Crosses on the Silk Road

New discovery: Ancient city known from pilgrim’s travels and historical text has been found! Historians of Christianity along the Silk Road have known of travelers accounts of Christian communities in the region and at an ancient city--Ilyn Balik. Recent excavations at the village of Usharal 60 km from the Chinese border, have now found the ancient city as well as the sites necropolis/cemetery where eight gravestones have been found. 

This discovery is the first archaeological evidence for a Christian community in the borders of the Republic of Kazakhstan in addition to identifying the lost city of Ilyn Balik. This discovery supports the understanding of ancient Kazakhstan as a multi-cultural center between the east and west with Muslims, Buddhists, Christians living among the local herdsmen and nomadic tribes.  A local resident of Usharal, reported the discovery of an inscribed stone marked with a cross two years ago; the stone was recovered, but the original location of that stone is not known. 

A joint international team from Archaeological Expertise LLC based in Almaty Kazakhstan (Dr Dimitri Voyakin), and the Tandy Institute of Archaeology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas (under the joint direction of Dr. Steve Ortiz and Dr. Tom Davis), was formed to investigate the discovery. The joint team began investigations of the site of Ilyn Balik, a medieval city, never before excavated, within the boundaries of Usharal.  The team discovered seven inscribed gravestones clustered on the surface outside of the main area of settlement of the site.  The suspected grave markers all have inscribed Nestorian style crosses, and 2 of them have fragmentary inscriptions. The new discoveries provide context for the previously discovered inscribed stone and most likely indicate an extra-mural cemetery and possibly an associated Christian community. One of the inscriptions in Old Syriac has been partially deciphered by the Tandy Institute’s epigrapher, Dr. Ryan Stokes, and indicates a date of 1162 AD.  

The Kazakhstan Government, cognizant of their multi-cultural history, has created the Center for Cultural Rapprochement under Dr. Karl Baipakov, Kazakhstan’s leading archaeologist and a world-renowned specialist on the Silk Road.  Under Dr. Baipakov’s leadership, the Center has encouraged archaeological work focused on illuminating the varied cultural strains in Kazakhstan’s history and actively supports the joint teams’ efforts.