The Church of Baghdad

How does our understanding of Christianity shift when we recognize that for over half its history Christianity’s geographic center was not Rome, nor even Constantinople, but rather Baghdad? My work explores this question through an examination of the pre-modern world’s most expansive church, the Church of the East (often known as the Nestorian or the Assyrian Church). Stretching from Turkey, throughout the Middle East, across Afghanistan, down to India, up to Tibet, and into China, the Church of the East provides one of the richest examples of early globalism and Christian-Muslim encounters. Its adherents, however, usually wrote in a dialect of Aramaic called Syriac which only a handful of modern scholars can read. As a result, the Church of the East appears only rarely in modern scholarship. My current book project, The Church of Baghdad, challenges modern perceptions of pre-modern religion by asking two interrelated questions: What changes if global Christianity actually began centuries earlier than commonly imagined?  What must we change if our understanding of the increasingly popular phrase “the global middle ages” simply isn’t big enough to accommodate first millennium Christianity?  To explore these issues, the project centers on a corpus of recently published letters from Timothy I, the person who—quite literally—brought the Church of the East to Baghdad.

After his predecessor’s poisoning in 780, Timothy was one of four competing candidates to head the Church of the East. Allegedly bribing fellow-clergy but later not paying-up, Timothy’s election led to a two-year schism. Despite such an unpropitious start, by the time of his death in 823, Timothy had become his church’s most successful patriarch. Timothy forged ties with five successive Muslim caliphs, wrote about the discovery of ancient Hebrew biblical texts near Jericho that sound surprisingly like the Dead Sea Scrolls, accompanied a Muslim military campaign against Byzantine Christians, composed the longest surviving early Christian-Muslim dialog, and expanded the Church of the East to the greatest size in its history. But of all his activities, perhaps the most significant was Timothy’s decision to move the patriarchate to the newly constructed city of Baghdad. In Baghdad, Timothy became a regular attendee of the caliph’s court, received state funds to refurbish monasteries, was a key figure in the Abbasid translation movement, and used the caliphate to suppress his Christian detractors. And, from Baghdad, Timothy sent hundreds of letters to Christians throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, and India. Fifty-nine of Timothy’s letters—currently hidden for safe keeping around Baghdad—survive providing access to the day-to-day workings of the most extensive church the pre-modern world had ever seen.

The project uses Timothy’s 400 pages of epistles to argue that, far from being an early modern phenomenon, global Christianity was well underway by the eighth century. The Church of Baghdad also employs Timothy’s expansive church to make a methodological argument about expanding how one explores the past. It combines traditional humanistic approaches with digital tools such as social network analysis, geographic information systems, and visual analytics to explore how close- and distant-reading strategies can complement each other.

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