Ethiopia: The Land of Prester John

By Waters, Irene | Contemporary Review, November 2001 | Go to article overview

Ethiopia: The Land of Prester John


Waters, Irene, Contemporary Review


THE legendary wealthy kingdom of Prester John exerted such a prodigious influence on European thought in the Middle Ages that Pope Alexander III despatched a messenger to him in 1177. Prester John was reputed to have withstood the onslaught of Islam and was therefore perceived as a potentially powerful ally in the Crusades. The messenger never returned.

So did Prester John exist and, if so, who was he and where was his kingdom? Legend says he was descended from one of the Magi who visited the baby Jesus and was both priest and king. Marco Polo, writing in the late thirteenth century, places him in the Far East, probably what is now Mongolia. However in those days people had only a vague concept of place outside their known world.

It seems more likely that the foundation for the legend lies in the prosperous Axumite empire in the north of present-day Ethiopia. Christianity had become the official religion there in the fourth century and Axum had also given refuge to some of the Prophet Muhammad's earliest and most respected followers. In gratitude he commanded the inhabitants 'be left in peace', so there was peaceful co-existence.

This perception of wealth and power forms a stark contrast to media reports emanating from Ethiopia in the closing decades of the twentieth century. People now associate the country with famine and internal conflict. I went to see for myself.

The famines of 1979 and 1986 were natural disasters caused by successive years of rainfall failure, but they were exacerbated by other factors. Because of political unrest and a harsh repressive military regime, Western aid was refused -- until a BBC programme fronted by Michael Buerk and the subsequent Bob Geldof-led Band Aid woke the world's conscience. But even when aid arrived there were distribution problems: the government was reluctant to supply Tigre province, a hot-bed of dissent, and the poor transport system slowed supplies. Most of the 10,000 deaths in 1979 and another million in 1985 should have been preventable.

Despite a change of government, greater democracy and the granting of full independence to Eritrea in 1993, the situation remains volatile. There is the ever present danger of inadequate rainfall, though we were assured that the 2000 harvest was good. Farms are small, though, little more than subsistence level, and methods and equipment antiquated. Border warfare was still taking place, causing certain parts of northern Ethiopia to be declared out-of-bounds to visitors. At Bahir Dar, on Lake Tana, the plane's blinds were lowered on descent and remained down until cruising height had been reached after take-off as this is a military airfield. Even further south, burnt out tanks remained by roadsides.

Only on one occasion, though, were we obliged to be accompanied by an armed guard. This, we were told, was for our protection as the local people were 'bad'. The ones we encountered greeted us with the same friendly smiles as other Ethiopians -- one woman was enthralled when offered a loan of binoculars. Doubtless the sight of our young guard's Kalashnikov deterred the more hostile. It was on this occasion that the minibus broke down. We had travelled the rough un-surfaced, ungraded roads for nearly a fortnight without mishap, but now sand had clogged the filter and the vehicle coughed to a halt. Driver, guide and guard jumped out. The former removed the filter and blew it clear while the latter stood guard. None of the 30 bullets he assured us he carried were required.

Road journeys are bumpy and slow. The 13-mile drive from Gonder airport to the town took nearly an hour. Had we travelled there by road instead of flying from Addis Ababa it would have taken two days to cover the 400 miles instead of a few hours. It is not surprising that aid took so long to reach the famine-struck north.

Flying over the high mountain ranges emphasises why road travel is so tortuous, but the sight of these peaks and ravines is awe-inspiring.

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