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July 3 Prester John and Marco Polo

For more than 500 years, Europeans believed a Christian king ruled over a vast empire somewhere in the wilds of Africa, India or the Far East. The mysterious King in a letter sent to the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor (probably a hoax) claimed to serve as “supreme ruler of the three Indies” and all its 72 kingdoms. He described his realm as a utopia rich in gold, filled with milk and honey and populated by exotic races of giants and horned men.


Todays letter, from Jean de Lastic, famous as the ‘Master of Rhodes’ writing to Charles VII, King of France from Ethiopia, telling him of victories over the Saracen, he refers in his letter to Prester John, a legendary Christian king who until then had been thought to rule in Asia but now will be assumed to rule in Africa. De Lastic, was the head of a military order who defended the Mediterranean against Turkish encroachment and famously had repelled an Ottoman fleet attacking Rhodes, he had received his title the Grand Master of Rhodes as a Result. However after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 ushered in a century of Ottoman naval dominance over the eastern Mediterranean.

Prester John was a legendary Christian patriarch, elder or presbyter and king. Stories popular in Europe in the twelfth through to the seventeenth centuries told of a Nestorian patriarch and king who was said to rule over a Christian nation lost amid the pagans and Muslims in the Orient. The legend also moved geographically as at first, Prester John was imagined to reside in India where tales of the Nestorian Christians' evangelistic success there where deeply rooted but then the legend moved to and became rooted in Ethiopia.

Nestorius had been the Archbishop of Constantinople in the 5th Century , where several of his teachings in the fields of Christology and Mariology controversial and caused major disputes. He was condemned and deposed from his see by the Council of Ephesus, the third Ecumenical Council, in 431.His teachings included rejection of the title Theotokos (Mother of God), used for Mary, mother of Jesus, which was linked to his ‘Low Christology’ - refusing to see Jesus as fully human and divine, and subsequently accusations of heresy. He was sent into exile in Upper Egypt, where he lived on strenuously defending his views. A faction loyal to him and his teachings travelled onto exile with him and relocated to Persia. Some historians refer to this as the Nestorian Schism and the Church of the East often as the "Nestorian Church". He is still revered by some as a "Greek Teacher" of the Church, however Pope Pius XII requested the restoration of the Anaphora of Nestorius (that is his condemnation). Today the Assyrian Church of the East, reveres Nestorius as a saint, but have moved away from the entirety of the Nestorian doctrine, and parts of the doctrine were explicitly repudiated by Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV, on the occasion of his accession in 1976.

The geographical and theological divide between the west and the east also allowed the rumours of the Christian King Prester John to take hold in the imagination. In the Golden age of exploration by Christian powers, to have a strong relationship with this mythical kingdom was highly desirable. Mixed with ancient stories of Thomas the Apostle's subcontinental travels as documented in works like the Extra-Canonical Acts of Thomas, the first seeds of the legend grew. However, it was with the coming of the Mongols to the Western world that the legends began to shift from India to Ethiopia. The Portuguese explorer Marco Polo claimed to have found him in Ethiopia and a variety of envoys were sent to enquire about his whereabouts so that Christian monarchs could make contact with him. By 1520, the Emperor Lebna Dengel and the Portuguese had established diplomatic contact and, Prester John was the name used for the Emperor of Ethiopia, although the Ethiopians had never called their emperor that. When ambassadors from Emperor Zara Yaqob attended the Council of Florence in 1441, they were confused when council prelates insisted on referring to their monarch as Prester John. They tried to explain that nowhere in Zara Yaqob's list of regnal names did that title occur.

However when the Seventeenth Century German orientalist Hiob Ludolf demonstrated that there was no actual native connection between Prester John and the Ethiopian monarchs, the search for the fabled king gradually ceased. But the legend had encouraged several hundred years of Europe's explorers, missionaries, scholars, and treasure hunters and therefor affected world history, directly and indirectly. William Shakespeare's 1600 play Much Ado About Nothing contains an early modern reference to the legendary king, and even today Marvel Comics has featured "Prester John" in issues of Fantastic Four and Thor.


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