Lands of the Magi

January 03 2021 | by

ON THE Feast of the Epiphany we recall the journey of the ‘Three Kings’ to visit the child Jesus. It is a huge feast in many countries. In my home we display a magnificent crib from Spain, with the kings seated on three large camels carrying their gifts. In Barcelona, as in other Spanish towns and cities, Three Wise Men parade through the streets on floats and throw gifts and sweets to children.


The Wise Men


Of the four Gospels, only two of them, Matthew and Luke, document the story of Jesus’ birth, but only Matthew documents the visit of the Magi, “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2).

He reports that they came “from the East” to worship the “infant king of the Jews.” The Magi are generally thought to have been three due to their three gifts for the baby Jesus. The tradition that the Wise Men were kings dates from around the 6th century. There is no mention of camels in Matthew, but he does report that the Wise Men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh – all expensive and precious gifts. For the early Church they represented three races of man: the black-skinned peoples of Africa, the Asiatic peoples, and the Europeans, indicating that the Gospel was for everyone, not only Jews, and that earthly powers honored the Baby Jesus.

But where did the Wise Men or ‘Magi’, whose story so strongly resonates with us today, actually come from? And how is the Christian community faring in those lands.


From the East


Matthew’s description of the Wise Men as coming “from the East” probably referred to Babylonia (modern day Iraq) or Persia (modern day Iran). Babylonia had a large Jewish community due to the slaves and prisoners taken back there after the sack of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Also, Babylon had a tradition of astronomy and astrology, having the most advanced science in the region. The Babylonians had the means to study the Star linked to the Magi’s journey in the Nativity story, and a reason for linking it to the Jews.

Yet some of the earliest images of the Magi in churches, which date back to the 6th century, show them in Persian dress. In Italy ‘The Three Magi’ Byzantine mosaic from the 6th century in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo at Ravenna, depicts the Magi in Persian clothing which includes breeches, capes and Phrygian caps. When Marco Polo travelled through Persia in the 13th century, people in the village of Saveh told him that the Magi had set out from there. There was a Persian sect of priests called the Medes who have been linked with the Magi. We also know of a link between the Persians and the Jews. In 539 BC the Persians conquered Babylon and would have taken prisoners. Amongst them could have been Jews who knew of the prophesy of the Messiah. Matthew’s Wise Men, or Magi – the only word of Persian origin in the original Greek Bible – could have been priests of Zoroastrianism, which was the official religion of Persia. And Magi tended to turn up at portentous events in the ancient world.

The Wise Men are usually depicted as arriving within weeks of the birth of Jesus. In fact, they may have arrived a few months afterwards. It’s roughly 800 miles from Babylon to Bethlehem. Persia is several hundred miles further northeast. Matthew says that they went to a house, not to a stable to bring their gifts. He also reports that Herod ordered all children two years and under to be killed based on when the Magi said the Star had appeared.


From Babylonia to Iraq


What of the land of Iraq, whose capital Baghdad lies around 60 miles north of ancient Babylon, between the two great rivers of the Middle East – the Euphrates and the Tigris?

The 2003-2011 Iraq War has shaped the country’s recent history. The State was destroyed, and radical Islamic groups like Isis emerged after the 2003 US-led invasion to oppose the occupation and the new Iraqi government. Christians in the country, who numbered about 1,500,000 in 2003, representing around 6 percent of the population of 26 million, have dropped to around 500,000. Christians lived primarily in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Erbil, Dohuk, Zakho and Kirkuk, and in Assyrian towns and regions such as the Nineveh Plains in the north. During the period from 2013 to 2017, with Isis militants rapidly sweeping through Iraq’s western lands, thousands of Iraqi Christians fled to the nation’s capital, and tens of thousands more fled overseas.

The most widely followed denomination among Iraq Christians – the Chaldean Catholic Church – has been decimated. Those from the Nineveh Plain who fled north to the Kurdistan Region still lack adequate housing and security. Last October, the Kurdish Regional Governorate announced it was creating a commission to examine the illegal expropriation of Christian properties. In some areas, Christian families have lost access to approximately 75 percent of their properties. In theory, this investigation would include prosecution, where the commission determines illegal land grabbing has occurred, but past legal wins by Christians have rarely been enforced by local authorities.


Signs of good will


Last June, Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, visited the ruins of Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, and described Christians as “one of the most authentic members of the country.” He said, “we grieve to see them leave the country,” and promised to support Christians returning to Nineveh province. “We will not allow the repetition of what happened,” he told them. Last October, the Iraqi Postal Service issued, for the first time, a series of stamps celebrating the country’s historic churches, located in various regions and of different Christian denominations. Bishop Shlemon Audish Warduni, Chaldean auxiliary in Baghdad, said the stamps were “a positive gesture, and a sign of good will.” Recent Iraqi government initiatives indicate a desire to preserve Iraq’s Christian heritage and invite the Christian community to contribute to Iraq’s reconstruction.


From Persia to Iran


It’s estimated that there are 800,000 Christians in Iran, a tiny percentage of a population of more than 82 million. However, Christianity is seen as a Western influence and a threat, and all ethnic Persians are expected to be Muslims. Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, Iran has been a strictly Islamic country, something which is enforced by the ultra-conservative government, but not necessarily reflected by all the country’s citizens. Despite the constitution protecting Christians and other minority religions in Iran, the government criminalizes conversion to Christianity, and severely restricts the faith practice of Armenian and Assyrian Christians. Being part of a church is illegal, and Bibles in the Farsi and Persian languages have been banned. 




However, there is evidence that while Christians lack religious freedom and are severely persecuted and imprisoned, Christianity has actually been growing. So, in one of the world’s most dangerous places to follow Christ, the illegal house-church movement has expanded rapidly despite close surveillance. Scholars believe thousands of converts gather in informal house-churches to worship and to share the Gospel. This is being supported by an explosive growth in social media use and satellite television viewing.

Iran ranks as the 18th worst country in the world for freedom of expression. Many Iranian Christians have made North America and European countries their permanent home, with many more currently seeking asylum. Back in Iran, the coronavirus pandemic has hit hard, exacerbating the problems facing the poor and all marginalized groups, including Christians. The economic situation is dire, with inflation making even fruit unaffordable.

The lands of the Magi are crying out for the peace and tolerance celebrated in that first Epiphany.



The Gospel of Matthew provides no names for the Magi. Various traditions about their names have arisen. The common Western tradition has identified them as Caspar (or Gaspar), Melchior (or Melichior) and Balthazar (or Bathasar). One popular legend has portrayed Caspar as a king of India, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Balthazar as a king of Arabia.

In the East, however, other names for the Magi appear. Many Syrian Christians call them Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. Ethiopians name them Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater, while Armenians call them Kagpha, Badadakharida, and Badalilma.

Matthew tells us nothing about the Magi after he reports that they returned to their own country. But two independent traditions teach that their encounter with the Baby in Bethlehem led them eventually to become His followers, either on their own or in response to the later preaching of an apostle. These same traditions insist that the Magi were ultimately martyred for the Faith.



Cologne Cathedral in Germany claims to have the relics of the three Magi. The relics were brought there in 1146, and for centuries have attracted pilgrims from many countries to the city of Cologne. The relics are housed in a jewel-encrusted gold shrine behind the Cathedral’s main altar. However, the authenticity of the Cologne remains is dubious. Just over a hundred years after Cologne claimed the relics, Marco Polo insists that he was shown the tomb of the Magi at Saveh, now a city south of modern Tehran in Iran. Local culture tells of ancient Persian priest-kings who long ago set off in search of a special child.

Updated on January 03 2021