Education and Communications

The Imaginary King Who Changed The Real World – Matteo Salvadore

In 1165, copies of a strange letter began
to circulate throughout Western Europe. It spoke of a fantastical realm, containing the Tower of Babel
and the Fountain of Youth— all ruled over by the letter’s
mysterious author: Prester John. Today, we know that this extraordinary
king never existed. But the legend of this mythical kingdom
and its powerful ruler would impact the decisions of European
leaders for the next 400 years. Prester John’s myth would propel
the age of exploration, inspire intercontinental diplomacy,
and indirectly begin a civil war. When Prester John’s letter appeared,
Europe was embroiled in the Crusades. In this series of religious wars, Europeans campaigned to seize what
they regarded as the Christian Holy Land. The Church vilified any faith
outside of Christianity, including that of the Jewish and Muslim
communities populating the region. Crusaders were eager to find Christian
kingdoms to serve as allies in their war. And they were particularly interested
in rumors of a powerful Christian king who had defeated an enormous
Muslim army in the Far East. In fact, it was a Mongol horde including
converted Christian tribes that had routed the army. But news of this victory
traveled unreliably. Merchants and emissaries filled
gaps in the story with epic poems and Biblical fragments. By the time the story reached Europe, the Mongol horde had been replaced
with a great Christian army, commanded by a king who shared
the Crusader’s vision of marching on Jerusalem. And when a letter allegedly written by
this so-called “Prester John” appeared, European rulers were thrilled. While the letter’s actual author
remains unknown, its stereotypes about the East
and alignment with European goals indicate it was a Western forgery. But despite the letter’s obvious origins
as European propaganda, the appeal of Prester John’s myth
was too great for the Crusaders to ignore. Before long, European mapmakers were guessing
the location of his mythical kingdom. In the 13th and 14th centuries,
European missionaries went East, along the newly revived Silk Road. They weren’t searching for
the letter’s author, who would have been over a century old;
but rather, for his descendants. The title of Prester John
was briefly identified with several Central Asian rulers, but it soon became clear that the Mongols
were largely non-Christian. And as their Empire began to decline, Europeans began pursuing alternate routes
to the Far East, and new clues to Prester John’s location. At the same time these explorers
went south, Ethiopian pilgrims began traveling north. In Rome, these visitors
quickly attracted the interest of European scholars and cartographers. Since Ethiopia had been converted
to Christianity in the 4th century, the stories of their African homeland
fit perfectly into Prester John’s legend. Portuguese explorers scoured Africa
for the kingdom, until a mix of confusion and diplomacy
finally turned myth into reality. The Ethiopians graciously received
their European guests, who were eager to do business
with the ruler they believed to be Prester John. Though the Ethiopians were initially
confused by the Portuguese’s unusual name for their Emperor, they were savvy enough to recognize
the diplomatic capital it afforded them. The Ethiopian diplomats played the part
of Prester John’s subjects, and the Portuguese triumphantly announced
an alliance with the fabled sovereign— over 350 years after the European
letter had begun the search. But this long-awaited partnership
was quickly tested. A decade later, the Sultanate of Adal, a regional power supported
by the Ottoman Empire, invaded Ethiopia. The Portuguese sent troops that helped
Ethiopians win this conflict. But by this time, it was clear that Ethiopia was not
the powerful ally Europe had hoped. Worse still, the increasingly intolerant
Roman Catholic Church now deemed the Ethiopian sect
of Christianity heretical. Their subsequent attempts to convert
the people they once revered as ideal Christians would eventually spark a civil war, and in the 1630s,
Ethiopia cut ties with Europe. Over the next two centuries, the legend of Prester John
slowly faded into oblivion— ending the reign of a king who made
history despite having never existed.
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