Prester John (from “Presbyter” or “Priest”) was a medieval fable of a mythical Christian priest/king who lived somewhere in the East and ruled over many lands - and who wrote letters to his fellow Christians in Europe asking for help against the heathens threatening his realm and promising support in retaking the Holy Sepulchre.
In 1145 the Bishop of Freisling chronicled a report that there lived in the “extreme Orient”, a king who is a priest that is descended from the Three Wise Men; that he had tried to march to Jerusalem but had been forced to turn back at the Tigris River. About twenty years later the text of a letter from this mysterious but interesting person did the rounds of Western Europe. The original had been sent to the Emperor in Constantinople, and the King of France and it promised aid against the Saracens in the Holy Land. Over 100 versions of this letter have appeared, in at least six languages, including Hebrew, and lie in libraries all over Europe
The whole thing was a fake, but it was what people wanted to hear in those times of uncertainty and the Crusades; and for centuries there was to be much conjecture and occasional searching for this phantom ally. Nearly 200 years after the letter, Prince Henry the Navigator had Prester John as much on his mind as he had hopes for trade with the Indies, as he sent his captains ever south searching for the way through or around Africa (The Portuguese were half way down the African coast before discovering a searoute to India became the paramount quest.) By then the Mongol Empire and its immediate successor Khanates had come and gone and the likely position of his kingdom had moved from the now relatively known Asia to the still mysterious Africa.
Whilst the idea of a great and splendid Christian ruler somewhere in the East was only wishful thinking fed by the still unknown perpetrator(s) of one of the great hoaxes in history; there was truth in the idea of flourishing Christian communities beyond the wall of Muslim dominance in the Middle East and North Africa.
- Tradition has it that the Apostle Thomas led a group of Syrian Christians to the west coast of India. Whatever the truth of the history, and the specifics of the geography, a large community still referred to as the “St. Thomas Christians” still worships along the Malabar Coast of India, having been converted from their original Nestorian form of the faith to Roman Catholicism by the Portuguese in the early 16th century.
- The Nestorian churches in Persia began missionary activity along the trade routes of Asia from a relatively early date. A string of Bishoprics along what is known as the Silk Road and as far as Yang-chou near the coast of the Yellow Sea testify to their success. Islamic intolerance brought on by the Crusades during the first 3 centuries of the second millennium did much to damage the central Asian churches, but some in China survived.
- Coptic Christianity spread down the River Nile and the Red Sea. It arrived in what is now Ethiopia, traditionally via shipwrecked brothers in the 4th century, and became the state religion. Protected by the mountains from the Islamic explosion of the 7th and 8th centuries the Ethiopian church flourished into modern times. Whilst struggling in Egypt, there are Coptic congregations in many Western countries.
Ethiopia was the “last resting place” of the belief in the Prester John, (although during the Muscovite/Russian push across central and eastern Asia during the 17th and 18th centuries explorers were told to keep an eye out for him.)
"Prester John" was also the title of an adventure novel by John Buchan. (He of "The Thirty Nine Steps" fame.)
- Chambers Encyclopedia, 1964 Ed. Vol 11
- "The Age of Reconnaissance", J. H. Parry