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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.


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.

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

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.

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.

After putting GHAZAN KHAN (1295–1304) on the throne, the Muslim Mongol NAWROZ instigated massive pogroms against non-Islamic faiths, costing the Church of the East vast sums of money and many lives and churches in Iran and Assyria. With the fall in Nawroz in 1297, however, Ghazan Khan strongly repudiated anti- Christian persecution and showed favor to Mar Yahbh- Allaha. Sultan Öljeitü (1304–17), once baptized by Mar Yahbh-Allaha but now a Muslim, protected church properties but ceased royal patronage.

Öljeitü’s Kereyid fatherin- law, Irinjin, however, interceded for Christian interests, staving off attempts by Islamic jurists to impose the poll tax and degrading badges until 1318. Irinjin’s execution in 1319 by Abu-Sa‘id (1317–35) deprived Christianity of its last patron.

During the late 13th century eastern trade between China and the Mediterranean and Black Sea ports abetted a network of Catholic missions in Soltaniyeh, Saray, Almaligh, and Daidu (modern Beijing). Except in China, where they served the Ossetian and Armenian population, missionaries focused on the Mongol elite, although without lasting success. Despite the Christian sympathies of the early Il- Khans and Chaghatayids, the Mongol conquests in the Middle East and Turkestan expanded pastoralism at the expense of agriculture, which furthered the displacement of sedentary Assyrian, Armenian, and Greek Christians by nomadic Muslims, such as the Turks and Kurds. The crisis of the mid-14th century destroyed both the old network of the Church of the East and the new Roman Catholic network.

Persecution under Ulugh-Beg (1393–1447) finally destroyed Christianity in Samarqand (see TIMUR). A small population of erke’üd (Christians) survived among the Mongols of ORDOS, Inner Mongolia, and they even preserved their tax exemption to 1920 but retained few traces of Christian beliefs.

See also BUQA; BYZANTIUM AND BULGARIA; CHRISTIAN SOURCES ON THE MONGOL EMPIRE; GEORGIA; KED-BUQA; KURDISTAN; LESSER ARMENIA; RELIGIOUS POLICY IN THE MONGOL EMPIRE; RUSSIA AND THE MONGOL EMPIRE; SARAY AND NEW SARAY.

Christian sources on the Mongol Empire

While never possessing the insider access of Mongolian, Chinese, and Islamic sources, Christian chroniclers of Russia and the Middle East and travellers from Latin Christendom add an important alternative perspective. At the time of the Mongol conquest, Russia and Armenia had a flourishing historical tradition.

In addition to their terse references to particular incidents, the Russian chronicles contain discrete “tales” (povest’) on the Mongol conquest, such as that on the Kalka River battle (1223; see KALKA RIVER, BATTLE OF), Mongol sack of Ryazan’ (1237), and the oppressive DARUGHACHI (basqaq) Ahmad (1284). Certain tales circulated separately, such as the 14th-century Tale of the Destruction of Ryazan’.

The 1380 defeat of the Mongols by Dmitrii Donskoi of Moscow created a famous epic, Sofony of Ryazan’s Zadonshchina (see KULIKOVO POLE, BATTLE OF). The sense of opened horizons found in many Islamic histories and in Chinese and European travel accounts, however, is com- pletely absent from the Russian chronicles. The Russian chronicles treat the Mongol conquest as a series of isolated episodes of oppression, assimilating them to biblical or apocalyptic categories or previous nomadic raids.

Armenian sources, while also using familiar biblical, apocalyptic, and historical categories, show far more interest in the MONGOL EMPIRE itself. The second half of the History of the Armenians (1266–67) by the monk Kirakos of Gandzak (c. 1205–71/2) is a vivid and wellinformed account of Mongol conquest and rule. Captured and briefly held prisoner by the Mongols as a scribe, Kirakos was familiar with the Mongolian language and leaders. Shorter and less personal is the History of the Nation of the Archers (1271) by Grigor of Akants’.

Both authors also give considerable information on the Mongols in GEORGIA. The rulers of LESSER ARMENIA, Constable Smbat and King Het’um I (1230–69), left records of their dealings with the Mongols. The Les Flor des estoires de la terre d’Orient (1307) of the knight-turned-monk Hayton (Het’um), dictated in French at Poitiers, gave Europe one of the most accurate accounts of the geography and history of the Middle East, together with an account drawn from personal knowledge of the campaigns of the Il- Khans against MAMLUK EGYPT.

The only significant Georgian source, The Georgian Chronicle, while I portant for the later reigns of the Mongol Il-Khan dynasty (1256–1335), lacks the broader vision of the Armenian histories. Among monuments of Syriac literature, the Yish‘iata demar Yahbaladha vderaban Sauma (History of the MAR YAHBH-ALLAHA and of Rabban Sauma, translated as Monks of Kublai Khan, c. 1318) is a hagiography of the ÖNGGÜD Christian clerics Mar Yahbh-Allaha and Rabban Sauma. Originally in Persian but extant only in Syriac translation, this work illustrates the Church of the East’s ties with the Il-Khans.


First Mongolian Bible

In his Chronography (Makhtebhanuth zabhne), Gregory Abu’l-Faraj Bar Hebraeus (1225–86), maphrian (primate) of the East for the Syrian Orthodox (Jacobite) Church, used oral and written sources (he praises ‘ALA’UD-DIN ATA-MALIK JUVAINI highly, for example) for his history of the Mongols. Unencumbered by official position, Bar Hebraeus was free to focus his informed good sense on communal riots, tribal turbulence, and other phenomena that official chroniclers such as RASHID-UDDIN tried to bury.

His church history section is also a main source on the early conversion of the KEREYID to Christianity. A continuator brought his political history forward to 1297. Apart from the famous accounts of the papal envoy JOHN OF PLANO CARPINI, the missionary WILLIAM OF RUBRUCK, and the merchant MARCO POLO, a number of other Latin Christian sources exist.

Simon of St. Quentin recorded the 1247 embassy to BAIJU. Latin works from Poland and Hungary included the travelogue of Friar Julian, who visited the Bashkirs (Bashkort) just as the Mongols were invading, and the narrative poem Carmen miserabile on the destruction of Hungary.


Friars involved in Roman Catholic missions of 1294 in the Mongol successor states also left letters and reports: John of Monte Corvino (1246–1328), Odoric of Pordenone (1286–1331), and John of Marignolli (fl. 1338–57).

The merchant handbook La Pratica della Mercatura (1340) of the Florentine Francesco Balducci Pegolotti describes trade in the Mongol world on the eve of its collapse in the wake of the BLACK DEATH. See also CENTRAL EUROPE AND THE MONGOLS; CHRISTIANITY IN THE MONGOL EMPIRE; RUSSIA AND THE MONGOL EMPIRE; WESTERN EUROPE AND THE MONGOLS.

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