Prester John


Prester John from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

In the time of the crusades, Europeans were looking for any allies in their battles against the Muslims for the Holy Land.  Medieval writings often feature a fabulously wealthy Christian king in the East.  This was Prester John.  He was believed to be a member of the Nestorian Church, which was an independent Eastern Christian church that did not fall under the purview of the patriarch in Constantinople.  He was supposed to be an ally against the Muslims for the crusaders to take advantage of.

The story of Prester John was first recorded by Bishop Otto of Freisling Germany in his Chronicon published in 1145.  It was based on a report from Bishop Hugh of Gerbal in Syria to the papal court at Viterbo, Italy.  According to the story recorded in the Chronicon, Prester John was a powerful Christian king who was the descendant of the Magi who visited the Christ Child.  He was also said to be a formidable fighter who defeated the Muslim kings of Persia in battle taking their capital of Ecbatana.  The only reason he did not recapture Jerusalem was because he could not cross the Tigris River.  There was no more on the story until a letter appeared in 1165.  Copies of a letter from Prester John to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos began circulating.  In this letter, Prester John’s kingdom is described as having crystal clear rivers of emeralds, massive amounts of gold, majestic animals and the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.  This myth also morphed into having Prester John’s kingdom being next door to the Garden of Paradise.  A good ally to have.  This letter were so persuasive that Pope Alexander III sent a return letter addressed to Prester John in 1177.  It was being taken east by Alexander’s personal physician Philip.  It is addressed to “the illustrious and magnificent king of the Indies and a beloved son of Christ.”  Nothing more is mentioned of Philip or what happened to him and the letter.

However, all of this was fictional.  It is thought that the battle being referred to was fought between the Mongol khan Yelu Dashi and the Seljuk sultan Sanjar in 1141.  The Mongol khans who fought in this battle were not Christians, but Buddhists.  However, many of their followers were Nestorian Christians.  It’s also possible that Europeans that were unfamiliar with Buddhists may have assumed they were another sect of Christianity.  The letter published in 1165 was fiction, however, it was translated from its original Latin into a variety of languages and distributed throughout Europe.  Then word returned from the Fifth Crusade that Prester John’s grandson, King David, was fighting the Saracens.  The problem?  It wasn’t King David conquering all these lands.  It was the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan.  They tried to bend this new development around the legend by saying one of his favorite wives was a Nestorian Christian and that he was tolerant of other religious faiths as long as they didn’t make trouble.  However, this didn’t really fit the narrative and the legends moved away from Prester John being a central Asian king.

Some additional legends, linked Prester John to kingdoms in Africa even though the original story placed him in Asia.  Marco Polo had discussed Ethiopia as a Christian land fueling the rumors.  In the 15th century, Italian and Portuguese explorers began searching for Prester John in Africa.  Portuguese explorers began connecting a kingdom in present-day Ethiopia with Prester John’s realm.  They made contact with the kingdom of Zara Yaqob, and decided this kingdom was the source of the wealth of Solomon.  Prester John was identified with the negus, or emperor, of the kingdom.  In fact, ambassadors from Zara Yaqob attended the Council of Florence and identified as representatives of Prester John.  They were extremely confused.

By this time, the legend was dying out as exploration of Africa and Asia by the Europeans were not finding this fabled kingdom.  However, the legend did inspire generations of explorers, soldiers and dreamers


Nana Asma’u

Artwork by Heba Amin -
Artwork by Heba Amin –

There is a lot of talk in the news about the education of girls.  In fact in recent history Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban for daring to go to school and being female at the same time.  However, education for women was not always considered taboo in Islamic cultures.  Nana Asma’u is a perfect example of this.

Born Nana Asma’u bint Shehu Usman dan Fodiyo in 1793 as the daughter of Usman dan Fodio.  He was the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, which was one of the most powerful kingdoms in Northern Africa.  Usman dan Fodio led the Fulani Jihad, which conquered Nigeria and Cameroon.  She was named after Asma bint Abi Bakr, who was a companion of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.  She was educated in the Koran as well as Arabic, Greek and Latin classical literature.  Nan Asma’u could speak fluently in Arabic, Fulfulde, Hausa and Tamacheq Tuareg.  Her family followed the Qadiriyyah Sufi tradition, which taught the sharing of knowledge was paramount to their faith.  Learning without teaching was considered sterile and empty.  It was their duty to further knowledge of the Sunna, the exemplary way of life set forth by the Prophet Muhammad.  Following this tradition, Nana Asma’u became an advocate for the education of Muslim women.

As a young woman, Nana Asma’u was a primary witness to her father’s conquests during the Fulani Jihad.  Usman dan Fodio was a traveling Islamic scholar through the Hansa kingdoms of Gobir and Yunfa, however his teachings began to run contrary to the leadership.  He advocated self defense for his students, and when they applied these tactics against government tax collectors and other officials, the king of Gobir was not amused.  Usman dan Fodio was exiled in 1804, which kicked off the JIhad with his followers declaring him to be the Amir al-Mu’minin, or commander of the faithful.  At this time Nana Asma’u was a young woman of twelve, and we have her first hand account of the battles in Wakar Gewaye, or “The Journey” .  This was the first of her prolific written works.  Over forty years, she left behind more than sixty surviving works.  Many of these are poetry written in the Arabic, Fula and Hausa languages.  The range from laments, instructions and elegies to historical narratives.

When her half brother, Muhammed Bello, became the second Caliph, Nana Asma’u became one of his trusted counselors.  In this capacity, Nana Asam’u was no shrinking violet.  She debated with governors, scholars and princes as well as weighing in on legal decisions.  This was not unusual as her works reveal Muslim women who held prestigious and powerful positions in the hierarchy of the Caliphate.  Her sisters, Myram and Fatima, and the Caliph’s wives,Aisha and Hawwa, were also active in literary and political roles in the Caliphate.  This directly contradicts the negative stereotype of women being kept in an inferior position because of religion.  She also taught students, both male and female together.

Around 1830, she created a company of women teachers called the yan-taru, or “those who congregate together, the sisterhood”.  The teachers themselves were called jalis.  The jajis were trained in scholarly Sufi writings as well as Nana Asma’u’s writing as well.  She used the example of Aisha Bint Abu Bakr as an example of modesty and learning for Muslim women.  One of her poems used by the jajis as a teaching tool states “I bring all women to Aisha; Aisha, the Noble Daughter of Al-Siddiq… She was held in esteem by the Prophet.”  The jajis were sent out into the Caliphate and taught women in their homes both in literature and religion.  They began with the newly conquered pagan peoples, integrating them into the ruling class of the new Muslim government.  The jajis were given a malfa, which was a hat and traditionally the symbol of the pagan Bori priestesses in Gobir.  This malfa was then tied with a red turban.  They also carried with them a copy of Nana Asma’u’s book The Path of Truth, which emphasized the following of the Sunna.  The opening doxology describes the pillars of Islam and sets the tone for the additional lessons:

You should always be clean and wear clean clothes.
Look well to the details of your religion so that we may all
be united with Ahmada.
You should seek religious knowledge and stop straying from
The Path. Do not be one of the lost in the next world.
Such knowledge enables you to follow God and the
Insight into the Sunna will carry us to Ahmada.
Wishing for a Muslim everything that you
Wish for yourself is [in keeping with] the character of
Muhammada. (vv. 19-21, 28)

Eventually, the jajis expanded their teaching from the noble classes into the poor rural areas.  They in turn trained other teachers to facilitate the continuation of learning.

Although Nana Asma’u died in 1864, her legacy is still strong in Northern Nigeria.  Many organizations, schools and meeting halls are named for her.  She has also been an example for the role of women in Islam in the 21st century.  Muslim scholars have pointed to her life as following in the footsteps of the Prophet.  “Nana Asmau  is the perfect example of a Muslim inspired by the Prophet Muhammad, and his legacy of furthering women’s education.”


The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic

Still from Laughology (2009)

Sometimes laughter isn’t the best medicine. We’ve all been there- laughing until our sides hurt. Thinking if we laughed anymore we might never stop. Now imagine a laughing epidemic.

The laughter epidemic is rumored to have begun on January 30, 1962, at a mission-run boarding school for girls in Kashasha, on the western coast of Lake Victoria in the modern nation of Tanzania near the border of Uganda. The laughter started with three girls and spread throughout the school, affecting 95 of the 159 pupils, aged 12–18. Symptoms lasted from a few hours to 16 days in those affected. The teaching staff were not affected, but reported that students were unable to concentrate on their lessons. The school was forced to close down on March 18, 1962.

After the school was closed and the students were sent home, the epidemic spread to Nshamba, a village that was home to several of the girls. In April and May, 217 people had laughing attacks in the village, most of them being school children and young adults. The Kashasha school was reopened on May 21, only to be closed again at the end of June. In June, the laughing epidemic spread to Ramashenye girls’ middle school, near Bukoba, affecting 48 girls.

Other schools, Kashasha itself, and another village, comprising thousands of people, were all affected to some degree. Six to eighteen months after it started, the phenomenon died off. The following symptoms were reported on an equally massive scale as the reports of the laughter itself: pain, fainting, flatulence, respiratory problems, rashes, attacks of crying, and random screaming. In total 14 schools were shut down and 1000 people were affected.

The facts of the incident were not well recorded. The incident lasted from about six months to a year, and thousands fell ill before the outbreak ended as mysteriously as it began. Testing of both food and the school itself showed no presence of pathogens or toxic agents that could explain the odd behavior. Medical tests on the girls themselves

Charles F. Hempelmann of Purdue University theorized that the episode was stress-induced. In 1962 Tanganyika had just won its independence and students had reported feeling stressed because of higher expectations by teachers and parents.



The Queen of Sheba

queen_sheba_poynter_1890The Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon is one of the most famous diplomatic visits in the Bible, but we know very little about this powerful monarch.  Her visit appears in religious texts sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, however, her name was never mentioned.  We are not exactly sure where “Sheba” even is.  She is described as a “Queen from the South”, who came to visit King Solomon to test his great wisdom.  She brings with her a treasure trove of frankincense, myrrh, gold and jewels as well as a head full of riddles.  He answers them to her satisfaction and converts her to worship Yahweh.  Then she returns to her country.  That is the last the Bible mentions her, but there are additional stories about this powerful queen.

One of the candidates for the location of Sheba is the Horn of Africa, specifically Ethiopia.  This is one of the two places the trees which produce frankincense grow.  The Queen of Sheba features prominently in the Kebra Nagast, the Ethiopian holy book.  There is a story about how this legendary beauty had one human leg and one leg that was hairy and cloven footed “like a goat”.  Solomon was curious about this and had the floor of his palace polished until it shone like a glass mirror.  Then had the unsuspecting queen walk across it and saw her deformed leg, but it was transformed into a human leg before his eyes.  

There is an additional story about how the queen warns Solomon that as an unmarried woman, she was going to put up with no funny business and he was not to touch her.  Solomon agreed as long as she would not take anything of his.  Solomon then invites the queen to a great banquet full of extremely salty and savory food, but offers nothing to drink.  The queen returns to her chambers and awakens extremely thirsty.  She goes looking for something to drink, and find a pitcher of water next to Solomon’s bed.  She takes a drink and he awakes and informs her she has broken her agreement.  So they end up in bed together.  Solomon has obviously not seen the HR consent video.  Between this story and the upskirt mirror floor, Solomon kind of sounds like a jerk.  Anyway after this night together, the queen returns home pregnant with Solomon’s child.  She bore a son, who she named Menelik, meaning “Son of the Wise”.  Years later, Menelik visited his father in Jerusalem and everyone remarked on the resemblance between father and son.  Solomon offered Menelik the throne of Israel, but Menelik refused returning to his capital in Aksum taking with him the Ark of the Covenant.  According to Ethiopian tradition, the Ark is there to this day in a special chamber in the courtyard of St. Mary’s Church.    However, the ruins at Aksum are a thousand years after the time of Solomon.

Another tradition has the kingdom of Sheba being in the Arabian peninsula, or what is modern day Yemen.  This is near the crossing to Africa and is only a few kilometers from the horn of Africa.  Marib was the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Saba, which could easily have been mistranslated or written as Sheba.  In Marib, excavations are underway of a temple known as the Mahram Bilqis or Temple of Bilqis.  In the Islamic tradition, Bilqis is the name given to the Queen of Sheba.  This is not mentioned in the Koran, but in later stories.  These stories include the goat leg legend, but in this story both of her legs are like a goat and they are not healed.  

Because these two places are close together, it is possible that they were both part of the Kingdom of Sheba and that Bilqis ruled both Ethiopia and southern Yemen from Marib.  Louise Schofield believes she has found one of the sources of the Queen of Sheba’s wealth in northern Ethiopia.  She found a temple dedicated to the moon god with Sabaen inscriptions, the language of Sheba.  From there they found the remains of a large battle and mines.  Despite the evidence of Sheba, there is no primary evidence of the existence of its queen.  Perhaps those are revelations that are still waiting for us


Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba- Always have a Chair for the Queen

The Portuguese had begun colonizing Africa after their rounding of the Cape of Good Hope in 1488.  The English and the French had begun exploring northeast Africa, so the Portuguese concentrated on the south, what is now Congo and Angola.  Their chief aim was to provide slaves for their colony of Brazil in South America.

Ndongo was ruled by a king called a Ngola, and the government was run by slaves.  This was similar to the system of the janissaries in the Ottoman Empire.  Slaves loyal to the royal family took high positions in the government and the military to ensure absolute loyalty.  Ndongo was a trading partner of the Portuguese as much as you can be a partner of someone forcing you to do business with them.  The deal was basically, you provide us with slaves and we won’t make slaves of you.  Great deal.

In 1617, the Portuguese built a fort and a settlement at Luanda on Ndongo land.  The governor of Luanda began an aggressive campaign against the Ndongo, and took thousands of Ndongo people prisoner.  He invaded the capital and forced Ngola Mbandi to flee.  The Portuguese’s allies in this fight were another indigenous people, the Imbangala.  The Imbalgala were not people to mess with.  They kidnapped boys from other tribes to train as soldiers from a young age, killed any children born in their camp to not slow down the army and practiced ritual cannibalism.  Nice guys.  They did elect their leaders democratically, so there is that.  Not much else on the good side for these guys.

These hostilities continued until 1621, when Governor João Correia de Sousa invited Mbandi to a peace conference at Luanda.  Mbandi did not go himself, but sent his half sister Nzinga.  Nzinga was born the daughter of a slave and Ngola Kia Samba around 1583.  According to legend, she was born with her umbilical cord around her neck, which inspired her name from the Kimbundu verb kujinga meaning to twist or turn.  This was supposedly an indication she would be proud, and in this case this omen was correct.

Governor Correia de Sousa thought he would humble the emissary of the Ndongo by not having a chair for her at the meeting.  Nzinga came into the room and saw the
governor seated on an elaborate chair and only a mat available for her to kneel on.  Without batting an eye, she made a motion to one of her attendants, who got down on her hands and knees.  Nzinga sat down on her attendant’s back and began negotiations.  The company was stunned.  This was the first indication the Portuguese didn’t know who they were dealing with.  The Portuguese demanded that all Portuguese prisoners of war be returned.  Nzinga countered saying she would be happy to do so if all the Ndongo people in slavery in Brazil be released.  That was not going to happen.  In the end, they agreed to return of Portuguese prisoners if the Portuguese supported Mbandi’s return to the capital and the throne against two other challengers.  Nzinga became a Catholic as a pledge of good faith and had the governor stand as her godfather.  She took his name-  Dona Ana de Sousa.

Nzinga returned to her half brother with a great deal, and they all should have lived happily ever after right?  Not so much.  There was a history of conflict between Nzinga and Mbandi.  Mbandi had killed Nzinga’s father in his bid for the throne, and according to some sources he also killed Nzinga’s infant son.  Three years later, this came to a head and Mbandi ended up dead.  Some say he committed suicide, other sources implicate Nzinga.  It is not known.  However, if he really did kill her son, my money is on her.

Despite the fact the Ndongo did not have a history of female rulers as well as even hereditary rulership had not been practiced for very long.  Prior to the coming of thenzinga8 Portuguese, the kingship passed between noble families and there was a coup about every ten years.  Added on to that, Nzinga’s mother was a slave, which would have counted her out as well.  It didn’t matter.  Nzinga was born to rule, and rule she did.  However, as unstable as her grip on the throne was she needed allies.  Enter the Portuguese.  They provided her with weapons and legitimacy and she provided them with slaves from her African enemies.  She also welcomed missionaries into her territory to emphasize she was a good Christian ally.

However, in the shifting sands of colonial politics, the Portuguese could only be depended on for so long.  In 1626, Nzingo was driven out of Ndongo to the neighboring country of Matamba.  Not wanting to live in exile, Nzinga conquered Matamba and became its queen.  She did an about face and allied with the former Portuguese ally of the Imbalgala.  She threw off the role of slave provider, and put out a call to all escaped slaves offering them sanctuary in her country.  These ex slaves became her most formidable warriors as they gave her absolute loyalty for protecting them from slavery.  These men would infiltrate the battalions of native soldiers used by the Portuguese and turn them or spy on them.  Whole companies of Portuguese native soldiers would desert to Nzinga.  Nzinga also reached out to the Dutch to fight off the Portuguese.  She blocked the slave routes through Matamba by forming confederations with her neighbors.  By 1648, the Portuguese were kicked out of Luanda.

Nzinga neatly sidestepped the problem of being a “queen” by declaring herself king, much like Hatshepsut before her in Egypt.  Nzinga took it a step farther and flipped the gender roles.  She lead the army dressed as a king in skins with a sword around her neck.  Her sisters were her generals, and they were fiercely loyal to her.  They were not the only women in positions of power, as she filled the government and military with other capable women.  She also had an all female bodyguard.  She also had a 60 man harem, who would dress as women and sleep in the same chamber as her ladies in waiting.

However, when Dutch pulled out of Luanda in 1650, Nzinga had to about face again and ally with the Portuguese.  She reconverted to Christianity and in return for guarantees Matamba and Ndongo would maintain independence promised a quota of slaves to the Portuguese.  Nzinga died in 1661 at the age of 81.  After her death, her generals established a dynasty of queens, which ruled the two nations for 80 more years.  

Nzinga’s legend grew popular after a salacious biography was published in 1769 by Jean-Louis Castilhon called Zingha, Reine d’Angola.  I’m sure the male harem featured prominently.  Her guerilla style attacks inspired the armed resistance against the Portuguese that resulted in independent Angola in 1975.


Sources available on request