Barbosa's Travel Guide to the Kingdom of Prester John

Map of Prester John's kingdom as Ethiopia, 1564.
 Map of Prester John's kingdom as Ethiopia, 1564." (Source.)


Duarte Barbosa (Ramusio), 1515.

Leaving these towns of the Moors and entering into the interior of the country, the great kingdom of Prester John is to be found, whom the Moors of Arabia call Abexi [Habeshy]; this kingdom is very large, and peopled with many cities, towns, and villages, with many inhabitants: and it has many kings subject to it and tributary kings. 

And in their country there are many who live in the fields and mountains, like Beduins: they are black men, very well made: they have many horses, and make use of them, and are good riders, and there are great sportsmen and hunters amongst them. 

Their provisions are flesh of all kinds, milk, butter, and wheaten bread, and of these things there is a great abundance. Their clothes are of hides because the country is wanting in cloths; and there is a law amongst them by which certain families and ranks of persons may wear cloths, and the rest of the people may wear only hides well dressed and tanned. 

Amongst them there are men and women who have never drunk water, but only milk, which greatly supports them, and quenches the thirst, on account of its being more healthy and substantial, and there is great abundance of it in the country. 

These people are Christians of the doctrine of the blessed Saint Bartholomew, as they say; and their baptism is in three kinds, of blood, fire, and water: that is to say,[20]that they circumcise themselves, and mark themselves on the temples and forehead with fire, and also in water, like the Catholic Christians.

Many of them are deficient in our true faith, because the country is very large, and whilst in the principal city of Babel Malech, where Prester John resides, they may be Christians, in many other distant parts they live in error and without being taught; so that they are only Christians in name.[1]


1569 map detail of
Prester John (Source.)

In the interior of this country is the great city of Babel Melech [Babel Mandel], where Prester John holds his residence. The Moors call him the great King of the Habeshys: he is Christian, and lord of many extensive countries and numerous people, with whom he makes subject many great kings. 

He is very rich, and possesses more gold than any other prince. This Prester John holds a very large court, and he keeps many men at arms continually in his pay, whom he takes about with him. He goes out very rarely from his dwelling; many kings and great lords come to visit him. 

In this city a great feast takes place in the month of August, for which so many kings and nobles come together, and so many people that they are innumerable: and on this day of the feast in August they take an image out of a church, which is believed to be that of Our Lady, or that of St. Bartholomew, which image is of gold and of the size of a man; its eyes are of very large and beautiful rubies of great value, and the whole of it is adorned with many precious stones of much value, and placing it in a great chariot of gold, they carry it in procession with very great veneration and ceremony, and Prester John goes in front of this car in another gold car, very richly dressed in cloth of gold with much jewellery. And they begin to go out thus in the morning, and go in procession through all the city with much music of all sorts of instruments, until the evening, when they go home. 

And so many people throng to this procession, that in order to arrive at the car of the image many die of being squeezed and suffocated; and those who die in this wise are held as saints and martyrs; and many old men and old women go with a good will to die in this manner.


1. When Vasco da Gama's fleet reached India, the Portuguese mistook Hindus and other non-Muslims they met as eastern Christians, just with misguided rites and worship—in line with the legendary Prester John, a wealth and powerful Christian king in the East.

* The addition of Prester John in this work is a reminder of how fuzzy Europeans' knowledge of Africa's east coast was, especially anything beyond the port towns, and also of how strong medieval legends yet remained. The legend of the Christian king of the East had persisted in Europe for several centuries by this point.

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