJ letter have surfaced, in various languages with purposes varying widely from entertainment to demonstrating the characteristics of an ideal Christian king. It also raised the hope of fatigued European armies in obtaining support for their crusades against Islam, from an experienced and immensely wealthy Christian crusader in the east. Hope was not to be lost.

Who then could have been the person who created and then leaked this PJ letter? And what was his
real role? Fingers pointed to Archbishop Christian of Mainz and Archbishop Rainald of Dassel at Cologne. An analysis of the letter started, the emphatic conclusion was that the literary origins stemmed from the Alexander romances and the various marvels come from it. The general conclusions was also that the purpose of spreading the letter was propaganda - to unite various warring factions of the clergy and the rulers, against a common enemy, the Islamic power and that help was not far, that it was arriving from PJ in the east.

Other inputs came in from worldly explorers, that the equator was passable and not burning hot, that as the pole star was hardly visible on the horizon, that the world was spherical, that monsters and one legged people did not quite exist. In the meantime, by 1291, the kingdom of Palestine had fallen to the Mamluks and the crusaders were busy bickering among themselves reaching nowhere after trying and failing to organize expeditions to get the land back. The time was ripe to go out and find the crusader Prester John.

Pope Alexander III took it upon himself to answer the PJ letter in 1177, and in imperial tones urged the king to embrace the true Roman faith and not boast about his power and riches. The carrier of this reply, one physician named Philip who set out in search of PJ vanished.

The location of the PJ kingdom had by now moved in popular imagination, from central Asia to India.  By the 14th century and after Marco Polo’s exploits were published, the location shifted to Abyssinia though moving to Tibet in between, but by consensus he remained in the jungles of Africa, never to be seen. He was in the third India (the Three India's referred to India Major, from Malabar through the East Indies, India Minor, from Malabar to Sind, and India Tertia, the east coast of Africa. It was perhaps close in fit to what is known in Chinese texts as Sanfotsi and among the Muslims as Zabag).

Many voyagers set out in search of PJ and his kingdom, some never returned back. Some discovered new lands and people, some saw that the lands which were considered prime suspects were not rich Christian kingdoms. Meanwhile the search continued in the Indies.

Igor Rachewilz states- There, in his new country of adoption, Prester John continued to play his subtle game, firing the imagination of Europe and attracting other adventurous men. It was, again, in search of the elusive Christian king and of his rich and fabulous country that the captains of Prince Henry the Navigator undertook those voyages along the African coast in the first half of the fifteenth century which led to many new and exciting discoveries.

Prince Henry who thought providence his guide, urged voyagers and explorers to find a route to the East where they might eventually locate Prester John and his Christian kingdom. Portuguese explorers started to sail along the African coast, looking for the mythical land with a large sea in the middle of it as per the legend. Once they crossed it, they would reach PJ’s abode. They were also driven by a religious zeal after Constantinople fell to the Islamic Turks, believing that an apocalypse was near and needed the full support of the powerful PJ. Keep in context that the PJ should have been many hundred years old by now, but then again he looked 32 forever because he had a fountain of youth in his backyard, so no problema….

The age of exploration had started, new sailing techniques had been mastered, and ships started to sail east and west, looking for PJ, and to finance it all, trade played a key role. And thus we get to Vasco Da Gama and his search for Christians and Prester John in Calicut, but as we know, there was no PJ in our part of the world. Even though Vasco reported that there were many Christians in Calicut, he was proved wrong, but the explorer had discovered new routes to the fabled spice capitals of Malabar and for a while trade rose to the fore.

The Portuguese did find a Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, and a priest by name John, but the land was neither wealthy nor capable of supporting the weary crusaders, in fact they needed Christian help to with stand their warring Muslim neighbors. As is nicely stated by Baldridge, the Portuguese Father Francisco Alvares, who fell in love with the country and its people, became a friend of its king, hid the Abyssinian's heresies from his superiors, and set in motion events that saved Ethiopia from imminent destruction. PJ on the other hand, quietly slipped from the front pages, but the hope that this fabled crusader would one day be located spurred more Spanish and Portuguese expeditions to various new lands such as Africa, Asia and the Americas, for another two hundred years.

The reason for the elaborate hoax, the 1165 letter, was perhaps to stop the petty fighting going on between the clergy and the monarchs with an underlying message that they should unite to fight the crusades. But what it did was trigger many centuries of exploration and reshaping of the world. It affected the destinies of millions in a way nobody could have imagined, let alone the ever young Prester John.

Igor Rachewiltz sums it up beautifully - Had the Prester John visualized by our ancestors really existed, he could have hardly done a better job than he did, by simply not being there!

Would it be fair to assume that an Indian triggered centuries of exploration with his tall tales? Why not???

Strange are the ways of our world, isn’t it?

Anecdota Oxoniensia: Semitic series, Part 7
St Thomas and San Thome – Rev H Hosten SJ (Asiatic society papers)
The Historical Prester John -Charles E. Nowell
Prester John – the legend and its sources – Keagan Brewer
The rites of eastern Christendom – Archdale A King
The Malabar church and Rome – George Schurhammer
The Hebrew letters of Prester John – Edward Ullendorff, CF Beckingham
Prester John's Letter: A Mediaeval Utopia - Karl F. Helleiner
Prisoners of Prester John – Cates Baldridge
Prester John and Europes discovery of East Asia – Igor De Rachewiltz
The lives of the popes in the middle ages – Vol VIII – Horace K mann
History of Paradise – Jean Delumeau
The hierarchy of the syro-malabar church – Placid j Podipara
Prester John: A Fourteenth-Century Manuscript at Cambridge- Malcolm Letts
Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History. Volume 4 (1200-1350) - edited by David Thomas, Alexander Mallett

1. Karl F. Helleiner  concludes in his paper – Assuming that it was political motives which caused the unknown author of the Epistola to fabricate this strange piece of correspondence-a desire to give some tangible encouragement to the hard-pressed Christians in the Holy Land, as well as the wish to take the high and mighty ruler of the Byzantine Empire down a peg or two by extolling the superior power and virtue of another Christian prince-did he really have to strain the credulity of his readers by adding all those fantastic details about India? All I can suggest is that the writer must have lost sight of whatever may have been his immediate objectives. He was carried away by his imagination, and composed a work whose character corresponds very closely to modern science fiction.

2. Most enticing among all the stories of Prester John is his magic mirror. The mirror allowed Prester John to see everything in his kingdom and instructed him in all the duties he was meant to perform. Is such a system not what every ruler of the West and East want even today? And the fountain of youth aspect continues to be researched by so many !

3. Rev Hosten professes an explanation that Mar John reached Constantinople to meet the Greek Emperor John II and that Mar John may have reached Rome only in 1124, not 1122.

4. Calicut Heritage forum had written in detail about the visit of Gama and the mentions of Christians. Please check this link out fordetails


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