The Architectural Heritage of the Christians of the East (Antiquity and the Middle Ages)

Issue #3 • 1749

Cult-related architecture is a multifaceted phenomenon that represents the nation’s religion, artistic and material culture, which set the direction of architecture development.  In an architectural object, the ideological foundation of religion and its engineering and technical thought closely intertwine.  History of Christianity in the East[1] is currently less well-known than its Western history. Cultic architecture was inspired by ideological objectives set by the Church.

In the first centuries of the Common Era (AD), the Christian doctrine propagated from Jerusalem to the west and south – to the Red Sea, to the north-east – to the Caspian Sea, and towards the south-west coast of India and Ceylon; in the Middle Ages it reached China and Mongolia.  Christianity arrived in Bactria at the end of the II century, to last until the early XIV c.  Then it declined and almost completely disappeared from the huge territory where it used to have power and authority.

Although the language of worship was Syrian, patriarchate, the Church’s centre in the East, was located in the capital of Persia, and later on in Baghdad, the capital of the caliphate. The spread of Christianity in Asia along the Great Silk Road was facilitated by traders, artisans, architects, teachers, and doctors.

A major figure in the East was apostle Thomas, also known as Mar Ammo (in the Syrian transcription).  According to a legend, Thomas’ lot was to preach in the “countries of India”.  A king gave Thomas money to build a temple, but, as noted in the third century Deeds of Thomas, the apostle gave the money away to the poor.  When the king wanted to see the temple in construction, Thomas said that it was completed, yet the king would only be able to see it after his death, in the kingdom of heaven.  The king threw the Apostle in prison, but the king’s late brother appeared to him in his dream and assured the king that the palace does exist in heaven (1, pp. 23-24).

Initially, Christians were, apparently, not so much concerned about their cultic buildings.  For them, temple was a house for prayer or meetings.  The name “temple” in reference to Christian structures had hardly been used until the IV c.  Apparently, a Christian church was quite unlike the Old Testament temple.  The Bible has a detailed description of the Temple of Solomon, and also of how a tabernacle should look like.  The New Testament contains no instructions on temple architecture, so Christians created them, depending on their needs and capabilities (2).

Starting from the IV c., new trends in cultic architecture emerge.  A temple building now symbolizes celestial church.  This can be the origin of subsequently developed images and shapes given to the church buildings: the strongholds of God on earth, heavenly Jerusalem, tabernacle, ship, and, finally, the house of God (2).

It is known that the Church of the East in Central Asia had several metropolitans: Merv, Samarqand, Bukhara, Herat, Vinkert, Navaket, and Kashgar.  A metropolitan usually supervised from 6 to 20 episcopates, which in turn were responsible for 6-20 churches.

Monasticism and asceticism constituted an important part of the Asian Christians’ spiritual culture throughout the entire history of Christianity in the region.  Monasteries were founded throughout Central Asia, including Merv, Vazkerd (Urgut – near Samarqand) Vinkert, Kurutga, Bulayag (both in Turfan area), Lake Issyk-Kul (Image1).  Construction of the places of worship never stopped in the entire history of Christianity spread in the East.  Even after the Arab conquest, throughout the Caliphate – from Cape St. Vincent in southwest Portugal to Samarqand – there was mentioning of rich Christian cloisters that retained their real estate.  The Caliphate Christians could communicate without obstruction with the Christian world and receive donations (3, p. 11).

According to texts, the architectural heritage of the Christians of the East (Central Asia) is great, but contemporary science knows little of it – just a small aspect exposed with the help of written sources and archaeological excavations.  Presently known are the Christian architecture monuments that existed in Merv, Samarqand, Chach, Taraz, Merk, and the Seven Rivers Area, where Christian communities were once located.

For instance, the presence of early Christian buildings in the Merv oasis is evidenced by the Zehert Chronicles in Arabic language.  The document mentions that Shapur’s female relative who adopted Christianity and was exiled to Merv, “demanded that architects build a church for her.  Not knowing, which shape to give it, the architects followed the layout of the Persian royal palace”.  According to the document, the architectural canon had not yet been developed.

Tangible evidence of Christianity in Merv and its surroundings are the III-VI cc. finds such as Oval House (Image 2), Horaba-Koshuk (Image 3), and a number of tombs in a necropolis near Gyaur-Kala (4).  During research in the area of the Christian necropolis near Merv, archaeologists discovered burials dated to the II-III cc., based on coin finds.  Coins were found within the boundaries of the church buildings constructed even earlier – in the I-II cc.  Later on, with the expansion of Christian community, churches move to residential areas, and the Christians cemetery grows further.   A monastery dated to the same period was discovered in the Merv area.

The Oval House located in the northeast corner of Gyaur-Kala is considered a Christian structure, based on a fresco image of a cross on the wall of one of the chambers, as well as on finds such as cylindrical chalcedony seal with engraved image of a double line straight cross, a bone amulet with a lion’s image, and conical clay chips with a six-pointed cross.  The monument is dated to the late IV and early VII cc., based on the coin of Bahram IV (388-399) found on the building’s platform, and the ceramic complex.  Based on the iconographic features of the discovered artefacts, it is postulated that the community was of Melkite persuasion (5, pp. 28-31).  According to the earlier notions expressed in the Apostolic Constitutions (source dated to the III – early IV cc.), a church should look like a ship or a sheep barn (6).

The Horaba-Koshuk archaeological site dated to the late V and early VII cc. based on the coins of Kawad (488-531) and Khosrow II (591-628) is understood to be a Christian church, taking its architectural analogies into account (7).

A major centre of the ancient Orthodox Christianity was Khorezm, which, according to the early medieval sources, had its own eparchy.  Its bishops were appointed not by Constantinople, but by the Syrian Antioch.  In the VII c. there was an archbishopric assigned to the Crimean metropolis, which shows that Christianity was practiced not only by Khorezmians, but also by steppe nations residing on the territory from the northern parts of Central Asia to the Caucasus (South-Russian steppe).  Biruni, when describing Christian festivals in Khorezm, mentions a church (8).

Arab traveller Abu Qasim Muhammad ibn Haukal tells about Christians in Sogdiana in his geographical treatise Roads and Kingdoms (977); in particular, he mentions the Shavdar Christian monastery with cells and rooms for gatherings.  The monastery possessed inalienable property, and people stayed there permanently; the building was towering the large area of Sughd.  This place is known as Wzkr (wrkwd, wrkwdh, wrkrd, zrkrd – as spelled in different manuscript copies of the works by Ibn Haukal and al-Istakhri) (9, p. 334).  A. A. Savchenko identifies it with Urgut – for centuries, home to the representatives of several religions living side by side.  A village where the early medieval Christian church was supposed to be located had been searched for by V. V. Bartold, V. L. Vyatkin, and M. E. Masson.

In 1997, a supposedly Christian church was discovered and excavated in Sufiyon village, as argued by A. Savchenko (Image 4).  The excavations revealed a structure made of baked brick typical of the Samanid and Qarakhanid periods (IX-XI cc.) and oriented to the cardinal points (which is typical of Christian structures). The layout of the temple is characteristic of Mesopotamian Christian architecture, which, in turn, continues the tradition of the early Christian basilica.  The closest architectural analogy to the Urgut structure may be a monastery on Sir Bani Yas Island near Abu Dhabi.  In 1999, on the Sulaiman-tepa hill known to the older generation as Urus-machit (Russian mosque) they found by a massive architectural compound with several chambers, founded in the middle of the IX century.

According to E. V. Rtveladze, “A rectangular building with a circular hall uncovered in Koshtepa I settlement in Urgut District, which dates back to the VII-VIII cc., can be classified as Christian cultic structure.  This conclusion is based on its architectural features, to some extent, similar to Byzantine Christian temples, as well as on the fragment of a hum wall found here; it bears an imprint of a seal, probably showing the rite of baptizing” (10, p. 77).  According to other researchers of Koshtepa, crosses in the ornamentation of ossuaries found here, also identify the monument as a Christian church (11, pp. 93-94).

At its disposal, Samarqand metropolitan had many cultic buildings, which were constructed throughout the entire period of its existence.  Marco Polo describes a magnificent church in Samarqand, dedicated to John the Baptist (Yahyo), as a circular building with a pillar at the center – similar to the yurt of the Altai nomads (12, pp. 51-57).

According to Narshahi the historian, Christian churches also existed in Bukhara and Taraz (10, pp. 76-77).

As reported by Ibn Haukal, Vinkert metropolitan was located on the western border of Chach, near Parak (Chirchik) river, in the Christian village of Vinkert (13).  K. Sheiko suggests that Vinkert could also be located on the right bank of Chirchik, on the territory of Karaultepa settlement site.  Archaeological material found on the settlement site is in synch with reports in the written sources about Christians in the area (14, pp. 40-43).  As metropolitan centre, Vinkert was supposed to have a monastery and a temple.  A surviving Syrian inscription of the Sogdian Christians from Urgut contains mentioning of a Turkish preacher and interpreter of the Bible from the town of Ushturkata located in Chach, who visited them “to see his disciples and find solitude”.  This suggests that Ushturkata had at least one cultic building, probably, a monastery, where Christians from different locations gathered in large numbers (15, pp. 39-43).

A Christian temple in Termez, located near Genghis-tepa hill, beyond the northern line of the XI-XIII cc. city walls, consists of 15 chambers that constitute a compound (Image 5).  A cross-shaped room, the square central part of which used to be covered with a dome, was central to the compound.  Some of the chambers are decorated with well-preserved murals.  As suggested by L. I. Albaum, the compound functioned as an Episcopal cathedral, hosting pilgrims (16, pp. 33-41).  A church (Image 7) and adjacent necropolis were discovered at Ak-Beshim settlement site, too.

Fairly common type of cultic structures in Central Asia is cave architecture.  Manmade caves or catacombs are known to exist in the North-East Africa, Syria, Iran, Byzantium and the Caucasus.  According to V. L. Vyatkin’s 1906 report, Kandia Minor mentions underground catacombs in Samarqand, which were used as sanctuaries.  A scholar from Samarqand A.A. Raimkulov, who studied cave structures, noted that these “are in many ways related to one another” (17, p. 93).

Underground structures have been found in Qajar-tepa citadel near Qarshi.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, not far from Nakhsheb, the capital city of Southern Sogdiana, A. Raimkulov excavated a semi-subterranean early medieval architectural compound known as Kosh-tepa (Image 10).  On the site, they found a ceramic incense burner with an opening in the shape of a Nestorian Cross (17, pp. 92-93).

Karhana, or “workshop”, cave complex (Image 11) was discovered by M. E. Masson in the Tashkent Province, 6 kilometres south of Tunket, the capital of the medieval province of Ilak, in a mountain valley of Narbeksai river, in 1930.  The date of its origin is still unclear.  According to Masson, the monument dates to the early Middle Ages, and its caves were constructed over a lengthy period of time.  In the early 1990s, Almalyk Museum personnel performed excavations at the Karhana site.  The present author believes that the local complex is a monastery-church of early Christians.

One can get an idea about the look of the Christian cultic buildings from the images of buildings on the ossuaries in which Christians are buried; from the Pyanjikent murals (Images 12 and 13); from silver platters, and items wrought by Sogdian Christians.  For instance, the so-called Anikov (Image 15) and Grigorov (Image 14) platters bear the pictures of a temple and a funerary structure, correspondingly.

Christian temples were decorated with painting, stained glass windows, icons and pictures of saints; later, at the time of the Mongol invasion (when Islam was particularly strong) ornamentation was banned, and the crucifix was replaced by a simple crosses. A good example is Nestorian temple in Kucha, the capital of Uygur kingdom (khanate), in the Turfan oasis.  Specifically, murals were found depicting Palm Sunday festivities.  In the picture one can see a mix of Syrian, Mongol and Turkic faces of people celebrating the holiday.  Faces in the temple frescoes are painted carefully; the characters wear traditional dress.  There is also mentioning of the image of Christ and Mani in a church in Samarqand, made in 1248 (18, pp. 147, 161-162).

Christian ideas and images, refracted in the specificity of the Eastern mentality and local traditions, were embodied in unique works of art and architecture created by Central Asian Christians.  Central Asia, due to its geographical location and cultural heritage, in turn, strongly influenced the transfer of scientific, cultural and religious ideas between East and West, and made an invaluable contribution to the treasury of the world’s culture.


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The term East in the present article refers to the part of the Asian continent with countries located to the east of the boundaries of the Roman – and, later, Byzantine – Empire.  Whenever the term East is used, it primarily denotes Central Asia, which is an important arena of the historical events in question, and, spiritually, the heart of Asia.

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