Cross tattoos are a common sign on inner city streets today. Many gang members who wear them would be surprised to find out that cross tattoos were first used some 1,400 years ago. Not that anyone would stop them on the street to explain the history of their facial tattoos anyway, but still, it is good to know.
In 590 AD, the throne of Persian Empire was usurped by Bahram Chobin. Bahram was famous general, who saved the Empire from Turkish and Khazars invasions on numerous occasions. In 589, he was sent against Byzantines by the emperor Hormizd IV. After initial success, he suffered a minor setback, which Emperor, jealous of him, used as an excuse to relieve him of command. Furious, Bahram rebelled. During the rebellion, Hormizd’s brothers initiated a palace coup, removed him from the throne, blinded him and later killed him.
The new emperor was Hormizd’s nephew Khosrow II. Despite the change on the throne, Bahram continued with his rebellion and eventually defeated the loyalist forces. Khosrow fled to Byzantine empire, where Emperor Maurice was sympathetic to his cause and sent his army to fight alongside Persians against the usurper. In Battle of Blarathon, the combined allied forces led by generals John Mystacon and Narses soundly defeated Bahram and returned Khosrow to the throne. A number of Turkish mercenaries who fought on Bahram’s side were captured and sent to Constantinople as a gift to Maurice.
Once in Byzantium capital, the captives were shown to the Emperor. Turks, at the time, were exotic enough on their own, but what caught Maurice’s eye was a cross tattoo some of them had on their foreheads.
“On their foreheads was inscribed the sign of the Lord’s passion, which is called a cross by the ministers of the Christian religion.”
Curious, Maurice asked them why a wild steppe horseman would have a symbol of Christianity tattooed on his forehead. As it turns out, a while back an outbreak of plague was ravaging Turkish tribes. Advised by some passing Christian missionary, desperate mothers tattooed a cross on their children in order to save them form the disease.
“So the emperor enquired what was the meaning of this mark on the barbarians. And they declared that they had been assigned this by their mothers: for when a fierce plague spread among the eastern Scythians, it was fated that some Christians advised that the foreheads of the young be tattooed with this sign. The barbarians in no way rejected the advice, and they obtained salvation from the council.”
As fate would have it, enough children with cross tattoo survived that the practice took root in the steppe, at least until they accepted Islam.