Some years ago, I published The Lost History of Christianity, which traced the early expansion of Christianity into Asia and Africa, as well as Europe. For perhaps a thousand years, Christianity flourished at least as well in Asia as in Europe, and that when we focus wholly on the Western side, we are missing a very great deal of the Christian story.
Much of my story concerned the Silk Route, which ran from Syria into China through Central Asia. This was in its day the central artery of transcontinental commerce, which allowed the phenomenal development of cities like Merv, in present day Turkmenistan – at the time, one of the largest urban settlements on the planet.
Besides its economic importance, the Silk Route was also a highway of ideas and faiths, which was used extensively by Muslims, Buddhists, Manichaeans, and of course Christians. From the fifth century through the thirteenth, this was the great missionary road used by the legendary Church of the East, the so-called Nestorians, from their base in Mesopotamia. The Church operated major centers at Merv, Kashgar, Samarkand and Herat (Afghanistan).
Although it is only one Christian site among hundreds that would once have existed, we get some sense of this lost world from the amazing oasis of Turfan, in what is now far north-western China. Its transcontinental connections made Turfan a natural hub for religious groups, who built settlements in the area. Even better, the dry climate allowed the survival of manuscripts that would assuredly have perished in other settings. Modern scholars have been amazed and delighted to uncover whole libraries in the region, including some of the richest surviving evidence for the Manichaean faith.
The Christian finds are no less spectacular. In the early twentieth century, a German expedition uncovered the site of a monastery at Bulayïq, with extensive library remains. Among the treasures were fragments of over a thousand manuscripts, dating between the ninth and twelfth centuries. (Still other manuscripts come from Dunhuang, a Silk Road station east of Turfan, but I will concentrate here on this latter collection.)
Some of the Turfan texts were written in Syriac, the church’s usual language, which is closely related to the Aramaic of Jesus’s own time. Others though were in the standard languages of the people who lived and traded in those parts, although written in Syriac script. One such tongue was Sogdian, from the people whose merchants ranged across Central Asia. Other documents were in Uyghur, the language of the people who still inhabit the area. Sogdian is connected to Iranian languages, while Uyghur is Turkic. The effort to translate and comprehend these documents still proceeds, almost a century after the initial finds. Many remain unpublished.
What is important about the Turfan documents is no particular single text – for instance, some spectacular new gospel find – but the total impression they give of the spiritual and cultural life of a thriving community so far removed from what we still stubbornly think of as the heart of medieval Christianity, in distant Europe.
The collection is a remarkable mixture of what we might think of as the exalted and the humble. Of course, the community had its Biblical and liturgical texts, psalters and hymnals, all absolutely necessary for the daily spiritual life that was its raison d’etre. Equally valuable were the ascetic writings that sustained and inspired the monks – excerpts from the great Syriac fathers, and works by such once-legendary Egyptian ascetics as Abba Isaiah and Macarius. Other items reflect popular religion – Christian prayer amulets, a book of oracles.
I note one striking point here. Recently, I posted about the mighty influence of Egyptian Christianity on the emerging churches of the British Isles. But here too, in East Asia, Egypt cast its long shadow.
We also find major works of scholarship, including histories of events that otherwise would be wholly lost to us. The collection includes a history of the Syrian city of Nisibis, the intellectual hub of the eastern Christian world. There are also Lives of saints like Serapion, and of John of Dailam (660-738). John was as critically important to expanding the faith in Central Asia as figures like Boniface would be in contemporary Germany and Western Europe.
A Sogdian-language Life of Yazdin and his disciple Pethion describes the martyrdom of missionaries struggling to make converts in Sassanid Persia, where the church’s deadliest enemies were not Roman pagans but Zoroastrian magi.
Today, what non-specialist remembers the name of Bishop Bar-Shabba? Yet the story of this great missionary, this great Church Father, survives in a Turfan text, originally written in Syriac and later translated into Sogdian. He lived during the Sassanian Empire that ruled Persia until the Muslim conquest of the seventh century. We hear how, at that time, he pushed the church’s frontier’s forward deep into Central Asia, establishing settlements of monks and nuns.
Bar-Shabba operated in such evocative places as northern Parthia and Margiana, in Bactria and Hyrcania. He founded monasteries and convents at Balkh and Herat, and reputedly became Merv’s founding bishop. The priests and deacons whom he settled “began to teach and to baptize, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and by the authority and power that they had received from the pious Lord Bar Shabba….. [and to him] power and might was given… over the unclean spirits.” (I take this quote from Christians in Asia before 1500, by Ian Gilman and Hans-Joachim Klimheit).
Obviously, in describing these finds I am only offering the barest of outlines. Even so, it suggests the sheer scale of this lost eastern church, and its heroic struggles.