IT was a rough rock face down whose rugged back side stood like a small rock pointing to heaven. University of Baltistan made a historic discovery when its three-member expedition team headed by Vice Chancellor Mohammad Naeem Khan and comprising Dr Zakir Hussain Zakir and Dr Ishtiaq Hussain unearthed a huge marble cross in the mountain range of Kavardo in the Skardu area of Baltistan division. The news of this important cultural discovery was announced on 14 June and made ripple effects among archaeologists and historians around the globe.

How does the cross look like?

According to Naeem Khan, “The cross is made of marble rock material, most probably from nearby mountains, since the marble used for the cross is found on surrounding mountains.” It weighs three to four tons measuring vertically six feet and seven inches while horizontally six feet four inches. The front side is finely finished while the back side is rough. It looks as if this cross is still unfinished from behind. It is possible that it is half done.

The discovery of the cross in Skardu may open new avenues of academic collaboration between researchers of Pakistan and western world

The down part of the cross is broken. How much is broken and where the broken piece is, is not yet known. Then is it a Latin cross or a Nestorian cross? These questions need thorough answers, based on scientific methods.

The antiquity of the cross is not yet clear until date of its origin is established by radiocarbon dating method.

Geography of the find

It is very interesting to note location of this important discovery. This location is not very far from Old Silk Road, a network of roads which joined China, Central Asia and Subcontinent with Persian Empire in the East and Byzantine Empire in Western Asia. By the year 600 Persian Empire in the East included part of Afghanistan and a slice of present day western part of Balochistan. The location of the discovery of the cross was not part of the then Persian Empire, although Old Silk Road made a linkage between Baltistan and the Persian Empire.

My observations

Christianity flexed its missionary muscles in Persian Empire in fourth century. But the dawn of the fourth century brought persecution to Eastern Christians while peace to Western Christians. 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.

Was there a monastery in Kavardo valley? Is this cross from that monastery looking down Kavardo village? The existence of a monastery can be a possibility since there was a network of missionary monasteries in Persian Empire and Arabian Peninsula. By the fifth century more than 30 per cent population of Persian Empire was Christian, Ctesiphon-Seleucia, the imperial city of the Empire being the Vatican of Eastern Christianity. Herat in present day Afghanistan was raised to metropolitan diocese in or before 585. One cannot rule out the existence of a monastery in Kavardo and this discovery may belong to it.

As Christianity was slowly dying out in southern Mesopot­amia, Persia and Armenia, the Church of the East from Merv made some spectacular gains in the 11th century in Central Asia and Mongolia. The king of Turko-Mongol Kerait tribe, converted to Christianity in 1009. Kerait tribe for next 200 years was known as a Christian tribe. The Keraits’ capital was Karakoram in Mongolia. There is a possibility that the find belongs to Kerait tribe which passed through the area or brought the people of Kavardo valley to Christianity.

On the same line another reason of Christian presence in these valleys may be explored. When in the seventh century Arab Muslims invaded Persian Empire, it is possible that a number of Christians fled to Himalayan and Karakoram valleys. Their dispersion may have proved divine providence and became instrument of Christian evangelisation on and around the Silk Road.

As Arab military expansion marched into Persia, a Christian missionary from Persia, Alopen had already entered China in 635 during the reign of T’ai-tsung. But Alopen may not be the first to enter China. Sassanid Empire had opened trade connections with China in the fifth century and Persian Christians were numerous in the merchant class of those times. The trade route was Old Silk Road on which these merchants walked. There is a possibility of the arrival of Christianity in Kavardo valley during the seventh century through trade.

Were there left remnants of St. Thomas Christians who escaped onslaught of Huns? Was there a church built on the mountain and this discovery belongs to it? Was there a Christian cemetery and this cross belongs to it? Are there Christian inscriptions on rock walls or in caves around? A serious associated excavation and research will answer these questions. Christianity walked on and around Silk Road. The discovery of the cross in Baltistan may open new avenues of academic collaboration and cooperation between researchers of Pakistan and the Western world.

Father Gulshan Barkat is a Catholic priest from Pakistan. He holds a degree in Church History from Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome and has done extensive research in the British Library in London. Presently he is lecturing in Church History at National Catholic Institute of Theology, Karachi.

Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2020