We live in an age of hoaxes, conspiracy theories, fake news…call it what you want, the upshot is that there are a lot of people out there making things up and a lot more people believing those phony stories. But while
Western Europeans in the 1100s were just beginning to seriously encounter the world outside of Europe. The Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire lost all its non-European territory outside of Anatolia to the first waves of Islamic expansion in the 7th and 8th centuries, but the mountainous terrain of eastern and southeastern Anatolia created a natural boundary that held for ~4 centuries, give or take. Europeans to the west were familiar with Islam because Islamic armies had also conquered most of Iberia, or Andalusia (modern Spain and Portugal) in the early 8th century, but when the Franks defeated the Islamic army at the Battle of Tours in 732, a stable border between Christian and Muslim lands in the west was established at the Pyrenees. Writings, including Arabic translations of ancient Greek and Latin texts that had been lost to the Europeans, found their way from Andalusia to the rest of Europe, but Europeans in general knew very little of lands to the east. It was certainly a far cry from the heights of the Roman Empire, when the Romans had open trade networks that brought in goods from India and China.
Where the Europeans had great gaps in their actual knowledge of the east, by which (for this discussion) I mean anything further east than Anatolia and the Holy Land, they filled in those gaps with legends. One legend placed the biblical entities Gog and Magog (I say “entities” because at various points in the Bible the names seem to refer to nations, geographic regions, and individuals) to the east, generally in the Caucasus where it was said that Alexander the Great constructed a great gate in the mountains to prevent them from moving south into more civilized regions. This story was mentioned by Josephus, narrated in the “Alexander romance“collections, and is told in both the Quran (where a figure called Dhu al-Qarnayn is generally thought to be Alexander) and in the Iranian epic poem, the Shahnameh. Another legend was that the lands to the east of the Holy Land were home to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Both of these legends have apocalyptic elements, since Gog and Magog, and the Lost Tribes, all figure into Christian prophecies of the End Times.
But it is a third legend that is the basis for our hoax, taken from an apocryphal book known as the “Acts of Thomas.” In the “Acts of Thomas,” the Apostle Thomas is chosen to evangelize in India. He objects, but ultimately finds himself in India regardless. He is said to have ministered first in northern, then later in southern, India, winning many converts to the faith. Now, depending on the extent to which one believes the historicity of the New Testament, it’s certainly plausible that some apostle of Jesus would have made his way east to India to spread the new faith, and there is later evidence of Christian tribes in India that traced their Christianity back to Thomas’ ministry. European Christians would have been aware, from the reports of pilgrims to the Holy Land, of Christian populations in the east, most of them of the Nestorian variety, who were led by a patriarch at Baghdad and were considered heretical by both the Roman and Orthodox churches for the usual tedious reasons why one religious group deems another to be heretics.
To this semi-mythical understanding of Asia, the end of the 11th century added the First Crusade. The Battle of Manzikert in 1071, in which the invading Saljuq Turks crushed the defending Roman (Byzantine) forces, finally opened Anatolia up for mass invasion/migration by Islamic peoples, in particular Turks. Immediately calls went out in the west for a crusade to drive the Turks back, but these went largely ignored for a couple of decades. By the 1090s, however, the empire had been reduced to the Balkans in Europe and a sliver of land along the Anatolian coast, and so the Roman Emperor Alexios I Komnenos pleaded with Pope Urban II to call for a crusade against the Muslims. The campaign began in 1095, and by 1099 it had succeeded not only in blunting the Saljuq advance in Anatolia, but in moving south and conquering coastal Syria and finally Jerusalem from the Fatimids of Egypt.
Enter, in 1122, a man claiming to be “Archbishop John” of the Indian Christians, who is reported to have visited Rome and received royal treatment from Pope Callixtus II, and here is our first suspected hoaxer. There’s no clear confirmation that this visit ever actually took place, but if it did it is highly likely that “Archbishop John” was a fellow who had a bit of knowledge of the eastern world and was able to trade on it for VIP treatment at Rome before disappearing. A German chronicler, Bishop Otto of Freising, mentions reports of one “Prester John,” a Nestorian priest-king (“prester” presumably being a corruption of “presbyter” or priest) of Central Asia, who had dealt a major defeat to the Saljuqs and was anxious to attack the Islamic forces to the west but was unable to cross the Tigris River. Right around this time (in 1141) the Qara-Khitai, a Mongolic khanate in Central Asia, had actually defeated the Saljuqs at Qatwan, in modern Uzbekistan. The Qara-Khitai themselves were Buddhist, but they had Nestorian vassals, so reports of this battle may have been incorporated into the story. Another eastern tribe called the Keraits may have also been grafted into this legend during the reign of Wang Khan (d. 1203), who seems to have been a convert to Nestorianism.
Little was mentioned of Prester John for another two decades, until in the 1160s a mysterious letter (the 12th century equivalent of Twitter?), purporting to be from Prester John himself, arrived at Emperor Manuel Komnenos’ court in Constantinople, and was later sent along to Pope Alexander III in Rome. The letter describes the incredible wealth of John’s “kingdom,” and the massive armies for which it paid, which stood ready to march west and trap the armies of Islam in between John to the east and the Crusader kingdoms to the west. The Europeans were, to say the least, intrigued. Here I think we have our second opportunity for a hoaxer. The situation in the Holy Land had stalled, and it was only two more decades before Saladin would retake Jerusalem from the Christians. It’s entirely possible that someone knowledgeable about the situation in the Holy Land thought that the promise of massive aid from the east would renew interest in crusading, so they manipulated the Prester John story toward that end. Or somebody just felt like playing a prank. At any rate, in 1219, when an unknown eastern warlord started moving his forces west and obliterating every Islamic army in his path, many Europeans were sure it was the long-awaited and much-needed Prester John. Needless to say, it wasn’t.
The Europeans quickly learned that the Mongols were no allies, as Mongolian armies began to invade European territory as early as 1237. It took Rome a while to come around, since the Mongols’ first conquests were against the Russians, who were Orthodox, so maybe the Mongols just really liked the Pope? But when they began to invade Roman Christian kingdoms, that finally turned hope of an allied Christian king from the east into mortal terror of strange conquering hordes from the steppe. Successive popes sent messages to the Mongols, entreating them to see that Roman Christianity was the one true faith and that God did not look favorably upon their attacks against Christian kingdoms, to which the Mongol khans would reply with some variation on, “even if I were to accept the authority of your God, considering we’ve conquered most of the known world, you’d have to say He must be in our corner, no?” (they sent similar replies to Baghdad when the Caliph there warned of God’s wrath over their attacks against Islamic territories). Emissaries were sent, generating some remarkable first hand accounts of Asian geography and the Mongols themselves, and Marco Polo and his family traveled to China to the court of the Great Khan, but no alliances were ever concluded against the Muslims. The substantially smaller and weaker Mongolian rulers in the Iran and Iraq in the late 13th and early 14th centuries sent out feelers to France about conducting joint campaigns against the Mamluk rulers of Egypt, but nothing ever came of them.
By the 1300s, Europeans who still clung to the Prester John story had decided that his kingdom was actually in Ethiopia, because what the hell, why not? The whole thing was wishful thinking and legend in search of a reality upon which it could be pinned. Indeed the Mongols came closest to fulfilling Prester John’s promise by sacking Baghdad and ending the Caliphate in 1258, but ultimately what we’re dealing with is either a hoax that spun wildly out of control or a massive delusion that afflicted powerful Europeans for a century or more.