The Story of Prester John

Discover how Europeans made sense of the diverse world around them in the age of European expansion just prior to the colonial era

Prester John the great Emperour of Abissini (detail) (1598) by Jan Huygen van LinschotenHarvard Library

Prester John was a famous Christian monarch invented by European crusaders in the early 12th century. The story of Prester John as ruler of a fabled Christian land overflowing with gold somewhere in Africa or Asia inspired countless exploratory missions aimed at expanding European and Christian authority across the globe.

Presbiteri Iohannis, sive, Abissinorum imperii descriptio (1580) by Abraham OrteliusHarvard Library

During the twelfth to fifteenth centuries, many Europeans believed that Prester John resided in India or Central Asia. However, by the sixteenth century Dutch and Portuguese explorers settled on the idea of a hidden European, Christian empire in eastern Africa.

This sixteenth century map by Abraham Ortelius outlines Prester John's fictional territories in yellow. The text box in green in the lower right of the map states that these are the territories of "Prester John, or, the Emperor of Abyssinia"

A number of fictional ideas became associated with the largely uncharted territories of eastern Africa. For instance, the source of the Nile is depicted here as Lake Zaire and Lake Flan, both of which are larger and more centrally located than any of the three main sources of that river.

Prester John the great Emperour of Abissini (detail) (1598) by Jan Huygen van LinschotenHarvard Library

Images of Prester John and his fabled wealth were very popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This late sixteenth century map shows him as an enthroned ruler flanked by warriors and revered by a bowing citizen.

Aethiopia superior vel interior, vulgo Abissinorum sive Presbiteri Ioannis imperium (1635) by Joan BlaeuHarvard Library

Later maps often copied the same outlines as Abraham Ortelius' map shown previously. Prester John's territories covered large swaths of land in the uncharted territories of eastern and central Africa.

Africae tabula synoptica (c. 1750) by Johann Matthias HaseHarvard Library

While later generations eventually gave up the idea of Prester John, the territorial divisions lumping together eastern and central Africa remained popular in maps and in European and American understandings of the continent.

This mid-eighteenth century map by Johann Matthias Hase no longer assigns these territories to Prester John. However, the rough outlines of a large area covering central and eastern Africa remain a prominent feature of this map, and played an important role in future territorial divisions during the colonial rule of the 19th and 20th centuries.

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