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Did St Matthew die in Kyrgyzstan?

Several sources hint that the remains of St Matthew are buried somewhere in the Lake Issyk-Kul area. It is thought that the apostle was on his way to India after having written the Gospel of St Matthew in Palestine, and left his homeland in AD42 to escape persecution. Other sources suggest that he may have travelled elsewhere, to Persia or even to Africa. Whatever the reality, it is perfectly possible that he made it into central Asia and Kyrgyzstan before dying here.

One Kyrgyz archaeologist, Vladimir Ploskikh, believes that he has found remains of the monastery in which St Matthew was buried. According to legend, St Matthew died while en route to India and established a number of Christian communities on his way there. A I4th-century map, which is kept in Venice and which is referred to as the 'Catalan map', mentions a place called 'Issicol' where it says there is a 'cloister of the Armenian Brothers where the body of the Apostle and Evangelist Saint Matthew is kept'. It marks a sign, shaped like a temple and decorated with a cross, on the lake's north-eastern bank with a note that says 'The Monastery of the Armenian brothers and the place where relics of St Matthew are kept'.

Aware perhaps of the risk of striking out prematurely into Dan Brown territory, Ploskikh insisted that further investigation was necessary before the theory could be proven. In September 2006, Ploskikh reported that he had discovered a medieval settlement with catacombs in the Zayachy peninsula on the northeast coast of the lake, although he admitted that the hypothesis about the discovery of the monastery 'still needed to be confirmed'. In a less cautious frame of mind, the claim to have found St Matthew's grave had already been announced four years earlier by Russian-born US photographer Sergei Melnikoff, a claim that was subsequently rejected by the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences.

Whatever the truth of the matter it is indisputable that Svetly Mys has had religious institutions based here for almost two millennia, and has served as a place of pilgrimage throughout this period.