Monday, April 24, 2006

A Medieval Conversion of the Turks

One of the interesting byways of medieval history is the conversion of a certain Turco-Mongol peoples on the Mongolian plateau to Christianity, specifically to the Church of the East.

The most famous source on this conversion is from the Ecclesiastical Chronicle of the thirteenth century writer and Oriental Christian bishop Bar Hebraeus (bio here, but he is generally not believed today to be the "son of a Hebrew"; rather Hebraeus is a Latin misunderstanding of his birth place). According to this Chronicle in 1007 AD a letter was sent from the Metropolitan of Merv (modern Mary in Turkmenistan, but then a part of the eastern Iranian realm of Khorasan) to the Catholicus (i.e. "Pope") of the Church of the East in Baghdad, telling of the conversion of a Turkish king.

Around this same time, ’Abdisho, the Metropolitan of Merv, one of the cities of Khorasan, sent this to the Catholicus:

"The king of the people who are called Keraith [properly Kereyid], that is interior [=inland] Turks, from the northeast, when he had come into the high mountains of his region fell into the midst of vast snows and in his bewilderment wandered from his road. When he had lost all hope of ever being saved, one of the saints appeared to him in a revelation and said this to the man: ‘If you believe in Christ, I will guide you so that you shall not perish here.’ The king promised that he would become a lamb in the Christian sheepfold, and then the saint guided him and lead him on to open spaces. And thus having returned safe and sound to his tents, he called into his presence Christian merchants who were going to and fro there and asked them about the faith. They said to him truly that this was not possible to be fulfilled except through baptism, so he thus received from them a Gospel and lo, he is worshipping every day. And now by a messenger, he asks me if I would visit him or would appoint a priest who would baptize him. He has also questioned me about fasting, saying, ‘Apart from meat and milk we have no other food: how then could we fast?’ He also told me that the number of those who were converted with him reached 200,000 souls."
To this message, the catholicus replied to the metropolitan in this manner, so that by sending two persons, a presbyter and a deacon, and altar paraments with them they might baptize those who have truly set out in this, even whosoever would believe, and teach them the customs of the Christians and prescribed for them that during the dominical fast they abstain from the taking of meat, permitting them solely to drink milk, if indeed, as they say, food proper for Lent is not to be had in their area.

From: Gregory Abul-Faraj Bar Hebraeus, Gregorii Barhebraei Chronicon Ecclesiasticum, trans. Joannes Baptista Abbeloos and Thomas Josephus Lamy, vol. 3 (Paris: Maisonneuve, 1877), pp. 279-282.

As Erica C.D. Hunter, at the Cambridge University Library, points out in her "The Conversion of the Kerait to Christianity in A.D. 1007," Zentralasiatische Studien 22 (1898/91), pp. 142-163, there is another account, that of of the eleventh century writer Mari ibn Suleiman (despite his Arabic name, a Church of the East Christian writer) in his Kitabu'-l Mijdal ("Book of the Tower"). His account differs on several points from that of Bar Hebraeus.

First of all Mari ibn Suleiman describes the king as simply of Turkish origin, but does not specify the Kereyid, although like Bar Hebraeus, he mentions the 200,000 number, saying " A king of the Turkish kings became Christian with 200,000 souls." In Mari ibn Suleiman's account, the the saint is specifically named as Mar Sergius (Lord Sergius), who commanded the king to become a Christian and to close his eyes, upon which he found himself back in his camp.

In Mari ibn Suleiman's account, the monarch asked the merchants "concerning the Christian religion, prayer, and the book of canon-laws," in response to which the merchants taught him "the Lord's Prayer, Lakhu Mara, and Qadisha Alaha." The Lakhu Mara is the Syriac of the hymn Te deum, and the Qadisha Alaha is the Trisagion, together forming the three crucial parts of the service of the Word (e.g. here). Mari ibn Suleman details the king's mode of worship as he awaits further information from Merv and Baghdad:

The king set up a pavilion to take the place of an altar, in which was a cross and a Gospel, and named it after Mar Sergius, and he tethered a mare there and he takes her milk and lays it on the Gospel and the cross, and recites over it the prayers which he has learned, and makes the sign of the cross over it, and he and his people after him take a draft from it.

In this "folk" Eucharist, Mari ibn Suleiman, explains there was no bread because "they had no wheat."

In the Kitabu'l-Mijdal's version of ’Abdisho's letter and the Catholicus's response, the Metropolitan also writes "that he was informed that his people were accustomed to eat only meat and milk," and in response the Catholicus askes him "to endeavor to find them wheat and wine for Easter" (i.e. the Paschal Eucharist), and that while taking milk (but not meat) would be allowed during Lent, "if their habit was to take sour milk, they should take sweet milk as a change."

Sour milk here is fermented mare's milk or koumiss (Turkish qumyz, or in Mongolian variously esüg, airag, or chigee), a lightly alcoholic drink, which was used to replace wine in the king's non-Paschal Eucharist (the photo shows koumiss being churned).

The fact that Mari ibn Suleiman, the earlier source, does not link this story to the Kereyid is important. When Bar Hebraeus was writing, the Mongols ruled the Middle East and the queens of the Kereyid (who had been defeated and conquered by Genghis Khan in 1203) were famous as patrons of Christianity. It is likely that Bar Hebraeus writing in the thirteenth century decided that the Christian king of the Turks must be of the Kereyid, who were a kingdom in what is now central Mongolia, close to the country's current capital of Ulaanbaatar.

In fact, however, the king in question is almost certainly not of the Kereyid, but of the "White Tatars" or Önggüd, a people living south of the Kereyid in present day Inner Mongolia in China. The Önggüd were the most staunchly Christian people of the Mongolian plateau in the thirteenth-fourteenth century, and the name Sergius (in the Turkish form Sergis~Sirgis) is well attested among them. Although part of the Mongol empire, they long retained their Turkish language. The story of St. Sergius appearing to the lost king was retold in the fourteenth century, by the Confucian literatus Yuan Haowen. Writing a memorial epitaph for the grave-stie of a distinguished Önggüd literatus, Ma Qingxiang, he repeated the story. In his version, the Christian saint appears as a kind of Buddha, and the king is not the king of the Önggüd, but the emperor of the Jin dynasty (A.D. 1115-1234), who were the liegelords of the Önggüd kings, and ruled North China. (The Jin was founded by the Manchurian Jurchen, ancestors of the later Manchus) . In this version, the Önggüds, having been deported and exiled to Manchuria by the Jin founders are released as an act of merit by the second emperor of the Jin dynasty, whom the Önggüd then serve loyally in Inner Mongolia. (Later their prince deserted to the Mongols, and they became marriage allies of the Mongol khans of China.) It is fascinating to see how Yuan Haowen takes the story and modifies it, making the central issue that of the identity of the image, and the spiritual redemption of the Önggüds into their political redemption by the emperor. Here is the text of the beginning of Yuan Haowen's funerary inscription for Ma Qingxiang:

Qingxiang, whose courtesy name was Ruining and family name Ma, and who had another courtesy name of Sirgis was a member of the aristocracy of Huamen. In the time of Xuanzheng [this is hard to interpret but appears to mean rought around 1120 AD], his tribes-people were settled at Didao of Lintao [in Gansu, northwest China] and had lost trace of their origin. When the Jin armies invaded western Shaanxi [near Gansu], the whole group was transported to Liaodong [eastern Liaoning, in southern Manchuria] where they remained. Once when the Great Ancestor [honorific title of the second emperor of the Jin, 1123-1135] went out on a hunting expedition, he thought he saw a golden man walking along with the sun clasped to his bosom. He was much excited and did not dare to gaze upwards. He gave up the hunt and returned, and commanded that a search be made of what he had just seen. It was thought by some that what the Emperor had witnessed was the personification of the Buddha. As there were no Buddhist temples or pagodas in Liaodong, a Buddhist likeness could not be obtained except in the building where the fanbai [scriptures] were chanted by a Turkestani [commonly used in Chinese at the time for Middle Easterners as well]. Hence, a painting was taken from them and presented to the Emperor; this actually agreed with what he had seen. The Emperor was delighted. He sighed with relief and ordered that an appropriate recompense be made (lit: that a field be planted with blessings). All tribesmen held as captives were amnesties and became ordinary commoners. They were provided with funds and released. Mr. Ma’s grandfather was Temür-Öge., and his father’s name was Bar-Saoma Elishu. They moved to Tianshan in Jingzhou [in central Inner Mongolia], where they have been recorded and lived for generations. (Adapted from Chen Yuan, Western and Central Asians in China Under the Mongols: Their Transformation Into Chinese, trans. Ch’ien Hsing-hai and L. Carrington Goodrich (Los Angeles: UCLA, 1966), p. 44-45.)

Despite the acceptance of it shown by the Church of the East, fermented mare's milk would be a flash-point of religious conflict in the Eastern Orthodox tradition in later centuries, marking off the sedentary Christian from the nomadic infidel.