Christians of the Steppe

by Nathan Hamm on 5/3/2005 · 3 comments

From Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World:

The sequence of consecutive Mongol victories over the Bulgars, the Russians, the Hungarians, the Germans, and the Poles caused widespread alarm and near panic in some quarters. Who were these people and what did they want? As Matthew Paris lamented, no European knew their language: ‘For never till this time has there been any mode of access to them, nor have they themselves come forth, so as to allow any knowledge of their customs or persons to be gained through common intercourse with other men.’

With no other source of helpful information, the Christian clerics looked to the Bible for an answer. The name Tartar sounded to them like Tarshish, whose king ‘shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from river unto the ends of the earth.’ The psalm also stated: ‘They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents.’

For the clerics, the mention of bringing presents connected the king of Tarshish with the three kings of the East who brought gifts to the Christ child, and suddenly they saw an explanation to connect these passages with the Mongols. In 1164, German Crusaders returning from foreign campaigns brought home bones they claimed were from the Three Kings; in 1181 the Germans began construction of an elaborate reliquary of golden enamel to hold the remains in the marvelous new cathedral of Cologne. Consequently, because of this episode and what everyone realized was the theft of sacred relics, the Christians feared that the Tartars were invading Europe to reclaim the bones of their ancestors. In that case, the Mongols would likely cut straight through the heart of Europe to reach their goal at Cologne.

Instead though, the Mongols headed south from Hungary toward the Balkans, leading clerics to propose that the Mongols were in fact Jews who had failed to return home from the captivity in Babylon. Jews were blamed for bringing the Mongol invasion on Europe and Europeans sought vengeance across the continent.

Far from being Jews, many Mongols at the time, were in fact Christians.

The Mongol Christians emphasized the association of God with light, particularly the Golden Light that was sacred in their mythology, and they associated Jesus with healing and triumph of life over death. Despite the commong religion, Rubruck [William of Rubruck, a Franciscan monk] greatly resented the Assyrian, Armenian, and Orthodox Christians at the Mongol court. Since he considered all non-Catholics to be heretics, he contemptuously designated the Mongol congregants of the Assyrian Church as Nestorians in reference to Nestorius, the fifth-century Patriarch of Constantinople who was condemned as a heretic by the Council of Ephesus in 431. Among the Assyrian beliefs that Rubruck held to be heretical was that the Virgin Mary was the mother of Christ, but not the mother of God. They also differed from Catholics in their steadfast refusal to protray Christ on the cross as a violation of the Mongol taboos on depicting death or blood. Even when they admitted to being Christians, Mongols did not consider their religion as their primary identification. As one of the Mongol generals who was a follower of Christianity explained, he was no Christian–he was a Mongol.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


Younghusband May 3, 2005 at 11:22 pm

Man I have been wanting to read that book for some time. Just getting through Intelligence in War now and got a massive stack of other books I already own but haven’t read.

Curzon May 4, 2005 at 6:56 am

The Far Eastern concept of theology is so alien to the West. Americans will ask friends in Japan, “What religion are you,” to which the respond, “Buddhist… maybe.” It’s just an entirely different frame of reference that the West is not accustomed too. To many Mongols, the major religions were like “five fingers,” but as one Mongol general said, “Buddhism is the palm.” Interesting stuff.

Nathan May 4, 2005 at 11:34 am

I’m finding time and time again the discussion of religion in Eurasia utterly fascinating. Weatherford said that Buddhism was not common among Mongol tribes during Genghis’s time for a number of reasons. Christianity was especially common because Christians both ate meat and drank alcohol (even as part of worship!). Mongols loved that. Also, he says that “Jesus” sounds a lot like the Mongol word for “nine,” a lucky number.

Genghis was a devout worshipper of the Eternal Blue Sky though and it seems that many of his male ancestors were as well for a few generations though many of their wives and children were Christians.

I’ll have to find the passage, but there’s a great one about Rubruck being challenged on differences between religions and man’s relationship to God. Their religious tolerance seemed partly to come from the concept you note Curzon. In many ways, all religion was the same to them.

Previous post:

Next post: