In the year 1122, a stranger from the East arrived in Rome to see Pope Calixtus II. He called himself "John, Patriarch of the Indians" and claimed to be an archbishop of the Christian community founded in India by the Apostle Thomas. Little is recorded in the Bible about Thomas after the Gospels, early Christian tradition held that he journeyed to India and was there martyred. A 3rd Century work called the Acts of Thomas purported to tell of his adventures in the East. Patriarch John stayed in Rome for about a year, then disappeared.
In 1145, another traveler from parts east, Bishop Hugh of Jabala, a small coastal town in Syria, came to see the Pope. The area around Jabala had been overrun by Moslems and Bishop Hugh had come to appeal to the Pope for help. According to Bishop Otto of Freising, a noted historian of the day who spoke with him, Hugh told of a fellow named John who was both a priest and a king way off beyond Persia and Armenia in the uttermost East. This John was a Nestorian Christian, a splinter sect that was technically heretical according to orthodox views, but which was so isolated from Europe that the Roman Church had little contact with them. He was said to be descended from one of the Magi who visited the Christ-child (Matthew chapter 2). According to Hugh, this John "made war upon his brother kings of Persians and Medes… Prester John, for so they accustomed to call him, putting the Persians to flight." John intended to continue on to liberate Jerusalem from the infidels, but was blocked by the river Tigris.
Later historians have suggested that Hugo was transmitted garbled stories about a nomadic warlord named Yalu Dashi who defeated the Seljuk Turks near Samarkand. Yalu Dashi probably did have Nestorian Christians among his subjects, but he himself was a Chinese-educated Buddhist. Christian Europe knew nothing about Buddhism; as far as they were concerned, anyone killing Moslems, must be a Christian.
Then came the Letter.
It was received by Manuel I, the Eastern Roman Emperor at Constantinople in the year 1164, and was signed "Presbyter Johannes, by the power and virtue of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, Lord of Lords." This lengthy letter extolled the wonders of John's kingdom and his power. "I, Prester John, am the Lord of Lords and… I surpass all the kings of the whole earth in riches, mercy and omnipotence. Seventy-two kings pay tribute to Us alone."
The letter contained fanciful descriptions of incredible riches, exotic creatures and monstrous beings: Wild men with horns on their head and ants that dig for gold. It also describes things that actually existed in the East, such as parrots.
Emperor Manuel wasn't sure what to do about this distant, arrogant monarch, so he consulted with the Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Pope Alexander III. The letter was translated into several languages, picking up embellishments as it filtered through Europe. It was exotic, exciting and encouraging. The Second Crusade, which had been launched about twenty years earlier, had been a disaster, and the idea that a powerful Christian monarch ruled far in the East and might ride forth to smite the Saracens at any moment was appealing.
Actually there was a powerful monarch in Central Asia about 1221, and he was slaying Moslems; but he wasn't a Christian; he was Genghis Khan. That didn't stop Christians in Europe from mistakenly assuming he was Prester John.
Marco Polo asked about Prester John during his voyage to Cathay. He didn't find John, but he did pick up a story about a Tartar named "Ung Khan" or "Wang Khan" who was king of a people called the Kereits. According to both Christian and Mongol sources, the Kereits were Christians, but Wang Khan was more of a nomadic warlord than a latter-day Solomon. Wang Khan was ultimately overthrown by Genghis Khan.
As European explorers got to know Central and Eastern Asia better with no sign of the enigmatic priest-king; scholars decided that Prester John's kingdom must lie in Ethiopia. There actually was and still is a large Christian community in Ethiopia, which like the Nestorians had been separated from Europe for centuries. The early writers, the scholars concluded, must have confused India with Ethiopia. After all, what did the Apostle Thomas know about geography.
Game and Story Use
- A medieval campaign could involve travelers claiming to have come from the Kingdom of Prester John.
- In a Time Travel campaign, the PCs can claim to come from "a distant land" like that of Prester John's.
- In a pulp campaign, the PCs could be searching for treasures from the land of Prester John, either in India, Mongolia or Ethiopia
- It's claimed that the Ark of the Covenant rests in an ancient Ethiopian church. Something to think about.