The Origin of Christianity in Mesopotamia
In this article, based on sources that will be introduced as we progress, I have
traced the origin and development of Christianity in Assyria and Babylonia. The subject
has been thoroughly investigated by historians, and my efforts may seem redundant, but,
I believe differently. Historians, usually speak of the Church of the East, or the Nestorian
Church, in such a way that gives the impression of one monolithic Church. The Church
of the East had its patriarchate see in Seleucia-Ctesiphon, that is in Babylonia. But, at the
same time, Seleucia-Ctesiphon controlled many provinces, including those of Assyria,
such as Adiabene (Arbil), Athor (Nineveh), and Beth Garmai (Kirkuk). It is this latter
Church, the Church of Assyria, that I have spotlighted, and studied parallel to the Church
of Babylonia (the Church of Seleucia-Ctesiphon). This division within the Church of the
East finds expression in Crone-Cook‟s Hagarism, page 57, as follows “There were thus
two distinct versions of Christianity within the Nestorian church: on the one hand the
local church of Assyria, a chauvinist assertion of a provincial identity; and on the other
the metropolitan church of Persia with its center in Babylonia, a cosmopolitan assertion
of a gentile truth.”
For Syriac authors, Ctesiphon was the center of what they called Beth Aramaye, ancient
Babylonia (see Fiey‟s Communautés syriaques en Iran et Irak des origins à 1552, section
I, page 280).
Ishoyahb III (650-660, Baumer p. 318), mentions as his flocks “Syrians, Arameans,
Houzaye and Persians.” (See Fiey‟s above mentioned book, first page of section II).
Again, Arameans refers to Beth Aramaye, Babylonia. Note here how “Syrians” is
separated from “Arameans.”
The next step in our analysis shall be to determine how and when the Church of
the East broke into an Assyrian branch, parallel to the Church of Seleucia-Ctesiphon
(Babylonia), and when it became officially known as the Assyrian Church of the East,
and what happened to the Church of Seleucia-Cteciphon (the Church of Babylonia).
The origin of Assyrian Christianity
In his Volume I of “A History of Christianity in Asia,” page 70, Samuel Hugh
Moffett1, begins his discussion of the origin of Christianity in Adiabene (Assyria), with
the heading “The Assyrian Christians of Arbela.”
Then, in page 72 and 74, under the title “Tatian the Assyrian,” he writes that the first
verifiable historical evidence of Christianity in Adiabene is provided by the life and work
of Tatian (ca. 110-180 AD), after the middle of the second century.
Tatian was born of pagan parents in the “ancient Assyrian territory of northern
Mesopotamia (northern Iraq)…Tatian was emphatically and unashamedly Asian.”
“I am an Assyrian,” he said proudly in his „Address to the Greeks‟, the only one of his
writings to survive in its entirety.
Samuel Hugh Moffett is Henry W. Luce Professor of Ecumenics and Mission Emeritus at Princeton
Tatian‟s name stands out because of his fame due to his writings and works, but it does
not mean that Christianity was born with him or by him. Christianity had already been
planted in Assyria when Tatian was born.
Moffett, in page 77 of the same book writes “And though Edessa of Osrohoene was
traditionally the first base of missionary expansion to the east, Arbela of Adiabene was
also to become a major center for missions beyond Mesopotamia into eastern Persia and
Thus, we see the origin of Assyrian Christianity, in Arbela of Adiabene (Assyria), to be
not later than 110-180 AD, if not earlier, as we saw above. This date is close to the date
given by Jean-Maurice Fiey, the French historian (see below), to the founding of the great
Church of Kokhe (Near Seleucia-Ctesiphon, south of Baghdad) by Mar Mari, the disciple
of Mar Adai. That date is between 79 and 116 AD, and is based on the Tigris River
shifting its course, as we shall see later.
Fiey, as we shall see below, writes that Christianity took off in Edessa, passed through
Nisibis and expanded all along the banks of the Tigris River, in the provinces of Athor
(the ancient Assyria of Nineveh), Adiabene (Arbela), Beth Garmai (Kirkuk), and in the
south in Beth Aramaye and Mesene (Basrah).
Therefore, if, according to Fiey, Christianity in Mesopotamia, traveled north to south,
then the evangelization of Assyria must have taken place before 79/116 AD, and, hence,
before Tatians 110-180 AD.
The origin of Babylonian Christianity
(Adopted from Jean-Maurice Fiey’s
“Communautés syriaques en Iran et Irak des origines à 1552 »)
(Syriac communities in Iran and Iraq, from the beginnings until 1552 AD).
Compiled by: George V. Yana (Bebla).
The conversion to Christianity of the Syriac speaking people of Mesopotamia (Assyrians,
and Babylonians), took place during the Parthian dynasty of Iran (250 BC-224 AD).
In this article, I will use the shorter term of „Syriac speakers‟ interchangeably with the
designation of „Assyrians-Babylonians.‟ The reason for this is that Fiey uses the terms
„Syriac‟ and „Syrian‟, not Assyrian, which is my personal conclusion.
Fiey writes that Christianity, that is the Christianity of Syriac speakers, originated in
Edessa (Mesopotamia, east of the River Euphrates, located in southeastern Turkey and
known under the name of Urfa), passed through Nissibis (east of Edessa, also
southeastern Turkey), and expanded all along the Tigris River, in the provinces of Athor
(ancient Assyria, with its capital Nineveh), Adiabene (with its center at Erbil), Beth
Garmai (Kerkuk), and in the south, Beth Aramaye and Mesene (Basra, southern Iraq).
It would be helpful to first locate and describe the cities connected with the foundation of
the first Syriac Christian Church.
1- Seleucia, south of Baghdad, in southern Iraq, was located west of the River Tigris. It
was built by Seleucus Nicator, one of Alexander‟s generals, about 306-280 BC.
2- The other city to be mentioned is Ctesiphon, but the exact date of its foundation is not
known. Ctesiphon was located east of Seleucia and east of the river Tigris, and was built
by the Iranian Parthian dynasty. Ctesiphon became the capital of the Parthians and then
of the Sassanians, and was their winter residence.
South of Ctesiphon and east of Seleucia there was a village called Kokhe (the name
derives from the Syriac for Kukhyata, meaning huts), where the first great Babylonian
Christian Church of Kokhe was built.
Fiey bases his decision, regarding the founding of the first church of the Syriac speaking
people in Kokhe, to a change of course, between 79 AD and 116 AD, by the river Tigris.
Before Tigris changed its course, Kokhe was known as part of the city of Ctesiphon,
because both were on the east side of the river, but, when the river changed its course,
Kokhe was cutoff from Ctesiphon, and later documents referred to it as being part of
Seleucia, because, now, both were on the west side of the river.
The Chronicle of Seert (ninth or tenth century, S. H. Moffett, p.183), attributes the
foundation of the first Christian Church in Kokhe of Ctesiphon to Mar Mari, a disciple of
the Apostle Mar Adai. Presenting Kokhe as part of Ctesiphon means that the Great
Church of Kokhe was founded by Mar Mari before the River Tigris changed its bed, that
is before 79 and 116 AD. Later documents make Kokhe part of Seleucia, which makes
them recent documents, that is, documents that were written after the river changed its
Jean-Maurice Fiey writes that because the geography explained in the Chronicle of Seert,
which corresponds with the geography before the river changed its course, could not be
invented at later dates (that is could not be written after 79/116 AD, because the old
geography would have been forgotten), therefore, Fiey says, I am persuaded that in this
source we have a text of the greatest antiquity. Fiey continues by saying that “I am ready
to accept it as a historic proof of the coming of Mar Mari to Kokhe- of- Ctesiphon,
between the years 79 and 116 of our era.”
Thus, we can consider the foundation of the Babylonian Christianity in Kokhe of
Ctesiphon, to have taken place before or within the years 79-116 AD.
Synthesis and conclusion
What was the relation between the Church in Assyria and the Church in Babylonia
(southern Iraq), with the patriarch in Seleucia-Ctesiphon?
The simple answer, as mentioned in the Introduction, is that all the provinces, including
those in Assyria (provinces of Athor; Adiabene in Arbil; Beth Garmai, that is Kerkuk)
were, for a long time, under the patriarchate of Seleucia-Ctesiphon.
As mentioned in the Introduction, Ishoyahb III (650-660, Baumer p. 318), mentioned in
his writings, as his flocks “Syrians, Arameans, Houzaye and Persians.” (See Fiey‟s above
mentioned book, first page of section II).
It is interesting to see “Syrians” separated from “Arameans.”, while, according to a
number of modern historians, Syrians = Arameans.
In this context, Arameans are in Babylonia, in Ctesiphon, as Fiey determined in the above
The first question that comes to mind is that where, when, and how was the name
“Assyrian” enjoined to the “Church of the East.”
According to Christoph Baumer‟s “The Church of the East,” pages 318, 319, the
line of Seleucia-Ctesiphon lasted until 780 AD, after which, the seat moved to Baghdad,
then to Maragha, Arbil, Karamlis, Mosul, Jezireh, Rabban Hormizd, and finally to
In the fifteenth century the established organization of the Church collapsed, so in
1450, Patriarch Shimun IV Basidi (in office 1437-1497) made the patriarchate hereditary
(Baumer P. 233).
The Church of the East was a universal Church, encompassing many peoples and
regions, from China, India, Central Asia, to the Middle East. After its devastation by
Mongols and Tamerlane (Teimur Lang), the Church emerged as the Church of a certain
people, the Assyrians. Here is how Baumer puts it (p. 233).
“In the end, the Church of the East had to organize itself as a people in order to survive.
Thus there emerged from the rubble of the erstwhile International Church, which had
embraced numerous peoples and races, a regional Church structured according to tribal
principles. The presence of the Church of the East became congruent with a certain
region and a single people, the Assyrians.”
What was the fate of the Babylonian Church? This is how Crone-Cook, in page
56 of Hagarism, explain it: “Babylonia, by contrast, had never been left alone. Apart
from its massive Jewish diaspora, it was flooded with Persian immigrants under the
Achamenids, Greeks under the Seleucids and more Persians with the Sasanids; the latter
built their capital there and in due course added yet another batch of foreigners in the
form of Greeks and Syrian prisoners of war. As a result the Babylonian polity was
dissolved…and whereas the Assyrians had a clear memory of their own past, the
Babylonians did not.”
Baumer does not provide a definite date for the adoption of the Assyrian identity
by the Church of the East, but, it is clear that he means after the devastations of the
Mongols and Tamerlane (Teimure Lang), that is after 1405 AD. But, this leaves us with a
gap of more than six centuries. What is clear is that the appellation “Assyrian” did not
appear soon after Tamerlane‟s destructions.
According to Baumer: “Upon the death of Patriarch Mar Shimun VII (in office
1538-1551) the system of hereditary succession proved to be disastrous. Since the
bishops of Arbil, Urmiah and Salmas rejected as non-canonical the appointment of the
late patriarch‟s nephew as the new patriarch Mar Shimun VIII (in office 1551-1558), in
1552 they elected the abbot of the monastery of Rabban Hormizd, John Sulaqa, as a rival
patriarch, who took the name John VIII. In order to prevent a foreseeable isolation, on
15 February 1553 John VIII Sulaqa accepted a Catholic creed before Pope Julius III,
which acknowledged the primacy of the pope; he also suggested that Patriarch Mar
Shimun VIII had died. Julius III then appointed him patriarch of the Chaldean Church on
28 April and conferred upon him the pallium, which marked Catholic and Uniate
archbishops (p. 248).
Thus the Church of the East was split into two lines, the line of Seleucia-
Ctesiphon, continued by Shimun VIII (1551-1558), which today is represented by Mar
Emmanuel III (since 2003), and the line of John VIII Sulaqa (1553-1555), today
represented by Mar Dinkha IV (since 1976).
Currently, the Church of the East is represented by three branches:
1- The Assyrian Church of the East, headed by Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV.
2- The Chaldean Catholic Church, with its Patriarch Mar Emmanuel III, and
3- The Ancient Church of the East, headed by its patriarch, Mar Addai II, since 1969.
This latter church broke away in 1968 (Baumer, p. 319).
My conclusion, based on facts, is the following:
John Sulaqa, who split the line of the Church of the East, is the founder of the Assyrian
Church of the East. He was the abbot of the monastery of Rabban Hormizd, near Alqosh,
and 28 miles north of Mosul, hence in Assyria. This makes John Sulaqa a resident of
Next, it was the bishop of Arbil, also a resident of Assyria, together with the bishops of
Urmia and Salmas, that elected John Sulaqa.
Thus was created the Assyrian line of the Church of the East, by Assyrians themselves;
although it did not specify it by name, and despite the fact that Pope Julius III nominated
it Chaldean, but, regionally and nationally, it was Assyrian.
The Chaldean union with Rome was dissolved in 1672, by Patriarch Shimun XIII (in
office 1662-1700). See Baumer, page 248.
There was Assyrian national awareness in Assyria, which manifested itself in different
ways at different times. In the second edition of my book “Ancient and Modern
Assyrians, a Scientific Analysis,” pages 52, 53, I have presented this fact as follows:
“Assyria was made-up of the bishoprics of Arbela (the metropolis of Adiabene) and
Mossul, containing Nineveh and Kirkuk. Mar Aqaq was designated patriarch of
Assyrians (486 AD-497 AD). Mar Abudemeh was bishop of Nineveh in 554 AD.
Mar Aba, bishop of Nineveh, represented Mar Henna, „the metropolitan of Assyrians,‟
and signed in his name the proceedings of the council of Mar Jesuyahb I [Ishoyahb I]
held in 585 AD.” The above information was quoted from Prof. Joseph Yacoub, from his
book “Babylone Chretienne, Géopolitique de l‟Ėglise de Mésopotamie.
Fiey, in his book “Communautés syriaques en Iran et Irak des origins à 1552, » section
VII, page 430, under the heading of “Bar Hébraeus et Tabriz” writes: “The maphrien
[Syriac Orthodox Patriarch] attended the coronation of Ahmad, under the Arc of
Chosrau, south of Ctesiphon, and obtained from the new Khan a licence authorizing him,
among other things, to build churches in „Azarbaijan, Assyria, and Mesopotamia,” (Bold
characters by this writer). As you see, the name of Assyria was alive, and it was alive
specifically among Syriac Christians.
Therefore, it appears to me that, the line of John Sulaqa, founded by John Sulaqa
VIII in 1553 (some authors use 1551 and Fiey uses 1552), despite its original
Chaldean designation, was and is the Assyrian line of the Church of the East.
The Chaldean Catholic Church represents the line of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, or the
As to when the name Assyrian was added to the name of the Church of the East, it
must have been added after World War I (?).
Could we look at the split of the Assyrian Church from the main Church of
Seleucia-Ctesiphon, as a reflection of the ancient wars between Assyria and Babylonia,
without being superstitious? Even today‟s Iraq shows a religious duality, in the form of
Sunni and Shia, which may be coincidental, but curious.