Sara Kasumova, D.Sc. (Hist.), Chief Research Fellow at the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, National Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan (Baku, Azerbaijan).



The author looks at Southern Azerbaijan, which is where the Christian Nestorian Church became particularly developed and widespread, as evidenced by the large number of church-administrative units (from episcopates to metropolitan sees) in this area. The chronological framework, the 4th to the first quarter of the 14th centuries, can be described as the most interesting period in the history of Christianity in Azerbaijan and a time of prominent church figures: Timothy I and Mar Jabalaha III, two Nestorian Catholicoses.


Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, or any other religion which served the feudal social system as the only vehicle of ideology played an important role in the Middle Ages. The religious principle came before the ethnic since each member of the feudal society regarded himself as the member of a church organization; he belonged to one of the religions, church language, and system of rites.

Territorial and economic ties were not strong enough; the people were not strong enough to stand up to conquerors, and this meant that the ethnic structure was too vulnerable to keep its members together. This meant that the church had an important unifying role to play.

All confessions looked for new members among the followers of other religions. Under the Sassanids, who ruled in Caucasian Albania, force was used to impose Zoroastrianism on the local Christians by sword and fire.

Its geographic location made Azerbaijan an important strategic toehold connected to the northern part of the Sassanian state (to which it belonged from the 3rd to the first half of the 7th centuries) and Mesopotamia where the Sassanian capital was located. Military and trade routes crossed its territory.

The author looks at the territory of the Adurbadagan province, which belonged to the Sassanian state in the 3rd to the first half of the 7th century and was the result of the administrative-territorial reform of Khosrau I Anushirvan (531-579) that included Adurbadagan (Southern Azerbaijan), part of historical Media, Caucasian Albania, Iberia, and part of Armenia found in Asia Minor. According to the Shapur I inscription on the Kaaba of Zoroaster, by the 3rd century A.D., these countries or provinces were part of the Sassanian state (lines 1-2 of the Parthian version; lines 2-5 of the Greek version; lines 2-3 of the greatly damaged Middle Persian version).

The Christian Church in Azerbaijan

Together with Zoroastrianism, Islam and Christianity were important spiritual factors in Azerbaijan of the Early Middle Ages. Nestorianism figured prominently in the territory of Southern Azerbaijan which in the 3rd-7th centuries was part of the Sassanian state.

In Azerbaijan, Christianity gained popularity in the first centuries of the new era to develop, after a while, into one of the state-sanctioned religions practiced along with the official religion (Zoroastrianism and later Islam). Tradition associates the apostles (Thomas, Thaddaeus, Bartholomew, and Matthew) with the beginning of Christianity in Azerbaijan.

Historical sources tell us that in the 1st century Apostle Thomas was preaching among the Medes and Persians. The Chronicon ecclesiasticum of Bar-Hebraeus (11:3, 5) calls Thomas the first Oriental apostle. The second year after the Resurrection, he, on the way to India, preached among the Parthians, Medias, Persian, Bactrians, and Marghians. The same source (11:15) says that the Gilan people were baptized by Apostle Addaeus (Thaddaeus).1 Bishop of Deilem is mentioned by the sources under the year 224.2

It was the Judaists who had been settling in Azerbaijan (and in the Caucasus) since ancient times, bringing Christianity to these lands.3 In the Sassanian state, Jews preferred to settle in Mesopotamia where the borders of their settlements coincided with the Sassanian provinces of Babylonia and Asurestan; Jews lived in Meseya, although it was commonly believed that they had lost their religion.4

A large number of Jews lived in Adiabene: in the times of Sargon II, some of the northern Israeli population moved to Atropatene (Southern Azerbaijan), Media, and Armenia in Asia Minor (4 Kings 17:6, 18:2; Tob. 1:14, 3:7; 5:5; 6:2; 9:2). The Acts of the Synod of 420 held under Catholicos Jabalaha (415-420)5 contain the first registered mention of Christianity in Southern Azerbaijan. This suggests that local Christianity went back to much earlier days, since no bishoprics were possible on untilled soil. This supports my surmise that the first Christian communities appeared in Azerbaijan prior to the 5th century.

Syria, or Antioch, to be more exact, one of the largest Christian centers, was responsible for the spread of this religion in Azerbaijan. Apostle Paul brought it to Asia Minor, Cyprus, Greece, and further on to the Orient (the Parthians where Thomas was already preaching).

Christianity then spread to Persia, Media, Bactria, and reached India; at the early stages it was moved to the Orient by the apostles and their pupils. An ancient legend which makes up part of Book III of the Ecclesiastical History by Eusebius of Caesarea and Socrates the Scholastic (Book 1, Ch. 19) says that the Lot fell to Apostle Thomas in Parthia and to Bartholomew in India. After preaching among the Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, the latter went to the lands of Persians and Magi and then to Armenia in Asia Minor.6

According to Eusebius of Caesarea (Ecclesiastical History, III, 37), numerous followers of the apostles founded churches and spread the Gospels in various countries. Apostle and Evangelist Matthew preached in Ekbatan, Rey, and Damgan; Ahai, a pupil of Apostle Thaddaeus, came to Babylonia to evangelize after Peter.7 He returned to Edessa and left Mari, a pupil of the same apostle, whom he ordained bishop, in his place. Mari is considered to be the founder of the bishopric see in Kokha, part of the city of Seleucia where Peter died in 82.8 Mari is believed to be the founder of the Assyrian Church; the bishopric see he founded is known as the Bishopric See of St. Mar Mari, the Apostle, the bishops of which are recognized on a par with the bishops of Antioch, Rome, Alexandria, and Carthage.9

The Sassanian rulers who conquered vast Christian-populated territories increased the Christian population of their domains: handicraftsmen were considered to be the main war trophy to be taken into slavery to add to the economic might of the victor state. In the 4th century material and human resources were moved from the empires Oriental provinces to Iran on an unprecedented scale. This accelerated the growth of the Sassanian Empires might in the 5th-6th centuries.

The First Council of the Persian Christians convened in 410 under Patriarch Mar Isaac structuralized the Christian Church of the Sassanian State; its head acquired the title of Catholicos: Bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, Catholicos, Patriarch, Archbishop of All East.10 The Church was a strictly centralized structure. The Catholicos ordained bishops who then had to travel to Ctesiphon where they were ordained by the head of the Church in strict accordance with the 3rd rule established by the 1st Ctesiphon Council of 410.11

The Church structure was patterned on the Empires administrative-territorial division. Several parishes with bishops formed an eparchy which, in turn, was part of the metropolitan, the boundaries of which closely followed the boundaries of the provinces. Metropolitan sees were headed by metropolitans who were bishops of the main city. The Concise Collection of the Rules of the Council contains a list of provinces with metropolitan sees arranged according to their place in the Church hierarchy based on their ages and reflected in the documents of the 410 Synod; Azerbaijan was on the list.12

In 484, the Council of Bet-Lapat of the Christian Church of the Sassanian State embraced Nestorianism; earlier the 431 Council of Ephesus condemned the teaching of Patriarch of Constantinople Nestorius who disagreed with the Orthodox Christian teaching about Christs pre-incarnational Godhead. Nestorius believed that Christ had two faces and two naturesthe divine and the human. He preferred to use the term mother of Christ (Christotokos) rather than mother of God (Theotokos) in his sermons, arguing that she gave birth to man, not to God; those who sided with Nestorius found shelter in Iran against the persecutions of the Orthodox Church.

According to the acts of the councils of the Syrian Church of the East and the works by historians of Church and other sources, there were identified 21 bishoprics in the northern (Adurbadagan) province, 10 of which were found in Azerbaijan. Partaw, a Nestorian metropolitan see from the 5th century to 900, was one of them. In 900, Sabrisho, the Nestorian Metropolitan of Barda (Partaw), took part in the election of Catholicos Yohannan (900-905). At that time, between 899 and 902 to be more exact, Yunan was the Catholicos of Albania; in 999, Eliya was known as the Metropolitan of Barda. The Nestorian Church in Barda survived until the 14th century as part of the Holwan Metropolitan See.13

The Paytakaran Bishopric was known since the 6th century; late in the 5th century, under Albanian King Vachagan III, it became part of Albania,14 in the 6th century, it acquired a bishopric as part of the Albanian Catholicate. Under Catholicos of Albania Ter-Abas (551-596), Timothy served as the Bishop of Paytakaran. Contemporary sources mention a high wave of Nestorianism in the Caucasus, and in Albania as it part, which the Albanian Catholicate had to fight. This explains the emergence of the Nestorian Bishopric of Paytakaran; the Nestorian synodal documents have preserved the name of two bishops: Yohannan (mid-6th, about 540) and Jacob, who signed the acts of the 544 Synod.15

There were other bishoprics as well: Ganzak was known since the 5th century; Urmia since the 4th century; Salmas, Maraga, Tabriz, and Ushnu since the 13th century; and Mugan, which was transformed into a metropolitan see in 800, since the 8th century. The Nestorian Catholicos Timothy I sent monk Eliya to Mugan. According to Thomas of Marga, he built churches, baptized the local people, and was quite successful.16

According to the local, although probably later, tradition, Christianity came to the Urmia area during the time of the Apostles. A legend says that there was a Church of Mart Mariam (Mistress Mary) built in 165. Reliable information about Christianity in Urmia dates to the early 13th century. Information about Christianity in the areas of Ushnu, Sulduz, Salmas, Maraga, and Tabriz dates to a later period.17

Fifty-three Nestorian churches at Lake Urmia survived until the early 1970s; 15 of them were dedicated to Mar Gewargis; 5 to Mar Shalita; 12 to Mart Mariam; 2 to Mar Thoma; and 3 to Mar Yohannan. In 1965, the Nestorian community of Urmia had about 7,000 members (the total population being 85 thousand).18 Bishop of Urmia Emmanuel Isaac Saul belonged to an ancient Denha family which counted numerous religious figures among its members, including Mar Hnan Denha XIX, who was Bishop of Tehran in 1963 (see the map).19

Azerbaijan, the archbishops and bishops of which were among those who elected the Catholicoses of Seleucia-Ctesiphon and ordained them, holds an important place in the history of Christianity.20

The Largest Settlements with Nestorian Churches in Azerbaijan

State Power and Christianity

The relations between the state and Christianity largely depended on politics and economics: when the Roman Empire embraced Christianity as its official religion, Christians in other parts of the ecumene became a target of oppression. At all times, the Sassanian shakhinshakhs were on the side of the confessions opposed to the official Church of Rome.

The attitude toward Christians under the Sassanids was never consistent: persecuted under some rulers, they were left alone under others. Socrates the Scholastic, Sozomen, Philostorgius, Syrian authors, and hagiographic literature in particular tell of persecutions under Shapur II. Maruthas, Bishop of Maypherkat, who under Yazdegerd I (399-421) played an important role in improving the position of the Christians in the Sassanian Kingdom, left a detailed description of their earlier persecution in a series of hagiographic works.21 A member of the 410 Council, he moved the remains of Christian martyrs to Tagrit, which from that time on was known as Martyropol. Yazdegerd I was a soft-hearted ruler who restored the churches his predecessors had destroyed. As his rule drew to an end, the attitude toward the Christians worsened.

Yazdegerd II (439-457) was especially intolerant of Christianity and hostile to its followers: he tried to uproot it and assimilate the Caucasian peoples by imposing Zoroastrianism to achieve cultural and religious uniformity. The uprising of 450-451 was a natural response.

According to historical sources, Balash (484-488) was tolerant of followers of all religions and never resorted to force to convert people to Zoroastrianism.

Under Kavadh (488-531), the first Christian missionaries worked successfully among the Turks and Hephthalite Huns; Khosrau I Anushirvan (531-579), his son and successor, was ambivalent in his treatment of the Christians: sometimes they were persecuted and sometimes they were left to their own devices.

Syrian sources laud Hormizd IV (579-590) as being well-disposed toward Christians. Under Khosrau II (591-628), all persecutions of Christians were banned by law, but under the same law Zoroastrians could not embrace Christianity. The process, however, went on as before despite the threat of punishment.22

When Catholicos Sabrisho died in 604, the fierce struggle to take his place forced Khosrau II to leave the post vacant until his death in 628. Isho-Yab II (628-644) was elected Catholicos under Kavadh II, the son of Khosrau II.

In the 5th century, when the Nestorians parted ways with the other Christians, the pressure on the Christians in the Persian Empire was somewhat relieved. Between the 5th and 7th centuries, the sources cite the names of several bishops of Azerbaijan. Under Patriarch Acacius Hosea, the Bishop of Ganzak of Azerbaijan took part in the 486 Synod, which met in the village of Beit-Edre when Balash ruled the Sassanian state. The acts of the Synod were signed as: I, Hosea, the Bishop of Ganzak of Azerbaijan, agree with everything written here and apply my seal and my signature.23 After Hosea came Bishop Yohannan, whose signature appeared in the messages of Catholicos Mar Aba I (536-552) dated to 544.24 The Catholicos was exiled to a village in the Rustak of Perahrawar in Azerbaijan. In the winter of 549/550, he, accompanied by Bishop Yohannan of Azerbaijan,25 left the place of his exile to seek an audience with Khosrau I. Yohannan was succeeded as Bishop of Azerbaijan by Melchisedec; his name is found among other signatures attached to the decisions of the 554 Synod convened under Patriach Mar Joseph (552-567).26

Bishop of Azerbaijan Hnanisho was one of those who elected Catholicos Gregory in 605.27

In the Caliphate, the relations between the Arabs and the followers of all other creeds were regulated by contracts which guaranteed safety of the churches, Zoroastrian temples, and other property in exchange for poll and land taxes.

The number of followers of other creeds was enormous: Christians, Judaists, and Zoroastrians stood apart as people of the Book and could expect protection from the Muslims, in return for which they had to regularly pay poll tax, the mendicant friars being the only ones exempt from this. The people who lived along the borders and, therefore, could expect an enemy attack at any time were also exempt from taxes. They were regarded as border guards; this function replaced their fiscal duties. This immunity was introduced after Azerbaijan28 had been conquered. The Arabs allowed new churches to be built and old ones restored.

Syrian authors wrote much and in great detail about Christianity in Azerbaijan under the Mongolian khans, who patronized the Christians and even married Christian girls.

Nestorian Catholicos Mar Jabalaha III, an Uighur from Khanbaliq (Beijing),29 set up his capital in Maraga.

Maraga played a prominent role in science and culture of the Orient: it boasted an astronomical observatory built by Nasir ad-Din Tusi on the orders of Hulagu Khan where prominent scholars from various countries came to work30 and a rich library with books in Syrian, Arabic, Persian, and other tongues.31

Under Mar Jabalaha III, the state had numerous diplomatic ties with the Christian states of the West. Its diplomatic missions were headed by top Christian clerics (Bar Sauma was one of them) or Christians from the closest circle of the Il-khans of Hulagus line.

Some of the Il-khans were consistent and friendly when dealing with the Christians, whose taxes, because of the huge number of Christians in the Hulagu state, the central part of which was Azerbaijan, were indispensable.


Christianity with its strong historical roots played an important role, together with Zoroastrianism and Islam, in the spiritual culture of medieval Azerbaijan. After coming to Azerbaijan in the first centuries of the new era, Christianity became one of the officially recognized religions. According to the historical sources, there were 10 bishoprics in Azerbaijan, some of which later became metropolitan sees. The state was not always tolerant, but the enormous Christian population paid numerous taxes which encouraged economic development.

One can say that for many centuries, at least between the early 4th to the mid-20th century, the position of Christianity in Azerbaijan was relatively stable.

1 See: R.A. Guseynov, Siriyskie istochniki ob Azerbaidzhane, Baku, 1960, pp. 83, 85. Back to text
2 See: E. Sachau, Die Chronik von Arbela, Berlin, 1915, S. 20. Back to text
3 See: P. Uslar, Nachalo khristianstva v Zakavkazie i na Kavkaze, in: Sbornik svedeniy o Kavkazskikh gortsakh, Issue I, Tiflis, 1869, pp. 4-6, 5. Back to text
4 See: G. Widengren, The Status of the Jews in the Sassanian Empire, in: Iranica Antiqua, Vol. V, Leiden, 1961, p. 117. Back to text
5 See: Synodicon Orientale ou recueil des Synodes nestoriens, publ., trad. et annot. par J.B. Charot, NEMBN, Vol. 37. Paris, 1902, p. 276. Back to text
6 See: Skazanie o Faddee i Varfolomee, apostolakh Armenii, Transl. by N. Emin, Moscow, 1877, p. 33. Back to text
7 He is mentioned in Ecclesiastical History by Bar Ebrey (11:15) (see: R.A. Guseynov, op. cit, p. 85). Back to text
8 See: Arseny (Archimandrite), Neskolko stranits iz istorii khristianstva v Persii, Khristianskoe chtenie, St. Petersburg, 1881, Nos. 4-5, p. 2. Back to text
9 See: Ibidem. Back to text
10 Synodicon Orientale ou recueil des Synodes nestoriens, p. 254. Back to text
11 See: Ibid., p. 618. Back to text
12 See: Ibidem. Back to text
13 See: Y.M. Fiey, Adarbaigan chrétien, Le Muséon, Vol. 86, 1973, p. 422; J.S. Assemani, Bibliotheca Orientalis Clementino Vaticana, Vol. 3, pp. 2, 728, 750. Back to text
14 See: F. Mamedova, Politicheskaia istoria i istoricheskaia geografia Kavkazskoy Albanii, Baku, 1986, p. 150. Back to text
15 See: Synodicon Orientale ou recueil des Synodes nestoriens, p. 345; p. 366, No. 28. Back to text
16 See: Thomas of Marga, The Book of Governors. A.D. 840, ed. and transl. by E.A.W. Budge, Vol. 11, London, 1893, pp. 512-513. Back to text
17 See: Y.M. Fiey, op. cit., pp. 404-407, 409-413. Back to text
18 See: E. Hammerschmidt, Zur Lage der Nestorianer am Urmia-See, in: Festschrift für Werner Caskel zum 70. Geburtstag, Hrsg. von E. Gräf, Leiden, 1968, S. 151-161. Back to text
19 See: Ibid., S. 155. Back to text
20 See: Synodicon Orientale ou recueil des Synodes nestoriens, p. 619. Back to text
21 See: Zhitia khristianskikh muchenikov, napisannye Marutoy Mayferkatskim v IV-V vv., Khristianskoe chtenie, 1827, pp. 25-28. Back to text
22 See: Istoria episkopa Sebeosa, Transl. by S. Malkhasiants, Ereven, 1939, Ch. XII, p. 43. Back to text
23 Synodicon Orientale ou recueil des Synodes nestoriens, pp. 60, 307. Back to text
24 See: Ibid., p. 345. Document 4, No. 10; p. 332, No. 3. Back to text
25 See: O. Braun, Das Buch der Synhados, Stuttgart und Wien, 1900, S. 95. Back to text
26 See: Synodicon Orientale ou recueil des Synodes nestoriens, p. 366, No. 32; O. Braun, op. cit., S. 162. Back to text
27 See: Synodicon Orientale ou recueil des Synodes nestoriens, pp. 471-479, No. 25; O. Braun, op. cit., S. 479. Back to text
28 See: A.I. Kolesnikov, Zavoevanie Irana arabami, Moscow, 1982, p. 196. Back to text
29 For more detail, see: Istoria Mar Jabalahi III i Rabban Saumy, analyzed, translated from the Syriac language and commented by N.V. Pigulevskaia, Moscow, 1958; N. Rigan, Iz istorii khristianstva v Persii (1281-1317), Khristianskoe chtenie, 1909, pp. 230-233. Back to text
30 See: R. ad-Din, Sbornik letopisey, Vol. III, Moscow, Leningrad, 1946, pp. 48-49. Back to text
31 See: R. Guseynov, op. cit., pp. 62-63. Back to text

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