Most of us do not associate Christianity with Central Asia, especially not early Christianity, and yet Eastern-rite Christian communities were established in the region by the 5th century AD.
The Church of the East had a bishop at Merv and a metropolitan at Samarkand by the mid 6th century, and there were communities at Kashgar and Turfan in Chinese Central Asia (Xinjiang) by the 7th century. Most remarkably we have evidence for Christians in China at the Tang capital of Xian by 635. We know this date from the discovery of a stele with an inscription written in Chinese and Syriac discovered in the 17th century.
Merchants and priests from the Church of the East took Christianity to the oasis towns or Central Asia and eventually, by the seventh century, to China. These Iranian believers were the most evangelical of the Christians trading on the overland Silk Road, and their knowledge of international languages added to their ability to spread the Christian faith across a vast expanse of steppe and desert. The influence of their missionary activity in Central Asia, China, and India is reflected in the appointment of metropolitans for all three lands by Catholicos Timothy 1 (cathol. 780-823), and by the fact that Yaballaha III (cathol. 1281-1317) was still doing the same. At the nadir of its expansion, the Church of the East was more extensive geographically than both the Roman and Byzantine churches.
An early reference to Christians living southwest of the Caspian Sea and in Bactria under the Kushans is given by the Syrian Christian Bardaisan of Edessa (154-222) around 196. In his Book of the Laws of Countries he tells us that the Christian women among the Gilanians and the Kushans did not have sexual relations with foreigners and that Christian men who lived in Iran did not marry their own daughters (H. Drijvers 1965, 61). This last reference is to the practice of consanguineous marriages among Zoroastrians in Iran. Who these Christians were, how they got there, and who evangelized them are not clear, but it would seem to confirm a Christian presence in Central Asia the second century.
When a metropolitan of the Church of the East was first appointed to Samarkand is not entirely clear, but a mid-sixth-century date seems most likely (Colless 1986). Samarkand appears to have been the main center of the Church of the East in Central Asia at the time of the arrival of East Syrian Christians at the Chinese capital of Chang’an in 635. There may have been a metropolitan farther east at Kashgar (Kashi) by the eighth or ninth century, but not until the twelfth century do we have confirmation of one (Hunter 1996). Although no early Christian buildings have been discovered at Samarkand, Marco Polo reports seeing a rotunda church dedicated to John the Baptist when he visited the city in 1272. The Armenian high constable Sempad (1208-1276) had also visited the city in 1248 and describes seeing a church in which he saw a painting of Jesus and the three Magi (Colless 1986).
At Urgut, 40 km south of Samarkand in Uzbekistan, a number of stone inscriptions written in Syriac and with carved crosses dating from the ninth century have been found (Klein 2000). Archaeological excavations in the vicinity have revealed a structure that has been identified as a Christian building. This could be the site of a monastery described by the Muslim chronicler Ibn Hawqal when he visited the area around 969. He writes, “Near Samarkand ones sees a monastery of the Christians, where they gather and have their cells. I encountered many Christians from Iraq, who moved here on account of the good and remote location and the healthy climate” (Baumer 2006, 169-70). Also south of Samarkand, from the Hephthalite city of Penjikent, in Tajikistan, is an eighth-century ostracon with lines from the Peshitta version of Psalms, written in the Estrangela script. And at Termiz in Uzbekistan, near the Oxus River, archaeologists have discovered two churches and a baptistery (Baumer 2006,171).
Further archaeological evidence comes from Ak-Beshim (ancient Suyab) in Kyrgyzstan indicating two church structures from the eighth century. Also from Semireche, the Land of the Seven Rivers, located between Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan and Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan, a large number of stone inscriptions (over five hundred) in Syriac and Turkish have been found, mostly dating from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (Klein 2000). The presence of Christians in this region is confirmed by the Franciscan William of Rubruck (traveled 1253-1255) and other Western travelers in the thirteenth century when the district was under the metropolitan of Kashgar and Novakat, near Lake Issyk-Kul, established by Elias III (cathol. 1176-1190) in the empire of the Qara Khitai (Pelliot 1973, 7; Biran 2005, 178).
The bringing of Christianity to Merv (Bairam Ali) in Khurasan is attributed to Bishop Bar Shaba (d. ca. 366) in the Syriac and Sogdian lives of the saint. He is said to have healed the consanguine wife of the Sasanian shah Shapur II (r. 309-379), which resulted in her becoming a Christian. She then was exiled to Merv, where she in turn converted her new husband, the mobed of the Zoroastrian community, and together with Bar Shaba built churches and helped with his missionary work (Brock 1995). The elevation of the bishop of the Church of the East at Merv to metropolitan status is not recorded before 544. Archaeology in the area has brought to light a range of ruins suggesting a Christian presence from the fifth and sixth centuries (Baumer 2006, 72).
In 644 Elijah, a metropolitan of Merv, is reported to have won converts among the Turks. According to one source, Elijah converted the khan of the tribe by making the sign of the cross to dispel a storm conjured up by the khan’s shamans. The metropolitan baptized the khan and his army in a stream (Gillman and Klimkeit 1999, 216-17). A letter written by Timothy I in 781 indicates that another Turkish khan and his tribe had converted to Christianity and that a request for a metropolitan had been received (Dickens 2010). In a further letter addressed to the metropolitan of Elam (Khuzistan), Timothy speaks of having ordained a bishop for the Turks and says that he was going to ordain one for Tibet (Dauvillier 1948, 292). A ninth-century Sogdian inscription with three inscribed crosses at Drangtse (Tangtse) in Ladakh is thought to have been made by a Christian from Samarkand who had been sent as an emissary to the ruler of Tibet (Sims-Williams 1993). Other evidence for contact with Tibet by the Church of the East is less convincing (Uray 1983).
The remote geographical areas of Central Asia made it impossible for bishops to attend the regular synods of the Church of the East in Iran. Dispensations for the metropolitans of Samarkand, India, and China allowed them to submit letters every six years, apprising the catholicos of the situation in their dioceses (Gillman and Klimkeit 1999, 219). The main cities of Transoxiana, Bukhara, and Samarkand fell to the Arabs in 712 and 713. The Battle of Talas in 751 saw the defeat of the Chinese army, the main church at Talas being converted into a mosque in 893 (Bartol’d 1977, 224). A gilded paten dated to the ninth or tenth century, with scenes of the crucifixion, the women at the tomb, and the ascension, may have originated in the Talas region (fig. 4.2). The changing political and demographic situation in Central Asia obliged Christian leaders to negotiate a modus vivendi with their new masters.
However, most of the archaeological evidence for the Christian presence in Central Asia was unknown before the early 20th century. It was largely as a result of the explorations by Western scholars such as Aurel Stein, Paul Pelliot and Albert von Le Coq that this evidence came to light. Since then many more finds have been made.
But who were these Christians? Initially they came from Persia where we know there were Christian communities from at least the 3rd century. It was mainly as a result of the international trade on the Silk Road that Christians established themselves in the oasis towns of Central Asia.
The Church of the East used Syriac as a liturgical language, but the discovery of textual fragments at Turfan shows that they also used local languages, such as Sogdian and Uighur. Sogdiana was the ancient name given to the region that covers much of Uzbekistan today.
An important witness to Christians in Sogdiana was the Muslim scholar al-Biruni (973-1048) who was born near Urgench, and who provides first hand information about the Christian communities. Before the dominance of Islam, Christians lived alongside Buddhists, Zoroastrians and Manichaeans in many towns in Central Asia, where they formed part of the melting pot of ethnic groups and religious cultures.
Among the artefacts relating to early Christianity in Uzbekistan are several ossuaries found in the region of Samarkand, as well as the site of a monastery at Urgut, also near Samarkand. Further archaeological finds at Qarshovul Tepe near Tashkent would seem to indicate the presence of a Christian community.
While many of the earlier finds can be seen in London, Berlin and Paris, visitors to Turfan in Xinjiang can see several sites associated with these discoveries. In Xian the stele with the bilingual inscription is on display in the Forest of Steles Museum. The stele was erected in 781 and shows the cross on the lotus flower.