In ancient and medieval times, Sri Lanka was an intersection on the maritime Silk Route that connected the Mediterannean with the Chinese world. Being itself rich
in sapphires and other precious stones and pearls as well as cinnamon, the island attracted traders from the Middle East in particular. Not surprisingly, though the ancient Sinhalese civilization’s economy was mainly based on agriculture, trade played an important role in the Anuradhapura period, too. Those traders remained to be of foreign origin, but they were supervised and taxed by the Anuradhapura kings.
Like India, Sri Lanka imported horses from Persia. In the port of Manthai, the Anuradhapura kingdom’s main port at the island’s western coast, pottery pieces of Persian origin were excavated. There can be no doubt that Persian traders arrived on the island during the Anruradhapura period. Thus, it would come as no surprise, if Nestorian Christians had been among them. In the 6th and early 7th century, before Persia was converted to Islam, Nestorian Christianity was one of the three most widespread Persian religions in those final centuries of the Sassanide Empire, besides state-sponsored Zorostrianism and, though often persecuted, Manichaeism.
In the 6th century, Cosmas Indicopleustes from Alexandria, who was a Nestorian himself, travelled several times to India - and maybe to Sri Lanka, too. Cosmas reported, that Christians lived on the island, perrformed their ecclesiastical rituals and had a presbyter appointed from Persia as well as a complete. It is likely, that these Christians were Persians themselves, because there are no reports of Christian communities from later centuries, after Persia had been converted to Islam.
As mentioned, it is questionable if Cosmas Indicopleustes visited Sri Lanka himself and if his information is reliable.
But there is archaological evidence of a Christian community in Anuradhapura, a cross was unearthed that is quite similar to Nestorian crosses, only even more elaborated than those known from India. It’s called the “Nestorian Cross of Anuradhapura”, exhibited in the Anuradhapura Museum between Ruwanweliseya and Mirisaveti Dagabas. It is engraved on a stone pillar in sunk-relief. Most probably a part of a building, maybe a church or private residence used for ceremonial meetings. This remakable cross was discovered in 1913 by Edward R. Ayrton, the then commissioner of archaeology. It was debated, whether this cross was indeed of Christian origin at all. But currently, most scholars agree: The “Nestorian Cross of Anuradhapura” is a remnant of pre-Portuguese Christianity on the island.
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