During the age of the Crusades, the ancient churches of the East that had severed ties with the imperial Church after the Council of Chalcedon (451), or that had simply over time become isolated from the rest of Christendom, were in many cases scarcely touched by the great events and movements of Christian Europe. Many, however, were profoundly affected by the coming of the Crusades, in some cases permanently.

The 'monothelite' Maronite Christians of Lebanon, for instance, not only allied themselves with the crusaders, as guides and soldiers, but in 1182 renounced their 'heresy' and accepted union with Rome.


The Christians of Armenia, while unwilling to become Catholics, nevertheless had cause to be glad of the crusaders' arrival, at least at first. The eighth-century Muslim conquest of Armenia had in some sense liberated its people from Byzantine and Persian tyranny, and had allowed the Armenian Chuidi to resist the attempts of the Byzantine Church to convert it to Chalcedonian orthodoxy with impunity. That said, Arab rule was on occasion quite harsh. And, in the late tenth century, as the caliphate declined in strength, the Seljuqs invaded and proved more cruel, voracious and destructive masters than their Arab predecessors.

An independent kingdom of Lesser Armenia was established in formerly Byzantine territory in 1080, a kingdom that over more than two centuries often found it convenient to make common cause with the Latins against the Turks. The crusaders, moreover, shared the Armenians' hostility to the Greeks. There were even marriages between the royal families of the crusader kingdoms and Armenia.

The alliance came at a price, however. Throughout the 12th century, the Latin Christians - who enjoyed the position of strength - pressed the Armenians to adopt the Chalcedonian formula and to submit to Rome. Negotiations regarding reunion were frequent, and in some cases seem to have been inspired by genuinely ecumenical motives: the Armenian Catholicos Nerses IV 'the Gracious' (1098— 1173) advocated an ecumenical convocation of the Byzantine, Latin, Syrian, and Armenian Churches to seek a reunion of all.

In the 13th century, as a consequence of these talks, a schism erupted in the Armenian Church. A party of so-called 'uniates', led by the Catholicos Constantine I (d. 1267), publicly adopted the Chalcedonian formula. Thereafter the Armenians were divided between the Westernizers and the traditionalists. Latin missionaries were imported by the former, an alternative Catholicos was elected by the latter. Ultimately, however, the Armenians did not submit to Rome.

The Copts

The Copts of Egypt, like the Armenians, were relieved of Byzantine pressures to conform to the formula of Chalcedon by the Muslim conquests of the seventh century. The Arab invaders, unlike the Greeks, had no interest in suppressing the native religious culture of the Egyptian Church. The Coptic Christians were, nevertheless, reduced to a subject people, and on occasion were the victims of oppressions and violence. In general, though, they survived, and in many periods even thrived.

The age of the Crusades, however, was an unmitigated calamity for Egyptian Christians. Their Muslim rulers made no distinctions among different kinds of Christian, and it was not uncommon for them to suspect their Coptic subjects of secret sympathies for — or even conspiracies with — the crusaders. Of course, the Latin Christians harboured no love whatsoever for the Egyptian 'heretics'; the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, for instance, barred them from entering the city as pilgrims to Christ's sepulchre. Nor were they well treated during the early reign of Saladin: they were forced to pay enormous and punitive taxes and to wear special garb to mark them out; they were forbidden even to mount horses; the cathedral of Alexandria was demolished, along with various churches and monasteries; signs of Coptic unrest were violently contained; and many of the Christians of Nubia (Coptic in faith) were killed or enslaved.

Conditions somewhat improved after Saladin's conquest of Jerusalem. But in the last years of the Crusades (the latter half of the 13th century) and long after, the situation of Egyptian Christians under the new sultanate, the Mamelukes, was often dire.


The Christian empire of Ethiopia - though ecclesiastically united to the Coptic Church of Egypt - was largely isolated from the rest of the Christian world after the seventh century. However, protected as it was behind its vast mountain ranges, it remained impregnable to the Muslim armies that conquered Egypt and Nubia to the north. It had ceased to be a great mercantile power when it lost the Red Sea routes to Arab traders, and so had turned its diminished energies inward, away from the Eritrean Plain and southward from the Tigray Plateau, where it absorbed the lands and peoples of the East African highlands. One of these peoples, the Agew, were so well assimilated into Amharic culture that not only did they abandon their native tongue for Ge'ez and their native religion for Aksumite Christianity, they actually came to rule the Ethiopian empire, under the Zagwe Dynasty, from the late 12th to the late 13th centuries.  

The greatest of the Zagwe emperors was Gebre Meskel Lalibela, who reigned probably from 1189 to 1229, and under whom, it is said, the 11 great granite churches in the Zagwe capital Roha (now called Lalibela) were built.

The Zagwes were overthrown in the late 13th century by the Amharic royal house from the Ethiopian kingdom of Shewa. Thus was born - or reborn — the 'Solomonid' Dynasty, so named because it based its claim to imperial power upon its supposed descent from King Solomon's son by the queen of Sheba, Menelik I. Much of the great literary, cultural, architectural and religious renaissance of Ethiopia's 13th and 14th centuries - though it had begun under the Zagwes — was an expression of the imperial mythology of Ethiopia as the new Holy Land, and of the Shewan emperors as the true successors of the Davidic line.

[There is an early 12th-century fresco of Queen Martha of Nubia with the Virgin and Child, from the Basilica at Faras, the former capital of the northern Nubian kingdom of Nobatia (now in Sudan)]

During much of the 14th century, Ethiopia was a considerable military power, engaged in an incessant struggle to prevent Islamic encroachments, and even to act as something of a protector of the Copts in Egypt. The emperor 'Amda Tseyon (r. 1314-44) established armed garrisons and conducted fierce campaigns in the more vulnerable south; and more than once he and his successors threatened to divert the waters of the Nile and so reduce Egypt to a desert if the Mamelukes did not desist from their persecutions of the Copts. And the emperor Zar'a Yakob (r. 1434-68) — among whose military achievements was the crushing defeat of the Adal sultanate's armies in 1445 - even threatened to invade Egypt.

The East Syrian Church

Of the Oriental communions, none suffered a more tragic history during the later Middle Ages than the East Syrian or 'Nestorian' Church. Though East Syrian scholars and physicians had for centuries occupied an honoured place in the caliphate, and though they had at times even been allowed to breach official restrictions on the building of new churches, still theirs was a subordinate community, and in the 12th century they were subjected to many of the same

[The 11 immense and imposing granite churches at Lalibela in highland Ethiopia, constructed in the early 13th century, were literally hewn from deep terraces of rock, from ground level down, and then connected to one another by deep trenches and tunnels]

humiliating laws of behaviour and dress and many of the same ruinous taxes as were the Copts.

It was farther to the east, however, in Central and East Asia, that the Nestorian Church endured its greatest calamities: at the beginning of the 14th century, it was in geographic terms far and away the largest Church in Christendom; by the end of the century, it was among the smallest. Christians in Central Asia suffered terribly - as did everyone else around them - during the worst years of the Mongol conquests, when the 'Golden Horde' of Genghis Khan (c. 1150—1227) was destroying every village and city (even such great cities as Samarkand and Bukhara) in its path. But, in fact, the later khans were rather indulgent of the Nestorians. Mongke Khan (1208—59), grandson of Genghis and elder brother of Kublai (1215-94) and Hiilegu (1217-65), was reportedly drawn to Christianity. Hulegu took a Christian wife and, when his forces took Baghdad in 1258, those Christians who retreated into their churches during the slaughter were left unmolested. And Kublai tolerated and even perhaps somewhat favoured the East Syrian Church in China.

In the late 13th century, however, the great reversal began. In Baghdad, the Mongol ruler Ghazan Khan (r. 1295-1304) adopted Islam, and at once the East Syrian Christian community became the object of ferocious persecutions, including numerous massacres. In China, moreover, in 1369, the Ming Dynasty came to power and instituted a systematic extermination of foreign creeds, which quickly extinguished the Syrian Church in the Middle Kingdom. And in Central Asia the rampages of the Turkic Muslim warlordTimur (1336-1405) - among the most prolifically murderous psychotics of pre-modern history — left no living traces of East Syrian Christianity in their wake.


In the age of the Crusades, the Latin West's rather nebulous knowledge of Oriental Christianity helped give rise to the popular romantic legend of Prester John (or John the Priest), a Christian king ruling over a rich and mighty Christian kingdom somewhere far to the East. In some accounts, he was credited with miraculous powers and said to rule over a domain verging on an earthly paradise. His kingdom was variously thought to lie in India, East Asia or Ethiopia.

Reports of the St Thomas Christians of India - or even perhaps an Indian episcopal embassy to Rome in the days of Pope Callixtus II (d. 1124) - may have been the original inspiration for the legend. But the Cistercian monk Otto of Freising (c.l 114-58) in Chronicon of 1145, reports meeting a Bishop Hugh of Jabayl in Lebanon, who told him that King John -described as a Syrian and a descendant of one of the Magi who visited the Christ child - had recently defeated the Persians at Ecbatana.

This may be a confused account of the defeat of the Seljuqs by the Mongol khan Yelu Dashi (a Buddhist, as it happens) in Katwan, Persia in 1141. If so, it mirrors the story told in 1221 by the bishop of Acre Jacques de Vitry, on his return from the Fifth Crusade, of the victories won over the Muslims in the East by King David of India - either the son or grandson of Prester John. This King David, it seems reasonably certain, was actually none other than Genghis Khan.

The most fascinating episode in the development of this legend is 'Prester John's Letter' (see below), which - according to Alberic de Trois-Fontaines in the 13th century - first appeared in 1165. In this document (addressed supposedly to the Holy Roman emperor Frederick I, the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus and other Christian princes), Prester John, Christian king of the Three Indies' and guardian of St Thomas' tomb, boasts of the natural splendours and high civilization of his realm, and declares his intention to take Jerusalem. Copies of the letter - in many languages and variants - spread throughout Europe. Pope Alexander III (c.l 100-81) allegedly even penned a reply in 1177.

In the 14th century and after, Europeans began to identify Prester John with the emperor of Ethiopia, and it was as a mysterious and powerful Ethiopian monarch that the Christian king of the East entered into later romances - most memorably, perhaps, in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso.

'Our land is the home of elephants, dromedaries, camels, crocodiles ... hyenas, wild horses, wild oxen, and wild men - men with horns, one-eyed men, men with eyes before and behind, centaurs, fauns, satyrs, pygmies, forty-ell-high giants, cyclopses, and similar women ... When we go to war, we have fourteen golden and bejewelled crosses borne before us instead of banners. Each of these crosses is followed by ten thousand horsemen and one hundred thousand foot soldiers ....'

The Letter of Prester John (1165)