The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia – and How It Died

This is the story of a “lost history,” twice so; first, it is lost because Eastern Christianity withered so completely as to leave no trace in the countries Christians once numbered in the hundreds of thousands. This is almost unfathomable, considering that Eastern Christianity flourished for a thousand years, spreading eastward across Mesopotamia and Persia, into Central Asia and all the way to China. There were metropolitans—capital cities each with a patriarch—in Herat (Afghanistan), Turkmenistan and Samarkand, all before Saint Benedict formed his first monastery in Italy, before the probable date of King Arthur, and before Poland was Catholic.[1] Eastern Christianity spread southward to Africa as well. But with the coming of Islam to north Africa, entire populations of Christians began to wither under dhimmi taxes and social insults. In the east the withering process took longer, but the persecution that the Church of the East endured was of a scale and intensity never imagined in the Roman era. The Christianity of North Africa and Iraq, Persia, and Central Asia was “lost” on account of persecution by Islam, writes the author, Philip Jenkins. “The most missionary church the world has ever seen,” wrote Dr. A. Mingana.[2] Samuel Zwemer called it “a church on fire for missions, but later swept by triumphant Islam.”

Eastern Christianity is a lost history, secondly, because, while it flourished, Eastern Christianity was a positive civilizing, humanitarian influence on Asia. This, unfortunately, was lost. We turn to this interesting topic now.

Arab scholarship—It is an oft-repeated saying that Islamic scholarship enlightened the world during a Golden Age of Islam. According to Philip Jenkins, this golden age of learning and science was actually the work of Arab Christian scholars. It was Christians—Nestorian, Jacobite, Orthodox, and others—who preserved and translated the cultural inheritance of the ancient world—the science, philosophy, and medicine—and who transmitted it to centers like Baghdad and Damascus. Syriac-speaking Christian scholars brought the work of Aristotle to the Muslim world; Timothy the patriarch of Baghdad himself translated Aristotle’s Topics from Syriac to Arabic, at the request of the caliph. Syriac Christians even make the first reference to the efficient Indian numbering system that we know today as “Arabic,” long before this technique gained currency among Muslim thinkers.[3]

Arab scholarship continued. It was during Patriarch Timothy’s time (740-823) that Baghdad became a legendary intellectual center, with the Caliph’s creation of the family House of Wisdom. This House of Wisdom was staffed with Nestorian (Church of the East) scholars, who were brought from the Christian “university” of Jundishapur. One early head of the House of Wisdom was the Christian Arab Hunayn, who began the massive project of translating the Greek classics into Arabic: the works of Plato, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonists, as well as medical authorities like Hippocrates and Galen. Reputedly, the caliph paid Hunayn for these by quite literally giving him their weight in gold. Such were the Christian roots of the Arab golden age.[4]

Middle Ages Map of the World. This author of this useful map lived at a time when Europe was one of three parts of the Christian world, the other two being Africa and Asia. The Americas had not been discovered yet. The Lost Christianity is the catastrophic end of the world as this map maker knew it. The Christianity of Asia and Africa was lost because of attacks made against Christians and churches. The humanity of the Christian churches did not survive the wounds. It is not that Islam rooted up all the Christians all at once in every place. But whether in the 7th century or the 8th or the 13th century, Christianity everywhere withered and perished under the harsh conditions of Muslim rule. “By the 1920s, the survivors of the once-vast Nestorian Church were reduced to about forty thousand refugees in northern Iraq. Some years later (1933) this remnant was subjected to massacres so severe as to force legal thinkers to construct a whole new vocabulary of human savagery: the concept of genocide evolved from the discussion of their plight. The patriarch is based not in Baghdad, but in Chicago. A brutal purge of Christianity, most spectacularly in Asia, left Europe as the geographical heart of the Christian faith, as the only possible base for later expansion.[5] European churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church, became the mainstream of belief by dint of being, so to speak, the last man standing.[6]

The religion of the persecutors triumphed. Sometimes Eastern Christianity ended all at once, in blood and slavery. The end sometimes came when mullahs would climb the minarets and give voice to the Islam’s mission statement, “Allahu akbar!” This signaled that the time had come for Muslms to plunder their Christian and Jewish neighbors. There is a Qur’anic chapter called the “Anfal,” (The Plunder) that is cited to justify the vandalism of Christian and Jewish property and even the enslaving the women and children. But often the Christian church died by a thousand insults pressed against Christians by heavy taxation and dhimmi discrimination. It seemed a better future to convert to Islam. I am too sad to open Chapter 4, “The Great Tribulation.” Jenkins recounts the collapse of Christianity in Egypt and north Africa and what today are the countries of Iraq, Iran and Turkey. The priests in Edessa were killed to the last man.[7] The Turks arrived like a storm from the East and converted en masse to Islam. Chapter 5 is “The Last Christians.” Jenkins writes of the massacres in northern Iraq that occurred in 1933:

So shocking were the anti-Christian purges that they demanded a new legal vocabulary. Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin used the cases of the Assyrians Christians of Iraq and the Armenians before them to argue for a new legal category to be called crimes of barbarity, primarily “acts of extermination directed against ethnic, religious or social collectivities. In 1943 Lemkin coined a new word for these atrocities—genocide. The modern concept of genocide has its roots in the movements to eradicate Middle Eastern Christians.[8]

Christian kings have abused their power in the mistreatment of Muslims, as history makes clear. But Jenkins has this to say:

Many recent books stress the tolerant nature of Islam. Karen Armstrong regularly contrasts Muslim tolerance with the bigotry so evident in Christian history. Writing of Islamic Spain in the ninth century, for instance, she remarks, “Like the Jews, Christians were allowed full religious liberty within the Islamic empire and most Spaniards were proud to belong to such an advanced culture. As was customary in the Muslim world, Jews, Christians, and Muslims had coexisted there for centuries in relative harmony.”[9] The persecutions would also surprise the many Americans who derive their view of Muslim tolerance from the widely seen PBS documentary Empires of Faith, or the film Kingdom of Heaven, about the First Crusade. In reality, the story of religious change involves far more active persecution and massacre at the hands of Muslim authorities than would be suggested by modern believers in Islamic tolerance. Even in the most optimistic view, Armstrong’s reference to Christians possessing “full religious liberty” in Muslim Spain or elsewhere beggars belief.[10]

The last half of the book is sad beyond words. It reminded me of the Armenian teenager who found out in his New Jersey classroom what happened to his people in 1915. He asked his father, “How come you ever told me!” “Son, how can one speak of the unspeakable.” Blessed are those who mourn.

[1] Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia – and How It Died (Oxford: Lion, 2008). 11

[2] John Stewart, Nestorian Missionary Enterprise: The Story of a Church on Fire (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1928). Mingana is quoted in an article from the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Vol. IX. Manchester

[3] Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia – and How It Died. 18

[4] Ibid. 19

[5] Ibid. 24

[6] Ibid. 27

[7] Blincoe: Today Edessa is the city of Urfa in southeastern Turkey. I visited Urfa occasionally in the 1990s, as it lay on the route between Adana and Iraq.

[8] Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia – and How It Died. 140

[9] Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, 1st U.S. ed. (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992). 22

[10] Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia – and How It Died. 99