We often tend to think of ancient and medieval Christendom principally as Roman and Byzantine (or Catholic and Orthodox) with only a few scattered 'Oriental' communions at the margins. But, in the early Middle Ages, the largest (or, to be more precise, most widespread) Christian communion in the world was the Syrian Nestorian Church, also called the East Syrian or Assyrian Church, or (more simply) the 'Church of the East'.

From the late fifth century, as they were progressively cut off from, and ultimately driven out of, West Syria and the greater Byzantine world, the Nestorians had no choice but to make a home for themselves beyond the eastern frontiers of the empire, in those parts of Syria controlled by Persia and in the Persian Empire itself.

East Syrian Christianity was a scholarly and ascetical tradition from a very early period, and always distinct in sensibility from the more Hellenized intellectual culture of Antioch, farther to the west. The city of Nisibis had been the chief East Syrian centre of learning until it was conquered by Persia in 363 and the scholars of the city had removed themselves in great numbers to Edessa. Among these was one of the most revered of Syrian saints, Ephraim Syrus (c.306-73): a theologian, scholar, poet, hymnode and servant of the ill, who founded a hospital in Edessa. But about a century later, on account of their refusal to subscribe to the formula of Chalcedon, the Byzantine emperor Zeno (d.491) expelled the Nestorians from Edessa, and they were forced to retreat to Nisibis again, and to the shelter of the Persian empire.

The Syrian capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon was thought to be the largest city in the world from 570 to 637...... the facade and open audience hall of the Sassanian palace at Ctesiphon in present-day Iraq.

The Nestorian East had quickly become a theological world unto itself. In 498, the bishop of Nisibis assumed the title 'Patriarch of the East'. In 553, the Second Council of Constantinople formally condemned the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia (c.350— 429), the Antiochian theologian and biblical exegete whose writings were foundational for East Syrian theology. By the late sixth century, the Assyrian Church had made its own pronouncements regarding the proper terminology of Christology. And, while the Persian empire came to tolerate the Nestorians, it persecuted those other forms of Syrian Christianity (principally Monophysite) that attempted to establish themselves within its boundaries.

The Church of the East, however, was quite equal to the task of self-governance. The School of Nisibis was a disciplined and monastic community that fostered the study of philosophy and theology. Nisibis and Jundishapur — as far as we can tell — became centres of the medical training for which Nestorian Christian monks and missionaries were so justly renowned in subsequent centuries. And the zeal of the East Syrian Church for winning converts did not falter before the prospect of vast geographical distances or dangerously alien cultures. Not only did it establish itself over time in the Mesopotamian region of the Persian empire, but in eastern Anatolia, Kurdistan, Turkestan and well beyond. All of Asia east of the Euphrates was open to its monks, and to no other Christians. In 635, Patriarch Yashuyab II (d.643) inaugurated a mission to China that flourished right through the age of the khans.

Monasteries, Schools and Hospitals

East Syrian Christian missions naturally followed the trade routes to the Far East. Merchant caravans from the Arabian peninsula, India, Central Asia and China passed through the Syrian city of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, and the monks of the Assyrian Church — trained in technical, scribal and medical skills — followed where those routes led, to find places where their training would make them and the gospel they had to preach welcome. By providing trained physicians and scholars and by building schools, libraries and hospitals, the East Syrian Church often proved itself an immense benefit to the areas where it settled.

Semitic Christianity had been well established in the Arabian peninsula in the fourth century, and in the late fifth century Syrian missions built a number of schools and monasteries there. There were both Jacobite (that is, Monophysite) and Nestorian Christians in the peninsula in the fifth and sixth centuries, but the latter predominated. Even after the rise of Islam drove Christianity and Judaism out of Arabia, Christianity persisted among some of the nomadic desert people and in isolated pockets for at least a century.

The late fifth century also saw the beginning of the Assyrian missions to Turkestan and, in time, to the Mongols.

We know that in 781 a Turkish king petitioned Nisibis for a bishop. And bishops were also established in Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand. These missions were soon extended to the Keraits, Uighurs and other Central Asian tribes.

The Radiant Religion

In 1625, Jesuit missionaries in Sian-fu in China's Shaanxi province discovered a stone stele bearing a long inscription, dating from 781, recounting the progress of the 'Radiant (or Illustrious) Religion' - that is, Christianity - in China. By the time of the Jesuit missions, the Chinese outposts of the East Syrian Church were no more; and, needless to say, the Roman Catholic world until then had had no idea that any form of Christianity had penetrated so far into the east. But for several centuries the Church of the East had extended from Syria to 'far Cathay'. According to the Sian—fu stele, it was the Tang emperor Taizong (d.649) who first received a Nestorian missionary, a Persian monk, whom he then gave permission to preach and, in 638, to found a monastery. Over the next two centuries, churches and monasteries were established in at least ten provinces.

The East Syrian Church in China suffered a reversal of fortunes in the ninth century, when the emperor Wuzong (d.846) laicized all the native,  priests and monks in the Middle Kingdom; the setback, however, was only temporary. There were still monasteries in China in the 11th century, and around 1095 the patriarch of the East, Sebaryeshu III, appointed a bishop to the see of Cathay (northern China). Even as late as the 13th century, when the Radiant Religion enjoyed the favour of the Mongol court of Kublai Khan (1215—95), Chinese monasteries were still being built. And in 1280 the Chinese bishop of Cathay became the Syrian patriarch of the East, under the nameYahbalaha III (d.l 317).

We can never know with certainty how far the East Syrian missions of late antiquity and the Middle Ages reached. The Thomas Christians of India were East Syrian in theology, loyalty and population from an early period, and the new immigrants who swelled the numbers of the Malankara Christians in the eighth and the ninth centuries were definitely East Syrian. As early as the sixth century, the traveller and writer Cosmas Indicopleustes (probably a Nestorian Persian) encountered East Syrian Christians on the remote island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean; and there are passing references in texts from later centuries to one or another bishop of Socotra. And East Syrian missions penetrated into Tibet before the late eighth century.

There is even some textual and physical evidence of East Syrian Christians in Sri Lanka, Java, Sumatra, Japan, Korea, Myanmar, Malaya, Vietnam and Thailand. Whether indeed the Church of the East spread quite so far remains a matter of scholarly debate; but — given the extent of the missions of which we know — it would be unwise to assume that there was any part of Asia (apart perhaps from the far north) untouched by them.



Many scholars believe that the eastward missions of the Assyrian Church, even in parts of Asia from which they were later driven out, left something of themselves behind in the form of subtle influences on the practices, devotions and art of other faiths. For instance, it has been suggested (not altogether implausibly) that one of the reasons that Tibetan monastic ritual differs from that of other forms of Buddhist monasticism - the elaborate robes, incense, holy water and so on - is that the liturgies of the Christians monks of the Church of the East left their mark upon it. 

[Guan Yin, the goddess of compassion, is one of the deities most commonly seen on altars in Chinese temples. Worshippers often ask her to provide sons, wealth and protection]

One of the more interesting speculations in this regard concerns the Chinese Buddhist goddess of compassion Guan Yin, a figure that was originally male. Guan Yin is a manifestation of the Indian bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara. The portrayal of Guan Yin as female may have begun as early as the fifth century in China, but it was not a universal practice until perhaps the 11th century.

Any veneration of a feminine saviour is something of an anomaly in Buddhist devotion; the earliest forms of Buddhism denied that any woman could achieve saving enlightenment, and the bodhisattvas of later Buddhism were always depicted as men. On the other hand, a bodhisattva supposedly can assume any form he chooses; and a devotion to the female manifestation of Avalokitesvara, in the form of the goddess Tara, can also be found in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism.

Even so, many scholars believe that the special characteristics of the veneration of Guan Yin in China - and especially her later iconography - might reflect something of the Christian veneration of the Virgin Mary.

This may or may not be true. Something, however, that is incontestably true is that in Japan during the period of the Tokugawa shogunate - beginning in 1603 - Christians were persecuted and had to conceal their faith, and consequently many chose to venerate Mary in the guise of Guan Yin (or Kannon, as she is known in Japan).

Small statues of the so-called Mary-Kannon have been preserved to this day.They are usually adorned by a single discreet cross, which one must search carefully to find.