9 July 2020
This June, a giant cross was discovered in the remote mountain areas of northern Pakistan, overlooking the river Indus, by a team of researchers from the University of Baltistan in Skardu. Carved out of marble stone, weighing three or four tonnes, and approximately seven feet in height, the cross is believed to be the largest one of its kind found in the Subcontinent.
The discovery has generated global interest since it sheds new light on the religious history of the Subcontinent. While the precise era to which the cross belonged is yet to be ascertained through carbon dating, initial analysis reveals that it is a ‘Nestorian cross’, that dates between 900-1200 years ago. Nestorianism is believed to be the earliest sect of Christianity in the East, that originated in Asia Minor and Syria.
Further, experts examining the cross have also noted the Buddhist influences on it and called attention to the fact that it probably dates back to the time when Buddhism was on the decline in the region and was in active engagement with newer Christian influences.
“This is a typical Thomanian cross, which is plus-shaped. Thomanian Christians are those who trace their origins to the proselytising activities of St. Thomas, who was one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ. Later, Thomanian Christians intermixed with Nestorian Christians. Northern Pakistan had several Nestorian Christian settlements,” says Wajid Bhatti, research scholar of Pakistan studies at Quaid-i-Azam University.
The researchers say the discovery of the cross established important information on the presence of Christianity in northern Pakistan, before the advent of the colonial forces. “The discovery of cross in Himalayan-Karakoram mountain ranges of Skardu valley in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan, will help boost the self-confidence, self-recognition and mainstreaming of Pakistani Christians and give them deeper historic identity in Pakistan,” says Dr. Muhammad Naeem Khan, Vice-Chancellor of University of Baltistan, and one among the team of researchers who discovered the cross.
At present, Christians are one of the two largest religious minorities in Pakistan along with Hindus. A majority of them live in the province of Punjab. “Discovery of the cross will help diversify Pakistan’s cultural ties with Europe and the Middle East, the birth-place of Christianity. The discovery of the cross in Baltistan may open new avenues of academic collaboration and cooperation between researchers of Pakistan and the Western world,” says Khan, explaining the significance of the discovery.
Christianity in Northern Pakistan
The birth of Christianity in Northern Pakistan is intrinsically linked to the trading activities that took place along the Silk Road between the second century BCE and the 18th century CE. The highlands of Skardu, where the cross has been found, fell on the Silk road. The name of the road is derived from the importance of silk as a product of trade between the ‘Middle kingdom’ of China and India, Persia, West Asia and Southern Europe. However, apart from silk, several other products were also traded across the Silk Road, and it had in the course of the 2000 years become one of the most important means of connection between the East and the West.
Trade and commerce played a decisive role in maintaining this connection. “But together with traders and merchants, political envoys and soldiers, monks and missionaries of the great world religions (Buddhism, Manichaeism and Christianity) also trod the paths of the Silk route,” write religious history scholars Ian Gillman and Hans-Joachim Klimkeit in their book, ‘Christians in Asia before 1500’.
Silk Road had a significant impact on the religious traditions of the people existing along the route. From the first century CE, Christianity too started transforming rapidly into a proselytising religion and spread both east and westwards through the efforts of Christian apostles.
The form of Christianity found along the Silk route was Nestorianism, founded along the teachings of Nestorius, a fifth-century patriarch of Constantinople whose unorthodox views had outraged the Roman and Byzantine worlds. Nestorianism spread along the Silk Road to Persia, India and China.
However, going by Bhatti’s analysis, the cross predates the beginnings of Nestorian Christianity. The third century Biblical text, ‘Acts of Thomas’ and the Gospel of Thomas, both give evidence of Christianity being brought to India by St. Thomas as early as the first century of the Christian era. Although historians are skeptical about the factual accuracy of Biblical texts, the reference to King Gondophares, who was the founder of the Indo-Parthian kingdom in the first century CE, gives it an appearance of truth.
“During the course of my research, local villagers in the area told me about a church which they say was built by St. Thomas,” says Bhatti, about the other evidence of Thomanian Christianity in Northern Pakistan.
Interestingly, the Syrian Christian community that exists in the Malabar coast of India, too trace their descent to St. Thomas.
In the course of the next couple of centuries, however, Nestorianism also traveled into northern Pakistan through the silk route, and intermingled with the Thomanian Christians present in the area to form settlements.
Analysing the newly discovered cross in the Dawn newspaper, Father Gulshan Barkat notes, “King Shapur II (309-379) of Persian Empire started persecution of Christians in his empire in 340s.”
“There is a possibility that some of Christians and missionaries living on the eastern border of the Persian Empire fled to escape persecution and took abode among the peace loving Buddhists of Himalayan and Karakoram valleys, including Kavardo, which later may have become a centre of Christian settlement and evangelisation,” writes Barkat, who is lecturer of church history at National Catholic Institute of Theology in Karachi.
At present though, there is no Nestorian Christian community in Pakistan. “A small population of 1000 and 300 Punjabi Christians live and work in Gilgit and Skardu, respectively. These Christians are recent and fresh arrivals during British settlement in Gilgit Baltistan,” says Khan.
Other archaeological discoveries related to early Christianity found in northern Pakistan
While the discovery of the cross has indeed generated immense interest in the history of Christianity in Pakistan, this is definitely not the first finding that points towards a Nestorian Christian past in Gilgit Baltistan.
Bhatti explains that the cross at Baltistan is very similar to one that was discovered in 1935 at the archaeological site of Sirkap near Taxila. “The Cross was later presented to Anglican bishop of Lahore, and is kept at the Cathedral Church of Resurrection in Lahore,” says Bhatti.
He says that two sites in particular have shown several shreds of evidence of Nestorian Christian settlements. One is near the Dumsum bridge at a remote village of Ghanche District in Baltistan, and the other is at the end of the village. “Rocks engraved with crosses similar to the one recently discovered have been found in these areas. Other evidence of Christian names of villages, churches, cemeteries, inscriptions, and seals, point to a thriving Nestorian past in these areas,” says Bhatti.