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Prester John

Prester John
Preste” as the Emperor of Ethiopia, enthroned on a map of East Africa in an atlas prepared by the Portuguese for Queen Mary, 1558. (British Library)

Prester John is a patriarch and king said to rule over a Christian nation lost amidst the Muslims and pagans in the Orient. Prester John was said to be a generous ruler and a virtuous man, presiding over a realm full of riches and strange creatures. His kingdom contained such marvels as the Gates of Alexander and the Fountain of Youth, and even bordered the Earthly Paradise. Among his treasures was a mirror through which every province could be seen, the fabled original from which derived the “speculum literature” of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, in which the prince’s realms were surveyed and his duties laid out.

At first, Prester John was imagined to reside in India; . After the coming of the Mongols to the Western world, accounts placed the king in Central Asia, and eventually Portuguese explorers convinced themselves they had found him in Ethiopia. Prester John’s kingdom was thus the object of a quest, firing the imaginations of generations of adventurers, but remaining out of reach.

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