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East of the Euphrates: Early Christianity in Asia by T.V. Philip

T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. Published by CSS & ISPCK, India, 1998.This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 4: Christianity in Arabia and Central Asia Christianity Among the Arabs

Christianity Among the Arabs

J. Spencer Trimingham (J. Spencer Trimingham, Christianity Among the Arabs in Pre-Islamic Times, London, Longman, 1979) points out that we should discard the notion that until the Muslim Arab expansion in the seventh century, the Arabs lived mainly in the Arabian Peninsula and that the term Arab meant camel nomads. Even before the emergence of Islam, the Arabs were found in all the regions beyond the northern border in Syria and Palestine, Mesopotamia and Babylon, and even in western Persia. They intermingled with the Aramaic speaking peoples of the region and spoke Aramaic. Some were cultivators of the land and some were nomads, while some lived in cities. When Christianity spread to Syria and Persia, there is no doubt that some of the Arabs also became Christians. Unlike the Greeks, the Aramean Christians showed no interest in metaphysics as an end in itself. They were concerned with a joyful transformation of life within the world accomplished through the possession of the Holy Spirit. For them the Lord is a spirit and salvation in Christ meant victory over the powers of the evil spirits. The deserts were the abode of such demonic spirits. Trimingham says that the conversions of many Arab leaders came about through their deliverance from the possessive spirits or the cure of maladies caused by the spirits. For example, a number of nomad Arabs in the valley of the Euphrates accepted Christianity because they were attracted to the Christian faith by the power which the Christian monks and hermits exercised over the evil spirits in the name of Jesus." (Ibid., p. 128.)

There were a number of small independent buffer States between Rome and Parthia and several of them were of Arab tribes. There were Christians among them. According to Trimingham, the ruler of Edessa, king Abgar who became a Christian, was of Arab origin. Two of the important Arab tribes which lived between Persia and the Roman empire with whom the great powers maintained relationships were Banu Ghasan on the Syrian frontier and Banu Hira on the Persian frontier. In course of time Banu Ghasan became a strong Monophysite stronghold. Not all Banu Hira were Christians but several clans among them were Nestorian Christians.

It is very difficult to say when and how exactly Christianity came to peninsular Arabia; through Arab Christians from the north or through Persian missionaries or through Christian traders from Persia or through Christian immigrants. It might have been through all these means. There were three important trade routes to Arabia connecting it to Persia, Syria and Egypt. It is important to note that it was along these trade routes that Christian centres developed. Several historians have suggested that the most important mode of entrance had been by emigration of Christians from Persia at the time of persecution, particularly in the latter part of the reign of Shapur II (310-379) who persecuted the Christians severely from AD 339 onwards. These immigrants must have mostly gone either by land through the semi independent Arab state of Hira or across the Persian Gulf to the coast of Oman, and from there southwards to Yemen. The Chronicle Seert mentions that one Abdisho built a monastery on the island of Baharin, perhaps about AD 390. However, one should consider the possibility of Christianity being present in Arabia even before the persecution of Shapur II. As we mentioned earlier, there were Arab Christians throughout the eastern part of the Roman empire as well as in Persia, and a church with a great missionary spirit might have taken the Gospel to Arabia at an earlier date, probably by the end of the second or early third century.

The main centre of Christianity in Arabia proper was in Yemen and in Najran in South Arabia. The Book of Himyarites, (A. Moberg, The Book of Himyarites, London: Oxford University Press, 1924.) fragments of a Syriac work written in AD 932, gives us some information about Christianity in South Arabia. There is a tradition which says that during the reign of Yazdegerd I (399-420) in Persia, a merchant named Hayyan, from Yemen of the Himyarites kingdom, went to Constantinople. On his return he stopped at the Arab tributary kingdom of Hirta on the Persian border east of Euphrates. While there he frequented the company of Nestorian Christians and was converted to Christian faith. On his return to Yemen, he proclaimed the Gospel in Yemen as well as in the neighbouring places. In Yemen, the Jews were numerous and they persecuted the Christians.

There is another tradition about the introduction of Christianity to this area. About AD 354, the Roman emperor Constantius, son of Constantine the Great, sent Theophilus "the Indian" to lead an embassy to southern Asia. On his way, the embassy visited the southwest corner of Arabia. There Theophilus, who was a deacon in the church preached the Gospel. As a result the Himyarite king was converted and three or four churches were built -- in Zafar, the capital of the Himyarite kingdom, in Aden, in Sana (a place half way between Nairam and Aden) and at Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. By about AD 500, Nairam was a great centre of Christians, Christians being numerous in that region. In the list of bishops consecrated by Catholicos Timothy I (780-820), there is the mention of bishops of Yemen and Sana.

Christianity in Central Asia

From its very beginning, the East Syrian church expressed its faith through missionary efforts. When the western church was busily engaged in theological controversies, the East Syrian church was busy preaching the Gospel to the Persians, the Arabs, the Indians, the Turks and the Chinese. The existence of trade routes connecting Syria with China, India and Tibet offered great opportunities. Marco Polo tells us that in his day the trade route from Baghdad to Peking was lined with Nestorian churches.

By the end of the fifth century, Persian missionaries were making converts among the Huns and the Turks in Central Asia." (Huns and Turks occupied the steppes in central Asia. They were a nomadic people. Sometimes the word ‘Turks’ is used to designate a group of people all of whom used one form or other of a Turkish family of languages. The Turks of Central Asia in the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries occupied a strategic situation. Economically they were important because of their control of the land routes from east to west. Politically they held a key position in a power struggle involving China, Turks in Mongolia, Tibetans and the Muslim Caliphate. They felt the cultural influences of all these groups.) When the Persian king Kavadh I had to flee his country to Central Asia in AD 499, he met on the way a group of Christian missionaries -- a bishop, four presbyters and four laymen -- going to Central Asia to preach to the Turks. Their mission was successful and many Turks became Christians. In addition to the work of Christian missionaries, Christian influence was making its way through the agency of Christian doctors, scribes and artisans who were readily able to find employment among the Turks and Huns. It needs to be noted that the Christians in the Sassanian kingdom were chiefly from the Syriac speaking population of the empire. In Mesopotamia most physicians, the larger portion of the mercantile and artisan classes and many members of the civil bureaucracy appeared to have been Christians. In the middle of the sixth century, a priest of the Hephthalite Huns was consecrated as bishop for his people by the Nestorian Catholicos. (R. Aubrey Vine, The Nestorian Churches: A Concise History of Nestorian Christianity in Asia from the Persian Schism to the Modern Assyrians. London. Independent Press, 1937, p.62.)

From the fourth to the seventh century, Merv was an important missionary base from which mission was undertaken to Central Asia. From Men’, the urban centres of Bukhara and Samarquand in Transoxiana were reached with the Gospel. Mingana speaks of a large number of converts beyond the Oxus river as a result of missionary work undertaken by Elliya, the metropolitan of Men’ in the seventh century. (Lawrence E. Browne, The Eclipse of Christianity in Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1933.) In due course Samarquand became an important Christian centre and a base for missionary expansion further eastwards. About the Christian community in Samarquand, Wilfred Blunt writes:

The Christian community there, like that found in many Central Asian countries, included at different times Jacobite (Syriac Christians of the Syrian Orthodox Church), Melkites (Syriac Christians of the Greek rites) and Armenians (of the Armenian Apostolic Church). But as early as the fifth century, it was an important ‘Nestorian centre’, and by the eighth century, continuing until the fifteenth century, had its own metropolitan. (Wilfred Blunt, The Golden Road to Samarkund, London, Hamish Hamilton. 1973. Quoted in John C. England, op. cit., p.137.)

Many members of this church of the East lived often in village settlements, and remains of Nestorian Christian villages north of Samarquand date from at least as early as the ninth century. They were active in trade, education, and medical occupations, and drew freely on the scholarship and traditions of the East Syrian Church with which they appear to have been in regular contact.

Like other communities also, Samarquand retained its churches, schools and monastic cells under a succession of Arab and Turkish rulers for almost 1000 years, the Samarquand Churches surviving even the Mongol invasion of 1220. In 1248, an Armenian visitor to Samarquand attended worship there and Marco Polo estimated one in every ten to be Christians at the time of his visit (c 1265). In the mid-thirteenth century also, church buildings were restored and used, new churches were built, one of circular structure, dedicated to John the Baptist, and 200 years later Lopez de Clavijo reported the presence there of many Christians. (Ibid., p. 139.)

Timothy I was one of the energetic patriarchs of the Persian church. He had sent more than eighty monks for mission work in Turkestan (a region in Central Asia extending approximately from the Caspian Sea to Lake Baikal). In the 8th century, the number of Turkish Christians had increased so much that Patriarch Timothy, in about AD 781, consecrated a metropolitan for them. It is also mentioned incidentally in one of his letters that he was about to consecrate a metropolitan for Tibet. Browne comments that these references are tantalizing because they show that there must have been great missions of which we have no record. (Lawrence Browne, op. cit., p.95.)

There were Nestorian missionary activities further to the northeast, toward Lake Baikal. During the 10th and 11th centuries, several Tartar tribes were entirely or to a great extent Christian, notably the Keraits, Uighurs, Naimans and Merkits.

Keraits were a Turko-Mongolian tribe. The Kerait capital at this time was Karakoram, where Marco Polo found a church. They were a cluster of hunting tribes east and south of Lake Baikal. The principal tribes evangelized there by the Nestorians were the Naiman, the Merkit and the Kerait. It seems that the Gospel was taken to those tribes by Christian merchants. An account of the conversion of the Keraits is given by the thirteenth century Jacobite historian Gregory Bar Hebraeus. According to Hebraeus, at the beginning of the eleventh century, a king of the Keraits lost his way while hunting in the high mountains. When he had abandoned all hope, a saint appeared in a vision and said, "If you will believe in Christ I will lead you lest you perish." He returned home safely. He remembered the vision when he met some Christian merchants. He inquired of them of their faith. At their suggestion he sent a message to the Metropolitan of Merv for priests and deacons to baptize him and his tribe. As a result of the mission that followed, the Kerait prince and two hundred thousand of his people accepted baptism. (R. Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes, New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 1970, p. 191. See also Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia pp. 400-401.)

Mosheim writes, "It is placed beyond controversy that the kings of the people called Carth, living on the borders of Cathai, whom some denominate tribe of the Turks, and others of Tartars, constituting a considerable portion of the Mongols, did profess Christianity from this time [tenth century] onward, and that no inconsiderable part of Tartary or Asiatic Scythia lived under bishops sent among them by the Pontiff of the Nestorians. (Mosheim, Ecclesiastical History; Vol. 11, p. 123. He places the conversion of the Keraits at the end of the tenth century.)

The historical basis of the Pester John legend may well have been connected with a Christian ruler of the Keraits. "The history of this race of Christian kings, afterward so celebrated in Europe under the name of Pester John, is properly referable to the two succeeding centuries." (Asahel Grant, op. cit., p. 376.)

The Keraits organized themselves into a confederation and thus influenced the political organization among the later Mongols. It was the Keraits who patronized and helped the growth of Temujin who later became the Chengis Khan (1162-1227) of the Mongols. The Keraits also had religious influence over the Mongols through royal marriage. Chengis Khan’s eldest daughter-in-law was a Nestorian Kerait princess called Sorkaktani -beki (or Sorghaghtani). She became the Christian mother of three imperial sons, an emperor (Great Khan) of the Mongols, an emperor of China and an emperor (ilkhan) of Persia. To the south of the Keraits were the Uighurs and there were Christians among them. The Uighur script had been created for them by the Syrian Nestorians. It was this script which was passed on to Mongols who still had no written language.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Nestorian missionaries were very active in Central Asia.

In the Tartary and the adjacent regions, the activity of the Nestorians continued daily to gain over more people to the side of Christianity; and such is the mass testimony at the present day, that we cannot doubt but that bishops of the highest order, or metropolitans, with many inferior bishops subject to them, were established at that period in the provinces of Cashgar. Naucheta, Turkistan, Genda, Tangut and others, whence it will be manifested that there were a vast multitude of Christians in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in those countries, which are now devoted to Mohammadanism or the worship of imaginary gods. That all these Christians followed the Nestorian creed, and were subject to the superior pontiff of the Nestorians residing in Chaldea, is so certain as to be beyond controversy. (Mosheim, op.cit., p. 161.)

The rise of Mongols into an Asian power in the thirteenth century affected the whole history of Asia in various ways. Chengis Khan, founder of the Mongol empire was born in Mongolia, probably in AD 1167. In his war against his enemies, he was greatly helped at first by Toghril, chief of the Nestorian Christian Kerait tribe. Chengis was a man of extraordinary stamina and resourcefulness. lie eliminated his rivals one by one and brought all the Mongol tribes under his control, including Naimans, Merkit and the Keraits. He was elected Khan of all Mongols. That was the starting point of a series of conquests which led to the creation of the greatest empire the world has ever known. The conquest of the whole of China was not achieved during his life time, but a large part of northern China was under his control. The Mongol presence in China continued under his successors. Chengis’ grandson, Kublai Khan (1259-1294) subdued the whole of China in AD 1279 and the Mongol rule over China lasted until AD 1386. Under the two successors of Chengis Khan, the seat of Mongol power remained in Karakoram. It was only under the reign of Kublai Khan that he moved his winter capital to Peking.

The conquest of China brought the Mongols to the threshold of South East Asia. The Mongols made several campaigns in South East Asia and the old empires of Burma and Vietnam came under their control. It was the destruction by the Mongols of the power of the kingdom of Mien (Burma) in the eleventh century that secured the independence of Thailand and saw the establishment of the first independent Thai kingdom centered in Sukhodya.

About the Mongol empire Denis Sinor points out that there was a sudden widening of the geographical horizon of the peoples within the boundaries of the Mongol sphere of influence. It was an epoch when, "all the territory within the four seas had become the domain of a single family; civilization had spread throughout, and all barriers were removed. Fraternity among the races had reached a new zenith. (Denis Sinor, Inner Asia, Indiana University Publication, 1969, p. l63.)

Though Christianity made great success in Central Asia, it did not mean Christianity was the predominant religion there. Except among certain tribes such as Keraits, Naimans, Merkits and Uighers (partially Christian), Christianity was only a small minority among the Central Asian people. From the beginning of the Christian era, Buddhism from India was widespread among the Turks. The famous Indian monk Jnana Gupta spent ten years (575-585) in the court of one of the Turkish Khans, T’o-Po, and organized a centre for translation and cataloging of Buddhist books. In the 16th century, it was Lamaism, the Tibetan Buddhism, which spread rapidly in central Asia.

Islam which originated in Arabia in the seventh century was a great missionary religion. Islam slowly began to penetrate into central Asia and by the 13th century, Islam became the predominant faith among the Turks in central Asia. Yet numerous bodies of the Nestorian Christians were still scattered over all Central Asia.

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