In the Valley Of Prester John
(Chingis Khan's foster-father Ong Khan as Prester John in Le Livre des Merveilles, 15th century.)
I will fetch you a tooth-picker from the farthest inch of Asia;
bring you the length of Prester John's foot:
fetch you a hair off the great Cham's beard.
Rather than hold three words' conference with this harpy.
- Benedick in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.
The medieval European legend of Prester John told of a Christian patriarch, a descendant of one of the three Magi, said to rule over a Christian nation lost somewhere in the Orient. In popular fantasy, Prester John was a generous ruler over a realm full of riches and strange creatures; his kingdom contained such marvels as the Gates of Alexander and the Fountain of Youth, bordered the Earthly Paradise, and among his treasures was a mirror through which every province could be seen simultaneously in detail. At first, Prester John was imagined to reside in India; tales of Saint Thomas the Apostle's subcontinental travels provided the first seeds of the legend. After the coming of the Mongols to the Western world, the king was relocated to Central Asia; eventually he went to Ethiopia and South Africa. Prester John was the object of a quest, firing the imaginations of generations of adventurers, always remaining tantalizingly out of reach.
In the 12th century, the Mongols, then living in the valley of the Onon, were very much a junior tribe amongst the nations of the eastern steppe. Their overlords were the Naiman of the northern slopes of the Altai, who may have been a Turkic tribe (though the name Naiman is Mongolian.) The major competitors of the Naiman were the Kereyid (Kerait) of the Orgon and Tula (Tuul) valleys, whose rank-and-file were probably Mongol but whose rulers were possibly Turkic; and along with the Mongols the underdog positions were occupied by the Merkids (a forest people south of the Baikal) and the Tatars (Merkid allies of the Buyur Nor region.)
The genetic lines between the tribes were blurry and so were their alliances. Yesugei, Temüjin's father, stole his bride from the Merkid, a favor they returned by stealing Temüjin's wife Börte. Yesugei of the Borjigid Mongol clan met his end poisoned by the Tatars. After his death, the Mongols under the rival Taichigud clan left Temüjin's family to fend for themselves; only after years of hardship was Temüjin able to reconstitute his father's following. In this he was aided by his father's blood brother or anda, Toghrul Khan of the Kereyid. Börte had brought with her a wedding gift - a sable coat - for Temüjin's family, but he devised a better use for it; he presented it to Toghrul Khan; in accepting the coat Toghrul Khan agreed to treat Temüjin as his own son and protect him as such. This was a time when the Chinese Chin dynasty was particularly annoyed with the Tatars. Kereyid and Mongol join the Chin in defeating the Tatar c. 1202; in gratitude, Toghrul Khan was given the Chinese title Wang, Prince, which was soon corrupted in Mongol speech to 'Ong' Khan.
Toghrul 'Ong' Khan was in fact a Nestorian Christian. Father's anda notwithstanding, Chingis fell out with him soon after the Tatar campaign. After Toghrul rejected a proposal to wed his son and daughter to Chingis' children, the rift between them grew until war broke out in 1203. When Temüjin attacked Jamukha for the title of Khan, Toghrul, fearing Temüjin's growing power, plotted with Jamukha to have Temüjin assassinated. Toghrul Khan was killed in 1203 by Naiman soldiers who failed to recognize him as the former were fleeing from a defeat by Chingis Khan. Chingis captured Sorgaqtani Beki, daughter of Toghrul's brother Jaqa Gambu, and married her to his son Tolui; they had several children, including Möngke, Kublai, Hulagu, and Ariq Böke, all destined to be great Khans in their own right. Sorgaqtani - more of her later - remained a Nestorian Christian all her life.
William of Rubruck says a certain Vut, lord of the Kereyid, brother to the Nestorian King Prester John, was defeated by the Mongols under Chingis, and that Chingis made off with Vut's daughter and married her to his son, which union produced Möngke, the Khan at the time of William's writing. According to Marco Polo's Travels, the war between the Prester John and Chingis Khan started when Chingis, new ruler of the rebellious Tatars, asked for the hand of Prester John's daughter in marriage. Angered that his lowly vassal would presume to make such a request, Prester John denied him in no uncertain terms; drawn to the quick, Chingis challenged Prester John and in the war that followed, Prester John perished.
(Chingis and Ong Khan, from a manuscript of the Jami al-Tawarikh.)
In 1221 Jacques de Vitry, Bishop of Acre, returned from the otherwise disastrous 5th Crusade with good news: King David of India, with the son-in-law of Prester John, had mobilized his armies against the Saracens. He had already conquered Persia, then under the Khwarezmian Empire's control, and was moving towards ʿIrāq-i ʿArab and Baghdad. The conquests of the Mongols took the legend of Prester John in a new direction. Chingis was seen as a scourge of Christianity's enemies, and he proved to be tolerant of religious faiths among those subjects that did not resist his empire; once it was proven beyond doubt that he had Prester John's daughter as his son's wife, Europeans imagined the disastrous Mongol sack of the Saracens in Central Asia as engineered by Mother Mary herself through daughter of the faith Sorgaqtani Beki.
In the 16th century, the Mongol empire had been long-since eclipsed, the Reconquista had thrown the Muslims out of Spain, and Europe was now less preoccupied with Saracens than with finding sea routes to India. The legend of Prester John was slowly adapted to Ethiopia, the "third Indies." By the time the emperor Lebna Dengel and the Portuguese had established diplomatic contact with each other in 1520, Prester John was the name by which Europeans knew of the Emperor of Ethiopia.
The prospect of finding the lost kingdom of Prester John has long since vanished, but his legend has continued to live down through the centuries. Alfred Noyes' poem Forty Singing Seamen is based on the "Pope" Prester John legend:
"In our lands be Beeres and Lyons of dyvers colours as ye redd, grene, black, and white. And in our land be also unicornes and these Unicornes slee many Lyons.... Also there dare no man make a lye in our lande, for if he dyde he sholde incontynent be sleyn."--Mediaeval Epistle, of Pope Prester John.
Across the seas of Wonderland to Mogadore we plodded,
Forty singing seamen in an old black barque,
And we landed in the twilight where a Polyphemus nodded
With his battered moon-eye winking red and yellow through the dark!
For his eye was growing mellow,
Rich and ripe and red and yellow,
As was time, since old Ulysses made him bellow in the dark!
_Cho._-- Since Ulysses bunged his eye up with a pine-torch in the dark!
Below, we camp at the Tuul River Valley, where the ghost of Toghrul Ong Prester John Khan still treads.