The Kingdom of Prester John

Prester John as depicted in the chronicles of Hartmann Schedel, 1493.(1)

The Legend of Prester John dates back to before the Crusades. The word prester came from the Greek word presbuteros, which meant elder, as in the older wise men who ran the church. Presbuteros was the base word for Presbyterian.

The many versions of the legend influenced kings, explorers, missionaries, scholars, and treasure hunters searching for routes to the Far East. Christians sought Prester John’s kingdom with the same fervor they sought the lost Garden of Eden. Like so many legends, some of the stories were based on fact and some on fiction.

The legend said the kingdom was difficult to find. It hid amidst the strange, faraway, and pagan lands. Some said it was in the Orient, a loosely defined location that simply meant the East. Some said it was in India. India was also a loosely defined location, as you can see on Strabo’s map below. It referred to all the land east of the Indus River.

The World According to Strabo in 25 BCE, drawn by George Cram for Cram’s Universal Atlas, Geographical, Astronomical and Historical in 1900 CE.(2)

Between the time Strabo described the Ecumene in 25 BCE and al-Idrisi’s drawing of the world in 1154 CE, the location of India did not much change.

Mohammad Al-Idrisi, Tabula Rogeriana, Sicily, 1154.(3)

The legend probably refers to the remnant of a Christian kingdom hidden in the mountain tops of Ethiopia. Bronze Age Egyptians referred to the area as Punt – the land of gold. The Bible referred to it as Abyssinia. Apparently the stories of Punt’s wealth were mixed up with the stories of mysteriously hiding Christians. Abyssinia is a very mountainous region. You can hide a lot of things in such mountains.

The Semien Mountains in Ethiopia 2010. Photo by Hulivili.(4)

A later map of Eastern Africa showing the relationship of Abyssinia to Ethiopia.

Relief map of the area called Abyssinia during the Middle Ages.(5)

The crusaders searched for Prester John’s kingdom east of the Indus River. Then in the 1200s, Marco Polo reported Christian nests in both Asia and Ethiopia.

Through oral tradition, the Christians in Ethiopia claim an incredibly rich history. They descended from a Jewish culture that ruled the land as early as the 10th century BCE – before the Jewish texts of the Bible were written. The Ethiopian Jews were sometimes called Beta Israelis and sometimes the Falashah.

King Melelik I, who ruled Abyssinia in c950 BCE, was the one and only son of King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba. [He seduced her while she was visiting his palace.] The House of Solomon, as the Ethiopian dynasty became known, ruled with “few interruptions” until 1974 CE [yes, just over fifty years ago].

One of those interruptions was the invasion by a Queen Gudit in around 960 CE. By that time, some of those Jews had converted to Christianity and set up headquarters in Aksum, where life had been relatively peaceful for 600 years. Gudit invaded Aksum with a large army, burned Christian churches and monuments, did some other damage and ruled for forty years. Then she died and the Christians rose again. [There are more legends around Gudit, but we will not take that detour.]

The point is that part of Ethiopia had remained Christian since the first part of the millennium, in spite of several invasion attempts by the Muslims. Over the years, they moved farther and farther into the mountains for safety.

The legend as it was told in the 1100s placed Prester John on the throne of the kingdom. Prester John came from a long line of holy men. He was the direct descendant of one of the three gift-carrying magi [wise men, priests or kings] from the Orient who visited the newly born Jesus in Bethlehem. Prester John’s holiness gave him the fortitude and wisdom he needed to resist Muslim and Mongolian attempts to conquer his country. That made him a hero indeed.

The story of the Three Magi was especially important to the Medieval Christians. They professed that the three priests [wise men] had been Hindu. After following the star to Bethlehem and visiting Jesus, they were converted to Christianity. When the magi returned to their homeland, they, in turn, converted the Hindus of that land to the new faith. [It was this Hindu factor that connected Prester John to India.]

Church history claimed that Helena of Byzantion (c250-c230 CE], the mother of Constantine the Great, arranged for the magi’s bodies to be moved to Byzantion [Constantinople], where they were entombed in the great cathedral of Santo Sophia. Over time, as the center of Christianity moved westward, and politics changed, the bones were transported to Milan, Italy, and then to Cologne, France, when it became the center of the Holy Roman Empire.

The search for Prester John was not just for spiritual inspiration. Some versions of the myth said that the kingdom was the location of the Gates of Alexander, a legendary barrier that Alexander the Great built to keep the barbarians in the north from invading the civilized communities to the south.

Another version said Prester John’s kingdom was the location of the Fountain of Youth. Another said the kingdom was the actual Garden of Paradise.

More rumors claimed that the kingdom was full of riches and strange creatures. In 1367, two cartographer brothers, Domenico and Francesco Pizigano of Venice, drew a world map on which they that wrote there was “so much gold in the Kingdom of Prester John that his subjects used it to tile the roofs of their houses and forge their weapons of war.” [We will discuss that map again later.]

Most enticing of all, Prester John was in the possession of a magic mirror. Like Snow White’s stepmother’s magic mirror, or the Wicked Witch of the West’s crystal ball, Prester John’s mirror allowed him to see everything that was going on in his kingdom. But Prester John’s mirror did more. As if sent by God, it gave the elder instructions on the duties he was meant to perform, and made sure he ruled over his kingdom with generosity and virtue.

The various versions of the legend had a similar theme: Christians triumphed over Muslim and Mongolian invasions. Some of the stories were allegorical versions of true events. One tale claimed that Prester John was the leader of the [real-life] Nestorian Christians who led successful battles against Genghis Kahn’s Mongols and the Seljuk Turks of Central Asia.

In 1145, Otto of Freising from Bavaria, Germany, spread a rumor that Prester John led a great battle against the Muslims to regain the formerly Christian city of Ecbatana [an ancient city in Media in western Iran]. Otto said that Prester John carried a scepter crowned by a glorious emerald. The tale probably confused Prester John with the real-life Buddhist Kara-Dhitan Khanate who defeated the Seljuk Turks near Samarkand in 1141. Mere rumor or not, the legend helped initiate the Third Crusade.

In 1165, a letter written [supposedly] by Prester John reached Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenus (1118-1180). The letter entranced Europe with its promises of marvels and riches in Prester John’s kingdom. The missive was so popular, it was translated into many languages and circulated throughout the Christian world during the following two centuries. Hundreds of versions of the letter still exist. Like a snowball increasing in size as it rolls down a mountain, the legend accumulated more fantasies with each hand-written copy. Pope Alexander III wrote a response to Prester John in 1177. No one knows if Prester John received the response.

Forty-four years later, in 1221, survivors of the Fifth Crusade brought news back to Western Europe that Prester John’s son [or grandson], King David of India, had gathered armies to fight the Saracens [Muslims], conquered Persia, defeated the Seljuk Turks, was moving against Bagdad, and planned to re-conquer and re-build Jerusalem.

According to Marco Polo, about whose travels we will learn in the next article, Prester John lived among a tribe of Tartars [Mongolians] in Northeast Asia [in today’s Russia]. After Genghis Khan conquered his tribe, the Great Khan asked if he could marry Prester John’s daughter. When Prester John said “no,” the khan declared war against him. In real life, Genghis Kahn defeated a warlord named Toghrul and tried to marry off his son and daughter to Toghrul’s children. Toghrul said “no.”

In the 1200s, when the Knights Templar were trying to defeat the infidels and regain their position in the Middle East, they hoped to obtain the support of Prester John’s Christians.

The question asked by Christians in Europe would be, “How does a traveler reach Prester John in Abyssinia without traveling through Muslim lands?” In the 1400s, the Portuguese effort to seek a route to India by sailing under Africa will be as much inspired by finding Prester John as by trading with the Far East more efficiently. The Portuguese will find Prester John’s kingdom, but not by sailing south of Africa.


  1. Prester John as depicted in the chronicles of Hartmann Schedel, 1493. {{PD-Old}} Public Domain c/o WikiMedia. Image source url:
  2. The World According to Strabo in 25 BC, drawn by George Cram for Cram’s Universal Atlas, Geographical, Astronomical and Historical in 1900 CE. {{PD-old}} Public Domain. Image Source:
  3. Al-Idrisi, Mohammad. Tabula Rogeriana, Sicily, 1154. {{PD-old}} Public Domain in the USA and Italy. Image source:
  4. Mountains photo: By Hulivili -, CC BY 2.0, Image source url:
  5. Relief map: By Carport - Own work, using map data from administrative map by NordNordWest. Created from SRTM-30 relief data, CC BY-SA 3.0, Image source url:

Next article: Marco Polo