This article accompanies the fable
Letters from Africa
Eldad Hadani and Prester John
The legends of Prester John are well accounted for elsewhere. Less so for Eldad Hadani.
Hadani (literally “Eldad the Dan-ite”) was said to be a 9th century Jewish merchant and traveler who claimed to be from an independent Jewish kingdom in Ethiopia although he seemed to know nothing about the country itself. During the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries his exploits were recounted and debated in the context of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. They made their way outside Jewish folklore and into European folklore.
It all fused together around 1165 with the famous Prester John letter. This letter was purportedly from a Christian king in India offering greetings to the Byzantine Emperor, and many Christians read into it a potential ally in the war against the Muslims, this being the time of the Crusades after all. Prester John legends by this time had been in circulation for several decades and the Eldad Hadani stories contributed the idea that the Ten Lost Tribes were out there too… somewhere. But where they had been independent and utopian in Hadani, now they were made to be tributary to Prester John. That made Christians happy and Jews unhappy.
Reading the letter today it comes across as satirical, or crazy visionary like the New Testament’s Revelation (consider the illustration below), but it was taken very seriously at the time. In the centuries since, many have concluded that neither Prester John nor Hadani ever existed or at best they were fictional characters, which in a sense they always were anyway and that the letter was written by a skilful Catholic propagandist or satirist.
Yet during the early Middle Ages (up till 1000 CE) there were many Jewish merchants working the trade routes in the Mediterranean and all the way to China, able to cross borders since they were neither Christian nor Muslim, and there is even a name and growing folklore associated with them: the Radhanites. Eldad Hadani may have been one of them. He certainly got around.
Ironically, after 1300, Europeans came to associate Prester John with Ethiopia, as a Christian kingdom of course, not a Jewish one, having exhausted all other possibilities.