Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Legend of Prester John

Map linked from

This is totally unrelated to tech, but still a fascinating story. The story of Prester John began in 12th century Europe as a letter sent to the pope about a great Christian emperor in the East, who was beseiged by infidels. Although, the story is a myth, it may have been loosely based on historical figures. One such person is Yelu Ta-Shih, an emperor of the Western Liao Dynasty. The Liao Dynasty was founded by Khitans, who were of Central Asian descent, and who ruled over northeastern China in the 10th and 11th centuries. Iin the 12th century they were forced back into Central Asia. (the green state in the upper left corner of the map).

What makes the Western Liao dynasty a possible source of the Prester John legend, is the fact that many Khitan elites were Christians of the Nestorian sect, as Prester John supposedly was; although, not all of their subjects were Christians. Many were Muslim or Buddhists, and through contact with the Sung Dynasty China, the Khitans had been sinicized and even adopted many Confucian practices. Thus, like the legend of Prester John, the state of Western Liao was an unusual combination of Central Asian, Chinese and Christian culture.

Ultimately, the Western Liao dynasty was conquered by Mongols in the year 1218. So, although Western Europe sent missions searching for this legendary empire, it never found it.


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