Have you ever heard of a legendary king called Prester John? Some might not know, but this legendary patriarch was a big motivator for sailors of the Age of Discovery. Today, I’d like to introduce my findings on this surely intriguing legendary patriarch and why would have these rumors last so long, leading to a sudden series of expeditions across the sea risking death to reach the kingdom that wasn’t real.
In the 13th century, , during the fifth crusade, there were persistent rumors of a mighty try king (priest as well). Said to have land stretching across the Middle East and having mighty power, the legend of Prester John spread across Europe. By 1306, 30 Ethiopian missionaries were supposed to have traveled to Europe during the reign of King Wedem Arad of Ethiopia, explaining that their king was Prester John. Hearing this, many European leaders were eager to find the kingdom and have an alliance with them to eliminate the Islamic kingdoms. Plus, there were widespread rumors of letters that Prester John had sent to European countries including rumor of a conflict between Prester John and the Islamic empires. This led to the start of the Age of Discovery where many were looking for Prester John, especially Portugal and Italy competed to see who could find Prester John first, despite huge casualties of sailors who died out while making effort to find this legendary kingdom. This, in turn led to the development of better ships and navigational techniques. More and more countries developed these skills; this was the beginning of the Age of Discovery. Their ventures included Henry the Navigator’s reaching the Cape of Good Hope and the Spanish discovery of the Spice Islands. Many people thought the rumors were true even though the Ethiopian king exclaimed that he wasn’t Prester John; Ethiopian missionaries in the country also denied the story. The truth wasn’t known until the 17th century when German orientalist Hiob Ludolf and many European scholars confirmed that there was no connection between Ethiopia and Prester John. This still remains as a hilarious rumor in history as many risked their lives while these long journeys to find a kingdom that wasn’t even real but the one of the reasons why the Age of Discovery started.
There are many ideas about the identity of Prester John. One great example would be that he was Genghis Khan or one of his sons. The only kingdom or empire that would have had such huge lands and would have been likely to attack the Islamic empire, would be the Mongols, as not many had hope to defeat the Islamic world in Africa or Asia. Except the Mongols, few had the power to successfully attack the Muslims, and Ethiopia wasn’t that prosperous nor developed to wage war against the Islamic Empire. This leads to the idea that Prester John would have been Genghis Khan or one of his sons who had inherited the land. However, there are also a few ideas that he wouldn’t have been a Mongol, as in the figure above where Prester John is depicted fighting with the Mongols. Plus, if it were the Mongols, they might have known it earlier, given their conquest of Europe. I believe this is quite hilarious, if true since the Mongols who slaughtered the Knight’s Templar were known as a holy priests and saviors of the Pope. These rumors, in my perspective, might have been made by the Pope in order to attract more kings and strengthen crusade armies, due to the shortage of soldiers as the crusades dragged on. Most of these rumors are based on the Pope and Italy, so I believe the rumor would possibly have been made by the Pope who was the only one who could make money by the crusades.
The rumor of Prester John dominated Europe for centuries, but no one was able to find the kingdom and the only thing anyone discovered was the fact that Prester John never existed. However, this whole scenario encouraged the development of European technology and certainly brought forth the Age of Discovery. All in all, without the legend of Prester John, there wouldn’t have been the Age of Discovery, nor would have there been the discovery of many continents as well. Without all of this, history, including present day of humanity would have been a lot different than now.