chasing prester john

by Leanne Ogasawara

Psalter_World_Map,_c.1265 “”If you want to to become a man of letters and perhaps write some Histories one day, you must also lie and invent tales, otherwise your History would become monotonous. But you must act with restraint. The world condemns liars who do nothing but lie, even about the most trivial things, and it rewards poets, who lie only about the greatest things.”
― Umberto Eco, Baudolino

It was every Medieval person's greatest aspiration. For, of course, finding Prester John would bring about the most glorious-not to mention grandiose– conclusion to the Crusades. In their rich imaginations, the Medievals believed that this would culminate in the return of Jerusalem from “the Moors” and the making way for the Second Coming–and the Kingdom of Heaven.

No small undertaking, the search for the Prester was just as mind-bogglingly quixotic as the other European obsessions, like for Eldorado and Atlantis and the Grail. And, like the search for the Holy Grail, this sone had the added imperative and will to power borne of religion.

I imagine my favorite Portuguese fidalgo not taking the news well. But maybe Pêro da Covilhã was no real fidalgo anyway–of humble birth, it was his wit and skill with languages that had brought him this far up the aristocratic ladder in Lisbon. Called to court in 1487, he arrived to a room full of Jesuits.

Not the bloody Jesuits, he must have thought, Anything but them.

His despair must have only deepened when he heard what the king had in mind for him.

He was being asked to lead an emissary to Abyssinia.

As he struggled to recall where Abyssinia even was located, one of the council map-makers probably appeared and unfurled a large map of the known world; one with Jerusalem lying smack in the middle. As they explained the route he was to take, a Jesuit confidante and adviser to the viceroy explained that it was the Court of the King of Abyssinia at which they believed the legendary Prester John resided.

Prester John? Not this Catholic nonsense again? Pêro da Covilhã must have struggled to keep his disbelief from showing on his face over what they were asking of him.

It was a story every Medieval knew. Thought to be a direct descendant of one of the Three Magi, Prester John was believed to rule in perfect virtue over a lost Christian Kingdom amidst the infidels. Long assumed to exist somewhere among the lands of their Moorish enemies in India, the legend of Prester John had somehow over the centuries become intertwined in their hearts and minds with the fight against the infidels, the crusades and even with the spice trade. So looming was this mythical Christian monarch that in later Medieval times, all Portuguese captains and crew were charged with the sacred mission of finding lost Christians in order to mobilize them in the fight against the Moors. Indeed, they flew the Crusader Cross on their rickety naus and caravelles.

After scouring India, Sri Lanka and the Eurasian Steppes, where they asked all whom they encountered if they didn’t have some knowledge of a Christian monarch or people with crosses, the Europeans had next turned to Africa to posit their Prester at the Solomonic Court of Abyssinia.

Even Pêro da Covilhã must have had to acknowledge that this Abyssinian emperor looked like a fine candidate for Prester John. For Abyssinia was not just a Christian nation surrounded by “Moorish sheiks,” “Arabian emirs” and “tribal pagans” in Africa, but the ruling house of Ethiopia traced its origins all the way back to King Solomon himself. United in their dread over Saladin's shocking capture of Jerusalem in 1187, the 12th century king, Lalibela (whose name means, “the bees recognise his sovereignty”) built his holy city Lalibela as a new Jerusalem.

And it was to Lalibela where he would go. Supplied with maps and charts, he was ordered to find the Prester and enter into a commercial treaty to control the spice trade.

But the journey would not be easy. We know he made it since the more famous missionary Father Alvares met him during his later mission, where he found da Covilhã a well-treated prisoner of the Ethiopian king. These Portuguese missions to the Ethipian court are the stuff of legend. Before European eyes turned to Africa, however, Prestor John was earlier imagined to be in Central Asia–or perhaps India.

I just finished a wonderful book called Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem: How Religion Drove the Voyages that Led to America. If there is any takeaway message from the book, which I highly recommend, it is this: liberal revisionism has painted the discoveries, like it does the crusades, as a kind of grab for wealth. Medieval scholars and historians will repeat again and again, however, that this simply is not true. They remind us that, indeed, fact is stranger than fiction. And ideology is a powerful aphrodisiac. Columbus wanted money to be sure. But he was not motivated by that in the way we have been led to believe for money and fame was never his main project.

Columbus was as clear as the crusaders and knights who came before him. He wanted to discover the new world to find Prester John and thereby fund (with all the gold of Japan) a new crusade. For the times were just that bad. First Saladin took Jerusalem and the Latin kingdoms in Outremer then fell one after the other. And just when they thought things couldn't get worse, Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. Columbus' day was obsessed by the impending Apocalypse perhaps like no time before or since.

And all roads led to Jerusalem.

Preparing for my upcoming trip to the Holy City, two friends joked that I will probably come down with Jerusalem Syndrome–like Gogol, who displayed several of the symptoms of the syndrome, from the feeling of being “called” to the city to the depression caused by disappointment. As I wrote here last month, it's true I have not been this emotionally invested in seeing a place since a trip to Kashmir I took when I was 21. Having read as many books as I could on the history of the City of Cities, I suppose I am traveling there with this quote by Disraeli much in my mind:

“The view of Jerusalem is the history of the world; it is more, it is the history of earth and of heaven.” – Benjamin Disraeli

When I mentioned to a friend the way this quote has captured my mind (resisting but at the same time intrigued and fixated by the idea, like so many many people), he said, “Well, some people see Qufu as the ground zero of all history.”

It's true, and yet –and yet— if one connects in their mind the dots of current neo-liberal policies and attitudes of the global elite with the wide-ranging effects resulting from that of colonialism, which itself was connected to the Medieval project of “searching for Christians and spice;” then in some ways, it is true that the history of Jerusalem is the history of the world–though I suspect a Medieval crusader would have a hard time seeing any connection since nowadays the project is lacking its Prester–in its service and devotion to Mammon alone.

See also Part 1: To Kiss the Lips of John the Baptist