«In the late 1100’s fierce horse mounted warriors thundered out of the barren wastelands of Central Asia into history and created the largest empire ...»
The Assyrian Church in the Mongolian Empire
as Observed by World Travelers
in the Late 13th and Early 14th Centuries
Stephen Andrew Missick
In the late 1100’s fierce horse mounted warriors thundered out of the barren
wastelands of Central Asia into history and created the largest empire on land the
world has ever known, the mighty Mongol Empire. The fear and dread of the
armies of Genghis Khan shook the world. Stories of carnage and shocking
brutality committed by the Mongol hordes were spread across Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Any army that opposed the Mongols was speedily crushed.
Many of the tribes and warriors of the Mongols were professing Christians.
Several tribes had been Christian for centuries. The Mongol Christians belonged to the Assyrian Church of the East, which is also known as the Nestorian Church and the East Syrian Church. The Church of the East was concentrated in the Middle East, especially in the region of modern Iraq and Iran. Early in the Christian era, Assyrian missionaries spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout India, China, and Mongolia.
The Rise of Assyrian Church in the Far East Due to the missionary endeavors of the Assyrian Christians of the Middle East, Christianity was established in China over 300 years before Russia embraced Christianity and at a time when most of northern Europe was still pagan. Evidence of this was uncovered in the 1600’s when Jesuit missionaries discovered in Xian, China an inscribed column that was erected in the year 781.
It states in Chinese and Syriac that a Christian sage it calls “Al-lo-pan” arrived in 625 AD preaching about Jesus and his “Luminous Doctrine”. It contains a brief statement of the fundamentals of Christianity. According to the monument the emperor received Al-lo-pan, approved of his doctrine and commanded it to be spread throughout the T’ang Empire. Al-lo-pan translated the Bible into Chinese for the Imperial library and established Churches and monasteries with Imperial approval.1 Al-lo-pan [also known as Alopen] belonged to the Nestorian Ancient Assyrian Church of the East. This church originated among and was dominated by Syriac speaking people of the region of modern Iraq and Iran. The Church of James Legge, The Nestorian Monument of Hsi-an Fu in Shen-Hsi China relating to the Diffusion of Christianity in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries (London: Truber & Co.
86 Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies the East traces it origins to the evangelistic ministry of the apostle Saint Thomas and Mar Mari and Mar Addai [Thaddeus], who were among Christ’s seventy disciples.2 In practice, the Assyrian Church has much in common with the Eastern Rite and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The term ‘Nestorian’ refers to their Christological doctrine that stressesthe reality of the human nature of Jesus and that distinguishes it from his divinity. The word ‘Nestorian’ comes from Nestorius (c.381-451), the Patriarch of Constantinople who enunciated these doctrines.3 Nestorius held that Christ’s human and divine natures were distinct.
This caused his opponents to falsely accuse him of believing Christ had two personalities. The controversy arose over Nestorius’s opposition to the expression ‘Mary the Mother of God’. The word in Greek is Theotokos, meaning ‘Birthgiver to God’. Nestorius felt this was inappropriate because Mary is the mother of Christ’s human nature and physical body but not his divinity.
Nestorius taught that Mary should be called ‘mother of Christ’ or ‘mother of God, mother of Christ’ but never just ‘Mother of God’. The Egyptian Patriarch Cyril accused Nestorius of heresy. Nestorius was condemned as a heretic and banished to a monastery near Antioch. From there he was exiled to the Great Oasis in the Sahara Desert. After the storm of controversy abated, the Byzantine Emperor Marcion decided to pardon and release him, but the news arrived as Nestorius was laying in his deathbed. Many Christians who spoke Syriac were attracted to the teaching of Nestorius and those of his teachers, Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia. The Church of the East adopted Diodore, Theodore, and Nestorius as the authorities of church doctrine. Theodore of Mopsuestia is now recognized as one of the greatest Bible scholars in church history. Today many Assyrian Christians object to being referred to as Nestorians. The reason, they argue, is that Nestorius did not found the Church of the East and that the term ‘Nestorian’ sometimes refers to a heresy that was never held by Nestorius nor by the Church of the East, that being the belief that Christ’s human and divine natures were two separate persons within Christ.
However, until recently, Assyrians referred to themselves as Nestorians. Also not all members of the Nestorian Church were Assyrians; in fact, many were Indian, Mongol, and Chinese and only used Syriac as a liturgical language.
Being accused of heresy by the west was beneficial to the Nestorian Church.
Before Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire many Christians sought Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989), 44-47. And William Barnstone The Other Bible (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 464-479.
Nestorius, The Bazaar of Heraclides, Frank N. Magill Masterpieces of Christian Literature in Summary Form (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 162-165.
The Assyrian Church in the Mongolian Empire 87 refuge in the Persian Parthian Empire, Rome’s traditional enemy. When Constantine ended the persecution of Christians and claimed to be a Christian himself, Persia began to suspect the loyalty of its Christian subjects. When the Assyrian Christians demonstrated that the church in the west had condemned them as heretics, the Persians once again showed the East Syrian Church tolerance. With Persia as its base, the East Syrian Church began to spread out across the Silk Road and throughout all of the Far East.
The West Syrian Church is the other branch of the Syriac speaking Church.
This church is also known as the Jacobites and the Syrian Orthodox. A Jacobite is a member of the Syriac Church tradition that rejected the teachings of Nestorius, they believe that Christ’s human nature was insignificant and was absorbed into and overwhelmed by his divinity. They are called Monophysites.
The term Jacobite comes from Jacob Baradaeus [died 578]. The East Syrian Church was dominant in the East, but wherever Nestorians went the Jacobites often followed. The Jacobite church has survived as the Syrian Orthodox Church.
Al-lo-pan was a native of modern Iraq. Assyrian Christians, like Al-lo-pan, speak Syriac, a form of Aramaic, which is one of the original languages the Holy Bible was written in and was the language Jesus used in teaching and in daily discourse. Both the East and West Syrian churches use Syriac. Syriac is a Semitic language and is closely related to Hebrew, Arabic, and certain Ethiopian languages. Aramaic is important as a language of ancient civilizations and of religion. Aramaic was the language of the early church and first century Judaism.
Several of the Early Church Fathers, such as Ephraim and Tatian, wrote extensively in Syriac. In Central Asia and the Far East Syriac was the language of Assyrian merchants and the language of worship for Nestorian Christians. It was also used in diplomacy and on monuments, such as the Xian monument, which is written in Chinese and Syriac, and on tombstones and other memorials.
Messages from Europe to the rulers of Mongolia were often written in Syriac.
For example, William of Rubruck, a Franciscan priest, traveled across Asia with correspondence from European sovereigns to Mongol overlords which were written in Syriac.4 Trade along the Silk Road led to the intermixing of different cultures and religious beliefs. Many different religions coexisted along the Silk Road. Among these were Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, Taoism and the Shamanism of the steep nomads.
Al-lo-pan had traveled the Silk Road to China preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ along the way. For several centuries brave Assyrian Christians transversed Nigel Cameron, Barbarians and Mandarins: Thirteen Centuries of Western Travelers in China (New York & Tokyo: Walker/Hill, 1970), 42.
88 Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies the entire breadth of the Silk Road spreading the message of hope and salvation in Jesus Christ. Many missionaries traveled the entire length of the Silk Road taking the Good News by foot to China and Mongolia.5 Around the year 1,000 AD the Mongol tribe of the Keriats became Christian. The tribe numbered over 200,000 men. The story of their conversion was recorded by the Jacobite Bar-Hebraeus and by the ecclesiastical chronicler of the Assyrian Church and can be found in The Eclipse of Christianity in Asia by Laurence E. Brown.6 The chieftain of the Keriats became lost in the wilderness during a hunt and despaired for his life. Suddenly an apparition appeared before him. The supernatural being identified himself as Saint Sergius and promised to show him the way home if he would place his faith in Jesus.
Miraculously the chieftain found himself back in his camp. Immediately he sent for some Assyrian merchants he knew of and when they arrived he submitted to Christ and requested religious instruction. This incident shows that Assyrian merchants and traders participated in spreading Christianity as they bought and sold along the Silk Road.
Christianity thrived in China for several centuries. Many relics and artifacts of Christian origin have been found in the Far East mostly along the Silk Road and in the heartland of the Mongolian Empire. Crosses, Christian tombstones and Christian books and tracts in Chinese and Syriac have been found. Some of these antiquities discovered have been dated from the 600’s to the 800’s AD.
The remains of churches and even of some Christian paintings have also been discovered.7 Marco Polo mentions visiting hundreds of churches during his travels and seeing thousands of Christians during his travels throughout the Mongol Empire from 1271 to 1295. The Assyrian Church reached its height during the Mongol Empire and was on the verge of becoming the dominant religion of the Empire but unfortunately declined in power due to opposition from Muslims and Roman Catholics and internal weaknesses, notably nominalism. The decline began as certain warlords, including the infamous Information on the Silk Road was gleaned from: Aghaghia Rahimzadeh, The Silk Trade http://sorrel.humbolt.edu/~geog309;ideas/aghsilk.html and Jewels of the Silk Road http://pheonix.groucher.edu/`mnash and The Silk Road Parts I & II Central Park Media and UNESCO available from PBS Home Video. Produced by the UN with the Peoples Republic of China.
Laurence E. Browne, The Eclipse of Christianity in Asia: From the Time of Mohammed until the Fourteenth Century (New York: Howard Fertig, 1967), 101-103.
Nestorian paintings are featured in the following book. Mario Bussagli, Treasures of Asia:Central Asian Painting (New York: Skira, Rizzoli, 1979).
The Assyrian Church in the Mongolian Empire 89 Timerlane, began converting to Islam. Timerlane declared a Jihad, Islamic holy War, against the Christians of the Far East and virtually destroyed Christianity in Central Asia.
Before the year 600, the Assyrians had sent missionaries and established Christian communities throughout the Far East. Starting from what is now northern Iraq they spread into Iran then across Central Asia and finally into China. They also sent missionaries to Ethiopia and India.8 According to Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, In the sixth century, according to the report of a Nestorian traveler [Comas Indicopleustes of Alexandria] 9 Christianity was successfully preached to the Bacterians, the Huns, the Persians, the Indians, the Persarmenians, the Medes, the Elamites: the barbaric churches from the Gulf of Persia to the Caspian Sea were almost infinite; and their recent faith was conspicuous in the number and sanctity of their monks and martyrs. The pepper coast of Malabar and the isles of the ocean, Socotra and Ceylon, were peopled with an increasing multitude of Christians and the bishops and clergy for those sequestered regions derived their ordination from the catholic [the Catholicos, the Assyrian Patriarch] of Babylon.10 By the year 800 Christianity was widespread in the Far East and a majority of the Mongolian tribes of the Naiman, the Keriat, the Ongut and a large number of the Uighur and the Kara Khitai (from which the word ‘Cathay’ was coined) were Assyrian Christian.11 It was to keep these and other Mongolian tribes from invading their territory that motivated the Chinese to build the Great Wall of China.
The Mongolians fought among themselves and were not much of a threat to the outside world until they were united by a great leader who forged them into Chris Prouty and Eugene Rosenfils, Historical Dictionary of Ethiopian and Eritrea 2nd Edition (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press), 295 Cosmas Indicopleustes, TheFourth Book of the Christian Topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/awiesner/cosmas.html.
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. iv (New York: Peter Fenelen Collier, 1899), 564-565.
Volkmar Gantzhorn, The Christian Oriental Carpet (Tubijan, Germany: EberhardKarl-Universitat, 1991), 152.
90 Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies an unbeatable military force. After being protected by the Keriats, Temujin (1167-1227), overcame them and renamed himself Genghis Khan, meaning “Universal (or 'Oceanic') Ruler” in 1206. Genghis Khan was one of the most influential men in history during the second millennium of the Christian era. His armies created the largest land empire in history and his expansion led to the Black Plague being spread in Europe and the European discovery of the Far East.