The Assyrian Church of the East

History and Geography

by Christine Chaillot (Author)
©2021 Monographs XIV, 196 Pages


The cradle of the Church of the East was in Mesopotamia (between the Tigris and the Euphrates), where it developed its first centre at Seleucia-Ctesiphon, then the capital of the great Persian Empire and today an archaeological site to the south of Baghdad. From the very beginnings of Christianity until the fourteenth century, this Church experienced a remarkable expansion in Asia, its missionaries carrying the Gospel from Persia to India, via the Persian Gulf, and even as far as China. The Church of the East reached China as early as the seventh century via Central Asia and the celebrated Silk Road that linked China to the Mediterranean world. Much later, in the late fourteenth century, the invasions of the Mongol conqueror, Timur Lang (Tamerlane), across Asia brought about a great decline of the Church of the East. Eventually, after the genocide suffered by Christians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, and the massacres that followed in Persia, the Church of the East and its people were on the verge of extinction. In 1940 the patriarchal seat was moved to Chicago (in the United States) and then in September 2015 to Erbil (in northern Iraq). Many of the faithful have left the Middle East and have formed diaspora communities throughout the world. The history of Christianity in the Middle East and well beyond, in Central and Eastern Asia, is very little known. In this book, the reader is invited to travel in time and space and undertake the fascinating discovery of a very ancient apostolic Church, the Church of the East, whose two-thousand year history constitutes an indispensable chapter in the history of the universal Church.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface by Dr Sebastian Brock
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 A History of the Church of the East: Origins to the Eighteenth Century
  • Chapter 2 In Arabia and the Persian Gulf
  • Chapter 3 In India
  • Chapter 4 In Central Asia and Beyond. On the Silk Road
  • Chapter 5 In China under the Tang (635–845) and the Mongols (1206–1368)
  • Chapter 6 Under the Mongols (1206–1368) and Tamerlane (1370–1405)
  • Chapter 7 The Nineteenth Century
  • Chapter 8 The Twentieth Century
  • Chapter 9 The Twenty-First Century around the World. The Diaspora
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Timeline
  • Maps

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When Eusebius of Caesarea wrote the first History of the Christian Church at the beginning of the fourth century he unwittingly set a precedent for writing about the History of the Church which has had some very unfortunate consequences. What Eusebius wrote was in fact a history of the Church within the confines of the Roman Empire, leaving out its history in the adjacent Persian Empire, further to the east. This was perfectly understandable from Eusebius’ own perspective: what is most unfortunate, however, is that this limitation of the history of the early Church to the confines of the Roman Empire has all too often been followed, right up to the present day. As a consequence the fascinating history of the Church that sprung up to the east of the Roman Empire, and which is represented today by the Church of the East, is very little known to the wider public. In view of this situation, Christine Chaillot’s new book is most timely and greatly to be welcomed.

The tradition of the Church of the East is in fact represented today by three separate Churches: the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic Church. While the roots of the last of these go back to the mid-sixteenth century, the break between the first two only came in the last half of the twentieth century, primarily over the issue of the calendar, with the Assyrian Church of the East adopting the New (Gregorian) Calendar and the Ancient Church of the East retaining the Old (Julian) Calendar. Christine Chaillot’s prime focus of attention is on the Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East.

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The negative effects of Eusebius’ limited model for the subsequent writing of Church History have ensured that the remarkable expansion of the Church of the East until the fourteenth century is hardly known outside specialist circles. Dramatic witnesses to this expansion are the Xian Stele with its Chinese-Syriac inscription dated AD 781, and the large collection of manuscript fragments of texts of the Church of the East (ninth to fourteenth century) in different languages, discovered in the early twentieth century in Turfan (north-western China).

Knowledge about, and a proper appreciation of, the role of the Church of the East within the wider history of the Christian Church, has suffered from a second disadvantage. The Christological controversies of the fifth and sixth centuries had produced a three-way split in Christianity which continues to this day: (1) the position of the Greek Byzantine East, Latin West and later Reformed traditions; (2) that of the Oriental Orthodox Churches; and (3) that of the Church of the East. Only the first position accepts the Doctrinal Formula of the Council of Chalcedon (451). While both the first and the third can be described as ‘dyophysite’, since they speak of two ‘natures’ (physeis) as existing in the incarnate Christ, the Oriental Orthodox hold that there is ‘a single composed nature’ (mia physis), and so may conveniently be designated as ‘miaphysite’. In the heat of these theological controversies, each side tried to associate their opponents with names considered heretical, and over the course of time many of these sobriquets came to stick. It has only been in recent times that serious attempts have been made to get rid of misleading epithets, one of which, ‘Nestorian’ was very widely used of the Church of the East, thus associating the Church closely with Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, who was the arch-opponent of Cyril of Alexandria, and who was deposed by the Council of Ephesus in 431. From the present standpoint, it is essential to realize that the name ‘Nestorius’ means three very different things: (1) for the Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox the name implies a seriously heretical position that disassociates the Son of the Virgin Mary from the Son of God and so divides up Christ; (2) to the Church of the East ‘Nestorius’ is an upholder of the dyophysite Christological position against Cyril of Alexandria, and at the same time the putative author of one of the three Anaphoras in use in the Liturgy of the Church; (3) for modern scholars the real theological position of Nestorius is a matter of continuing dispute, in view of the tendentious nature of almost all the surviving sources concerning him and the consequent difficulty in interpreting them globally.1

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Since the dominant narrative of Church History has been that of the Chalcedonian Churches’ authors, the Church of the East has regularly, but utterly misleadingly, been designated as ‘Nestorian’. The nomenclature continued into the time of Islamic domination, and it is only in recent times that it has rightly been challenged, both in academic writing and in ecumenical discussion. Especially significant in drawing attention to past misconceptions of the Christology of the Church of the East has been the Common Statement on Christology between Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV of the Church of the East in November 1994, and the more recent ‘Common Statement on the Sacramental Life’ between the Vatican and the Assyrian Church of the East, in November 2017.2 These initiatives should be considered as an important starting point for future dialogue between the Assyrian Church of the East with other Churches of the Chalcedonian tradition, and in particular the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches. The proper spirit for the undertaking of such a dialogue was nicely indicated by the great Syriac Orthodox polymath, Barhebraeus, already in the late thirteenth century:

When I had given much thought and pondered on the matter, I became convinced that these quarrels of Christians are not a matter of factual substance, but rather, one of words and terms; for they all confess Christ our Lord to be perfect God and perfect human, without any commingling, mixing or confusion of the natures. This bi-pinnate likeness3 is termed by one party [i.e. the Oriental Orthodox Churches] a ‘nature’, by another [i.e. the Chalcedonian Churches] a ‘hypostasis (person)’, and by yet another [i.e. the Church of the East] a ‘prosopon (parsopa, person)’. Thus I saw all the Christian communities, with their different Christological positions, as possessing a single common ground that is without any difference. Accordingly, I totally eradicated any hatred from the depths of my heart and I completely renounced disputing with anyone over confessional matters.

(Barhebraeus, Book of the Dove, chapter 4)

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It can be seen that, for a variety of most unfortunate historical reasons, the remarkable history of the Church of the East has been largely overlooked or, where this has not been the case, it has usually been misrepresented and misunderstood. Accordingly, all the greater is the need for a reliable, and at the same time sympathetic, short history of the Church of the East written for the benefit of a wider reading public: this is precisely what Christine Chaillot has aimed to provide, and it is greatly to be hoped that her attractive book will help to dispel both the general ignorance about, and the all too many misconceptions concerning, this venerable ancient Church.

Sebastian Brock

The Oriental Institute, Oxford University

1 Cf. my ‘The “Nestorian” Church: lamentable misnomer’, in the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Manchester 78 (1996), pp. 23–36. Needless to say, the Church of the East does not in fact hold the heretical positions often attributed to them in the polemical literature.

2 The main section of the ‘Common Declaration of Faith’ of 1994 can be found in my ‘The Syriac Churches in Ecumenical Dialogue on Christology’, in A. O’Mahony (ed.), Eastern Christianity. Studies in Modern History, Religion and Politics (London, 2004), pp. 44–65, here pp. 54–5.

3 The Syriac is dmutha for likeness ; and the second word, suniptronayta, is a borrowing from Greek sunipteros (‘flying with both wings’).

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XIV, 196
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XIV, 196 pp., 4 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Christine Chaillot (Author)

Christine Chaillot is the author of numerous articles and books on the Oriental Churches in the fields of history, theology and spirituality, notably Vie et spiritualité des Églises orthodoxes orientales des traditions syriaque, arménienne, copte et éthiopienne (Le Cerf, Paris, 2010), The Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century (Peter Lang, Oxford, 2011), and Les Coptes d’Égypte. Discriminations et persécutions (1970-2011) (L’Harmattan, Paris, 2014). Her books have been translated into eleven languages.


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