THE Syriac Communities in Iran
From the First Centuries up to 1552
A Lecture given by Fr Jean Maurice Fiey o.p.
Translated from French
with an accompanying Map
giving the location of the churches mentioned in the lecture.
(The Dominican Fr Jean Maurice Fiey (1914-1995) was one of the great scholars of the history of the Church in Iran. During a life time of research he produced many articles and books on the subject. In 1971, drawing on his vast knowledge of the topic, Fr Fiey gave a lecture in Tehran where he outlined the history of the Church in this country up to 1552. Though the title of the lecture is "Syriac Communities in Iran", he deals with the broader history of the Church in Iran up to the 16th century. The following is a translation of the lecture, together with a map based on the one which was made for the occasion. The spelling of the names of the locations have been changed to modern English usage.)
click on map to enlarge
First and Second Centuries
The Third Century
The Fourth Century
The Fifth Century
The Sixth Century
The Seventh Century
The Patriarchate of Timothy (780-823)
The Dioceses of the Church in the Year 900
The Thirteenth Century
The Seeds of Destruction
The Sixteenth Century
The Christian Heritage in Iran
Gregory Bar Hebraeus 1226-1286
There are several Churches which use Syriac as their liturgical language. Those which interest us here are the EAST SYRIAN CHURCH and the WEST SYRIAN CHURCH.
The West Syrian, sometimes after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 called MONOPHYSITE, was attached directly to the Diocese of Antioch. It is also known as the JACOBITE Syrian Church from Jacob Baradaeus who had spread its doctrine in the Persian Empire after 553.
The Eastern Syrian Church, properly called the CHURCH OF PERSIA, having at its head the Catholicos-Patriarch who resided in the capital of the Parthians and Sassanids, Ctesiphon and Veh-Ardashir, was independent of Antioch after the 4th century and had in large part adopted NESTORIANISM, especially after the years 485/486.
The general history of this Church of Persia has been abundantly studied, especially by scholars such as Jerome Labourt who published in 1904 his History of Christianity in the Persian Empire up to the Arab Conquest (in 635), and Cardinal Eugene Tisserant who in 1931 completed the work in his classical article Nestorian (Church), in the Dictionary of Catholic Theology.
In the Persian language we should note chiefly the book of the deceased scholar, Sa'id NAFISI, Masihiat dar Iran ta Sadr-i Islam, which appeared in 1964.
These works, to cite only the principal ones, give the general history of the Church of Persia, a history both glorious and moving.
What I wish to outline today is the history of the first fifteen centuries of the Syrian Churches, Eastern and Western, in Iran proper. Indeed what is called in Syriac the Beth Parsayé, the country of the Persians (by contrast to Beth Romayé, the Byzantine Syria). Persia or Beth Parsayé is itself made up of two regions. The ancients had a very clear understanding of the division when they spoke of Iran and non-Iran. This was translated in the civil point of view by the existence of two centers: one in south Fars, around Istakhr, the religious and traditional center especially from the time of the Sassanids, where the largest collection of fire temples and royal stone reliefs is found; the other (non-Iran) in the west, Ctesiphon, the commercial center founded by the Arsacids (circa 140 B.C.) and retaken by the Sassanids (226 A.D.) who soon aligned it with the city of Veh-Ardashir nearby.
"Persian" Christianity clearly had the royal cities as its center. The establishment of the first church, the future patriarchal Church of Kokhe (at Ctesiphon), can be fixed at between 79 and 116 of the Christian era.
For the Syriac authors, Ctesiphon was the center of what they called Beth Aramayé, the ancient Babylon. Starting from Edessa and passing through Nineveh, Christianity had spread along the banks of the Tigris in the provinces of Athor (the ancient Assyria of Nineveh), and to the south of Beth Aramayé, and Nésene (Basrah). In the Mesopotamian desert, that is to say Beth Arabayé, the country of the Arabs, it extended along the caravan routes and the Euphrates.
The large Christian Arab tribes are well known, perhaps the most celebrated being the Ibadites of Hira, governed by the Lakhmides whom the Sassanids had set as guard over their frontier and as a controlling influence over the tribes (and the dioceses) to the west of Gulf; and the Taghlibites, nomads who had two bishoprics, at Ana on the Euphrates and at Jazira ibn Umar on the Tigris.
These districts to the west (of modern Iran) then became the heart of the Church of Persia. From them the Church spread eastwards, to what came to be called the Archbishoprics of the Interior.
On the other hand, when the advance of Heraclius in 629 allowed those who rejected Nestorianism to become organized, the West Syrian Catho¬licate of Takrit (a future Maphrianate) actually only extended as far as the borders of Beth Parsayé. This area was effectively controlled by the Byzantines.
The question then arises at the outset: was this Church of Persia also the Church of Iran? To answer the question it is necessary to follow the path of Christianity beyond the valley of the Tigris, across the mountains and toward the east.
Here we must allow the map to speak. There is important reservation however; since our documentation is quite fragmentary it is often impossible to decide whether the earliest date given at any particular place really constitutes the church's true appearance there. It is often possible, and sometimes indeed probable, that the founding date of a diocese (for example) could be more ancient than its first attestation in the texts. While always leaving the door open to this possibility, in any case, we must content ourselves with the dates available to us.
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First and Second Centuries.
What do the dates reported on the map reveal? First of all, for the period at the end of the first century and throughout the second, we have but a vague fog of tradi¬tions and it is difficult to judge whether these are ancient or late.
Several cities of Iran claim to trace their Christianity to the Apostles:
Salmas - Khosrowa to St. Bartholomew, Rev Ardashir (in Fars) to St Thomas, Urmia to the Magi Kings returned from the nativity, etc. The claims of other cities and provinces are more modest (Beth Lapat, Gundeshapur and Khuzestan, Fars, Gilan ...) claiming the disciple Mar Mari as the evangelist of the East.
The first written witness comes from the Liber Legum Regionem of Philip, the disciple of Bardaisan, written between 196 and 236, which extols the moral and civilizing influence of Christianity on the Persians and the Gels (a people of Gilan in the north). The former, he says, no longer take their sisters and daughters as wives. And the wives of the latter, while maintaining their resistance to work, show themselves more discreet toward their fellows. Here again we cannot make generalizations and it would be rash to attribute too much value to a text which is really oratorical and symbolical.
It must be acknowledged, especially if we do not consider the troublesome Chronicle of Erbil by pseudo Mshiha Zkha, that the details regarding the presence of Christianity in Iran before the end of the Arsacide-Parthian dynasty in 224 A. D. are largely a matter of conjecture.
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By the 3rd. century, the picture we have, even though still quite fragmentary, is clearly more precise. There was little mention of Christians yet under the first Sassanid, Ardashir, crowned on 26 September 226. However his successor Shapur I (226-272), by transporting hundreds of thousands of captives taken in the course of his victorious ex¬peditions which reached as far as the city of Antioch, may be regarded as the true planter of Chris¬tianity in Elam, Media, Fars, Gilan, and the other provinces whose bishops at the beginning of the 5th century were to participate in the first synods whose acts have come down to us.
The king himself, in the inscription at Naqsh-i Rustam which has been called his Res Gestae (and of which there is also a Greek version) enumerates the cities he took in the course of three campaigns and adds: "And the men taken in the Roman Empire and among the non-Iranians we have led away in deportation. And in all the Empire of Iran, in Parthia, Susa, and Asorestan, and in every other country where there are domains of our father, grandfathers and ances¬tors, there we have settled them". In some cases the Syriac texts specify the places of origin of the captives who built or rebuilt such and such a city. The most celebrated case is that of Demetrius, Bishop of Antioch, who was taken with his people in 256 to Gundeshapur, "the better Antioch of Shapur."
Despite the rise of a priestly caste, represented by the Magi Kartir, and the emergence of a jealous Zoroastrianism, which resulted in the death of Mani in 276 and in the reaction against other religions including the "Nazarenes" and the "Christians" who, Kartir tells us in the inscription of the Ka'ba Zartosht at Naqsh-e Rustam, were "destroyed"; - despite all that, the stream of displaced people continued with the continued victories of the Sassanids. New cities were established everywhere: Ramhormoz by Hormoz I in 272/3, Kermanshah by the future Vahram I, etc.
The ascendency of the Sassanids continued during the long reign of Shapur II who abandoned the summer residence of his predecessors at Gundeshapur for Karka of Ledan (Iwan-i Karkha). He peopled the latter with captives from "Arab, Beth Zabdai, Sinjar, Arzun, Qardu, Armenia and other places." When we come to discuss the contributions of Christianity to Iran, we shall see that these captives were qualified artisans, selected by the kings for settlement in different regions.
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The accounts of the great persecution which broke out in 341 and which lasted forty years (a consequence of the adoption of Christianity by the Roman enemy, Constantine), reveal the extent of Christianity in Iran proper. Among the victims mentioned were bishops of Beth Lashpar (Hulwan) and Hormizd Ardashir (Suq al-Ahwaz), Christians of Rev Ardashir, Istakhr and Shushtar, soldiers of Gilan, etc. Dado, chief of the army at Beth Madayé (Hamadan) had preceded them in martyrdom in 332.
The great massacre of Christians in Khuzistan in 34l and which, in principle, spared "in all the Orient only the sons of the Greeks" proves that Christianity had not remained limited to the latter. Some of the martyrs listed have Syriac names while others are Persian. Situations are described of conversions among the local population who were stirred by the faithfulness of these martyrs in the face of death. Just one example: we are told that when 275 Christians, who were being led from Beth Zabdai toward Karka d- Ledan, crossed the Masabdan, pagan shepherds who were themselves deported people from Kerman, embraced the religion of the persecuted.
Before leaving the 4th century, we remember that we should not underestimate the efforts of certain missionary preachers as a factor in the expansion of Christianity. Thus, for example, Bishop Miles of Ray (near today's Tehran), himself a convert from Zoroastrianism, tried in vain for three years around 350 to convert the inhabitants of Susa. According to the hagiography, the despairing bishop called for divine punish¬ment on the city. It was destroyed by Shapur II.
Another remarkable example of missionary endeavor is that of Bar Saba who evangelized Merv between 370 and 400. The work had been prepared by one whom texts call Shiraran, a sister/wife of Shapur, exiled and given in marriage to Shirwan, marzban (commander) of Merv, an Aspahbed of Khorasan. Shapur having died in 397, Bar Saba was able also to convert Zoroastrians. His disciples, the Chronicle tells us, spread into all the cities of Khorasan. We note that a change in religion from Zoroastrianism to Christianity was not without risks, even under the more liberal Sassanid monarchs, because apostasy from the official religion was regarded as treason, as passing over to On-Iranism. Up to the last days of the Sass¬anid Empire, former Zoroastrians paid with their lives for daring to convert.
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At the beginning of the 5th century, the period for which we have the information from the first synod documents, we are confronted by an extraordinary flowering of East Syrian dioceses, all of them attached to the Church of Ctesiphon which by then had become officially Nestorian. In Fars there were bishops at Bishapur (Kazrun), Darabgerd, Siraf, and Rev Ardashir which was to become a bishopric between 415 and 420; in Elam, Beth Huzaye and Khuzistan; at Hormizd Ardashir (Suq al-Ahwaz), Shushtar, Gay (Isfahan) and Gundeshapur, an archbishopric founded in 410; at Beth Madaye, the future Jebal, and Beth Lashpar, the future Kurdistan; at Hamadan, Hulwan and Ray, the latter two being future archbishoprics; in Azerbaijan; at Ganzak; in Hyrcani: at Gorgan where it is specified that the diocese consisted in deportees; in Khorasan; at Abr Shahr (Nishapur), Tus, Merv, and Herat, the latter two being archbishoprics in the 6th century; in Segestan: at Zarang ... not counting all the cities in which a bishop, attested in the 6th century, may already have existed in the 5th.
It was also in the 5th century that Christianity began to expand from the cities and commercial centers, along the highways, to penetrate the countryside and mountain areas. In Yazdin, a former Zoroastrian himself, and his nephew Pethion, we have the example of two monks working out from the centers of Beth Medaye and Maishan, evangelizing villages and building churches, converting even the Mobed (Zoarastrian priest of certain rank) of Dinawar, Adhor Hormizd, and his daughter Anahit, who were martyred in 448.
We have just spoken of monks. The importance of monasticism to eastern Christianity is well known; the convent was most often the school of theology, communities of monks provided missionaries, and soon bishops were chosen exclusively from among them. Based on the Mu'djam al Buldan of Yaqut al-Hamawi, Professor Nafisi has given a list of convents of which it is easy to determine those that were in Iran proper. I have myself added several names to that list. A great wave of monasticism originating in Abraham of Kashkar was to reach Iran in second half of the 6th century. In this 5th century, however, one can already find reference to monks and superiors of convents: Bar Shewa, martyred with his ten monks in 549 at Istakhr; Badna, in Blam, martyred in 376/7; "the child of oath" (son of a monastery) Vahuman, martyred at Ganzak before 379; Klilisho and his disciple Saba-Gushnazad, died near Dinawar in 487; and there were probably others.
If it is true that Christianity in the new cities was primarily a Greek importation (that is foreign), it became quickly indigenized to Iran (although Greek did continue to be used as a second language). It adopted Nestorianism, the local doctrine, and rapidly grew in native membership. We note, for example, that from the time of Shapur I, Gundeshapur had two churches, one called "of the Rum" and the other "of the Karmanians". Prayers were said there in Greek and Syriac. Also, as we shall see later, John of Daylam founded two convents side by side near Arrajan, one for bro¬thers where prayer was in Greek, and the other for "Iranians" where prayer was in Syriac.
This pluralism within the Church of Iran was sometimes facilitated by the authorities themselves. Thus for example, in order to further their integration, Shapur mixed the Roman "tribe" he had transported to Karka d-Ledan in Khuzestan at the time of its establishment, with the thirty Persian tribes of similarly displaced people. This method of settlement aided the spread of Christianity.
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In the 6th century we have a picture which resembles that of the previous one. At the beginning of the century, Kavadh I restored Arrajan (near Behbehan, Khuzistan), where he settled the captives from Mayafarkin and Amed, calling the city "the better Amed of Kavat." In 540, when Khosro I wanted to build his palace near Ctesiphon, where the famous arch (the Taq Kisra) still stands, he transported specialized craftsmen from Antioch. The site became a luxurious Roman villa with baths, hippodrome and churches, ca11ed "The better Antioch of Khosro." For this third Antioch (called Al-Rumiya by the Arabs) he brought an indigenized Greek governor from the second Gundeshapur.
From around 540, we have a list of the churches in Gundeshapur. There were four in all, two of them having Syriac names: Mar Abraham and Bar Nahla, the other two having Iranian names: the house of Mihr Bozid and the house of Yazd-i Dad. They were served by 10, 11, 3 and 5 priests respectively. The signatories of this same document provide us with a glimpse of nature of the Christian community in Gundeshapur at the middle of the 6th century: there is mention of the head of the royal workmen, a general, merchants including the president of a guild, leading silversmiths, goldsmiths, tinsmiths, etc.
Again, in the same period, captives from Syria (Resh 'Agna and Ras al'Ayn) were sold to the Hephtalite Huns and transported into the district of Baghis, today an area on the Soviet-Afghan frontier, "in the district where peace is not found". There they converted the people of the country and, in 549, presented one of them, Mar Aba, for episcopal consecration. The news of this was known to Cosmas Indicopleustes who left an account of the expansion of Christianity among the Huns.
Up to this point we have only dealt with the growth of the East Syrian or Nestorian Church, that is the Church of Persia. Even the transplanted "Syrians," as we shall see, depended on the Catholicos of Ctesiphon as their bishop.
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At the beginning of the 7th century the situation was changing. There were defections of prominent people from the Nestorian ranks, including the royal chief doctor, Gabriel of Sinjar and even Queen Shirin herself. These defections furthered the cause of the anti-Nestorians for whom Jacob Baradaeus had provided a clergy in the mid 6th century. From 609 to 628 Gabriel succeeded in blocking the nomination of a Catholicos. It was for this reason that the captives deported from Edessa into Iran in 609 now held on to their own West Syrian rite.
This first group was soon to be joined, in 628, by 900 "Jacobite" and Armenian merchants. Having arrived in Persian territory with the army of Heraclius, they were forced to move to the interior of the country by the anarchy and insecurity of the latter years of the Sassanids. Unable to return home, they made their way into such areas as Khorasan, Segestan, Gorgan and Azerbaijan.
Around 640, they procured bishops from Antioch who governed the dioceses of Herat, Zarang, Azerbaijan (perhaps Urmia), from the trading center of Abaskun to Gurgan and, later, from Farah to Segestan.
For the first time we meet with merchants who sustained the Christianity of the displaced people. The massive influx of 900 Syrian merchants in 628 cannot have been the only one. We recall what St. Jerome wrote, about 403, of these same Syrians: "the most avid and mercantile of men". Their love of money, he said, "made them roam the world; now that the Roman Empire is troubled by war, they pursue the madness of commerce to the point of hunting wealth in the midst of swords and the death of the unfortunate. They flee poverty at the risk of the greatest perils." One may presume, then, that Syrian merchants at least profited from periods of respite in the endemic war between the Persians and Byzantium to infiltrate "among the swords." It was thanks to them that the Huns "learned the Psalter" said St. Jerome who added poetically, "frosty Scythia burns with the heat of the faith."
Later around the year 800 we again meet merchants, by then "Iraqis", who received Bishop Elie into their caravan as far as Muqan. There he interpreted a dream for the King of the Keraites who had dreamt that while out hunting he had encountered a mysterious person who had saved his life. The bishop interpreted it as a vision of St George, thus preparing for the conversion of 200,000 people in 1007/8.
The fact that merchants served as harbingers of Christianity is not unique to the 7th century. What was new was the fact that now they were the ones to sustain the faith of the displaced peoples.
Another important factor was that in coming into what was until recently a territory reserved almost exclusively to the Church of Persia, they maintained their West Syrian faith, thus creating a second church, Monophysite, which (as All-Biruni was to comment in the 10th. century) remained always a minority compared to the Nestorians, but whose centers remained equally vigorous for several centuries.
The West Syrian Church continued to grow throughout the 7th century. Metropolitan Elie of Merv reports the conversion of a king of the Turks around 650; monk John, a prisoner of the Dylamite plunderers, preached the Gospel to them, and Rabban Shapur in Elam converted pagans and Kurds.
The middle and end of the century also saw the arrival of numerous monks from Iraq, fleeing the troubled situation during the years between the first appearance of Muslin troops and the consolidation of their conquest.
There was the above mentioned Rabban Shapur (whose convent near Dulab is perhaps to be identified with Dayr Hamin of Yaqut), Rabban Malkisho, founder of the New Convent of Gundeshapur, the convents of Shuhalmaran and of Abraham at Nasabdan, of George of Merv at Zrk near Merv, of Rabban Georgius in the mountains of Fars, etc. This movement of monks continued into the beginning of the 8th century with the convent of David bar Notara near Merv, a convent of religious sisters at Dawnaq near Nahawand, and others whose names are not known: Dayr Ablaq in the region of Ardashir Khura, Dayr Khandof in Khuzestan, Dayr Zor on the road to Ahwaz, Dayr Ghadr near Hulwan whose last monk was to be killed by Abu Nuwas and which was to become a place of discord, Dayr Kardashir between Ray and Qum, Dayr Mikhraq in Khuzistan, Dayr-i Shaykh Ibrahim at Singan near Ushnu, a convent of Saints Peter and Paul "on the Iranian frontier", and certainly many others.
The Muslim conquest is also the epilogue to the Sassanid era. At Merv in Khorasan the last Yuzdegerd died ignominiously in 651, assassinated at the house of a miller. Abu l'Qasim al Ferdowsi reports that he was buried by some monks, "the sons of Rum" whom his ancestors had deported from their own land.
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Patriarchate of Timothy (780-823)
After the struggle for the Muslim conquest of Iran, the Christian presence was, one can say stable for nearly a century; until the patriarchate of Timothy the Great who ruled from 780 to 823.
During the time of this famous Nestorian patriarch, it has been written, "one can affirm without fear of error that the Nestorian Church realized its greatest expansion and its most remarkable prestige." It is indeed true that in his time Nes¬torian monks "crossed the seas even to India and China, having for baggage only their staff and wallet." In was in this period that Turkestan, Mongolia and Tibet were evangelized. "Timothy brought the Khāqān, King of the Turks to the Christian faith, and other kings of similar importance." All that is true; but we must also record that in Iran itself the missionary expeditions of Timothy were blocked.
What was happening in Iran? At the same time that the diocese of Ray (today's Tehran) was raised to the rank of archbishopric, Timothy had launched a missionary expedition toward Gilan and Daylam, "countries of barbarians so remote from civilization and all good works that (still at the end of the 8th. century) in addition to the worship of fire and the stars, they also worshipped trees, wooden sculptures, animals, fish, reptiles, etc.".
After a search in one of his leading convents, Beth 'Awe, the patriarch appointed the right man for the mission, a pious ascetic, the monk called Shuhalisho; although an Arab, he was equally well versed in Syriac and Persian.
How are we to explain the failure of the enterprise? The principal reason was that he made the mistake of trying to impress the people by travelling in an opulent manner. As his biographer Thomas of Marga reasoned, "they were barbarians - and needed to see something of grandeur and outward glory to incline them to approach Christianity with love." In fact what happened was that highway bandits only saw wealth to be pillaged and they assassinated the new bishop.
Undaunted by this loss, Timothy redoubled his efforts. In place of one archbishop for both Gilan and Daylam (in present day province of Gilan), he divided the area in two parts and looked for candidates again at the monastery Beth 'Awa. Alas! The enthusiasm of the monks had cooled after the martyrdom of Shuhalisho. The patriarch "pressed any who could do it to accept the office, but no one wished to undertake such a task for the love of God."
In this situation, the Patriarch was "obliged" (that is the word used by the chronicler) to designate two pious brothers, one a bookbinder and the other a calligrapher, and he sent then with fifteen monks, from among whom bishops were chosen for the countries "beyond Gilan and Daylam." In fact seven suffragan dioceses were created.
Timothy also wished to send a bishop to Muqan (north west of iran). For this task he found a holy man, the monk Elias. Elias, with a cross mounted on his staff and the Gospel hanging from his neck, left by foot for Muqan with a caravan of merchants. It was reported that these good monks performed many miracles and, it is said, made many conversions. After many years Elias wanted to see his monastery Beth 'Awe again. He returned and died there. We do not know whether he was replaced at Muqan as it is not afterwards mentioned as a diocese.
Moreover, none of the three eparchies or territories established by Timothy are to be found a century later in the Tables of Elias of Damascus. It seems that the great missionary thrust of Timothy in northern Iran had no follow-up. Even in his own lifetime the authoritarian Patriarch had trouble finding candidates for the "non-princely thrones" outside "flourishing cities and civilized areas." His successors, all of them ephemeral, were to have neither his ability nor his authority to follow up the work he had started.
One can indeed appreciate the dangers attached to such expeditions. In addition to the normal insecurity of travel there was the dangerous political situation, the harshness of the climate, and the savagery of the population. But it must also be admitted that the missionary zeal of the monks had been somewhat blunted. While they were drawn to a life of fasting and privations, always ascetic and indeed sometimes spiritual, the monk of the 9th century was afraid of losing not so much his serenity as his blessed solitude. This phenomenon becomes evident when see that the same convent of Beth 'Awe refused to let the Patriarch of the time establish an apostolic school within the convent.
In the 9th. century this lack of missionary zeal was even more marked. Timothy complained bitterly in one of his letters to his friend Sergius, Archbishop of Elam, about the shortage of capable men available to lead the remote churches. A superior of a convent forsook a charge which he found too heavy. Monks and scholastics were deaf to the pleas of the Patriarch; they were even unmoved by his threats. They pointed to the dangers of travel, the bad climate and the poverty of the dioceses. This attitude is due in fact, said Timothy, to a spirit of insubordination.
An extreme example, still in the time of Timothy, is that of the monk Hnanisho whom the Patriarch named Archbishop of Sarbaz, in Baluchistan. He accepted the sacred office but then withdrew at his actual moment of departure for "those unculti¬vated plains and savage solitudes" (as Al-Dstakhri puts it), preferring to return to his cell. There was a similar case around 1070, involving a West Syrian Bishop of Segestan by the name of Philozeme.
Many bishops deserted their sees in order to return to more hospitable countries: Abraham, Bishop of Gay (Isfahan) in the time of Timothy himself; also John, West Syrian Archbishop of Zarang around 1130, etc. The Patriarchs might interdict and excommunicate these bishops, but defeatism would prevail in the end, and the shortage of suitable candidates would force those responsible to consecrate unfit men, such as the unrepentant bishop whom Patriarch George of Antioch re-consecrated in 767 because he was willing to go "to the lower regions of Segestan and Herat".
The result of this state of affairs began to be felt even in the time of Timothy. The lack of bishops had already undermined the life of dioceses. Even in Elam, we are told that priests and laymen "conducted themselves in a way more inspired by pagan principles and the laws of the Zoroastrian Magi than by Christianity."
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The Dioceses of the Church in the Year 900
In the year 900, in the midst of these troubles caused as much by a decline in spirituality as by the unstable political situation (at this time the local dynasties fought and succeeded one another at an accelerated tempo throughout Iran), a report called the Tables of Elias of Damascus provides a list of the East Syrian dioceses of Iran, divided into seven Provinces:
The Seven Provinces of the East Syrian Church and their Dioceses
- Ray, on which Gorgan depended;
- Herat, to which Segestan was attached;
- Merv, with its three mysterious suffragans of Dayr Hans, Damadut
and A'bar Sanai;
- Qand probably Samarkand of the Turks;
- Persides, the most important, with eight bishoprics: Shiraz, Istakhr, Shabur, Kerman, D arzbgerd, Siraf, Marmadit (?) and the island of Soqotra;
- Barda'a, in Greater Armenia;
- and finally Hulwan with the bishoprics of Dinawar, Hamadan, Nahawand
and AI-Karj of Abu Dulaf.
Time does not permit us to follow the vicissitudes of these dioceses in detail. Our knowledge about them is limited for the most part to some names of bishops; shadows whose lives and activities remain unknown.
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The 13th Century
Following this era of war and destruction, a period of peace permitted one area of the Iranian Church to achieve new life. Up to this time Azerbaijan had scarcely played any role in the life of the Church or indeed in that of the Kingdom. Then in 1256, Hulaga, the Mongol ruler, chose Maragheh for his capital. Tabriz was to become capital under the later Il-Khans.
It was at this period that the center of the ecclesiastical life moved from the western region to the area east of Lake Urmia. Thanks to the work of two remarkable men, the Maphrian Gregory bar Hebraeus of the West Syrians and the Mongol Patriarch Yahwalaha III for the East Syrians, the Church enjoyed a period of prosperity which was to influence not only its intellectual life (as we shall see later on) but also the location of its important centers. Many churches and the last convents erected on Iranian soil date from this period; these include the convent of Barsauma, near Tabriz, which was visited by Marco Polo, the West Syrian "New Convent" at Maragheh and importantly, that of St. John the Baptist at Maragheh, completed by Yahwaisha in 1301.
In Azerbaijan, alongside the Syrian churches, there were now also the Latin Missions of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders, supported by commercial treaties between Venice and the Mongols. A Latin hierarchy was established in 1318, with an archbishop at Soltaniyeh and bishops at Tabriz, Maragheh and Dihkirgan.
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Seeds of Destruction
Notwithstanding these promising signs, the seeds of destruction of Iranian Christianity had already been sown. Whereas in Syria, the local Christians knew how to keep their distance from the Crusaders, Christianity in Iran became a victim of its too intimate collusion with the Mongols. After centuries of relatively peaceful coexistence with Islam, in a relationship of client (dhimmi) to protector, the Christians of the II-Khans' Empire, believed that this situation could now return thanks to the patronage of influential Nestorian Mongol women such Dokuz Khatun, wife of Hulagu to mention only the most famous. The ropes of the tent-church were intertwined with these of the Sovereign's pavilion when the Latin missionaries sent by popes tried to convince the Mongols to open a second front in the East to support the Crusades and trap the Muslins in a powerful pincer movement.
This presumptuous attitude of Christians, an attitude pointed out by Rashid al-Din in Mongolia, by the author of Qula'id al-Jawaher in Damascus, at Erbil and Vartelli in Iraq, and elsewhere, provoked an often violent reaction whenever the Mongol control was relaxed. The situation then became catastrophic for Christianity from the day the Mongols themselves embraced Islam.
Yahwalaha III, the Mongol Patriarch, who died in 1317, was unable to halt the massacre of Christians in Erbil (in Iraq) in 1310. He retired to Maragheh where he died and was buried in the great convent there. Less than twenty years later his remains, were removed from the place.
Yet in 1316, one year before the death of Yahwalaha, 'Awdisho (Ebedjesus) the Metropolitan of Nisiba, could still proudly draw up a list of fifteen Archbishoprics of the East Syrian Church, eight of which were in Iran itself: Elam, Hulwan and Hamadan, the Persides, Merv and Nishapur, the Turks, Ray, Qum and Kashan, Herat and finally Arran and the country of the Alsins, an area in the Russian Azerbaijan of today. Unfortunately the writer does not name the suffragen dioceses of those archbishoprics.
In addition to these reasons for the disintegration of the Christian presence there was also now, in the 14th century the scourge of the black plague which swept over Iran on its route from China to Europe, and along with this plague came another - the devastation of the campaign of Timer Lang.
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The 16th Century
After this era of ruin and desolation, the next period for which we have information on the size of the Christian community is during the time of Sulaga, consecrated first Chaldean Catholic Patriarch in 1552. One learns from the remaining bishops that the only surviving Christian communities existing in Iran were now those in the region of Salmas and Tabriz. It was to this area also (at Solduz, Espurghaum, then Wastan) that the Eastern Patriarch was to fall back after leaving Mara¬gheh and before eventually retiring into the inaccessible mountains of Turkish Hakkari. Even with the numerous members of the hierarchy recorded by 'Awdisho IV for 1562, no diocese extends beyond the limited region of the eastern side of Lake Urmia.
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The Christian Heritage in Iran
Having traced the story of the expansion and decline of the Church of Iran, we attempt to reflect on what kind of contribution it made to the general life of the country during the 1500 years we have covered.
We have already seen how the kings of Persia made use of the technically skilled captives he had brought into and settled in various parts of the country.
The manufacture of textiles is one of the skills which we hear mentioned as being commonly found among the early Christians in Iran. R. F. Sargeant has collected from Persian and Arab geographers and historians all the references to the Muslim textile industry up to the time of Mongol conquest. The Syriac sources would complete this dossier. The Passion of Possi, which recounts his martyrdom at Karka d'Ledan in 314 tells of his father, a weaver of cloth and an embroiderer in gold who was first transported from Roman territory to Bishapur and from there to Karka d'Ledan at the time of its construction. Shapur erected a workshop there for his craftsmen near the summer palace. Possi himself became head of the artisans and finally Karusbad, that is, prefect of the royal artisans.
Much of the manufacture of precious cloth in Iran up to the Middle Ages was part of the heritage of those Christian craftsmen, in particular the brocade called Rumi which was considered the most worthy to cover the Ka'aba in Mecca.
The Syriac language never became the second official language in Iran. It is possible, however, that certain Sassanid kings regarded the learning of that language as a useful addition in the education of their sons. Thus around 250 the future Vahran I, when he was still only the Gilan Shah, had the rudiments of Syriac taught to his son, the future Vahran II.
As for Writing, the Nestorian characters furnished the basis of several alphabets in Central Asia and the Far East, for example, the Sogdienne, Mongol, and Manchu scripts. The latter two utilized characters derived from the Uighur forms. If, as St. Jerome declares, "the Huns learned the Psalter" back in 403 thanks to the daring of Syrian merchants, the language of the Huns was put into writing around 530 by the deported Syrians John of Resh 'Ayna and Thomas the Tanner.
Of note also was contribution of the Armenian Bishop Macarios of the same period. Visiting the same prisoners, he was not satisfied merely to build a church for them and for the Huns who shared their religion, but also initiated a technical and teaching program for the Huns in the rudiments of agriculture.
There is much to be said about their contribution in the field of medicine. In their winter palaces, the White Palace of Ctesiphon or the Taq Kisra of Aspanabar, and the summer castles at Gundeshapur, Karka of Ledan and then Hulwan, the Sassanid kings surrounded themselves with doctors, many of whom were Christian.
The first of whom we have notice were the doctors of Susa, "the cleverest of Ahwaz and Fars," according to Al-Tha'alibi who treated Shapur l until his death in 273. At the time there an Indian doctor working alongside the doctors of the Greek captives. The role played by Dr. Burzawayh was more than that of bringing the text of Kalila and Dimna from India. Through his work Iran became the meeting place of two medical traditions, the Greek and Indian.
Above all, however, the most important center for medicine practiced by Christian doctors was to be the great University of Gundeshapur. There were seven generations of the Bukhtishu family of Nestorian physicians from that University, spanning a period of some 250 years and eventually became physicians to the Caliphs of Baghdad.
Other students of Gundeshapur were the famous doctor and translator Hunaya bin Ishaq, the ophthalmologist Abu Zakariya Yahia bin Masawagh, an author of medical aphorisms, along with Al-Nahar-wardi, a composer of mathematical tables, and so many other great men who remain anonymous. They were largely responsible for the translation of works of science and Greek philosophy from Greek into Syriac, and then from Syriac into Arabic. The knowledge of the two languages Greek and Syriac, among the Christians in Gundeshapur bore much fruit.
The above are well known contributions of the Christian community to Iranian society. What is perhaps less recognized was the role played by men like Ishobokht, Metropolitan Bishop of Rev Ardashir around 775, in systematizing secular law. His Pahlavi composition, Book of Laws _and Judgments, was midway in time between two famous collections, the Matigan-i Hazar Datistan or Collection of the 1000 Judgments and the Datistan-i Denik or Religious Judgments. Ishobocht adopted different points of Sassanid law concerning renunciation of succession, the protection of women, the rights of slaves, donations, etc. His idea probably inspired by the Avesta, was to introduce alongside the 1aw (as an ideal, namusa, its application, dina), the notion of equity, trisutha, applied as dina, sometimes then applying principles and sometimes going beyond them.
One imagines that there were Christians among the deported Greeks who built many of the great architectural structures in the country such as bridges, gates and palaces. They may not have been among the engineering troops of Valerian who constructed the famous Shadhurwan of Shushtar, but they were certainly among the architects of the palace of Khosro at Aspanbar. We know that there were Antiochenes with their churches in the so called "Antioch of Persia" near Ctesiphon and Veh Ardashir.
I do not know of any important purely Christian construction in Iran that has survived. One can only imagine the splendor of that first Church of Merv, built by Princess Shiraran who called it "Ctesiphon" because she modeled it on the plan of the palace of her brother, Shapur I; of the Church of the Shirin Convent near Hulwan; of the Church of the Greeks at Tabriz in 1285 for which the Despina Khatun, Marie the Paleologist, brought a painter from Constantinople; and finally, of the Great Convent of Yahwalaha III in Maragheh at the beginning of the 14th century.
We noted above that Ishobokht wrote his treatise on Law in Pahlavi. In fact this work has come down to us only in Syriac. This is also the case with Yahwalaha's "History", originally written in Persian but of which we possess only the abridged Syriac version today.
Although we do not have a History of Christian Literature which is properly Iranian, such as that of Georg Graff for Arabic, but one may be find material in such general works as Persian Literature by C. A. Storey and the reference to literary works in Syriac historical texts.
The Persian Gospel in 4th Century
From these texts we learn for example that in the first half of the 4th, century the monk Isaac translated the Gospel into the language of the Persians for the Governor and future martyr, Qardagh.
Liturgy in Persian
Was the liturgy also translated into Persian? We have noted that in the Persian convents, such as the one at Arrajan, prayers were said in Syriac. However, in the 5th century, Ma'na the Metropolitan bishop of Persides translated "Syriac works" into Pahlavi and also composed, again in Pahlavi, "religious odes, poetry and hymns to be sung in the Church".
Theological works in Persian
Explanations of Christian doctrine in Persian existed from very earliest times. One example is the thirty eight chapters which Elise bar Quzbaye translated from the Syriac for King Kavat around the year 500.
Monastic rules in Persian
Also, monks had at their disposal and in their own Persian language the monastic rules of Abraham of Kashjkar and the ascetic discourses of Abraham of Nathpar, which had been translated by the monk Job, a disciple of the latter and a native of Rev Ardashir.
Inversely, in the 6th century the story Kalila and Dimna was translated from Pahlavi into Syriac, and Romance of Alexander by the pseudo Callisthene went from Greek into Syriac through the intermediary of Pahlavi.
Use of Arabic
After the Muslim conquest, whenever they did not utilize Syriac or Greek, Persian Christian writers willingly used Arabic, as did so many Persian writers and philosophers. AI-Biruni, himself a native of Khwarezm, did not hesitate to pay homage to the language of the Arabs. It was also into Arabic that Bar Hebraeus was to translate his Syriac Chronicle at Maragheh during the last month of his life (July 1286).
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Gregory Bar Hebraeus 1226-1286
It is with this last figure that I wish to bring my lecture to a close. At a time when the Syrian Churches were in their last days of glory, Bar Hebraeus represents very well that intimate collaboration between Christian and Iranian scholars, who had so recently been Zoroastrians and were now Muslim.
Gregory bar Hibraeus, Ibn al-Ibri, Maphrien of the West Syrian Church, that is to say Vicar of the Patriarch of Antioch for "Azerbaijan, Assyria and Mesopotamia", spent the greater part of the last twenty years of his life at Maragheh (in north west Iran). There he built churches and convents, but above all it was there that he wrote his scientific books. In the famous library of the city, he consulted such renowned works as Juwayini's The History of the Conqueror of the World, which enabled him to edit his own Syriac Chronicle which he completed in 1272/3.
It was also at Maragheh that he expounded the Book of Euclid in 1268, and in 1273 commented on Ptolemy's Book of Almagest, on the stars and movements of astral bodies, with the help of the commentary of Muhi al-Din al-Maghribi al-Andalusi. One sees Bar Hebraeus, as one well versed in all the sciences of his time who was also a poet, it is not surprising then that the Bishop had an important place in the learned circles of the city in that period.
Indeed it was during these very years in Maragheh that a group of Iranian scholars, some of whom were working at the nearby observatory built by Hulagu, others at the library, devoted themselves to questions of history, literature, philosophy, natural history, geometry, astronomy, pharmacy, medicine, etc., matters on which Bar Hebraeus was also writing. We can easily imagine the bishop in discussion with the philosophers Athir al-Din al-Abhari and Nadjm aI-Din al-Qazwini, the astronomer Nasir aI-Din al-Tusi, and so many others less celebrated.
Perhaps it is appropriate that we bring this lecture to a close with this final insight: Like his remote predecessors who had brought Christianity to Iran, Bar Hebraeus was born outside the country in Malatya (in modern Turkey); like Timothy and the monks of Beth 'Awe who had brought Christianity to the limits of the Persian Empire, he was trained in one of the great convents of northern Iraq, Mar Matta; like so many of his predecessors in the episcopate in Iran, he devoted his mature years to that country whose language he possessed so marvelously.
Should we then call Bar Hebraeus a foreigner, as Christianity has often been regarded as foreign in Iran? Perhaps; but is one really foreigner when one's life is at the service of the highest good of a country?
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For the story of the Christian martyrs in the early Iranian Church,
see the article in Encyclopaedia Iranica :
Martyrs, Christian – in the Iranian lands as related in the surviving corpus of Persian Christian Acts: