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Home » Places » Edessa

Joanna Małocha
Pontifical University of John Paul II, Kraków, Poland

(Old Greek: ̕Ἔδεσσα, Syriac: Urhay)—a city in south-eastern Turkey; today (since 1984) it is known by its Turkish name Sanlıurfa (Glorious Urfa).

Legend has it that Edessa is the first city to be founded after the biblical Flood, while in Muslim tradition it was here—rather than in Chaldean Ur—that the patriarch Abraham (Ibrahim) was born. The cave, which is believed to be his birthplace, is still venerated today and is part of the southern courtyard of the Mevlid-I Halil Mosque. Because of the numerous references to it in the Scriptures, Edessa is also sometimes referred to as the Jerusalem of Anatolia.

The beginnings of settlement in the area date back to the Neolithic Age, as confirmed by archaeological research. The foundation of the urban centre, which most probably had the anthroponomastic name of Orra (Old Greek: Ορρα) or Orroa (Old Greek: Ορροα), is linked to Greek civilisation. In 304 BC, Diadochus Seleucus I Nicator (312/311–281 BC) settled soldiers in the city and renamed it Edessa (or Macedonian Edessa). During the Hellenistic period, due to its convenient geographical location on the Silk Road, the centre prospered economically and grew to become one of Syria’s most important trading centres.

In 132 BC, the city and its surroundings were occupied by tribes coming from the Arabian Peninsula and transformed into the independent kingdom of Osroene (Old Greek: Ὀσροηνή) with Edessa as its capital. For the next two centuries this state existed between the Roman and Parthian Empires, with successive rulers from the Abgar dynasty being more or less influenced by these neighbours. The Romans conquered Osroene in 116 BC, and in 244 abolished its autonomy, incorporating it after a long occupation into the structure of the Roman provinces. In the new geopolitical circumstances, Edessa—as a border town—assumed greater military importance.

Before the city was subordinated to Rome, it became one of the first centres of Christianity outside Palestine. Eusebius of Caesarea in his Ecclesiastical History (c. 325) quotes the correspondence between Jesus and Abgar V Ukkama bar Ma’nu, (known as the Black One, reigning in the years 4 BC – 7 AD and 13–50 AD), from which it appears that the terminally ill  toparch of Edessa approached the Nazarene for healing and received a letter assuring him of receiving help through one of the Saviour’s disciples. After Christ’s resurrection, the apostle Thomas fulfilled His promise by sending Thaddeus (Addai) to Osroene, who, having arrived, became famous for his many miracles. The ruler saw “a great sign” on his face, which prompted him to worship the visitor from Palestine.

As a reward for his faith, Abgar was healed, and he then asked Thaddeus to preach the Good News to the crowds gathered in the palace (HE I, 13, 1–22; II, 1, 6–7). The historian even gave the exact date of this event (340 according to the Seleucid era, i.e. c. 28/29 BC) and emphasised the reliability of his account, which was his translation of the Syriac source. However, the authenticity of the correspondence in question was challenged by St Jerome of Stridon (c. 347–420) and St Augustine of Hippo (254–430). The Decretum Gelasianum of the early 6th century finally declared the letters in question to be apocryphal.

Experts on the subject claim that this legend anticipates events almost two centuries later. The first historically attested Christian ruler of Edessa was Abgar IX (179–216), and his conversion dates to 204. It also seems reasonable to assume that already at the end of the 1st century, representatives of the so-called Palestinian mission came to this city and evangelised members of the Jewish diaspora. This is confirmed, for example, by the fact that the legendary Thaddeus—according to the records of the Addai Doctrine (or Addai Teaching)—was hosted by the Jew Tobias, while the Christians of Osroene celebrated Easter according to the Palestinian tradition, not the Little Asia tradition (HE V, 23, 4).

According to legend, the aforementioned Thaddeus is supposed to have been the first bishop of Edessa, but church tradition states that the local bishops continued the line of apostolic succession after Serapion, bishop of Antioch (190–203). Palut is the first bishop of Edessa attested by sources, consecrated c. 200. The benevolent attitude of the rulers towards Christianity enabled the multifaceted development of the local community. The first local synod was held here in 197; according to chroniclers, there was a church in Edessa at the end of the 2nd century (incidentally damaged by a flood in 202); and in 232, the relics of St Thomas were brought to the city from India and placed in a purpose-built temple. This church was visited in 384 by the Galilean pilgrim Egeria, who described it in her report as very huge and beautiful (Peregrinatio Aetheriae 19, 3). The connection with the Apostle of India is also clear in the apocryphal literature from Edessa: The Gospel of Thomas was written here in the 2nd century, while the apocryphal Acts of Thomas and The Psalms of Thomas, later adopted by the Manicheans, were written in the following century.

After the wave of great persecutions of Christianity in the Roman Empire during the reigns of Diocletian (284–305) and Galerius (293–311), Edessa became the capital of the ecclesiastical metropolis, was subordinate to the patriarch of Antioch and oversaw 11 bishoprics. Subsequent bishops—in the spirit of the Syrian understanding of the bishop’s ministry as father of the community—carried out intensified charitable and organisational activities, establishing hospitals and initiating the construction of public facilities (including towers, bridges, aqueducts and baths).

By the 4th century, Edessa’s position as a centre of Christian learning and culture was firmly established. Here developed a specific style of frescoes decorating the interiors of the temples, the result of a creative synthesis of elements of Greek, Jewish and Parthian art, as well as the Mithraic tradition. The Chronicle of Edessa from c. 540 records that nine churches known by name were built in the metropolitan capital alone by 471, with the cathedral (from c. 323), its accompanying baptistery (from c. 370) and the aforementioned temple housing the relics of St Thomas as most important. This was also the source of inspiration for Chaldean ritual and liturgical music, dating back to the hymns (mandrasha) of the Gnostic Bardaisan (154–222), as well as for Syriac literary works (in addition to the aforementioned apocrypha, Edessa produced, among other things, the most widespread Syriac translation of the Bible—the Peshitta—and, at the end of the 2nd century, the so-called gospel harmony by Tatian—the Diatessaron). The development of the latter was closely linked to the transfer to Edessa of the theological school of Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306–373), which functioned in Nisibis until the Persians occupied the city in 363.

At the beginning of the 5th century, one of the best-known exponents of this centre of theological thought was Ibas of Edessa (†457), a supporter and populariser of the ideas of Theodore of Mopsuestia (350–428). His work, however, met with vigorous resistance from the (otherwise distinguished for the Christian community) bishop of the city, Rabbula (412–435), who considered Ibas’ writings unorthodox and led to their burning. This makes it all the more of a historical paradox that, after Rabbula’s death, it was Ibas who was chosen as his successor. However, the new bishop of Edessa did not enjoy the full support of his subordinate clergy, some of whom appealed to the Patriarch of Antioch and later Constantinople, and finally to Emperor Theodosius (408–450). As a result—after tumultuous hearings—Ibas was removed from the bishopric in 449 at the so-called Robber Council, but he was rehabilitated by the Council of Chalcedon just two years later. Nevertheless, after the death of the bishop, his disciples were forced to leave Edessa and most of them returned to Nisibis in 457. Eventually, by the decision of Emperor Zeno (474–491), the Edessa school was closed as a centre promoting Nestorianism.

During the reign of Justinian I the Great (527–565), Edessa (then called Justinopolis) became a strong centre of Monophysite resistance to the imperial drive for religious unification of the state. Its titular bishop, Jacob Baradaeus (541–578), made an invaluable contribution in this regard. Ecclesiastical historians unanimously report that he travelled throughout the province in beggar’s disguise, building up the clandestine structures of the Jacobite Church and exercised spiritual leadership within it. Also associated with the Justinian period are the remains of the city walls that exist in Edessa today and the memory of an invasion by Chosroes (Khosrow) I (531–579), which was supernaturally repelled.

In 602, a similar miracle was not repeated and Edessa was captured by the Persian army. Emperor Heraclius (610–641) did manage to regain the lost lands for Byzantium in 628, but not for long: in 640 they fell into the hands of the Arabs, and Edessa was once again renamed (to Ar-Ruha). After the Arab invasion, the city continued to serve as a Jacobite metropolis, at the same time as being the capital of the Nestorian bishopric. The lands of the former Osroene kingdom did not return to Byzantine rule until 1031, although the possibility of reclaiming Edessa from Arab hands already existed in 944, i.e. during the reign of Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos (920–944).

In the following decades, it was successively conquered by the Seljuk Turks under Buzan (in 1087), by the Armenian prince Toros, ruling under formal Byzantine authority (in 1094), and finally by the participants in the First Crusade, who established the County of Edessa (in 1098). This was the first, and also the furthest north-eastern, Christian state in the Muslim dominion. For this reason, among others, it was characterised by a peculiar system: there was a greater extent of power of the ruler than in the classical feudal system and the reliance of the administration on Armenian officials following Byzantine models. The subsequent counts of Edessa were Baldwin I of Boulogne (1098–1100, adopted son of Toros and later king of Jerusalem), Baldwin II of Le Bourg (1100–1118), Joscelin I of Courtenay (1118–1131), Joscelin II of Courtenay (1131–1149) and Joscelin III (titular count).

From 1100, the county was a fief of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In the same year, Latin bishoprics (although only two Edessa bishops are known by name) and Armenian bishoprics were established in its territory. The existence of the county of Edessa came to an end with the attacks of Zenga—the Turkish atabeg of Mosul and Aleppo (1127–1146)—who captured and sacked the city in 1144, slaughtering the local Christians.

In the following centuries, Edessa was devastated by the invasions of Saladin (in 1183), the Mongols (in 1244 and 1260) and Timur Lenk (in 1393). In 1332, a Melchite (Melkite) metropolis was established in its area, which soon collapsed. From the 15th century onwards, the local Syrian-Jacobite metropolitans entered into union with the Roman Church, leading to a dichotomy: Edessa was simultaneously the capital of a non-Catholic Jacobite archbishopric and its counterpart recognising the supremacy of the Pope (both metropolises collapsed in 1916).

From 1637, the city came under the permanent rule of the Ottoman Empire, which changed the religious structure of the inhabitants. Turkish fiscal oppression, as well as the massacres of 1895 and 1915, almost led to the eradication of the various Christian denominations mentioned above (i.e. Jacobites, Armenians, Catholics and Orthodox). From the beginning of the 20th century, the majority of Urfa’s inhabitants were already Turks and Kurds, who fiercely resisted the Greek aggressor during the Turkish War of Independence between 1919 and 1923. The second half of the last century saw the rapid development of the city and its transformation into the industrial, commercial and administrative centre of the province of Sanlıurfa.

Associated with Edessa is the story of the so-called Mandylion (Old Greek: μανδύλιον—‘towel, kerchief, tablecloth’), a representation of the face of Jesus categorised among the images described as acheiropoieton (Old Greek: Ἀχειροποίητος), or ‘not-made-by-hand.’ It is difficult to determine whether the fate of the city and the relics were linked. It is possible to point to three chronologically distant events in which the presence of the Mandylion in this Syrian city is clearly indicated. The first relates to the creation of the image and its transfer into the hands of the ruler of Edessa (c. 28/33), the second to the siege of the city by Sasanian (Sassanid) troops (544), and the third to the transfer of the Mandylion to Constantinople (944).

The earliest of these events is linked to the aforementioned legendary correspondence between Abgar V and Jesus. A much more elaborate version of Eusebius’ account of the event is contained in The Story of the Image of Edessa, a work written between 945–959 on the occasion of the aforementioned transfer (translatio) of the Mandylion to Constantinople and intended to be read in the Eastern Churches during the annual liturgical commemoration of the event. This Christmas homily was written in the entourage of Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (913–959); its authorship is sometimes attributed to this ruler. Indeed, it has its counterpart in the contemporaneous Synaxarion of the Church of Constantinople, compiled by the same emperor, among others.

According to the Byzantine source, Abgar V’s messenger Ananias returned not only with Christ’s reply in the form of a letter promising to cure the king of the particularly painful (and at the same time disgraceful) ailments of leprosy and gout, but also with a cloth showing the face of the Messiah. Ananias was also instructed by his principal to paint a portrait of Jesus, should he not be able to come to Edessa at once. Since he was unable to do so, Christ washed his face with water and wiped it with cloth on which his face was reflected; he handed the resulting image to the envoy. On his way back, Ananias stopped for the night at Hierapolis, where he hid the cloth he had received between a pile of roof tiles. A fire broke out during the night, but the miraculous object survived and even supernaturally burned its copy (keramidion, Old Greek: κεραμίδιον) on one of the tiles. It was to remain in Hierapolis until 966, when it was brought to Constantinople by Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (963–969).

The author of The Story also cited another version of the tale of the Mandylion’s origin, which draws on The Acts of Thaddeus (6th to 7th century). According to it, the image was created during the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus wiped his face drenched in bloody sweat with a piece of linen. In this case, the person who delivered the miraculous image into Abgar’s hands was said to be—sent by the apostle Thomas—the disciple Thaddeus (Addai). It was he who, standing before the ruler of Edessa, placed the image on his forehead, and the brightness emanating from it electrified the king (thus this would be the ‘great sign’ mentioned by Eusebius). Subsequently, with the help of the Mandylion, the healing of both Abgar himself and many of the city’s inhabitants took place. The converted ruler had the miraculous image replace the pagan deity seen in front of the entrance gate to Edessa.

A Constantinople source also gives information about the subsequent fate of the image. Behold, the successors of Abgar V abandoned Christianity, which threatened the safety of the Mandylion. Therefore, the local bishop decided to hide the canvas in a niche at one of the city’s gates (the Vault Gate). He placed a burning olive lamp in front of it, and the opening itself was then covered with tiles and walled up. In this way, the image was forgotten for several centuries, which, incidentally, is in keeping with the fact that Egeria’s account of her visit to Edessa does contain information about the correspondence between Abgar V and Jesus, but the pilgrim does not say a word about the Mandylion. She does, however, mention that—according to the story told by the bishop who showed her around the church of St Thomas—Christ not only handed over to Ananias a letter promising to heal the king, but also the assurance that he would look after the city, which would never be conquered.

The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius of Caesarea does not contain this last motif, but it is of great importance in The Story of the Image. For, further down the line, the author recalls the aforementioned events of 544, when the Persian army of Chosroes/Khosrow I approached Edessa and dug a trench under the walls. The city’s inhabitants discovered the attackers’ plan, but did not know how to proceed. Then the local bishop, Eulalia, had a vision in which he was given information about the forgotten hiding place of the Mandylion and heard the command to uncover it. When the bishop did as he was instructed, he was astonished to find that the centuries-old lamp was still burning, while a copy of the effigy (and therefore another keramidion) appeared on the tile enclosing the hiding place. The oil from the miraculously preserved lamp was used to defeat the invaders, causing the fire lit in the tunnel to turn against the Persians. In turn, a procession along the city walls combined with the display of an image caused the fire to spread throughout the besiegers’ camp.

The author of The Story also cited a second version of the event. According to it, the Persians erected a wooden and earthen structure along the walls of Edessa, which could not be set on fire until a fire sprinkled with water consecrated by the image was used. Regardless of the course of events, in both cases the Mandylion fulfilled its protective function as Chosroes abandoned the siege. To confirm the authenticity of this part of the account, the author of the Constantinople source cited (though not literally) annotations from the Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius Scholasticus (532/537–594) and the letters of three patriarchs (Job of Antioch, Christophorus of Alexandria and Basil of Jerusalem) to Emperor Theophilus (829–842). He added that the Persian ruler was so impressed by the power of the image that he asked the people of Edessa to lend it to him when his daughter was possessed by a demon. A copy of the Mandylion was sufficient to cure the girl.

In fact, the image had most likely been found earlier and the event is not to be linked to a military event, but to a natural cataclysm, more specifically to—as recounted by Procopius of Caesarea—a flood that largely destroyed Edessa in 525. Emperor Justinian I the Great then ordered the rebuilding of the city, during which the walled Mandylion was to be discovered. The cloth was later kept, according to Evagrius Scholasticus, in the church of Hagia Sophia.

Finally, the last event—depicted in The Story—linking the Mandylion to the history of Edessa concerns the time when the city was already under Arab rule and the Byzantine army stood at its walls in 944. As previously mentioned, Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos agreed to raise the siege, making it conditional on the miraculous image and Jesus’ letter to Abgar V being delivered to Constantinople. How keen the Byzantines were to obtain the famous relics is illustrated by the fact that the emperor and the commander of his troops, John Kourkouas (c. 900–946), not only broke off the offensive and spared Edessa, but also offered the Arab side the release of 200 captives, a considerable amount of gold and a peace treaty. The Constantinople author described both the course of the negotiations and their positive outcome along with the fact that the authenticity of the cloth handed over by Abraham, the bishop of Samosata, had been verified. He made it clear that the Christian inhabitants of the city opposed the decision of the Caliph of Baghdad and demanded a sign to confirm the conformity of the translation with the divine will. At that time, the boat with the image and the letter allegedly crossed the Euphrates by itself. The miraculous image thus left Edessa and was solemnly introduced to Constantinople on 15 August 944.

A separate issue is the question of the influence of the Mandylion on the way the Saviour is depicted in sacred art. It is related to the observation made by Paul Vignon (and later developed by art historians and icon scholars) that, when following the development of Christ’s iconography, a clear change in the characteristic model of depicting the Saviour’s face alone is discernible.

According to the current rules of composition of mandylion icons, the oval face of Jesus, surrounded by a beard and long hair and inscribed in a cross nimbus, is shown against a background of white cloth (sometimes supported by angels). However, in the older iconographic tradition, other elements of Christ’s image were also the norm for this type of sacred artwork, including: protruding cheekbones, a triangle between the eyebrows and a strand of hair in the middle of the forehead. According to P. Vignon, this model was derived from some hallowed archetype, the role of which—judging from the surviving descriptions—may well have been played by the Mandylion of Edessa.

A specific example of its indirect influence in this respect is also provided by the aforementioned copies of the image made without human intervention on the tiles (na chrepii) from Hierapolis and Constantinople. In fact, they are regarded as the source of the type of icon called Saviour on a tile (Spas na chrepii), on which Christ’s face is not surrounded by a white cloth, but appears on a background with the texture of a stone wall or wooden board. The above-mentioned typical elements for early representations of Jesus’ face can be linked not only to the Mandylion, but also to specific details of the facial image from the Shroud. On the other hand, although in both cases it would be about the representation of the same person, from an iconographic point of view, the Mandylion shows the face of the living Christ (with open eyes), while on the Shroud—the dead one (with eyes closed). This raises the question, also asked in other contexts, of the relationship between the two relics.

Among syndonologists, there are supporters of the view that the Mandylion of Edessa should be identified with the Shroud of Turin (e.g. Idzi Panic, Daniel C. Scavone, Ian Wilson), as well as researchers referring to this theory with some scepticism (e.g. Averil Cameron, Andrea Nicolotti). The former—based on the aforementioned hypothesis of P. Vignon—refer to the idea that the Edessa image did not in fact depict Christ’s face alone, but his entire figure. In this view, the misleading impression was supposed to be due to the fact that the cloth was exhibited in the form of a so-called tetradiplon (i.e. after being folded in half four times). This phrase also appears in relation to the Mandylion in the excerpt from The Act of Thaddeus, which tells of the discovery of the cloth in the 6th century. The pollen identified on the Shroud attests to its contact with the flora of the Edessa area. Finally, a commemorative sermon by Gregory the Referender, archdeacon of the Hagia Sophia temple, discovered in 1997 in the Apostolic Vatican Archive, delivered in 944 to welcome the image brought from Edessa, provides an argument for the identity of the Mandylion with the Shroud. In it, the preacher mentioned the blood stains visible on the canvas and the fact that the image shows most of the body and not just the head.

The theory advocating Edessa also has its weak points. The message contained in the Addai Doctrine (4th to 6th century) undergoes a surprising change in later sources on the subject. For, according to this text, Ananias (here: Hannam), sent to Jesus, received only an oral answer from the Saviour, while—carrying out the instructions of his principal—he made, in passing, a portrait of the Messiah on a table-board, which he then took with him to Edessa. Researchers also ask why only the face of Christ was presented in the case of the Mandylion, whereas it would have been possible to show—to the king or the faithful—the whole figure of the testimony to the saving Passion. Not all scholars feel convinced that this was due to resistance (based on dualistic thought) of a doctrinal nature, which did not allow the naked body of the Messiah to be displayed. Attention is drawn to the fact that the canonical feature of the image of Christ appearing on icons of the mandylion type—and supposed to derive directly from the model from Edessa—is the depiction of the Saviour’s face without signs of suffering and attributes of the Passion, i.e. without the crown of thorns or traces of it (Jarosław Charkiewicz). Therefore, some specialists (Karolina Aszyk, Andreas Resch CSsR, Zbigniew Treppa) will only accept the influence of the depiction from the Shroud on the development of the conventions of the mandylions created later, and only in terms of the most fundamental issues (e.g. the positioning of Jesus’ face en face). As with many issues related to the Shroud, prudent and step-by-step research sine ira et studio is needed here too.


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Joanna Małocha

Historian, archivist and archaeologist; lecturer at the Institute of Middle and Far Eastern Cultural Studies of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Jesuit University Ignatianum in Krakow, currently employed at the Institute of History of the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow. Her area of research interest includes testimonies of the cult of martyrs and holy places. On a side note, she is also interested in the art and literature of Egyptian Christians and the methodology of teaching the Coptic language.

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