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, €134.00

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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




Data sheet

Ahmed M. A. Sheir
Trivent Medieval
Book series
Mediterranean Studies in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages
Book series editor(s)
Damien Kempf
ISBN (hardcover)
ISBN (paperback)
Publication date
June, 2022
Page numbers

Specific References

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.  

AHMED SHEIR holds a PhD from Philipps-Universität Marburg in 2021, where he continued as a research fellow. He is recently appointed a postdoc researcher at the Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. He is also an affiliated lecturer of medieval history at the University of Damanhour-Egypt. His research interests include the history of the crusades, myth, literature and history, medieval East-West relations and Jewish-Christian-Muslim interrelationships.

Fittingly for a study of the great myth of Prester John ‘of the Indies’, this book ranges widely in treating sources from both East and West to investigate this fascinating figure in the time of the Crusades. The importance of Ahmed Sheir’s exploration of texts coming from the Middle Eastern expanse – Arabic, Syriac, and Coptic materials – cannot be overstated.  Sheir is well positioned to add to the European-weighted perspectives. He considers a number of key questions, from the origins of the Prester John letter and legend to the impact on the Crusades, an often overlooked dynamic. In between the reader will discover associations with Alexandrian Romance, how the legend played within papal politics, and notions of the Prester entwined with Mongolian advances and as King David or as the father of this revived hero within the wider struggles of the era. We enter more deeply not only into a significant facet of Christian-Muslim contestation but an inevitable commingling of stories and ideas across cultures. This work is sure to move the scholarship on Prester John forward in a number of ways.   

   Andrew Kurt, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History Humanities Department, Clayton State University

The legend of Prester John is one of the most fascinating stories in the context of the crusades. In the imagination of the crusaders, Prester John was to assume the role of a Christian savior from the East who would destroy the armies of the Islamic world. In the thirteenth century in times of the Mongol advance the hope that they were allies of a Christian ruler from the east was even to influence concrete military decisions of the crusaders.

However, considerable research has been done on this topic with European sources but little is known about the Arab perception of him. This is were the importance of Ahmad Sheir’s sound historical work lies. It shows how the legend changes over time between East and West and is thereby all the time adjusted to the actual circumstances. It fills an important gap in our perception of the Prester John Legend by using Arab Historiography and tracing how the European legend is rooted in actual events in the Middle East. Ahmad Sheir has used a large variety of European and Arabic sources. Thereby digging up new information on the legend. The book really completes everything, which has been written on Prester John. 

   Prof. Dr. Albrecht Fuess, Centrum Für Nah- Und Mittelost-Studien, Philipps-Universität Marburg

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