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The Prester John Legend between East and West during the Crusades. Entangled Eastern-Latin Mythical Legacies


Ahmed M. A. Sheir

ISBN 978-615-6405-27-2                                           Paperback, €46.00

ISBN 978-615-6405-28-9                                           Hardcover, €144.00

eISBN 978-615-6405-29-6                                          eBook, €46.00

June 2022

pp. 367

Printed copies available on our website starting with July 2022. 


This book considers the history of the Prester John legend and its impact on the Crusades, investigating its entangled mythical history between East and West during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The present study thus responds to the still pressing need for a comprehensive historical investigation of the twelfth and thirteenth crusading history of the legend and its impact on the Muslim-Crusader encounters, examining various Latin, Arabic, Syriac, and Coptic accounts. It further reflects on new eastern aspects of the legend, presenting a new Arab scholarly view. This book first charts a pre-history of the legend in the late ancient Christian prophecy of the Last Emperor down to the emergence of the legend in the mid-twelfth century. Second, the work presents a historical discussion of the legend and its association with actual occurrences in the Far East and the Levant, analysing the legend history under the crusading crisis and the imperial papal schism in Europe. Meanwhile, the work considers the vague Prester John Letter addressed to Manuel I Komnenus, Byzantine Emperor, and its elaborate conception of a mythical eastern kingdom, revealing imaginative parallels on the wondrous East and legendary Eastern Christian kings in Arabic Muslim and Christian accounts of the Muslim geographer and cartographer al-Idrīsī, the Coptic Ābū al-Makārim and the Syriac Ibn al-ʿIbrī (Bar Hebraeus), among others. Moreover, the book examines how the legend impacted war and peace processes between the Ayyubids and the Crusaders during the Fifth Crusade against Egypt (1217-1221), revealing how it was mingled with Arabic and Eastern Christian prophecies at the time. The study concludes by investigating the perception of Prester John by the papal and European envoys to the Mongols in the thirteenth century, revealing how the legend was instrumentalised (and even weaponised) to establish a Latin-Mongol crusade through a parallel exploration of relevant Latin, Arabic and Syriac sources.  

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Note of Transliteration and Style

List of Figures and Maps

List of Abbreviations


  Historiography: Prester John between Past and Present

  Objectives and Methodology

CHAPTER 1. Setting a Geographic and Mythico-historical Stage for the Prester John Legend

  1. Setting a Geographic Scope

  1.1. Eastern Christians: Nestorians of Prester John

  2. Myth and Legend versus History?

  2.1. Myth

  2.2. Legend

  2.3. History

  2.4. The Relationship between Myth, Legend and History

  3. A Prehistory of the Prester John Legend

CHAPTER 2. Between Transmission and Reception: The Birth of the Prester John Legend and the Crusader-Muslim Conflict, 1122-1145

  1. The St. Thomas Tradition and the Origin of Prester John

  2. The Prester John Legend by Otto of Freising

  3. The Fall of Edessa: The Birth of the Legend and an Actual John (Mār Yūḥannā)

  4. The Battle of Qaṭwān (536/1141) and the Prester John Legend

  5. Conclusion

CHAPTER 3. The Prester John Letter and its Perception between the Crusading Crisis in the Levant and Imperial-Papal Schism in the West

  1. The Legend and the Second Crusade (1145-49)

  2. The Prester John Letter, ca. 1165-70

  3. The Letter, the Byzantine Emperor and the Crusades

  4. The Letter and the Imperial-Papal Conflict, 1154-1177

  5. The Letter of Pope Alexander III to Prester John in 1177

  6. The Two Letters between Reception and Perception

  6.1. Prester John’s Letter between Circulation and Reception

  6.2. The Perception of Pope Alexander’s Letter

  7. Conclusion

CHAPTER 4. Imaging the Prester John Kingdom in the Three Indias: The Legend's Entanglements with Alexander Romance, Jewish and Arab Muslim-Christian Imagination

  1. The Prester John Kingdom and Alexander Romance

  1.1. The Letter between Alexandrian Tales and Jewish Travels

  2. The Arab Geographic Conception of Indian Christian King(s) in the Twelfth Century

  3. Prester John and the Mythical Indian Tales in the Arabian Nights

  4. Coptic Perception of the Legendary Priest-king (John) in the Twelfth Century

  5. Transferring the Figures of Nubian and Abyssinian Kings into Europe during the Crusades

  6. Conclusion

CHAPTER 5. Waiting for King David, Son of Prester John: The Impact of the Legend on Peace and War during the Fifth Crusade (615-618/1217-1221)

  1. The Legend between Silence and Rebirth

  2. Rumours and Prophecies of an Imminent Christian King

  3. King David and the Capture of Damietta: Obstructing Peace and Stimulating War

  3.1. Awaiting King David and the Fiasco of the Fifth Crusade

  4. The Arabic Prophecy of King David: The Entanglements with Nestorian, Coptic and Ethiopian Prophecies/Apocalypse

  4.1. A Syriac-Arabic Figure of the Christian King (David)

  4.2. A Coptic-Arabic Figure of Christian King (David)

  4.3. An Ethiopian Figure of King David in Kébra Nagast

  5. King David and the Mongols: Associating Imagination with Reality

  5.1. Prester John/King David on the Eve of the Fifth Crusade

  6. Conclusion

CHAPTER 6. The Mongol Figure of Prester John: Remembering the Legend and the Enterprise of Latin-Mongol Crusade(s), 1222-1300

  1. The Legend, Frederick II’s Crusade and the Aftermath, 1127-1245

  2. Prester John and the Papal-European Missions to the Mongols, 1245-48

  3. The Legend and the Crusade of Louis IX against Egypt, 1248-1254

  4. William of Rubruck and Re-imagining Prester John

  5. The Entanglement of Prester John with Ung Khan in Eastern Accounts

  6. The Legend and the Late-Thirteenth Century Attempts of a Mongol-Latin Crusade

  7. Conclusion




Specific References

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