Page:EB1911 - Volume 22.djvu/319

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305
PRESTER JOHN


great crosses made of gold and jewels were carried in wagons before him as his standards, and each was followed by 10,000 knights and 100,000 footmen. There were no poor in his dominions, no thief or robber, no flatterer or miser, no dissensions, no lies, and no vices. His palace was built after the plan of that which St Thomas erected for the Indian king Gondopharus. Of the splendour of this details are given. Before it was a marvellous mirror erected on a many-storeyed pedestal (described in detail); in this speculum he could discern everything that went on throughout his dominions, and detect conspiracies. He was waited on by 7 kings at a time, by oo dukes and 36 5 counts; 12 archbishops sat on his right hand, and zo bishops on his left, besides the patriarch of St Thomas's, the pro top ope of the Sarmagantians (Samarkand?), and the arch pro top ope of Susa, where the royal residence was. There was another palace of still more wonderful character, built by the presbyter's father in obedience to a heavenly command, in the city of Bribric. Should it be asked Why, with all this power and splendour, he calls himself merely “presbyter, ” this is because of his humility, and because it was not fitting for one whose sewer was a primate and king, whose butler an archbishop and king, whose chamberlain a bishop and king, whose master of the horse an archimandrite and king, whose chief cook an abbot and king, to be called by such titles as these.

How great was the popularity and diffusion of this letter may be judged in some degree from the fact that Zarncke in his treatise on Prester John gives ap list of close on loo MSS. of it. Of these there are 8 in the British Museum, ro at Vienna, 13 in the great Paris library, IS at Munich. There are also several renderings in old German verse. Many circumstances of the time tended to render such a letter acceptable. Christendom would welcome gladly the intelligence of a counterpoise arising so unexpectedly to the Mahommedan power; while the statements of the letter itself combined a reference to and corroboration of all the romantic figrnents concerning Asia which already fed the curiosity of Europe, which figured in the world-maps, and filled that fabulous history of Alexander which for nearly a thousand years supplanted the real history of the Macedonian throughout Europe and western Asia. The only other surviving document of the 12th century bearing on this subject is a letter of which MS. copies are preserved in the Cambridge and Paris libraries, and which is also embedded in the chronicles of several English annalists, including Benedict of Peterborough, Roger Hovedon and Matthew Paris. It purports to have been indited from the Rialto at Venice by Pope Alexander Ill. on the 5th day before the calends of October (Sept. 27)» data which hx the year as 1177. The pope addresses it, carissimo in Chnsto iilio J ohannl, illustro et magmjico indorum regi [Hovedon's copy here inserts sacerdoli sanctissimo]. He recites how he had heard of the monarch's Christian profession, diligence in good works and piety, by manifold narrators and common report, but also more particularly from his (the pope's) physician and confidant (medlcus et familiar ls nosler), Master Philip, who had received information from honourable persons of the monarch's kingdom, with whom he had intercourse in those (Eastern) parts. Philip had also reported the king's anxiety for instruction in Catholic discipline and for reconciliation with the apostolic see in regard to all discrepancies, and his desire to have a church in Rome and an altar at Jerusalem. The pope goes on to say that he found it too difficult, on account of the length and obstructions of the way, to send any one (of ecclesiastical position?) a lalere, but he would despatch Philip to communicate instruction to him. And on accepting Philip's communications the king should send back honourable persons bearing letters sealed with his seal, in which his wishes should be fully set forth. “ The more nobly and magnanimously thou conduct est thyself, and the less thou vauntest of lhy wealth and power, the more readily shall we regard thy wishes both as to the concession of a church in the city and of altars in the church of SS. Peter and Paul, and in the church of the Lord's Sepulchre at Jerusalem, and as to other reasonable requests.” There is no express mention of the title “ Prester John ” in what seem the more genuine copies of this letter. But the address and the expression in the italicized passage just quoted (which evidently alludes to the vaunting epistle of 1165) hardly leave room for doubt that the pope supposed himself to be addressing the author of that letter. We do not know how far the imaginations about Prester John retained their vitality in 1221, forty-four years after the letter of Pope Alexander, for we know of no mention of Prester John in the interval. But in that year again a rumour came out of the East that a great Christian conqueror was taking the hated Moslems in reverse and sweeping awa their power. Prophecies current among the Christians in Syria ofythe destruction of Mahomet's sect after six centuries of duration added to the excitement attending these rumours. The name ascribed to the conqueror was David, and some called him the son or the grandson of Prester John of India. He whose conquests and slaughters now revived the legend was in fact no Christian or King David but the famous jenghiz Khan. The delusion was dissipated slowly, and even after the great Tatar invasion and devastation of eastern Europe its effects still influenced the mind of Christendom and caused popes and kings to send missions to the Tatar hordes with a lingering feeling that their khans, if not already Christians, were at least always on the verge of conversion. .

Before proceeding further we must go back to the bishop of Gabala's story. M. d'Avezac first showed to whom the story must apply. The only conqueror whose career suits in time and approximates in circumstances is the founder of Kara-Khitai, which existed as a great empire in Central Asia during the latter two-thirds of the 13th century. This personage was a prince of the Khitai or Khitaian dynasty of Liao, which had reigned over northern China and the regions beyond the Wall during a great part of the 10th and Irth centuries, and from which came the name Khitai (Cathay), by which China was once known in Europe and still is known in Russia. On the overthrow of the dynasty about 1125 this prince, who is called by the Chinese Yeliu Tashi, and had gone through a complete Chinese education, escaped westward with a body of followers. Being well received by the Uighurs and other tribes west of the desert, subjects of his family, he gathered an army and commenced a course of conquest which eventually extended over eastern and western Turkestan. He took the title of Gur Khan or Kor Khan, said to mean “ universal " or “ supreme " khan, and fixed at Balasaghun, north of the T'ian Shan range, the capital of his empire, which became known as that of Kara-Khitai (Black Cathay). In II4I the assistance of this Khitaian prince was invoked by the shah of Kharezm against Sanjar, the Seljuk sovereign of Persia, who had expelled the shah from his kingdom and killed his son. The Gur Khan came with a vast army of Turks, Khitaians, and others, and defeated Sanjar near Samarkand (Sept. 1141) in a battle which the historian Ibn al-Athir calls the greatest defeat that Islam had ever undergone in those regions. Though the Gur Khan himself is not described as having extended his conquests into Persia, the shah of Kharezm followed up the victory by invading Khorasan and plundering the cities and treasuries of Sanjar. In this event-the defeat of Sanjar, whose brother's son, Mas'ud, reigned over western Persia—occurring four years before the story of the Eastern conqueror was told at Rome to Bishop Otto, we seem to have the destruction of the Samiardi fmtres or Sanjar brothers, which was the germ of the story of Prester John. There is no evidence of any profession of Christianity on the part of the Gur Khan, though the daughter of the last of his race is recorded to have been a Christian. The hosts of the Gur Khan are called by Moslem historians Al-Turk-al-Kufar, the kafir or infidel Turks; and in later days the use of this term “ kalir ” led to misapprehensions, as when Vasco da Gama's people were led to take for Christians the Banyan traders on the African coast, and to describe as Christian sovereigns so many princes of the Farther East of whom they heard at Calicut. How the name John a1'ose is one of the obscure points. Oppert supposes the title “ Gur Khan " to have been confounded with Yukhanan or johannes; and it is probable that even in the Levant the stories of “ John the patriarch of the Indies, ” repeated in the early part of this article, may have already mingled with the rumours from the East. The failure in the histor of the Gur Khan to meet all points in the story of the bishop ofyGabala led Professor Bruun of Odessa to bring forward another candidate for identity with the original Prester John, in the person of the Georgian prince John Orbelian, the “ sbasalar, ” or generalissimo under several kings of Georgia in that age. He shows instances, in documents of the 15th century, of the association of Prester John with the Caucasus. In one at least of these the title is applied to the king of Abassia, i.e. of the Abhasians of Caucasus. Some confusion between Abash (Abyssinia) and Abhas seems to be possibly at the bottom of the imbroglio. An abstract of Professor Bruun's argument will be found in the and edition of Sir H. Yule's Illarco Polo, ii. 539-542. As regards any real foundation for the title of “ Presbvter" we may observe that nothing worth mentioning has been alleged on behalf of any candidate.

When the Mongol conquests threw Asia open to F rank travellers in the middle of the 13th century their minds were full of Prester John; they sought in vain for an adequate representative. nor was it in the nature of things that they should not find some representative. In fact they found several. Apparently no real tradition existed among the Eastern Christians of such a personage; the myth had taken shape from the clouds of rumour as they rolled westward from Asia. But the persistent demand produced a supply; and the honour of identification with Prester John, after hovering over one head and another, settled for a long time upon that of the king of the Nestorian tribe of Kerait, famous in the histories of Ienghiz under the name of Ung or Awang Khan. In (, arpini's (1248) single mention of Prester John as the king