Crusades and the Search for the Kingdom of Prester John Part 3

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



Although Renaissance mapmakers had labeled Ethiopia "the Land of Prester John," by the 18th century this identification had been discredited.

False identifications of Prester John with nomadic chieftains battling Muslims and Mongols in Asia seemed to scholars until quite recently to explain how the legends originated. Bishop Hugh of Gebal had identified Prester John with Yeh-lu Ta-shih, nomad founder of the Karakitai Empire in central Asia, who had defeated Turkish Sultan Sanjar in 1141. What more logical inference than that a fierce enemy of Turks must be Christian? (He was, in fact, Buddhist, though he had Nestorian subjects.) The same error was made by Jacques de Vitry and Cardinal Pelagius when they confused King David, "grandson of Prester John," with Genghis Khan as a result of the latter's attacks on Muslim cities.

The Prester John stories of Marco Polo and William of Rubruck have been traced to Togrul, khan of the Keraits, a Nestorian nomadic tribe. Originally a protector of the young Genghis Khan, he later became his enemy and was slain while attempting to flee after the defeat of his army. His title was Unc Khan, which may have been changed phonetically in Hebrew or Syriac to produce Latin Johannes, or John.

However, scholars now believe there must have been more than these Asiatic chieftains behind the original legends concerning the priest-king. Except possibly for Togrul, they were not even Christian. They were powerful but ruthless, living frugally in tents, not palaces. Through wishful thinking, exaggerated rumors, and inadequate communication across geographical and linguistic barriers, medieval Europeans probably associated them incongruously with much older legends.

The mysterious letter from Prester John, thought to be an attempt to inspire the Crusaders, comes closer to the source of the legendary material. U.S. scholar Vsevolod Slessarev infers from the text that the writer was a 12th-century Western cleric, well versed in literature, who had lived in the Holy Land. There he contacted Nestorians who were circulating stories and information carried over trade routes from India.

Slessarev believes that a cycle of Nestorian legends, in which Prester John played an important part, centered on St. Thomas. Although there is no historical evidence of a Christian community in India prior to the 6th century, stories of the wonders St. Thomas performed there continued to circulate among Nestorians throughout the East. Many go back to the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, composed in Syriac in the 3rd century, which describes the martyrdom of the saint under King Mazdai of Mylapore at Madras. This king, later converted to Christianity, had a son named Vizan, who may have assumed leadership of India's infant Christian community. Slessarev thinks Vizan, a name often translated as John, could be the original priest-king.

Another explanation is that Prester John is John the Apostle, believed by many to be the author of the fourth Gospel as well as the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, who called himself John the Presbyter (Elder). Only his Gospel tells the story of St. Thomas, "doubting Thomas," subsequent bearer of Christianity to India. Striking parallels exist between the medieval letter from Prester John and the Book of Revelation, in which the writer, "I, John," has a vision of a magnificent kingdom in which the righteous will reign with Christ on earth for a 1,000 years. Oral transmission of John's writings by unsophisticated and isolated Asian Nestorians might ultimately have metamorphosed John's visionary kingdom into Prester John's lost one.

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