Spread of Religion on the Silk Road During the Mongol Empire


Posted by Bill Mattocks on Friday, December 1, 2023

The Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes that connected the East and West, spanning China, India, Persia, Arabia, and the Mediterranean. During the 13th and 14th centuries, the Silk Road flourished under the stability provided by the Mongol Empire, facilitating not only trade but also the spread of ideas and religions between Asia and Europe. One of the most significant effects was the spread of Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and Nestorianism through the conduit of the Silk Road.

Background on the Mongol Empire

The Mongol Empire originated in the early 13th century under the leadership of Genghis Khan. Through a series of military conquests, the nomadic Mongol tribes eventually built an empire that at its peak stretched from Eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan, covering large swaths of Asia and parts of the Middle East.

The Mongols were exceptionally tolerant of most religions, allowing freedom of worship as long as territories did not resist their rule. This religious tolerance created an environment conducive to the exchange of religious ideas across the empire.

Buddhist monks on the Silk Road

Growth of Trade Under the Mongols

The Mongol conquests re-established stability in Asia after a long period of unrest. They rebuilt infrastructure, provided security for travelers, and fostered trade by encouraging commerce and maintaining diplomatic relations with numerous kingdoms and empires across Asia and Europe.

Trade flourished under these conditions, with merchants traversing well-trodden routes across Asia. The Silk Road derived its name from the lucrative Chinese silk trade that occurred along it, entering the Middle East and eventually Europe. In addition to silk, many other goods were traded as well, including textiles, spices, grain, vegetables and fruit, livestock, metal goods, leather and fur, wood products, art, and much more.

This escalation in overland Asian trade resulted in increased travel along the Silk Road by missionaries and pilgrims. As merchants facilitated trade across Asia, religious figures used the same routes and infrastructure to spread their faiths abroad.

Spread of Buddhism

Buddhism has its origins in India, from where it slowly disseminated through South, Central and East Asia over a period of several centuries. The rule of the Mongols accelerated Buddhism’s propagation northwards into their native lands as well as westward towards Europe.

Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China, openly embraced Buddhism. He and other Mongol rulers promoted its dissemination by granting tax exemptions, supporting monasteries, allowing monks to proselytize, and more. Their patronage led to the proliferation of Buddhist texts being copied and circulated as well as temple construction. As a result, many Mongols and Turks converted to Buddhism. Meanwhile, eastward and northward, Buddhism continued to influence cultures in Korea, Japan, Tibet and Mongolia.

Westward, Buddhism traveled through the newly secured Silk Road network towards Europe. Its ideals resonated with people seeking an alternative to entrenched faiths like Christianity. For the first time, Europeans were exposed to the teachings, art, culture and writings of Mahayana Buddhism. Although relatively few Europeans ultimately converted at that time, many were introduced to and fascinated by a faith far different from their own.

Spread of Islam

The influence of Mongol religious tolerance also assisted the spread of Islam under their rule. As the Mongol Empire expanded westward, they conquered territories with sizable Muslim populations like Persia and Mesopotamia. However, they did not force conversions to traditional Mongol beliefs and allowed Islamic traditions and mosques to continue thriving under their administration.

The Mongols violently sacked Baghdad, the capital of the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate, in 1258. Nevertheless, Mongol leaders continued to permit Sunni Muslims to practice their faith without harassment, despite having done away with the Caliphate as a political opponent. Consequently, Islam flourished in Persia and Central Asia in the ensuing centuries under Mongol dominion.

Many Mongols and Turks voluntarily converted to Islam over time due to the profound influences of Persian and Arabic culture, the religion’s spiritual messages of equality and submission to God, and sometimes intermarriage with Muslim women. Eventually, the Golden Horde Mongols established Islam as their state religion which led to even more conversions.

In Anatolia and Russia, Sufi Muslim mystics traveled through Silk Road trade networks, peacefully preaching their mystical dimension of Islam through the poetry and music intrinsic to their worship. Consequently, their version of Islam mildly diffused among the populace. However, the primary expansion of Islam into Russia and Eastern Europe occurred later with Ottoman conquests.

Muslim pilgrims traveling along the Silk Road

Nestorian Christianity Finds New Followers

The Church of the East, alternately known as the Nestorian church, was centered in Persia with ecclesiastical ties reaching into lands as distant as China and Mongolia as early as the 7th century. The Mongols viewed them favorably due to their linguistic skills and facility with commerce. As a result, they gave Nestorians special privileges and tax exemptions in China.

Nestorian Christianity subsequently blossomed and proselytized under Mongol protection. Tens of thousands throughout Asia converted, although overall they still only comprised a minute fraction of the total population.

In China, the Mongols appointed a Nestorian Christian named Yahballaha as the patriarch to oversee Christianity’s expansion in 1278. He led successful missions abroad in India and augmented the faith in China amongst the largely animist Mongols and Turks. Back west, Nestorian Christianity also thrived from Mesopotamia to Russia.

However, Nestorian Christianity’s ties were tenuous beyond Byzantium, owing perhaps to its confusing trinitarian theology clashing with Islam and entrenched churches. Still, the Mongols offered fresh opportunities to spread the faith far across Asia. Their stable hegemony over the Silk Road provided safety for Nestorians to practice freely and engage with exotic foreign cultures without fear of oppression.

European Exploration of Other Faiths

For Western Europeans coming in contact with foreign cultures via the Silk Road, it marked the first time that significant exposure to and interaction with non-Christian faiths occurred on a large scale. Catholic missionaries including Franciscans and Dominicans traversed Central Asia to the Mongol court, some hoping to form a Franco-Mongol alliance against Islam. When meeting the Mongol rulers, they were introduced to the thriving Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Islamic and Nestorian Christian religions practiced in the region.

Some missionaries sought spiritual wisdom, studying Asian texts and translating Mongol hymns into Latin. Others decried the Mongol rulers’ embrace of religious tolerance and their lack of preference for Christianity. Nevertheless, this unprecedented interface between European Catholics and numerous Asian faith groups allowed religious and cultural knowledge exchange on a scale not previously achieved prior to modern times.

Silk Road Map

Religious Legacy of the Mongol Empire

In the century following the reign of the Mongols, religious practice lost ground across Asia and no faith group expanded as noticeably. The Buddhist renaissance in China slowly eroded due to growing xenophobia towards its foreign origins. Islam endured in Central Asia where conversions continued in tribes and cities. Meanwhile, Nestorian Christianity declined as Mongol succession fractures finally caught up with them and political partitions and rulers less sympathetic to their faith emerged.

Nevertheless, the Mongol Empire left an enduring legacy regarding Asian cross-cultural philosophy and interreligious exchange. For the first time, there was relative freedom of faith, secure travel conditions and support for religious institutions to spread their beliefs further than previously imaginable. The Mongols enabled diffusion of diverse religions across the Asian continent via the medium of the Silk Road trade routes in a manner unmatched until present times.


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