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It is certain that the Jesuit mission which established itself at the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar at the end of the 16th century thought that the Priest King still ruled in Cathay, that mysterious land described by Marco Polo. It was only after 1603, when a member of that mission, one Benedict Goes, had been despatched to investigate this possibility and in so doing found that Cathay was one and the same as China, a land about which much had been learned during the course of the 16th century, that it was concluded that there remained no place on earth where the great Christian king might still reign.
The Portuguese continued to call the Negus of Abysinnia by the name of Prester John, and the rest of the world has followed suit. The name, however, became no more than a convenient title for a minor king. The legend of Prester John, like many other legends of the Middle Ages, fell before the relentless advance of modern geographical knowledge. And yet, in the development of that knowledge it had played a most significant part.
In its youth this legend encouraged the exploration of the land route between Europe and Central Asia and the Far East; in its middle age it assisted the discovery of the direct sea route to the Indies; even at the moment of its death it was still strong enough to lead to the identification of Cathay with the Chinese Empire.
Carpini made a passing reference to the Black Cathayans, who, he claimed, were Christian in all but name. They had recently been conquered by the Mongols. But the Prester was not among these people; he had moved to the adjacent land of India Major, if one is permitted to interpret ‘the black Saracens who are also called Ethiopians’ as a reference to the Kara, or 'Black', Kitai. In the 13th century, it is worth noting, the term Ethiopia was so imprecise as not to justify its location in Africa without supporting evidence which, in this case, is not present.
Prester John, Carpini wrote, lived beside these ‘black Saracens'. Chinggis Khan tried to invade his land but was repelled by the Prester, who sent against the invading troops what sounds very much like explosive charges fastened to the backs of horses and set off at the right moment by suicide soldiers. But another version of Carpini's account told a different story.
Prester John and his son David were described as kings of India to whom the Mongols used to pay tribute. Chinggis Khan, however, put an end to this practice by invading the land of Prester John and defeating King David. The victorious Prester is in the tradition of the stories of 1145 and 1221; the defeated Prester fits in with the travellers’ tales of the second half of the 13th century.