The date when Christianity was first introduced to the Mongols is still a mystery, but a tribe called Keraite became Nestorian Christians in AD 1007. Other Mongol tribes soon followed, but many of them were also followers of other religions. There was no doubt that they terrorized people, but the Mongols were famous for being tolerant of all beliefs. These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History at that time.
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Christianity in China and Central Asia
The Nestorian Stele was one of the proofs that Christianity reached East Asia during the Medieval Period. The limestone block was excavated by local Chinese workers between 1623 and 1625. The words carved on the stele referred to Christianity in China, but it was buried during the Tang campaign against foreign religions in AD 845. Christianity almost disappeared in China, but it found a new and friendly home in Mongolia more than 160 years later.
In 1007, a Mongol khan had himself baptized into Nestorian Christianity along with 200,000 of his people. They were members of the Keraite tribe of the Mongols. Other Mongol tribes, such as the Onguds and Naimans, also became Nestorian Christians around 1200. Many Uighurs, the Mongols’ Turkic neighbors in Central Asia, became Nestorian Christians as well.
Some members of the Mongol royal family married Keraite and Ongud Christians during the domination of Genghis Khan. The early Mongol rulers were generally tolerant of all religions. Christianity and Christians themselves held a special place in Mongol society. For example, Hulagu Khan spared the Christians of Baghdad after his Christian wife Doquz Khatun pleaded on their behalf in 1258. Kublai Khan also placed the Christians in the semuren class (assorted category) which placed them just below the Mongols themselves, but above the native Chinese.
The Mongol expansion in West Asia and Eastern Europe brought them into contact with other Christians. The Church of the East (Nestorian) in China flourished under Kublai Khan. He allowed the Church to appoint metropolitans (the equivalent of a Catholic archbishop) for the Tanguts, the Uighurs, and others in Dadu (Beijing).
The Chagatai Khanate of Central Asia also allowed the appointment of metropolitans in Kashgar (Xinjiang, northwest China), Samarkand (present-day Uzbekistan), and Almaligh (Xinjiang, northwest China). The Issyk-Kul region of present-day Kyrgyzstan also had a Christian community. Unfortunately, the Christians of Central Asia suffered a heavy blow when Tarmashirin Khan (1331 AD – 1334) converted to Islam and started a purge of Christians.
The Golden Horde of Russia were also tolerant of other religions at first. However, just like the Chagatai Khanate of Central Asia, the Golden Horde also became Muslims and Christianity disappeared within the realm.
In Persia, the early Ilkhans allowed Uighur and Assyrian Christians to hold high positions in their court. Everything changed when Ghazan became the Ilkhan and his ally, Nawruz, started a purge of Christians in the land. Ghazan later executed Nawruz for treason and he reinstated the Christians. Christianity was on its way out in the Ilkhanate of Persia by the 15th century when the Timurid ruler Ulugh Beg persecuted the followers of the religion.
Christianity in China died once again when the Mongol Yuan dynasty collapsed in the 1360s. When the Ming Dynasty came to power in the 1360s, its rulers expelled both Nestorian and Roman Catholic Christians from China.
Important Mongol Christians
Kitbuqa Noyan – Naiman Turk and Christian lieutenant of Hulagu Khan.
Sorghaghtani Beki – Nestorian Christian princess of the Keraite tribe. She married one of Genghis Khan’s sons, Tolui. She was the mother of Mongke, Kublai, Hulagu, and Ariq Boke.
Doquz Khatun – Nestorian Christian and Keraite wife of Hulagu Khan. She was instrumental in saving Baghdad’s Christians during the siege of 1258. She was also the mother of Abaqu Khan.
Sartaq Khan – son of Batu Khan of the Golden Horde who converted to Christianity.
Abaqa Khan – son of Hulagu Khan who married the Byzantine princess Maria Palaiologina. She became his “Despina Khatun.” He never converted to Christianity, but because of his wife Abaqa Khan favored Christians in his realm. Some of the coins he minted contained a cross and the words “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God.” He was also active in seeking political alliances with Christian Europe against the Mamluks of Egypt.
Rabban Bar Sauma – the Uighur Marco Polo. A Uighur Turk and Nestorian monk from Beijing who was sent by Kublai Khan to seek an alliance with European kings and the Pope. He was accompanied by Rabban Markos of Kashang to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but their path to the city was blocked. They detoured to Baghdad where they were warmly received by Patriarch Mar Denha. The Patriarch of Baghdad died during the duo’s extended stay in the city. Rabban Markos later became the Patriarch of Baghdad in 1281.
Rabban Bar Sauma continued the journey to Europe even though he was an old man. He traveled to Constantinople, and to Italy where he met James II of Aragon and Sicily and Charles II of Naples. Pope Honorius IV died before Rabban Bar Sauma could reach him in Rome, so Kublai’s envoy only talked to the cardinals. He also passed through Tuscany and Genoa. He visited King Philip the Fair in Paris and talked with King Edward I of England in his domain in Gascony.
He was able to meet the newly elected Pope Nicholas IV before he returned to Baghdad in 1288. He never went back to China and died in Baghdad in 1294.
Picture by: Rashid al-Din [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Atwood, Christopher Pratt. Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire. New York, NY: Facts On File, 2004.
Buell, Paul D. Historical Dictionary of the Mongol World Empire. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003.
“Coins of Mongol Empire.” MongolianCoins.com. Accessed January 10, 2017. http://www.mongoliancoins.com/coins_of_mongol_empire_ilkhans.php.
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