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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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As we have seen in this book, from the geographical point of view the history of the Church of the East until the nineteenth century is an Asian history of an Asian Church. From the beginning from the twentieth century, this history, still in geographical terms, has expanded globally, around the world. It is worth remembering that Jerusalem, Antioch and many other places in the Middle East cited in the Gospels, and subsequently in the history of Christianity, are in Western Asia. We should also bear in mind that the notions of east and west are relative to a given geographical situation: one is always to the east or to the west in relation to someone else. As the British historian Peter Frankopan explains in his book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, this relativity obliges us in the West to abandon a Eurocentric vision and understand that the centre of the world may be ‘elsewhere’. Our study adopts the same perspective with regard to the history of the Church of the East. If, for Frankopan, the history of Asia is central to the history of the world, one may equally consider the history of the Church of the East important in the history of the universal Church, for it concerns a very ancient Christian community whose history is unique in the history of Christianity and very little discussed. Today it is still an international Church, scattered around the world. In fact the great majority...

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