Libmonster ID: VN-445
Author(s) of the publication: G. KOSHELENKO, V. GAIBOV

by Gennady KOSHELENKO, Dr. Sc. (Hist.), Vasiv GAIBOV, Cand. Sc. (Hist.), RAS Institute of Archeology

The famous Asian scholar of the late 10th and early 11th centuries Abu Reikhan Biruni (al-Biruni), in his description of that time pointed out that most of the people in Syria, Iran and Khurasan were followers of the Nestorian creed, Nestorian theology. To put this statement into a historical perspective, let us try and recall some of that facts of the situation. Khurasan was the name of a region of north-eastern Iran, the southern part of Turkmenistan (mainly the Men/ Oasis) and the north-western part of what is now Afghanistan. As for the Nestorians, they were, and still are, the followers of the doctrine of Patriarch (Catholicos) Nestorus of Constantinople (428-431 A.D.) the author of a heretical doctrine on the nature of Christ which was ecclesiastically condemned by the Byzantine Christian churches. But for us, as lay scholars, of particular interest have been not dogmatic controversies, but the considerable impact of the Nestorians on the Asian history and culture.

Articles in this rubric reflect the opinion of the author - Ed.

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The above historical reference of Binmi gives grounds for a radical reappraisal of the common views on the culture of the peoples who dwelled in the Middle Ages on the vast expanses of the Near and Middle East, from the Mediterranean to the inner regions of Central Asia. Unfortunately, the history of the Eastern Christianity has many blanks up to this day and there are several reasons for this situation.

To begin with, due to a number of circumstances Nestorian Christianity practically faded away in the aforesaid regions by the 13th century Small Nestorian communities still survived only in Eastern Syria, Northern Iraq and the Malabar coast of India. And, naturally enough, most of their literary sources perished there and then. Most of the preserved written sources (written in Syriac - the liturgical language of that Church) ended up in Vatican collections. In 18th century they were published by a Papal Library scholar I.S. Assemani. Later on some surprise and important addition to these sources came from Eastern Turkestan (now an autonomous region of the Chinese People's Republic). European archeological teams which conducted studies there in the late 19th-early 20th centuries uncovered fragments of quite a number of early Christian writings in Syriac, Parthian, Sogdian and other ancient tongues (and these finds are assessed as but a drop from the sea of original writings). And the findings of those years make it possible to trace the spread of Christianity not only to these regions, but also to China.

Of no lesser importance here is the fact that archeological monuments of Christianity are practically unknown in the East with the exception of the traces of a Christian community of Dura-Europos on the Euphrates discovered in the early 1930s by an archeological team of our famous countryman (then an emigre) Mikhail Rostovtsev. The finds included two successive churches in Seleucia-Ktesiphon (in modem Iraq); monuments of the Khrak Island in the Persian Gulf; a church in the Merv Oasis; tombstone inscriptions in the eastern part of Central Asia and the antiquities of Eastern Turkestan. And that practically exhausts the list of such finds known to this day.

The other two reasons are not so much of an objective, but rather of an ideological nature, so to speak. To begin with, as was justly pointed out by the contemporary Syrian scholar A.S. Atiya, European scholars, whether Catholics or Protestants, feel that since the Nestorian doctrine was condemned as heresy at the Third General Council of Ephesus as early as 431 A.D. any comparisons of opinions of early Christian authors of the East and of the West should be in favour of the latter. Certain pieces of historical evidence mentioned by Nestorians are therefore regarded as dubious or legendary And scholars from Europe, as a rule, do not know enough about archeological discoveries in Central Asia.

And there is another important consideration to be born in mind-the approach to this problem in the scholarly publications of what we call the Soviet years. Needless to say, there were no official restrictions on the studies of Eastern Christianity in the USSR. And yet there were some more or less hidden snags of another kind. Suffice it to say that the collections of even central libraries, to say nothing of the libraries of the Central Asian Soviet Republics, lacked most, if not all, of the latest publications on the subject. As a result there is a gap between what experts know about a concrete archeological monument and their general view on the problem. For most scholars in this country the most authoritative source of such information for a long time were the studies of Academician Vasily Bertold with the latest of his publications dating back to 1916.

The above circumstances make it difficult to reconstruct a reliable history of what we call Eastern (Byzantine) Christianity And it goes without saying that the authors of this article lay no claims to identifying all, or even most, of unresolved problems in this field. What we are hoping for is to try and trace some of these problems and outline present- day methods of dealing with them. With this aim in view we have to set out certain historical boundaries for our scrutinizes.

The spread of Christianity to the East in the 1st and the very beginning of the 3rd century signified its penetration within the confines of the Persian territory-the main rival of the Roman Empire. In the 1220s the Persian kingdom gives way to the Sasanids which remained over the centuries the main rival of the Byzantine Empire.

And, finally, one more thing. The Christian Church which originated and developed on this soil naturally did not call herself the Nestorian Church and functioned under the assumed title of the "Great Church of the East".


One of the key historical landmarks which set the course of progress of world civilization was the spread of the Christian doctrine which began in the 30's of the 1st century A.D. Its early Western stage, within the confines of the Roman Empire, is well documented in the Acts of the Apostles-a book whose authorship is unanimously attributed by scholars to St. Luke the Apostle. Unfortunately the mission to the East which began at the same time lacked any such chronicler. Scattered data on the related events of that period are much more difficult to put together into a common picture void of contradictions.

But the fact of this mission as such is beyond any shade of a doubt. The Acts of the Apostles clearly show that at that time Christianity was preached exclusively among the Jewish subjects of the Empire-in synagogues. And within the confines of the Parthian empire, especially in Mesopotamia, the adherers to the doctrine were very numerous, active and well organized while enjoying considerable inner autonomy The movement maintained very close links with Palestine. According to the Acts the Pentecost celebrations in Jerusalem were attended by Jews from among 16 different ethnic groups, including residents of the

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countries embraced by Parthia: Parthians proper, Medians, Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia. And that means that an early mission to the East, into the confines of the Parthian empire, was really unavoidable.

The central figure who stands at the roots of Christianity in the East is the Apostle St. Thomas* And although some other names were also mentioned in the Christian tradition, the Nestorian church has always regarded him as its own apostle. During a meeting with Roman cardinals (late 13th century) the

* He is often mentioned under a twin name of "Judas Thomas", and even a triple name of Judas Thomas Didymos of which the two last ones are synonyms, - Ed.

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Rabban* of Sauma (the great periodevt** of the Nestorian church) gave the following answer when asked who had preached in the realms from which he came: "Mar Thomas, Mar Addai and Mar Man preached in our land." This order of succession is not accidental: it reflects the chronological succession as recognized by the Nestorian church tradition. The "Chronography" of llyas Bar Shinaya (circa 975-1008 A.D.) also asserts the priority of St. Thomas in the spread of Christianity in the East.

There are, however, considerable differences of opinion on the problem of where the missionary activities of the Apostle really took place. Scholars usually put forward two versions thereof. According to one when the Apostles "drew lots" on the countries where they were going to preach St. Thomas's lot fell on Parthia. But according to another version it was India. The first version was developed by such early Christian writers as Origen, Pseudo-Clementius, Eusebius of Caesarea, Rufmus from Aquileia and Socrates Scholasticus. And India is mentioned in the works of Euphraim of Nizibya, Gregory Nazianzen and of Sts. Ambrose and Jerome (Hieronymus).

And yet there is one version there which always happens to be overlooked. In the work "On the Twelve Apostles", attributed to Ippolitus and dated by 4 century, it is said that according to the fourth lot Thomas was to preach the Good News to the Parthians, Mydians, Persians, Girkanians, Baktyrians and Margians. He died and was buried in the Indian city of Calamina. Practically the same information can be found in the writings of theologians like Pseudo-Dorotheus, Bar Ebreus and in the Roman Martyrology*** (Feast day-in the RC Church 3 July, formerly 21 December) and is almost literally quoted by Isidor of Sebyl. According to the later Nestorian tradition (such as Metropolitan Mar Solomon of Basra), St. Thomas evangelized the Parthians, Mydians and Indians. He was martyred by the King of India for baptizing his daughter.

This version offers a combination of two others: Parthian and Indian. For grasping its significance one has to turn to the "Acts of Judas Thomas the Apostle", an apocryphal**** book of great length known in several versions in different languages. The oldest of them is the Syrian one. It acquired its final form at the very end of the 2nd or the beginning of the 3rd centuries A.D. in Edessa (now Ufra in south-eastern Turkey) thanks to the efforts of Bar

* Rabban, Mar-denotes belonging to the Church. - Ed.

** Periodevt - Nestorian church hierarch. - Ed.

*** Martyrology - catalog of Christian martyrs and saints. - Ed.

**** This work is described as an apocryphal even in the "Decree" of Pope Gelasius in its 5th Chapter which contains a list of apocrypha not recommended for reading. The final version appeared in the early 11th century in Southern Gallia, but the oldest part dates back to the time of Pope Damas I (266-283 A.D.). - Ed.

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Daisan, a famous scholar, poet and ecclesiastical figure, or his disciples.

Without going into the complicated problems associated with this work, generated by the specifics of its genre and its long existence before it assumed its final form, let us note just two details: the scene of action is India and one of the central characters is Gondopharus, one of the Indian kings. These facts are in good agreement with the data of numismatics and apigraphics according to which at about the time when the Apostle was to set out on his mission to the East - the territory of what is now Southern Afghanistan and North-Western Hindustan was ruled by a dynasty of a Parthian origin. It was known as the Pahlavas in India and modem-day scholars call it Indo-Parthian. These rulers held sway over a large part of Gandhara and Punjab, spreading their control now and then even further to the east - up to Mathura. Thus historical reality fully accords with the third of the aforesaid versions with its organic blend of the Parthian and Indian themes. But the really striking thing is something else. The founder of that dynasty was King Gondofar whose reign was from the 20th to the 46th year A. D. and memories of that period were preserved in the epic tradition of Iran up to the "Shahnameh" (Book of Governors) of the poet Firdusi (circa 940-1020, or 1030).

As a result we can say with confidence that what we call the local material bears out the Christian tradition concerning an early penetration of the new religion (in the form of Judeo-Christianity) on the territory of Central Asia and the north-western part of Hindustan.

In India today there are the Syrian Christians of Malabar who call themselves "Christians of St. Thomas" and have a tradition, which they strongly defend, that they were evangelized by the Apostle. And it should also be pointed out that it is also shared by certain other religious associations (Syrian Orthodox Church, Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the Syro-Malancar Catholic Church) which embrace the bulk of Christians in India.


The mission of the Apostle St. Thomas planted only the grains of Christianity in the East. Its further destiny was determined by the activities of the aforesaid Mar Addai and Mar Man defined in the Nestorian tradition as the followers of St. Thomas. According to that tradition Addai evangelized in Edessa and Mari became the first bishop in Ctesiphon - the capital of the Parthian Kingdom.

Edessa was the capital of a small state of Osroena located between the Parthian and Roman possessions. This urban center of purely Parthian culture remained for many centuries one of the main centers of Syrian Christianity Its early history is reflected in a pious legend reproduced in its fullest form in the book "Doctrine of Addai the Apostle". The nucleus of the legend is "correspondence" of Christ with King Abgarus of Osroena who later adopted Christianity as the state religion. In actual fact the aforesaid event took place at the end of the 2nd century A. D. in the reign of Abgarus VIII. An important element of the legend is the succession between Addai and Thomas with the latter holding a higher rank over the former. Thomas is one of the Twelve and Addai is his disciple - one of the 72.

With all of the mythical elements of the legend, it does contain a grain of reason. Osroena was really the first state in which Christianity became the state religion. But that lasted for several years only since shortly after it was assimilated by the Roman Empire.

And although little is known about the early history of the Nestorian Church in the Parthian kingdom, one can safely assume that its propagation encountered no such official opposition as in the Roman Empire. In Parthia with its toleration, as different from Rome, there were no repeated persecutions of Christians with their thousands of martyrs. In any case, by the time of Parthia's collapse, when the Sasanids dynasty came to power, there were more than 30 bishoprics on its territory.

The founder of the new dynasty, Ardashir I, was a priest of Goddess Anakita and a zealous champion of Zoroastrianism*. The Sasanids adhered to a theocratic form of government, and gradually, with the help of Zoroastrian priesthood, a rigid formula was developed proclaiming "The altar-the prop of the throne and the throne - the prop of the altar." This resulted in mounting persecutions of Christians which especially intensified when Emperor Constantine gave to the Christian faith the status of state religion in the Roman Empire (313 A.D.). The Sasanid authorities regarded Christians as their open enemies within their own state. And the Roman (and later Byzantine) emperors poured oil into the fire by using the problem of the position of Christians for interference into the internal affairs of Iran. This precipitated a wave of religious persecutions with the most severe punishments provided to persons attempting to convert to the new faith a Zoroastrian priest.

However, it would be incorrect to regard the position of Christians in the Sasanid state only in a negative perspective. There were several factors which helped improve the situation. To begin with, most of the Christians resided in the border provinces and the constant military conflicts between the two states made any additional controversies dangerous. Apart from that, most of the Christians were craftsmen and merchants - people who provided considerable contributions to the treasury. A large share of the believers were former residents of Syrian cities deported to various regions of the Sasanid state after the victorious campaigns of King Shapur (mid-3rd century A.D.) specially in order to help promote local crafts and skills. The government even provided special conditions for these deportees even despite the fact that there were many clerics in their midst, including the Bishop of Antioch. Finally, in the 5th century A.D. Christians of the Sasanids kingdom

* Zoroastrianism - Persian religion founded in the 6th century B.C. by the "prophet" Zoroaster (Zarathustra) which spread out to countries of the Near and Middle East and worshipping a supreme god Ahura Mazda.

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accepted the Nestorian interpretation of the nature of Christ* which was anathematized by the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. In this way all links of the Nestorian church with the Christian churches of both the West and the East were broken.

Thus the policy towards Christian was influenced by different factors and forces at different times, making it sufficiently contradictory. Periods of persecutions were spaced with prolonged times of peace and the Nestorian doctrine was gradually winning over the state of the Sasanids. Many of its kings adopted a tolerant attitude to the new faith which won over high-ranking nobility and even members of the royal family. And the new church was gradually consolidating its structure with the Bishop of Ktexyphone assuming the position of leadership with the titles of patriarch and catholicos. There were 96 bishoprics and 10 metropolitan chairs and synods were convened on a regular basis to discuss key problems of the new church which even possessed its own theological school-first in Nizibis and later in Edessa.

Towards the end of the Sasanian Kingdom (mid-7th century A.D.) Nestorianism became a force to reckon with on the vast expanses from the Euphrates to Amu-Darya. Some scholars even believe that at that time the majority of the population of the region were Nestorianist converts.


A special place among the metro-politanates of the Nestorian church was held by the See of Merv.

Merv** was a major city on the eastern border of the Sasanian kingdom.

* The ecclesiastically condemned doctrine that there were two Persons in the Incarnate Christ, the one Divine and the other Human, that Christ is not the Son of God, but a man in whom God dwelled, that divine and human persons remained separate in the incarnate Christ. - Ed.

** See: V. Gaibov, G. Koshelenko, "Margiana, a Land on the Fringe of the World", Science in Russia, No. 3, 2000 - Ed.

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Plan of a church in the Merv Oasis (Kharoba-Koshuk). 6-7th centuries.

On the scale of that time it was a huge center with an area of 4 km 2 located in the middle of a large oasis in the Murgab delta. It was from there that preaching of the doctrine went on among the nomads and residential communities and peoples of Central Asia, Eastern Turkestan and even China.

The ruins of Merv are located next to the modem town of Bairam-Ali (Turkmenistan) and the archeological monuments include two former settlements - Erk-Kala and Cyaur- Kala. The first was a citadel and the second was the settlement proper. In the Sasanid epoch they were surrounded by scores of villages and even small towns.

We have at our disposal a literary source describing the first steps of Nestorian Christianity in Merv. It is called "Chronicle of Seert" (Chronique de Seert) and is an Arabic text which is clearly a translation from the Syriac and represents a kind of an official history of the Nestorian church.

One of the key episodes of the chronicle describes the activities of Bar Shabas, the first missionary in Merv According to tradition he was one of the Syrian settlers who were moved to Ctesiphon after the campaigns of Shapur I. He was most probably a Greek since it is said in the text that it was in Ctesiphon that he learned Syriac and Persian. Being a medic. Bar Saba cured the wife (according to the customs of the period she was also a sister) of king, Shirarin, and convinced her to be baptized. After that she secured a divorce and became a wife of Shapur marzban (governor) of Merv. Before leaving the capital Shirarin demanded that Bar Shabas be made a bishop and she continued to preach her faith which was accepted by the common folk with enthusiasm. After the birth of her son, Shirarin received the king's permission for Bar Shabas to come to Merv which he did in a solemn procession accompanied by priests and deacons with liturgical books in their hands. Then the book describes the successes of the evangelization, the building of churches, etc. The narrative ends with a scene of the death of Bar Shabas, and his resurrection after a prayer of all the city residents, followed by many years of service as the first Bishop of Merv.

The narrative on the Acts of Bar Shabas, like most writings of this kind,

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is a mixture of facts and canons obligatory for a hagiographic composition.

Current publications contain no contradictions on the aforesaid interpretation of this text. The only uncertainty is the dating of his service with most scholars tracing it not to the reign of Shapur I (2407-272 A.D.) but of Shapur II (309-379 A.D.). However, one can hardly agree with this dating. First of all in the "Chronicle" itself the historical material is arranged in keeping with a rather strictly observed chronological principle and the narrative of Bar Sabas is placed within the context of the reign of Shapur I. All of the historical details (captives from Syria, the name of the defeated Roman emperor, etc.) fully match the years of the reign of that Sasanian ruler. And one more proof is a mention, preserved in the Nestorian tradition, that Catholicos Pap (last quarter of the 3rd-beginning of 4th centuries A.D.) appointed a bishop in Merv.

In all probability the narrative of Bar Sabas was very popular with the Nestorians. Archeological studies in Eastern Turkestan, however, offer another two versions of his Life: a Syrian and a Sogdian ones. It must be stressed that among many texts of Christian nature found there it is only these two which can be regaded as church- historical ones. One gets the impression that the Nestorians assumed that the activities of Bar Sabas laid the foundation of Christianity not only in Merv, but also in all other regions located to the east.

Written sources attest to Christianity taking root in that region with the bishops, and later metropolitans, of Merv attending most of the Councils of the Nestorian church (in 424, 485, 497, 554 and 585 A.D.). They also took part in the elections of the patriarch- catholicos and at times their voice was of decisive importance in settlements of inter- church conflicts, as, for example, in the 20s of the 6th century A.D. after the death of Patriarch-Catholicos Shila. Some of them enjoyed great popularity (like Elijah, called "the apostle of the Turks").

Monasteries set up nearby receive general recognition (Egalga of St. Mar Georgis Marwazy, Mar David Bar Nautar). Apart from that, Nestorians from Merv also founded cloisters in the West (such as the Samarun Monastery in Palestine, established by Mar Joseph Marwazaya). Both Nestorian and Arab authors point out that the last Sasanid King - Jezdieerd III who died in Merv, was buried by Christians (according to some sources-in metropolitan's garden).

Apart from such written sources, success of Nestorianism in this region is also confirmed by archeological finds. In the 1960s Russian scholars studied to the north of Merv the ruins of a church (called by the locals Haroba-Koshuk). Within the confines of the city itself they unearthed a die for the making of bronze crosses. Finally, among coins produced there in the 5th-6th centuries one runs across some absolutely "untraditional" ones-with the image of a cross on the back side which is vivid proof of the popularity of Nestorianism in Merv.

Today it is no easy task trying to understand the reasons for the total collapse of the Great Church of the East. It sustained the first blows from the Arab conquest, but it survived. The aftermath of the Mongol invasion was far more tragic. The way we see it now the position of the Nestorians in the first decades of nomad domination was good enough, which is witnessed by the travelogues of the Italian Marco Polo and Flemish author Willem Rubruck. One can only assume that the reason for the decline and the subsequent total collapse of the Nestorians in Eastern Turkestan, Central Asia and Iran was excessive proximity of church hierarchs to the ruling elite. In the beginning this helped the church to survive, but later, with the start of anti-Mongol resistance, this proximity proved to be the cause of the catastrophy. As they faded away from the historical scene, the Mongol nomads also pulled with them into the grave the Nestorian church.

Studies conducted under Project RGNF No. 00-01-00024.

Ceramic casting die for crosses. Merv. Gyaur-Kala. 4-6th centuries.


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