Prester John has led many a man off on an unending quest. One only has to think of Friar William of Rubruk marching ever further east, from Mongol court to Mongol court in his search for the fabulous Christian King who would outflank the enemies of Christendom. Or of Henry Navigator, that celibate prince, head of one of the great orders of monastic knights, obssessively locked up with sea-captains and cartographers in a lifelong attempt to make contact with that same lost Christian King. Some believed that Prester John was a deathless hero, an Arthur-like figure of Christian purity, others argued that the name was a title, like Caesar, borne by each monarch in turn, while others thoughthim to be a living contemporary, a man of destiny, descended from one of the three Magi who had venerated the baby Jesus.
I too have tried to quest after Prester John. A throw away line in an old French guidebook mentioned a 12th century fortress in a range of mountains on the edge of the Sahara that claimed to be the last stronghold of Christianity in North Africa. I determined to visit the place. In my heart of hearts I knew the area must have been gone over with a fine toothcomb by French anthropologists and political officers throughout the 1920's and 30's. If they had found nothing, I was sure to find even less. However one could always hope. I have inherited from my Anglo-Irish mother a strong eye. When we look hard we find things - lost notes and four-leaf clovers, invisible to less attentive eyes. I imagined stumbling across some small inscribed bronze cross recently exposed in the midst of a collapsed wall. I would then be in a position to prove that this lost tribe of mountain dwelling Berbers was one of the many aspects of Prester John.
The maps made it all look possible. Indeed it would have been quite straight forward if at the last moment I hadn't decided to buy a low slung white Alfa-Romeo. It was a wonderful car for wooshing down across the roads of Europe but it proved to be the very worst sort of vehicle for dirt-track roads. I became very experienced in chartering lorries, looking nonchalant in garages and bargaining over repair bills.
At length I arrived within a day's drive of the 12th century castle. It was evening and I had reached the end of the made-up road, so there was no question but that I should stop before tackling the rough tracks in daylight. The small town was busy as the weekly market packed up. In each direction small convoys of mule-borne riders could be seen making their way back to distant farms. The café was packed and I was shown up to the only sleeping space available. This was a bedless but matress-strewn upstairs room already filled with a giggling band of musicians who wore mauve hats at rakish angles. The oldest man was applying kohl to his left eye while his right eye moved around the room in a dancing flirtatious way. It was this that was making his companions laugh, as well as the affectionate way in which he patted his matress and beckoned me over.
I went downstairs to have a black coffee and think things over. Here I met an official and we started politely chatting about local issues, such as the deserted Jewish kasbah (which attracted a trickle of foreign visitors) and the prevalance of bilharzia afflicted livestock at the weekly market. He invited me home for supper, a splendid affair of four courses served against the background of a noisy television screen. An attractively plump woman reclined beside a stream picking flowers to the strain of some lilting Arabic love song. It was played again and again as we sipped glasses of hot mint tea. With an exaggerated yawn my host declared that he was exhausted and was going to bed. He told me that he would sleep soundly tonight, that I was his guest and that I should treat his house as if it was my own. Five minutes after he had taken himself off, the plump woman from the video appeared. She sat down beside me, beamed a full smile and with a brush began to comb my hair.
In the morning my host showed me the Jewish kasbah and told me that the road into the mountains was far too rough for a lorry let alone my car. He laughed at the idea of Christian Berbers. It was a delusion of the French who had found a Muslim shrine dedicated to Si Aissa (the Lord Jesus) in the mountains. There are hundreds of such shrines throughout Morocco as well as to other prophets like Moses, St John, Noah and Jonah. They are mostly used by women he said, for here it is a great public shame not to have a child. Even if they loved each other very much, a man would be forced to divorce a barren wife due to the pressure from his own family. Such a couple would try anything to escape that fate.
Many years later I succeeded in finally visiting the old fortress. My thoughts however were no longer on Prester John, but rather on the hospitality I had once received.
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by Barnaby Rogerson