Through a glass darkly – 33

Last March, in the very early days of the COVID lock-down [it feels a long time  ago], I read Peter Frankopan’s book on The Silk Road. It is an impressive, wide-ranging book which acted as a corrective to my rather blinkered, Eurocentric version of history. [New readers, if there are any, can consult TaGD -2.] Now I have just been reading what you might think of as an ecclesiastical equivalent, Philip Jenkins: The Lost History of Christianity. Sub-titled The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How it Died. For someone like me who thinks that church history is essentially the Roman Catholic Church and then the [necessary] Protestant Reformation, it is an eye-opening read.

Philip Jenkins is Welsh, born in Port Talbot in 1952, a Roman Catholic turned Episcopalian. His first degree was in History at Cambridge, and his early doctoral research was in criminology. But he moved to Pennsylvania State University in 1980, and his research interests switched to global Christianity and to emerging religious movements. Before he left the UK he was the 1979 winner of the BBC’s Mastermind. He is now Professor Emeritus at Penn State, and is Professor of History at Baylor University, a private Christian university at Waco, Texas. He is a prolific author; his twenty-plus books include histories of Wales and of the United States, a book on pedophiles and priests, and a series of books on the changing aspects of global Christianity.

The First Thousand Years of Christianity

Jenkins insists that until the 14th century Christianity was a tri-continental religion, with powerful representation in Asia and Africa as well as in Europe. Much of what today we call the Islamic world was once Christian.  Iraq and Syria were the homes of two great, international churches – the Nestorians and the Jacobites. In the time of the Nestorian patriarch Timothy [c.800 AD] the Church of the East still thought and spoke in Syriac, a language similar to Aramaic.

Nestorian church, Baghdad

It is difficult to grasp the extent of the Church of the East. While in the UK there were/are two metropolitans [Canterbury and York], Timothy presided over 19 metropolitans and some 85 bishops. During his lifetime new metropolitan sees were created in [modern-day] Iran, Syria, Turkestan, Armenia, and on the Caspian Sea. The church operated in multiple languages, but not Latin. In modern terminology, the Eastern churches were thoroughly inculturated. And they enjoyed critical interactions [and good relations] with Islam.

Timothy died in 823 AD. After his death one might have projected a Christian future in which two multi-ethnic churches dominated, one in Constantinople, the other in Baghdad. But this older Christian world perished. In 1050 Asia Minor was predominantly Christian with 375 bishoprics. Four hundred years later, Christians were 10% of the population with just 3 bishops. There was a brutal purge of Christianity in Asia. Christianity did become predominantly European, but only from about 1500; producing “a Europe that was essentially Christian and a Christianity that was essentially European”. Jenkins notes: “De-christianization is one of the least studied aspects of Christian history”. Most African and Asian churches collapsed because of persecution, of pressures placed on them by hostile regimes, mainly Muslim. Around 1300, partly as a consequence of the Mongol invasions, there was a distinct shift to religious intolerance. In some areas, as the church collapsed, there was a remnant of clandestine believers, what Jenkins calls crytpo-Christians.

The Churches of the East

Merv, a dead city in what is now Turkmenistan, was once one of the great centres of Christendom; it had a bishop by the 420s, and was a metropolitan by 544. From the 7th century Merv was under Muslim rule, but the Christians co-existed with Muslims, Buddhists, and Zoroastrians. By the 5th century Christianity had 5 great patriarchs: one, Rome, was in Europe; one, Alexandria, was in Africa; the other three, Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem, were all in Asia. Church festivals such as the Annunciation or the Dormition [Assumption] began in the East, in Syria.

We think of close links between Christianity and the Roman Empire. But the Persian [or Sassanian] Empire was  equally significant. Jerusalem is geographically closer to central Asia than it is to France. Christianity came early to [the lost kingdom of] Osrhoene, to neighbouring Armenia, and to Georgia;  and, in Africa, to Egypt and to Nubia and to Ethiopia. Eastern Christianity had many spiritual  and cultural centres, which remained unchanged between the 6th and 13th centuries. Syriac Christianity found a stronghold in Mesopotamia. By 650 the Church of the East had two metropolitans beyond the Oxus, at Kashgar and at Samarkand. The Nestorian church was established in India, through communities that grew into the Mar Thoma church. And there were missions into China.

Another World

All the eastern churches were strongly liturgical and hierarchical. Their liturgies are some of the oldest Christian liturgies. Monasticism was the highest form of Christian life. Through to the 8th century the Syrian church included stylites. The religious included women as well as men. The Eastern Churches embraced mystical practices that we associate with Gnosticism; theosis was the practice of approaching so close to God as to become divine. Healings and miracles were common.

Aghtamar Monastery, 1923

The Eastern Churches were passionate about learning and scholarship. The primary home of Syriac scholarship was at Nisibis. Which kept much of ancient scholarship alive. By the mid-7th century they were aware of Arabic numerals. These churches had great veneration for the Bible, which they read in their own Semitic languages. The Syriac Bible included the 4 major gospels, but omitted several books retained in the west  [2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude, and Revelation]. They were anxious to integrate the worlds of the Old and New Testaments. In 1287 the Nestorian monk, Bar Sauma, was sent on a mission to Western Europe. His visit was a sensation. Europeans were amazed to learn that the Christian world extended much further [east] than they had ever imagined.

The great tribulation 

The 14th century marks the decisive collapse of Christianity in the Middle East, across Asia, and much of Africa. Jenkins notes that many  books stress the tolerant nature of Islam. Certainly early Muslim regimes were less oppressive than many European Christian states. But the great exception was North Africa, where Christianity disappeared completely soon after the fall of Carthage in 698. Though Egypt remained a majority Christian country for another two centuries.

Ancient empires frequently granted religious minorities considerable freedom. But at the end of the 10th century the Egyptian based caliph Hakim launched an unprecedented persecution of Jews and Christians; and destroyed the Jerusalem church of the Holy Sepulchre. Asia Minor remained Christian throughout the Byzantine era. But things began to change from about 1200. The situation was exacerbated by the Crusades, which led to the creation of short-lived crusader kingdoms in Palestine, the Lebanon, and Syria. The Mongol invasions of the 13th century were initially a threat to Islam; but when later Mongol rulers converted to Islam, around 1290-1330, conditions became very difficult for the Christians in Mesopotamia and Syria. 

In 1304 Turkish forces destroyed Ephesus; large areas Asia Minor were de-christianized. The new Muslim militancy had dreadful consequences for the smaller Christian states on the fringe, Armenia and Georgia, Nubia and Ethiopia. Intolerance was becoming a marked feature around the globe. Climate change, and the coming of the Little Ice Age, caused economic depression and poverty. Europe suffered the Great Famine in 1315-17, and the Black Death in the 1340s. Social unrest led to increased persecution of religious minorities. In the 1360s the war-lord Timur systematically ravaged the ancient cities of the Middle East, and destroyed much of the Nestorian church.

The Last Christians.

Jenkins asserts that the decline of Christianity in the Middle East occurred in two distinct phases. First, the the Middle Ages, as Christians lost their majority status in what then became Muslim-majority countries. And second, in the last hundred years, when Christians have virtually ceased to exist across the Middle East, at least as organised communities.

The Ottoman Turks took over what had been the [Christian] Byzantine Empire. From the 15th century to the 19th century the Ottomans did much to underline the Orthodox Church in the Balkans. Meanwhile the Eastern churches were also under threat from a newly assertive Western Christianity. As Spain and Portugal built their empires from about 1550, the Roman Catholic church was dismissive of the Egyptian Copts and the long-isolated church of Ethiopia. They also sought to absorb [or to take over] the ancient Syriac churches of South India. 

Muslim forces attacked Assyrian and Nestorian Christians recurrently between 1843 and 1847; and again in the 1890s. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of the nationalist Turkish state led to the Armenian genocide that began in 1915. The subsequent war between Greece and Turkey led to wholesale population exchange and to ethnic cleansing. Asia Minor, as the state of Turkey, now became a self-consciously Muslim land, cleansed of Armenians and Greeks. [See TaGD – 30 for more details.]

I had never realised that the creation of the Lebanon [proclaimed in 1943 out of the former French protectorate] was an attempt to create a safe Christian  reservation. But the Christian population is shrinking. The Assyrians hoped to form a distinct Christian state, but were lumped into the Muslim-majority Iraq, where the Christian population has now shrunk to perhaps 1%. Leaders of the Palestinian guerrilla movements in the 1970s were predominantly Christians. But the leading forces [Hamas] are now Islamist.

Ghosts of a Faith

Jenkins believes that when religions die they leave remnants which are incorporated into new cultures. And that, even when Christian communities are destroyed, they leave a clandestine presence. He points, for example, to the existence of crypto-Christian communities in the Balkans, which survived under Islam.And to the way in which the architecture of mosques is heavy influenced by Byzantine churches of the 7th and 8th centuries. [Think of Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia.]

Hagia Sophia, Constantinople

He also suggests that Islam appropriated many Christian religious texts, particularly  from the apocryphal books that were in circulation in the Eastern churches. And he gives some credence to the [controversial] views of the German scholar Christoph Luxenberg that the Koran was in origin a Syro-Aramaic liturgical book. Some minority Muslim sects, such as the Alawites in Syria, have an attachment to Jesus and doctrines close to the Christian church.

How faiths die

History tells us that faiths are resilient and hard to eradicate. But, as the book emphasises, it is also  true that faiths can disappear from regions which they once dominated. Jenkins surveys a number of contributory factors. State protection was critical. By the 16th century the great majority of Christians lived in Christian states; and most of these were in Europe. But demography is also a significant factor. Higher education and access to contraception means that Christian communities [in the Middle East] have much lower birth rates than their Muslim neighbours. Migration is also significant. In Asia Minor Islam grew after 1200 because of the influx of Turkish immigrants.

And language was important for religious transition. The rise of Islam saw the eclipse of Syriac, Greek, and Coptic; and the growing importance of Arabic. Peter Brown writes: “Ultimately it was the victory of Arabic which opened the door to Islamization”. By the 11th century both Syriac and Coptic were declining as major languages.

Endings and Beginnings

The total eclipse of the church in North Africa remains a major setback. Latin Christian traditions developed in Carthage rather than Rome; Africa was the home of Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine. But within 50 years of the Arab conquest in 698, North African Christianity was in severe decline. And by the 12th century it had disappeared. Interestingly Jenkins suggests that the church had failed to evangelise in local languages. “Christianity remained a colonists’ religion.” By contrast, in Egypt the Coptic church did reach the natives by using the native Coptic language.

Eastern Christianity was founded on a hierarchy of metropolitans and bishops based in cities;  it was an urban, elitist religion. But cities like Antioch and Carthage shrank to nothing; while Damascus and Alexandria lost influence. In Asia Minor fighting destroyed the urban culture. Geography favoured the Coptic church: Egypt escaped much of the invasion and conflict of Mesopotamia and Asia Minor; being protected by the land bottleneck between Palestine and Egypt, between Asia and Africa. Minority faiths flourished only on the fringes and in the mountains. The kingdoms of Armenia and Georgia survived in the Caucasus. Mountainous Lebanon was a home to Maronite Christians. Mesopotamian Christians survived only in the hill regions of Kurdistan.

Maronite church, Chouf

Some people see the disappearance of the great eastern churches as God’s judgement on heresy [by Western, Catholic standards]. More positively, Jenkins asks: “Do churches die ? Or does something positive arise from their ruins ?” He wants us to try and see the global picture. At the same time as [Islamic] Turkish power was reaching its peak in the traditional Christian lands of the Middle East, so the seafaring Christian powers were bringing their faith to the New World and to the Pacific. At exactly the time in 1915-25 when powers in the Middle East were extinguishing the Christian remnants, so then Christianity began its epochal growth [revival] in black Africa, “arguably the most important event in Christian history since the Reformation”. If we believe that God speaks to us through history, then we need to rediscover some of these lost Christian memories.


I am aware of churches in Edinburgh that have died. And others that may only survive for another decade or so. Are there then lessons here for the churches in the West ? I think that Jenkins addresses this question more directly in his later book Europe: God’s Own Continent. My recollection is that the book is rather better than the rather naff title. But I lent my copy to a member of our home group over a year ago. If and when I get it back, I’ll have another look at it.

December 2020

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

3 thoughts on “Through a glass darkly – 33

  1. It is unlikely that I will read this book, but thanks to you, I have learned many of its lessons. Thanks for your thorough summary. Very interesting.


  2. As usual I have learnt a lot. Thank regards wretched Brexit the saddest thing is the loss of Erasmus. My youngest son benefited from a year at Keele university where he made lots of friends from all over the place and eventually came home speaking fluent English as the youngest always spoke french at home! happy New year to you and Susie love virginia


    1. I entirely agree about the ending of the Erasmus scheme. I guess it didn’t exist back in the mid-60s. But our daughter enjoyed a year at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Grenoble in the 1990s, together with involvement at St Marc’s; followed by a summer term in Siena. I was quite jealous ! Happy New Year.


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