Camel caravan

Camel caravan
Mosaic from Deir al-Adas, Syria, 8th century (photo: J.C.Meyer)
The research project Mechanisms of cross-cultural interaction: Networks in the Roman Near East (2013-2016) investigates the resilient everyday ties, such as trade, religion and power, connecting people within and across fluctuating imperial borders in the Near East in the Roman Period. The project is funded under the Research Council of Norway's SAMKUL initiative, and hosted by the Department of archaeology, history, cultural studies and religion, University of Bergen, Norway.

Project manager / blog editor:

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

A Manichaean Web

As a recently arrived co-researcher here at the NeRoNe-project I would like to give a presentation of my own work-in-progress. While Dr. Seland will be taking care of the political and economical networks, my research will deal with the emergence of new kinds of religious networks in the Roman Near East. Of course, such a huge field requires a more focused analysis. For my thesis I have chosen a case somewhat off the beaten track, namely the infamous Manichaean church. I will deal with the organization and distribution of the Manichaean network in late antiquity (roughly late 3rd–mid 7th century CE), with an emphasis on a particular community in 4th century Egypt. Here I want to give a brief survey of Manichaeism and the wider context of its development, as well as a basic sketch of the hows and whys of my project.

Manichaeism was a religion founded by the prophet Mani (216-c. 276 CE), who grew up in a Judeo-Christian monastic community in southern Mesopotamia, then part of Sasanian Iran. After having received revelations from a heavenly being he called his Twin, Mani broke away from the brotherhood in 240 CE. In the process he began to develope his own movement and doctrines by consciously adapting and developing themes from previous prophets. The list of prophetic forerunners was long and open to emendation, but at its head were the three figures of Zarathustra, Buddha and Jesus, representing the traditions of the north, the east, and the west, respectively. Mani, from his vantage point in the ancient land of Babel, was (naturally) at the center of the world, and could therefore claim to be a universal prophet. 

Mani, styled the Buddha of Light, at a temple in Fujian
"Prophet" is however a somewhat misleading term. Indeed, Mani himself preferred the term apostle: the apostle of Jesus Christ. In Manichaeism, both Jesus and (eventually) Mani were considered to be not only prophets or apostles, as we would understand the terms, but divine presences come to deliver a message of salvation. For Mani, every living being was part divine (identified with Light) and part demonic (identified with Darkness or Matter). Mani himself was a human with a powerful connection to the divine through his heavenly Twin; while Jesus was pure Light - though the distinction might often have been blurred. But if Jesus and the others had been sent from the same source, why was another messenger needed? The answer, according to Mani, was that their teachings had been twisted by subsequent generations. Through his divine revelations Mani had once and for all received the knowledge that Divinity had meant for man: knowledge of the first battle between the two principles, Light and Darkness, and the creation of the world from Light-trapped-in-Darkness; of the transmigration and liberation of entrapped Light (that is, souls); and of the final defeat and punishment of Darkness. An important reason for the corruption of truth was that his predecessors had not written down their doctrines. Mani would not make the same mistake. He therefore produced several books containing his revelations and interpretations, presented in myths, theological treatises, letters, hymns and paintings – none of which, in a case of historical irony, have been preserved for posterity.

The liberation of Light that Mani preached was not an abstract phenomenon. On the contrary; according to Mani, it was an observable physical process that had to be facilitated by the Manichaean ascetics, the Elect, in their daily ritual lives. Liberating Light was a precondition for salvation, to be achieved through a strict ascetic life-style. This consisted of abstaining from procuring food and having sexual relations, refraining from wealth accumulation and violence towards animals, plants and humans, the constant confession of one's own moral failings, and a dietary program that included the abstinence from meat, other animal produce and alcohol. The Elect were in addition expected to participate in the church organization, preaching, producing books and establishing new communities. To assist in their work they were supplemented by the order of the Hearers. These were adherents who were not required to live by the same strict rules, but whose support and charity to the Elect assured that they would be incarnated as Elect in their next existence.

Context and Competition
Mani formed his religion in what had once been a center of civilization, on the crossroads between the at the time greatest empires of western Eurasia – in a period when both empires were going through important transitions. The Roman administration was experiencing the so-called crisis of the third century, from which it would emerge a more centralized, Christian political entity, the Republic growing ever more distant. In Mesopotamia and to the east, the Arsacid dynasty faced great internal upheavals and was replaced by the Sasanian dynasty shortly after Mani’s birth. This shift was accompanied by changes in both the political and the religious sphere. In Mani's own lifetime the Sasanian king Shapur I twice defeated Roman emperors and sacked important cities – while founding several within his own domain and centralizing the court. After his death, and paralleling to some extent the development in the Roman Empire, the Zoroastrian priesthood significantly increased their influence at the Sasanian court. 

New religious movements
Great changes were also taking place beneath what might be termed the imperial level. The empires had helped facilitate increased movement of goods and people, and with them the movement of techniques and religious conceptions. Greek urbanism in the shape of the polis had been disseminated and appropriated in large parts of the Greco-Roman world, including the Near East. At the same time, the polytheistic religion of the polis was challenged by movements which invested a new group of agents and scriptures with independent religious authority, prominent among whom were various Christian, Jewish and Buddhists groups.

Fragment of a Manichaean church
history describing a missionary
expedition to Palmyra, Syria.
Manichaeism joined these on the road, and had by the late 3rd century spread to important cities in Central Asia and the Roman world. In the latter it became particularly influential in the 4th century, which has been characterized as “the great Manichaean century in the West” (Asmussen 1975, p. 18). The emergence of new religious movements was accompanied by increased hostility from the state, and few were more targeted than the Manichaeans. Notable examples of persecution include (but are not limited to) the campaigns of the Sasanian government in the late 3rd century, of the pagan emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th, of the bishop of Rome in the 5th, of the emperor Justinian in the middle of the 6th, of Abbasid khalifs in the 8th and 9th and of Confucian officials in China in the middle of the 9th century. By the 12th century, Manichaeans seem to have been confined to southern China, where they were accused of stirring up revolts. The interaction between Manichaeans and their environment was as can be seen frequently a turbulent affair.

My Approach: Into the desert
The examination of the growth, development and disappearance of Manichaeism, especially in the west, is a field riddled with questions. Previous research on Manichaeism has been occupied with organizing source material, reconstructing the belief system, tracing its roots, or, more recently, reaching an emic understanding of Manichaean practices. These studies are of paramount importance, and any attempt at evaluating the religion without taking their questions into consideration is bound to fail. Nonetheless, my project will have a different emphasis and approach the religion from a sociological angle. The over-arching goal is to contribute to answer questions such as: How did western Manichaean monasticism develop? How strong were the institutional ties (if any) between the Manichaeans of the Middle East and those of the Mediterranean? To what extent can we speak of a unified Manichaean Church? But these issues are too broad, and the sources too sparse, to tackle head-on. To shed light on them I will make use of network theory, and concentrate on a specific community in a specific period of time, namely the Manichaean community of Kellis in the Dakhleh Oasis in south-western Egypt.

Sources for the social life of the religion’s adherents have always been scarce. For a long time one would have to approach these questions through the lenses of Christian church authorities (notably Augustine, who spent ca ten years in the church) and the fragmented texts from Central Asia and China. With the discovery of residues of Manichaeans in the oasis village of Kellis (present-day Ismant el-Kharab) in the late 1980’s, a material that makes such an attempt viable has finally been made available. The textual remains from the Kellis-excavations consist of assorted personal letters, an account book, pieces of Greek literature, as well as Manichaean liturgical material in Coptic and Greek – and small fragments in Syriac, Mani’s own language. The letters yield a unique glimpse into the daily concerns of a group of Manichaean adherents, as opposed to the polemical, theological or liturgical texts that make up the other genuine Manichaean sources from the Roman Empire. Several letters are addressed to or written from monks, and a few contain explicit references to officials in the Manichaean church hierarchy. 

Network Theory
In my work on Kellis I will consider topics such as the extent of the Manichaean presence in the village (as well as in the oasis at large), the relationship between Manichaeans, pagans and Christians in the vicinity, and the relationship between the Kellis community and Manichaeans in other parts of Egypt. In order to do this I will be using network theory in my analysis on several levels. In the first place, network theory will help to make connections between the writers and their family members, co-religionists and associates mentioned in the letters into a systematic set of relations that can be compared and contrasted to others. With this approach I hope to model the contours of the local Manichaean network. However, the fragmented and difficult nature of the documents means that network theory will have to be used along with other sociological tools to test these models. On a more global level, network theory will be useful to approach the way Manichaeism arrived in Egypt in the first place, and its distribution and integration into the Roman world. This two-tiered analysis represents a first step in the direction of a more complete picture of the Manichaean church.

Egypt in late antiquity. Kellis is located in the south-western corner,
far into the Great desert

Why Manichaeism?  
In some ways, the recovery of a lost world religion could be seen as a goal in and of itself. But research on Manichaeism certainly has much broader implications for our understanding of ancient religion. One reason is that Manichaeism seems to me to be an especially well-suited test case for the application of network theory to ancient religion. The Manichaeans were attempting to build an international church organization from scratch, without state support (in late antiquity), - in fact under ever increasing pressure from secular and religious authorities - by what might be termed social networking. In addition, by using network theory as a framework, the successes and failures of the Manichaean church can fruitfully be compared with other religious organizations.

Manichaeism also exhibits a unique pattern for its time, with implications for the development of church hierarchies, religious identities and asceticism – and perhaps the very notion of religion. Despite its status as a “late-comer” on the religious scene of antiquity, the Manichaean church was already from the time of its founder or shortly thereafter supplied with a set of canonical books and liturgies (i.e. a daily prayer), divided into a consciously stratified church hierarchy, run – in theory – by a pope-like authority known as the archegos, organized around an ascetic notion of religious authority, with a clear missionary statement and an awareness of the need to compete with other traditions for followers. It thus exhibits features that constitute the modern institution of 'religion', and often are said to have developed or been consolidated in the course of late antiquity or even early medieval times - already combined and articulated here in one organization by the late 3rd century. 

The huge geographical spread, achieved despite ubiquitous hostility from secular and religious authorities, gives us an interesting case to contrast and compare with more well-known movements such as those under the rubrics of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. It is my hope that uncovering the Manichaean network will yield valuable insights into how the "Western" conception of religion managed to spread, and came to dominate religious communities into modern times. 


Upper right: Mani statue from a former Manichaean (now Buddhist) temple in Fujian province. From Wang Lianmao, Return to the City of Light (Fuzhou, 2000), p. 130. Via Macquarie University.

Middle right: Manichaean manuscript in Parthian, ink on paper. © Depositum der BERLIN-BRANDENBURGISCHEN AKADEMIE DER WISSENSCHAFTEN in der STAATSBIBLIOTHEK ZU BERLIN - Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Orientabteilung. Via The International Dunhuang Project.

Bottom center: Map of late antique Egypt, from the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology's textile-exhibition. Via Kelsey Museum.

Further reading

Asmussen, Jes P. Manichaean Literature, New York: Scholars' Facsimilies & Reprints, 1975

BeDuhn, Jason D. The Manichaean Body in Discipline and Ritual, Baltimore/London: John Hopkins University Press, 2000

Gardner, Iain and Samuel N. C. Lieu. Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire (Cambridge: University Press, 2004

Ibscher, Hugo, Hans J. Polotsky and Carl Schmidt. Ein Mani-Fund in Ägypten: Originalschriften des Mani und seiner Schüler, Berlin: Preussische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1933

Lieu, Samuel N. C. Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China, Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1992 [1986]


  1. Looks like an interesting project!

  2. Wishing you the best on your project. I was also looking along the same lines for my PhD.