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Persia at the beginning of Eastern Christianity:
Impressions and Reflections

by Joseph Yacoub, Ph.D. — activist, writer, professor. | writings

Posted: Saturday, September 17, 2016 at 08:10 AM UT

The author undertook a study trip to Iran from June 28 to July 10, 2016, following footsteps of Syriac Christianity to Persia. His French article appeared in L' Orient Le Jour. Translation from French original by Abdulmesih BarAbraham
SBS Assyrian Radio Program: October 17, 2018
Host: Wilson Younan | Guest: Joseph Yacoub, Ph.D.
Wilson Younan Professor Joseph Yacoub

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“The two cities of Urmia and Salmas, located at a high-altitude and surrounded by rich and cultivated plains, are depicted with hundreds of churches, some older than millennium, recalling the distant past. They have typical Syriac-Aramaic names, found elsewhere beyond Persia in the cities and villages of Turkey and Iraq, as well as in the Hakkari region of Turkey.”

This is a largely unknown chapter in the history of Iran. From the beginning of Christianity, the Persians were witnesses of the Christian Pentecost. The Acts of the Apostles (II, 9) mention in context of this event the people of Elam, the Parthians and Medes.

After the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the "wise men from the East" came to pay tribute to him. However, it is said that one of these three wise men rested in the Nestorian Church Mart Mariam in Urmia, located in the heart of the city. As described by experts, this church is considered one of the oldest churches in Christendom. A Chinese princess named "Bafri" visited it and financed its reconstruction in 642. This sounds plausible, because at that time, the Eastern Church was present and thriving in China. According to experts, the name of the princess was visible on the wall of the church until the end of the First World War. Marco Polo is said to have visited this church which strikes with its typical architecture and age. It is a place frequented by Iranian Muslims, including political figures. Former President Khatami visited it in September 2001 and signed its guest book.

The church of Mart Mariam, one of the oldest churches in the world, restored exterior. Photo: Claire Yacoub

The church of Mart Mariam, one of the oldest churches in the world, restored exterior.
Photo: Claire Yacoub

A historic church in Persia

Many traditions or even legends surround the history of Christianity in this country during the earliest centuries.

The Syriac writer Bardesanes (154-222) already attests to this ancient history in his book “The Book of Laws of the Countries”, in which he cites among the peoples converted to Christianity: the Guilanis (north of the Caspian Sea), the Bactrian (or Balkh, country between Hindu Kush and the Oxus) and the Kushan or Késhanayé in Syriac.

Among the fathers of the Council of Nicaea (325) was Mar Yokhanna (Jean), bishop of Urmia. Aphrahate, one of the early Fathers of the Church (270-346), who wrote the so-called "Persian Legend” in Syriac-Aramaic during the Sassanid Empire, was nicknamed “The Wise Persian”. He defended the universal human values and denounced the corruption within his own church. Prior to the Arabs, the Assyrian Christians of Persia translated the famous work originally written in Sanskrit “Kalila and Dimna” from Pahlavi Persian into Syriac in the 6th century. Even the Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Aba I, elected in 544 under King Khosrow I Anocharvan (531-579) as head of the Church of the East, was an ethnic Persian, converted from Zoroastrianism. The famous monk Rabban Hormuzd (7th century) is of Persian origin; a monastery in Iraq bears his name.

From the early 4th century on, history attests that the Christian communities in Persia were well organized and owned highly hierarchical churches. One is struck by the growing number of faithfuls and by the birth of the ecclesiastical provinces and several bishoprics around the Lake Urmia and the Caspian Sea.

(See also: Comment l'Église nestorienne a été la plus active au Kirghizistan dès 498...)

Councils under the tutelage of Sassanid Persia

It is important to remember that the first councils of the Eastern Church of the Nestorians outside the Roman Empire and Byzantine were held in Seleucia and Ctesiphon, in "the land of the Persians" in Mesopotamia during the Sassanid rule (224-641). The almighty King Yezdegerd I (399-420) back then said: "East and West are one power, under the empire of my kingship." He was qualified by the councils of the Church of the East as "glorious, powerful, peaceful, victorious and illustrious king of kings ", one whose kingship "by the grace of God, set a reign of peace throughout the universe and whose kindness brings exaltation to the churches and the herds of Christ in all the East."

After Addai (Thaddeus), under Mari, father of bar Aggai and Simon bar Sabbae, the Councils of the Eastern Church at 410 undertook political approaches to the imperial court for the purpose of protecting Christians. It is then that the Church was freed from the West. At the synod of 410, Mar Isaac was established as a ruler of all Eastern Christians through Yezdegerd I, "king of kings, victorious and illustrious". That was the beginning of the independence of the Eastern Church. Mar Isaac, bishop of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, was "declared Archbishop Catholicos and All the East, which was judged by God worthy of being placed as the head of all the East." At this council, the Eastern Church already had six cities and forty bishoprics.

At the Synod held in 420, Azerbaijan is mentioned. In 424, the Church of the East proclaims its independence under the patriarch Mar Dadisho (424-456) vis-à-vis the Western Church and rejects any intervention by Antioch and Byzantium. The bishops asked the Catholicos-Patriarch Dadisho "to resume the leadership of the sheepfold of Christ, in all countries of the East" which has been entrusted to him as "Peter, the chief of the apostles." Dadisho is now considered "the rock", while now "the Orientals will not be able to complain to the Western patriarchs about their patriarch." This Synod was attended by the bishops of several Persian provinces : Rew-Ardashir, Isfahan, Rai, Segestan, Merv, Herat ... Several Persian religious leaders, among them the distinguished metropolitan of Rew-Ardashir and its province, Hormuzd-Ardashir, the bishops of Peroz-Shabour, and church priests of Beit Mihr-Bozed attended the Council of 544. In the Synod held in Mar Joseph in 554, while the presence of the bishops of Isfahan, Hamadan and Azerbaijan is mentioned. Also at the council of 576, Azerbaijan and Isfahan are mentioned sending delegates.

In 497, far away from Rome and to better stand out of Byzantium and the West, this church adopted the Nestorian doctrine, based on the theology of Theodore of Mopsuestia, the "interpreter of the divine Scriptures" (Synod of Mar Ishoyahb I in 585). The catholicos Mar Babai is proclaimed first "Nestorian" Patriarch in the presence of several metropolitans and bishops from Persia.

(See also: La symbolique de l'enracinement, ou le retour du siège de l'Église assyrienne d'Orient en Irak)

An ancient Aramaic (Syriac) manuscript. Photo: Claire Yacoub
An ancient Aramaic (Syriac) manuscript. Photo: Claire Yacoub

Mediators between Persia and Byzantium

It is in this context that the Nestorian Church served as a mediator between the two hostile empires: Persia and Byzantium. Three illustrious names mark this period, Mar (Saint) Marouta, Bishop of Mayferqat, who "was the mediator of peace and harmony between the East and the West", a "man of great culture and distinguished physician," the Patriarch Ishoyahb I, who was sent by the Persians for an embassy in Constantinople in 587, and Ishoyahb II in 630. As a result, Christians enjoyed freedom of worship during this period.

More importantly, the Nestorian patriarchs like Mar Dadisho (421-456) had rendered good services to the Persian kings, whose impact was felt on the Christians. And it is under such favorable conditions that the early councils of the Eastern Church were able to sustain in the "land of the Persians," described as the "glorious kingdom". Moreover, the council held in February 576, under Mar Ezekiel, prescribes that prayers for Khosrow I (531-579) are always included in the liturgy. The council of 544 nicknamed the King Khosrow I "the new Cyrus". He is qualified as "gentle, merciful, benevolent, peaceful, philanthropist, good and kind master" and the land of the Persians "glorious kingdom."

Another sign of trusteeship is that an episcopal assembly was held in 612 at the Court of King Khosrow II Parviz (590-628), who showed himself tolerant towards Christians. Therefore, we can understand that the "golden age" of the Eastern Church was under the Sassanids.

However, this story is punctuated by cruel persecutions particularly under Shapour II from 339 to 379. This is specifically true in the northwest provinces of the country and in the border regions of the Roman Empire. In the 6th century, the Church of the East enjoyed great vitality and unprecedented territorial expansion. As founder of the first university schools (e.g. Nisibis), the Nestorian Church of Persia once demonstrated a quite extraordinary power of expansion throughout the Asian continent. Many missionaries set sail from Persian Khorasan towards Central Asia and well beyond.

Church of St-Peter and St-Paul (7th century). Photo: Claire Yacoub
Church of St-Peter and St-Paul (7th century). Photo: Claire Yacoub

Christian regions on the western shores of Lake Urmia and the plains of Salmas

There are easily more than 150 villages of Assyrian/Syriac language, formerly Christians, from Mawana to Gavilan, from Khosrawa to Pataver, between Dazgir and Karajalu, from Tarmanie to Balulan near Lake Urmia (the Syriac-Aramaic word means city of water) and in the plains of Salmas. The Christianity in Abadan, Qazvin, Tabriz, the Maraghe region of Kermanshah, Sanandaj to Ahwaz has, in turn, significantly reduced and in some places disappeared. In Tehran, there is still an Assyrio-Chaldean community which is quite active.

Some churches are built on the location of missing buildings, others have fallen into ruins. These villages, meanwhile inhabited mostly by Kurds, yet remain the historical reminder of Christianity and a source of pride. Also, monographs about these villages grow. A good example of such a study item is the village of Goetapa, documented by the priest Shmuel Betkolia. The St. Thomas Church in Balulan, a beautiful village at the foot of the mountain that separates it from Turkey, has an architecture that is reminiscent of the Sassanids.

Until 1896, the village of Ardishaï was a Nestorian Episcopal seat, just like the villages of Gavilan, Nazlou and Barandouz, and the city of Urmia.

Apart from Khosrawa (a former bishop's palace) and partly Pataver, other Christian villages of Salmas district are completely depopulated. Only cemeteries and dilapidated churches remain such as in Kohne Shehr where the Patriarch Mar Benjamin Shimoun, assassinated in March 1918, was residing. Moreover, many of these churches bear names of early martyrs of Christianity. Some, fallen into ruins, have been restored. On his way to India, the apostle Thomas, founder of the Church of Mesopotamia, is supposed to have preached with his disciples on the shores of Lake Urmia and to have baptized many worshipers. In the village Mar Noukha, located near the Lake Urmia, a religious building was built on the premises where the apostle Thomas is said to have rested. There also exist the Acts of Thomas written in classic Syriac recounting his journey.

The church of Mar Noukha, which St. Thomas would rest. Photo: Claire Yacoub.
The church of Mar Noukha, which St. Thomas would rest. Photo: Claire Yacoub

The Western Azerbaijan

One of the cradles of Christianity in Persia is therefore Northwest Iran, called West Azerbaijan, composed of the Urmia region (over 90 villages), the plain of Salmas (over 12 locations), the mountainous districts of Tergavar (18 villages) and Margavar (6 villages), Barandouz and Nazlou, Soldouz and Baradost Somai, which were the matter of struggles in the past. The region is known for its rich soil and abundant river water. The two cities of Urmia and Salmas, located at a high-altitude and surrounded by rich and cultivated plains, are depicted with hundreds of churches, some older than millennium, recalling the distant past. They have typical Syriac-Aramaic names, found elsewhere beyond Persia in the cities and villages of Turkey and Iraq, as well as in the Hakkari region of Turkey (Mar Shalita, Mar Kyriakos, Mar Audisho, Mar Gewarguis, Mar Zaya, etc.). Some churches, and not least among them, are classified by the Iranian authorities as historical monuments and must be preserved as a national heritage. In some villages, one can discover street names that sound Christian, e.g. Ada (Adeh). Living examples of shrines that became places of pilgrimage are Mar Sarguis and Mar Baccus, 10 km away from Urmia, or the Church of Saints Peter and Paul from the 7th century.

The region is also full of large cemeteries (or funerary monuments), such as Sopourghan and Dizatakya, reminiscent of a past in which Christianity was numerous and influential. Sometimes designs are artfully engraved on tombstones, illustrating the occupation of the deceased. Ancient manuscripts were found, too. For instance, the Bible of the village Kosi dates back 1500 years and is displayed today at the museum of Tabriz.

On the other hand, Iran has experienced printing and first newspapers published by the Christians in 1838, and the first translations of English into Syriac-Aramaic as well as modern Assyrian languages. The country also saw the first medical university in Urmia, founded in 1840 by Presbyterian missionaries. The period from 1838 to 1914 was – to some extend - a golden age of literary renaissance in Syriac-Aramaic language.

Church of Mar Gewargis (Village of Wazirabad). Photo: Claire Yacoub
Church of Mar Gewargis (Village of Wazirabad). Photo: Claire Yacoub

Churches still active today

Arab historians mention Christianity in their writings with reference to Yakut al-Hamaoui (13th century). He is among the same Iranians specialized in the Christian past, which speak sympathetically of it. It should be recalled that under the Iranian Constitution, the Assyrio-Chaldean Christians have a member representing them in Parliament: Mr. Yonathan Betkolia, meanwhile in his fourth term of office. The Armenians, meanwhile, have two deputies.

Despite the exodus and the significant decline of the population, Christians of Iran are doing relatively well. I must add that they have produced a rich literature in both Syriac-Aramaic, modern Assyrian (Sureth) and Persian. Few iconic names underline this story: Nimrod Simono, Pira Sarmas, William Sarmas Binyamin Arsanis, and William Daniel.

The churches are active and some are formed in bishoprics: The largest communities belong to the Assyrian Church of the East (with a bishop in Tehran), the Assyrian Chaldean Catholics (with two bishops in Tehran and in Urmia), the Evangelical Assyrian Churches (a split-off from the Church of the East), present mainly in Tehran and Urmia, and the Armenian bishoprics. The churches are working a lot with young people and children and hold together based on a common ethnicity.

The Chaldean Church has homes for the elderly (in Tehran and Urmia) and a Congregation of Sisters. These churches brought forth brilliant personalities in modern times, such as Paul Bedjan Thomas Audo and Zaya Dachtou. The latter built the Chaldean Catholic Cathedral Mar Mariam in Urmia, an episcopal residence and a school (nationalized in 1973). Urmia and Salmas were once patriarchal seats. Since 2000, the Assyrian Evangelical Church in Tehran publishes a quarterly newsletter, Alp u Tav, in Syriac-Aramaic.

Today, Christianity in Iran is supported by a diaspora committed to the country and its Christian heritage while contributing to the restoration of churches. No doubt, archeology, epigraphy and linguistics will perhaps tell us more about this rich heritage.

Joseph Yacoub Ph.D.Joseph Yacoub is a honorary professor of the Catholic University of Lyon, former holder of the Unesco Chair "Memory, Cultures and Interculturality," and is specialized on Eastern Christians. | writings

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