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In search of ancient Christianity: The Nestorian Caves of Tajikistan

In search of ancient Christianity: The Nestorian Caves of Tajikistan

Huw Thomas is the co-author of Tajikistan and the High Pamirs: A Companion and Guide (Odyssey Publications). In this article, he describes a search for relics of ancient Christianity near the banks of the Oxus in the heart of Central Asia. 

It is especially poignant that with the turmoil in Syria and Iraq, there is the danger that the remnants of the earliest strands of Christianity in its original homelands will be lost. Christianity which has co-existed with Islam for centuries, is under unprecedented threat. It is increasingly viewed as a Western religion.

What is less well known is that Christian communities developed far to the east of the Roman Empire. One of the most significant of these communities was the ‘Nestorian Church’, officially known as the Apostolic Assyrian Church of the East, with its see in Baghdad. This church, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, once extended over a greater part of the world than did the Roman church, and until the sixteenth century had more adherents. In its heyday from the 10th to 14th centuries the Nestorian church had eight million adherents and stretched from the Mediterranean to China and India.

View from caves across Amu Darya to Afghanistan. Note electric fence in the foreground. [Photographer - Mari Gruffydd]
View from caves across Amu Darya to Afghanistan. Note electric fence in the foreground. [Photographer – Mari Gruffydd]
One of the strong traditions of the Nestorians was for monks to live in very primitive conditions, often in caves in remote locations. One of these sites is in Tajikistan, on the banks of the Amu Darya – the border with Afghanistan, 22 kms east of Termiz in Uzbekistan. The site has been largely forgotten because Tajikistan was for so long part of the closed world of the Soviet Union, and one of the least known and remote destinations in that secretive place. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a civil war that lasted from 1992 to 1996, and even afterwards parts of the country were insecure until 2000. There is now a trickle of tourists, who nearly all head to the Pamirs. Very few foreigners go south, partly because the area cannot compete with the mountain scenery to the east, and also because in summer it is known as Duzakh or Hell, because of the unbearable temperature, rising to the 50s.

I have travelled all over Tajikistan, and had heard rumours of a cave with a cross in the far south of the country. In 2014, Mari my partner and I had the opportunity to check out the situation. We were fortunate to have the services of Dmitri Melnichkov, an excellent travel agent in the capital Dushanbe. Dmitri not only arranged a vehicle and driver, but more importantly, prepared the way by obtaining the necessary permits to the south. He also arranged for us to be accompanied by Dr Faizi Kurbonov, academician of the Department of Archaeology at the Academy of Science of Tajikistan, based in Kabodian, a town in the south. The journey is not difficult as there is a good tarmac road all the way south. The greater challenge is obtaining permits.

The area we wished to explore is on the banks of the Amu Darya [known in classical times as the Oxus] – the frontier with Afghanistan. No matter what permits are obtained in Dushanbe, the final permission is granted by the local military commander who makes his decision on the basis of the current security situation. It was a master stroke to take Dr Faizi, as he is a well-known local figure. After a long wait at the military HQ Dr Faizi emerged with the permit and we drove to the town of Aywaj [scene of a massacre in the civil war] on the banks of the Amu Darya. From there we reported to a border post. The helpful commander came with us, accompanied by a soldier with an AK 47. We drove the 22kms along the road to the Uzbek border. The road runs parallel with the railway [once the rail link between Moscow and Dushanbe, but now closed because of tensions between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan]. We saw on our right not one cave, but eighteen, on the hillside between the road and the railway. We scrambled up and explored the caves.

View of some of the exterior of some of the caves. [Photographer - Mari Gruffydd]
View of some of the exterior of some of the caves. [Photographer – Mari Gruffydd]
Workmen constructing the railway in 1967 discovered the caves, which were examined by two Russian archaeologists T.M Atakhanov and C.G Khmelnitski in 1968/70.

The caves were well planned and constructed with skill, averaging 6 metres apart, having been dug out from the shale hillside. Shale bricks of two colours were used to construct rectangular rooms of an average size of 5m X 4m, with a height of 2.5m. Around the interior wall are stone benches, and also some alcoves and niches. The ceilings formed an elliptical curve around the edges of a flat vault. There are signs of the use of wooden poles, possibly for curtains, and traces of fireplaces. There were outer vestibules, but all the roofs of these are now collapsed. The archaeologists speculated that statues would have been placed on some of the benches and alcoves.

In one of the caves a dome decorated with a St George or Maltese cross was found.  An examination of the architecture and construction proved that the caves were first occupied between the fifth and eighth centuries AD, with a later period between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries.

Aywaj Nestorian Caves. A picture of the 'Gregorian Cross' taken on a previous visit to the site. We did not see it, but we were severely time limited by the Tajik Border Guards. [Photographer - Dmitry Melnichkov].
Aywaj Nestorian Caves. A picture of the ‘Gregorian Cross’ taken on a previous visit to the site. We did not see it, but we were severely time limited by the Tajik Border Guards. [Photographer – Dmitry Melnichkov].
The Nestorian Church

Nestorian Christians now number only some 400,000 but their history is a remarkable one and deserves admiration. The Nestorian Church developed separately, mainly because of the division between the Roman and Iranian Empires. The church was characterized by a deep spirituality, a rich mysticism, an emphasis on pastoral care and traditions of scholarship. It own creed formulated in 486, emphasized the absolute intactness of the divine as well as the human nature of Christ. It embraced free will and rejected the notion of original sin. While its liturgy is in Syriac – closely related to Aramaic, the language spoken in the time of Christ – at an early stage the hymns and sermons were in the vernacular. There is no priestly celibacy.

Their survival and success for so many centuries is a tribute to the extraordinary power of their Christian faith. Throughout their history they were never a state religion, so they were always dependent on the goodwill of rulers. Some of these rulers were tolerant and Nestorians filled high offices of state, most notably under some Mongol rulers. Their skill as scholars and translators was prized. It was Nestorians translating the works of Ancient Greek writers into Arabic and then Latin, who preserved much that was so precious, and influential eventually on western thought. They were famous as skilled doctors.

However, they were never a majority of the population, even in their heartland of Mesopotamia [central modern Iraq] and were frequently subject to the most brutal repression. The Nestorians were the martyr church. Over their history millions of adherents were tortured to death for refusing to renounce their faith, and more driven from their homes. The most savage pogroms were carried out by Tamerlane in the 1380s, and in 1874-76 and 1915-16 by Kurds and Turks. Over the centuries they responded by retreating to mountain areas – and undertaking missionary activity.

The Church succeeded in channeling the seemingly inexhaustible inner strength of its followers in missionary work. The Silk Routes provided the facility for the spread of Christianity. By the very late 3rd century the missionaries had reached Central Asia, in the 5th century India, in the 7th China. Churches and monasteries were established, overseen by an efficient hierarchy headed by a patriarch, with bishops, priests, and deacons [who could be women].

In the earliest days of the Church there was a strong tradition of asceticism, often taken to extreme lengths with anchorites living in solitude in remote caves, some being walled up permanently and fed through small openings. Others lived on top of pillars. Their vision was on a goal of monastic life that imitates the angels, who allegedly abstain from sleep, food and corporeal life in order to praise God unceasingly. This form of monastic life manifested itself in strict celibacy, which sometimes led to self castration, lack of personal property, severe fasting, simplest possible clothing and sometimes nakedness, and not washing. There was condemnation of expressions of happiness, with the anchorites meditating on their own sinfulness and death. Grief, sadness and distress were signs of Christian perfection. Fortunately for the survival of the Church, such practices were for a small minority, but there remained a strong strand in Nestorian thinking that the ascetic life was the most beatific.

Beginning around 340 there emerged a concerted effort to return the hermits to the Christian mainstream and integrate them with monastic communities.

Life of the monks at Aywaj

There are no written records of the monastery at Aywaj, and only scanty archaeological evidence. Speculation, therefore, must be based on well documented material elsewhere about the nature of monasticism of the Nestorian Church. The novitiates would have gone initially to a theological school governed by monastic principles, forgoing worldly pleasures and taken a vow of chastity. They would have started with 50 days of hard labour. The curriculum was divided into two cycles. In the first students learned to read and write correctly and recite the psalms from memory. The second cycle included philosophy, rhetoric, Bible study, geography, astronomy, secular history and sometimes medicine. Some of the students would have chosen to become priests, devoting themselves to leading church services, and serving the community. They were encouraged to marry. Others would serve in hospitals or houses for lepers. Some would become missionaries.

Those choosing the monastic life would have remained celibate. They would initially have served in the main monastery with practical work and carrying out duties allocated by the abbot. After three years if they were deemed worthy, they would retire to cells or caves near the monastery and devote their lives to prayer and study. They would still attend for some services and to help gather food.

View of some of the exterior of some of the caves. [Photographer - Mari Gruffydd]
View of some of the exterior of some of the caves. [Photographer – Mari Gruffydd]
The site at Aywaj would have been chosen for its remoteness, and it may have been the site of a martyrdom or on an earlier pagan shrine.

Only the caves have been discovered at Aywaj, but there may be the remains of a main monastery building covered by the shale dust nearby. A possibility is that it was an offshoot of the monastery at nearby Termiz.

The Conundrum

The Russian archaeologists noted that large complexes of human-made caves were well known in the Middle East, connected everywhere with monasteries. However, in Central Asia all presently known cave monasteries are associated with Buddhism, including at nearby Kara Tepe in Termiz. The ‘Gregorian’ cross would be a strong pointer to a Christian settlement, but the probability of statues [not found in Christian caves of the period] points to Buddhism. Did the two religions co-exist and influence each other here? Both had a common heritage of ascetic life for hermits, and escape from a conventional life for spiritual salvation.

A diagram showing the interior of the cave, with a cupola; with below a diagram of the 'Gregorian Cross'. Source. article by Russian archaeologists.
A diagram showing the interior of the cave, with a cupola; with below a diagram of the ‘Gregorian Cross’. Source. article by Russian archaeologists.

Even more speculative, would be that at some stage the caves might have been occupied by Manicheans – followers of a religious leader Mani who lived in the 3rd century. Manichaeism was significantly influenced by Christianity. Its missionary history mirrored the spread of Nestorianism. This religion also had a tradition of monasticism – and of statues and images. It would be far- fetched to propose that these remote caves housed monks of all three world religions all living in harmony, but just possibly at different times.

I have consulted one of the leading expert on the Church of the East – Dr Christoph Baumer, who considers it is possible that the caves may have been occupied by Buddhists and Christians – but not at the same time.

Of whatever religious persuasion, the monks had the opportunity of an ascetic life in this desert place. From their well-designed caves they would have been protected from the worst of the summer heat, and sheltered from the winter storms. There was water from the Amu Darya and the opportunity to grow crops on the narrow stretch of soil along the banks of the river, where there is still vegetation, now separated from the road by an electric fence. Sadly the caves are deteriorating, with wind-blown sand filling the entrances, and shepherds occasionally living in them. It is on a river which has been and will continue to be, an important frontier and may again be an area of conflict.

It was humbling to visit this remote place, where for over 500 years, monks would have lived a simple life, offering up their prayers.


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