Looking Eastward from Rome: Pope Francis and ‘the Land of the Two Rivers’

Looking Eastward from Rome: Pope Francis and ‘the Land of the Two Rivers’ Pope Francis in Church Square in Mosul. Photo: CNS

Pope Francis has returned safe and sound, despite the fears of many, from his historic four day trip to Iraq. His visit seems to have deeply affected many both in the country itself and in the wider world. The damage done in the decades since the original American interventions is still very real. But the troubled life of the country can be traced back much further certainly to the Mandates after the Great War (1914-1918) that led to the establishment of the Hashemite Kingdom, on the ruins of the ancient Ottoman Empire.

But this is modern history. The importance of Mesopotamia – the lands around and between the two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates – goes back in history and cultural legend thousands of years.

Here, in the basin of the two rivers was where it was said that the Garden of Eden had been, and here Noah and Noah’s family had survived what people believed to have been a universal flood. From here Abraham was believed to have departed from Ur of the Chaldees for Canaan; and from here too the Three Wise Men made their prophetic journey to the same land in the belief that a world-changing personality was to be born there.


These things are familiar to many. But it is less clear to ‘the peoples of the Book’ that it was here that the traditions, religious rituals, theological ideas and social rules of many nations had their origins. ‘The Code of Hammurabi’ – as I so well remember being told by a Jesuit teacher at the age of eleven – was the basis of the Ten Commandments.

Here in exile, about 539BC, Jewish scholars brought together and edited various traditional documents, histories, and literary texts (such as the fable of Job) from several cultures of the region to form the basic text of what we think of today as the Old Testament. This was the key formative event in the development of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and it took place in ‘the land of the two rivers’.

So the region the Pope has just visited has in history played a vital role east of the Jordan. But more than that, it played an important part in the emergence of Christianity.

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The Christian communities the Pope visited were by no means all Catholic. Others belong to early Christian communities that came into being in the debates and conflicts which gave rise to Christianity, communities that preserved the earliest formulations of the new faith, in creeds later altered or abandoned by the Western Church.


Here in the West we see history very much from a Roman viewpoint, with Jerusalem as the focus of faith in the East, with nothing beyond.

But for Eastern Christians the focus of faith was in Jerusalem to the west, focused on Jesus they did not see as far as Rome. From the early communities in the land of the two rivers preachers took the news of a new faith into the Middle East, to India, to Central Asia and even further into Mongolia, Tibet and China. These people, the Nestorians and others, the first to utter the name of Jesus in the heart of Asia we hear little about here in Europe.


But we need to remind ourselves, in the light of the Pope’s perilous journey, that Christianity is not a European faith, is not a ‘white man’s’ religion. The influence not just of some of the earliest civilisations in the world, the earliest cultures in Mesopotamia, of Judea, Egypt, North Africa, Ethiopia, Persia, Malabar and China remind us all that the new Christian faith was formed in those very early centuries by people with brown, black and yellow complexions – a multitude of cultures who even now ‘keep the faith’.

Rather than being an aspect of the Christian past, these communities might well be, if things improve, as the Pope hopes they do, the components of the future.