In 578, the monks of a monastery perched in the Pharaonic ruins of Thebes in Upper Egypt wrote up a prayer for the empire sent to them, from Alexandria, by their patriarch, Damianus. They should pray "for the prosperous life of the kings . . . and that every barbarian nation, unto the ends of the earth, may be in subjection under their hands, and that the whole world may become one body."27
It is revealing that the patriarch to whom the monks owed obedience was not even the patriarch recognized by the emperors for whom the monks prayed -Damianus was the miaphysite patriarch of Alexandria. Deemed a "heretic," his patriarchate was, technically, illegal. But the public language he adopted was identical to that of any other bishop within the empire.
It was taken for granted, in official circles, that Christianity would come to the barbarians when God wished it; and that, when it came, it would come through the magnetic attraction of the Christian empire. Often this ideology appeared to come true. Resident in Constantinople, John of Biclaro, a Spanish predecessor of Julian of Toledo, witnessed such ceremonies of integration. In 569, the Garamantes (a tribal confederation on the Saharan frontier of North Africa) "asked through their envoys that they be incorporated into the peace of the Roman state and into the Christian faith."28
So did the Maccuritae, from the Dongola region of the northern Sudan. In 573, their ambassadors arrived. Bringing elephant tusks and a giraffe, "they placed themselves on friendly terms with the Romans."29 The gifts were a reminder that, through the prestige of the Christian empire, the Kingdom
25 Delogu, "Solium imperii-urbs ecclesiae."
26 Julian ofToledo, De comprobatione sextae aetatis, 1.14, 161.
27 Crum and Evelyn-White, Monastery ofEpiphanius at Thebes 2,148-52.
28 John ofBiclaro, Chronicon, ch. 7, 63.
of Christ had become known far south of the rainless zone of Egypt, in the savannah lands that edged the northern tip of Equatorial Africa. Even there, empire left its mark. The churches of Dongola are faithful copies of Byzantine models. As late as the eleventh century, the tomb inscriptions of the region used Constantinopolitan Greek prayers for the passing of the soul.30
What this "ideology of attraction" failed to recognize was that, by the year 600, Christianity had spread, in less formal ways, less easily condensed into the triumphant "sound bites" of contemporary narratives. The heartlands of Christianity were already ringed by an extensive "penumbra." In the words of Julian of Toledo, no "preacher" had come to many nations: that is, no "preacher" such as would have been recognized in official circles - no royal or imperial embassy had reached them; no bishop and clergy commissioned for the purpose had set up churches among them. Nonetheless, Christ was known to them, "from what it has heard from other nations."31
The ideology ofthe Christian heartlands tended to censorthis slow trickle of knowledge of Christianity into Asia, Africa, and northern Europe. The "Kingdom of Christ" might be universal, but it only worked through clearly visible representatives: through a clergy supported, to varying degrees, by the prestige of a Christian state. What this view failed to recognize was that, for outsiders accustomed to a diversity of spiritual powers, sixth-century Christianity, in and of itself, was an exciting source of potential blessing and protection. Its symbols and rituals were known to be powerful. They were frequently grafted on to other systems.
Religious bricolage of this kind occurred all over Europe and Asia. The Cross appears frequently on ceramics in Iraq and even on coins in Sasanian Merv.32 In 591, even a party of Turks from Kirghizstan, on the frontier of China, appeared in Constantinople with the Sign ofthe Cross on their foreheads: "They declared that they had been assigned this by their mothers: for when a fierce plague was endemic among them, some Christians advised them that the foreheads of their young should be marked with this sign."33
It was the same in Saharan Africa. The spread of knowledge of Christianity, and the adoption of selected elements of its rituals, cannot be reduced to the few moments of contact between the imperial authorities and the Berber and Tuareg confederacies which stretched far to the south of the frontiers of Roman North Africa. In the Tuareg language of the western Sahara, the
30 Godlewski, "New Approach."
31 Julian of Toledo, De comprobatione sextae aetatis, 1.14,161.
32 Simpson, "Mesopotamia," 65; Hermann et al., "International Merv Project," 64.
33 Theophylact Simocatta, History, 5.10.15, 146-47.
word for "sacrifice," afaske, echoes the Christian term for "Pascha"/"Easter" -the high festival of the Christian world. Other words of clerical Latin, such as abbekad, from peccatum (sin), also entered the language. It is an echo from a world far to the south of the coastal plains of Mediterranean North Africa.34
It is easy to forget that the territories of Christianity itself were subject to constant flux. "De-Christianization" was just as much a feature of the Christian world in 600 as was "Christianization." Barbarian invasion, deportation, or sheer neglect by distant authorities could produce entire "unchurched" populations, for whom Christianity remained a residual religion, but without ecclesiastical structures. When, in around 520, Symeon the Mountain-Dweller, a Syrian hermit, came to an upland valley in northern Iraq, he found a community of scattered pastoralists, living in well-built houses. But their churches were empty. They had never heard a reading of the Scriptures. They did not know what the Eucharist was. "There are men on these mountains [they told him] who, unless they have heard from their fathers, who carried them to church and had them baptized, do not know what a church is."35
Even a self-confidently "Christian" society, such as the empire of Justinian and his successors, lived with large swaths of gray - of unchurched and even pagan communities - in its midst.
Other former Christian communities suffered yet more drastic dislocation. An Armenian population, forcibly deported by the Persians to the edge of Central Asia, lost everything: "They had forgotten their own language, lost the use of writing, and lacked the priestly order."36
Only generations later were they "re-churched" through the intervention of an Armenian general in Persian service: "They were confirmed in the faith and learned to write and speak their language. A certain presbyter among them called Abel [whose family evidently had maintained some form of priestly status] was appointed to priestly rank in that territory."37
This process ofalternating "churched" and "unchurched" Christianities can be seen most clearly on the northern shores ofthe Black Sea. The Crimea and the Sea of Azov, where the Don opens up a route into the steppes of southern Russia, was an immemorial corridor of populations. The Black Sea was vital for Roman strategy. In the Crimea, a Roman presence was maintained along the shoreline, beneath the mountain ridges. Yet Christianity spread sporadically
34 Camps, "Rex gentium Maurorum et Romanorum."
35 John of Ephesus, Lives of the Eastern Saints, 16, 235.
36 Sebeos, Armenian History, 24.97, 44.
37 Sebeos, Armenian History, 24.97, 44.
in this crucial area, in ways which revealed the weaknesses of the official "ideology of attraction."38
Ever since the fourth century, bishops "of the Goths" (from the northern Black Sea area) appeared occasionally at Constantinople.39 But these were a passive presence. The major moments of official Christianization coincided with diplomatic offensives against the nomads in the Russian steppes and against Sasanian penetration in the Caucasus. The language of the official sources speaks of these as brisk triumphs. Under imperial guidance, coastal and mountain tribes of the Black Sea and the Caucasus stepped from darkness into light, and from "the beast-like life" of barbarians into that of civilized persons and Christians.40 What they do not tell is how far Christianity had already penetrated these areas in less formal ways. This penetration is revealed only by fleeting signs, such as the appearance of the Sign of the Cross on belt buckles in Crimean mountain settlements at some distance from the "Roman," Christian coast.41
Nor do these accounts betray the fact that many of the groups who were swept up into the diplomacy of Constantinople had lived for long periods as largely "unchurched" Christians. An incident recorded by Procopius (mid-sixth century) throws some light on this gray zone. The Goths of the Bay of Azov had long been Christians. But they had forgotten what sort of Christians they were. "Now as to whether these Goths were once of the Arian belief, as the other Gothic nations are ... I am unable to say, for they themselves are entirely ignorant on this subject."42
Modern archaeological studies of many areas of the Balkans, of the Danube, and of northern Europe confirm the impression of a Christendom ringed by a penumbra of de-Christianized, "unchurched" regions, mixed with regions in which Christianity was present, if only as one religious system among others.
The most tantalizing example of all, of course, is the Britain to which Gregory I sent his famous delegation headed by the monk Augustine (d. c. 604) to ^thelberht (d. 616), the pagan king of Kent, in 597. The conventional ideology of Christianization which Gregory took for granted when he embarked on this mission had little place for the Christianity which had developed in this strangely silent island. 43
38 Ivanov, Vizantiiskoe missionerstvo, 82-88.
39 Mathisen, "Barbarian Bishops and Churches."
40 Maas, "Delivered from their Ancient Customs."
41 Kazanski and Soupault, Les sites archeologiques, 72.
43 Markus, Gregory the Great, 83-96,177-87.
It appears that the British church had retained many features that linked it still to the Continent. Visitors from Gaul, in the middle of the sixth century, would have found, in sites like Verulamium (St. Albans), basilicas of the saints such as Gregory of Tours would have recognized. Some members of the clergy had remained learned. They drew on a severely restricted fund ofbooks. Many of these were out of date. Some were written by ardent followers of the arch-heretic, Pelagius (a fellow Briton of the late-fourth/early-fifth century). Yet a Briton such as Gildas had succeeded in creating a vivid literary culture from this meager store. His book On the Ruin of Britain (written around 530) places him in a tradition of lamentation on the state of the church which had recognizable parallels in Gaul. This Latin learning had passed across the Irish Sea, to the communities founded in Ireland by Patricius (Patrick) - who may have died in 493 - and to the more shadowy settlements associated with Bishop Palladius, who had been sent to "the Irish who believe in Christ" on a rare papal initiative as early as 431. These were impressive achievements, ofwhich Gregory appears to have known nothing.44
Even in the areas settled by the Saxons, a "heathen darkness" had not descended on the land. On arriving in Kent, Augustine was puzzled to learn that the shrine of a certain martyr, Sixtus, was still an object of veneration by the local Britons. The shrine must have dated from Roman times. The locals knew little about the martyr. They possessed no text of his martyrdom (a sine qua non for a successful cult in most regions of the Continent). Yet they had continued tenaciously to worship at his grave.45
Altogether, in the course of the sixth century, Christianity had survived and mutated in Britain and in the "barbarian" island of Ireland. Yet we learn nothing of this from Continental sources. Even the name of Patricius first appears in a European text in 658 - almost two hundred years after his death. In the words of an alert modern scholar, "the silence of the age" had descended on a region whose low profile and truly post-imperial Christianity had no place in a map of the world still dominated by an ideology generated by great empires.46
The mission of Gregory the Great to the Anglo-Saxons, in 597, has conventionally been regarded as a starting point in the history of western Christianity. Yet it is perhaps helpful to see it, also, as the last gesture of an "apostolic" leader in a century where Christianity had spread, almost unwittingly, far beyond the limits of its own mental maps, with dramatic and unforeseen results. In order
44 Sharpe, "Martyrs and Local Saints"; Herren and Brown, Christ in Celtic Christianity;
Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland.
45 Stancliffe, "British Church."
46 Ivanov, Vizantiiskoe missionerstvo, 80.
to appreciate this, let us end by turning three thousand miles to the southeast of Rome - to Ethiopia, to the Arabian peninsula, and to the Persian Gulf.
Lying within range of the rainfall of Equatorial Africa, both the kingdom of Axum, in the foothills of modern Ethiopia, looking down upon the western side of the Red Sea, and the kingdom of Himyar (the Hadramawt in modern Yemen), facing the Indian Ocean at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, were long-settled civilizations. Their religious history had moved to a rhythm of its own. While the pagans of the north could be dismissed as "living like animals . . . who worship sticks and stones" (to use the choice words of Gregory the Great on the unabsorbed highlanders of Sardinia), and the Zoroastrians could be spoken of as mere "murmurers," mindless adherents of a largely oral religious tradition, without the dignity of books, the inhabitants of the kingdom of Axum and of Himyar/Saba had long been literate and even monotheist. As a result, Christians and Jews competed to put their own stamp on a strong surge of loyalty to one High God, known as al-Rahmanan, "the Merciful." We know of al-Rahmanan through victory inscriptions. He was the High God of aggressive, warrior kings, whose campaigns ranged as far as the Blue Nile from Axum and from Himyar (through an alliance of dependent Arab tribes) up to the very edge of Iraq.47
Both kingdoms guarded the gate through which the trade of the Indian Ocean reached the Mediterranean and the Middle East. As a result, they were distinctive, but never isolated. Cosmas the India-Merchant, to take only one example, had visited Axum and was well informed about the affairs of Himyar. A Jewish woman from Himyar was buried in Palestine with an inscription in Sabaean, Hebrew, and Aramaic.48 Both kingdoms had opted, as early as the fourth century, to replace the cult of the High God by a more radical and up-to-date form of monotheism. The kings of Axum had become Christian around 340.49
From around 380, by contrast, the kings of Himyar were Jewish. Thus, two monotheisms faced each other across the Red Sea. Both claimed biblical authority for their rule. The inscriptions of the Axumite king, Ella Atsbeha (c. 519-c. 531), were heavy with warlike passages of the Psalms: "The Lord strong and brave, the Lord mighty in battle ... in Whom I Believe, who has given me a strong kingdom____Itrust myself to Christ so that all my enterprises may succeed."50
47 Robin, L'Arabie antique.
48 Nebe and Sima, "Die aramaisch/hebraisch-sabaische Grabinschrift der Lea."
49 Munro-Hay, Aksum; Brakmann, Die Einwiirzelung der Kirche.
50 Axum inscription of Ella Atsbeha in Munro-Hay, Aksum, 230.
The inscriptions of his Jewish rival in Himyar, Yusuf As'ar Yath'ar (522-30), known as Dhu Nuwas, "He of the Forelock," were equally fierce. "By the Lord of Heaven and Earth and by the power of my warriors," Dhu Nuwas ousted a Christian king set up in Zafar by Ethiopian troops. He turned the great Christian church in Zafar into a synagogue. In 523 he closed in on the Arab trading city of Najran (placed on the routes between Zafar and the Hijaz) massacring the Christian clergy and aristocracy when they refused to adopt Judaism.51
Dhu Nuwas told them that it was not as if he were asking them to become polytheists and to worship the Sun. They could worship God, "the Merciful." All they had to admit was that Jesus of Nazareth had been a mere man: "All countries understand that he was a man and not God. Even the land of the Romans, who first erred concerning Him [by considering him divine]," he added, was slowly coming to its senses.52
Yusuf was defeated and killed by the Ethiopian army of Ella Atsbeha. Sharing no language with their fierce liberators from across the Red Sea, the local Christians protected themselves from the Ethiopian warriors by showing the Cross tattooed on their hands. Up to 570, the kingdom of Himyar was in the hands of Christian rulers, supported by military manpower drawn from the highlands of Ethiopia. A large church was built in San'a by the Christian king, Abraha. Known as Al-Qalis, (from the Greek ekklesia, the church) its Byzantine plan, with high naves and shimmering mosaics, was long remembered in the Arab world.53 On one of his routine expeditions to show his power to the Arab tribes of the north, Abraha was believed to have brought with him a war elephant. The grandiose gesture was remembered, five hundred miles away, in Mecca, in the Hijaz. "The Year of the Elephant" was the year in which the Prophet Muh. ammad (c. 570-632) was believed to have been born.
What these dramatic incidents reveal is the fact that areas of the world which seemed very far removed from the Christians of the heartland were held together by a web of communications which escaped conventional narratives of the spread of Christianity. Far from being an isolated region, opaque to outside influence, the Arabian peninsula, caught between Persia and Rome, had become, in the sixth century, a veritable "echo chamber" ofreligious conflict. From Iraq and Syria to the Hadramawt, "the gloves were off' between Judaism and Christianity. The remarkably articulate argument between Christianity and Judaism which runs throughout the Qur'an of Muhammad (the
51 Beaucamp, Briquel-Chatonnet, and Robin, "La persecution des chretiens."
52 Book of the Himyarites, 13, cix.
53 Finster and Schmidt, Die Kirche des Abraha in San'a.
recital of the visions which began to be revealed to him in 610 - only six years after the death of Gregory the Great) echoes a stormy century, where just these issues had been hotly contested along the whole length of the Arabian peninsula.
There were two reasons for this development. First, it is a reminder that empire mattered. For reasons of prestige and strategy, both Rome and Persia were prepared to reach down to the Indian Ocean. The Ethiopian "protectorate" of the coast of southern Arabia received the full blessing of the emperors of Constantinople. But Ethiopian, Christian hegemony was held in check. Persia offered persistent support for a Jewish kingdom that would keep the Ethiopians out of the Himyar, thereby blocking Roman penetration, through Christian allies, along the Hadramawt to the mouth of the Persian Gulf. After 570, Persian intervention secured just that. With Persian help, a local leader drove the Ethiopians back again across the Red Sea.54
All that remained of a Christian hegemony, apart from memories of the great church of Abraha at San'a and of his war elephant, was a vivid reference, in Muhammad's Qur'an to the martyrs of Najran. They had died
For no other reason than That they believed in God, Exalted in Power, Worthy of All Praise!55
But second, and equally remarkable, were the religious personnel who became involved in this Arabia-wide confrontation. Few of them were members of the established church of the empire. Rather, they were miaphysite Christians, bitterly opposed to the emperor's determination to uphold the Council of Chalcedon of 451. As the sixth century progressed, the opponents of Chalcedon found themselves forced to set up a rival hierarchy within the empire itself. And, in so doing, they created a new map of the Christian world. For they saw themselves, increasingly, as the defenders of a universal Christian truth. And this was not a universal truth which had, somehow, come to rest at the center of a single empire. It was a "de-centered" truth that was wider than the kingdoms of this world.56
Across the Middle East, they entered with truly "missionary" zeal into a competition for souls. This "zeal" reached out with particular attention to communities, such as the Nubians on the southern frontier of Egypt, who
54 Bowersock, Hadramawt.
56 Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth, 100-37.
had already had long contact with Christianity. The miaphysite leaders had to make sure that, if the Nubians were to be "churched," this church should come from themselves, and not from the imperial upholders of the "Great Prevarication" of Chalcedon. By so doing, they introduced a fracture into the previous "ideology of attraction," by which all roads to Christianity had led, through correct diplomatic channels, to Constantinople.57
Miaphysite clergy crossed with ease the frontier between Romans and "barbarians," and even between Rome and Persia. They gathered support from the Arab tribes along the frontier. The most notable of these were the Banu Ghassan. The Banu Ghassan met regularly with other Arab tribes at the shrine of Saint Sergios at Rusafa, placed at the northern edge of the Arabian desert in "the Barbarian Plain" that flanked the Euphrates. After 550, miaphysite monks and clergymen penetrated the Arab tribes of the Persian frontier, centered around Hira, so as to compete there also with the Nestorianism of the "Church of the East."58 To reach down to the southern end of the Red Sea, to Axum, and to the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, to Himyar, was a logical extension of a network without frontiers, equally dedicated to holding in check Chalcedonians on the edge of the Roman territories and Nestorians on the edges of Persia.
Behind these activities lies a cultural change whose full significance has not yet been fully appreciated. This was the "globalization" of culture which occurred throughout the Middle East in the course of the sixth century. As the journey of the Iranian Mar Aba to the West made plain, cultural frontiers no longer coincided with political boundaries. It was possible to read in Iraq, in Syriac, and even in Pahlavi translations, works of Greek philosophy and theology produced in Alexandria and Antioch. A world had opened across the Middle East, bound together by shared intellectual concerns and by shared religious confrontations. People in distant lands (largely irrespective of language) felt touched by identical issues and drew on identical skills.59 It was a wider world than even the diplomats had dreamed of. The clear outlines of an orthodox map of the world determined by the frontiers of Christian kingdoms had begun to dissolve.
Altogether, it was a time for "apostolic" action. In the triumphant letters which reported to the patriarch of Alexandria the success of the mission of Augustine to the Saxons of Kent, Gregory the Great dwelt on this "apostolic"
57 Kirwan, Studies.
58 Fowden, Barbarian Plain.
59 Walker, "Limits of Late Antiquity."
theme: "Both he and those who were sent with him shine with such miracles that the miracles of the Apostles seem to live again."60
Gregory the Great may well have sensed the spirit of an age whose horizons had fallen open. But, of course, he had written to the wrong patriarch. It was the miaphysite patriarch of Egypt, and not his "official" Chalcedonian rival, who would emerge as the unchallenged patron of the Christianity of Ethiopia and of the valley of the Nile as far south as Khartoum. And not every 'Apostle" had to be a Christian. It was the preaching of Muhammad, as the "Apostle of God," to Arabs who had been sensitized by the experiences of the past century to the possibilities of a militant and conflictual monotheism which would prove as important, on the stage of world history, as would be Gregory's preaching of the gospel to the Anglo-Saxons.
60 Gregory the Great, Epistolae, 8.29, 551.
Was this article helpful?