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Prester John: Fiction and History

Meir Bar-Ilan


A Hebrew book of Ben-Sira was published in 1519 in Constantinople, and its appendix includes 'a copy of the letter that Priesty Juan sent to the Pope in Rome'. Although this story has several versions, its main theme is: Once upon a time, in a very remote land there was a king who was not only a great king, but a Christian priest as well. The name of that king was Prester John, and he ruled over 72 countries. His land was rich in silver and gold, and many wonderful creatures lived there. That king wrote letters to several Popes in Rome, telling them that he was a faithful Christian, and was acquainted with all kinds of unknown beasts, such as: men with horns on their foreheads and three eyes, women who fought while mounted on horses, men that lived 200 years, unicorns, etc.

This legend, like many others, can be interpreted, though not without difficulty. Indeed, early scholars who investigated the subject proved that this legend has an historical nucleus, and it is possible to distinguish between fiction and history. However, to make the whole story clear will not be easy, and this paper aims to advance, only partly, the discussion of this historical legend.1

The story of Prester John is known today from almost 100 manuscripts, written in several languages, including Hebrew, which are scattered throughout the libraries of Europe. Since there is no possibility or room to deal with all the details of this story, or all its versions, the discussion below will be based only on the Hebrew letters of Prester John as they were edited a few years ago.2

It is believed that the historical nucleus of the story is rooted in the coming of one 'John, the Patriarch of the Indians', who came to Rome in the pontificate of Calixtus II in 1122. From the middle of the 12th century onward it was accepted in Europe that Prester John, king and priest, was a ruler over territories in the East, though the area of his reign was not precisely defined. It is not an easy task to separate fiction and history in this legend, and therefore three subjects only will be discussed here: the geographical location of Prester John, the relationship between his letters and the Romance of Alexander, and the origin of the circulation of his Hebrew letters in Europe.

I. Where Prester John Resided: India or Ethiopia

The former editors of the letters of Prester John, E. Ullendorff and C. F. Beckingham still wonder where Prester John lived. On page 10 they write:

The Hebrew letters give no indication of identifying Prester John with the ruler of Ethiopia.

Though it is true that Ethiopia is not mentioned in the letters, it will be seen later that this statement is misleading. The editors for their part are consistent: in pp. 32-33 they present a Latin text with its Hebrew translation (and an English text where the Latin is missing) as follows:

Praete janni invenitur ascendendo in Kalicut in arida... and this is true proof and well-known knowledge about the Jews who are found there near Prester John...

The editors make this comment on the text:

If this refers to India, see W. J. Fischel article COCHIN in Encycl. Jud. ...If it relates to Abyssinia, the reference may well be to the Falashas.

This indecisive statement seems to be both the result of the learned scholars' long interest in Ethiopia, and the background of the legend that placed Prester John either in Africa or more specifically in Ethiopia. However, reading the Hebrew letters of Prester John shows that this assumption concerning the vague location of Prester John cannot, regretfully, be taken seriously. Evidence emerging clearly from the text will immediately show that Prester John lived in India, or to be more precise, in Malabar (southern India).

Connecting Prester John with India is inevitable from the Hebrew text on the one hand, while data from the legend will support the Indian origin on the other.

First of all, India is mentioned several times in these letters (pp. 41, 89, 107, 119, and more). Second, Kalicut which was one of the most important port-cities in Malabar in southern India (the place where Vasco da Gama was sent), is mentioned in one of the letters.

Third, these facts would definitely suffice but further evidence appears in the form of statement:

and in the large India is buried the body of St. Thomas the Apostle.3

That is, the author knew that St. Thomas was buried in India, a belief held by the Christians of southern India.4 Not only that, but the author of the letters knew (p. 133) about 'St. Thomas holiday', that is, apparently, St. Thomas memorial day held by the same Christians on July 3rd.5

Fourth, the author of the letters mentioned that pepper grew in his land (pp. 55, 91, 131), vegetation typical to Malabar in southern India, and not to Ethiopia.6 Fifth, there are some stories in the letters concerning warriors riding elephants (pp. 71, 101, 123). It is well known that unlike the African elephant only the Asian elephant could be trained. That is to say that the letters include information about India (with which the West is more familiar than it is with Burma or Siam where trained elephants live as well), and has nothing to do with Ethiopia.7

Hence, after studying all the features independently and then together it is inevitable to reach the unquestionable conclusion that Prester John hailed from India. That is: the letters of Prester John tell a story about India, not Ethiopia, and it is unfortunate that legendary medieval opinions have survived and can still be found in modern scholarship.

It will not be out of place here to stress that the confusion between India and Ethiopia is ancient, and was generated by the two countries' geographic location which is beyond Egypt and the Red Sea, so totally remote from Europe.8 This naive European confusion of two different countries (so far from each other), was enhanced by traders from eastern Africa (Somali and Ethiopia), who sold goods without revealing that they were middlemen only. For example, in Ancient Rome many thought that cinnamon was imported from eastern Africa, though it actually came from India.9

Apparently, this confusion persisted as a result of the fact that both in India and Ethiopia, 'eastern' Christians lived in their own kingdom, surrounded by pagans. And, if this is not enough to confuse any medieval man whose geographical knowledge was limited anyhow, there is another fact that adds to the confusion: the letters of Prester John tell about black priests. For example: '...about the Jews... as we have heard all the time from the black priests who have come and are coming daily' (p. 33). Any layman might associate these black priests with Africa, without knowing that a major part of the population in southern India is black. Since Christians lived there, it would not be unreasonable to assume that black priests lived there as well (it should be kept in mind that the Jewish community in Cochin, on the coast of Malabar, was divided into 'white' and 'black' Jews).10 Here are a few reasons why Prester John was searched for in Africa, though, as is claimed above, a careful reading of the text reveals that the search should have been made in India, not Africa (which even in medieval Europe could have been known).

However, in the Middle Ages it was not known where Prester John lived, and adventurers went looking for him. In the 13th century Marco Polo identified Prester John with the Khan of the Kereit, a tribe in Mongolia which was then Nestorian Christian. Others continued searching for him in China. In the 15th century the Portugese looked for Prester John all over Africa, when others were sure that the legendary king was living in Ethiopia. In the middle of the 16th century the King of Ethiopia was nicknamed 'Prester John' by the Europeans, and it should be noted that the description of the search for Prester John reads like a detective story.11 Apparently, in the 17th century, after the Europeans had learned that there was no one by the name of Presterr John living in Ethiopia, the story was abandoned and considered a legend until the beginning of historical research in the 19th century.

Whatever the facts were, it is important to stress that according to the Hebrew letters of Prester John, there is no doubt that he lived in India. If it was not known until then, probably because experts in the subject concentrated on retracing the medieval search for Prester John, thus disregarding the geographical facts appearing in the letters, and failing to analyze the Hebrew letters with the necessary care.

II. The Romance of Alexander and Prester John

One of the sub-subjects in the study of the letters of Prester John is their relationships with the Romance of Alexander, the story of Alexander the Great.12 The story of the adventures and conquests of Alexander the Great was well known in Hellenistic times, and it is important to mention here that the story had several Hebrew 'adaptations' and translations that were widespread among Medieval Jews. However, the point is that this story and the letters of Prester John have several motifs in common, and this resemblance that reflects some kind of relationship, though partial, needs to be dealt with.

Both stories originated not in Hebrew, but were translated into Hebrew by Jews in Medieval Europe. In both stories the hero is not a Jew, though he has contacts with Jews, so there is a 'Jewish' element in the story. Both stories are of the same genre, though not precisely the same, of wars and wonders in remote places, and few of the folkloristic motifs are identical. In both cases, part of the story takes place in India which was the wonderland of the Middle Ages (and Antiquity). Both stories are written mostly in the epistolary genre, letters to one person or another (actually: to the reader). What is more relevant, however, is that the author of the letters of Prester John knew the 'history' of Alexander the Great, in one version or another, and he drew attention to this familiarity by stating explicitly (pp. 56-57): 'as Alexander did when he fought with the fortress Incanodo'.

Here are a few parallels between both stories (page number in the columns):

The Romance of Alex. Prester John
fighting with elephants 80 101
cannibals 77 125
amazons 84-85, 127 82
rivers that flow from Eden 57, 89 55, 92, 104
people that Alex. sealed in the mountains 77 125
pygmies 141-142 127
fountain of life/youth 156 93
men without heads (head in the chest) 119 67

These parallels need to be studied, discussing the literature motif, analyzing more parallels, and so on. However, the fact that the author of the letters of Prester John knew the Romance of Alexander stories that originated in Antiquity, shows the dependence of the later story on the early one, and enhances the conclusion reached above concerning the geographical site of Prester John - India, and not Ethiopia.13

This is not the place to discuss all the parallels between the stories, nor is there room to discuss the relationships between both stories and the story of Eldad haDani. Hence, the European origin of the letters of Prester John will hereafter be discussed.

III. The geographical origin of the letters of Prester John

Compared with the confusion about India and Ethiopia, it seems that tracing the geographical origin of the letters of Prester John will be much easier since most sources hint that the letters were composed in Italy.

It was S. Krauss who claimed that several Hebrew words in these letters reflect Italian, as is easily seen.14 To this linguistic conclusion one should add the fact that historically, Italian Jews were mostly familiar with the letters as is seen in several letters written by Italian Jewish sages writing from the Land of Israel, letters that show some knowledge of Prester John (Pietro Juan, Priesti Juani).15

It is evident in the book of Yosipon, a book that was written in 10th century Italy,16 that Italian Jews were acquainted with the Romance of Alexander which influenced the letters of Prester John, as stated above. Besides, it seems that the interest the author(s) found in letters sent to different Popes reflects his geographical proximity to Rome. Needless to say that from these facts no definite conclusion can be drawn, though they all strengthen the Italian origin of the letters. However, there are two pieces of evidence that tie Italy with Prester John's kingdom in India.

In a book written in 16th century Italy, Masoret haMasoret, by R. Eliahu Levita, this story is written:

Now, when I was in Rome, I saw three Chaldeans, who arrived from the country of Prester John, having been sent for by Pope Leo X. They were masters of the Syriac language and literature, though their vernacular language was Arabic. The special language, however, wherin the books were written, as well as that of the gospels of the Christians which they brought with them was Syriac, which is also called Aramean, Babylonian, Assyrian... Pope Leo X. had sent for them, in order to correct by their Codices his exemplar of his New Testament, which was written in Latin. ...Now I saw them reading this (Syriac) Psalter without points, and asked them, Have you points, or any signs to indicate the vowels? and they answered me: "No! but we have been conversant with that language from our youth till now, and therefore, know how to read without points.17

Here is a direct contact of a Jew of Rome with people (that is: priests), from the country of Prester John in the pontificate of Pope Leo X (1513- 21). Though the precise location of these people is not mentioned, it is clear that Eliahu Levita wrote of Nestorians, that is Christians that lived in northern Syria, southern Iraq and India. There is evidence that in the 18th century a rich Jew from Cochin financed bringing a Nestorian patriarch from Iraq to Malabar, India,18 and it is assumed that there were strong relationships between Christians in Iraq and India even centuries earlier. That is to say that an Italian Jew identified the location of Prester John with a place where Christians read the New Testament in Aramaic, that is Syriac. This does not specifically indicate that India was the location of the legend, though Christians there used to read Syriac but it is needless to say that Ethiopia is not under consideration here.

Another example of evidence that connects Prester John in India to Italy is seen in the famous Hebrew book Igeret Orhot Olam, written by Abraham Farissol (1452-1528) a few years before his death:

In the library I found in chapter 58 of the second part of the book (F. Montalboddo, Paesi Novamente Retrovati) E Novo Mondo (etc., Milano 1508) that from Lisbon the capital of Portugal to Kalicut in Asia, the beginning of India there are 3800 parasangs... and in that chapter it is explicit that Praeti Jiani (=Prester John) is beyond Kalicut in the land far from the sea. And this is real evidence and famous knowledge concerning the Jews that dwell there near Praeti Jiani as we have already heard all our lives from black brothers that come every day and tell in clarity the presence of many Jews with them. Of these brothers there are in Rome a sect of some thirty of them dwelling in a new stage (monastery) established for them.19

That is, in the 16th century a learned Rabbi from Ferrara identified the place of Prester John in the vicinity of Kalicut (Malabar, India), with the help of an Italian book.20 Whatever were Farissol's ideas concerning identification of the Jews under Prester John with the lost ten tribes, he was right in his conclusion that in the Kalicut area there were Jews, those who are known today as the Jews of Cochin.

All this means that the Hebrew letters of Prester John on the wonders of India, and the Jews peacefully living there, originated among Jews in Italy. On the one hand, these letters continued legendary traditions about India, while on the other hand they were the first to tell the story of the Jews in India (supposedly of the lost ten tribes).


Obviously, in the above discussion there is no definitive solution to all the problems raised in the letters of Prester John. More assignments await the scholar, which will entail such a detailed comparison between the different versions of the letters, especially between the different languages involved, identifying more historical events in the letters (such as wars), and finding more parameters separating fiction from history in the letters. In any event, the kingdom of Prester John should be identified with India, and if this identification has been vague until now, it seems that connecting the letters to the Romance of Alexander together with other Indian issues cancels all probability of finding Prester John in Africa. It is really high time to find out how the confusion between India and Africa as the land of Prester John came into being.

The letters of Prester John were translated into Hebrew and spread in Italy, letters that dealt with the connection between certain Popes and Christians in India, Christians who were well-acquainted with Jews who unlike their contemporaries in Europe were not persecuted. Not only was India considered as a wonderland in that era, with exotic unknown animals, black Christians and other miracles, but even Jews lived there. They were later to be known as the Jews of Cochin, and who is the man who would not like to visit that wonderland of a king and a priest, Prester John in India?


1 On the whole subject, see: H. Yule, 'Prester John', Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed. (1910-1911), XXII, colms. 304-307; S. Krauss, 'Priesti Juani', Luah Eres-Israel (Lunz), IX (1904), pp. 107-111 (Hebrew); Karl F. Helleiner, 'Prester John's Letter: A Mediaeval Utopia', The Phoenix, XIII (1959), pp. 47-57; Robert Silverberg, The Realm of Prester John, Garden City: Doubleday & Company 1972.

2 The Hebrew letters of Prester John were printed in Constantinople 1519, and later in: A. Neubauer, 'Collections on the Lost Ten Tribes and the Children of Moses', Qobes al Yad, IX (1888), pp. 1-74 (Hebrew); E. Ullendorff and C. F. Beckingham, The Hebrew Letters of Prester John, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

3 Actually, the Hebrew text reads 'the unclean Thomas', because the Hebrew translator did not want to admit the holiness of one of the apostles, and therefore changed the title.

4 On the Christians of southern India that relate their beginning to St. Thomas, see: L. W. Brown, The Indian Christians of St Thomas, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956.

5 See: Brown. p. 50; Silverberg (n. 1), pp. 16-35.

6 Pepper was one of the exports of India from ancient times. See: R. H. Warmington, The Commerce between the Roman Empire and India, second revised edition, London: Curzon Press, 1974, pp. 180 ff. On the export of exotic animals from India, see there p. 145 ff.

7 See: Warmington, pp. 150-152.

8 See: Yule (n. 1); A. M. Haberman (ed.), The Writings of R. Abraham Epstein, Jerusalem: Mosad haRav Kook, 1950, I. pp. 58-60 (Hebrew); S. Krauss, 'New Light on Geographical Informations of Eldad Hadani and Benjamin of Tudela', Tarbiz, VIII (1937), pp. 208-232 (Hebrew).

9 See: Warmington (n. 6), pp. 187-188, 216.

10 J. B. Segal, 'The Jews of Cochin and Their Neighbours', H. J. Zimmels and J. Rabbinowitz (eds.), Essays presented to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie, Jews' College Publications, London: The Soncino Press, 1967, pp. 381-397; Shalva Weil, 'Symmetry between Christians and Jews in India: The Cnanite Christians and the Cochin Jews of Kerala', Thomas H. Timberg (ed.), Jews in India, New York - London: Advent Books Inc., 1986, pp. 177-204.

11 For the search for Prester John, especially in Africa, see: E. D. Ross, 'Prester John and the Empire of Ethiopia', Arthur P. Newton (ed.), Travel and Travellers of the Middle Ages, New York: Barnes & Noble, 1968 (first published in 1926), pp. 174-194; C. F. Beckingham, 'The Quest for Prester John', Bulletin of The John Rylands University Library, LXII (1980), pp. 290-310.

12 Y. Dan, 'Alilot Alexander Mokdon, Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1969 (Hebrew); idem, Hasipur Ha'Ibri beYemei haBinaim, Jerusalem: Keter, 1974, pp. 100-108 (Hebrew).

13 Compare: C. E. Nowell, 'The Historical Prester John', Speculum, XXVIII (1953), pp. 435-445.

14 Several Italian words remained in the Hebrew text. For example: 'sea Orinosho' (p. 59); 'that I am great princip in the world' (p. 71); 'kingdom of Women, that is regno femminorio' (pp. 126-127); 'many precious stones, like carbuncles, amethysts, zaffiri, diaspiri', etc. (pp. 130-131). However, the editors were aware of the possibility that some words were taken from ancient French, Provencal, and so on.

15 See: A. Yaari, Igerot Eres Israel, Ramat-Gan: Massadah, 1971 (Hebrew), p. 93 (a letter by R. Joseph da Montagna near Venice); pp. 118, 132, 133, 136, 141 (letters of R. Obadia of Bertinoro); p. 176 (a letter by R. Israel of Perugia). Prester John is mentioned several times in connection with David Reubeni, though it is possible that he heard the whole issue from his Christian investigators. See: A. Z. Eshkoli, Sipur David Reubeni, Jerusalem: The Israeli Society for History and Ethnology, 1940 (index); and in p. 188 'alli indiani di prete Giani', which was translated into Hebrew as 'similar to the Indians of Prieti Jani (Ethiopians)'.

16 See: D. Flusser, Sefer Yosipon, Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1981, II. pp. 136, 216 ff.

17 Eliahu ben Asher Ashkenazi (Elias Levita), Masoret HaMasoret (first published: Venice 1538), edited by C. D. Ginsburg, in: Harry M. Orlinsky (ed.), The Library of Biblical Studies, New York: Ktav, 1968, pp. 130-131.

18 Walter J. Fischel, 'Cochin in Jewish History', Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 30 (1962), pp. 37-59 (esp. p. 51).

19 Abraham Farissol, Igeret Orhot Olam, Venice 1587, ch. 25 (Hebrew).

20 David B. Ruderman, The World of a Renaissance Jew: The Life and Thought of Abraham ben Mordecai Farissol, Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1981, pp. 134 ff.

This paper was published as: M. Bar-Ilan, 'Prester John: Fiction and History', History of European Ideas, 20/1-3 (1995), pp. 291-298.

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last updated: November 25, 1996