Site associated with Christianity's first mission into China discovered
Niche in stone wall confirmed to be repository for bones, ashes of early Christians
The Nestorian Church thought to be the earliest Christian movement in China has left fleeting archaeological evidence. Now, a recently discovered site may shed new light on the movement; a niche in a stone wall with a cross carved above it has since been verified as a repository for the ashes and bones of Christians. Experts say this is the earliest Nestorian burial place discovered thus far in China.
A recently discovered site may shed new light on the movement; a niche in a stone wall with a cross carved above it has since been verified as a repository for the ashes and bones of Christians.
It's also not yet known if the niche is older than the well known Nestorian Stele, an inscribed limestone tablet found in Xi'an, Shaanxi, which dates back to 781 AD and is currently considered the most ancient Nestorian artifact.
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Researcher Jiao Jianhui made the discovery at the Longmen Grottoes Research Institute. The grottoes are a UNESCO World Heritage site in central Henan province. Its verification was announced to the public this week.
The grottoes contain thousands of Buddhist and Daoist statues and carvings; But Jiao says that "this is the first discovery of a religious relic other than that of Buddhism and Daoism."
"I felt instantly that it was different from other niches and grottoes," Jiao said of his discovery.
"There are many similar niches at the grottoes, carved with Buddha statues as well as inscriptions to say that the deceased are buried there. So it is certain that the Nestorian site was also for burials." he said.
The Nestorian Christian Church, originating in the Middle East in the fifth century AD, was initially recognized by the Tang Emperor Taizong -- but was suppressed by his successors.
The discovery of the site puts a different perspective on historians' beliefs about those early days in China, Jiao says. "Historical records show Buddhist suppression of the Nestorian Church in the Tang Dynasty," he said. "But the niche shows some religious tolerance, as the two religions could coexist harmoniously at the Grottoes."
Now known as the Assyrian Church of the East, the Nestorian Church was regarded by the Catholic Church as schismatic. The two Churches signed a common declaration of doctrine in 1994.
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