The mysterious Presbyter Johannes, known as Prester John, is said to have sent a letter to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Comnenus in 1165. He said that his kingdom ran from the ruins of Babylon to beyond India. Elephants, dromedaries, horned men, centaurs, satyrs, giants, and the fabled phoenix lived in his land, and the kings of 72 nations honored him.
The domain of Prester John contained a fountain of youth – whoever drank from it three times would never grow older than 30. he ruled his kingdom using a magic mirror in which he could see everything that took place within his vast empire. John’s army, consisting of 10,000 horsemen and 100,000 foot soldiers, was led by 14 bearers carrying gold crosses studded with jewels.
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The earliest mention of Prester John occurs in a chronicle of history up to 1156 compiled by Otto of Freisingen. Freisingen says that in 1145 Bishop Hugh of Gebal (modern Jubayl in Lebanon) visited the pope and told him of a certain king and priest called John, who lived in the remote east and was descended from one of the Magi – the three wise men who attended the newborn Jesus in Bethlehem. Prester John and all his people were Christians. A few years earlier, after defeating the Medes and Persians, he had intended to march on and free Jerusalem from the infidel but was halted by the River Tigris.
Rumors of Prester John that were circulating at a time when Christendom was fighting the Crusades prompted Pope Alexander III to seek an alliance with Prester John, and on 27 September 1177 he wrote him a letter, which he gave to his physician Philip to deliver Philip never returned.
It was an impossible mission, for nobody knew where Prester John’s kingdom was. Rumors about it sprang partly from tales of the Orient told by travelers, partly from traditions of the Nestorian Christians, a heretical sect that from AD 428 onwards spread from Constantinople as far as China. Nestorians in Tartary remembered a leader called “King John” of whom they told “ten times more than was true.” The Venetian traveler Marco Polo suggested John had been put to death or captured by Genghis Khan early in the fourteenth century. This report did not destroy people’s faith in the ageless ruler or in the existence of the marvelous kingdom – they simply relocated it in Ethiopia, which had been Christian since the fourth century.
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