The Forgotten Christian World

The Forgotten Christian World

When we think of great historical events we naturally imagine them in visual terms, of great movements. But our mental maps are often too small. We know, for instance, that Christianity began in Palestine and swept west into the Roman Empire to develop a firm base in Europe. With such a picture in mind it is easy to imagine the Christian church establishing itself across Western Europe, in Britain and Ireland, and then eventually making the leap across the Atlantic into the New World. Nothing in that picture is actually wrong, but it is sadly incomplete. At the very same time that Christians were moving west into Europe in the first two or three centuries ad, others were travelling eastwards into Asia, and south into Africa. By the mid-sixth century, Christian monasteries were operating in China. And we are not speaking here of a few brave missionaries. As late as the 11th century – almost the halfway point of the Christian story to date – at least a third of the world’s Christians still lived in Asia. Even in 1250 it makes sense to think of a Christian world stretching east from Constantinople to Samarkand (at least) and south from Alexandria to the desert of the Ogaden, almost to the Equator.

These Christians differed vastly from our familiar idea of the medieval Christian world. Many Westerners are used to thinking of the church at this time as a narrow and intolerant affair, in which popes and bishops owed their power to their alliance with secular kings and emperors. According to this stereotype the church knew next to nothing about outside cultures or faiths and, if it did, it treated them with fear and contempt, a hostility that became most obvious in the Crusades. But in fact most early Asian Christians lived in a world in which they rarely or never allied with states and kings and always operated as minority faiths living in states dominated by other religions – by Persian Zoroastrians, by Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus. Christians existed alongside these other faiths, and regularly engaged in dialogues that were friendly and cooperative. In China and south¬ India, by the eighth century, members of the Nestorian Christian church used a distinctive symbol in which the cross is joined to the lotus, symbol of Buddhist enlightenment.

Many aspects of Christianity that we conceive as thoroughly modern were in fact the norm in the distant past: globalisation, the encounter with other faiths and the dilemmas of living under hostile regimes. How can our mental maps of the past have become so radically distorted?

Christianity began in the Middle East, in Palestine, Syria and Egypt, and the fact that those regions were part of the Roman empire provided opportunities for Christian expansion along the trade routes of the Roman world. Christians benefited from Roman stability and order and they used the familiar languages of empire, Greek and Latin. Within a few centuries, the great cities of the Roman world had also become the leading centres of Christianity. But, at the same time, an almost identical story was developing to the east of the Roman frontiers, within the Persian empire. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Persian empire stretched from Syria to what is now Pakistan and deep into central Asia and this empire too offered the kind of stability that churches needed to expand.

The backbone of Christian growth was the Silk Route, most of which ran through Persian territories. The great city of Antioch, where the term ‘Christian’ first arose no later than ad 50, was a terminus for an ancient trade connecting the Mediterranean world to Persia and Central Asia. Throughout late antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Silk Route ran from Syria into northern Persia and into what are now the nations of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Travellers passed through such cities as Merv, Bukhara and Samarkand, along a route that ultimately took them over 4,500 miles into the heart of China. From Bukhara you could follow the branching roads and tracks that linked Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent.

The Persians also dominated the coasts of the Indian Ocean, eastwards from Oman and the Gulf to the mouth of the Indus. By no later than the second century, Christians had sailed these seas, setting up churches in south India. We can never be sure if the apostle Thomas really led these missionary ventures, as Indian Christians believe today. What we can say is that Christians were a lively presence in Kerala and Sri Lanka in the third century, before the first church rose in pagan Ireland.

“Muslims made little effort to convert their Christian subjects, who remained unmolested as long as they paid the special taxes imposed on non-believers.”

It helped the Christians that the Persians did not care about the theological debates over Christianity that were racking the Roman world. In the fifth century Christians were deeply divided over questions concerning the nature of Christ’s divinity. In 431 the Council of Ephesus condemned the Patriarch Nestorius, who had allegedly preached a separation between Christ’s human and divine natures  (although his actual views were subtler than this would suggest). Over the next century the Roman empire also condemned the Monophysites who  – according to official views – over-stressed Christ’s divine nature and taught ‘One Nature’ (mono physis). Facing persecution, Nestorians and Monophysites had to move their main centres of activity outside the Roman world and they sought Persian protection. They flourished in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) where they developed networks of churches and monasteries equal in wealth, learning and spiritual achievements to anything in contemporary Europe. After the Muslim conquest of Persia and the Near East in the mid-seventh century remarkably little changed for these churches. For the first few centuries of their rule at least, Muslims made little effort to convert their Christian subjects, who remained unmolested as long as they paid the special taxes imposed on non-believers.

For several centuries, these eastern Syriac-speaking Christians were free to expand as they wished, deep into Asia, and they exploited these opportunities to the maximum. By far the greatest missionaries were the so-called Nestorians, who referred to themselves simply as the Church of the East. We can see this if we map the seats of Nestorian bishops and especially the metropolitans – senior clergy who oversaw a network of bishops and archbishops. Before St Benedict, the patriarch of Western Monasticism (c.480-c.550), had formed his first monastery, Nestorian bishops were preaching at Nishapur and Tus in north-eastern Persia. Before Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 601/2, the Nestorian church already had metropolitans at Merv in Turkmenistan and Herat in Afghanistan and their churches were operating in Sri Lanka and Malabar. Before King Wenceslas ruled a Christian Bohemia in the early tenth century and before the ‘baptism of Poland’ in 966, the Nestorian sees of Bukhara and Samarkand achieved metropolitan status. So did Patna on the Ganges in India.

Merv was perhaps the greatest of all these centres. At its height in the 12th century it may well have been the most populous city on the planet. The city had a rich Christian intellectual and spiritual life spanning the sixth century to the 13th. From the beginning of this period essential Christian works were being translated there from Greek and Syriac into the languages of central and eastern Asia. Merv could compete in scholarly vigour with any European centre, certainly before the universities emerged in Western Europe during the 12th century.

Eastern Christians dominated the cultural and intellectual life of the slowly emerging ‘Muslim world’, playing a critical role in Muslim politics and culture. Their wide linguistic background made the Eastern churches invaluable resources for rising empires in search of diplomats, advisers and scholars. They could translate freely between Greek and Syriac, Persian and Arabic, Chinese and Soghdian (the language spoken across much of Central  Asia). As a result they retained a strong presence in the ranks of evolving Muslim administrations. In this respect the role played by Eastern Christians presents a challenge to standard assumptions about the relationship between the two faiths.

By 782, the year the Frankish king and future Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne reputedly beheaded 4,500 Saxons who resisted a campaign of forced conversion to Catholic Christianity,  the spiritual Christian empire of the east was centred in Baghdad. Its leader at that time (from 780 to 823)was the Nestorian patriarch or Katholikos, Timothy.

As head of the Church of the East, Timothy  presided over 19 metropolitans and 85 bishops, spread over Persia and Mesopotamia, Armenia and Turkestan, Yemen and south India. Timothy’s extensive correspondence  demonstrates his influence over a vast Asian domain. He even reported the conversion of the khagan, the Turkish king who then ruled over much of Central Asia. In a revealing sentence written about 780, Timothy described how, ‘In these days the Holy Spirit has anointed a metropolitan for the Turks, and we are preparing to consecrate another one for the Tibetans.’ When debating a liturgical question, Timothy referred to the practice of the wider churches of the sprawling Christian world he knew: the Persians and Assyrians don’t do this, he argued, and nor do the churches of ‘the countries of the sunrise – that is to say, among the Indians, the Chinese, the Tibetans, the Turks.’

“Syriac Christians imported from India the efficient numbering system that we know today as ‘Arabic’, long before this gained currency among Muslim thinkers”

Unlike the Roman pope or the Orthodox patriarch, Timothy himself did not serve a Christian monarch. He inhabited a world that was culturally and spiritually Christian but politically Muslim, a situation that he coped with comfortably. He was in fact a key figure at the court of the caliph and  most of Timothy’s patriarchate coincided with the rule of  Harun al-Rashid (r.786-809), on whom is based the legendary Arabian Nights. As faithful subjects, Timothy and his clergy prayed for the Muslim caliph and his family. It is common knowledge that medieval Arab societies were far ahead of those of Europe in terms of science, philosophy and medicine, and that Europeans derived much of their scholarship from the Arab world; yet in the early centuries  these cultural achievements were usually Christian and Jewish rather than Muslim. It was Christians – Nestorian, Monophysite, Orthodox and others – who preserved and translated the cultural inheritance of the ancient world, the science, philosophy and medicine, and who transmitted it to centres like Baghdad and Damascus. Much of what we call Arab scholarship was not necessarily Muslim. Syriac-speaking Christian scholars brought the works of Aristotle to the Muslim world: Timothy himself translated Aristotle’sTopics from Syriac into Arabic at the behest of the caliph. Syriac Christians even imported from India the efficient numbering system that we know today as ‘Arabic’, long before this gained currency among Muslim thinkers.

It was during Timothy’s time that Baghdad became a famous intellectual centre, with the caliph’s cultivation of the famous House of Wisdom, the fountainhead of later Islamic scholarship. But this was the successor of the Persian ‘university’ of Jundaisapur and it borrowed many Nestorian scholars from that institution. One early head of the House of Wisdom was the Christian Arab Hunayn (808-873), who began the massive project of translating the Greek classics into Arabic. The caliph paid Hunayn for these books by quite literally giving him their weight in gold: such were the Christian roots of the Arabic Golden Age.

Timothy’s church engaged closely with the Muslim caliphate, but it exercised its influence much further afield. Representing the church in China at this time was a bishop named Adam, remarkable records of whose work remain. After long neglect, Adam’s achievements came to light in the 1620s, when the Jesuit order was undertaking a new Christian mission in China. Peasants digging the foundations of a house near the ancient imperial capital of Xian (formerly Chang’an, Shaanxi Province) found a stone with a mysterious inscription, which on closer examination proved to be a memorial  written in Syriac and Mandarin erected in 781 by Bishop Adam, recording the arrival from Iraq of the great Nestorian mission in 635. Even more startling was the religious framework used by these ancient Christians, who had translated their message into Buddhist and Taoist terms:

The illustrious and honourable Messiah, veiling his true dignity, appeared in the world as a man … he fixed the extent of the eight boundaries, thus completing the truth and freeing it from dross; he opened the gate of the three constant principles, introducing life and destroying death; he suspended the bright sun to invade the chambers of darkness, and the falsehoods of the devil were thereupon defeated; he set in motion the vessel of mercy by which to ascend to the bright mansions, whereupon rational beings were then released; having thus completed the manifestation of his power, in clear day he ascended to his true station.

That Nestorian mission left other traces, including the Daqin Pagoda, a seventh-century Christian church built purely in the form of a Chinese temple. Yet, ironically, Adam may have made a greater impact in promoting Buddhism than Christianity. Around the time the Nestorian memorial was erected, a Buddhist missionary named Prajna arrived in Chang’an from India. He was unable to translate the Sanskrit sutras he had brought with him into either Chinese or any other locally familiar tongue. He consulted Adam, who had already translated parts of the Bible into Chinese. The two probably shared a knowledge of Persian and they spent the next few years working together to translate seven copious volumes of Buddhist wisdom. Probably Adam did this as much from intellectual curiosity as from ecumenical good will. Scholars still speculate whether he infiltrated Christian concepts into the translated sutras, consciously or otherwise.

Adam’s efforts bore fruit far beyond China. Other visitors to Chang’an at the time included Japanese monks, who took these translations back with them to their homeland. In Japan, these works became the founding texts of zen and pure land Buddhist schools.

Though the Church of the East suffered losses to rival faiths, especially to Islam, these wounds were not fatal. As late as the 13th century, Christians flourished across the Middle East and Asia; indeed, this was a golden age of scholarship and spirituality. Yet by 1400, the churches were utterly crushed. What happened?

The ruin started in 1219 when Genghis Khan’s Mongol armies attacked the Muslim Khwarezmid empire of central Asia, taking many of the ancient centres where Christianity had flourished, including Bukhara and Samarkand. Over the next 40 years, Mongol power extended over most of western Asia, through a series of campaigns in which they crushed ancient cities with unprecedented savagery. When Merv fell in 1221 the Mongols slaughtered virtually every man, woman and child in the city, killing hundreds of thousands. In 1258 the Mongols under Genghis’s grandson Hulegu (c.1217-65) perpetrated a historic massacre in Baghdad itself, ending the caliphate, murdering conceivably as many as 800,000.

“Many Eastern Christians found some hope in the arrival of the Mongols, who they saw as potential Christian liberators”

Yet, oddly, many Christians found some hope in the arrival of the Mongols, who they saw as potential liberators. Although the Mongol leaders were not Christian themselves, they came from parts of Central Asia where Christianity was a familiar element of the cultural and social landscape. Many of their allies and subject peoples were devoutly Christian and they travelled with monks and priests in attendance. The more the Mongols intermarried with these Christian neighbours, the stronger the Christian influences in their families. Hulegu himself, the butcher of Baghdad, may have identified himself as a Christian. His Christian wife ensured that the invaders singled out Baghdad’s mosques for destruction, while they protected Christian churches. Reportedly, Hulegu’s wife wanted ‘to put the Saracens [Muslims] into such slavery that they dared not show themselves any more’. The Mongols actually turned one of the caliph’s old palaces into an official residence for the Nestorian Katholikos and it became the site of a new church. Some Christians, such as Solomon of Basra  who wrote about the invasions in the 1220s, dreamed that soon they could convert a Mongol dynasty that would uproot Islam and establish a huge Nestorian empire stretching from Syria to the Pacific. Had this come about, the Church of the East would have dwarfed Christian Europe.

It was not to be. By the end of the 13th century, the Mongols had definitively converted to Islam and their regime became steadily more hostile to Christians. The world was entering a terrifying era of climate change, of global cooling, which severely reduced food supplies and contributed to mass famine. The collapse of trade and commerce crippled cities, leaving the world poorer and more vulnerable. A hungry and desperate society looked for scapegoats, whose misdeeds had so obviously attracted God’s anger. Europe’s Christians turned on its Jews, killing and expelling hundreds of thousands; Muslims inflicted a similar fate upon their Christian neighbours.

Asia’s shining Christian millennium ended bloodily. Christian communities were uprooted or wiped out across the Middle East and ceased to exist in most of central Asia. Churches suffered mass closure or destruction, bishops and clergy were tortured and imprisoned. Christianity survived, but was confined to poorer and more remote regions. The patriarchs of ‘Babylon’ now literally headed for the hills, taking up residence at a monastery in the mountains near Mosul. In China, too, a nationalist and anti-foreign movement came to power in 1368, establishing the great Ming dynasty. The new regime destroyed every remnant of Chinese Christianity.

So thoroughly was the Christian presence destroyed that later Europeans wholly forgot it. Europeans knew a world in which Christianity was largely confined to their own continent. Western scholars wrote the history of Christianity to reflect the world as they knew it, with maps that featured only Europe and the Mediterranean. Why, they might have asked, should our maps need to include Asia, when Christianity had obviously never enjoyed any success in those lands? When European missionaries and explorers sailed the world in the 16th century, they were startled to find shattered remnants of these ancient churches in India, Mesopotamia and elsewhere. The Christian communities they encountered claimed to know nothing of a pope in Rome and instead remembered only a patriarch in distant Babylon.

Conventional histories of Christianity often omit a thousand years of the story, at least as it affected vast stretches of territory: several million square miles, in fact. Today, so grounded is the religion in the Western inheritance that only gradually do we learn the strange concept of it spreading to the global stage, as Christian numbers swell in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It seems almost revolutionary to contemplate this kind of globalisation, with its potential impact on theology, art and liturgy. Some, who hold the European norms as a kind of standard, have even questioned whether the new global Christianity will remain authentic.

Yet this view of Christianity is itself a radical departure from what was for well over a millennium the historical norm. For most of its history up until the 14th century, Christianity was a tricontinental religion, with powerful representation in Europe, Africa and Asia. Christianity became predominantly European not because the continent had any obvious affinity for the faith, but by default. Europe was the continent where it was not destroyed. Matters could easily have developed – and may yet develop – very differently.

Philip Jenkins is Professor of History and Religion at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia – and How It Died just published in the UK by Lion.

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