Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Prester John

It is quite amazing that we Europeans know so little about early Ethiopian history. After all, an Ethiopian – or Abyssinian, as it used to be called – empire has existed for a very, very long time. We have vaguely heard of the Queen of Sheba, to who I referred already, but nobody seems aware that, at the time the Romans ruled Europe and the Middle East, the Axumite empire, with a high level of civilization, controlled the trading routes through the Red Sea, and did this for a long time. Christianity came relatively early, with the conversion of King Ezana in the early 4th Century, and was further boosted by the arrival of nine Syrian monks – in fact monks from across the Roman empire, who fled to Ethiopia -, who spread the word more effectively in the 5th Century. Some missionaries they were! Only with the advent of Islam were the Ethiopians forced to give up their Arabian – Yemeni – possessions and retreat into their mountainous heartland, a plateau of well over 2000 m high that has always been the core of the Ethiopian empire. This plateau probably also added to Ethiopia’s subsequent isolation.
It was not until well in the 12th Century that the European interest in Ethiopia was whetted, through a letter from one Prester John, “by the Grace of God and the strength of Our Lord Jesus Christ, king of kings and lord of lords”, to the Byzantine emperor. The letter described a land that was close to paradise on earth, “with Centaurs and Amazons”, with rivers full of “emeralds and sapphires and other precious stones”, palaces with golden tables and crystal windows; there were no poor and no thieves, everybody had plenty. The land was ruled by Prester John, “who reigned supreme and exceeded in riches, virtue and power all other creatures who dwell under Heaven”, and what was even better, Prester John commanded 14 armies of 10,000 cavalry and 100,000 foot soldiers each. For European Christian rulers, who by then were reeling from defeat after defeat in the Holy War fought by the Crusaders, an alliance with Prester John could bring instant salvation.
The only problem was that nobody knew where this rich land of hope was; the location of Prester John’s kingdom remained elusive for another 350 years or so. It became one of the drivers of early Portuguese exploration, the hope to link up with a Christian ruler somewhere in Africa. When they finally did, in 1520, and Francisco Alvares reached the Ethiopian court from Goa, the disappointment was great. There was a Christian kingdom, allright, but in no position, and with no interest, to support a crusade. The Ethiopians were actually quite poor.
It has now been established that the letter from Prester John was in fact a fake, probably written by a German monk. But what a fake it was!

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