The Light of Mani: Faith and Art on the Silk Road

Throughout history, many religions have risen from obscurity or become obsolete, competing with each other for the faith of potential adherents. Today, many of the world’s largest religions–including Islam and Christianity, as well as Hinduism and Buddhism–trace their roots to the ancient times during which their prophets lived or their scriptures were first recorded. Other religions, prominent in previous centuries, have declined, becoming minority faiths–like Zoroastrianism–or disappearing altogether.

Manichaeism is one such vanished religion. Its founder, Mani, lived during the 3rd century in the lands of the Persian Empire, where he was exposed to a range of Christian and Zoroastrian influences. His doctrine sought to unite these influences, honouring Jesus, Zoroaster, and the Buddha as teachers while proclaiming that their faiths were incomplete. Only Manichaeism, incorporating their insights into the framework of the universal battle between Light and Dark, represented true religion.

The Sasanian Empire was ruled by a Zoroastrian elite in Mani’s lifetime. His missionary efforts were longest-lasting to the east.

These two elements, argued Mani, had been utterly distinct at the beginning of the cosmos, but had become cross-contaminated during battle. As a result, humankind now dwelled in a world of Light mingled with Darkness. It was the duty of believers to gather these Light particles within themselves, while abjuring the Dark, so that they could be returned to the Kingdom of Light upon the death of the faithful–a task aided by the eating of fruits and vegetables, the rejection of violence, and the maintenance of celibacy (since reproduction scatters the particles of Light among more earthly bodies). When all particles were returned, the two principles would again be separate, and the souls of the believers would be happily maintained in the Kingdom of Light, with the proper order of the cosmos restored.

Mural and detail depicting Sogdians, from the Bezeklik caves near Turfan. With their bushy beards and big noses, they most closely resemble modern European populations–a testament to the great movements of peoples throughout Asian history. (Wikimedia)

Within these three cosmological moments–stages in the drama between Dark and Light–Mani elaborated a complex ‘gnostic’ faith, focused upon an individual’s religious understanding. It spread rapidly throughout the Mediterranean world, drawing condemnations from other Christian groups as a heretical sect within Roman lands (as testified in the writings of St Augustine, a Manichee who later became a Catholic.) In the east, however, Mani’s religion fared much better, spreading as far afield as China by the 7th century.

Key to it’s success were a group called the Sogdians. Originating from Sogdiana–the lands east of the Oxus River–the Sogdians were merchants trading along an extensive network that spanned Asia. In their hands, Manichaen writings in Parthian and other western Eurasian languages were transferred and translated, enabling their spread. The creation and embellishment of texts was, in fact, one of the major activities of the Manichaean religious elite–called the Elect.

Over the course of their religion’s eastward journey, they adapted it’s vocabulary to local conditions, absorbing Buddhist terminology and employing, in the words of modern scholar Nicholas Baker-Brian, ‘arguably the widest variety of languages and dialects for a single religion in the pre-modern world.’ (Baker-Brian, p.8).

Manichaean elect in a painted manuscript fragment, 8th-9th century. (Wikimedia)

These skills can still be seen in a few surviving fragments of Manichaean manuscripts, preserved in the dry climate of Central Asia. They display a familiarity with Buddhist iconography and Chinese painting styles, but remain distinctively Manichaean.

In the painting at left, Manichaean scribes kneel at their work, identifiable by their white robes and tall hats. The grapes and trees were popular motifs, perhaps alluding to their dietary preferences and their deeper spiritual purpose. The vibrant colour of this painting is a small indication of the many sumptuous manuscripts which once must have existed, and which made the Manichaean Sogdians influential agents of culture.

Their skills were put to work as administrators, court astronomers, and, of course, as artists. When the nomadic Uighurs converted to Manichaeism in the 760s, these skills were passed along, leading to the adoption of a Sogdian script and the flourishing of religious culture under royal patronage. Ultimately, the Uighurs would perpetuate this literary legacy, becoming the scribes and teachers of a new wave of nomadic conquerors–the Mongols.

Manichaean fragment, surrounded by Sogdian text. The literary influence of the Sogdians was passed first to the Uighurs, and then the Mongols, who required administrators to organise their empire. (Wikimedia)

Manichaeism’s influence, however, would wane long before this point. In the 9th century, a Chinese backlash against foreign religions resulted in the closing of Manichaean temples and the burning of their books. Further west, in the oasis town of Kocho, Buddhism slowly gained pre-eminence, taking over Manichaean temples and painting over their frescoes. The final waning of the religion, however, probably owes much to the spread of Islam into the Central Asian lands.

Even in the 17th century, though, a memory of Manichaeism’s unique artistic accomplishments would remain. Evliya Çelebi, an Ottoman gentleman and traveller, often invoked the name of Mani as a byword for excellent craftsmanship. His visits to places as grand as the Parthenon, Hagia Sophia, and the Dome of the Rock are peppered with such allusions, demonstrating that although Mani’s faith had petered out, it’s influence upon the cultural landscape of Asia had not.

Learn More:

Nicholas Baker Brian, Manichaeism: An Ancient Faith Rediscovered, (London, 2011).

An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evlia Celebi, ed. and trans. Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim, (London, 2010).

Lieu, Samuel N.C., Manichaeism in Central Asia and China, (Leiden, 1998).


9 thoughts on “The Light of Mani: Faith and Art on the Silk Road

    • Thank you Peter! I’m very glad you enjoyed it! I think there will be at least one other Asia post this week, as something for you to look forward to!


  1. You note here that St. Augustine is sometimes called ‘St. Austine’ (I’ve seen ‘St. Austin’ too), and this is a mystery which has puzzled me for years. Do you think it is a variation caused by shortening the name ‘Augustus’, or some other longer variation, to save time when manuscripts were copied, so that it eventually simply became ‘Austine’ or ‘Austin’ in the English-speaking world? Each time I see the shorter versions I am really mystified. Here in the United States we have the cities of ‘Austin, Texas’ and ‘St. Augustine, Florida’, for example, both named after Augustine of Hippo.

    • The appearance of ‘St Austine’ above is actually a typo, and I suspect that if it appears anywhere else in the same format, it’s probably the same. I’ve only heard of St. Augustine referred to by one name, so I ca’t help you with the greater mystery.

  2. leifhendrik,
    It’s something that has puzzled me for a long time too. The OED says it’s a contraction of Augustin.
    I am aware that in England for example, the Augustinian Friars were often referred to as the Austin Friars. I have no evidence for it, but I think you are probably right when you say that it may have originated in a scribal abbreviation in medieval manuscripts.

  3. Pingback: Manichaeism in China | Religions of the Silk Road

  4. Pingback: Manichaeism in China | Religions of the Silk Road

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