Prester John: Medieval Ethiopia’s Mythology and History

Image from the cover of the Prester John Sessions, Tommy T. Gobena's first solo album.

Tadias Magazine
By Ayele Bekerie, PhD

ayele_author.jpg

Published: Monday, November 23, 2009

New York (TADIAS) – Prester John Sessions is the title of the first solo album of Tommy T Gobena, a talented and innovative global musician, who, I believe, is succeeding in his attempt to grasp the meanings of his diasporic sojourn vis a vis his Ethiopian roots. This article is inspired by the title of his album and is written to express my solidarity with his visions and dreams. The essay attempts to construct a historical narrative of what Ethiopian historians call the Zagwe Dynasty and the Medieval Hatse (King of Kings or Emperors) States, for they were two significant historical periods that are not only directly connected to the legend of Prester John, but they are remarkably endowed with religious tales and accomplishments. It is my contention that these two periods might help us understand the historical dimension of what Tommy T calls ‘Prester John Sessions.’

In his interview with Tseday Alehegn of Tadias Magazine, Tommy cites Graham Hancock’s The Sign and the Seal as a source for the title of his album. In Hancock’s book, he learned about a legendary and powerful Ethiopian king named Prester John, who was sought as an ally by European rulers of the medieval period. Europeans persistently sought the king with the hope of establishing an alliance against Moslem forces who occupied Jerusalem. The strong global sentiment for the legendary Ethiopian king became a source of inspiration to Tommy T, who used the name as a title of his album. In so doing, Tommy T has elevated his artistry by composing music linked to medieval Ethiopian history.

Who is Prester John? According to John Reader, “the earliest-known reference to Presbyter Iohannes (medieval Latin, meaning Prester, or Priest John) appears in an 1145 CE manuscript of Otto, Bishop of Freisingen, referring to him as a powerful Christian priest-king ruling a vast empire vaguely supposed to be somewhere in middle Asia.” The priest-king is equivalent to Hatse of Ethiopia or Pharaoh of ancient Egypt or Kandake of Meroé. It is a collective term that is assigned to divined rulers. Kandake was the title for women rulers of Meroé in the present day Sudan.

Ethiopia of the medieval period often designated geographically as a part of ‘Indies.’ Munro-Hay cites what he calls “the mediaeval planispheres and portulans” who identified Ethiopia as the “Indian land of rumor and legend.”

The earliest reference to Prester John corresponds in the Ethiopian chronology to the period of the Zagwe Dynasty (1137-1270 CE), a dynasty that thrived in Lasta, northern Ethiopia and its seminal achievement, the rock-hewn Lalibela churches, is now recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site, which means that the churches are internationally protected and preserved so that successive generations would be able to enjoy the marvels of architectural feat. The kings of the Zagwe Dynasty presided over an excavation of eleven churches from a single rock. These churches were carved in the twelfth century and they are still in use for mass and other religious activities. In other words, the churches are an enduring expression of devotion to faith and a constant source of global fame.

The kings of the dynasty built churches in Lasta so that Jerusalem continues to live. In fact, the eleven rock-hewn churches built in Lasta are called the churches of the second Jerusalem. The dynasty’s achievement has reached Europe. In fact, they have contributed to the invention and perpetuation of the legend of Prester John.

On the other hand, some historians trace the name Prester John to one of the kings of the Maji. Jasper, one of the kings, is known as Prester John and all his successors assumed the title thereafter. According to this account, the title Prester was chosen “because there was no degree in the world more elevated than the priesthood. The name John was selected in reference to John the Baptist or John the Evangelist,” writes Munro-Hay, citing the story in the Book of the Three Kings (the Maji).

Furthermore, a map published by Sebastian Munster at Basle in 1544 locates the kingdom of Prester John in the northern highlands of present day Ethiopia. Prester John is also mentioned in maps drawn in an earlier period, such as the Egyptus Novelo map of Florence (1454) and the Mappomondo of Venice (1460). This particular period corresponds to the period of the ‘restored’ Solomonic Dynasty. It is also known as Shoan Dynasty. This period has produced great Ethiopian emperors, such as Hatse Yekuno Amlak (1270-1285), Hatse Amda Tsion (1314-1344), Hatse Dawit I (1382-1413), Hatse Yishaq (1414-1429), Hatse Zer’a Ya’qob (1434-1468), Hatse Libne Dengel (1508-1540), and Hatse Tserse Dingel (1563-1597). The Dynasty, which was founded by Hatse Yikno Amlak in 1270 in Shoa, the central highlands of Ethiopia, had 26 Hatses and lasted for 302 years. According to Tadesse Tamrat, “the borders of this kingdom extended roughly to the northern districts of Shoa in the south, the region east of Lake Tana and the upper Blue Nile in the west, and the edge of the Ethiopian plateau in the east.”

The Hatses are divined and their power is defined in the Fetha Nagast, or Law of the Kings. Their power is both ecclesiastical and civic. Kebra Nagast, or the Glory of Kings, on the other hand, is a sacred text linking the genealogy of the Hatses to Menelik I, the founder of the Solomonic Dynasty.

In the period of the ‘restored’ Solomonic Dynasty, “there were also Muslim principalities in the area, along the coast from the Dahlak archipelago in the Red Sea to the Somali town of Brava on the Indian Ocean.” The Muslim principalities were strategically located and benefited a great deal by controlling trade routes in the region. Tadesse observes that “by the end of the thirteenth century, powerful Muslim communities had emerged which were to constitute various well-organized principalities and states: the most important in the interior were Shoa, Ifat, Fetegar, Dawaro, Hadya, Bali and Adal.”

The Sultans of Muslim communities entered in both peaceful and hostile relations with the Hatses of the Ethiopian plateau. During the medieval period, they managed to maintain their autonomy, even though most of them were obliged to pay tributes to the Hatses. Some of the Hatses chose peaceful coexistence with Muslim principalities, while others used force to convert the Muslims to Christianity. In the sixteenth century, a rebellious Muslim leader emerged and succeeded in conquering vast regions controlled by Hatses. The Muslim leader was Imam Ahmed, who defeated the army of Hatse Lebne Dengel at the Battle of Shimbra Qure.

According to Ayele Teklehaymanot, ‘love for things Ethiopian’ began in Europe in the middle Ages. Europe desperately searched for the legendary Pester John in the Indies, which was a geographical term of the time that refers to eastern Ethiopia (India and the Arabian Peninsula) and western Ethiopia (the Horn of Africa, and north east Africa). The Europeans were desperate in their desire to wrest back Jerusalem from Jihadist occupiers. It is also important to note that the geographical interpretation of Indies also placed Ethiopia in Asia. For instance, Honorius D’Autumn, at the beginning of the XII Century CE, asserts: “Sunt vero termini Africae: nilus ex parte orientis…” To Giovanni Battista Brocchi of the fifteenth century CE, the subjects of the ‘Prester John’ were distinguished as Ethiopians and Indians.

“In the year 1400 King Henry IV of England sent a letter to the ‘King of Abyssinia, Prester John.” Tadesse Tamrat, the eminent Ethiopian historian and author of the definitive book, Church and State in Ethiopia (1972), identified the Ethiopian king for whom the letter addressed to as Atse Dawit, the father of the famous and learned emperor Hatse Zer’a Ya’qob, who authored several sacred books. Historians are not certain whether the letter reached Hatse Dawit. However, a copy of the letter is found in the British Royal archives. Portuguese and Roman writers of the middle Ages translated Hatse to mean priest-king.

The genesis of Prester John, as I indicated earlier, coincides with the period in Ethiopian history that may be characterized by a great deal of religious revivalism. This period includes the Zagwe Dynasty of Lasta and the ‘restored’ Solomonic Dynasty of the central Ethiopian highlands. Temporally, the period extends from eleventh century to the sixteenth century of the Common Era. During this time, the Ethiopian rulers were directly involved in the teachings, writings and administration of the Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

It is also important to note that the period was a period of the consolidation of Islamic states and sultanates. One might add that it was also towards this period that history recorded the internal turmoil that resulted in the rearrangement of the region with irreversible settlement of the Oromos on the central and northern highlands of Ethiopia. Their concept of Gudficha made it easier for diverse ethnic groups on the highlands to interact with the Oromos. Islamic states have also expanded beyond the traditional borderlands and lowlands of the country.

The Late Stuart Munro-Hay in his book Ethiopia Unveiled: Interaction Between Two Worlds, extensively documented the meeting of Europe and ‘Prester John.’ According to Munro-Hay, in 1427 the ‘Prester John’ sent two ambassadors, one Muslim and one Christian, to Valencia to see Alfonso V, king of Aragon (Spain). ‘Prester John’ Yeshaq or Hatse Yeshaq ruled an empire that had seventy-two kings; twelve were Muslims and the rest Christian. What is notable about this account is that ‘Prester John’ appeared to have succeeded in presiding over both Muslim and Christian states. His decision to send Muslim and Christian emissaries to Aragon may suggest the prevalence of peaceful co-existence of Muslims and Christians in Ethiopia. ‘Prester John’ did not participate in the ‘crusade’ to liberate Jerusalem, perhaps unwilling to disrupt the peace he established in his multi-religious empire.

King of Aragon’s envoy to Ethiopia carried with him a letter dated 15 May 1428 to “the most eminent and most victorious monarch, the lord Ysach [Yeshaq], son of David, by the Grace of God, Presbiter Johannes of the Indies, master of the Tablets of Mount Sinay and the Throne of David, and king of kings of Ethiopia.” The letter, which is still available at the Aragon Archive in Barcelona, Spain, hints at that time a strong Ethiopia whose leader was victorious and who also, sought trade and diplomatic relations with Europe. Hatse Yeshaq even suggested marriage alliances with the Aragon royal family. It might be worthwhile to note that the earliest written reference to Somalia is found in a praise poem written in Amharic for Hatse Yeshaq, whose empire reached the northern Somali coast.

Several Arab historians and geographers profusely documented the history of the Hatse Medieval States, apart from local large historical documents and royal chronicles, their deeds. The Arab historians narrated in greater details the powers and territories of both the Hatses and the Sultanates. We also learn that the Hatses sent emissaries and letters to Europe in order to establish diplomatic and trade relations. The Hatses have fought with the Muslim states and often settle their political disputes by acknowledging their relative power position.

Ibn Yaqub in 872 wrote about the Hatses’ control over the Dahlak islands on the Red Sea. Masudi in 935 reported that Hatses controlled the port of Zeyla in the Gulf of Aden, as well as the Dahlak Islands on the Red Sea. Ibn Hawkal in 970 agreed with the reporting of Masudi.

The geographer Idris included northern Somalia as part of the sovereign of the Hatses. Another Geographer Ibn Said in the thirteenth century identified the Wabe Shebele River as a divider between the territories of Ethiopia and Azania. According to Ibn Said, the northern half of Moqadishu was under the rule of the Hatses. Ibn Fadal Alah Omari in the fourteenth century wrote about the vast empire of the Hatses. The territory extends from Indian Ocean to Gulf of Aden to Barka Valley of northern Eritrea. The fourteenth century Ethiopia had ninety-nine big and small states governed by kings and sultanates. These states paid their tributes to Hatses or king of kings of Ethiopia.

The Arab historian Omari included the following states under the sovereign of Hatses: Somhar, Hamasien, Nara, Tigrai, Sehart, Amhara, Shoa, Damot, Genz, Adasso and Mora. The South Eastern territories have also paid tributes to the Hatses. These territories were: Yifat, Dewaro, Arababani, Hadiya, Sharka, Bale and Derra. These historians have also documented the presence of fifty linguistic groups within Medieval Ethiopia.

Historians also researched the accounts of Portuguese travelers. Some even suggest that the legend of Prester John inspired the Portuguese to build ships and navigate the oceans. Given the fact that the Portuguese travelers were among the first foreign visitors received by the Hatses, it was clear that they took the legend very seriously. For instance, Francisco Alvares, who visited Ethiopia for six years at the time of Hatse Lebna Dengel’s rule, referred to him as Prester.

Among the Hatses, Amde Tsion was regarded by far the most powerful. He ruled over both the Christian and Muslim states. The Aragonese king Alfonso V noted in his letter dated 18 September 1450 identified Hatse Zer’a Ya’qob as the ‘most illustrious and most serene prince Lord Jacobo, son of David, of the House of Solomon, Emperor of Ethiopia.’ According to Mersea Hazen Wolde Qirqos, Hatse Zer’a Ya’qob was highly educated. He sponsored the translation of several sacred books from Arabic to Ge’ez. He also authored several holy books himself. According to Richard Pankhurst, “Imperial power was probably at its greatest during the time of the great centralizing emperor Zar’a Ya’qob (1434-68).

It is worthwhile to note that the Medieval Hatse rulers have established governance over the multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation-state. It can be argued that the seeds for modern state of Ethiopia may have been sown much earlier than what is usually believed. Tommy T’s ‘Prester John Sessions’ is a glaring reminder of our persistent quest in our long history, for transforming a shared time and space into one Ethiopia.
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This article is well-referenced and those who seek the references should contact Professor Ayele Bekerie directly at: abekerie@gmail.com

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20 Responses to “Prester John: Medieval Ethiopia’s Mythology and History”


  1. 1 Meqdelawit Nov 23rd, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    Dear Dr. Ayele,

    Who is Preston John? Thank you for answering and thank you for digging deep. Quick question: What I find most fascinating is the spiritual devotion of these Emperors. Were the Atses schooled by the church as requirement or was their power hereditary? I am trying to understand how they draw or justify the divine or ecclesiastical aspect of their authority and how it is separated from their civic duties? In other words, were they like the Vatican Pope?

    Thank you.
    P.S. Two thumbs up to Tommy T. for both his new album and for inspiring this research. Priceless!!!

  2. 2 jim Nov 23rd, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    Any mention of Hatse Gelawdios?

  3. 3 Ayele Bekerie Nov 24th, 2009 at 6:27 am

    Dear Meqdelawit and Jim,

    I appreciate your probing questions. Let me use the case of Hatse Gelawedwos (1540 – 1559) in order to address some of the questions you raised in conjunction with my article, which should be seen as an inroduction and an outline history of the two periods. Hatse Gelawedwos was victorious against Imam Ahmed ibn Ibrahim (Gragn Ahmed), but he was killed at the battlefield figting against the brother of Imam Ahmed.

    His death was attributed to a sin he committed while holding a divine power. According to the great Ethiopian scholar Aleqa Mersea Hazen Wolde Qirqos, Hatse Gelawedwos had a mistress whom he loved dearly. The mistress was married to a priest. She begged him not to go to the battle with Imam Ahmed’s brother, for he was sinful and she was worried that he might get killed. Against the wish of his mistress and defiant of his sin, he entered the battle and got killed.

    The Hatses, as I pointed out, were divine rulers. Their power is divine, absolute and herditary. Unlike the Vatican Pope, they were also commanders of their armies. They governed with moving capitals until Hatse Fasiladas (1632-1667) put a stop to them. Imagine the impact of the moving government on the peasantry that was obliged to feed the whole armada. There you find the roots of the problem with the persistent food insecurity.

  4. 4 Michael Hailu Nov 24th, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Thank you Professor Ayele Bekerie, Tadias, and Tommy T. You all deserve credit for sharing this invaluable information of our long, long history. I find the Zagwe Dynasty to be the most ambitious, creative and artistically erudite leaders. Just look at the spellbinding architecture of the Lalibela churches they left behind. I am glad that the churches have been declared a UNESCO world heritage site.

  5. 5 Abram Nov 25th, 2009 at 12:22 am

    Thanks Professor Ayele for this fascinating story. You have brought to our attention, arguably, the most crucial timeline of Ethiopian Renaissance. The timing of the relationship between our Kings and the Iberian ones deserves a particular attention. The contact was held 30 years before the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition. Why is it that the Atses did not take similar measurements to evangelize the Muslim population then?

  6. 6 Daniel Nov 25th, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    Love it. Educational and, as some one mentioned, very valuable information. Thank you to the author, Tadias and hats off to Tommy T. As to the mention of the word “evangelizing”, I am glad it did not happen. Ethiopia has been home to the major Abrhamic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. And it is through this type of information that we honor our forebears who handed down to us the unique ancient Ethiopian experience and tradition of religious tolerance, a concept even the west is still grappling with. That’s something to celebrate.

    Ke akbirot gar

    Danny

  7. 7 Tommy T Nov 25th, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    Thank you Dr. Ayele, Tadias and all for your kind words.

  8. 8 Dibaba Nov 26th, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Moderator,

    Just wondering, how come different ideas are not entertained here?

  9. 9 Ayantu Nov 26th, 2009 at 11:49 pm

    I have a point to make on the Oromo concept of Gudficha. But first, I must point out that Hatse Zer’a Ya’qob was by far the most progressive Atse (Emperor) and I would add the most feminist of all. It is said that female members of his family held positions of authority and influence during his administration. It would be equally empowering to learn about women leaders of ancient Ethiopia, and for that matter, Africa as well. Over all, I also enjoyed the article and learned something new. However, I must also point out without being too disagreeable that the concept of Gudficha may have helped Oromos to forge easy relations with other ethnic groups, but it is also an unquestionable fact that the North have always used a mix of violence and religion (from the time of Atses to present – more violence today) to keep Oromos Ethiopian and Christian. There is even a joke where a Ques (priest) from the North was once trying to evangelize an Oromo guy and explaining the rules of not eating meat and dairy on such and such days and occasions. Of course to the Oromo guy (who is neither Muslim nor Christian), the Ques sounded totally crazy, so he politely requested to the stunned Ques to bless his entire cattle so that he does not have to worry about which milk to drink when and which meat not eat on what occasion:-) The moral of the story: I am sure life was much simpler before the Atses came South. Perhaps in 2009, instead of fire power, sincere brotherly and sisterly incentives may be the answer.

    My questions is who was the true author of the letters that were being sent to kings and Queens in Europe as being signed by Prestor John? Which Atse (Emperor) fits the time line or the profile that Honcock was referring to in his book? And what was the motive behind the letters? If such a letter indeed existed?

    Anyways, I am Hopeful,
    Ayantu, MN

  10. 10 Rules for Discussion: Note From The Moderator Nov 27th, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    We welcome and encourage all comments and suggestions on articles, commentaries, editorials, and other topics raised on Tadias.com. We provide this forum as a courtsey to our audience who wish to engage in healthy debates and educational dialogues with our authors and fellow readers. However, this privilege comes with responsibility. All comments must adhere to few basic rules:

    Please stay on topic: Comments that are off subject or contain factual inaccuracies known to us will not be published.

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    The Moderator

  11. 11 Kokeb Nov 27th, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    I thank you professor Ayele for this informative article. I am writing to suggest additional sources about King Galawdewos (r.1540-1559). I suggest two contemporary and reliable sources for you to read about this king: Zena Galawdewos (which is now translated into Amharic and published) and the royal chronicle of Galawdewos which was edited and published a long time ago. Furthermore, the best secondary sources on Galawdewos are Abir’s, Ethiopia and the Red Sea and the late Professor Merid Wolde-Aregay’s seminal PhD dissertation. I hope you will look into this soon, in light of your response about Galawdewos.

    Thank you

  12. 12 Dibaba Nov 28th, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    Moderator,

    Thanks for clarification. I believe [and wanted to point out} the ‘..Spanish Inquisition..’ comment {made by Abram} is offensive and {irrelevant to this article}.

    Keep up the good work and wish you more success!!

  13. 13 Mesfin Araya Nov 29th, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Very interesting discussion!

    The Spanish inquisition can be interpreted in many ways. Some scholars have argued that the inquisition was a necessary policy (from an administrative perspective) developed by Spain’s royal family as a solution to exert more control over their religiously diverse society. It was an ecclesiastical tribunal that exercised authority only over baptized Christians, and mostly to ensure the orthodoxy of recent converts such as Jews, Muslims, Moors (mix of Africans and Arabs) and others. But, yes, I agree with Dibaba that the objective of the inquisition itself was offensive. According to Wiki: quoniam punitio non refertur primo & per se in correctionem & bonum eius qui punitur, sed in bonum publicum ut alij terreantur, & a malis committendis avocentur. (Translation from the Latin: “… for punishment does not take place primarily and per se for the correction and good of the person punished, but for the public good in order that others may become terrified and weaned away from the evils they would commit.”) Yaaak.

    But for me personally the most interesting is the possible relationship between one of the Medieval Ethiopian Emperors and the 1307 inquisition in France, where members of the secretive “Knights Templar” or the “Order of the Temple of Solomon” were arrested, tortured into giving false confessions, and then burned at the stake. Wiki says, “The Knights Templar were a monastic military order, which would later become extraordinarily powerful and wealthy, were founded in Jerusalem in 1118 C.E., whose mission was to protect Christian pilgrims during the Crusades.”

    Remember that Lalibela, the Ethiopian King who built the rock-hewn Lalibela churches, which is now recognized as a UNESCO world heritage sight, was in exile in Jersulaem at the time and lived there for almost a decade. Is it not possible (Professor Ayele can help here) that Lalibela might possibly have befriended members of the Kingit Templars? Is it not also possible, as some have suggested, that members of the secret order might have traveled with him to Ethiopia to help him reclaim his throne and perhaps assisted in the building of the churches as well? In fact, the Kinght Templars distinctive red cross are found as part of the Churches’ art work.

    But later, there mush have been a falling out between the Ethiopian Emperor and the Europeans because they seem to have suddenly disappeared. Interestingly enough, Honckok mentions a secret Ethiopian delegation of about 30, who traveled to Europe in 1307 to meet with Pope Clement and deliver a secret message. Incidentally, few weeks after the Ethiopians met with the Pop, King Philip of France ( who already felt threatened by the power of the secret organization and in a hurry to claim their riches) in coordination with Pope Clement, secretly ordered the mass arrest of all the Knights Templar in France.

    Just a thought…something to research further.

    Selam lehulachu yihun

    Mesfin, Boston

  14. 14 Ayele Bekerie Nov 29th, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    The respondents have raised critical questions and have made insightful interpretations and analysis of their own regarding medieval Ethiopia. The article was not intended to answer all the questions of the periods. It was an introductory essay with a modest objective of addressing few basic questions.

    With regard to the architectural genesis of the Lalibela churches, it is important to note that the tradition rock-hewn churches began in Tigray. The presence of hundreds of rock-hewn churches in Tigray. some older than the lalibela churches, certainly testify to my assertion that the architects were Ethiopians. Second, recent archaeological work by David Phillipson and his team in Lalibela resulted with an earlier date. Phillipson dated at least Bete Gebriel and Bete Merqorewos to the seventh century CE, much earlier than the time of the Templars.

    Ethiopian historians, such as Sergew Hable-Selassie, Merid Wolde Aregay, Tadesse Tamrat, Getachew Haile have made extensive research and publication on medieval Ethiopia. Their works are extremely valubale with regard to the history the Zagwe Dynasty and the Shoand Dynasty.

    As Kokeb suggested, there are also primary sources, such as Royal Chronicles, Fetha Negest, Kebra Negest, Synaxarium and other valubale manuscripts where some of them were published as early as the thirteenth century CE.

    Abram is raising an important point. That is our modernity or what he called Ethiopian renaissance may have begun during these periods. Actually, as Professor Tekeste Negash suggested, the myth of Makeda (tradition of continuity) and the offering of a sanctuary to the followers of the Prophet Mohammed by Aksumites in the sventh century CE (tradition of tolerance) were significant markers or starters of our renaissance. This what our history teaches us.

  15. 15 Mebrat Dec 3rd, 2009 at 11:35 am

    Thank you for this great information. Please keep on and keep it coming!

  16. 16 Ras Al Turner Dec 14th, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Greetings Dr, Ayele,

    I did a program in the early nineties at the Philadelphia Folk Art Center, The First Annual Rastafari/Ethiopian Symposium and I believe you were kind enough to present on Ethiopic writing systems. I am hoping you are the same professor as I have been trying to get in touch with you ever since. This is ras Al Turner, the organizer of the event. Please reply and confirm at your convenience.

    Give Thanks,
    Ras AL turner: ambassa777@yahoo.com

  17. 17 ken Jan 18th, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    I like the comment made by Ayantu…I wish her ideas and questions are addressed…..I thank the professor and Ayantu again.

  18. 18 Berhane Mar 27th, 2010 at 5:39 am

    17th-century academics like the German orientalist Hiob Ludolf demonstrated that there was no actual native connection between Prester John and the Ethiopian monarchs (Ludolf, Hiob (1681). Historia Aethiopica.)

    While Ethiopia has been claimed for many years as the origin of the Prester John legend, most modern experts believe the legend was simply adapted to fit that nation in the same fashion it had been projected upon Wang Khan and Central Asia during the 13th century. Modern scholars find nothing about the Prester or his country in the early material that would make Ethiopia a more suitable identification than any place else, and furthermore, specialists in Ethiopian history have effectively demonstrated the story was not widely known there until well after European contact. When the Czech Franciscan Remedius Prutky asked Emperor Iyasu II about this identification in 1751, Prutky states the man was “… astonished, and told me that the kings of Abyssinia had never been accustomed to call themselves by this name.” (Arrowsmith-Brown, p. 115.)

    When ambassadors from Emperor Zara Yaqob attended the Council of Florence in 1441, they were confused when council prelates insisted on referring to their monarch as Prester John. They tried to explain that nowhere in Zara Yaqob’s list of regnal names did that title occur. However, their admonitions did little to stop Europeans from calling the King of Ethiopia Prester John. (Silverberg, p. 189.)

    In a footnote to this passage, Richard Pankhurst opines that this is apparently the first recorded statement by an Ethiopian monarch about this tale, and they were likely unaware of the title until Prutky’s inquiry. (Arrowsmith-Brown, p. 115 n 24.)

    One more thing…Ethiopia was never considered “India”, it was considered one of the “3 Indies” because of European geographical ignorance. Simply because, after searching the REAL India for Prestor John, and not finding him, they assumed he had to be in Ethiopia, which was a powerful and historically Christian Kingdom.

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