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  • In 1165, copies of a strange letter began to circulate throughout Western Europe.

  • It spoke of a fantastical realm,

  • containing the Tower of Babel and the Fountain of Youth

  • all ruled over by the letter’s mysterious author: Prester John.

  • Today, we know that this extraordinary king never existed.

  • But the legend of this mythical kingdom and its powerful ruler

  • would impact the decisions of European leaders for the next 400 years.

  • Prester John’s myth would propel the age of exploration,

  • inspire intercontinental diplomacy, and indirectly begin a civil war.

  • When Prester John’s letter appeared, Europe was embroiled in the Crusades.

  • In this series of religious wars,

  • Europeans campaigned to seize what they regarded as the Christian Holy Land.

  • The Church vilified any faith outside of Christianity,

  • including that of the Jewish and Muslim communities populating the region.

  • Crusaders were eager to find Christian kingdoms to serve as allies in their war.

  • And they were particularly interested in rumors of a powerful Christian king

  • who had defeated an enormous Muslim army in the Far East.

  • In fact, it was a Mongol horde including converted Christian tribes

  • that had routed the army.

  • But news of this victory traveled unreliably.

  • Merchants and emissaries filled gaps in the story

  • with epic poems and Biblical fragments.

  • By the time the story reached Europe,

  • the Mongol horde had been replaced with a great Christian army,

  • commanded by a king who shared the Crusader’s vision

  • of marching on Jerusalem.

  • And when a letter allegedly written by this so-calledPrester Johnappeared,

  • European rulers were thrilled.

  • While the letter’s actual author remains unknown,

  • its stereotypes about the East and alignment with European goals

  • indicate it was a Western forgery.

  • But despite the letter’s obvious origins as European propaganda,

  • the appeal of Prester John’s myth was too great for the Crusaders to ignore.

  • Before long,

  • European mapmakers were guessing the location of his mythical kingdom.

  • In the 13th and 14th centuries, European missionaries went East,

  • along the newly revived Silk Road.

  • They weren’t searching for the letter’s author,

  • who would have been over a century old; but rather, for his descendants.

  • The title of Prester John was briefly identified

  • with several Central Asian rulers,

  • but it soon became clear that the Mongols were largely non-Christian.

  • And as their Empire began to decline,

  • Europeans began pursuing alternate routes to the Far East,

  • and new clues to Prester John’s location.

  • At the same time these explorers went south,

  • Ethiopian pilgrims began traveling north.

  • In Rome, these visitors quickly attracted the interest

  • of European scholars and cartographers.

  • Since Ethiopia had been converted to Christianity in the 4th century,

  • the stories of their African homeland fit perfectly into Prester John’s legend.

  • Portuguese explorers scoured Africa for the kingdom,

  • until a mix of confusion and diplomacy finally turned myth into reality.

  • The Ethiopians graciously received their European guests,

  • who were eager to do business with the ruler

  • they believed to be Prester John.

  • Though the Ethiopians were initially confused by the Portuguese’s

  • unusual name for their Emperor,

  • they were savvy enough to recognize the diplomatic capital it afforded them.

  • The Ethiopian diplomats played the part of Prester John’s subjects,

  • and the Portuguese triumphantly announced an alliance with the fabled sovereign

  • over 350 years after the European letter had begun the search.

  • But this long-awaited partnership was quickly tested.

  • A decade later, the Sultanate of Adal,

  • a regional power supported by the Ottoman Empire, invaded Ethiopia.

  • The Portuguese sent troops that helped Ethiopians win this conflict.

  • But by this time,

  • it was clear that Ethiopia was not the powerful ally Europe had hoped.

  • Worse still, the increasingly intolerant Roman Catholic Church

  • now deemed the Ethiopian sect of Christianity heretical.

  • Their subsequent attempts to convert the people

  • they once revered as ideal Christians

  • would eventually spark a civil war,

  • and in the 1630s, Ethiopia cut ties with Europe.

  • Over the next two centuries,

  • the legend of Prester John slowly faded into oblivion

  • ending the reign of a king who made history despite having never existed.

In 1165, copies of a strange letter began to circulate throughout Western Europe.

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B2 UK TED-Ed european john letter christian ethiopia

The imaginary king who changed the real world - Matteo Salvadore

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    賴君 posted on 2020/03/21
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