epitaph of a Nestorian Christian with Mongol writing

One way the Mongols played an important role in world history was by facilitating cultural contact between east and west Asia, as well as creating the conditions by which western Europe learned about China and East Asia, which in turn contributed to Europe’s seaborne expansion into Asia and the Americas. Latin Christian writers, such as Matthew of Paris, saw them as descendants of the Ten Tribes. [Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica]

Many Mongol warriors and tribes in the era of Genghis Khan and Kublia Khan were Christians. Several tribes had been Christian for centuries. Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “ 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. [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012 ]

An important milestone the conversion of the Keriat tribe. The Keriats protected Temujin before he became Genghis Khan. Missick wrote: “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. 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.

“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 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.”

Websites and Resources: Mongols and Horsemen of the Steppe:
Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongol Empire ; The Mongols in World History ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols ; Mongol invasion of Rus (pictures) ; Encyclopædia Britannica article ; Mongol Archives ; “The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 ; The Scythians - Silk Road Foundation ; Scythians ; Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Huns ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia

Prester John and the Mongols

Many of the early European explorers to Asia and Africa were hoping to meet up with Prester John, a mythological priest-king who resided somewhere in the East and was supposed to help the Crusaders reclaim Jerusalem. Portuguese explorers went looking for him up the Senegal and Congo Rivers in Africa. Maps from the late 16th century had the kingdom of Prester John located in present-day Ethiopia. Some of the first Europeans to venture on the Silk Road traveled east towards Central Asia and China looking for him.

The legend of Prester John is believed to have originated with Saint Thomas, an Apostle of Christ said to have traveled to India in the A.D. first century. More miracles have been attributed to Saint Thomas than any other saint. Additionally, stories of Ung Khan — a Mongol ruler who preceded Genghis Khan and who may have been a Nestorian Christian — may have made their way to Europe, placing Prester John in Central Asia.

Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “ The European legend held that a powerful priest-king reigned in ‘India’, meaning the Far East. Somewhere in the Far East, they believed was the magnificent King John of India, known as Prester John of the Indies. He was immortal, fabulously wealthy and also eager to join with Europe to fight a crusade against the Muslims. The legend of Prester John had three historical sources; The Saint Thomas Christians of India, the Christian Empire of the Ethiopian Coptic Christians, and the Nestorians of Mongolia and Central Asia. When accounts of Christians in southern India, east Africa or Central Asia reached Europe they became garbled and confused and eventually became the legend of Prester John. This was due to the fact that Europe at that time had no accurate knowledge of world geography. For centuries Europeans thought that Africa, India and China were all the Indies. The original source of the legend was various Nestorian princes and kings who ruled in Central Asia. Marco Polo, Bar-Hebraeus and William of Rubruck all attempted to identify Ung Khan as Prester John. John of Montecorvino believed that his convert from the Assyrian Church, King George, was a descendant of Prester John. [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012 ]

Missionaries Sent By Rome to Meet the Mongols

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Mongol Era brought about the first instances of direct contact between Europe and Mongol-ruled China. The Mongol attacks on Hungary and Poland in 1241 had alerted the Europeans to the power of the Mongols and so frightened them that, in 1245, the Pope in Rome called an Ecumenical Council to deliberate on a response to the Mongols. Two Franciscan missionaries were eventually dispatched to the East. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“The first, who left Europe in 1245, was John of Plano Carpini, and the second was William of Rubruck, who traveled through the Mongol domains during 1253-1255. Both sought to achieve a kind of rapprochement with the Mongols, attempting to deter them from further attacks and invasions on Europe, as well as seeking to convert them to Christianity.

“The Europeans had received information that the Mongols had a leader, named "Prester John," who had converted to Christianity. They also assumed that many of the Mongols already were Christians. In fact, some Mongol women, including Genghis Khan's own mother, had converted to a heretical form of Christianity known as Nestorian Christianity. The Nestorian sect had been banned from Europe from around the 5th Century C.E., but had first spread to West Asia and then reached all the way to East Asia. But the idea that the Mongols could be converted to Christianity was an illusion at best. Nonetheless, John of Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck were greeted cordially at the Mongol courts. Though they succeeded in neither their religious nor diplomatic missions, they were able to bring back the first accurate accounts of the Mongols.”


Nestorian nun

Many Mongol Christians were Nestorians. The term “Nestorian” is used to describe both a religion and Syriac-speaking linguistic minority. The Nestorians were based primarily in what is now Iraq and southern Turkey. They had a great school in Edessa (present-day Urfa in south-central Turkey). Their early followers included Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Persians and Arabs. After they became Christianized they were called “East Syrians” to distinguish them from the “West Syrians” — Monophysites or the Jacobites. Some say the Nestorians were the first people to adopt Christianity. It is said they did so after St. Thomas visited Assyria within a few years after Christ’s death. There is no real historical evidence to back up this claim.

Nestorian Christianity is named after Nestorius, the bishop of Constantinople from A.D. 428 to 431. Of Persian origin, he became a monk and lived in a monastery in Euprepius near Antioch. His skill as a speaker helped earn him his appointment to bishop. He was an activist bishop who launched campaigns against heretics and promulgated beliefs that later became associated with Nestorian Christianity. His efforts won him the scorn of other powerful bishops who declared Nestorious a heretic.

Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “The Nestorian Ancient Assyrian Church of the East originated among and was dominated by Syriac speaking people of the region of modern Iraq and Iran.The Church of 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. [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012]

Nestorians in the Mongol Court

Nestorians were important among the Mongols in numbers and influence. According to Gibbon, “the Nestorian church was diffused from China to Jerusalem and Cyprus; and their numbers, with those of the Jacobites, were computed to surpass the Greek and Latin communions.” [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012]

Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “ Many Nestorian priests served as ambassadors for the Mongolians. Rabban Simeon, Rabban Ata met with Andrew of Longjumeau, a European envoy. This monk sent Pope Innocent IV a letter requesting him to be tolerant towards Nestorian Christians and urging him to make peace with Fredrick II. This letter is preserved in the Vatican archives. The Nestorian general Elijigidei sent two Nestorian priests to King Louis IX on 14 December 1248. The priests were Dawoud and Markos. Elijiadei wished Louis success in his war against the Muslims and requested he "avoid discriminating between Latin and non-Latin Christians, since under Mongol rule all sects were held to be equal."

Nestorian Mongol Queens

Yuan Empress Chabi

Several Nestorian women obtained high status in the Mongol empire. Samuel Hugh Moffet wrote in “A History of Christianity in Asia”: “Genghis’ daughter in law, the Nestorian princess, ...Sorkaktanibeki...was one of three Christian sisters each of whom played a noteworthy part in the history of the Mongol empire. The eldest Ibaka-beki, became the wife of Genghis Khan,; the second Bektutmish, was the senior wife of Genghis oldest son, Jochi. But Sorkaktani, who married the fourth son, Toliu, was destined for yet greater things, she became the Christian mother of three imperial sons, an emperor (Great Khan) of the Mongols [who was Kublia Khan], and emperor of China, and an emperor (il-khan) of Persia.” [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012 ]

James Montgomery wrote: “Halagu and his brothers the two khans Mangu and Kublai, and another Arikbuga, had a Christian mother [Sorkaktani], a woman of great force and character. Huluga had a Christian wife, Dakuz Kathon..., She played an important part in favoring the Christians against the Muslims, and through her influence Hulagu had a Christian church attached to his camp... She died the same year as her husband, and [Bar Hebreaus] records, “The grief of the whole Christian world over the departure of these two great lights and champions of the Christian religion.”...These Christian queens played their part in religious politics...Abaga’s son. King Arghun (1258-1291), had a Christian wife, to whom Pope Nicholas IV addressed a formal letter.”

Volkmar Gantzhorn described Sorkaktani as “a Christian whose vast influence has not been appreciated to this day... She is to be credited in particular with the spread of the Nestorian faith in Asia on the one hand, and also with the Khan’s anti-Moslem sentiments... Her influence as ‘first lady’ on the other women and also on the children only comes out indirectly in the source material. Following her death in 1265, her niece succeeded in continuing her aunt’s mission work until the death of Kublai Khan in 1294. After this period important Mongol leaders began converting to Islam.”

Mongol Nestorians and Christian Europe

Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “Rumors of an impending Mongol invasion of Europe spread soon after the Mongols devastated Russia and Hungary. Matthew Paris recorded the alarm and stories of the Mongolians in his histories. The Pope together with secular leaders became alarmed and sent ambassadors and missionaries to the Mongolians to find out how serious the threat to Christendom was. Many Franciscan monks and friars were sent and traveled across Asia to the heart of the Mongolian Empire. The crusader King Louis IX, who later canonized as Saint Louis, sent Father William of Rubruck and other priests to visit Mongke Khan. [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012 ]

“Marco Polo also traveled throughout the Mongolian Empire during this era. Many of these travelers recorded their journeys and frequently referred to the Nestorians they encountered. Nestorian monks also traveled as envoys for the Mongols to Europe. Of the Nestorian monks only the travel diary of Rabban (Syriac for Monk) Bar Sauma has been preserved. Through these primary sources we can get a good picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the Nestorian church in the Mongolian Empire.Soon after Friar Odoric of Pordenone was ordained, he went out to the Far East as a world traveler and perhaps a missionary as well. He started sometime between 1316 and 1318, returned to Europe before the spring of 1330, and died in 1331. He is reputed to have baptized more than 20,000 persons. His story is recounted in “The Eastern Parts of the World Described by Friar Odoric the Bohemian. “He refers to the Nestorians as "vile and pestilent heretics" and as "schismatics and heretics". He mentions seeing "houses of the Nestorians", several Nestorian churches and Nestorians in the service of the Khan.29 He also visited the Nestorian Saint Thomas Christians in India.

Contacts Between Christian Europe and the Mongols

Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “Father William of Rubruck was sent by King Louis IX of France to the court of the Great Khan Mongke in 1253-1255...William of Rubruck wrote a very detailed account of his experiences for King Louis. Like Marco Polo’s, his book is filled with references to the Nestorians... Father William’s attitude towards the Nestorians matches that of other Catholics of the time. However, when the Great Khan called for a debate of all religions, Father William noted that the Nestorians who participated in the debate were well versed in the Scripture. He records that the Nestorians had the last word in the debate and that they silenced the Buddhist, the Muslims and the Shamans. He was disappointed that after the debate no one was converted to Christianity and that afterward “the priests of [the diverse] persuasions sat down afterward for a heavy drinking session that lasted the rest of the day.” [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012 ]

Church of the East in the Middle Ages

On Father William’s opinion of the Nestorians, Tim Severin wrote in: “In Search of Ghenghis Khan”, “Rubruck was very disappointed that the representatives of Christianity were so poorly prepared. The Nestorian priests, he complained, did not understand their own texts, which were written in the Syriac language. Furthermore, they were usurers, polygamists, and simoniacs who demanded money for religious services, and they took to the bottle. Because their bishop arrived on such a remote location about every fifty years, Rubruck claimed the bishop had the presumptuous custom of going around and anointing all the children, even down to the smallest baby, thereby guaranteeing a future supply of priests.”

Pope Nicholas IV sent Friar Giovanni da Montecorvino to the great Khan in 1295. Later Pope Clement V appointed him archbishop of Khanbalik. The Catholic’s began to make converts in the Far East, mainly from the Nestorians. “Friar Giovanni mentions converting a Mongol king named George from the Nestorian faith; A certain king of this part of the world, by name George, belonging to the sect of the Nestorian Christians...attached himself to me and to the truth of the Catholic faith...he brought over a great part of his people with him to the true Catholic faith.”

Guyuk Khan sent a letter to Pope Innocent IV in which he responded to the scorn Europeans held towards other races and other Christians. He said; “You men of the west believe that you alone are Christians and despise others. But how can you know to whom God deigns to confer his grace? But we worshipping God have destroyed the whole earth from the East to the West in the power of God.”

In his writing Friar Giovanni da Montecorvino often complains about the opposition he faced from the Nestorians. Missick wrote: “The Nestorians understood that the Catholics were dividing and weakening the Christian community in the Far East. The Catholics were converting people from an indigenous religion to what would seem to the masses to be a foreign sect. Catholics continued to work against the Nestorians for centuries. Later Francis Xavier (1506-1552) would continue to make converts from the Nestorians. In the 1550’s the Portugese forcibly converted the Saint Thomas Nestorians to Catholicism. They arrested Syriac priests and sent them to the inquisition in Europe. When the Portuguese left the Saint Thomas Christians quickly renounced the Catholic Church and joined the Jacobite Church.”

Ghazan, the Ilkhanate Khan, and the King of Christian Armenia

Christian Fasting with the Mongols

William of Rubruck wrote: “When we came (to live) with the monk, he advised us, in all kindliness, to abstain from meat; that our servant would get meat with his servants; and that he would provide us with flour and oil or butter. This we did, though it greatly incommoded my companion on account of his weakness. Consequently, our diet consisted of millet with butter, or dough cooked in water with butter, or sour milk and unleavened bread, cooked in a fire of cattle- or horse'dung. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; /~]

“When came Quinquagesima (February 22nd), which is when all Eastern Christians abstain from meat, the great lady Cotata and her company fasted that week and she came every day to our oratory, and gave food to the priests and to the other Christians, of whom a great multitude gathered there that first week to hear the services; and she gave me and my companion each of us a tunic and trousers of grey samite, lined with silk wadding, for my companion had complained greatly of the weight of his fur gown. These I received for the sake of my companion, though I excused myself for not wearing such clothes. I gave what belonged to me to my interpreter. /~\

“After the first week of the fast, the lady ceased to come to the oratory and to give the food and mead we were accustomed to get. The monk did not allow (any food) to be brought, saying that mutton tallow was used in preparing it. He only very rarely gave us oil. Consequently, we had nothing save bread cooked on the ashes, and dough boiled in water, so that we could have soup to drink, as the only water we had was melted snow or ice, and was very bad. Then my companion began to complain greatly; so I told our necessity to that David, who was the teacher of the eldest son of the Chan, and he reported my words to the Chan, who had us given wine and flour and oil. The Nestorians will not eat fish during Lent, neither will the Hermenians (Armenians); so they gave us a skin of wine. The monk said he only ate on Sunday, when this lady sent him a meal of cooked dough with vinegar to drink. But he had beside him, under the altar, a box with almonds and raisins and prunes, and many other fruits, which he ate all through the day whenever he was alone. /~\

Baptism of the Mongol Khan Chaghatai

“We ate once a day, and then in great misery; for it was known that Mongke Khan had given us wine, so they pushed their way in on us like dogs in the most impudent manner, both the Nestorian priests, who were getting drunk all day at court, and the Mongol, and the servants of the monk. Even the monk himself, when someone came to him to whom he wished to give drink, would send to us for wine. So it was that that wine brought us more vexation than comfort, for we could not refuse to give of it without causing scandal; if we should give it, we would want it; nor would we dare ask for more from the court, when that was done." /~\

Christian Declines and Islam Rises Among the Mongols

After the death of Kublia Khan many Mongols began to convert to Islam. The Jacobite historian Bar Hebraus wrote: “Since the Mongols noted among the Christians sincerity and charity they held the Christians in the early stages of their rule in high esteem. But, later their affection turned to hatred; they could no longer approve of the Christians when many of them [the Mongols] changed over to the Muslim faith.” [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012 ]

Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: The beginning of the end was the conversion of the Il-Khan Ghazan (1271-1304) to Islam in 1295.The Assyrian church lost its Imperial favor and protection. The Mongols began to fight their wars with a new purpose, of “jihad”holy wars fought for the propagation of Islam. The most notorious Mongolian Muslim warrior is Tamerlane, or Timur the Lame, who lived from 1336-1405. He conquered a huge piece of Asia, covering modern Turkey, Central Asia and India. He used the brutal methods of Genghis Khan. His cavalry rode over children and his armies made pyramids of decapitated enemies. He closed prisoners of war in the walls of the cities he built and buried others alive.”

Timur launched brutal attacks on the Christian Armenians and Georgians. Edward P. Sokol wrote: “Christians in the path of Timur’s were also slaughtered in great numbers. In Mesopotamia, the Nestorians and Jacobites had since that time been only pallid reflections of their former selves. Nor did Timur show any greater mercy to the Hindus and Zoroastrians he encountered in India and Iran.”

Hulaga, the Ilkhanid Khan, with his Christian wife, Dokuz Kathun

King Henry III of Castille sent Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo as a diplomat to visit Timur in 1403. In “Embassy to Timorlane,” Clavijo refers to Nestorian "Chinese Christians" who requested audience with Timur. In regard to Nestorians Timur had imprisioned, he wrote: “So great therefore was the population now of all nationalities gathered together in Samarqand that of men with their families the number they said must amount to 150,000 souls, of these nations brought here together were to be seen Turks and Arabs, and Moors of diverse sects, with Christians who were Greeks and Armenians, Catholics, Jacobites and Nestorians, besides those [Indian] folk.

Missick wrote: “Timur persecuted Muslims as well as Christians and was willing to form an alliance with Europe to strengthen his empire. However, his actions and those of other Mongolians who took up the sword of Islam devastated the Nestorians. According to "The Dictionary of the Middle Ages" Tamerlane’s victories led to the destruction of Nestorian centers of learning and resulted in the eventual reduction of the Nestorians themselves to a handful of refugees in the mountains of northern Iraq and Persia.

“Figures such as Timurlane arose and propagated Islam with the sword. The Nestorians made the mistake of over relying on the preference given to them by ruling dignitaries. They concentrated on securing positions of favor, such as serving as ambassadors or positioning themselves to be honored by the Christian queens, instead of working to spread the faith and strengthen the congregations. The leadership of the church never imagined falling out of favor. This was a serious blow. Due to the loss of their place of honor and the Islamic "Jihad", the Church was cut off from its missions. The scattered Mongol churches became isolated and lost contact with the mother church in the Middle East. Then they were hit by the plague, war, and persecution. The church began to shrink and then began slowly dying away. Many converted to Islam imagining it to be a similar religion and saw conversion as a way to escape the stigma of being a Christian. As the Mongol Church died away the Church in the Middle East suffered as well, but despite the troubles has survived till today.”

Ghazan's conversion to Islam

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2019

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