Hindu Brahmin from 9th century cave at Bezeklik in western China

Beginning in the A.D. 2nd century the Silk Road became a pathway for the flow of Buddhism from India to China and back again. In the 8th century it was the route in which Islam was introduced to Central Asia and western China from the Middle East. Zoroastrianism, Manichaesm, Nestroain Christianity, Judaism, shamanism, Confucianism and Taoism were also spread on the Silk Road.

According to UNESCO: “Religion and a quest for knowledge were further inspirations to travel along these routes. Buddhist monks from China made pilgrimages to India to bring back sacred texts, and their travel diaries are an extraordinary source of information. The diary of Xuan Zang (whose 25-year journal lasted from 629 to 654 AD) not only has an enormous historical value, but also inspired a comic novel in the sixteenth century, the 'Pilgrimage to the West', which has become one of the great Chinese classics. During the Middle Ages, European monks undertook diplomatic and religious missions to the east, notably Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, sent by Pope Innocent IV on a mission to the Mongols from 1245 to 1247, and William of Rubruck, a Flemish Franciscan monk sent by King Louis IX of France again to the Mongol hordes from 1253 to 1255. Perhaps the most famous was the Venetian explorer, Marco Polo, whose travels lasted for more than 20 years between 1271 and 1292, and whose account of his experiences became extremely popular in Europe after his death. [Source: UNESCO ~]

“The routes were also fundamental in the dissemination of religions throughout Eurasia. Buddhism is one example of a religion that travelled the Silk Roads, with Buddhist art and shrines being found as far apart as Bamiyan in Afghanistan, Mount Wutai in China, and Borobudur in Indonesia. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Manicheism spread in the same way, as travellers absorbed the cultures they encountered and then carried them back to their homelands with them. Thus, for example, Hinduism and subsequently Islam were introduced into Indonesia and Malaysia by Silk Road merchants travelling the maritime trade routes from India and Arabia.” ~

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle ; Silk Road Foundation; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas ; Old World Trade Routes; Books and Sources on the Silk Road and Religion: A) Foltz, Richard C., Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), p. 90. B) Lewis, Bernad (ed.). Islam, from the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople, vol. II, Religion and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 224. C) Xinru Liu. Silk and Religion: An Exploration of Material Life and the Thought of People, AD 600-1200 (Delhi: Oxford India Paperbacks, 1998), p. 133. D) Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies (Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 98. E) "Nestorian Church, China" in A Dictionary of Asian Christianity, ed. Scott W. Sunquist, (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2001). F) Foster, John, The Church of the T'ang Dynasty (London: Macmillan, 1939); G) Victor Mair, "Old Sinitic *Myag, Old Persian Magus, and English 'Magician,'" Early China 15 (1990), pp. 27-47.

Zoroastrianism and the Silk Road

Zoroastrian Tomb
Lance Jenott of the University of Washington wrote: “Zoroastrianism, the dominant pre-Islamic religious tradition of the Iranian peoples, was founded by the prophetic reformer Zoroaster in the 6th or 7th century B.C. (if not earlier). The religion survived into the 20th century in isolated areas of Iran, and is also practiced in parts of India (particularly Bombay) by descendants of Iranian immigrants known as Parsis. For this reason, the religion as practiced in India is alternatively known as Parsiism. [Source: Lance Jenott, University of Washington, *]

“Zoroaster (also known as Zarathushtra) was a priest who sought to reform aspects of the pre-Islamic pantheistic religion practiced in his community. Some of the practices he disapproved of included the sacrifice of animals (particularly bulls), as well as the ritualized consumption of the intoxicating beverage haoma. At the age of 30, Zoroaster experienced a vision in which the supremacy of the god of wisdom, Ahura Mazda, was revealed to him. The rest of the pantheon of deities was reduced to the status of demons and lesser spiritual creatures, with Angra Mainyu, or Ahriman, posited as the incarnation of evil standing in contrast to the goodness and light of Ahura Mazda. This dualism is often regarded as having been influential in the formulation of Jewish theology, and through Judaism, that of Christianity. *\

“Zoroastrianism spread throughout Iranian lands, into Central Asia along trade routes, and further into East Asia. The Seleucids, Parthians, and Sassanians all practiced the faith. But as Richard C. Foltz has noted, Zoroaster's doctrine was not codified until sometime in the third century CE, under the Sassanians.1 Our historical understanding of the tradition is thus more accurately described as Sassanian Zoroastrianism, and we should assume that the religion had evolved, perhaps very significantly, in the millennium since the time of its founder. *\

“Small temples dating to the pre-Islamic era have been found throughout Iran, and surviving records describe the installation of sculpture in Zoroastrian places of worship. None of these icons have survived, but since some ancient Iranian coins often include Greek-inspired imagery (particularly Parthian and Seleucid examples), it is conceivable that Zoroastrian temple sculpture of these periods may also have reflected a Hellenistic influence, perhaps similar to that found in Kushan-era Gandhara. The only Zoroastrian art still extant is found in coins, particularly those minted by Sassanian rulers. These coins regularly depict a fire altar flanked by two attendants, who may represent elite members of the Zoroastrian priesthood known as magi. *\

“Historical commentary recorded by Hui-li and other Buddhist contemporaries of the seventh century often misinterpreted the religion (perhaps willfully) as focused upon the worship of fire. While fire is an important element in Zoroastrianism, it is not considered a deity in its own right. Rather, along with light, fire serves as an agent of purification and a symbol of the supreme deity. Three specific fires are named by Zoroastrian tradition and came to carry special cultic significance; these were the flames of Farnbag, Gushnasp, and Burzen-Mihr. The Farnbag fire was associated with the priesthood, and was first kept in Khwarezm. According to tradition it was transported a number of times since the sixth century B.C., until it was moved to a permanent seat in the sanctuary of Kariyan in Fars (this location has not been identified). The Gushnasp fire was originally kept in Media as the fire of the magi, but in later centuries it became a symbol of monarchy. The fire altar on royal Sassanian coins included in this exhibit may depict the Gushnasp flame. The last fire, the Burzen-Mihr, was associated with the peasantry, and was ranked lower than the others. Localized "branch" fires of these main three were maintained in temples, royal palaces and in villages.” *\

“It is possible that Zoroastrianism was carried by Iranian traders into East China as early as the sixth century B.C., and there may even be reason to believe that magi served in the court of the Western Zhou dynasty prior to the eighth century B.C.3 Some of the earliest firm evidence of Zoroastrian presence in China is found in the so-called "Ancient Letters," dated to around 313 CE and found near Lou-lan, demonstrate the presence of Sogdian Zoroastrianism in Xinjiang by the early fourth century.” *\

Buddhism and the Silk Road

image of Buddha's departure in western China

Heather Colburn Clydesdale wrote: “Trade routes were also traversed by Buddhist pilgrims. The most famous was the Chinese monk Xuanzang (602–664), who, in defiance of the emperor Taizong's prohibition against travel beyond China, departed Chang'an in 629 and walked to India. He returned triumphantly more than sixteen years later, accompanied by a caravan laden with sutras, statues, and relics, which he bestowed to the emperor. He chronicled his journey, describing the climates, peoples, and customs he encountered, in his book Record of the Western Regions. \^/ [Source: Heather Colburn Clydesdale, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

There was great contact and interest in India as a hub for Buddhist knowledge. Xuanzang managed to bring back valuable Sanskrit texts to be translated into Chinese. There was also a Turkic–Chinese dictionary available for serious scholars and students, while Turkic folksongs gave inspiration to some Chinese poetry. [Source: Wikipedia]

Xuanzang wasn’t the first Chinese monk to travel on the Silk Road, The Chinese monk Faxian (Fa-hsien) left China around A.D. 399 to study Buddhism and locate sutras and relics in India. He traveled from Xian to the west overland on the southern Silk Road into Central Asia and described monasteries, monks and pagodas. He crossed over Himalayan passes into India and ventured as far south as Sri Lanka before sailing back to China on a route that took him through present-day Indonesia. His entire journey took 15 years.

Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “The spread of Buddhist doctrines from India to China beginning sometime in the first century CE triggered a profusion of cross-cultural exchanges that had a profound impact on Asian and world history. The travels of Buddhist monks and pilgrims and the simultaneous circulation of religious texts and relics not only stimulated interactions between the Indian kingdoms and various regions of China, but also influenced people living in Central and Southeast Asia. Indeed, the transmission of Buddhist doctrines from India to China was a complex process that involved multiple societies and a diverse group of people, including missionaries, itinerant traders, artisans, and medical professionals. [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006 ]

Yijing’s Account Shows Lots of Chinese Buddhist Monks Traveled to India

Christianity in China

Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “ 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. [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012 ]

Nestorian stele in China

“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 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. 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 stresses the 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. Nestorius held that Christ’s human and divine natures were distinct.

“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.

“Seventeenth century Jesuits in China may have seen a missionary use for the Xi’an Stele as evangelical groups both inside and outside China still do so today but their translation work of the inscription also triggered a renewed search for the early Christians in China, long after the search for Prester John had been abandoned.”

Nestorian Christianity and the Silk Road

Lance Jenott of the University of Washington wrote: “Christianity in the first century CE was dissimnating both to the West and to the East...through connections with already existing Jewish communities dispersed in the lands outside of Israel. After continual growth, the population of Christians east of Palestine was further augmented by Greek and Syriac speaking Christians who were relocated to the East as a result of the Persians' successful invasion of eastern Roman territory in the mid-third century. As the Church in the West became more interwoven with imperial politics after Constantine's conversion, the eastern churches, many of which were established beyond Roman borders, became more autonomous from the West. In 424, a synod of eastern Bishops declared their sees "administratively" independent from the Western Church. [Source: Lance Jenott, University of Washington, *]

“The "Nestorian" identification of the eastern churches sprouted from the theological and political disputes of the fourth and fifth centuries. One of these disputes was over proper terminology for Mary, the mother of Jesus, which was, in turn, the result of a dispute over the nature of Jesus himself. Within the early church philosophical schools of interpretation were often associated with geographic centers. Antioch in Syria and the churches in the East tended to view Jesus as having two distinct natures, one fully divine and the other fully human, culminating in the person of Jesus (thus the term diophysitism from the Greek words for "two" and "nature"). Thus, they argued, Mary should be spoken of as "the bearer of Christ." An opposing interpretation was offered by the school of Christians associated with Alexandria in Egypt, who insisted that Christ was of one nature only: fully divine (monophysitism), and thus Mary should be termed "the mother of God."

Nestorian Palm Sunday ritual in 8th century in western China

“When a Syrian bishop named Nestorius was appointed to the prestigious and influential position of Patriarch of Constantinople in 428, he continued to propagate his natural Antiochan (diophysite) position. Fierce resistance came, however, from Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, who through political influence with the Emperor's sister was able to have Nestorius removed from office and have the diophysite position proclaimed a heresy at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The eastern churches refused to attend the council. Rejecting the authority of Cyril and the monophysite position, they distanced themselves still further from the Western Church. They proceeded to establish a new Episcopal seat in the Sassanian Persian capital at Chestiphon and thus became further associated with the Persian world of the East while the Western Church remained associated with Byzantium. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451 the Western Church proposed a sort of compromise, but the measure was not enough to reunite the divisions. A synod of eastern bishops in 486 declared the Eastern Church's Nestorian identity and upheld their diophysite position. *\

“For Christians living in Persia, persecutions were intermittent and usually resulted from a particular ruler's ties with the native Zoroastrian priests who often strove to elevate their native faith over such non-traditional religions as Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Manichaeism. Most of the time Nestorians lived peacefully under rulers who favored religious diversity within their realm. At times, Nestorians even served in the Persian military against the Christian Byzantine West. *\

“From Persia, the Nestorian church continued to grow eastward along the Silk Roads. Situated on the crossroads of Asia, the region of Sogdiana (modern day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) was a chief center of commercial and cultural exchange bringing together merchants from nearly all regions of Asia. Through their long existent commercial ties with the Persian merchants, Sogdians began to convert to Nestorian Christianity and played a key role in its transmission east. Often multilingual, Sogdian merchants served as capable translators of Nestorian texts. In the Tarim Basin — a well known hot-spot of diverse religious beliefs — a cache of Nestorian texts translated from Syriac (the official language of the Nestorian church) into Sogdian was discovered in the early twentieth century. Although translations, some of these texts were previously unknown. By 650 an archbishopric existed in Samarkand and even further east in Kashgar. Sogdian merchants, along side Syrian missionaries, also contributed to the conversion of nomadic Turkish tribes living in the steppe of Central Asia. The Nestorian faith by the Mongol period (13th century), intermixed with indigenous religious practice, is thought to have been quite prosperous among the nomads. *\

“The success of the Nestorians in China is mixed. A monument erected in 781 in the Tang capital Chang'an (Xian) relates the story of Syrian and Persian missionaries bringing the faith to China in the seventh century. Much of the early Tang rulers, themselves of a semi-foreign origin, promoted religious diversity in China to help legitimize their rule and therefore welcomed the Nestorians along side other non-Chinese religions such as Buddhism. After being granted an audience with the Tang Emperor Tai Zong (r.626-649), the Syrian missionary Alopen was allowed to establish a monastery in Chang'an and was asked to translate the Christian scriptures into Chinese. Later persecutions of non-Chinese faiths, however, led to the virtual disappearance of Nestorians in China by the tenth century. For a brief time under the Mongols (in the 13th and 14th centuries) the Nestorian church had a resurgence in China, but was again suppressed under the Ming Dynasty, which ascended in 1368.” *\

Manichaeism and the Silk Road

Manichaeans in western China

Lance Jenott of the University of Washington wrote: “Blossoming out of the religious diversity which so strongly characterizes both late antiquity and the Silk Roads of Eurasia, the teaching of Mani spread as far west as North Africa and as far east as the China Sea, intentionally utilizing and incorporating imagery, language and symbolism of whatever religions it encountered so as to better express itself to its respective audience. [Source: Lance Jenott, University of Washington, *]

“The prophet Mani was born in 216 CE in Persian Babylonia (modern day Iraq), into an ascetic community of Judaized Christians (Christians who continued strict observance of traditional Jewish praxis). At the age of twelve he had a vision, followed by a second one at age twenty-four which called him to be the culminating prophet in a chain of teachers including Zoroaster, Buddha, and Jesus. Mani left home after his second vision and began to proselytize in other regions of Persia before traveling to northern India in the early 240s. In India he became more acquainted with Buddhism and converted a Buddhist king near the Indus River Valley. Returning home shortly after the coronation of the Sassanian king Shapur I (r. 241-272), Mani was granted the right to teach his faith and managed to convert at least two princes in the royal house. Missionaries were sent as far east as the Kushan kingdom of Central Asia, and west to Alexandria, a cultural hub of the Mediterranean. Mani's fate changed when the new ruler Bahram I (r. 273-276) ascended the throne. Due to Bahram's close ties with the traditional Zoroastrian priestly class, Mani was persecuted and eventually executed in 276. His death, however, did not stop the spread of his teachings. *\

“Manichaeism in the West had quite a vibrant life until the fourth and fifth centuries when it came under fierce persecution as heresy by a growing orthodox Christian church. As a young man St. Augustine of Hippo practiced Manichaeism before his conversion to Christianity. For the most part, Manicheans in Western Asia practiced their faith freely into the Islamic period under the Muslim Umayyads, until they were suppressed after the rise of the Abbassid Caliphate in the mid-eighth century. By the end of the sixth century the Manichean church of Central Asia was large enough to declare independence from the head church in Baghdad. As with many other cultural exchanges, the Sogdian merchants played a central role in translating texts and transmitting the faith to both the Chinese and the Türkic nomads of the steppe. *\

“Missionary success in the seventh century gave rise to Manichaeism in China, but also led to conflict with royal Buddhist officials. The success of Mani's teaching must have posed a serious enough threat to its religious competitors, for in 732 the Tang emperor issued an edict (undoubtedly under the influence of Buddhists) prohibiting Manichaeism from being taught to native Chinese; foreigners, however, were allowed to practice the faith. *\

“Although limited in China for some time under the Tang, it was through China that Manichaeism came to enjoy the status of official state religion of the Central Asian Uighur kingdom during part of the eighth and ninth centuries. As the Tang government became burdened with internal uprisings in China, they began to rely more heavily on military assistance from neighboring Turkish peoples. In 762 the Uighur king Mou-yu helped imperial Tang forces put down a rebellion centered on the city of Loyang, during which time he came in contact with resident Sogdian Manicheans. When Mou-yu returned home at the end of the military operation, four Manicheans joined his entourage and accompanied him back to his kingdom. Within a year Mou-yu converted to the faith, and subsequently declared Manichaeism the official state religion. With the Uighur political backing, the Manicheans in China received greater freedom resulting in the construction of at least six new temples. They enjoyed this freedom for the better part of a century, until the Uighur state was overran by another Turkish group in 840, after which the religion returned to its former disadvantaged state. In Central Asia, Manichaens persisted after Uighur sponsorship, but eventually gave way to Islam and Christianity. During the Yuan (Mongol) period Manichaeism experienced something of a revival in China, only to be outlawed as a heretical Buddhist sect under the Ming legal code of the fourteenth century.” *\

Islam on the Silk Road

By 750, Muslims controlled Persia, spreading as far to the east as the edge of the Tang Empire in the Tarim Basin, and crossing the Indus river into Indian sub-continent. Areas under Muslim control are sometime referred to as the "Islamic Empire," but was not a true empire since there was no central authority governing all of these lands. Rather, they were united by similar governments structured around the interpretation of Islamic law. [Source: John D. Szostak]

John D. Szostak wrote: The true Islamization of the Silk Routes did not begin until around the beginning of the eight century. Initially, Muslims referred to their faith as "the Arab religion", and did not attempt to win converts. Though early Islam tried to transcend both class and racial distinctions, this goal was abandoned once the conquest of territories beyond the peninsula began in earnest. Keeping distinctions between ruling Muslims and conquered non-Muslims made for simpler governance, and guaranteed a privileged status for Muslims under the laws of the various Islamic states.

For example, the tax policy of 'Umar (634-44) for the Christians of Syria clearly states this Muslim ruler's attitude towards his non-Muslim subjects: Leave these lands, which God has granted you as booty in the hands of their inhabitants, and impose on them a poll tax (jizya) to the extent that they can bear and divide the proceeds among the Muslims. Let them till the soil, for they know more about it and are better at it than we are… For they are slaves to the people of the religion of Islam as long as the religion of Islam shall prevail.4

This situation created a strong motivation for non-Muslims to convert to Islam, particularly among those conquered who previously held elite economic, social and political positions, since becoming Muslim allowed them to rejoin the ruling group. Furthermore, the Arabs recognized a talent for administration among those they conquered. They adopted the Sassanian model for their Islamic governments and recruited local peoples to serve as government ministers, the majority of which were Sassanian Persians. As government officials, it was seemly for them to convert to Islam, though afterwards they began to press for the same rights as Arab Muslims.5

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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