Friday, June 2, 2023

Obliteration and Destruction

Because the churches of their provinces have been obliterated completely and Christ’s people, that is the Christians, have been utterly destroyed.

-          Anonymous Greek churchman, c. 1480

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died, by Philip Jenkins

Fifty-one metropolitanates, eighteen archbishoprics, and 478 bishoprics – all desolate; barely a few priests, monks and layman remain.  Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.

As I have noted before, Jenkins moves freely between the church of the farther east (call these Nestorian or Syriac), and the Church of the East (what we today know as Eastern and Oriental Orthodox).  But the message is the same: where there once was a vast stretch of Christianity (albeit the Nestorians not recognized as such by the Orthodox), there remained almost nothing.  This will be examined in Jenkins’ chapter, The Great Tribulation.

It's 1354.  Mobs demand the Christians recite the Muslim profession of faith or face being burned alive.  Monastic estates were confiscated, striking at the financial basis of the Coptic Church.  Churches were razed or converted to Mosques.  Many Christians would accept Islam.

Not just Egypt.  The fourteenth century would mark the decisive collapse of Christianity in the Middle East, Asia, and much of Africa.  This raises an interesting question: Why then?  Why not with the rise of Islam and its rapid military conquests?  Was it the relative strength of the Christian culture at the time, or was it the change in the approach by Muslim leaders against Christians? 

As Jenkins notes, the idea that early Islam was uniformly and consistently tolerant toward Christians really is a false narrative.  It must be kept in mind that early Islam spread by the sword, via conquest.  Yet, changes were not systemic and permanent.  Suffice it to say, Muslims were no more nor no less tolerant of other religions than were Christians (or others).  Persecutions would come and go (and examples are offered by Jenkins), but rarely a total change…until the fourteenth century.

In any case, early on, the Christians in the east favored, in many ways, the Muslim rulers over the Byzantine.  Having been persecuted over the decades due to their “heresies,” this was not an issue under Muslim rule.  In the 650s, the Nestorian patriarch would write:

“The Arabs to whom God has granted at this time the government of the world…do not persecute the Christian religion; on the contrary they favor it, honor our priests and the saints of the Lord and confer benefits on churches and monasteries.”

Others would write similarly.  Whatever the faults of the Muslim rulers, at least they weren’t Byzantine Christians. 

In 869, the Melkite (Orthodox) patriarch of Jerusalem would write of the Muslims, “They are just, and do us no wrong or violence of any kind.”

Often, a regime of personal law was allowed: Christians would by judged based on Christian, not Muslim, law (at least when the conflicts were between Christians).  In remote areas, local Christian leaders would retain significant control.  New bishoprics would be established – even in Arabia! 

But the changes in political rule and authority were, in any case, real: many Christians under Muslim rule would see these changes as God’s punishment for the heresies of the Byzantines.  A later Coptic history would offer:

“And the Lord abandoned the army of the Romans before him, as punishment for their corrupt faith, and because of the anathemas uttered against them, on account of the council of Chalcedon, by the ancient fathers.”

Of course, Byzantine Christian rule last much longer than Christian rule in Egypt, so using the logic offered in this Coptic historical interpretation, one might come to an even less flattering interpretation for these opponents of Chalcedon.

Instead, a more reasonable interpretation, if one wants to see God’s hand in this loss of Byzantium, is offered by Michael the Syrian (a Jacobite):

“The God of vengeance…seeing the wickedness of the Romans who, wherever they ruled, cruelly robbed our churches and monasteries and condemned us without pity, raised from the region of the south the children of Ishmael to deliver us by them from the hands of the Romans… it was no light advantage for us to be delivered from the cruelty of the Romans.”

All of the inter-Christian fighting – theological as well as physical – did nothing to strengthen Christendom; in fact, the opposite.

In the eleventh century, a Byzantine Empire desperate to keep out invading Turks often showed contempt for its Monophysite Armenian allies, although these were militarily crucial.

Setting aside that the term Monophysite does not properly describe the Armenians (or others, like the Copts, that rejected Chalcedon), the point is valid.  The nose is cut off, spiting the face.

And this brings us to the collapse.  Asian and African Christianity were still significant and powerful in 1200, yet within two centuries, these communities – some of the most ancient communities in Christendom – virtually collapsed. 

Here, the Seljuk Turks played a key role.  However, Jenkins does not see this purely as a Muslim holy war.  Many Eurasian tribes followed the same aggressive pattern of expansion.  War and power accumulation was an end in itself. 

The Seljuks subjugated the Armenian kingdom in 1064, forcing the survivors to create a new Armenian state in Cilicia.  And in 1071, the Turks won an epochal victory over the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert.

Asia Minor would be turned in a barren desert.  A population of perhaps 12 million in the early Byzantine period had barely half that by the thirteenth century.  As an example, Edessa – with a population estimated at forty-seven thousand – were wiped out by the Turks via killing and enslavement.

The persecutions were not equally applied.  Armenian and Syrian Christians were treated relatively better than the Greek; the latter represented the Byzantine Empire, while the former did not.  The Latin Catholic clergy were treated worst of all, considered as interlopers.

It was in the face of all of this that the Crusades were called in the West.  Not unprovoked, not for no reason.  Christendom was being brutally attacked, and Christians were called to act.

After this came an even more devastating invader – the Mongols.  Christian and Muslim suffered equally under this assault.  In 1221, Merv fell.  Contemporary accounts counted the dead in the hundreds of thousands – even millions.  Ani, the ancient capital of Armenia and a city of a (reported) thousand churches, never recovered from the sack of 1236.  Christian Georgia’s golden age was brough to an end.  Baghdad itself suffered massacre – an estimated eight hundred thousand residents.

In 1304, Turkish forces obliterated Ephesus; all Christians were killed or deported.  In 1340 a metropolitan arrived – the first to enter the city in 35 years; he operated not from a cathedral but from cheap lodgings in the house of an old Turkish woman.  By 1387, the few remaining believers could not afford to keep a priest.  By the late fifteenth century, the number of bishoprics in Anatolia shrank from three hundred seventy-three to three.  This compared to one hundred-fifteen in the Empire’s west.

To give an account of alliances between and among Christians (of all stripes), Muslims, Turks, and Mongols is far more than I can deal with in an overview.  Suffice it to say, the lines were not strictly religious, nor ethnic, nor stable.  Suffice it to say, with all of this warfare and bloodletting, tolerance did not survive and lines hardened.  Conversions to Islam increased – Islam being in a much stronger position and, therefore, better able to offer protection by this time and in these regions than Christianity.


The new Muslim militancy had dreadful consequences for the network of smaller Christian states that had existed on the fringes of the Muslim world – Armenia and Georgia, Ethiopia and Nubia.

In 1293, the Mamluks again raided Armenia, destroying the see of the Catholicos.  Finding the Mongols preferable to the Muslims, the Armenians joined the Mongols in their invasion of Syria in 1303.  The Mamluks decidedly defeated both.

In 1375, the Mamluk conquest of Cilicia ended the last independent Armenian kingdom and demolished the beloved ecclesiastical capital of Sis.

Armenia as an autonomous political entity ceased to exist.  (This only changed at the end of World War One for only a couple of years and once again after the fall of the Soviet Union until today).  The Armenian Church accommodated itself to Muslim rule in order to endure beyond this destructive era. The next two centuries were quite dark for the Armenian nation.  Little Armenian historical writing survives from these centuries.

Georgia and Armenia were partitioned between Ottoman and Persian rule.  Beyond this, there were only two remaining Christian states in Asia – Byzantium and Trebizond.  These, by this time, were in their last days.  In Africa, very shortly only Ethiopia would remain.  Even in China, with the rise of the Ming dynasty, Christianity – and all foreign religions – would be destroyed, with no return of any Christian presence for two centuries.


On May 29, 1453, Ottoman Turkish forces stormed and captured the city of Constantinople….

Imagine Christians capturing and converting the Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina.  One could describe it, from the view of the vanquished, as the day the world ended.

Yet, remnants of Christianity in the east would remain.


  1. What seems interesting to me is how little record there is of Pre Columbian Americas. So got a couple books one called the Red Record ,another one called Traced should be interesting .Anyone have any other info?

    1. I don't think the pre-Columbian peoples had a historiographic perspective, even for those peoples with written languages (which were hieroglyphic). They would have been quite neuro-diverse from the Mediterranean peoples.

    2. Read 1491 by Thomas Mann. Great book on the subject.

    3. Sorry. The author is Charles Mann.

  2. It is interesting that this time period also marks the decline of the stateless order of the Middle Ages and the rise of the Frankish and English monarchical states, beginning with the 100 years war, a war which also in ended in the pivotal year of 1453.

    Thanks for the good info!