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…

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism
Tel: +27 (0) 41 582 2575
Email : info@nmbt.co.za

How to get here

The Prester John memorial stands in Port Elizabeth's Fleming Square just opposite the City Hall.

Best time to visit

Port Elizabeth is a year-round destination, lots of sun with some pretty gusty days to boot. Prepare for lots of wind.

Around the area

Extend your morning walk of the city to a drive out to 1 or 2 of the many townships around Port Elizabeth, but it's highly advisable to go with a professional guide.

Tours to do

Trips out to Addo, south to Jeffreys Bay and Storms River, north to Port Alfred and, into the hinterland, to Grahamstown.

Get around

Port Elizabeth has so many historical sites of interest that it is advisable to park your vehicle and walk, especially in the Central - Donkin Reserve area.

What will it cost

Walking tours cost R300 to R400 per person depending on the time taken.

Length of stay

A full day in Port Elizabeth is just the ticket, so you can see the dawn over the ocean, experience the city sites by day and taste some of the nightlife after dark.

What to pack

Your city-walk day pack should include: bottled water, sunscreen, guidebook. You should wear comfortable walking shoes and a hat.

Where to stay

Check the Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism site for all your accommodation choices.

What to eat

Pack something light for midday snacking, because tonight you're probably going to feast at 1 of the many seafood restaurants near the ocean.

What's happening

Check the city website for festivals, events and exhibitions. There's more to Port Elizabeth than most people think.