The Pahlavi inscribed Processional Cross of Herat, Afghanistan and the Pahlavi Crosses of South India: A comparative Study of the Religio Cultural Traditions of the Churches of India and Parthia.

The Pahlavi inscribed Processional Cross of Herat, Afghanistan and the Pahlavi Crosses of South India: A comparative Study of the Religio Cultural Traditions of the Churches of India and Parthia.
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The Pahlavi inscribed Processional Cross of Herat, Afghanistan  and the Pahlavi Crosses of South India: A Comparative Study of  Religio Cultural traditions  of  the Churches of India and Parthia

Dr. M Thomas Antony and Mathew Mailaparampil

Introduction

A Pahlavi inscribed  processional cross conceivably dated from  the 8th century AD was found recently from Herat in Afghanistan. This cross has similarities with the Pahlavi inscribed granite Crosses of South India and other crosses of Church of the East (East Syriac Church) in China.

Pahlavi inscribed Processional Cross of Herat, Afghanistan

Pahlavi inscribed Processional Cross of Herat, Afghanistan

 

It bears Pahlavi inscriptions which proclaims a theological formula to defend the accusations made by the growing new religion of Islam in the region . This processional cross witnesses the importance of liturgical processions prevalent in the East Syriac tradition.

Herat

Herat is the third largest city of Afghanistan and is the capital of the province of Herat. It is situated in the valley of river Hari. During the time of Achaemenid Empire 550-330 BC the area was called ‘Haraiva’ in Persian.1 It is situated in Khurasan north west region of modern Afghanistan. Khurasan or Khorasan is a historical region comprising a vast area of north eastern Iran, Southern Turkmenistan and Northern Afghanistan.2 Prior to the Sasanian rule, the region of Khorasan was called Parthia3 and was the homeland of the Parthian Emperors. Khorasan comprises the cities of Balkh and Herat now in Afghanistan, Mashhad and Nisapur now in north eastern Iran, Merv and Nisa now in southern Turkmenistan, and Bukhara and Samarkand now in Uzbekistan.4

Christianity in Herat and Central Asia

Christianity penetrated in to central Asia in the very early period itself. Bardaisan in AD 196 commented about Christians in Gilan, the southwest of Caspian and Bactria, the kingdom between Hindukush and Oxus (Amu Darya).5 In AD 549,  the Hephthalites in the Bactria requested Patriarch Mar Aba I to consecrate a Bishop for them and  an anonymous Syriac Chronicle describes Mar Elias, the Metropolitan of Merv converting an entire nomadic population to  Christianity by a miracle in AD 64.6 .Herat was a Metropolitan Province of the Church of the East. It was mentioned as a ‘hyparchy’ in the Synod of the Church of the East in AD 585. Herat had a Bishop since AD 424.7 Synodicum Orientale  mentions that three of the four cities of Khurasan , Herat, Merv and Nisapur (Abrasahr), were represented by Bishops in AD 424 .8  Herat was elevated as a Metropolitan province of the Church  of the East in the Synod of Isho Yahb in  AD 585.9  Synodicum Oriantale mentions a Bishop Yasdoi  in the synod of Dadisho in AD 424, Bishop Gabriel  in Synod of Akak in AD 486, Bishop Yasdad attended the synod of Babai in AD 497, another Bishop Gabriel in the synod of Isho Yahb in AD 585. Besides, a Bishop John from Abiward or Baward in the north west of Khurasan attended the synod of Joseph in AD 554, Bishop David from Abrashahr, a district in Khurasan in the synod of Dadisho in AD 424, Bishop Yohannis also from Abrashahr in the synod of Babai in AD 497, Bishop Habib from Bushanj, a town west of Herat in the synod of Isho Yahb in AD 585, Bishop Gabriel from Kadistan near Herat and another Gabriel from Badishi or Badhgis, a district north of Herat in the synod of Isho Yahb in AD 585 .10 Thus, Christianity was well established in the area with numerous Bishops attending various ecclesiastical synods showing vigorous activity of the East Syriac Church in the area.

There was presence of Syriac Orthodox  Church of Antioch since the first half of seventh century.11 They follow West Syriac tradition. There was also presence of Armenian Christian community in Herat during the fifth century.12

Processional Cross of Herat

Pahlavi inscribed Processional Cross of Herat, Afghanistan

Pahlavi inscribed Processional Cross of Herat, Afghanistan

 

Philippe Gignoux, a French epigraphist and historian reported about a  bronze  processional cross with Pahlavi inscriptions  found in  Herat.13 The upper vertical arm was broken and missing leaving the lower three arms and a base with an inverted  cup with  holes to fix a wooden pole or a  stand with nails. It measures 18.3 x14.1 cm. There were two curved ornamental plates connecting the lower arm to the two lateral arms with an indentation in the middle making it a w shape. Inscriptions in  Pahlavi  are seen on  these ornamental curved plates and also on the arms of the cross, on both faces. It was possible to reconstruct the  shape and length of the missing arm with high probability by comparing it with the two horizontal arms. When it is reconstructed  the original size could have been 24.3 x 14.1 cm.

It appears that this was a processional cross based on the fact that this cross was supposed to be fixed on a pole. If it was an altar cross, there would not be inscriptions on both faces. There is nothing in the inscriptions to suggest that this was a pastoral cross. This is a remarkable evidence pointing towards the presence of an ancient Christian community in Herat.

The design

The design of this cross agrees with many of the ancient East Syriac rock crosses found in India and China. The arms of the cross ends with a flowery design with three rounded buds as seen in the Pahlavi inscribed Saint Thomas Crosses (Mar Thoma Sliva) of India. The lotus arrangement and the steps in the Saint Thomas Crosses of South India  are not seen in the Herat  cross. As the top vertical arm is missing, we are not clear about any descending dove on the top.

The Inscriptions

Pahlavi inscribed Processional Cross of Herat, Afghanistan

Pahlavi inscribed Processional Cross of Herat, Afghanistan

The inscriptions are in the Middle Persian language with some Syriac words  in Pahlavi script. The Pahlavi inscribed crosses of South India also bear Pahlavi inscriptions with definite Syriac logograms.14 These denote the strong Persian connection and the East Syriac background. The Pahlavi script of this cross resembles the text used in the sixth century Pahlavi Psalter found in Turfan in the Xinjiang- Uighur region of China.  Philippe Gignoux thinks this inscriptions most probably dates to  a time between  6th and 8th centuries AD.15 The inscriptions talk about a certain ‘Mare’ of the Church of Herat in the year 507 or 517  entrusted the community to a Saint or Holy (Karisise) and a theological formula that there are no three gods but only one  and a wish for the prosperity for the Church.

As the Cross has a missing piece and inscriptions are on both faces , the reading was difficult. Gignoux considered the starting point was the vertical arm,  then the horizontal arm from right to left sides. The following is the translation  of Philippe Gignoux16.

Front side

…………(missing part)bagdag son of Nisem-burzar that (sees/write)too. Mare son of NN, who (is) of the Church of Herat, who gave this (same) flock to Karisise the Holy …. in the year 507/517

Back side

……(missing part) (We believe that ?) in heaven there are not three Gods/Creators, and on earth that wealth and happiness be the hosts to the Church of my good teaching.

In all probability, this Cross belonged to the Church of the East and is connected to the local Persian heritage. The usage of Late Middle Persian writing on an object of Christian worship shows that the local East Syriac Christian community was proudly Persian and bilingual- using East Syriac and Pahlavi. The Church of the East had several Bishops of Persian extract  and with very Persian names in this region. It has been pointed out that the theological formula regarding the non-existence of three gods most probably is a rebuttal to accusations made by proponents of the newly growing religion of Islam.17

The date on the inscription could not be the Christian Era because 507/517 AD does not comply with the style of writing and notations used by the Churches of the Syriac tradition. It is too early for the Seleucid Era which began in 311/312 BC. While it is possible that it could be the Sasanian Yazdegerd III Era which began in 632 AD, it would place the cross in the 12th century. However, the writing is from a period closer to the Pahlavi Psaltar and not later. Most probably, it is the Bactrian Era which began in 233 AD as this region is near Bactria. That places the date on the cross to 740/750 AD.18 This time period coincides with the great East-Syriac Christian expansion into central Asia and China.

Processional Crosses with inscriptions

Glanville Downey, who was an Associate Professor of Byzantine Literature in the Harvard University at Dumbarton oaks, Washington DC comments that many of the ancient  religious antiquities seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art are inscribed with the donor’s names and some pious phrases and vows. He gives an example of  a Processional silver cross  of Antioch treasure  of the sixth century, in the Metropolitan museum of Art19. This cross has Greek inscriptions on both sides.  The back side has the words “For Herodotus and Komitas, sons of Pantaleon” meaning this cross was presented for the salvation of the souls of Herodotus and Komitas. On the front, inscribed “Holy God, Holy Mighty one, Holy immortal one, have mercy upon us” the hymn of Trisagion20. This is most appropriate to read on  a cross in the front of a procession.

Another example of such a prayer formula inscribed is on a  large 58 cm processional cross  excavated from Divrigi near the village of Opsikom in Istanbul in AD 1969 with Armenian inscription  “In gratitude…..offers to his/her intercessor, Saint George CAGINCOM”. This Cross was dated as of AD 547.21

Two other crosses reported in the  collection of George Ortiz in Geneva, one of them is  21.8 x16.1 cm with a bust of Christ in the central medallion with inscriptions  in Greek on both sides and another one without any inscriptions. The cross with inscriptions is  made of two sheets of silver laid over an iron core. The  inscription at the back of the cross , on the top arm says – “Holy Holy Holy Lord of Hosts, Heaven and earth are filled with thy glory”,  on the bottom  arm “Hosanna in the highest Blessed is he that cometh in the name (of the Lord)”, on the left arm ” Lord of” and on the right arm “Blessed”. On the front upper arm, written  “Jesus”, bottom arm ” Christ Lord, help Thy servant Georgios”, and left and right arms “victory”.22

Another Cross in Toledo Museum of Art with   inscription in Greek,   on the back reads  “Have mercy on us son of God” and on the front reads “He who has crucified for us”.23

These inscriptions on the back are understood in terms of a procession as people following the cross can read a prayer or a liturgical formula. In the late 6th and 7th centuries, cross was the single most powerful symbol in the church evocative of the triumph  over death, the life everlasting.24

Pahlavi Inscribed Crosses of Malabar, South India

Pahlavi Inscribed Crosses of Malabar, South India

Pahlavi Inscribed Crosses of Malabar, South India

The Pahlavi inscribed granite crosses of South India parallels the same theme. These crosses were altar crosses rather than processional crosses. These are probably sculptured in South India by migrant Persian Christians who escaped persecution in Persia. The inscription seems to be a prayer for the person who erected it as deciphered by many eminent scholars. A new interpretation published recently by a linguist and an  epigraphic- palaeographic researcher in the University of Allahabad, Shilanand  Hemraj is as follows. “My Lord is the Mishiha and life giver, who be praised for ever because of salvation. Indeed the Lord suffered crucifixion to redeem us.” 25

The inscription  is  in Pahlavi which denotes that this prayer was intended for Persian speaking  Christians, probably migrant Persian Christians who escaped persecution and intermarried with native Christians26. Later, the local Christians copied it and placed in the altars in many places, copying the inscription also without knowing what it is. Studies by C P T Winkworth showed that all these inscriptions are copies of an original, based on the finding that many letters are upside down and  a word  as mirror image due to copying by using rubbings or estampages from the original put in the wrong way in the copy.27

One of the Pahlavi inscribed crosses at Kottayam bears a Syriac inscription also which confirms that Syriac was a prominent language used at that time.

Glanville Downey  reports of a Marble Cross excavated from Hebdomon near Istanbul designed to stand in the open air  with inscription of Trisagion hymn, with the four phrases occupies on each arm of the cross as read from the top to bottom and left to right with a spectator’s point of view of the order in which the Greek orthodox person makes his sign of Cross. On the back of the Cross, a dedication  by the Emperor Leo I (457-474) This Cross is now in the Museum of Istanbul.28

Pahlavi and Church of the East

Pahlavi denotes a particular written form of various Middle Iranian languages that uses an Aramaic-derived script with Aramaic/Syriac logograms29 Pahlavi was the court language of the Sasanian Empire. Pahlavi was commonly used by Persian Christians, especially the East Syrians. The Christians of Mesopotamia were originally Jewish people and other local Aramaic/ Syriac speakers. But in the east of Tigris, the Persian Christians were mostly Zoroastrian converts who retained Middle Iranian languages such as Middle Persian and Sogdian. The first generation of these Christians retained their Persian names. Later generations changed their names into Christian appellations formed by  the compounds of faith.30

Chronicles of Seert mentions about a Ma’na, a student of the School of Edessa translated many Syriac works into Pahlavi and in AD 470, another Ma’na of the same school wrote religious discourses, cantilces and hymns to be sung and recited in the Persian Christian churches in Persia.31

Even  Certain ecclesiastical canons like that of  Simon, the Metropolitan of Rev Ardashir (d 670 AD) were originally composed in Pahlavi and later translated into Syriac  by a Monk from Beth Katraye.32 This confirms that the official language of the Church of the East was Syriac and hence the local documents had to be translated into Syriac.

It appears that the Sasanians promoted Pahlavi over Syriac and hence the Church in Persia started using Pahlavi also, probably for para liturgical uses. Even when Pahlavi canticles and hymns were found, no such manuscript of a liturgical text in Pahlavi  has ever been found anywhere in the ecclesiastical area of jurisdiction of the Church of the East. There is no evidence so far to confirm that the whole liturgy was translated into Pahlavi. We can see usage of Syriac language  widespread in inscriptions in central Asia and China where the Christianity was brought from Persia. This means the Persian Christians and Missionaries used both Pahlavi and Syriac, but Syriac remained as the liturgical and universal language.

Even the more liberal Western Churches considered translating the liturgy to a language other than Latin only after 1960s, how can we even think of more conservative and traditional Syriac churches adopting vernacularisation at a very early period ? Early Christianity evolved in three different languages- Syriac, Greek and Latin.

Pahlavi usage was prominent  in South Persia. Christianity spread to Central Asia and China through Persia, but most of  the inscriptions found in Central Asia and China are in Syriac. Widespread presence of  ancient Syriac inscriptions and manuscripts found in central Asia and China  confirms the prominent usage of Syriac language in the area.33  There are local Chinese, Pahlavi and Sogdian inscriptions also. In Malabar , South Indian State of Kerala, Syriac and local language- vattezhuthu(early malayalam) -inscriptions  are commonly seen in the Christian context  but  the series of  Persian Crosses bear Pahlavi inscriptions.

Almost half of the manuscripts in ‘Turfan collection’  are in Syriac language. These are dated  11-14 th century AD by different scholars. There are some manuscripts in local scripts like Sogdian, Uighur Turkic  and Pahlavi. Many of the  Sogdian, Uighur Turkic and Middle Persian manuscripts are written in Syriac script. Many of the Turfan collection of Christian manuscripts are bilingual, with Syriac liturgical text with rubric instructions to the Priests in Sogdian. Almost all of the liturgical texts are in Syriac.34 In a certain document dated  AD  1253, found from Inner Mongolia in the 1980s, a cross a and a short quotation of Psalm 34 in Syriac characters and language with the remaining text in memory of the dead  in the Uighur alphabet.35  Thus we can assume that even in 13-14 th century Syriac was  still the liturgical language with local language used for giving instructions in liturgical texts and for para liturgical texts.

Thus, it  is evident that in South Persia Central Asia,  China and India, even when Pahlavi, Chinese and Early malayalam- vattezhuthu is used in Christian inscriptions and Christian manuscripts, in all these areas, Syriac  was  also used widespread. This shows that Syriac was the common link language because of the liturgical use.

We have to assume that in all these areas, Syriac was used as the liturgical language but local languages were  used in documents, manuscripts and up to certain para liturgical usage like Pahlavi canticles and hymns used by Persian speaking migrants.

Even when different languages were used, knowledge in Syriac was  a universal necessity in the Church of the East. When the illustrious Monk Markose, the Chinese born  Patriarch of East Syriac Church  in AD 1281 confessed on the occasion of his selection to the Patriarchal position ” I am lacking in education and church doctrine. I am not even acquainted with your Syriac language which is a matter of universal necessity36.

The Syriac Church of the East- the continuation of the Judeo Christian movement of the Apostles

The Church of the East was the direct continuation of the Judeo Christian movement of the Apostles of Jesus. Jesus and His disciples spoke Aramaic, pronunciation of which is well preserved in the East Syriac dialect. This fact is evidenced by the preservation of many East Syriac words in the Bible written in Greek transliterated- as    ‘Amen’, ‘Maran Atha’,  ‘Thal itha cum’ – Little Girl, get up(Mark 5:41), Eph’ pha-tha’- be opened ( Mark 7:34), ‘E’li E’li Le-ma sa-back’thani’- My God, My God, why have you foresaken me ( Mathew 27:46) ‘Martha’ the sister of Lazar and Mary (Luke 10:38-42, John 11:1, 19-24,30,39 )37

Early Christianity developed in Syriac Aramaic. When the Churches in Jerusalem and Antioch became Hellenised and adopted Greek as their religio cultural language, the Syriac  Churches continued Syriac as their religio cultural language. Even in Rome, there is evidence that the Christian liturgy was celebrated in the very early period in Syriac. An early second century  document  recently unearthed from the base of the Palatine hill in Rome reveals the dissatisfaction among many Christians in adopting Latin instead of Aramaic Syriac in the celebration of Holy Mass.38

The Church of the East was founded by Jesus himself by His promise to the Edessan King Abgar the Ukkama that I will send my disciples to Edessa to heal you and give life to you and those with you, once I have been taken up after finishing what I have been sent for.39  On the day of Pentecost, people from Mesopotemia and Parthia were present in Jerusalem.  “Parthians and  Medes and  Elamites,  and those who dwell in Mesopotamia, Jews  and cappadocians and those from Pontius and Asia minor. And those from the region of  Phrygia and of Pamphyli and of , Egypt and of the regions of Libya near  Cyrene, and those who have come from Rome, both Jews and proselytes. And those  from Crete, and Arabians, behold we hear them speak in our own tongues of the wonderful works of God”.40

The Church of Edessa was founded by Mar Addai (Addai is the Syriac version of the Greek name Thaddeus)41 who was sent by Apostle Thomas. Church of Ctesiphon was founded by Mar Mari, a disciple of Mar Addai.  Churches of Parthia and India were founded by Apostle Thomas himself. Thus, the Syriac Church of the East was founded by Apostle Thomas and his disciples and hence could be called as Thomasine Churches.

Iranian Christianity

During the Parthian rule, the Christians of Persia (Parthian Empire ) suffered  harassments and persecutions but no systematic campaigns against them . But during the Sasanian period and later Islamic periods, there were organised persecutions.42

Christianity in Iran can be traced back from the visit of the three Parthian Priests (Magi) to infant Jesus.43  Persian Christians claim that the Magi were the first ever Christians.44  Saint John Chrysostom taught ” The Incarnate Word on coming into the world gave to Persia, in the person of the magi, the first manifestations of His mercy and light so that the Jews themselves learn from the mouths of Persians of the birth of their Messiah.45

The early Christians in Persia might have been those fled from Roman empire due to persecution as early as AD 68 onwards and those came to Persia as missionaries to preach the Jewish communities in the Parthian Empire and their Jewish converts46. During the Sasanian era, Christians who supported the diaphysite thought fled to Persia due to persecution in the Roman Empire.47

Shapur I in the AD 250s  reclaimed many of the old Achaemenid kingdom of Persia that was destroyed by Alexander the Great  by war with the Roman Empire resulted in a large number of Roman prisoners deported to Persia and resettled them in Beth Aramaye, Maishan, Beth Huzae and Fars. Many of these were Christians. They spoke Greek and had different services than that of the Church of the East. They founded a Roman Church in exile and had Bishops from Antioch namely Demetrius, Ardaq, Andrew and so on. Chronicles of Seert also comments about two separate churches found in Rev Ardashir, the Church of the Romans where the services were in Greek and the Church of the Kirmanians (the Christian traders from Kirman resided in Rev Ardashir) where Syriac was used for the liturgy.48

In the third century, Zoroastrian priest Kartir initiated persecution of other religions. The Kaba-ye  Zardusht inscriptions of Kartir in AD 285 speaks of striking down the Nasraye and Kristiane  communities along with the Manichaens, Budhists, Jews and Brahmins to put Zoroastrianism beyond challenge in the Empire.49 The Nasraye were the Syriac speaking Judeo Christian community of the East Syriac Church and the Kristiane were the Greek speaking Christians who were deported from the Roman Provinces to Persian empire during the war.

After a century, the Acts of the martyrs present a different story in which many of the Christian victims  of Shapur II had Iranian names that they were Zoroastrian converts to Christianity. This means by the beginning of 4th century, there were Iranian( Persian) speaking Christians too in Persia.50 Thus, by the early fifth century, Persian Empire had a Christian community that included Syrians, Greeks and Persians.51

Church of the East spread along the silk road to Bactria in the early centuries itself. Metropolitan provinces of Merv and Herat of Khurasan in the fifth century is an evidence of spread of missionary activity along the silk road to the east. The Khurasan area was a hub of the missionary activities directed towards east. An anonymous Chronicle written in AD 680 in Syriac  mentions about Metropolitan Elias of Merv actively involved in converting many people from Turks and other nations. It describes an encounter of the Metropolitan with a Chieftain in that location while travelling, the Metropolitan dispelled a storm by sign of Cross resulting in the Chieftain and the community converted to Christianity en masse.52

History of Mar Aba mentions consecration of a Hephthalite Bishop in AD 549. The location of this See could be the Bishopric of Badghis-Qadistan represented in the Synod of Isho Yahb in AD 585. This could have resulted in elevation of Herat as a Metropolitan See as Herat was traditionally associated with regions of  Pusang, Badghis and Qadistan.53

 

Church of Fars and Church of India -Maritime Trade links

India and South Persia had strong trade links. The Sassanids overthrowing the Parthians in AD 225 set ready for trans oceanic trade with India by setting up ports like Rew Ardashir,( Rishahr on the Bushire Penninsula), Astarabadh Ardashir (formelry Charax)Bahman Ardashir (Forat of maisan), Wahasht Ardashir, Kujaran Ardashir (on the Iranian Coast), and Batn Ardashir on the Arabian coast. It was the Christian merchants who operated this trade. Chronicles of Seert mentions that Sassanid ruler Yasdigird I( 399-421 AD) sent the East Syriac Catholicos Mar Ahai to Fars to investigate  the piracy of ships returning from India and Ceylon. This denote that the merchants involved were Christians.54

This Maritime trade caused a strong connection with Indian Church and the Church of Fars. On the coasts of the Arabian Gulf, there were many Monasteries as spiritual hub for these merchant missionaries.

Kharg Island was such a hub where Archaeological excavations revealed a monastery and  about 60 Christian tombs of the period 250 CE – confirms the strong presence of Christians in the area .55Archaeological studies at Sir Bani- Yas, Marawah islands off Abu Dhabi, ,Failaka and Akaz islands off Kuwait are other strong evidence for the Maritime  Trade- Missionary links on the Arabian coast.56

Processional Crosses

Processional crosses  are crosses used in processions in the ceremonies of worship. They are used in processions  in the  Liturgy. In certain traditions, it is a privilege of the Bishops to use a processional cross in Liturgy. They are used outside the church also for processions. One of the earliest specific references to the custom of using crosses in processions can be found in a hymn in the honour of cross by Venantius Fortunatus of the sixth century57.

Processional crosses were associated with relics. In the monastery of Theodore of Sykion, there is a sixth century processional cross that contain relics of the true cross58. The Monstrance used widely in the Roman Catholic Church is a variant for of a plain Cross with a capsule in the centre to place venerable relics  and later the Holy Eucharist for adoration. The Monstrance  has a basic design of a plain cross with radiant spikes from the centre forming a circle.

Processional Crosses in Malabar

Gold Processional Cross Ollur

Gold Processional Cross Ollur

The Processional crosses were common among the Saint Thomas Christians of  India also. They are part of the paraphrenalia of the public processions in the Christian Churches in Kerala along with ornamental umbrellas and so on. They are usually plain crosses not crucifixes, with a stand which is decorated with a  beautiful veil.59

A contemporary processional cross at Ollur

The Saint Thomas Christians used processional crosses in  the liturgy. One  such ancient processional cross has been documented in the history of Saint Thomas Christians, the processional Cross of the ancient Church at Muttuchira, Kerala.

The Processional Cross of Muttuchira

Ancient processional cross of Muttuchira: The ancient Church at Muttuchira in the South Indian State of Kerala  is traditionally believed to be founded in the fifth century. A number of archaeological artefacts are found in this Church compound including the Pahlavi inscribed  Persian Cross and the historically important Lithic inscriptions of Muttuchira60.  The discovery of the ancient Pahlavi inscribed Granite Cross  during the renovation of the ancient Ruha D Kudisha Church on the eastern side of the open air rock cross in the present Church complex  in AD 1923 caught attention of the archaeology department of the then Government of Travancore. This initiated detailed investigation and   a  bell metal cross with Silver covering was also found along with several archaeologically important objects.  A local historian George P Murickel wrote on 02/12/1925 “Our brass cross has a close resemblance to the cross engraved on the  oval stone (the Pahlavi inscribed granite  cross)”. 61 Rev Fr Joseph Pediyekkal who was a Vicar in this Church reported to the investigators that the bell metal Cross reported by Mr Murickel was actually a Silver Cross with bell metal core, which was melted in AD 1919 to recover the Silver.Fr Pediyekkal also reported that this was used in processions.62

Ancient processional cross of Muttuchira

Ancient processional cross of Muttuchira

This cross is not seen today, but a picture of it has been published in the book Christianity in India, a History in ecumenical perspective, Edited by Rev  Fr H C Perumalil CMI and  Rev E R Hambye S J, Prakasam Publications, Alleppey, India 1972.63  This was a Processional Cross modelled on the  famous Mailappore  Cross and the series of Pahlavi inscribed Granite Crosses of South India, the Mar Thoma Sliva.

Other Similar Processional Crosses of East Syriac Church

Malacca cross

Sir Henry Yule reported in a manuscript about a copper Cross found in Malacca. “While digging  in a property near Malacca river belonging to Raya Mudaliyar . About 2 braccas down  they found a ‘cross fleurie’ of copper in the ruins of an underground house of bricks  like a hermitage. This was  of the shape of the crosses of the knights of Calatrava,  3 palms breadth  and length  It seems it is the cross of some of the Christians of Mailappore came with merchants of Coromandel to Malacca” .64

Iron Cross with Syriac and Chinese Inscriptions found in  Mosul

Alphonse Mingana, a famous orientalist and researcher who was a Reader in Syriac in the University of Manchester reported that  he found an Iron Cross with Syriac and Chinese inscriptions in a private family at Mosul, Iraq. The Syriac words read ‘Sliba Zkha’ means the ‘Cross has conquerred.’65 As it has Chinese inscriptions, it might have originated in China and might have been imported to Iraq by some Missionaries or pilgrims. The words ‘Cross has conquered’ may denote a processional hymn.

Iron Cross with Chinese Inscriptions

An iron Cross was found in China in the province of Kiang-seen with inscriptions on it  from which  we can assume that it belong to AD 239.66 The inscriptions on it  was in Chinese language which reads as ” Four seas rejoice over peace, iron road spendours a cross, Ten thousand folks for grace  yearn ,a thousand autumns incensed by golden urn”. This may or may not be of any Christian significance, but if we see this information together with the report of Arnobius in “Adverses Gentes”mentions about Seres(China) as among the nations reached by the Gospels67 and  the Malabar tradition that Apostle Thomas went to China from India, one has to consider that this could be the earliest Christian artefact in the far east.

Cross found in ruins of an East Syriac Monastery in Samarkand- Uzbekistan with Syriac, Sogdian and Chinese inscriptions

East Sogdian Archaeological Expedition of the Academies of Sciences of Ukraine and Uzbekistan found ruins of a Medieval Christian monastery in the Urgut area of Samarkand, today’s Uzbekistan, in the foothills of Zerafshan mountain ranges. In the mountain cave, they found Sogdian, Syriac  and Chinese inscriptions. Arabic Chronicles give hints of a monastery in the region by  9 th century AD , but archaeological evidence from even 7th century were found in the site. One important finding was  an iron Cross found on the steps directed to an altar supposed to be a processional cross used in liturgies.68

Processional Crosses: Church of the East and Thomas Christian tradition

The East Syriac Church always had a tradition of  honouring  Cross. Narsai (399-502 AD) wrote ” the altar stands crowned with beauty and splendour and upon it is the gospel of life and the adorable wood( the Cross)”. Gabriel Qatraya and Abraham Bar Lipah  also  comments similarly  that the altar of the East Syriac Churches  adorned with the Cross and the Gospel also the image of Christ. According to John  Bar Zo’bi, Cross and the gospel on the altar represent the ‘qnoma’ of Christ. Cross represent the image of the body of Christ and the gospel his soul.69.

Gabriel Qatraya and Abraham Bar Lipah witnesses position  of the  Cross, the Gospel and the Image of Christ  on the madbha. The onitsa sung  on the Friday following  the feast of the cross states ” Saviour, your church carries a heavenly treasure and riches. She takes refuge  and fixes her trust in the mysteries  and images that you entrusted  to her,  namely the great book of the gospel, the adorable wood of your cross and the glorious image of your humanity . The mysteries of her redemption are indeed exalted ” 70

Crosses are used in various liturgical processions inside and outside the churches  of Saint Thomas Christians.

Cross in the procession in the Eucharistic liturgy

In the ancient liturgy of the Saint Thomas Christians of Malabar, there are three specific occasions where a procession of Cross is celebrated.

1 Procession with the cross from the sanctuary during the Onitsa d’ Qanke

2 Procession of the cross with the gospel

3 Re-entry  of the cross  and the gospel in the sanctuary before the ‘offertory’.

Procession of the Cross from the sanctuary during the Onitsa d’ Qanke

The earliest evidence available today is a manuscript kept at the Monastery of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI) at Mannanam, Kerala, India which is the modified version of the  ancient   liturgical ‘taksa’ (text) of Thomas Christians.  The manuscript is the Latinised text of the ancient liturgy of Thomas Christians. At the end of the manuscript, there is a note stating that ” the order of the ‘Raza’ as arranged by  Bishop Roz in the synod of Angamali in the fourth year and fourth month of his reign (1603 AD)”.

It has to be noted that due to the resistance of the Cathanaars(Priests) of the undivided Saint Thomas Christians, the Portuguese Missionaries had to keep many of the traditions and rituals of the Holy Eucharistic liturgy untouched.  Thus this confirms the longstanding practice of the Saint Thomas Christians with procession of Cross during the liturgy. Gabriel Qatraya also witnesses similar custom among the east Syriac Church.71

In the procession of the cross from the sanctuary during the Onitsa d Qanke, the celebrant, deacons and the laity kisses the cross and then places the cross in the madbaha. Gabriel Qatraya also describes the procession of the cross from the santuary to the bema among the East Syriac Church. Abraham Bar Lipah, Assemani and  Van Unnik also describes about this procession. After the Kissing of the Cross, the Cross is placed in the bema.

Procession of Cross with the Book of Gospel

Gabriel Qatraya and Abraham bar Lipah describes about the procession of cross along with the book of Gospel in the East Syriac Church.  The procession of cross with the gospel is not described in the ‘Rozian’ order even when  in  Latin tradition, especially Braga tradition prevailed in Goa,  a crucifix accompanies the book of Gospel. If the procession of cross was of Latin origin, Roz would have kept it in the order of Raza. Roz omitted this procession in order to suppress one of the Syriac traditions. Even though this was omitted in ‘Rozian order’, the custom continued in Malabar.72 Priest takes the book of gospel, incense it and ‘turgama’ is sung. Then the Book of Gospel is taken to the nave for reading as a procession along with the Cross. AS mentioned before, the Cross is the Qnoma of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Gospel the words of the Lord. Hence they can’t be separated and goes together.

Re-entry  of the cross  and the gospel in the sanctuary before the ‘offertory’

The third procession of Cross is the re-entry of the Cross and Gospel into the sanctuary after the Korozhutha as a procession.

Cross in the procession during the Onitsa d’ Basalike of Ramsa.

Fr Charles Payngott explains quoting Gabriel Qatraya  that the tradition of a procession of Cross in the celebration of Ramsa  originated from the time of King Constantine who used to go to the church of evening prayers. There was  a procession to honour the kings. As the word for King in Greek is Baseleus, the name Onitsa d’ Basalike came into existence. Later, Patriarch Isho Yahb  changed it into a procession of Cross.

Processions outside the Church.

In all religious processions, a large processional cross is carried in the front. This is usually an ornamental cross with a veil on the base.73

The  Iron Cross of Niranam

Niranam Cross

Niranam Cross

The picture of this  Cross has been published in the Saint Thomas Christian Encyclopedia- Thomapedia, Ed. Dr George Menacherry74. This is made of iron and was once a steeple cross of one of the earlier Churches of Niranam. This is a Persian Cross of a different design. This is an equilateral Cross modelled on the Granite Cross at Kottakkavu near Cranganore in Kerala. The four equal arms ends  with a flowery pattern- two curved flowery petals on either side with a bud in the centre- fleury Cross.  The curved floral petals on either sides of the ends of each arm  meet with similar petals of the other arms of the Cross forming a circle with indentation in between the arms. This design of Cross is commonly seen on the open air rock crosses, granite beams, baptismal fonts and woodworks of the ancient Saint Thomas Christian Churches. The famous mural painting of Archdeacon George of Christ is seen holding a pastoral cross of similar design. This may have been the design of pastoral crosses of Saint Thomas Christians.

Mural painting of Archdeacon George of Christ

Mural painting of Archdeacon George of Christ

Conclusion

Pahlavi  was widely used by Persian Missionaries of the Church of the East who migrated to India, Central Asia and China. When Persian Christians migrated to other places due to persecution, they continued to use Pahlavi. These left archaeological artefacts in the form of inscriptions and manuscripts. The Pahlavi inscribed granite crosses of South India are one of the vestiges of the presence of Persian speaking Christian migrants in South India. There is evidence that later the  local Christians copied these crosses with the Pahlavi inscriptions, even though they did not understand Pahlavi- evidenced by uneducated copying of Pahlavi inscriptions leading to letters upside down and words as mirror images on the copies. They might have considered these inscriptions as some important theological formulae or prayers.

Pahlavi inscribed processional cross found in Herat also  denotes the  possible religio cultural practice of inscribing theological formulae and prayers dedicated to the donors on objects of veneration. This is an archaeological evidence of ancient East Syriac Christianity in Herat and Central Asia related to the Persian Church and a living example of the Missionary zeal of the Church of the East which was larger than even the  Roman Church during the European Middle ages75, without  official patronage of any Empire.  It also shows the  multi cultural, multi linguistic and multi ethnic nature of the East Syriac Church which had even an ethnic Chinese Patriarch ( Jaballaha III) in the year  1281 AD.  This confirms the Universality and the real Catholicity of the ancient Judeo- Christian Church of the East.

Picture courtesy.

The different pictures of the Processional Cross of Herat has been taken from the paper- Philippe Gignoux, Une Croix de procession de Herat inscrite en pehlevi, Le Museon, 07/2001,; 114(3):pp291-304

Picture of the processional cross at Ollur  and mural painting of Archdeacon george of Cross are taken from ‘The Nazranis, Indian Church History Classics, Ed Prof. George Menacherry,South Asia Research Assistance Service, ollur, Kerala.

Picture of processional cross of Muttuchira is taken from  the book Christianity in India, a History in ecumenical perspective, Edited by Rev  Fr H C Perumalil CMI and  Rev E R Hambye S J, Prakasam Publications, Alleppey, India 1972

Picture of the iron cross of Niranam is taken from The Thomapedia, The Saint Thomas Christian Encyclopedia of India, Ed Prof. George Menacherry.

Footnotes
  1. [1] Wikipedia article Herat, Afghanistan, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herat accessed on 14 December 2014 []
  2. [2] Encyclopedia Britanica article Khorasan, accessed on 25 April 2015. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/316850/Khorasan. []
  3. [3] Robert Guisepi, Ed. A History of the Parthians, The International History Project. http://history-world.org/parthians.htm []
  4. [4] Wikipedia article Greater Khorasan accessed on 25 April 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greater_Khorasan. []
  5. [5] .Alphons Mingana, Early Spread of Christianity in Central Asia and the far east, a new document, Bulletin of John Rylands Library, Manchester, Vol 9, July 1925, no 2, p 308. []
  6. [6] .Pier Gieorgio Borbone, Some Aspects of Turco- Mongol Christianity in the light of Literacy and Epigraphic Syriac sources, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, Vol 19, No 2 2005 p 7 citing P Bedjan, Ed. Historie de mar Aba, in Historie de Mar Jaballaha, de trois autres patriarches, d’un prete et de  deux laiques nestoriens, paris  1895, pp 266-269 A Christian Priest arrived  at the court of the Persian sovereign, Khusraw I Anushirwan, as an envoy from the Hephthalites, with the request to Mar Aba to order him Bishop before his people. []
  7. [7] .Christopher Buck, The Universality of the Church of the East: How Persian was Persian Christianity, The Journal of Assyrian Academic Society,10.1: 1996,p67.

    Alphons Mingana, Early Spread of Christianity in Central Asia and the Far East, , a new document, Bulletin of John Rylands Library, Manchester, Vol 9, July 1925, no 2. p 298. []

  8.  [8] Erica Hunter,  Church of the East in Central Asia, Bulletin of John Rylands Library, Manchester,vol 78.3:1996.p121 []
  9. [9] Erica Hunter, Opus cit p 134. []
  10.  [10] A Mingana, opus cit , p319 []
  11.  [11] Erica Hunter, opus cit. p 142 []
  12. [12] Philippe Gignoux, Une Croix de procession de Herat inscrite en pehlevi, Le Museon, 07/2001,; 114(3):pp291-304 []
  13. [13] Philippe Gignoux, Une Croix de procession de Herat inscrite en pehlevi, Le Museon, 07/2001; 114(3):pp291-304 []
  14.  [14] Shailanand Hemraj, Pahlavi Text and Imagery Context of the Persian Cross in South India Part I, Asian Journal of Religious studies, 60/1, Jan- Feb 2015, pp 15-31. []
  15.  [15] Philippe Gignoux, Une Croix de procession de Herat inscrite en pehlevi, Le Museon, 07/2001,; 114(3):pp291-304 []
  16. [16] Philippe Gignoux Une Croix de procession de Herat inscrite en pehlevi, Le Museon, 07/2001,; 114(3):pp291-304

    Front side. Vertically: (top to bottom)
    Characters :  [… missing part…]bdk ZY nšyymybwrcly BRE ZY nyšydc
    Reading :..]badagiNišem-burzar pus ī nīšēd-iz

    Front side Horizontally right arm: (scroll from right to left):
    Characters:  m’lydy ZY gn’ly / yn’ly ZY MN knyšyZY hlydyMNW
    Front side horizontally left arm (scroll from right to left)
    Characters :  ZNH ty ‘ywlmyh L ZY klssdy
    p’ky ZY ZYh’lky ZLN (yn) P (W) N ŠNTdyk 5 (100) 7/17
    Reading : Mārē ī NN ī azkanīšHarē(y) kēdādēnēw-ramīhō Karisisē ī pāk ī padsāl(īg) 507/517
    Front side translation in French : …badag, fils de Nišem-burzar, qui (voit/écrit) aussi. Mārē, fils de NN, qui (est) de l’église de Hérat, qui a donné ce (même) troupeau à Karisisē le saint,…, en l’année 507/517

    Back side vertically top to bottom :
    Characters:-  […Missing part…] PWN ‘sm’nc L’3’prydgl PWN
    Reading :-…pad āsmān-iznēsēāfrīdgar pad

    Back side horizontally right arm  scroll from right to left:
    Characters:-  zmykclywyhplšh ‘y YHWWN myyhm (‘) n
    Back side horizontally left  arm  scroll from right to left:

    Charactes:-  ‘L knšyyZYmhw ‘mwk

    Reading:- zamīg-izrēwīhfrašīh ē bav[ēd] mehmānō kaniš ī-m hu-ammōg

    Translation in French : [Nous croyons que?] dans le ciel il n’y a pas trois dieux/créateurs, et sur la terre que la richesse et le bonheur soient le hôtes de l’église de mon bon enseignement. []

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    http://www.jstor.org/stable/1291555 []
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    http://www.jstor.org/stable/1291555 []
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    http://www.jstor.org/stable/1291555 []
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    http://www.jstor.org/stable/1291555 []
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  33.  [33] NIU Ruji, Xinjiang University North west minority research centre Xinjiang University, Urumbqi, 830046,  Nestorian inscriptions in Syriac script found on silk road in China. []
  34.  [34] Mark Dickens, Scribal Practices in the Turfan Christian Community, Journal of canadian Society for Syriac studies, 13, (2013) p5 []
  35.  [35] Pier Giorgio Borbone, Some Aspects of Turco Mongol Christianity in the light of Literary and Epigraphic Syriac Sources, JAAS vol 19, no 2 2005 p 17. []
  36. [36]  James A Montgomery, The  History of Yaballaha III Nestorian patriarch and of his Vicar Bar Sauma, Columbia University Press, 1927,  p 44  . []
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    His Grace the Most Rev.Joseph Cardinal Parecattil, the late Archbishop of Ernaculam, Sathyadeepam, Vol 31, No 27, FEb 26, 1958. []

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    accesssed on 13 May 2015. This document was part of a letter written by an anonymous frustrated Christian to a friend in response to an angry letter about the expanding use of vernacular in Masses in Rome. An excerpt of the letter  has been translated by the  Office of Linguistic Studies of the Catholic Church and has been transcribed below.
    Dearest Brother,
    Greetings be upon you, and upon you be greetings. May the peace and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom all good things come, bless you and your home. From your dispatch, I have learned the unsettling news that many of our brethren in Rome are irritated that some are beginning to use vernacular during the Lord’s Supper. I myself, in common with many others, was full of sorrow when your dispatch arrived with the unsettling news that the holiness and beauty of Aramaic has been usurped by Latin; for you have given me sad news that this new vernacular Mass is doing much dishonor to the traditions that have been passed down to us by the Lord and the apostles themselves. I, therefore, must admonish you to stay clear from those that uphold such scandal to the Supper of the Lord, and in all due diligence must inform you that this new order of the Lord’s Supper is an abomination at best. Though your private letter to me contained a somewhat slight expression of your angst, I can assure you that it gave me pleasure that you were grieved, for, by grievance you have proven yourself to the Lord. More importantly, you have proven yourself a true Christian, more Christian than Sixtus, for there is nothing in which I habitually find greater satisfaction and true holiness than in bitterness and hostility. I am overjoyed that you propose to write a letter to Sixtus in all capital letter and with an abundance of exclamation marks. I also write to inform you that in response to this news, I propose now to make bishop of you, as well as Alexander, Aurelius, and our beloved Lucias, whose minds I trust are in accord with our own. This, I shall do without the permission of Sixtus. For he, it seems, has fallen in to grave sin when he gave ear to a number of Jews to assist in reforming the Lord’s Supper during his meeting last month with fellow bishops in his territory. I shall  end this letter by telling you that our new “society” shall ever and always pretentiously look down upon those that…”
    []
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    []
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Author: M Thomas Antony

I am a Medical Doctor practicing as a General Surgeon. Studying about Syriac Christianity, especially Thomasine Christianity has been a passion for me. I was stimulated by NSC Network to learn more through its articles and discussions.

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6 Comments

  1. This is an exciting discovery for our church. Afghanistan was truly a melting pot of all the religions those days. With the unfortunate situation in Syria today, Kerala may soon be the last haven for Syriac Christianity.

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    • At the end of the day though, despite this instructive survey of the use of the imported hideous Roman contraption, I am not sure whether we need to idolize this thing called ‘cross’, a non-Palestinian, non-Asian lethal device to inflict pain, suffering and death on Yeshu Messiah.
      Asian Theologians may want to investigate this rhetorical query: Are Christ and Messiah one and the same? Should we not attempt to ‘de-Hellenize’ the Good News of Jesus?

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  2. The article lacks information about the script of Pahlavi inscription on the cross of Herat . It is actually “Psalter pahlavi” and Pahlavi used in Persian crosses of south India is different from Psalter Pahlavi . Probably we can say it is closer to Book Pahlavi.

    That is it can not be a Nestorian Cross rather most probably has a gnostic origin.

    Plenty of evidences are there indicating a gnostic origin of Persian crosses of South India.

    Post a Reply
  3. Dear Reverend,

    English Christ is ‘Christo’ in Greek form for Messiah which is actually ‘Masih’ in Aramaic language and both mean the same.

    English Jesus is ‘Easou’ in Greek form for ‘Yeshua’ which is Aramaic. His Surname would have been Joseph/Yousef. Actually he would be called ‘Yeshua bar Yousef’ in the Jewish/Aramaic tradition not Jesus Christ or ‘Esaou Christo’.

    Lord Jesus Christ is the Messiah whom his people were waiting for. But their problem was that he did not conform to the pattern of their expectations. Being the son of David and of his house and lineage they expected him to come riding on a white horse to liberate the Jewish nation. Instead he went to war with the high priests and went about changing the law of Moses and the prophets and also declared that all that ended with the death of John the Baptist.

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  4. kindly read a paper ” Persian Christians of Anuradhapura period” by Prabo Mihindukula surya and comment on the nestorian cross mentioned

    Post a Reply
  5. Dear Antony,

    Thanks for raising the paper on Anuradhapura Cross by Prabho Mihindukulasuriya published in 2011.
    This Cross has been reported by Rev H Hosten in 1936. (H Hosten, Antiquities from San Thome and Mylappore,1936 pp474, 477-478, 484).
    There were two more similar Crosses found in Sri Lanca but are lost now.
    Please read http://www.nasrani.net/2010/10/09/saint-thomas-cross-a-religio-cultural-logo-of-saint-thomas-christians/#ixzz4VTEg8uhL
    “three such crosses found in Sri Lanca, one at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanca kept in the museum of Anuradhapura, one at Kotte and another at Gintumpitiya (Saint Thomas’ Town), Colombo, both are lost now”

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