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Christianity in the Mongol Empire

Updated: Nov 18, 2023

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.