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Christianity in the Mongol Empire

Updated: Nov 18

The Historical Influence and Decline of Christianity in the Mongol Empire

Despite its early influence in Mongolia, Christianity never achieved a leading position in the MONGOL EMPIRE and virtually disappeared in Inner Asia with the empire’s fall. The territory of the Mongol Empire contained the lands of several Christian churches: the Georgian, Ossetian (Alan), and Russian branches of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the Assyrian Church of the East, called the “Nestorians” by outsiders.

The latter church, seated in Baghdad and using the Syriac language in its liturgy, had early made converts in Central Asia, forming Christian communities among the largely Buddhist UIGHURS of Turfan. In 1007 a khan of the KEREYID tribe in central Mongolia received the baptism with 200,000 of his subjects.

Tomb stone - Christianity in Mongol Empire
Tomb stone - Christianity in the Mongol Empire

The Assyrian metropolitan of Merv (Mary), Abdisho, granted special dispensations for these new nomadic Christians: Lenten diet could include milk, and the Eucharist was offered with no bread and KOUMISS for wine. By 1200 Christianity of the Assyrian Church of the East dominated the ÖNGGÜD of Inner Mongolia and influenced the Kereyid and NAIMAN. An undated Syriac inscription in western Mongolia testifies to a Christian presence in Naiman territory.

After CHINGGIS KHAN (Genghis, 1206–27) conquered these peoples, his family intermarried extensively with the royal families of the Kereyid and Önggüd. Conquest later brought them in contact with the Armenian, Georgian, Russian, and Ossetian Christian churches. The Mongols included Christians, whom they called erke’ün (plural erke’üd), as one of the four favoured religions—also Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam—of the empire, whose clergy received tax exemptions and a measure of patronage in return for their prayers. The Church of the East, accustomed to Mongol ways, saw the empire as a great blessing.

Other Christians, however, were disgusted by Mongol food and marriage customs and viewed the conquest as punishment for their sins. Armenian writers identified the Mongols as the “Nation of the Archers,” whose coming foretold the approaching end of the world. The Russian church declared that fermented mare’s milk was unclean so that any priest who lived with the Mongols was disqualified from holding the Eucharist.

Even as Armenians and Georgians hoped for Mongol assistance against Muslim rulers, nobles and people alike resented court intrigues, tax collectors, and undisciplined soldiery, while the clergy impotently opposed political marriages with the alien conquerors.

The Christian queen Sorghaghtani with her husband, Tolui. Rashid al-Din, early 14th century.
The Christian queen Sorghaghtani with her husband, Tolui. Rashid al-Din, early 14th century.

Many third-generation Mongol princes raised by Christian mothers and tutors, such as Sartaq in CRIMEA, HÜLE’Ü (1216–65) in Iran, and GÜYÜG as great khan (1246–48), showed favor to the Church of the East, employing its adherents as scribes, physicians, and astrologers and keeping Christian priests at their ORDOs, or palace-tents. At court Assyrian Christian clergy often linked up with Buddhist monks to oppose Muslim influence. Christian writers sincerely praised Mongol Christian women such as Eltani (Chormaqan’s wife, fl. c. 1240) and Hüle’ü’s wife, TOGHUS KHATUN (d. 1265), yet Mongol men at this point typically refused baptism.

In the Mongol YUAN DYNASTY in China, the Buddhist QUBILAI KHAN (1260–94) treated Christianity favorably. The Önggüd and Uighurs formed the main body of Christian people, together with thousands of deported OSSETES and Russians and occasional Assyrian, Armenian, and European merchants.

Christians formed part of the SEMUREN, or “various sorts,” the second class in the Yuan structure, below the Mongols but above the native Chinese. The Church of the East appointed new metropolitans for DAIDU (modern Beijing), Tangut (northwest China), and Uighuristan. Assyrian immigrants such as ‘Isa (Aixie, fl. 1248–1312) served Qubilai with astronomical and medical skills, while the Yuan government supervised the Christian church through the “Commission for the Promotion of Religion” (Chongfusi), headed by ‘Isa and later by his son Ilya (d. 1330).

Cross on the stone
Cross on the stone - Christianity in the Mongol Empire

In the Chinese-Mongol Confucian reaction to the reign of Yisün-Temür (titled Taidingdi, 1323–28), under which semuren had dominated, Ilya was executed for sedition and witchcraft. In the Chaghatayid Khanate of Central Asia, the Church of the East created new metropolitanates in Samarqand, Kashghar, and Almaligh.

Excavations at a Christian cemetery in Ysyk-Köl (Kyrgyzstan), dating from 1249 to 1345, demonstrate a sizable community near the capital of the Chaghatayid realm. Tarmashirin Khan’s (1331–34) conversion to Islam led to a Mongol reaction favouring Christianity under his immediate successors.

This in‌ ‌turn,ed in 1338 to a bout of persecution of the church. The Russian church began to recover from the conquest by 1249–50, when the new metropolitan Cyril arrived from investiture in Byzantium. Taking up residence not in ruined Kiev, but in Vladimir (near Moscow), he strongly supported cooperation with the Mongols of the GOLDEN HORDE and resistance to the Catholic advance.

The declaration of the Russian church’s complete tax exemption by Mengü-Temür Khan (1267–80) began a great increase in church wealth. Metropolitan Peter’s (d. 1342) close association with Moscow and the mid-14th-century monastic revival sparked by St. Sergius (d. 1392) shaped the classic Russian Orthodox church. In the GOLDEN HORDE steppe, Cyril had created a bishopric of Saray.

The Shifting Religious Landscape in the Mongol Empire: From Christian Influence to Islamic Dominance

After the Golden Horde’s conversion to Islam under ÖZBEG KHAN (1313–41), however, Christian influence among the QIPCHAQS, OSSETES, and other steppe peoples rapidly declined, producing by 1400 a clear division between Christian forest and Muslim steppe.

After Hüle’ü’s conquest of Baghdad, the Assyrian church received the former palace of the caliph as a church and built new monasteries in the capital, Maragheh (see BAGHDAD, SIEGE OF). Despite periodic Muslim riots up to 1295, Assyrian and Uighur Christians generally held the governorship in Assyria (northeast Iraq), while others served as privileged ORTOQ merchants and ambassadors to the European powers.

Mongol patrons in the Middle Eastern IL-KHANATE frequently allied with local Christians during communal tensions, and in 1281 the Church of the East elected an Önggüd catholicos (patriarch), MAR YAHBH-ALLAHA (1244–1317), for his familiarity with Mongol language and customs. Although several queens and princes of the blood, including Abagha Khan (1265–81), were baptized, as adults the princes frequently preferred Buddhism or Islam.

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