Ethiopia and Prester John

We were studying Ethiopia last week and decided to take a little side trip to Prester John.  Prester John was a mythical Christian monarch known to Europeans in the Middle Ages.  The legend said that somewhere in the mysterious east there was a Christian kingdom, a kingdom that had lasted isolated for centuries.  There were supposed to be unicorns and dragons and griffins and a magical fountain of youth (there’s always a fountain of youth).  The kingdom was supposed to be fabulously wealthy, the fields brimming with crops, the rivers full of fish, the vines groaning under the burden of the grapes, the coffers filled with gold.  It was also supposed to be the gateway to Eden, the Biblical garden from which Adam and Eve were expelled after partaking of the fruit.  In other words, the kingdom of Prester John was one small step down from paradise itself.

Europeans had written and dreamed about this kingdom for centuries and, once in a while, someone would even go off and try to find it.  Then in 1490 a Portuguese Explorer named Pero da Covilha found Ethiopia.  He found an advanced civilization of Christians, fabulously fantastical churches carved from solid stone, strange animals like giraffes and hippos, and a gold rich kingdom.  This was it!  Prester John.

This is a church in Lalibela, Ethiopia. It is carved from solid stone with the roof the same height as the surrounding land. The Ethiopians were an advanced, literate, and wealthy people at the time the Portuguese first found them.  Photo by A. Davey, CC license, Wikimedia.

It’s unknown how the Ethiopian King responded to being called Prester, but perhaps he capitalized on it because the Ottoman Turks had chosen this time to invade Ethiopia and the small African Kingdom needed some military assistance.  The Portuguese provided it, and the Ottomans were defeated, never to take over Ethiopia.

This shows the Ethiopians being beaten by the Muslim invaders. For quite awhile the war went all their way, but the help of the Portuguese and the tenacity of the Ethiopians won in the end and the Muslim invaders were expelled.

The end of the story is that the Portuguese demanded that the Ethiopians submit to the authority at Rome and join the Christian brotherhood.  The Ethiopians, having a well developed and in fact much older Christian church of their own, declined.  They remained free and independent until 1936 when the Italian dictator Mussolini conquered Ethiopia in the prelude to WWII.

A Map Project

We drew and colored maps of Prester John’s Kingdom, setting our scene in the real landscape of Ethiopia, including the shoreline of the nearby sea, the mountain chains, the rivers, and the major cities.  Then we added in fancy beasts and a magic fountain.

Additional Layers

  • Ethiopia isn’t really that far from Europe.  So why did the Europeans have no knowledge of it until the 15th century?  More ancient people, like the Romans and the Greeks knew all about Ethiopia, having her as a trading partner, but then Islam came.  Islam cut the east and sub-Saharan Africa off from the Christian west and north.
  • Learn more about the Lalibela churches.
  • Ethiopia today is still mostly Christian, though a different brand from other denominations.  Many Jews and Muslims also live in the country in equality and freedom with the Christians.
  • Mythical beasts are fun. Learn more about fanciful beasts and magical creatures from ancient stories.  Do you think any of them might have been real?
  • Where else in the world has the fountain of youth been rumored to have been?  It moves around a lot for a fountain.  Maybe that’s why no one has ever found it.  If you could drink a magic liquid that would keep you young forever, would you?  Think about it carefully.

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