We from the West believe that history stopped perhaps in Moscow, picking up again maybe in Beijing but probably more realistically in Tokyo. The expanse between, a wasteland. Stories of Siberian gulags and the endless windswept steppes. Then came Genghis Khan, but from where? Out of nowhere? An apparition of the Gobi desert, a Jinn conjured to torment civilized Europe?
The “Church of the East”, called sometimes erroneously the Nestorian Church due to having adopted the theology of Nestorius Archbishop of Constantinople in the 5th Century (who believed in a loose association between the divinity and humanity of Jesus) was for a season the largest Christian Church. Composed of Mongol or Turkic nomadic tribesmen, the church had deacons and elders and traditions and sanctuaries built around the ancient places like Samarkand or Qoms long before the days of Islam.
Lev Gumilev’s extraordinary book “Searches for an Imaginary Kingdom” uses the story of Prester John as a backdrop to tell a detailed history of the Eurasian steppes from the 800s to the 1300s. The rise and fall of the Mongol empire. Gumilev argues that Prester John was likely Yelu Dashi, a tribal nomadic king the last of the Liao Dynasty whose court was Nestorian. But the book is about much more than that. It is about how Chinggiskhan emerged harnessing the rage of the “People of the Long Will”, outcasts living in the forests of the steppes expelled from the strict hierarchical tribal culture and stitched them into a coherent fighting force unleashing them against first the Chinese and then the Europeans and finally to the Holy Lands. The Mongols, nobody really knows who they were, coming from some valley lost in the Altai Mountains like the deep desert Tuaregs from the High Atlas Mountains, tall and fair and blue-eyed but not European.
The story of a Christian king far east beyond Armenia who would come to the aid of the crusaders to rescue them from Saladin and the marauding Muslim armies; conveniently repeated until it became folklore.
We often think that there was no church beside Rome and its offshoots. It’s hard to imagine that at the beginning the crucible of the Christian faith existed in the caravanserai of the Silk Road, taken there by Thomas and Thaddeus of Edessa and protected by an order of ancient Nestorian priests for 600 years. There is so much about Eurasia that we don’t know – and Gumilev is extraordinary in the way of great historians who have a panoramic view of events and how they tie together and pulls it all into a book that, while not easy to read, does allow us to follow the threads of so great a tale.