Was Prester John the keeper of the Holy Grail? Was he a great crusader-warrior king? One of the Three Magi? Did he rule the sandy wastes of Ethiopia? The Portuguese, in particular, were keen to find the larger-than-life man and pick his brains about a trade route to India.

Did you know?

The Prester John memorial in Port Elizabeth was unveiled by the Portuguese ambassador in 1986.

Next to the Port Elizabeth City Hall you will find a statue depicting a couple of intriguing characters. Its origin is steeped in deep crusader, eastern and African mythology and it depicts a man called Prester John in conversation with an unnamed Portuguese explorer.

It is believed to be the only monument in the world to celebrate the existence of the ever-elusive Prester John, said to be a descendant of the Three Magi.

Prester John, depending on whose history you are studying at the time, was also a crusader-era Christian king in Ethiopia – or possibly a high-born Mongol from the time of Genghis Khan. The belief was that he presided over ‘a realm full of riches and strange creatures’, and that he was also the ageless curator of the Holy Grail.

European countries, especially the seafaring, adventurous ones, were ever-set on questing in Africa from the 15th Century onwards. At first, Timbuktu was the fashionable – but fatal – quest centre for colonials.

Another popular quest was to find Prester John and his world. He symbolised the 'universal Christian', who transcended culture and geography.

On October 10, 1486, King John II of Portugal commissioned the navigator Bartolomeu Dias to sail around the southernmost tip of Africa and see if he could find Prester John ‘somewhere in the Indies’. Thus the connection between Prester and Portugal.

Dias departed the next year and, after many stops along the west coast, sailed through a vicious storm off the Cape, so vicious that he called it 'Cabo Tormentosa' – the Cape of Storms. His king later had it renamed the Cape of Good Hope, because it promised a passage to India.

Along the way, Dias left many messages of goodwill for Prester John but, as far as history records, received no reply – nor a forwarding address…

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