When we think of great historical events we naturally imagine them in visual terms, of great movements. But our mental maps are often too small. We know, for instance, that Christianity began in Palestine and swept west into the Roman Empire to develop a firm base in Europe. With such a picture in mind it is easy to imagine the Christian church establishing itself across Western Europe, in the British Isles and then eventually making the leap across the Atlantic into the New World. Nothing in that picture is actually wrong, but it is sadly incomplete. At the very same time that Christians were moving west into Europe in the first two or three centuries AD, others were travelling eastwards into Asia, and south into Africa. By the mid-sixth century, Christian monasteries were operating in China. And we are not speaking here of a few brave missionaries. As late as the 11th century--almost the halfway point of the Christian story to date--at least a third of the world's Christians still lived in Asia. Even in 1250 it makes sense to think of a Christian world stretching east from Constantinople to Samarkand (at least) and south from Alexandria to the desert of the Ogaden, almost to the Equator.
These Christians differed vastly from our familiar idea of the medieval Christian world. Many Westerners are used to thinking of the church at this time as a narrow and intolerant affair, in which popes and bishops owed their power to their alliance with secular kings and emperors. According to this stereotype the church knew next to nothing about outside cultures or faiths and, if it did, it treated them with fear and contempt, a hostility that became most obvious in the Crusades. But in fact most early Asian Christians lived in a world in which they rarely or never allied with states and kings and always operated as minority faiths living in states dominated by other religions--by Persian Zoroastrians, by Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus. Christians existed alongside these other faiths, and regularly engaged in dialogues that were friendly and cooperative. In China and south India, by the eighth century, members of the Nestorian Christian church used a distinctive symbol in which the cross is joined to the lotus, symbol of Buddhist enlightenment.
Many aspects of Christianity that we conceive as thoroughly modern were in fact the norm in the distant past: globalisation, the encounter with other faiths and the dilemmas of living under hostile regimes. How can our mental maps of the past have become so radically distorted?
Christianity began in the Middle East, in Palestine, Syria and Egypt, and the fact that those regions were part of the Roman empire provided opportunities for Christian expansion along the trade routes of the Roman world. Christians benefited from Roman stability and order and they used the familiar languages of empire, Greek and Latin. Within a few centuries, the great cities of the Roman world had also become the leading centres of Christianity. But, at the same time, an almost identical story was developing to the east of the Roman frontiers, within the Persian empire. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Persian empire stretched from Syria to what is now Pakistan and deep into central Asia and this empire too offered the kind of stability that churches needed to expand.
The backbone of Christian growth was the Silk Route, most of which ran through Persian territories. The great city of Antioch, where the term 'Christian' first arose no later than AD 50, was a terminus for an ancient trade connecting the Mediterranean world to Persia and Central Asia. Throughout late antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Silk Route ran from Syria into northern Persia and into what are now the nations of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Travellers passed through such cities as Merv, Bukhara and Samarkand, along a route that ultimately took them over 4,500 miles into the heart of China. …