In the early 12th century, the war for the Holy Land was burning more than ever. The first crusade had led to the formation of the Christian States in the Middle East, which were however become unstable by constant the Arab pressure. In this tense situation, around 1050 the legend of Prester John finds its birth. Amongst the Christian populations it started to spread the belief that one monarch, descending from the Biblical Magi, and sovereign of a huge kingdom beyond the Euphrates, was preparing to declare war to the Arabs in order to save the Holy Land. It all remained as a legend for more than a century, then a few copies of a mysterious letter were spread out all over Europe: the letter was for Manuel I Komnenos, Byzantine Emperor, and it would confirm the existence of Prester John, describing his enormous power, portraying him as a precious military ally for the Christian forces.
Below: Prester John on a throne of East Africa, detail on an atlas from 1538
However the letter arrived in a good moment since a bit of time before, in 1144, the first Crusader State to be founded, the County of Edessa, would fall in the hands of the Saracens; they believed, then, that what instead was a false, had been sent around to instil hope about the Crusaders venture. Considering the content of the letter, the objective was met.
“Should you desire to learn the greatness and excellency of our Exaltedness and of the land subject to our sceptre, then hear and believe: I, Presbyter Johannes, the Lord of Lords, surpass all under heaven in virtue, in riches, and in power; seventy-two kings pay us tribute. I am a devout Christian, and everywhere do we defend poor Christians, whom the empire of our clemency rules, and we sustain them with alms.
We have vowed to visit the Sepulchre of the Lord with the greatest army, just as it is befitting the glory of our majesty, in order to humble and defeat the enemies of the cross of Christ and to exalt his blessed name. Our land is the home of elephants, dromedaries, camels, crocodiles, meta-collinarum, cametennus, tensevetes, wild asses, white and red lions, white bears, white merules, crickets, griffins, tigers, lamias, hyenas, wild horses, wild oxen, and wild men — men with horns, one-eyed men, men with eyes before and behind, centaurs, fauns, satyrs, pygmies, forty-ell high giants, cyclopses, and similar women. It is the home, too, of the phoenix and of nearly all living animals”.
Below: cynocephali from a miniature of the 14th century
It is easy to imagine what great impact the news might have had on the readers, especially by considering that the letter carried on with a wide list of populations and unknown animals, richness, stones and magical places one of which being the Garden of Eden, which back then it was believed to be located in Mesopotamia. Furthermore it was said that Presbyter Johannes, as he was sometimes called, had already tried to come into rescue of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but that it had been stopped on the Tigris river; nothing though prevented to expect for his return.
Hence the research of the legendary king- priest became a real obsession fro the medieval men, which continued, even though while decreasing in its intensity, for half a millennium. Many missionaries and explorers went to East looking for him, while proposing different theories on his origin; the diffusion and accuracy of “The Travels of Marco Polo” by Marco Polo though, dissipated every residue of hope to find the sovereign in the East.
So, from 300 on, the researchers moved their attention towards the unexplored Ethiopia, already famous in ancient times as a rich and mysterious land in which many dreamers set the fantastic kingdom; one of these was the cartographer Ortelius that in 1573 realised the Presbiteri Iohannis sive Abissinorum Imperii Descriptio: the map, besides the many drawings and notes about the myth, shows on the top left the emblem of Prester John and all his ancestry.
This type of fantastic writing fostered the myth for some further 100 years, until the academics of the 17th century demonstrated that there could be no connection between the monarch and Ethiopia; for this reason the public opinion accepted to consider the story as a mere legend, although, probably, mixed up with anecdotes and characters really existed. It is however important to not underestimate how stories of this type, since the dawn of time, have motivated expeditions in foreign lands, resulting in an important phenomenon of expansion and discovery of the world.
Below: the Presbiteri Iohannis sive Abissinorum Imperii Descriptio Map from 1573 by Orteliu
Sources: Giulia Roccaforte, “La lettera del Prete Gianni”, Thesis from the University Ca’Foscari Venice, 2012. Edward Brooke-Hitching, “The Golden Atlas: The Greatest Explorations, Quests and Discoveries on Maps”