History of Christianity in Asia (3rd of 3)

Eastward to Persia: Missionary Sending Basis at Nisibis and Mt. Izla.

For generations the leading Persian missionary training center was located in Nisibis (now Nusaybin in eastern Turkey). Persian Christians came there to study the Bible and the Greek church fathers, as well as to learn Greek philosophy and logic. The founders, Narsai and Barsauma, established the campus in an old caravanserai, and with Barsauma as promoter and Narsai as scholar, the School of Nisibis quickly became the most famous school in Asia. A new love of learning enfused the Persian church. Students came from afar, wrote the Nestorian chronicler of Arbela, “to draw spiritual milk and to drink from the sweet waters of orthodoxy.”[2]

The rules of the school as drawn up by Narsai in 496 still survive. Students roomed together in cells, three men to a room. Studies began at sunup and continued till sundown. Tuition was free, but during the long vacation from August to October students were sent out to labor and earn their keep. Like most monasteries, the school enjoyed independence from the jurisdiction of the bishop.[3]

But the school’s theology was a missionary theology. The roots of the expansion of the Nestorian mission trace to the school at Nisibis. The mandate for mission came from Jesus himself, who told his disciples to “go forth and convert the Gentiles to the House of Abraham.”[4]

The School of Nisibis became the center for “Nestorianizing” the Persian Church. A network of missionary monasteries (!) began at Basra where the Tigris River empties into the Persian Gulf. Other monasteries were established at Reishahr and “The Black Island,” probably an island near Bahrain, and the island of Socotra (Yemen), where a monastery existed from the middle of the fifth century.[5]

Sadly, the influence of the Persian monasteries and churches waned for a century, due to a malaise of worldliness. Then, in the sixth century revival of Christianity began in the monasteries and spread throughout the Persian Empire. The outstanding name in this revitalization was Abraham of Kashkar (ca. 491-586).[6] Abraham of Kashkar studied at the School of Nisibis in 502. For a time, he became a missionary to the Arabs. From there he traveled to Egypt and was greatly impressed by the ascetic disciplines and stern lifestyle of the monks in the great desert monasteries around Scete, now called Wadi al-Natrun.[7] He returned to Nisibis zealous to recapture something of their self-control and strength for the Persian church He withdrew into the mountains near Nisibis and founded what quickly became the greatest of all Persian monasteries, known simply as “the Great Monastery,” on Mt. Izla.[8]

Monastery at Mt. Izla

His stern example and flaming challenge to give up all for Christ drew crowds of disciples. Thomas of Marga wrote in the ninth century, “As formerly everyone who wished to learn the heathen philosophy of the Greeks went to Athens, so now everyone who desired to be instructed in spiritual philosophy went to the holy Monastery of Mar Abraham.”[9] In time the Great Monastery superseded the School of Nisibis as the center of Nestorian teaching and missionary training. Christianity became the second most powerful religious force in the Persian Empire, after Zoroastrianism.


[2] Ibid. 200

[3] Ibid. 201

[4] Ibid. 201

[5] Ibid. 101

[6] Ibid. 225

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wadi_El_Natrun

[8] Ibid. 226 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Izla

[9] Ibid. 226