Who was Abraham Ortelius?
As Europe emerged from the Middle Ages, and the flowering of the Renaissance reached its zenith, Europeans had the technology and wealth to vastly expand their knowledge of the world. Map-making advanced with improved technology in printing and surveying. Abraham Ortelius (b. Ortel) was born in Antwerp, Holland in 1528, where he was tutored in mathematics and the classics (Latin, Greek, etc.). He had a bookshop that his sister helped run, and used this to sell his illuminated maps. Illumination is the art of decorating text with colorful designs. Traditionally used in bibles, the techniques lent themselves perfectly to maps.
Ortelius developed extensive contacts with other map makers, and traveled across Europe picking up knowledge. He spent the decade from 1560 to 1570 honing his own skills, and produced several fine maps. The pinnacle of his success came in 1570 when he published the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World). This included the most comprehensive and detailed maps produced up to that time, and historians consider it the first true atlas. The book met with acclaim, eventually being published in 36 editions and seven languages (Latin, Dutch, German, English, French, Spanish and Italian).
The legend of Prester John is one of Africa's most enduring mysteries. The earliest stories, from AD1122, depict him as a Christian Mongol chief holding sway of large areas of Asia beyond Persia and Armenia. The Crusaders sought his help in freeing Jerusalem from the Saracens (Muslims). To the people of the time, Prester John was real. Popes sent messengers and letters, and explorers such as Marco Polo set out with the idea of finding the land of Prester John.
But these stories have never been factually verified by archeologists or historians, so this incarnation of Prester John soon fades into the mists of history.
Three years after the publication of his 1570 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (see previous page), cartographer Abraham Ortelius produced a map titled 'A Representation of the Empire of Prester John, or of the Abyssynians.' This is consistent with later legends, which described Prester John's kingdom as African, perhaps in Abyssinia, or maybe Central Africa. These ideas likely influenced subsequent exploration of the continent, which concentrated mostly along the eastern coast. The Portuguese, for example, headed into the Indian Ocean with the plan to find Prester John and form an alliance against the Saracens. Abyssinia is the Latin name of Ethiopia, which may well have given rise to the legend. The country is considered among the oldest continuously Christian nations.
Ortelius evidently takes the stories literally. An inset on the map provides a list of the 17 titles of David, the contemporary holder of the title of Prester John, and supposedly descended from Solomon.
Fransisco Alvares, a Portuguese priest, spent from 1520 to 1526 in the country. He writes about the isolated empire, that to stop infighting, the Prester's sons were "kept shut up in a mountain ... except the first-born, the heir." In the middle of Prester John's empire, Ortelius shows the Nile River's source from two lakes, Zaire and Zaflan. A legend reads "There are tritons and sirens in this lake."