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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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Chapter 1 A History of the Church of the East: Origins to the Eighteenth Century

Extract

CHAPTER 1

A History of the Church of the East: Origins to the Eighteenth Century

The First Centuries

Christianity appeared in the Roman Empire, which incorporated both the eastern and western parts of the Mediterranean world, with its capital, Rome, laying in the western part. There is a tendency to forget the fact that in the beginning the principal centres of Christianity were situated not only in Jerusalem and Antioch, but also in Edessa, an ancient city of Upper Mesopotamia.

It was at Antioch (today in south-east Turkey) that Christ’s disciples first received the name of Christians (Acts 11:19–26). Antioch, an apostolic see whose first primate was St Peter before he went to Rome, was a very important centre for the spread of Christianity in the region. Originally the Church of the East was tied to the see of Antioch, but its presence in Persian, not Byzantine, territory led, among other things, to its autonomy.

The city of Edessa (today Urfa in Turkey, about 260 km north-east of Antioch) and its environs were places principally of Syriac language and culture and remained so. Edessa at that time was situated on the crossroads of the commercial routes between the Roman and Parthian Empires. From Edessa Christianity spread eastwards into the Parthian Empire in Persia (an area covering modern Iran, Iraq and surrounding lands). It was in the Persia of the Parthians (247 BC–224 AD) and then of the...

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