In Search of Royal Presbyter John

Presbyter John as King of Ethiopia

In the middle Ages, there was a sensational legend about the powerful Christian state existing in India and headed by Presbyter John. Information about this mysterious person was considered so reliable that many European sovereigns were seriously looking for contact with his kingdom and counting on his help in their war with the Arabs. What caused this narrative? 

The Beginning of the Legend

The legend of the powerful pontiff John, who ruled somewhere in the East, arose during the beginning of the Crusades and has been spread for almost 400 years. Although probably rooted in some historical fact, it was immediately overgrown with fantastic details. The first mention of Presbyter John is contained in the annals of the German historian Otto of Freising, dated 1145. From there, varying information began to spread through other chronicles, including the Russian. It was assumed that the state of Presbyter John was located in India and had been established by Christian communities, the successors of St Thomas the Apostle. 

The popularity of this legend is confirmed by the fact of Pope Alexander III sending a letter to Presbyter John, in which he calls him King of the Indies. Although the pope’s messengers were never able to find the kingdom, Europeans believed that it was rich in gold and precious stones, and inhabited by fantastic cynocephali (dog-headed), as well as one-legged people and animals (griffins, centaurs and unicorns). The Christian conviction was supported by the 1165 document known as the letter from Presbyter John to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos, which has been extensively copied and translated into various languages (several hundred versions have survived, including the Hebrew and Slavic ones). One of the possible origins of the legend is the great victory of gurkhan Yelü Dashi, the founder of the Qara Khitai Empire, over the superior forces of the elite Samarkand troops, which once shook the entire Muslim world. Rumors about that victory of the Qara Khitai, among who were Nestorians, probably gave rise to the legend of the powerful presbyter John, a possible ally of the crusaders.

Presbyter John of India lived in East Africa,according to 16th century Spanish Portolan

The Search for Presbyter John among the Mongols

In the era of the Mongol Empire, the legend of Elder John was reflected in the Tale of David, the Christian King of the Tatars, where David was at one time identified with the son of Presbyter John, while at other times considered John himself. After the Crusaders captured the fortress of Damietta (Egypt), Bishop of Acre Jacques de Vitry preached that the “fierce warriors” of David, the Nestorian “ruler of both Indies”, would come to the crusaders’ aid in order to fight the Saracens together. De Vitry substantiated his arguments by the fact that during the siege of the fortress, a letter fell into the Christians’ hands, written in Arabic and informing about the attack of the Christian king David on the Saracen lands (Jacques de Vitry, 2000). The crusaders were so strongly convinced of the immediate and substantial help of the Christian army of David, aka Presbyter John, that they even rejected the lucrative peace treaty that the Egyptian sultan offered them. Believing this myth, European troops eventually lost all the conquests of the fifth Crusade. 

For a time, European states pinned their hopes on the Mongols as a force capable of helping the crusaders in the Middle East. Rumors about the Mongol empire being the very state of Presbyter John were confirmed by the fact that among the Mongols there was a considerable number of Christians, apparently members of the Assyrian Church of the East, whose mission was successful even in China. In 1221, Pope Honorius III informed his clergy that King David, popularly called Presbyter Johnfought with the Sultan of Persia, conquered his lands and was already near Baghdad, while the Georgians also opposed the Saracens (Annals of Dunstable. 1866). However, in reality, the war between the Georgians and the Saracens was the Mongol attack on Orthodox Georgia in 1220. Rumors about Batu Khan ruining the Russian principalities have shaken the European perception of the Mongols as warriors of light. Their remaining illusions were dispelled after the Mongols defeated Poland and devastated the Catholic Hungary. 

Presbyter John in Africa?

Not finding Presbyter John’s kingdom in the East, the Europeans began to look for it in the depths of Africa. According to European geographers, there were three Indies. Little India was the term used to indicate the territories between the Ganges and the Indus rivers; Greater India – between the Indian Ocean and the Ganges; Farther India was “placed” by some researchers in Ethiopia). For a long time, Europeans had a very meagre idea of the African Continent’s geography and its peoples. In the 1st half of the fourteenth century a Dominican missionary who visited Africa and Asia, in his book, called the Description of Miracles, identified the ruler of Ethiopia with John the presbyter, perhaps due to the apocryphal tradition asserting John the Presbyter’s origin from Belshazzar, one of the biblical Magi, considered a black ruler of Saba. 

Presbyter John (Nuremberg Chronicle, Hartmann Schedel)

One way or another, historians and geographers of the Middle Ages did not succeed in finding the legendary kingdom of Presbyter John, despite their searches and the embassies sent to greet the Christian king of India. Leo N. Gumilev, a well-known ethnographer, wrote a whole book called In Search of the Fictional Kingdom. The book concludes that the myth of Presbyter John was born among the knightly orders of Jerusalem in order to inspire the crusaders to undertake the Second Crusade to Mesopotamia. However, historians still argue about whether or not there is a clear prototype of Elder John, reaching no obvious conclusion.

About the author

Reader John Nichiporuk,
Master of Theology specializing in Biblical Studies; a member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team

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