When Western Christendom was besieged, and keenly felt besieged, by the forces of Islam, it was natural for Christians to fantasize about a powerful Christian ally. For there were Muslim raids up and down the coasts of Western Europe as far as Ireland and even, in one case, as far as Iceland. In those raids the Muslims seized booty, and also seized for future enslavement Christian men, women, and children (google “Jihad Watch” and “Thomas Pellow” for the case of one Cornishman who was seized and taken back to Morocco, written about in Giles Milton’s White Gold).
The ally about whom the Christians fantasized was on the other side of the Muslims. He could be called upon to help. He would help rescue the Christians in Western Christendom by allying with them and attacking the Muslims who continued to maraud and to murder whenever they could.
This allied kingdom was called the Kingdom of Prester John. He, this fantastic yet hope-giving figure of Prester John, was in the imagination of Western Christians powerful and good, though he lived and ruled over a distant land, a land beyond the Muslims. At first, Western Christians located this land of their imaginings in India; later, in those same imaginings, they moved the Land of Prester John to Ethiopia. This was the Christian kingdom — and it was a Christian kingdom — that would come to rescue them.
It’s a curious story in the history of the West, and a highly revealing one. Ordinarily the story of Prester John is told without any notice being taken of the clear fear-of-Islam promptings behind it.
Modern Ethiopia, though still Christian, is suffering from an internal Muslim threat — the threat of demographic conquest. The Muslims are simply doing what they do elsewhere, which is outbreeding the Christians. Talk to any Christian Ethiopian — say, that nice exchange student in town — and you will discover the anxiety they feel, and how happy they are to find Americans as alarmed by the steady encroachments of Islam as they are. And if a few words can be dropped to show some familiarity — “Dergue,” “Mengistu,” “Haile Selassie,” “the Abuna,” “Danakil,” “Adowa,” and suchlike — all kinds of information will spill forth when the dam breaks, information that will enlighten you. I’ve tried this out myself, using the “Books on Africa” section of a bookstore in a campus town, as the best place for setting up such “accidental” and useful encounters.
Right now Ethiopia suffers from the Muslim threat to its east, and also one, unrecognized outside Ethiopia, to its north, from the malevolent Arabs of Sudan, who are pushing pushing pushing. And behind them, hidden from view, are the Arabs of Egypt, who are hell-bent on stopping the people of Ethiopia from diverting and using for their own purposes some of the headwaters of the Nile. Yet Ethiopia has endured famine, the result of drought, many times in recent decades. For the Egyptians are protecting the Sudan, as best they can, and they support the Sudan in its efforts to drive out, or greatly diminish the numbers, of black Africans — whether they are the Christians and animists who by the millions have been murdered (or caused to starve to death) in the south, or the black African Muslims in Darfur.
Why? Not only in order to more thoroughly islamize, and then arabize, the Sudan — an artificial construct where, a century ago, most of the population was non-Arab, save for a small part of the north — but also to proceed southward to Ethiopia, so that that bastion of Christianity, as it was always seen, can be islamized too, and its non-Arab Muslims forced to become more obedient to the dictates of Egypt. And the dictates include those about diverting the headwaters of the Nile, that the selfish and overbreeding Egyptians think they can permanently control, permanently treat as their private property.
Now, in a reversal of the Middle Ages, it is Western Christendom, or rather its modern successors, the Infidel nation-states of Western Europe and North America, that must now come to the rescue of what, a thousand years ago, was seen as the mythical kingdom ruled by Prester John that would come to the rescue by attacking the marauding Muslims from the other side.
A fantastic story, then, and now.