©1 May, 2020, The Media Desk
While this subject has been addressed by pretty much everybody out there, and some of those are linked below, the Desk has never really looked at it, or rather, him. Until now, when, in the spring of 2020, it had plenty of time. And, as you will see, the entire idea requires a great deal of time to sort through. So here we go:
There are a few ancient figures who have been "honored", if that's the right word, by being given a recurring role in various cartoons and comic books.
There are also very few ancient figures who have been the subject of endless, and some would say Pointless debate about whether or not they really even existed as a single individual to begin with.
And then, on top of those, there are very few individuals from the so called "dark age" of Europe, or rather, the Early Middle Ages, a century on either said of 1000 AD, that will return a million hits on a simple Internet Search on their name.
In our traipsing through history in the Desk's style, which is to suppose the Desk HAS a style to begin with, we've come across a few. The Count (of) Saint Germain is one of them. One Mr. Faust surfaced in another Mystery Series article. Then there was Lilith, and we'll end the list right there by saying there's been a select few others, so our current guest star is in good company, and there are links below to the articles mentioned.
So now, WHO are we talking about today? Hang on, we'll get to the W's in a minute, but we'll touch on it for a moment now just so everybody is clear about what this outing is about.
Well, the answer to that 'W' is just about as murky as any topic to come across these pages as any of those others, and indeed, just about anything else tossed up and saluted by the Desk's Mystery Series.
And the answer is: Prester John. Also Known As: Presbyter Johannes, El Preste Juan, John the Elder. King, Churchman, perhaps even Eastern Patriarch, and so on. A gentleman of the Cloth who had significant political power in the years between, say 1000 and maybe 1400 AD, somewhere in "the East".
If you do a quick web search for other articles about the man, you'll find several dry mouthed academics who instantly and totally dismiss him as fictional and declare all ancient mentions of him complete fabrications.
And, to be fair, there are some who say that the legend was based on a real person, or perhaps several real persons, which has been muddled by everything from the march of several centuries and the translation from whatever native language the good king spoke (which may be now lost) into HTML (hypertext markup language). Some rank him as a great Adept, a miracle worker in his own right, who was in direct succession to the Apostle Thomas, who lived for nearly 200 years as his writings claimed was usual in his land. And on and on.
He's even made a cameo in a past article where we were looking at Great Zimbabwe as there are claims that the largest ancient stone building south of the Sahara Desert was his vacation residence. (link below)
So, with all that in hand, we'll take to the old Silk Road, or was it a trip up the Nile to Ethiopia and maybe further into the heart of Africa? Well, in any case, we'll head out and see what we can see, and, hopefully, come to some sort of meaningful conclusion.
As the Desk has had some measure of good success using the old tried and true "5 W"s of journalism (which is about as close to true journalism as the Desk gets) we'll trot them out and give it our best effort. And, along the way deal with assorted tangents and obscure references and all the rest. So, let's get going:
TheMediaDesk.com's MYSTERY SERIES goes in search of
First W: WHO?
In this there is very little confusion. Unless you like confusion, then it begins here.
We're talking about a Christian Ruler of a wealthy and highly civilized country/province/region that was EAST of the Roman World. One with a massive army, and who had significant military success with it.
The title given "prester" is a shortened version of Presbyter, which simply means "Elder" in the Christian sense of the word, which today might be made out to be Bishop or equivalent. He is always regarded as being the Monarch of his land, as well as the spiritual leader of his people. Just as various European rulers were taken to be the titular heir of their country's church. The use of the term is the primary clue that we're dealing with an individual who was at least nominally a Christian as it is not a term normally used by any of the other major religions of the era.
The name used was most commonly a version of John. Sometimes made out as Johannes and various Latin/Greek versions thereof. Which is another clue as to this figure's identity.
But that is all the two words are, clues. Not evidence.
The title, while somewhat unusual, has been used by others to indicate a church office, and the name, in its various forms ranging from ancient Hebrew and Aramaic to modern usage, is one of the most common male names going and means "by the Grace of GOD" and various statements that way.
Are there any other instances of a religious title and a given name being used together like that?
Well, as a matter of fact, there are.
In the Old Testament you have the powerful Priest (Presbyter) and King of the city of Salem in the Promised Land who paid tribute to Abraham and is mentioned in the New Testament.
Closer to our time there is a story of a John who was the Patriarch of the Christian Church in India around the year 1120. As to whether or not he made a trip to Rome is another mystery that we'd be better off ignoring and going on our way because the Roman church didn't send any missionaries that we know of to India until the 1290s. So we will.
Is that John our John?
Apparently not. India's John the Patriarch, whether or not he ever existed, is always referred to as such, and, as far as can be told this far out, never raised an army and invaded Persia under the title Presbyter.
And since we're not confused enough, we're going to mention one Unc-Khan who was cited by Marco Polo as being the "Real" Prester John in his travelogue. And things really get murky when you try to run down this individual by that name. Just for fun, we've included a couple of links below in case somebody wants to engage in that chase through the bushes.
W-2, well, the Second W, WHAT?
And a bit of the third: WHERE?
We'll look at the Eastern Church for this one as it is the organization that John was supposed to be part of, as well as a selection of the lands he may have ruled there. We'll skip the African Connection for now, but don't worry, we'll head down there for some lunch later.
According to various legends of the Apostles, at least Two of the Twelve, and possibly more, went East to spread the word.
Traditionally, the Apostle Thomas preached in Persia (Parthian), possibly on Socotra Island, and may have entered India where there is a striking Cathedral in Madras (Chennai) which claims to be built over the grave of the Apostle most famous for doubting the fact of the risen Christ, and perhaps equally famous for doing A Lot of travelling.
The historical reality of whether or not the Apostle ever sat foot on the Subcontinent, or even on that dot of an island in the Gulf of Aden, is beyond the scope of this article, but we'll take the legend at face value and look for a Christian king somewhere around of where the Indus river meets the Indian Ocean and on to the south.
And then you have the various political divisions of the present country which was organized into tribal areas that were more or less autonomous. Some of which you can still see in today's country.
OK, remember that, we'll come back to it. First we'll look north of there.
The Armenian Church lays claim to two apostles, Bartholomew (also called Nathaniel) and Jude (Thaddaeus), the Brother of Christ. Christianity became the official religion of the Kingdom of Armenia in 301 when King Tiridates was healed from an illness that endangered his reign and his family succession by Saint Gregory the Illuminator. After his cure, he and apparently his household converted and he proclaimed the Kingdom to be Christian. The first nation to be so named.
From there, the Word and its Church spread to adjacent lands and the many small kingdoms and communities that were spread along both sides of the Caucasus Mountains including ancient Georgia, Albania and Azerbaijan and a host of other large and small realms up into what is now the extreme southern reaches of Russia.
Here is where you will find the Kingdom of Kiurikian (which is also called Tashir Dzoraget), and then just up the road there was Hereti. And, of course, you had Tbilisi, and Ganjak, and just to the west was Trebizond, and to the east, Leketi and Daruband on the shore of the Caspian Sea.
Some of these kingdoms existed as independent nations for only a short time, up to a couple of hundred years, and some still exist but with totally redrawn boundaries.
While somewhat confused, and indeed, the history of the region is confusing to even those who get paid to understand it. But the confusion is actually quite easy to understand, and we shall explain it quickly and move on.
This region is the Center of the World. It really is, just look at the map. If you center your map around the multiple boarder junctions of, say; Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, and look around, you see the reason there is no single history to the region. To the upper left of your map, you have Europe, in the upper middle the various incarnations of Russia and friends, to the upper right, the rest of Asia, to the lower right, India and parts of Arabia, then to the lower left, the rest of Arabia and Africa.
Trade routes from everybody from the Ancient Mediterranean cultures to the Vikings and Huns in the north to the Achaemenid and the Persians to the south east, to the Egyptians and the Hebrew Kings passed this way on their way to someplace else. Or didn't pass this way, as was the case of a Roman Army that was turned back at a narrow pass in ancient Armenia which marked the furthest expansion of that empire to the Northeast. Until the Great Kahns of the Mongol Empire swallowed the region in about two bites in the 1250s, at which point this area essentially drops out of Western History books until the breakup of the USSR and the small kingdoms of old suddenly announced they are independent countries once again, and then they became provinces of larger, more viable countries, and in some cases, a few of the old royal families are applying for their old jobs again. With decidedly mixed results.
And it is this endless transition of realms and governments, the changing of religions, and even languages back and forth that a lot of the history of the region was lost. And what is remembered has been tainted one way or the other depending on who was writing it.
Remember that bit about a large number of small kingdoms up that way as well, it will come up again, soon.
But there's a problem with the history of both regions. In a word, it is Nestorianiam.
We needn't go into the rather perplexing views of that school of religious thought, for our work here today we'll simply state that to the rest of Christianity, Catholic and Non-Catholic alike, their views on several points were at the least objectionable but not of a Salvation caliber, and at worst total bald-faced heresy.
Nestorianism had its roots in Asia Minor and spread east, and south, and north. Into both the Armenian Church, and the churches down towards India. Making most of its gains in the early to mid-400s and on, and even reaching into China 600s coming across the Himalayas just ahead of the first wave of Islam.
And there's the second problem with the history. Around and just after the time John was supposed to be a powerful Christian ruler, Islam had taken over much of the area where he was to have been, and any Christian documents were... no more.
But that is also what is to have made him so special. He was supposed to hold to the true faith through all opposition.
Which may be more propaganda than truth given the journalistic standards of the days when the legend was being assembled. So, we're going to go with the basic idea that the ruler we're looking for was at least nominally a Christian, and perhaps a ranking official in the local church during a very specific period in history.
Remember when we mentioned Ethiopia?
"Back in the day" everything West of the Nile was Africa, and Everything EAST of it, including Nubia, Ethiopia, 'the Horn of Africa', and perhaps even down as far as Mozambique, where we'll get to in a moment, was considered "INDIA".
Here we go, pack your bags and get ready to have some Injera with Doro Wot washed down with a cup of Tej for lunch. Oh, that's sourdough bread, chicken curry, and a sweet very sweet, wine. Maybe several cups of Tej.
Christianity has been in the area south of Egypt since the very beginnings of the religion. For evidence we need look no further than chapter eight in the Book of Acts:
"And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah."The culture and civilization of Ethiopia is old enough and strong enough that there is an interesting claim that the Ark of the Covenant is buried under an ancient church in Axum (Aksum). Where it was taken sometime after the fall of Solomon's kingdom by the descendants of his good friend the Queen of Sheba (who the the locals claim is one of their own) for safe keeping before the Babylonians got hold of it. And as since, then as now, there is a small but active Jewish community in the area, so the Ark would feel right at home.
Acts 8: 27 - 28 (ESV) see link below
Time out for China.
There was also a Christian Community in China during the period we're looking at. Those Nestorians that we've run into before had missionaries in the country as early as the mid 600s AD. As we are talking about China, not being a worshiper of the Emperor was generally bad for your health, and both Christianity and Buddhism were actively suppressed by the crown during this period.
Suppressed, but not eradicated. But, the fact that it was officially on the outs makes it unlikely that a "Christian Priest King" would be tolerated anywhere in the neighborhood. But (again), there are a lot of outlier districts of greater China, into Tibet, and Mongolia where the Nestorians were active well into the post-empire period when the Buddhist community began to work to silence other religions. It is NOT out of the question that John was a Nestorian king of a local realm in what is now Kazakhstan before the Mongol's took over in the early 1200s, one of which Marco Polo evidently was friends with, and we'll come back to that. There are several quite vocal campaigners for that minor Khan, and at least one comic book that explains it all.
OK, we've been East, North, and South... time to... time to look at time.
Which brings us to our next W: WHEN?
This is easier to answer. There is a relatively small window in the history of the regions so far examined where all the factors we've discussed come together and make it possible for our John to exist.
Christianity became a meaningful force in the area between about two to three hundred AD and the arrival of Islam in India around 800 to 1500 and the Mongol invasion of the north in 1200 or so as we already mentioned. And even after those waves broke across the land, there were pockets of Christians here and there, and even some of the Mongol Horde were Christians, by some estimates, about a third of their number were at least 'Christianized'. As was the 'minor king' Unc Khan that Polo talks about, who also did a lot of boasting that he was Prester John. If he really was, he wouldn't have had to brag about it so much, right?
AND furthermore.... There were innumerable kingdoms and satraps and regional governors and heads of independent cities and what have you from here to there. Some, as we have seen, existed only for a short time as an entity in their own rights.
Further south, Christianity arrived in Ethiopia in the First Century, and while Islam did come into the region in the 600s, it never really had the terrestrial power it did in the Middle East for a long period of time. Which gives our man a longer period to operate.
And while we're at it, that's also a checkpoint we need to add to the list... John's realm had to be a real place, such as those we just looked at, where a self-identified Christian could hold both ecclesiastical and secular power.
one more ... and, where hard archaeological evidence is non-existent or open to interpretation, where genuine historical texts are lost or corrupt, and even songs and stories from the period are either unreliable or so changed as to be meaningless. Which includes everyplace we just were from Ethiopia to Mongolia, so that one isn't a lot of help.
In a few minutes we'll look at a couple of instances of where our set of conditions coincide with either a man named John (or the equivalent), or where one could have quite possibly existed.
This one may be the easiest of all.
During the time we are talking about, A century or so before 1000 AD and a handful on the other side into the 1400s, the Roman Church was having a hard go of it a the first of its Crusades had had marginal success, and some not so marginal failures, but was a very expensive enterprise. The Eastern half of Europe was still mired in the long-running fighting, and in-fighting that defined the old Eastern Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire, as this writer often mentions, was none of those three words, and was working hard to maintain its own supremacy in central northern Europe. And so on.
In the middle to late 900's the church based in Rome descended into what is called the "saeculum obscurum" (dark age) by those who are trying to put a not so bad spin to it, and the "pornocracy" (rule by whores) by those who don't care about Catholic spin. The Papacy was for sale to the highest bidder, and favors were bought and sold like 'indulgences' would be a few centuries later. Then, for a very short time, things looked up.
The reigning pope in 1000 was an enlightened scholar and scientist names Gerbert who reigned as Sylvester II. History judges him as one of the best Bishops of Rome ever. During his tenure he worked against the widespread corruption that was bringing the church down around him. Unfortunately, he only had four years to get it done, he died in 1003. Then the 'rule by whores' started all over again with the leader of the church owing more allegiance to various rival powerful Italian family groups than to Christ.
The leadership of the Western Church got so bad that there were several instances of Anti-Popes, some of whom may have had more of a following than the one in the Vatican. Then there were several years of Three elected popes, and one "Year of Four Popes" in 1276 where it seemed that there may have been 'something in the water' in the Vatican and whoever sat on the Throne of St Peter would soon get to meet the original owner of the chair. And we will end our discussion before the Schism which ended up with three claimants to the office in 1410.
In other parts of Europe, as we've mentioned, famines and plagues and endless minor wars made life miserable for everybody not part of a royal court, and in some cases, even those in the court were pretty bad off.
On the whole, things looked rather glum at home. So the idea that somewhere, out There, was a peaceful kingdom ruled by a powerful, just, and wise King was very attractive indeed. And then the idea that he would ride out of the sunrise at the head of a massive army to seal a victory in the Holy Land, and then, maybe, clean up the mess in Europe was enough to make some people start watching out for him.
Not only did those poor souls want there to be a Prester John, they NEEDED one.
Then, beginning just after 1300 not only did Europe NOT get a Priest King, they got a deadly famine in the thirteen teens that set the table for the Black Death a handful of years later. It is estimated that one hundred million people, or more, died from the plague. Nobody will ever know for sure. So the legend of the mysterious Eastern ruler who might at least send some good advice was longed for more than ever.
Now, let's try to build a man out of our findings.
This John or That John or was there Another John?
Suspect Number One:
In one of those forgotten countries in the region of the Caucus Mountains, between the Greater and Lesser ranges along the Kura river, there was a country called Hereti made up of the Heri people.
There's a reason you never heard of it. It was founded as an independent country in the early 890s and became part of the Kingdom of Kaketi in 1020 or so, and then was absorbed by Georgia a few years later.
First, we have Queen Dinar who was co-regent with her son Ishkhanik. Dinar is notable because the Russian Church considered her a Saint, even today, her portrait as an Orthodox Saint hangs in the Throne Room of the Kremlin. Together they fought heresy and stabilized the kingdom. There's a link below with more on the Queen.
The Good Queen's grandson was King John (yes, it was) who reigned from 951 to 959, during which his country had what amounts to its Golden Age. He added territory to the kingdom, established good relations with outside powers, and more of his people accepted the Faith. When he died without an heir, the kingdom, well, faded into obscurity.
Almost sounds like various stories of Camelot and its one "brief, shining moment".
Possible Suspect Number Two:
Back in the good old days in India, there were Christian administrators called Archdeacons that held significant authority in civil matters as well as inside the walls of their local church. Some of them were given what amounted to governorship of their area by a king.
One prominent family who held the position through several generations was named Pakalomattam (and later variations thereof). Most of the records of the persons who occupied this position prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, who did not approve of the local flavor of Christianity, have been lost. However, the Christian Name of Yohannan (John) was in use in the family in later years (1585) and there is no reason to doubt that it was used prior to that by the St Thomas Christians in India. There's a link below with more on this line of query.
There were also local bishops with the title of Metropolitans in places like Alexandria and elsewhere, of which it is known that at least one was named John during our window of opportunity.
And, as was mentioned in the Where section, it is not beyond belief that there was a John somewhere up towards Mongolia or even down along the Blue Nile. And... dare we say it? Maybe ALL of them ended up partially remembered and then got baked together with a lot of wishful thinking to come out the man in the comic book.
And our Conclusion comes before the End of the Article!
The original question was, if a certified package arrived at the royal court, in Ethiopia, or Azerbaijan, or India, or even Mongolia, addressed to Presbyter Johann, and required a signature and photo ID, or whatever the equivalent was a thousand years ago, would somebody come downstairs in a robe with a scepter and all that, and sign for it?
Well, we hate to say it, but, No.
There were several Eastern versions of "Good King John", but even with the probably empty boasting of one of the Junior Khans to Marco Polo during a long night of kumis swilling (alcoholic horse milk), there is no no man in one location at a singular point of time that answers to all the points of the legend.
As with King Arthur (see Media Desk link below), it would appear that the legend began with one local guy, or in this case several local guys covering hundreds of years over thousands of miles of territory, who was/were more or less notable, then as time went on, the legend accumulated everything from legions of knights to religion miracles, then it coalesced around one particular man and time, and then it never looked back.
So, on this one, we're going to put it to bed by saying that while there were several Johns of various flavors, and some of them may have been ranking churchmen, a few were known to be kings of relatively small realms, and maybe even a handful of them were especially noble in some way, the chances that one of them was all of the above and his domain was more than a single ZIP code, sorry. On the whole, Prester John is a fascinating legend, but that's all he is.
And in that light, we'll run through some of the resources used to come to that conclusion.
The HOW of the "5 W's" comes down to...Historical mentions:
The veracity of the various sources of from closer to the time are arguable. Apparently, some of those who wrote about the man traveled into the region, and many of those who wrote about him, some with feigned authority, did not.
We'll take a moment and look at a selection of those and see what we can see.
And now, right here and right now, we must break with longstanding Media Desk tradition. There are very precious few original sources available. Most of the things/people/articles/books/etc below spend a lot of time and effort quoting from each other, back and forth, around and around. It's as bad looking for John and it was looking for the Count St. Germain. odd that, no? Link below to the Desk's examination of that mysterious gentleman.
Supposedly a letter exists from Pope Callistus II to Patriarch John of India to in about 1122 exists. Maybe you can find it at the Vatican Apostolic Library, they do have copies of manuscripts from the period that may or may not be from Callistus II...
"This tool enables you to search for any holdings of the Vatican Apostolic Library:
Archives, Manuscripts, Coins & Medals, Printed Materials
Special Catalogues (Incunabula, Visual Materials) and the General Catalogue."
And now, the rest of our research links on the subject:
The abridged text of the letter to Emanuel of Constantinople: http://www.graveworm.com/occult/texts/pjohn.html
Otto of Freising: The Two Cities: A Chronicle of Universal History to the Year 1146 A.D., who possibly used Bishop Hugo (Hugh) of Jabala, Syria as his principal source: (requires log in) https://www.fulcrum.org/concern/monographs/ht24wj74h
An Encyclopedia from 1911 has: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/Otto_of_Freising
An academic review of the map: https://archive.org/stream/genoeseworldmap00amergoog/genoeseworldmap00amergoog_djvu.txt
John in "BULFINCH'S MYTHOLOGY": https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/bulf/bulf36.htm
And the Desk's article about the structures
Other Media Desk Non-Fiction articles along the same line:
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The Desk is solely responsible for the analysis and conclusions hereby presented. If the reader has any issues with anything in the article they may contact the Desk through the usual channels.
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