The Development of Nestorian Christianity in Asia

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While doing some follow up research after reading The Secret History of the Mongols, I ran across a reference to a tribe called the Kerait1 - a Christian tribe of Turko-Eurasian ethnicity who had been absorbed by the Mongolian Federation of Tribes under Chinghis Khan in the 12th century. The women of this tribe -- with their auburn hair, fair skin and gray or green eyes -- were so renowned for their beauty that they are credited with saving their tribe from obliteration by serving as wives and concubines to the great Mongolian khans.

These women introduced two little known characteristics into the Mongolian ruling families -- auburn hair and pale eyes into an occasional offspring, and an obscure form of Christianity.

Missionaries from a Christian sect known as Nestorianism converted the Keraits, along with the Naiman and Merkit tribes, early in the 11th century. These Asian Christians became very different theologically from their counterparts in the West, and were perceived by Westerners as a strange and mythical cult. From this perception grew the fantastical legend of Prester John.

The Development of Nestorian Christianity

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Nestorius (385-451 CE) was a monk from the European monastery near Antioch, who was famous for his eloquent preaching and austere life. He was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople in 428 CE by Emperor Theodosius II. Nestorius maintained that Christ was both divine and human, and that these two entities acted as one, but that they did not join in that union in a single individual. He supported the preaching of Anastasius, a presbyter from Antioch, that the Virgin Mary, having given birth to a human son, could be called the Mother of Christ, but could not be referred to as the Mother of God, as Christ received His divine spirit from His father. These teachings opposed Church doctrine, which taught that Christ's divine and human natures, although distinct, were joined together in His singular person. Nestorius was condemned for his views, and was declared a heretic in 430 CE at the synods in both Rome and Alexandria. In the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 CE, nineteen bishops recommended the removal of his title of bishop. Nestorius was excommunicated and banished to a monastery in Egypt.2

Nestorius and his followers retired to a monastery in Antioch. There, they confined themselves to the study of external faces to emphasize Christ's real humanity. They studied the Scriptures for grammatical rather than allegorical meaning; and from a purely historical viewpoint rather than a mystical one. Two men, Diodorus, Bishop of Tarsus, and his pupil, Theodore of Mopsuestia, became important leaders of this school of thought. Theodorus (called by Nestorians "The Interpreter") came to be considered the real father of Nestorianism. He affirmed the true humanity of Christ, and of His perfect sinlessness, due to His union with the Divine. Theodore taught that God and man formed a union within the body of Christ, and that Mary was both mother of man and Mother of God, which dwelled inside Christ as a separate entity. This doctrine was formally condemned at the 5th general council at Constantinople in 553 CE.3

After Theodore's death, Nestorius popularized his teachings, which lead the movement to be named after him. He was further exiled to Arabia, and his followers fled further to Persia, where they founded the Nestorian Church. Nestorian schools were established in Edessa and Nisibis, Turkey. From there, missionaries went to Malabar, India and Turkistan. In 625 CE, missionaries from Syria and Armenia reached China. By the end of the 10th century, the Church had been divided into provinces, which stretched from the Moslem world to China, India and Central Asia.

The St. Thomas Theory

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One such missionary was thought to be Thomas the Doubter. According to the Acta Thomae,4 "when the apostles divided the countries of the world for their labors, India fell to Judas" or Thomas, as he was referred to in Syriac legend. The Acta Thomae was written at Edessa, and is treasured by Syrian Christians of Malabar as their authority for the story that St. Thomas had been in India. According to this work, Thomas arrived in India in the year 52 CE. He spent his time preaching, converting and performing miracles, and established seven churches in Malabar. He was eventually martyred on top of a mountain near Madras that now bears his name, and was buried in Mylapore. There is a story about Thomas building a palace for King Gundaphorus of India that reads as though it were borrowed from a Buddhist fable. And in the Gospel of Thomas, from the Acta Thomae, traces of Buddhist sources have been found. The Christians of St. Thomas on the coast of Malabar use Syriac language and formed a liturgy that has been traced back to Persia.

The existence of St. Thomas in India seemed to be backed by several medieval references to the tomb of St. Thomas in India, some that name Mylapore as its location. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle says that in 883 CE, King Alfred sent Sighelm, Bishop of Sherborne, with offerings to Rome and to St. Bartholomew, and Thomas of India, in order to fulfill a vow. The legend of the Three Holy Kings by Johannes of Hildesheim,5 written in 1378, tells that St. Thomas brought the word of Jesus to the people of India and their rulers, Melciur, Balthazar and Gaspar, and that they became converted and became his archbishops. After St. Thomas was martyred, the three kings had their subjects elect a patriarch Thomas to be their spiritual leader, and the temporal leader who would carry the title of Prester John, in honor of St. John the Evangelist. When the Kings died, Patriarch Thomas and Prester John ruled over India. In 1522, Portuguese explorers discovered a tomb with relics in India, some of which remain in the Cathedral of St. Thomas at Mylapore.

The first written record of Prester John is found in 1158 CE in the Chronicles of Otto, Bishop of Freising. It tells of a meeting between Hugh, Bishop of Jabala, and Pope Eugenius II on November 1. On that year Hugh had been sent by Prince Ramond of Antioch to enlist the Pope's aid for the Christian state that the Crusaders had established in the Near East. Otto related Hugh's story that Nestorian Christians had built a large monarchy beyond Persia and Armenia that was ruled over by a priest king named John. This king had made war on the kings of Media and Persia and had captured Ecbatana, that sat near their kingdom. Prester John was believed to be a direct descendant of the Magi. Inspired by the example of his forefathers, who had come to adore the newborn Christ he had planned to go to Jerusalem, but was prevented from doing so when his forces were unable to cross the Tigris River(6). Prester John's victory over the Persians is thought to be a distortion of this defeat of Seljuk, the Turkish ruler of Persia, by Jamugha (Gur Khan) of the Khitai in 1194 near Samarkand. Traders traveling from China to Syria on the Silk Road transformed the oral reports of this battle into the Prester John saga.

At that same time of that writing was the Otto Chronicles, a fictional letter that was sent to Rome, signed by Prester John, which said he was going to invade and liberate the Holy Land. Pope Alexander III returned a letter to him in 1177, hoping to open communications. The letter contained a statement of the Pope's authority over all Christians, that he had heard that John was a good and pious Christian, that the Pope would send his own physician and confidant, Master Phillipus, to teach Prester John Roman Catholicism. When Phillipus, who was sent with the letter, vanished without a trace, the existence of Prester John became universally accepted.

Another letter, which scholars have dated to 1165 CE, was presented to Pope Alexander by his supposed ambassador to Emperor Manuel Comnenus of Byzantium. It read:

John the Presbyter, by the grace of God and the strength of our Lord Jesus Christ, king of kings and lord of lord, to his friend Manuel, Governor of the Byzantines, greetings, wishing good health and the continued enjoyment of that divine blessing.

Our Majesty has been informed that you hold our Excellency in esteem, and that knowledge of our greatness has reached you. Furthermore, we have heard from our secretary that it was your wish to send us some objects of interest, for our pleasure. Since we are but human we take this in good part, and through our secretary we forward to you some of our articles....

...We have made a vow to visit the sepulcher of our Lord with a very great army, as befits the lory of our Majesty, to wage war against and chastise the enemies of the cross of Christ, and to exalt his sacred name.

Our magnificence dominates the Three Indias, and extends to Farthest India, where the body of St. Thomas the Apostle rests. It reaches through the desert toward the place on the rising of the sun, and continues through the valley of deserted Babylon close by the Tower of Babel. Seventy-two provinces obey us, a few of which are Christian provinces, and each has it own king. And all their kings are our tributaries.

In our territories are found elephants, dromedaries, and camels, and almost every kind of beast that is under heaven. Honey flows in our land, and milk everywhere abounds. In one of our territories no poison can do harm and no noisy frog croaks, no scorpions are there, and no serpents creep through the grass. No venomous reptiles can exist there or use their deadly power.

In one of the heathen provinces flows a river called the Physon, which emerges from Paradise, winds and wanders through the entire province, and in it are found emeralds, sapphires, carbuncles, topazes, chrysolites, onyxes, beryls, sardonyzes and many other precious stones.

There is also a sandy sea without water. For the sand moves and swells into waves like the sea and is never still….And though it lacks water, yet there are found close to the shore on our side, many kind of fish which are most peasant and delicious for eating, the like of which is not seen in other lands.

Three days journey from the sea there are mountains from which descend a waterless river of stones, which flows through the south country to the sandy sea. Three days of the week it flows and casts up stones both great and small, and carries with it also wood to the sandy sea. When the river reaches the sea the stones and wood disappear and are not seen again. While the sea is in motion it is impossible to cross it.

Between the sandy sea and the mountains we have mentioned is a desert. Underground there flows a rivulet, to which there appears to be no access, and this rivulet falls into a river of greater size…and takes therefore a great abundance of precious stones. Beyond this river are the tribes of Jews, who although they pretend to have their own kings, are nevertheless our servants and tributaries. In another of our provinces, near the torrid zone, are worms, which in our tongue are called salamanders. These worms can only live in fire, and make a skin around them as the silkworm does. This skin is carefully spun by the ladies of our palace, and from it we have cloth for our common use. When we wish to wash the garments made of this cloth, we put them into fire, and they come forth fresh and clean...

For gold, silver, precious stones, beasts of every kind, and the numbers of our people, we believe that we are unequaled under heaven. There are no poor among us, we receive all strangers and pilgrims, thieves and robbers are not found in our land, nor do we have adultery or avarice.

When we ride forth to war, our troops are preceded by thirteen huge and lofty crosses made of gold and ornamented with precious stones, instead of banners, and each of these is followed by ten thousand mounted soldiers and one hundred thousand infantrymen, not counting those who have charge of the baggage and provisions...

The palace in which our sublimity dwells is built after the pattern of that which the apostle Thomas erected for King Gundafor...The ceilings, pillars, and architecture are of shittimwood. The roof is of ebony, which cannot be inured by fire. At the extremities, above the gables, are two golden apples, set in each one with are two carbuncles, so that the gold shines by day and the carbuncles shine by night. The greatest gates of the palace are of sardony, inlaid with the horns of the serpent called cerastes, so that none may enter with poison. The lesser gates are of ebony, the windows are of crystal. The tables at which our court dines are some of gold and some of amethyst, the columns supporting them are of ivory. In front of the palace is the square where we watch the judicial contests of the trial by combat. The square is paved with onyx, in order that the courage of the fighters may be increased by the virtue of the stone. In our palace there is no light burning, except what is fed by balsam. The chamber in which our sublimity reposes is marvelously bedecked with gold and all manner of precious stones…our bed is sapphire, because of its virtue of chastity. We possess the most beautiful women, but they approach us only for times in the year and then solely for the procreation of sons...

We feed daily at our table, 30,000 men, besides casual guests, and all of these receive daily sums from our treasury to nourish their horses and for other expenses. This table is made of precious emerald, with four columns of amethyst supporting it, the virtue of this stone is that no one sitting at the table can fall into drunkenness.

...In our hall there dines daily, at our right hand, twelve archbishops, and at our left, twenty bishops, and also the Patriarch of St. Thomas, the Protopapao of Samarkand, and the Archprotopapao of Susa, in which city the throne of our glory and our imperial palace are situated...

...that the Creator over all things, having made us the most supreme and the most glorious over all immortals, does not give us a higher title than that of presbyter, 'priest', let not your wisdom be surprised on this account, for here is the reason. At our court we have many ministers who are of higher dignity than ourselves in the Church, and our greatest standing is in divine office. For our household steward is a patriarch and a king, our butler is an archbishop and a king, our chamberlain is a bishop and a king, our marshal is a king and an archbishop, our chief cook is a king and an abbot. And therefore it does not seem proper to our Majesty to assume those names, or to be distinguished by those titles with which our palace overflows. Therefore, to show our great humility, we choose to be called by a lesser name and to assume an inferior rank…7"

The literary source of this letter can be traded to books like the biography of Alexander the Great by the German historian Ekkehard of Aura, the 10th century History of the Battles by Lei the Arch Priest, and tales of Sinbad from The Thousand and One Nights. Materials may have also been taken from various travelers' reports of the Far East. This letter was to become one of the most widely read documents of medieval Europe. It was translated from Latin into French, German, English, Russian, Serbian and Hebrew. The letter was reprinted until the 14th century, and became a compendium of medieval geography and folklore. By this time, much of the St. Thomas mythology had been included in the Prester John letter. References to miracles of St. Thomas were added, that St. Thomas delivered sermons in person, and that the income of Prester John's empire came from the pilgrims who went to see St. Thomas. It also became one of the greatest catalysts of exploration in the 15th century.

In the early 13th century, Jacques de Vitry, Bishop of Acre, wrote a letter to Pope Honorius III, who was trying to gain support for the 5th Crusade. This letter was meant to inspire confidence in the crusade, and said that many Christian princes in the East were massing under the banner of Prester John against the Saracens. The author of this letter realized that Prester John would have to be over 100 years old, so he reported that this must be the grandson of Prester John, King David of India, who was gathering forces.8 During the Mongol raid of Khwarizm in 1221, Jacques reported to the Pope that there was truth to his previous letter, that there really was an army marching through Persia, under King David of India, who, being either the son or grandson of Prester John, was commonly called Prester John. He went on to relate how the Caliph of Baghdad had been threatened with war by the Shah of Khwarizm, and had asked King David for aid, that King David had defeated the Shah, seized Persia, and was marching on Baghdad. He planned to go to the Holy Land, where he would vanquish the Saracens, and rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. Jacques did not realize that the solders would face Nestorian Christians, the Kerait that rode with Chinghis Khan, and that the battle was actually an internal dispute among the Mongolian tribes resulting from a failed khiraltai, the election which was to have determined the next Great Khan (Khakhan) of the tribal federation. The only factual portion of Jacques' report was the defeat of the Prince of Khwarizm by an Asian warrior-king.

Queen Rusudan also identified the Kerait as Christian. In her letter to Pope Honorius III, she wrote: "they must be Christian, as they ride under a banner with an oblique white cross".9 The standard of the Mongolian army was a pair of shoulder blades of a sheep, crossed, with nine yak tails hung nine from the cross piece. In that same year as her letter, Andreas I reported the Battle of Kalka (a Mongolian invasion into Russia) to the Pope, in which he stated that the army of King David carried the body of St. Thomas and had killed 200,000 Russians and Cumans.

The Search in China and Mongolia

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The legend of Prester John was continued by European explorers and missionaries as they traveled through China. During the 3rd Crusade, John of Joinville, the chief chronicler for Louis IX of France, wrote of two envoys where were sent to Kuyuk Khan, bearing with them a chapel and necessaries for holding Mass (it had been understood that Kuyuk was Christian). Upon their arrival, they were received by Oghul, who explained that her husband, Kuyuk, had died. As she had become Regent until the next khiraltai, she accepted the chapel as tribute, and demanded similar offering each year. Joinville wrote that in a letter by the King of the Mongols, Prester John had been killed by the Mongolians. Modern speculation is that this story is based on the murder of Togrul Khan by Chinghis Khan in 1203.

In 1251, Friar William of Rubrik was sent by King Louis to Manke Khan, to enlist his aid in the Crusade against Egypt. Louis thought that the Mongols could be persuaded to attack the Saracens from the rear, while Europe could attack from the front. It was known that the Mongols weren't Moslems. It was hoped that Prester John lived somewhere in Mongolia, and could help convert the tribe to Christianity. Hope later faded when the Golden Horde accepted Islam instead.10

While among the Mongols, Friar William heard the story of the man Chinghis Khan had overthrown, and whom John Plano of Carpini (an earlier Franciscan traveler) had identified as Prester John. The man was a Nestorian shepherd who had lived in Black Cathay, who governed the Naimans, a Nestorian Christian tribe. His Chinese name, Ta-Yang-Khan, was translated by William into Great King John.

Marco Polo looked for Prester John while serving under Kubilai Khan in China.11 He was certain Prester John was a Mongol king, that he did not live in India with St. Thomas Christians or in Ethiopia. His first reference was to the Tartar of Manchuria, who had no sovereign, but who laid tribute to a great prince they called Khakhan, or Great Lord. Marco presumed this to be Prester John. He goes on to say that when the Tartar multiplied, Prester Jonn scattered them over various countries, so they would be too widespread to form any rebellions. When Chinghis Khan united the Tartars in 1200, he sent an envoy to Prester John to ask for his daughter in marriage. When Prester John refused, he was met on the battlefield by Chinghis, where Prester John died. Marco later identified this Prester John as the chief of the Keraits, Togrul Khan. He was the only Christian leader of all Eastern people, whose name translated to one that sounded like John. Marco went on to speculate that the descendants of Prester John continued to rule their kingdom from the old Kerait capital of Karakorum, and that this kingdom had become tributary to Kubilai Khan. The historical event from which this story comes happened in 1202, when Chinghis tried to arrange a marriage between his son Jochi, and Togrul's daughter Jaurbigi. When the offer was rejected, Chingis killed Togrul in battle, and absorbed the Kerait into his federation of Mongolian tribes.12 After the overthrow of the Christian missions in Asia, and the closure of land routs through India by Timur in the 15th century, Indian traditions filtered into Europe through African ports on the Red Sea.

The Legends in Ethiopia and Africa

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By the 14th century, Europe had stopped its search for Prester John in Asia, partially because of the fall of the Mongol Empire, partially because of the expulsion of the Catholic churches from Asia, which cut East-West communications. It was thought that Prester John had ruled both Asia and Africa; that he had been conquered by his adversaries (the Mongols) to whom he had lost his Asian holdings; that he had moved to Ethiopia and Nubia where he still had land. Attentions were therefore turned to Ethiopia, which was considered to be one of the three Indias in medieval geography.

In 1290, a commercial treaty was signed between Genoa and Egypt. In 1306, emissaries from Ethiopia arrived in Genoa to aid the Spanish in their struggle against the Moslems. It was hoped that Spain would return the favor, aiding Ethiopia in their own battle with the Moslem King Amda-Seyon, who was persecuting Ethiopian Coptic Christians in Egypt by threatening to cut off the flow of the Nile and turn Egypt into a desert.13 These emissaries were interviews by the Italian geographer Giovanne da Carignano, who compiled a treatise on the government, customs and religion of Ethiopia. Carignani was the first writer to place Prester John in Ethiopia. The "Mirabilia Descripta" or Book of Wonders (written between 1330-40 by a French Dominican, Jordan of Severac) also referred to the Ethiopian emperor as Prester John. The author had heard this from travelers in the region.

In 1440 Franciscan friar Albert Berdini of Sarteano was appointed by Pope Eugenius IV as his papal legate to India. Albert left Venice with letters addressed to the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, Emperor Prester John of the Ethiopians, and Emperor Thomas of the Indians; the purpose of which was to affiliate their churches with the Church of Rome.

In 1486, King Joao of Portugal made attempts to communicate with Prester John, in order to form an alliance with him. He sent two men---Alphonsus Paiva and Johannes Petreius---to find the legendary king. When they reached Aden (in southern Arabia), they found many Asiatic traditions, including the stories of Prester John in India and Ethiopia, to be confused. It was decided that Petreius would travel to India, and Paive would search in Ethiopia for their man. In India, Petreius found among the Nestorians of South India a story of Prester John, whose power had been overthrown by the Mongols. Paive found that the King of Ethiopia didn't correspond to the Prester John of historical dominion, but was rather that Prester was a title of priestly office. But by the 15th century, the fabled and popular imagination overroad the facts and by 1486 in Portugal and Spain, the history of Ethiopia and Absynnia was the story of Prester John, who became synonymous with the Emperor of Ethiopia.

By the early 16th century, most of Portugal had figured out that the Ethiopian king known as Prester John was unrelated to the legendary monarch of the 12th century. In 1502, Valentin Fernandez, a Portuguese scholar, published a translation of the journal of Marco Polo and other travelers.14 In the preface of this work, he stated that the Ethiopian king considered to be Prester John was not the Prester John of legend, who had been killed by the great khan who then took his lands. Valentin went on to state that the descendant who paid tribute to the great khan was a Nestorian Christian linked to St. Thomas; the King of Ethiopia was a Jacobite Christian, and not related to the Nestorian.

Exploration and the Spice Trade

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In 1411, Queen Philippa of Portugal suggested that an armed expedition be sent to North Africa to find Prester John, as well as a new overland spice route. One of her sons, Prince Henry the Navigator, decided that the way to the Indias was not overland, but by sea. He died in 1460, before Portuguese ships had found the point of Africa. In 1461 Henry's nephew, King Alfonso, awarded the African trade rights to Fernao Gomes of Lisbon; in return he promised to discover 1000 leagues of coat per year. His son, King John sent Diego Cao on further expeditions. Cao thought he had discovered Zanzibar, on the East coast of Africa, where the kingdom of Prester John was presumed to be. Just as King John sent ambassadors with the news to Pope Innocent VIII, Cao returned to say he had been mistaken. He was replaced by Bartolomew Dias, who was more successful, and discovered the Cape of Good Hope.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese were still trying to penetrate the interior. In 1481, Afonso de Aveiro founded a trading post at Benin (modern Nigeria) where he had learned of King Ogane, who was highly revered, and who gave crosses as tokens of approval to chiefs when they came into power in that region. King Ogana received envoys while he was surrounded by silk curtains, revealing to the envoy only one of his feet. King Joan's geographers calculated that this king lived in Ethiopia. Since it had been reported that Prester John gave out crosses and was kept hidden by veils, it was assumed that this king must be Prester John of legend.

Portugal hoped to become independently established the spice trade by setting up trading posts in India and Ethiopia on the coast of the Red Sea---thus eliminating the Italian and Arabian middlemen. Winning the friendship of Prester John was essential to that goal. So in 1487, Diego de Covilhao and Alfonso de Paiva---courtiers of King John,---traveled to Aden. Covilhao sailed from there to India to study the Arabian and Hindi spice merchants, supply sources and shipping seasons. Three years later he went to Cairo. He was to have met up with Paiva, who had died there earlier after having returned from Ethiopia. In 1493 Covilhao entered Ethiopia, where he was received by King Eskender. The king promised to send him home with riches, but died before he could fulfill his promise. Covilhao was refused permission to leave by the next king, and ended his days there.

Manuel ascended the throne in 1495, and put Vasco da Gama in command of an expedition to explore the coast of Africa. They reached Mozambique in 1498, where da Gama was told by local merchants that Prester John held many coastal cities. Da Gama continued up the coast, looking for a route to India. They arrived in Calcutta in May of that year, and returned with spices to Lisbon in 1499. Over the next few years, Portuguese fleets continued to sail to Lisbon, establishing Lisbon as a European spice port. To protect against warring Moslems, they built a series of forts along this new route.

In 1505 the Portuguese stormed and sacked cities along the African shore, in order to strengthen their hold on the spice route. At the same time, Affonso de Albuquerque worked to capture the port of Ormud and Aden, in order to close the Moslem shipping ports. During his operations between 1506-09, Albuquerque tried to gain allegiance with Prester John and the Ethiopians; in order to capture Mecca, take Mohammed's coffin and use it to ransom the Holy Land.

In January 1520, Diego Lopez da Sequiera set out to gain control of the Red Sea. His party arrived in April in Massawa, where he met with the governor of Prester John's encampment, and were summoned to an audience. They met with a government official outside of Prester John's tent, who took their gifts---four bales of pepper, a sword, a dagger, four pieces of tapestry, cuirasses, a gilded helm, two cannon, for gun chambers, balls, powder and a world map into the tent. The visitors then retired to their own pavilions, where Prester John sent them gifts of 30 loaves of white bread, mead and a cow. The next day they were sent more bread and wine, and a calf encased in bread and stuffed with fruit and spices. Two days later, camp broke and moved on. The visitors were told that they could follow if they bought mules to pack their goods.

The king who was thought to be Prester John was Lebna Dengel, grandson of Queen Eleni, who had invited the envoy. Lebna, a Coptic, was normally hidden behind curtains, as royal invisibility was essential to the prestige of the Ethiopian king. But the Portuguese were most fortunate to be allowed to see King Lebna unshielded, as he sat upon his throne. He wore a gold and silver crown, held a silver cross in his hand; his mouth and beard were covered by blue taffeta. He was of moderate stature, chestnut brown, and about 23 years old. Lebna questioned them for days on religious matters, then gave his support to the building of a Portuguese fortress on the Red Sea at Massawa, so that he could open a road and join with the other Christian Princes. The Portuguese returned to Massawa in February of the following year.

Sequira wrote to King Manuel, who in turn wrote to Pope Leo X, saying that "the most powerful bishop of the Indian and Ethiopian Christians, Prester John, Lord of the Province of Absynnia, had been found. This letter was published in Latin. At the same time in Lisbon, a book was published containing this letter, news of the mission into the interior, facts pertaining to Ethiopian life and religion, and a letter by Queen Eleni to King Manuel in 1514. This may have been the letter Eleni wrote when she was visited by the two Joao's, in which she offered men to help fight the Moors. The letter was sent with her ambassador to Albuquerque, who had become viceroy of India. King Manuel sent the letter to the Pope, sayings that Prester John's ambassador had offered all possible aid and necessaries for the war against the enemies of the Catholic Church. This aid never surfaced. Albuquerque tried to take both Massawa and Aden, but died in the process. His campaign collapsed, as did Portugal's monopoly on the spice trade. Consequently, Portugal's search for Prester John ceased.

The Legend in Period Literature

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Though disproved to the Portuguese, the rest of Europe still held that Prester John was real. He became the subject of chapbooks---pamphlets which were sold by street peddlers--like the dime novels of later times. These chapbooks dealt with popular themes, were illustrated with wood cuts, and were widely read.

One such author was Sir John Mandeville, who may have been the pseudonym for Jean do Borgogna (or vice-versa) as the text was unclear). A book called "Travels", dating to about 1366, was a compendium of works of other travelers, written in the form of a travelogue by the author when he presumably traveled himself. The work was from "the Secului Munde" by Vincent of Beaurait (who died in 1264), which itself included excerpts from the journals of John Plano of Carpini, romances about Alexander the Great, and quotes from Pliny, the Greek philosopher. To this Mandeville also added pieces from Friar Odoric of Pordenones accounts of the countries east of the Levant (eastern Mediterranean countries).

Prester John's 12th century letter to Pope Alwxander III was printed in Venice in 1478, in the Italian translation and with expanded text. The first Latin publication was printed in Germany in 1480, as part of a chapbook entitled "Da Rites ea Moribus Indorum" (the Rite and Customs of the Indians). With this letter was a 12th century document "Da Adventu" which told of the visit of Patriarch John of the Indians to Rome, and the telling of the miracles of St. Thomas. Both these stories were printed in chapbook form in 1490 in the Dutch city of Deventer. A chapbook published in Cologne the same year included an account of the travels of Joannes de Hese, which was written in 1381 and was patterned after Mandeville's book. It went on to say that Hese had reached terrestrial paradise and Eden's walls. Hese was said to have attended the court of Prester John, and viewed the body of St. Thomas in Hulna (a Kingdom in India).

There was also, in chapbook form, a treatise of the locations and sects of the Christians, giving brief accounts of Latin, Greek, Nestorian, Jacobite, Syrian Orthodox and other Christian factions. A separate category was given to Indians and their prince, Prester John. The rest of the chapbook included a fictitious letter from Sultan John of Babylon to Pope Pious II, as well as the Pope's (fabricated) reply.

In 1491 in Cologne, a printer by name of Cornelio da Zierikzee published in Latin the text of Prester John's letter and "De Adventu" as well as a treatise of the pontification of Prester John, from "Supplements Chronicarums" (Supplement to Chronicles) by an Itialian monk, Jacopo Filippo Forest of Bergamo, which had first been published in 1483. Forest's work was a general history of the world in 11 volumes, including an abstract from Giovanne da Carignano, a 14th century geographer. Included in this work was an account of the life, customs and times of Prester John, based on a work by Poggio Bracciolini, secretary to Pope Eugenius IV. Bracciolini was an Italian histogragher who specialized in discovering lost texts by studying fragments of authors, then matching the writing styles to texts not already attributed to them.15 His chief source for his work on Prester John was Niccolo di Conti, a Venetian merchant who had visited the tomb of St. Thomas. This account blended India and Ethiopia into one Christian realm, whose king and pope was Prester John.

Stories of Prester John continued to occupy chapbooks, poems and other literature. The most popular books of the 16th century may have been an anonymous work printed in Seville in 1515, detailing the fantasy travels of the Infante Don Pedro I of Portugal. Don Pedro was a son of King Joaa I. The book started with Don Pedro and twelve companions traveling through Venice, Cyprus and Greece; going from there on camelback to Norway; then to Babylon and the Holy Lands; to Armenia to look at Noah's Ark; to Egypt, Arabia and the Sinai; to Mecca to see Mohammed's coffin. Their travels presumably took them to the Amazon, inhabited by Christian women, who were the subjects of Prester John of the Indies; then to Judea; then the Indies, on a search for Prester John, who they found alive with a wife and son. They then returned home via the Red Sea and Morocco. This work continued to be published until the 18th century.


  1. A tribe along the northern Chinese border, ruled by Toghrul Khan, allied with Temujin, who 
     later became Chinghis Khan. The Secret History of the Mongols: The Origin of Chinghis Khan, 
     Paul Kahn, North Point Press, San Francisco 1984
  2. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Charles Scribners Sons, NY 1951
  3. Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol XIV, Robert Appleton Co., NY 1912
  4. Acta Thomae, Apocryphal New Testament, Claremont Press, Oxford 1924
  5. Historia Trium Regum by Johannes of Hildesheim, Sylvia Clare Harris, 1931, pub. London 1954
  6. Otto of Freising Chronicum, G.H. Pertz, editor, 1867
  7. The Realm of Prester John, Robert Silverberg, Doubleday & Co., NY 1972
  8. The Devil's Horsemen: The Mongolian Invasion of Europe, James Chambers, Atheneum, NY 1979
  9. See above.
 10. The Quest for Cathay, Sir Percy Sykes, A&C Black, Ltd., London 1936
 11. The Polos were in China 1275-1292, during which time they served in various capacities under 
     Kubilai Khan. Marco served as governor of Yangchow, China for three years, and traveled 
     extensively in Mongolia, China and India. Medieval People, Eileen Power, Harper & Row, NY 1963.
 12. The Secret History of the Mongols.
 13. References to this were in the journal of Simon Sigoli, who visited Egypt in 1384, and 
     reported that the Sultan of Egypt paid a yearly ransom to Prester John, a Christian potentate 
     who lived in India. The homage was paid to keep Prester John from opening the river sluices 
     and drowning Cairo and Alexandria.
 14. Also see the century journals of Odoric of Pordenone, John Marignolli, and John of Monte 
     Corvino, who all served in various capacities in China during the mid 14th century.

Additional Sources

   * Kublai Khan: Lord of Xanadu, Walter Chapman, Howard W. Sams & Co. 1966
   * Silks, Spices and Empire Owen and Eleanor Lattimore, Delacorte Press, 1968
   * Christian Mythology, George Every, Hamlyn Publisher's Group, Ltd., Feltham, Middlesex, England 
   * The Saints, a Concise Biographical Dictionary, John Coulson, editor, Hawthorn Books NY 1957
   * Butler's Lives of the Saints
   * Church History in Plain Language
   * The Christian World Social and Cultural History