Up in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, the grave markers tell the story of a bad year in a Christian community. There are 467 headstones, and 118 of them mark burials that happened in 1338 and 1339. And some of those bear a message in Syriac: pestilence.
A recent study published in Nature suggests these Christians were the first known victims of the Black Death. Philip Slavin, one of the researchers who has been studying the material that was excavated from near Lake Issyk-Kul since 2017, reported that he and his colleagues examined seven teeth excavated from the graves and three of them contained the plague bacterium.
Through an examination of the DNA, they “established that phylogenetically these strains are situated at the very beginning of the Black Death wave, before it came to Europe,” Slavin said.
This may mean that Christians, who have been accused—sometimes correctly—of spreading every disease from smallpox to COVID-19, were partly responsible for the pandemic that devastated so many in the Middle Ages.
Slavin estimates there were about 1,000 Syriac Christians in this community on the eve of the Black Death. They were part of an organized church, known then as the Church of the East, which was governed by a bishop in Baghdad—about as far from Issyk-Kul as Chicago is from Los Angeles. The faith spread along the Silk Road, the trade route that linked China with Constantinople, and drew diverse converts.
“They appear to be immigrants from other regions in Central Asia,” Slavin said, including “a rich mixture of Turkic, Chinese, Mongol, and Armenian individuals.”
Those cultural and geographical links could explain the devastating spread of the Black Death, which killed about a third of everyone in Europe by the mid-1350s, according to contemporary observers. But Monica Green, a medical historian, thinks it is unlikely the Syrian Christian community is to blame. The plague didn’t travel long distances in human hosts, since they got sick fairly quickly and either recovered or died in a few days.
Most people who caught it from other people were caring for the sick, not traveling the Silk Road. Unlike with COVID-19, there is no record of seemingly healthy people infecting others.
Rodents and their parasites spread the bubonic plague to humans. In Kyrgyzstan, it was probably marmots.
The new research on the DNA doesn’t show that they were the origin point for the spread, said Thomas A. Carlson, a historian of the Medieval Middle East at Oklahoma State University. The most likely carriers were traders or armies who inadvertently transported rats, fleas, and contagious disease westward.
The Syriac Christians may, nevertheless, have been devastated by the Black Death. By 1500, Christianity had all but died out in Central Asia, and that might have been hastened by the plague. There were other pressures, though. Some may have converted to Islam or Buddhism, which were on the rise in the region, either by choice or by force.
It’s difficult to know much about these believers. The site was excavated in the 1880s and then converted to a collective farm by Soviet authorities in the 1930s, changing its topography beyond recognition. Historians have reconstructed bits and pieces, but the record is hardly robust.
“We first hear of Christians in Bactria, now northern Afghanistan, in the late second century,” said historian Mark Dickens, at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, “followed by a metropolitan bishop in Merv, now Turkmenistan, in the mid-sixth century. Not long after, in the late sixth or mid-seventh century, we have a metropolitan bishop north of there … and we start to hear stories of Turks converting to Christianity about this time too.”
The diversity of the Christian community has been well established. “Syriac” doesn’t refer to an ethnicity, but a language used in worship. The Christians probably spoke Turkic languages in their daily lives but prayed and sang in Syriac. Grammatical errors on the tombstones indicate the language wasn’t in regular use.
“Syriac was a language with a great spiritual pedigree,” Dickens said. “It is after all a dialect of Aramaic, Jesus’ mother tongue.”
Scholars have recovered more than a thousand Christian manuscript fragments from similar communities in what is now western China. They’re written in Syriac, Sogdian, and Old Uyghur. The records show an orthodox church that revered the Bible, held Jesus to be fully human and fully divine, and affirmed the Nicene Creed as the statement of orthodox belief.
“We do have fragments of a sermon written in Old Uyghur, a Turkic language spoken in what is now western China, which shows us that at least some Christians during the Mongol era were listening to sermons in their native tongue,” Dickens said. “What we can assume is that they worshiped together on Sundays, using the Syriac liturgy, and when they died, they were buried in Christian graveyards.”
For the community near Lake Issyk-Kul, those headstones are the only text that survives. The evidence left from their lives includes the record of the word pestilence, testifying to the impact of the bad years of the Black Death.
But Dickens argues that modern scholars shouldn’t miss the more important testimony that the Christians in Kyrgyzstan left engraved for future generations to read.
One marker says, “May she please the Lord in his kingdom.”
Another, “The aim of life is Jesus our Savior.”
A third, right above “Died of pestilence,” says, “This is the tomb of the believer Sanmaq.”
Their deaths were cause to remember and reaffirm their hope in the one who conquered death.
“These members of the Church of the East, like their coreligionists all along the Silk Road, believed in the hope of the resurrection,” Dickens said, “a hope that would have carried them through the grief and mourning associated with death, whether by plague or other causes.”
Funeral liturgies from the manuscripts recovered are likely very similar to the words the Christians in Kyrgyzstan prayed when their brothers and sisters were laid in the earth. Dickens, thinking about that bad year from 1338 to 1339, said that to him, one line especially stood out.
“A soul that has taken refuge in your cross,” it says, “will see your grace on the day of your coming.”
Susan Mettes is an associate editor for Christianity Today.
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