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Published: October 2nd 2011
ETHIOPIA...Gondar to Find Prester John. I saw an old woman resting by the roadside on the mountain overlooking Addis Ababa...her massive load of sticks awaiting return to her back. Her face etched with a life of endurance and experience.
So I asked her where to find Prester John.
"Those days are long gone" she said looking down and spitting to confirm the point.
"Long gone... gone... gon... dar... Gondar... that's it... that's where I must go to find Prester John..!"
Gondar...the Camelot of Ethiopia...in the highlands of the North.
Prester John...the mythical priest and king of a magnificent Christian kingdom in the East, the home of the Fountain of Youth...a descendant of the Magi (the Three Wise Men from the Gospels)... "who reign supreme, surpass in virtue, riches and power all creatures under heaven"...the stuff of legends.
The one who was first reported in about 1145 to the Pope in Rome.
A letter in 1165 to the Byzantium Emperor in Constantinople from Prester John, introduced his magnificent existence.
It has been suggested that the letter was a forgery...written by a priest in Italy...but history shows that some things don't
change...history does not get in the way of a good story..!
His legend continued in the Middle Ages.
Many copies or versions of his letter circulated in Europe... increasing the allure.
European attempts to find him in Asia were fruitless... so they realised they were looking in the wrong places..! "Hey... there is the Christian Kingdom in Abyssinia... Prester John must be in Africa,"
This was supported by a 10 page manuscript in 1340, translated into many languages, that the kingdom was in Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia).
The Portuguese sent expeditions to Abyssinia to find Prester John. Even helped with troops and firearms to fight Islamic invaders in the 16th Century..!
By the 17th Century his existence seemed to be so accepted that maps were printed showing present Ethiopia as "The Kingdom of Prester John."
European manuscripts referred to Prester John as the name for the Emperor of Abyssinia. It didn't seem to matter that there was no Emperor with that name..!
I surmise "Where there is legend...there is fact...or is it fiction?"
So I set out on my search...for Prester John.
And as if to
confirm I was on the right track...on arrival at Gondar Airport...they laid on a coffee ceremony to welcome arrivals.
Three Amharic girls...crosses tatooed to their foreheads... serving Ethiopian coffee and popcorn... sprinkling flowers at our feet.
So I asked them where to find Prester John.
Their expressions indicated they either did not speak English or
had knowledge on the subject that they were reluctant to impart...to this mizunga...fair call...I'll take that as encouragement..!
Gondar...the capital of Ethiopia from 1636 during the reign of Emperor Fasiladas, followed by his son Johannus and especially through Iyasu the Great...until its demise during the reign of Tewodros (1855-1868).
Gondar became the centre of the renaissance of culture in Ethiopia...where castles and monasteries abound...yep...castles.
The Royal enclosure covers over 7 sqkms...surrounded by high stone walls, and contains five castles, some connected by tunnels. The castles have Axumite, Portuguese and Middle Eastern influences that together epitomise Ethiopian architecture from a period of past glory.
The castles and palaces were no longer occupied but were open and accessible so we had a good wander. I could feel Prester John had been there...but it was no longer his home...so I took
JOHANNUS IV & HIS ARMY
My image of 19th Century Ethiopia
my search elsewhere.
Maybe he's bathing in Fasiladas' Bath...a two storied stone pavilion in a large rectangular pool...where artisans were constructing tiered seating for the imminent Timket Festival...to celebrate the baptism of Christ.
But he was not there either..!
In 1888 the Sudanese Mahdist Dervishes sacked Gondar and burned down all the churches except Debre Birhan Selassie (Mountain of Light), a church built by Iyasu the Great. Legend says a swarm of bees kept the Sudanese at bay and the Archangel Michael guarded the gate with a flaming sword.
The ceiling is painted with the faces of hundreds of angels, the walls adorned with a crucifix and three identical faces depicting the Trinity.
So I asked the priest where to find Prester John.
He did not reply but had a far away look towards the south-east...in the direction of Lake Tana...our next destination.
Haile Selassie was the last of the Ethiopian emperors...deposed in 1974...relegated to history.
But what of Prester John?
Driving through the foothills of the Simien Mountains...up, down and around...past volcanic plugs and picturesque fields...past Amharic peoples with umbrellas walking to where-ever.
We stopped somewhere on the road,
up a steep incline... admiring the colours that are Northern Ethiopia.
An apparition of people materialised as if they were expecting us...crowding against our 4WD.
And then I saw him.
I could tell by the eyes...that desperate look of one who has endured the centuries...once an Emperor... now a wild eyed man of the highlands...dispossessed...abundance a distant memory.
So I asked him if he was Prester John.
I looked into his eyes...down the centuries...and saw a magical place...a land of milk and honey...where rivers were filled with gold...the Kingdom of Prester John.
Relax & Enjoy,
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