Trading Centers: Hubs for Outreach

During the first millennium, the spread of Christianity by the Church of the East started from major trading centers that were cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural communities. With the coexistence and confluence of languages, ideas and religions, people were more open-minded, less tied to any set of traditions or beliefs.

Along the ancient Silk Road, everyone needed a socially understandable identity to not only travel but settle down. As now so then, merchants could go anywhere and be welcomed. Furthermore, trade funded their travels.

In time, Antioch and Alexandria gained ascendancy as centers of Christianity over Jerusalem. Likewise, Edessa and Dura-Europos in Mesopotamia, Burkhana and Samarkand in Central Asia, Crangamore in South India, and Chang-An (modern day Xi’an) in China all became regional centers for both trade and Christianity.

The use of trade routes as hubs for missionary outreach was intentional and strategic. In the 7th century, Nestorian Patriarch Yeshuyab II authorized a mission to China. The Nestorian Stele  and the Da Qin Pagoda in Xi’an testify to this. The vision was to set up monasteries and churches along the 5,000-mile Silk Road to reach the surrounding peoples.

Merchants & Missionaries One Team

In 6th century, the mission to the Haphthalite Huns in Central Asia was made up of two merchants, a missionary bishop, and four priests.

Christian Sogdians from Samarkand in modern day Uzbekistan were middleman-traders be- tween China and Roman Empire. Sogdian believers with hymns in their own language and liturgy in Syriac traded their ware and shared their faith. 200,000 Kertas Turks were reportedly converted through outreach started by traders. Missions in Asia was so linked to trade that the Syriac word for “merchant” became a metaphor for “evangelist” (Robert H. Munson 2008).

Expat Communities: Long-term Witness

As part of their missionary strategy, the Church of the East set up a number of schools in Persia, where monks studied theology, medicine, music and other academic subjects before being sent out to evangelize.

At a trading center, Nestorians traders and clerics would establish an episcopal see with a bishop. With a school, a library and a hospital staffed by monks, scholars and physicians, the expatriate community would have spiritual, educational and medical support. At the same time, these services were available to the local people, making for a holistic outreach that connected with the host community.

So traders aside, missionary scholars and educators had important roles in these trading centers. In Central Asia and Mongolia, where they had no written language, Persian missionaries developed local alphabets based on Syriac for them, serving as teachers and scribes. In China, they were honored as scholars and translators.

Whether lay or professional, artisan or mer- chant, educator or medic, these bi-vocational missionaries made their homes along the Silk Road in stable, sustainable Christian communities. They contributed to the building of cosmopolitan trading hubs, which in time grew to become Christian centers in many countries within today’s 10/40 Window.