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The Assyrian Church of the East

History and Geography

Christine Chaillot

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.
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This book is an introduction to the history and geography of the Church of the East, the two subjects being incapable of separation. On the one hand, the history cannot be understood without the places; on the other, without the history, it is impossible to understand the situation as it exists today.

The missionary journeys of the apostle Paul at the beginning of Christian history, starting from Antioch (today the town of Antakia in south-east Turkey), continuing into Greece, and ending up in Rome (Acts 13: 1–4), are well known. But the history of Christianity in the East, not only in the Middle East but beyond it in Asia, is often ignored. It is also from Antioch that Christianity spread eastwards to Edessa (the modern town of Urfa in south-east Turkey, 350 km north-east of Antioch) and in consequence to the whole of the Persian Empire. It was in Mesopotamia (between the Tigris and the Euphrates) that the first centre of the Church of the East developed, at Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the capital of the great Persian Empire (today to the south of Baghdad), and it was from there that this Church played a very important role in the spread of Christianity towards Eastern Asia.

The name ‘the Church of the East’ suits it very well, as it is situated to the east of the other Middle-Eastern Churches. From the beginning of Christianity until the fourteenth century, this Church experienced an extraordinary missionary drive and...

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