The Mongols & the Eastern Orthodox Church

by Eleanor McKenzie

Russia's history is a tale of turmoil and sudden upheavals. One such troubled period was The Mongol invasion in the early 13th century. This was a period of subjugation for Russians. The Mongols killed and looted their way across the country until the Russians submitted to their rule. In these dark times the Eastern Orthodox church was a light for the people. As a result, the church gained power and status and became a political force.

The Mongol Invasion

Genghis Khan was a notorious Mongol leader who is remembered for his ruthless incursions into neighboring China. His success here encouraged him to look further afield, and with eastern Russia bordering his territory, he didn't have to look very far. In 1223 the Mongol army under Genghis Khan's leadership engaged with Russians in a number of conflicts. However, the campaign to conquer Russia only started in earnest after Genghis's death in 1227, when his grandson Batu Khan took leadership of the army that became known as the Golden Horde. His invasion, which started in 1237, fulfilled his grandfather's dying wish. By 1241, Batu Khan had conquered Russia and had arrived at the borders of Italy and Germany where he was finally pushed back into Russian territory due to a lack of reinforcements. Stories of Mongol cruelty, and the fact that they weren't Christians, provided the Orthodox church with a role to play in giving Russians a place to focus their grievances.

Eastern Orthodoxy and Rome

The Eastern Orthodox church was then, and is now associated primarily with Russia and Greece. It originated in the eastern Roman and Byzantine empires and its headquarters were in Constantinople. It separated from the church in Rome in the Great Schism of 1054, over an argument about doctrine. The Mongols played a significant role in furthering this separation from the western Catholic church. Mongol religious laws protected the Russian church and its buildings under a code called "The Great Yasa" according to historian Ernst Benz. He also points out that the Pope in Rome tried to rally Russian Christians into a crusade against the Mongols, but that the Russians preferred to put up with Mongol rule rather than return their church to Rome's governance.

A Powerful Church

The Mongol invasion destroyed Russia's political structure and the authority of its regional princes. The Church stepped in to fill this power vacuum, capitalizing on the peoples' need for a native Russian organization that they could look to for support and comfort. The Mongol ruler Mönke-Temür issued an "iarlyk" in 1267. This charter of immunity formally exempted the Church from taxation and its priests from military service. This law profoundly affected the Church's position. It acquired significant amounts of land and sent priests out on missions to convert any remaining pagans to Christianity. The Church maintained this wealth and power until the revolution of 1917. Another significant aspect of the Mongol invasion was that prior to it, the Ukrainian capital of Kiev was the Church's headquarters. The Mongols destroyed Kiev and by 1322 the Holy See had moved to Moscow, establishing it as a major city.

Art and the Orthodox Church

One of the by-products of the Mongol invasion and the Orthodox church's rise in power was its effect on ecclesiasical art. The invasion severed the connection with the Byzantine church in Constantinople where iconography was already an established art form. Ironically, this allowed the Russians to create their own style of iconography, for which they became renowned. This period of history produced two of Russia's most famous icon painters: Theophanes the Greek and Andre Rublev. Rublev's achievements in fresco painting were captured by Russian film maker, Andrei Tarkovsky's "Andrei Rublev."

About the Author

Based in London, Eleanor McKenzie has been writing lifestyle-related books and articles since 1998. Her articles have appeared in the "Palm Beach Times" and she is the author of numerous books published by Hamlyn U.K., including "Healing Reiki" and "Pilates System." She holds a Master of Arts in informational studies from London University.

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