Christians in Medieval Sumatra
Christianity wasn’t a major religion in Indonesia in the Middle Ages. Most scholarship on the region has focused on the Hindu and Buddhist practices that characterised elite culture in Java and coastal Sumatra in this period and, indeed, it’s even conventional among scholars to refer to this as the ‘Hindu-Buddhist’ period. Muslim communities were also undeniably present in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula from the thirteenth century onwards, though, and Hindu and Buddhist influence beyond the coasts of the western islands appears to have been minimal. Ancestor-focused cults seem to have been the norm in much of eastern Indonesia into the twentieth century, and this was probably the case in much earlier times as well (although the absence of pre-sixteenth-century texts east of Sumbawa makes it difficult to say).
Either way, Christianity is barely noticeable in the historical record of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago until the capture of Melaka by Afonso de Albuquerque in 1511 (Figure 1).
There are nonetheless a few tantalising glimpses of possible Christian communities in the archipelago in a number of medieval texts.
Niccolò de’ Conti, for example, says that ‘Nestorians’ (i.e. Eastern Christians) were ‘scattered throughout India’ (per uniuersam Indiam dispersi — Bracciolini 2004:138). ‘India’ here refers to South and Southeast Asia as a whole, certainly including Java, where Conti lived for several months. The mid-fourteenth-century account of Giovanni de’ Marignolli also seems to suggest that Christians lived in the area (although we probably shouldn’t put much stock in such a confused text). And another Italian, Ludovico di Varthema, who travelled to Java and Sumatra right at the beginning of the sixteenth century, not long before the arrival of the Portuguese, also claims to have been guided through Indonesia by Christian companions. These Christians supposedly took him as far as Banda and Maluku (Figure 2).
The most significant piece of evidence for pre-sixteenth-century Christian settlement, though, is to be found in an Arabic text written in Egypt in around 1200 CE by a Coptic Christian priest named Abū al-Makārim Saʿdullāh ibn Jirjis ibn Masʿūd. The work in question is a description of Christian churches and monasteries in Egypt and the wider world, and in its list of churches in India (broadly conceived) it mentions one dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Barus, Sumatra.
Abū al-Makārim’s book is usually referred to as The History of Churches and Monasteries (تاريخ الكنائس والأديرة). In his 1895 edition B. T. A. Evetts ascribed authorship to one Abū Ṣāliḥ al-Armanī (‘the Armenian’), but this Abū Ṣāliḥ was in fact the owner of the manuscript rather than its author, and The History of Churches and Monasteries is now known to have been written by the aforementioned Abū al-Makārim, a Coptic priest who died in 1208. Adolf Heuken, who cites the book in his article on the early history of Christianity in Indonesia (2008:5), repeats Evetts’ mistaken claim that the author was Abū Ṣāliḥ al-Armanī, but his analysis of the relevant section of the text itself seems correct to me otherwise.
Abū al-Makārim’s History was thought to have survived in at least two manuscripts — Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Arabe 307 and Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cod.arab. 2570 — but since the publication of Evetts’ edition it has been shown that these two manuscripts were originally one and the same — not two copies but one copy split into parts centuries ago. This manuscript is probably the sole surviving witness to the text (see Zanetti 1995; a concise summary can also be found here). A reference in the Paris section tells us it was copied in 1338 CE.
The Munich sections have been digitised but the Paris parts have not. Unfortunately for us, the section on churches in India, with its reference to a ‘Nestorian’ church in Barus, is found towards the end of the work in the undigitised Paris manuscript. I’ve therefore been forced to rely here on Evetts’ edition (1895:300, ١٣٩) for the text and translation. This may well contain some errors, and I may also have introduced some of my own in adapting it here. Nevertheless, here’s the relevant section as Evetts presents it, apparently found on f.110v of the Paris manuscript:
فهصور فيها عدة بيع و جميع من بها من النصارى نساطرة و الحال فيها كذلك وهى التى يصل منها الكافور وهذا الصنف ينبع من الخشب وهذه المدينة بها بيعة واحدة على اسم ستنا السيدة العذرى الطاهرة مرتمريم
‘Fahṣūr — here there are several churches, and all the Christians here are Nestorians; and that is the condition of things here. It is from this place that camphor comes, and this variety flows from the timber here. In this town there is one church dedicated to our Lady, the Pure Virgin Mary.’
Evetts tentatively identified this Fahṣūr with a place near the mouth of the Indus in northwestern India, but if you’ve been paying attention to this blog you’ll have noticed immediately that this can be none other than Fanṣūr (فنصور), the common Arabic and Persian name for Barus in Sumatra (as Heuken says — 2008:5). This name was derived from that of another settlement in the area, Pancur, presumably from Malay or Batak pancur ‘spurt, flow, spout’ (Drakard 1990:4).
We’ve come across Barus so many times here that I should probably rename the blog ‘Medieval Barus’ (Figure 3) — see here, here, and here in particular. The important thing about Barus is that it produced supposedly the world’s finest camphor, so it was frequently visited in the Middle Ages by foreign traders, particularly those coming from the west. The local inhabitants appear to have been speakers of Batak languages who had a reputation for cannibalism, but there must have been plenty of resident merchants in the twelfth century.
The earliest appearance of Barus in the historical record is the reference to Barousai (βαροῦσαι) in Ptolemy’s Geographia, written in the second century CE. Under the name Fanṣūr it crops up in a number of Middle Eastern texts beginning in the ninth century (perhaps earlier), and it appears under a Romanised form of this name in the account of Marco Polo. The area was probably rather multi-cultural: An inscription dated 1088 CE (1010 Śaka) discovered in the area in 1890, and now in the Museum Nasional in Jakarta, attests to the presence of a community of Tamil-speaking merchants at Barus, which they knew as Vārōcu (வாரோசு) (Subbarayalu 2012:38–47).
In this context the presence of Christian churches at Barus c.1200 wouldn’t be all that surprising. South India has been home to Christians since shortly after Christ’s crucifixion, at least according to local tradition, and by the ninth century these Christians seem to have come under the umbrella of the Assyrian Church of the East — commonly known to other Christians in the Middle Ages as ‘Nestorians’. This name is now considered a bit of a pejorative, but it is nonetheless how Abū al-Makārim refers to the Christians of Barus (نساطرة).
This isn’t to say that we can be sure the supposed congregants would all have been from South India: traders from Persia and elsewhere in the Middle East, some of them surely Christians, frequently visited North Sumatra at this time as well. The fact that a South Indian community is known to have been present in Barus a little before al-Makārim’s day is suggestive, though.
If you ask me, the presence of ancestor-reverers, Muslims, and (possibly) Christians in Indonesia rather calls into question the idea of referring to the era up to the sixteenth century as the ‘Hindu-Buddhist period’. This is very much the standard in academic work on Indonesia in (what I would call) the Middle Ages, presumably because of a preoccupation among scholars with elite life in Java — where, it’s true, Hindu and Buddhist beliefs and practices do appear to have been popular.
That isn’t the whole story, though. People of all sorts of religious beliefs lived in and travelled through the region in the Middle Ages. Indeed, this is one of several reasons I prefer to call this period ‘the Middle Ages’, in reference both to the Indo-Malaysian archipelago specifically and the Afro-Eurasian supercontinent in general. It is — surprisingly? — a more neutral phrase than the prevailing terminology, at least in an Indonesian context, and it allows for the possibility that the surviving inscriptions, manuscripts, and material culture from ‘Hindu-Buddhist’ Java might not tell us everything about life and times in the archipelago at large.
A. J. West — Leiden, May 2020
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Bracciolini, Poggio. 2004 . De l’Inde. Les voyages en Asie de Niccolò de’ Conti. Translated by Michèle Guéret-Laferté. Turnhout: Brepols.
Drakard, Jane. 1990. A Malay frontier. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications.
Evetts, Basil Thomas Alfred. 1895. The churches and monasteries of Egypt and some neighbouring countries. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
Heuken, Adolf. 2008. Christianity in pre-colonial Indonesia. In A history of Christianity in Indonesia. Jan Aritonang and Karel Steenbrink (eds). 3–7. Leiden: Brill.
Subbarayalu, Y. 2012. South India under the Cholas. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Zanetti, Ugo. 1995. Abu l-Makarim et Abu Salih. Bulletin de la Société d’archéologie copte. 34: 85–138.