The Lost History of Christianity

The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia

Eastern Christianity flourished in Asia and North Africa for a thousand years, only to succumb to persecution on a scale 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.

Christians in the churches of the East worshipped in many Asian languages: Syriac, Persian, Turkish, Soghdian, and Chinese, but not Latin, which scarcely mattered outside western Europe. In modern terms the Eastern churches were thoroughly enculturated, presented their faith in the languages of the cultures they encountered.[1] There were metropolitans in Herat, Turkmenistan and Samarkand, all before Saint Benedict formed his first monastery in the 6th century, before the probable date of King Arthur, and before Poland was Catholic.[2]

Arab scholarship was Arab Christian Scholarship—What is often presented as Islamic scholarship was the work of Arab Christian scholars. It was Christians—Nestorian, Jacobite, Orthodox—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 himself translated Aristotle’s Topics from Syriac to Arabic, at the behest of the caliph. Syriac Christians even make the first reference to the efficient Indian numbering system that we know today as “Arabic,” and 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. But this was the direct successor of the Christian “university” of Jundishapur, and it borrowed many Nestorian scholars. 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]

Jenkin’s Map of the World. The author of this 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 will be 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) they were 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 Christianity ended all at once, in blood and slavery. The mullahs would voice the pre-arranged signal, “Allahu akbar!” giving Muslims permission to plunder their Christian and Jewish neighbors. There is a Qur’anic chapter called the “Anfal” that is cited to justify the killing the Christian and Jewish men and 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. Like 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). 14

[2] Ibid. 11

[3] Ibid. 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