Nestorian nun

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]

Spread of Christianity on the Silk Road

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

Edward Gibbon wrote 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] Christianity was successfullypreached 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 [an island off Yemen] 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.”

text from the Nestorian stele (AD 781)

Frances Wood in “Did Marco Polo Go To China?” refers to the incident of Marco Polo (or his sources) discovering followers of Mani and mistaking them for Christians. Missick wrote: “This was due to their use of Christian scripture and their special reverence for Jesus Christ. Starting in the year 241 a young man named Mani began teaching a new religion in the Zoroastrian Parthian Empire. Mani taught that all religions were true, and that Zoroaster, Buddha and Jesus were great prophets that he had succeeded them as the greatest of the prophets. Mani’s religious background was Assyrian Christian. Manicheanism was heavily influenced by the Assyrian church. The success of Manicheanism was due to its building on the foundations laid by Assyrian missionaries. The constant references to Jesus and the honor given to him in these texts attest to the strength of the Assyrian church in Central Asia. The followers of Mani attempted to follow in the steps of the Assyrian missionaries and seduce their Christian converts into embracing the false religion of Mani. Manicheanism completely died away and no longer has any adherents.”

By the year 800, Christianity was found in various, widely dispersed places in the Far East. In Central Asia Assyrian Christianity was absorbed by Mongolian tribes such as the Naiman, the Keriat and the Ongut as well as by Uighurs and the Kara Khitai (from which the word ‘Cathay’ was coined). Roman Malek says the ‘intercultural encounter’ is best revealed by depictions of crosses rising from lotus flowers and the use of multiple scripts and languages expressing Christianity in Buddhist, Confucian and Daoist vernacular.

Spread of Nestorian Christianity on the Silk Road

Nestorians lived in large numbers in Persia and Iraq after they were persecuted in the Christian west. Around the time of the Muslim conquest in the early 7th century they began traveling eastward on the Silk Road to Turkestan, India, Mongolia and Sri Lanka. They had penetrated deep into China, where a Nestorian church was founded in 638, in Changsan (Xian, See China). Wherever the went Nestorians continued to use the Syriac language. It was estimated that around the end of the A.D. first millennium there were more Nestorians than Catholics and Orthodox Christians combined. Among the Asians who were converted to Nestorian Christianity were Kublai Khan’s sister in law. The Nestorians prospered in the Mongol Empire but were nearly wiped out by Tamerlane.

Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “For several centuries brave Assyrian Christians transversed the entire breadth of the Silk Road. 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. “ [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012]

Al-lo-pan was a influential Nestorian cleric credited with spreading Nestorian Christianity to China and Central Asia as he traveled the Silk Road to China. Missick wrote; “Al-lo-pan was a native of modern Iraq.” In the 1600s “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.

“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.”

In the early 20th century, Nestorian documents and paintings were found in western China. After that Nestorian relics were discovered all over China, particularly in Quanzhou and Inner Mongolia. In Inner Mongolia, Nestorian remains have mainly been found in an area once inhabited by the Öngüt Mongol tribe that is bordered on the south by the Daqingshan mountains and on the north by the present border between China and Mongolia. Although a number of related remains have been found south of the Daqingshan mountains no such remains have been encountered in Mongolia. Areas of study include remains of Nestorian settlements and Nestorian grave material and cemeteries.

Nestorian and Syriac Christianity in Asia, with green areas being in the Mongol realm

Marco Polo on Nestorian Christians

“The Travels of Marco Polo” by Rustichello of Pisa recounts stories told to him by Marco Polo, a Venetian who traveled with his father and uncle on a trading mission throughout Asia from 1271-1292. “The Travels of Marco Polo” is filled with references to the Nestorians. Marco Polo said he saw Nestorian Churches. He describes important Nestorians and mentions cities with significant numbers of Nestorians. [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012 ]

Marco Polo considered the Nestorians and Christians of the Far East to be heretics because they did not adhere to the Roman Catholic Church. He said: “There are people who observe the law of Christ, but not according to the ordinances of the Roman Church, for they are at fault in several points. They are called Nestorians and Jacobites. They have a Patriarch, whom they call the Catholicus. This patriarch makes archbishops and bishops and abbots of every degree and sends them out everywhere, into India and Cathay and Baghdad, just like the Roman pope. You must understand that all the Christians you will meet in these countries I am describing are Nestorians and Jacobites.”

Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “ Marco Polo also refers to the Nestorians on Socotra island [an island off Yemen] and the Nestorian Christians of Saint Thomas in Southern India and he mentions Kublai Khan's protection of the Nestorians.

Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “Around the year 1255, two Uighur Mongolian Monks from the city of Khanbalik (modern Beijing) left the city to go on foot on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The monks were Rabban Marcus and Rabban Bar Sauma. They were unable to reach Jerusalem because of warfare there and had to remain in Baghdad. While there, Rabban Markos was nominated as the new Catholicos of the Ancient Church of the East. He was renamed Mar Yaballaha III and ruled the Church of the East from 1281 until his death in 1318. He is the only Mongolian patriarch in history. In 1287 the Il-Khan of Persia, Arghun, who was a Christian sympathizer, sent Rabban Bar Sauma on a diplomatic mission to Western Europe to drum up support for a new crusade. Arghun wanted his Nestorian armies and Catholic Europe to team up for a two front assault that would drive the Muslims out of the Holy Land. While in Europe Bar Sauma met with Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus of Byzantium, King Phillip IV of France and King Edward I of England. They were all too wrapped up in internal European affairs to have much interest in crusading. Bar Sauma also met with Pope Nicholas IV. [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012 ]

William of Rubruck on Nestorian Christians in Central Asia

William of Rubruck wrote: On the feast of Saint Andrew (30th November) we left this city ( Cailac, Qayaligh, near present-day Kapal in Kazakhstan), and at about three leagues from it we found a village entirely of Nestorians. We entered their church, singing joyfully and at the tops of our voices: "Salve, regina!" for it had been a long time since we had seen a church...Living mixed among” the Mongols and Tartars “though of alien status (tanquam advene), are Nestorians and Saracens (Muslims) all the way to Cathay. In fifteen cities of Cathay there are Nestorians, and they have an episcopal see in a city called Segin [=Hsi-king], but for the rest they are purely idolaters. The priests of idols of the nations spoken of all wear wide saffron-colored cowls. [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; /~]

Marco Polo and Kublai Khan

“There are also among them, as I gathered, some hermits who live in forests and mountains and leading lives that are extraordinarily ascetic. The Nestorians there know nothing. They say their offices, and have sacred books in Syrian, but they do not know the language, so they chant like those monks among us who do not know grammar, and they are absolutely depraved. In the first place they are usurers and drunkards; some even among them who live with the Tartars have several wives like them. /~\

“When they enter church, they wash their lower parts like Saracens (Muslims); they eat meat on Friday, and have their feasts on that day in Saracen fashion. The bishop rarely visits these parts, hardly once in fifty years. When he does, they have all the male children, even those in the cradle, ordained priests, so nearly all the males among them are priests. Then they marry, which is clearly against the statutes of the Fathers, and they are bigamists, for when the first wife dies these priests take another. They are all simoniacs, for they administer no sacrament gratis. They are solicitous for their wives and children, and are consequently more intent on the increase of their wealth than of the faith. And so those of them who educate some of the sons of the noble Mongol, though they teach them the Gospel and the articles of the faith, through their evil lives and their cupidity estrange them from the Christian faith, for the lives that the Mongol themselves and the Tuins [=Buddhists, from Chinese T'ao-yen: "man of the path." The term properly refers only to priests but Rubruck applies it here to all Buddhists] or idolaters lead are more innocent than theirs. /~\

William of Rubruck on Nestorian Religious Observances

William of Rubruck wrote: “Before Septuagesima Sunday, the Nestorians fast three days, which they call the fast of Jonah, that he preached to the Ninivites; and then also the Hermenians (Armenians) fast for five days, which they call the fast of Saint Serkis, who is one of the greater saints among them, and who the Greeks say was model for saints. The Nestorians begin the fast on the third day of the week, and end it on the fifth, so that on the sixth day they eat meat. And at that time I saw that the chancellor, that is the grand secretary of the court, Bulgai by name, gave them a present of meat on the sixth day; and they blessed it with great pomp, as the Pascal lamb is blessed. He himself, however, did not eat (meat on Friday), and this is also the principle of master William the Parisian, who is a great friend of his. [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; /~]

“On the octave of the Epiphany [January 13th], all the Nestorian priests assembled before dawn in the chapel, beat the board, and solemnly sang Matins; then they put on their church vestments, and prepared a censer and incense. And as they thus waited in the court of the church, the first wife, called Cotota Cater (cater is the same as "lady," Cotota is a proper name), entered the chapel with several other ladies, and her first-born son called Baltu, and some others of her children; and they prostrated themselves, the forehead to the ground, according to the fashion of the Nestorians, and after that they touched all the images with their right hand, always kissing their hand after touching them; and after this they gave their right hands to all the bystanders in the church. /~\

“This is the custom of the Nestorians on entering church. Then the priests sang a great deal, putting incense in the lady's hand; and she put it on the fire, and then they incensed her. After that when it was already bright day, she began taking off her headdress, called bocca, and I saw her bare head, and then she told us to leave, and as I was leaving, I saw a silver bowl brought in. Whether they baptized here or not, I know not: but I do know that they do not celebrate mass in a tent, but in a permanent church. And at Easter (12th April), I saw them baptize and consecrate fonts with great ceremony, which they did not do then." /~\

Disappearance of the Assyrian Church in Asia

8th century Uighur prince

Scholars have provided a number of explanations as to why the Nestorians and the Assyrian Church the disappeared from the Far East. “The Encyclopedia of World Art” blames the bubonic Plague: “In central Asia... the so-called “Seirech’e cemeteries” are known, Four of these were found near the metropolis of Nawakath: two to the west near Fruze....Tombstones found at these sights bear crosses and Syriac inscriptions ranging from 858 to 1345 -the latter year being the probable date of the bubonic plague epidemic that decimated the last survivors of these communities.” Samuel Hugh Moffet believes the Nestorian Church disappeared because it was weakened by "isolation, superstition, and syncretism." [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012 ]

Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: There were internal weaknesses in the Nestorian Church which caused it to be devastated by the opposition it faced from the Catholic church and more importantly, Islam. Despite centuries of missionary work and hundreds of thousands of conversions and perhaps millions of adherents, the Nestorian Church of Mongolia died away. There are many reasons why this happened. Perhaps William of Rubruck was right in that the church leadership was corrupt. However, similar abuses were common in Europe and the Assyrian Church in Mongolia was strong enough to produce important historical personalities such as the Ung Khan, Sorkaktani-beki, Mar Yaballaha III and Rabban Bar Sauma. Many were perhaps Christian in name only. It is hard to conceive of a devout Christian participating in the atrocities the Mongols committed, but then again Europe had its crusaders. When William of Rubruck visited the Christian Mongol Chief Sartach he was told by Sartach’s representative, Cioac the Nestorian, “You must not say our lord [Sartach] is a Christian. He is not a Christian but a Mongol.”

“Sartach worshiped as a Christian and had Assyrian priests attending to him but he considered his identity as a Mongol more important than faith in Christ. Perhaps this cultural idolatry also weakened the Assyrian Church among the Mongols. Divisions in the church also weakened it. Nestorians contended with the Jacobites and then the Catholics came to join the inner communal strife. ..The Nestorian Church in the Far East is not the only church in history to have completely died away. North Africa was also largely Christian and produced such giants as Tertullian and St. Augustine. The church in North Africa (except for the Coptic Church in Egypt) has perished. Internal weaknesses plagued that church too but both the church of North Africa and the Nestorian Church in Mongolia and China died away for the same reason, they were victims of the Islamic Conquest.

Lasting Influences of the Nestorian Church on Central Asia

Stephen Andrew Missick wrote in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies: “Even though the Nestorian church in the Far East vanished, it did not disappear without a trace. John of Plano Carpini (1180-1252) traveled to the Mongols capital in the1240s. He was the first papal envoy to travel to Mongolia. Upon his return he wrote “Historia Mongolarum” in which he describes the Mongol’s culture, character and history. Most of his information came from interviewing Russians and Turkish Nestorian Christians during his travels. He mentions the Uighurs who he says were “Christians of the Nestorian sect.” He says, “The Mongols took their alphabet, for they had no written characters; now, however, they call it the Mongol alphabet” [Source: Stephen Andrew Missick, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, July 2012 ]

The Uighur alphabet and the Mongolian alphabet are altered forms of the Syriac alphabet. These adaptations of the Assyrian’s alphabet are still used in Mongolia and in the Autonomous Region of Inner Mongolia in China. On the Nestorian practices incorporated into Tibetan Buddhism, Aziz S. Atiya wrote in “History of Eastern Christianity”: One relic of Nestorianism in the heart of Asia is said to be the survival of its ritual in a debased form in the Lamaism of Tibet [this ritual includes blessing of bread and wine in a communal meal]. The striking resemblances with Lamaist Monasticism, the use of holy water, incense and vestments of a similar character to Nestorian practices, must be traced to the days of the Nestorian missionary in the high Middle Ages.”

In “Christianity Meets Buddhism, “Heinrich Dumoulin suggests that Nestorianism may also have influenced Amidism and the Tantric School of the “True Word.” Amidist Buddhism “because of its amazing spiritual similarity to Christianity, has often been the subject of conjecture concerning a direct [Nestorian] Christian influence.” Amidists believe in salvation through faith alone, in the name of Buddha. Volkmar Gantzhorm in “The Christian Oriental Carpet, “traces the design of the cross, which can be seen in many oriental carpets to the Nestorians and the Armenians.

Church of the East in the Middle Ages

According to Missick: “Even though Christian monasteries were established in China for a time, Nestorian Christianity was much more successful among the Mongolian tribesmen than among the Chinese. There are very few Christians in Mongolia today none of whom are Nestorians. The Ancient Assyrian Church has survived only in the Middle East and in southeast India. Around 400,000 Assyrians belong to the Ancient Assyrian Church of the East.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

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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