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Prester John in a Few of his Many Manifestations, from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries

I will fetch you a tooth-picker now from the furthest inch of Asia, bring you the length of Prester John’s foot …

William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act II Scene I.

Prester John, the legendary Christian monarch and a descendant of the Three Magi, may have existed in the imaginations of Europeans before the Crusades, but the disasters of the Second Crusade, the rumours of Islam being defeated by some mighty ruler in the East and the hopes that this great warrior king would appear and save Outremer gave real life to the myth.

The Nestorian Christians had worked hard in the East to convert the peoples of Central Asia beyond the lands of Islam, and it was assumed that Prester John was a Nestorian patriarch, or that his people had been converted by Thomas the Apostle during the saint’s travels through to India. The marvellous products that were now entering Europe via the Italian port cities fuelled the idea that Prester John ruled over lands full of riches.

Then in the 1150s stories started to reach the Crusader Kingdom of disasters striking the eastern lands of Islam. As we have seen above, the eastern part of the Saljuq Sultanate was embroiled in Transoxanian affairs from 1100 onwards, with continual incursions of Ghuzz Turks who were being pushed west by Turco-Mongolic ‘federations’ that whilst raiding China, existed in the steppe beyond the Middle Kingdom’s borders. One of these, the Khitans, in fact took a Chinese dynastic name, the Liao, and ruled parts of northern China until they were displaced and pushed back into the steppe by the rise of the Jurchen of Manchuria who would go on to form the Jin Dynasty, the second of a succession of three alien dynasties that were to rule in China.

The Khitai remained a powerful force despite losing China, and their ‘new’ steppe-state displaced the Ghuzz Turks, who having nowhere else to go started to enter the Dar al-Islam once again en masse. The Sultanate’s panicked response to this ‘tsunami’ of people was to go to war with the Khitans but the unfortunate Sultan Sanjar was totally defeated by them in 1141 at the Battle of the Qatwan Steppe. The great Saljuq Sultanate was already perhaps in its death throes but then the further defeat of the sultan by the Ghuzz Turks in 1153 essentially finished the state.

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The lords of Outremer might have been cheered by the tales heard from merchants of these victories for Prester John, but they also realised that with Nur al-Din coming close to uniting all of Muslim Syria against them they needed to look to themselves to save their kingdom, and to some way of changing the rules of the game. They began to see Egypt as a new promised land.

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