Crusades and the Search for the Kingdom of Prester John Part 2

About the search for the Kingdom of Prester John, history of the missing kingdom during the Crusades.


The letter states: "Our Magnificence rules in the three Indias and our lands extend until the Far India, where the body of the Holy Apostle Thomas has been laid to rest." The writer then describes his virtuous government and his marvelous possessions--a palace furnished with gems, a magic mirror, a fountain of youth, and a fiery mountain containing cloth-spinning salamanders. He claims that horned, one-eyed, and dog-headed people inhabit the kingdom, along with griffins, centaurs, and dragons.

Further reference to Prester John appeared in 1221. Two churchmen in the high command of the crusading army, Jacques de Vitry, bishop of Acre, and Cardinal Pelagius, dispatched letters concerning "a certain King David" who had captured Muslim cities and was advancing on Baghdad. They believed he was the son or grandson of Prester John, if not Prester John himself.

The Search

In an age when biblical stories were universally regarded as scientific truth, the stories surrounding the priest-king were accepted as factual. But not until the 13th century, when Genghis Khan brought a "terrified stability" to Asia, did Europeans go on epic journeys in search of Prester John, and so begin an era of stimulating contacts with the Orient. Friar Giovanni de Piano Carpini placed him in central Asia, where he heard reports that a Christian king had been victorious over Genghis Khan's son Ogadai. In 1253 Friar William of Rubruck found him still involved in Mongol tribal wars; this time he was a Nestorian shepherd-king whose pagan brother, Unc Khan, had been defeated by Genghis Khan and had fled, leaving his daughter to marry Genghis's son. Twenty-five years later, Marco Polo gave another version of this story. Unc Khan was now Prester John, Christian ruler of a nomad kingdom, killed in battle when he refused Genghis Khan his daughter. Even after such supposed "identifications," hunger for a priest-king of greater stature than primitive nomadic chieftains kept the search alive. Franciscans John Monte Corvino and Odoric of Pordenone vainly sought Prester John in India and China in the 14th century. In 1356 Sir John Mandeville circulated a faked journal in which he claimed to have visited the fabulous kingdom and seen the marvels described in the famous letter. This hoax quickened new interest.

Another phase of the search began in the mid-14th century, when Jordanus de Severac, not finding Prester John in India, declared that he must be in Africa, believing that Genghis Khan had driven him out of one corner of his vast realm into another. In the 15th century, Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator instructed his captains to investigate Severac's story and thus laid the foundations of a trading empire. In 1487 Portugal's John II sent Pedro de Covilhao, among others, to seek the lost kingdom in Ethiopia. Covilhao sent word that the king of Ethiopia was Prester John, a plausible theory since Ethiopia had been Christian (but not Nestorian) from the 4th century. However, Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama recorded in his logbook in 1498 that Prester John's kingdom lay further south, near Mozambique.

As continuing exploration left few places where a lost kingdom could be concealed, the search for the kingdom was abandoned; instead, scholars searched for the origins of the legends.

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