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The Monks of Kublai Khan: The Mongols and the Church of the East

A Religions of the Silk Road lecture by Joel Walker, University of Washington

Friday, January 21, 2011
12:00 PM - 1:30 PM
11377 Bunche Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095

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In the late 1270s, two East-Syrian or “Nestorian” monks set out from their homes in northern China on a journey to the Holy Land.  War in the Levant prevented them from reaching Jerusalem and instead they settled in a monastery in northern Iraq.  From there one of the monks was elected patriarch of the Church of the East, a position he held until his death in 1317.  His companion, Rabban Sawma, would have an even more surprising career, serving as the Mongol ambassador to the courts of Byzantium, Rome, and England.  Dr. Walker’s lecture will examine the story of these two “monks of Kublai Khan” as a focal point for understanding the close links between the Mongol courts and the Church of the East.

A historian of late antiquity, Joel Walker has taught at the University of Washington since 1997. His publications include The Legend of Mar Qardagh: Narrative and Christian Heroism in Late Antique Iraq (University of California Press, 2006) and articles on the history, literature, and archaeology of the Church of the East under Sasanian and early Islamic rule.  With two co-authors, he is currently preparing an annotated set of translations tentatively entitled Witness to the Mongols: The Empire of Chinggis Khan and his Successors through Contemporary Eyes.

Religions of the Silk Road: Transformation and Transmission in the Heart of Asia, is a lecture series co-sponsored by the UCLA Central Asia Initiative and the Center for the Study of Religion

Before the rise of the maritime empires of Europe, the ancient trade routes of Central Asia served as one the world’s most vital thoroughfares of religious traffic. From the goddesses of prehistoric Eurasia through the Iranian religions of Zoroaster and Mani, to the Buddhism transferred from India and the Judaism, Christianity and eventually Islam carried in from the Mediterranean west, almost all of the major religions of Asia were imported into the oasis towns that lined the route between Persia and China. Yet if the monks, books and relics who moved along the ‘silk road’ point to a history of religious transmission both into and through Central Asia, important questions remain about what happened to these religious forms in their long periods in transit. Placing the question of transformation alongside that of transmission, the current series of talks excavates the neglected history of Central Asia’s own contributions to the religions of the old world.


Sponsor(s): Asia Pacific Center