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The History of Edessa (Ur-hai)

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The History of Edessa (Ur-hai)

Feb-24-2010 at 06:46 AM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

The History of Edessa (Ur-hai)
from The Ecole Initiative


Edessa stands on the Silk Road, which begins on the Mediterranean coast at one of the Seleucid capitals, Antioch; passes across the Euphrates; and through Edessa reaches the Assyrian city of Nisibis. Twenty-five miles to the south stood the ancient city of Harran with its temple dedicated to the moon god Sin where the last king of Babylon, Nabonidus, spent the final days of his reign. To the north of the city is the mountain massif of Anatolia, while to the southeast lies the fertile plain of Harran. Through the city flows the river Daisan. The Greeks called it Scirtos which means the leaping .

Tactical innovations of Alexander the Great, such as the use of a highly effective phalanx with fast cavalry alongside numerous new siege machines, left many of the ancient fortifications useless. Ancient Harran was one of them. Its tactical position in the middle of a fertile plain and its walls were sufficient in the past, but it could not withstand the war-machine of Alexander and the Diadochoi. However, the site of Orhai, situated on the hill overlooking the Harran plains and protected by the mountain range on two sides, stood a much better chance against the new kind of warfare. Orhai must have been an insignificant village before the Diadochoi began to build the fortifications and settle the veterans.

Local folk tales speak about Edessa in the times before Alexander. According to one of them, Abraham came to the city and was bound by Nimrod between the two columns that still stand on the citadel. He slung the patriarch from the citadel into the valley, but he was saved miraculously (Segal, 2). The pool sacred to Abraham was erected on that place and fish that inhabit it are sacred. (The sacred pool was erected under the Muslim rule.) The legend complements the account in Gen. 11:20 ff. Incidentally, fish was the sacred animal of the Syrian goddess worshipped some 50 miles away in Hierapolis (Bambyce) on the West bank of Euphrates. The legend is probably of Christian origin, since when Christianity became dominant in Edessa, a reckoning of years from Abraham replaced the old way of reckoning from the beginning of the Seleucid era in 312 BC (Millar, 560).

Seleucus I Nicator founded Edessa in 303 or 302 BC and named it after the old capital of Macedonia. (Tscherikower, 88). Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164) during the attempt to unify his fading kingdom culturally changed the name of Edessa to "Antioch by the Callirhoe" as the coins from his time attest. The new name, although poetic (Antioch by the beautiful flowing water) lasted as long as the ambitious and brusque king was in power. There is no evidence of a pre-Hellenistic settlement. Nevertheless, the Aramaic name Orhai (modern Urfa) indicates that the spot was inhabited before Seleucus I settled his veterans and founded a polis. The name is not recorded in any of the Mesopotamian cuneiform documents, nor does it appear in Hittite texts. In Aramaic and later in Syriac, the city is always called Orhai. Double names were also common in the Roman province of Syria, across the Euphrates, where large population of Hellenistic colonies called their cities by the Greek names while local peasants used the Aramaic name (Ammianus Marcellinus, xiv, 8, 6; cf. Cambridge Ancient History, vol. xi, 623). We do not know why Edessa, the name of the old Macedonian capital, was chosen, but both cities stood on a hill and were surrounded with numerous springs of water.

This article will survey history of the city as it began to play a larger role following the collapse of the Seleucid rule in the second half of the second century BC. Edessa and the surrounding region of Osrhoene was one among several areas of the Seleucid kingdom that gained a considerable independence after the defeat of Antiochus VII Sidetes in 129 BC in a campaign against Parthia. Independence was asserted even more after the Parthian victory over the Romans in 53 BC. Due to these fortunate circumstances, Edessa enjoyed a virtual independence from both Rome and Parthia. It managed to survive in a vacuum between the two super-powers.

The end of independent Edessa came with the rise of the Sassanids in the first half of the third century. Sassanid Persia was not willing to have a buffer state in the times of expansion. When in 260 the Sassanid shah Shapur walked into the Mediterranean Sea near Antioch, Edessa was about to face its greatest challenge. At this time we lose track of Edessan royal house (See Appendix).

(132 BC - AD 242)
Independence of a city or a state is a matter of definition. In the eyes of ancient historians, nation or city is independent as long as a native leader rules it. Edessa was ruled by a local dynasty from 132 BC to 213 AD. One might say that during that time, the city was independent. One can, however, define independence in terms of economic, political, or cultural relationship. During the same period, Edessa was economically, politically and culturally dependent on Parthia. There was, however, some middle ground between the two major powers. Edessa managed to live in-between.

Very little is known about the city during the Early Hellenistic period (323-200 BC). The Greek colonists mixed with the local population or Aramaic, Arabic and Persian origins and produced a city proud of its Greek culture and Near Eastern traditions. The Israelites also lived in the area since the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V had settled the first group of Israelite Diaspora in Mesopotamia (1 Kings 17:5-6).

In the Late Hellenistic period (200-31 BC) Edessa followed the fate of many nations in the Near East. It started its drive towards independence. The Seleucid rule effectively ended in 129 BC when the Parthian shah Phraates II killed the last powerful Seleucid, Antiochus VII Sidetes. After the collapse of the Seleucids, we see the emergence of Hellenistic dynasties of local origin across the Near East. Mithridates VI of Pontus, Tigranes of Armenia, John Hyrkanos of Jud�a, Ariobarzanes of Cappadocia are just a few representatives. At this time the local dynasty of Edessa appeared (Drijvers, Cults and Beliefs, 10). The list of Edessan king is preserved in the Syriac chronicle of Dionysios of Tellmahre which begins in 132 BC (See Appendix). Very little is known about any of the rulers (toparchs) except when they interacted with the Romans. According to the Roman historians Edessans were mostly Arabs (Pliny, Nat. Hist. VI, 117 and Tacitus, Ann. XII, 12.10).

The Romans took over independent Near Eastern kingdoms one at the time. Tigranes was defeated in 69 BC by Lucius Lucullus and Armenia came under the Roman influence. Abgar I Piqa of Edessa (94-68 BC) sided with Tigranes and was slain by Lucullus' legate, Sextilius. Mithridates was finally defeated by Pompey in 66 BC and Pontus became a Roman province. Abgar II of Edessa (68-53 BC), however, managed to keep the independence of his city because of the help he offered to Pompeius' legate Afranius. Jud�a became a province in 6 AD when the son of Herod the Great, Archelaus, was deposed and sent into exile by Augustus. Cappadocia was added to the empire in 18 AD under Tiberius (14-37 AD). Edessa, was finally annexed during the reign of Caracalla (211-217). Formally, the city was a vassal of the Parthian Empire although the grip of the Arsacids' hand was never strong. The city was essentially an independent province of Parthia; it was too close to the border to be controlled. For such a long period of relative independence, Edessa had to be grateful to the Roman general Crassus and his extravagance. His defeat in 53 BC near Harran caused among the Romans a protracted anxiety in dealings with the Parthians. The border was firmly set on the Euphrates River after his defeat. King Abgar II (68-53 BC), although formally an ally of Rome, made a sarcastic remark about Crassus' difficulties, "Did they think it would be a route-march through Campania?" Crassus was beheaded and his army of seven legions (44,000 men) was reduced to 10,000 men who safely returned to Antioch. Another 10,000 were imprisoned; the rest perished (Plutarch, Crassus 21; Cassius Dio XXXVII, 5, 5; XL, 20, 1). The victorious Parthians killed Abgar II. The memories of the defeat haunted the Romans for a very long time. In 114 AD, Trajan, after 167 years, was the first to overcome the sense of Roman inferiority in dealing with the Parthians. He dared to cross the Euphrates with an army.

During the time of the Pax Romana (31 BC - 225 AD) the border between Rome and Parthia was on the Euphrates except during the two great Parthian campaigns, the one of Trajan (114-117 AD), the other of Lucius Verus (161-166 AD). Rome made very few aggressive moves against Parthia before Trajan. Augustus had a defensive policy and was satisfied with the symbolic gesture of Parthia's returning the standards of Crassus' legions. A brief crisis occurred in 63 during Nero's reign. Tiridates backed by Parthia claimed the throne of Armenia (Tacitus, Ann. XV, 24-31). After some maneuvering of the troops and diplomatic actions, Tiridates was recognized by Rome, but had to travel to Nero to receive the crown from him. The Jewish War 66-70 made any offensive action against Parthia impossible. Trajan was the first to overcome the "Parthian syndrome" caused by Crassus' defeat. During Trajan's campaigns the ruler of Edessa, Abgar VII (109-116) at first sided with the determined aggressive and victorious emperor. Later Abgar VII changed sides and joined the pro-Parthian rebellion that swept northern Mesopotamia in 116 (Tacitus, Ann. XI, 10; XII, 11, 13, 14). Trajan sent his general Lusius Quietus to suppress the rebellion. He took Edessa, destroyed it, and killed Abgar VII. For two years the Romans directly ruled the city (Cassius Dio, LXVIII, 18, 21).

In 163 Parthian troops invaded northern Mesopotamia, deposed the local Edessan king Manu VIII and put on the throne their own candidate Wael bar Sahru. The only evidence from Wael's reign are bronze coins with his bust and his name in Syriac on obverse and Vologoses III of Parthia on the reverse. Rome reacted quickly. Lucius Verus, the co-emperor, led the legions in the victorious campaign. Wael bar Sahru was deposed and Manu VIII, who took refuge with the Romans, reinstated.

Septimius Severus (193-211) led two campaigns against Parthia in 195 and 197. During the later campaign Severus created the province of Osrhoene and a Roman procurator came to the region although we do not know where his residence was. It was not in Edessa, since Abgar VIII remained the ruler of the city until his death in 212. On this occasion Abgar VIII adopted the name Lucius �lius Aurelius Septimius Abgar which appears of his coins and inscriptions (Babelon, 255; CIL XII, 1856). This Abgar who ruled from 177-212 is also know as the Great, because under him Edessa achieved a status of "the Athens of the East." His court was a gathering place of many learned including the Aramean philosopher of Stoic inclination, Bardaisan.

Caracalla (211-217) in 213 summoned the next Edessene king Abgar IX Severus and his sons to Rome and murdered them. Although the king list continues, this was practically the end of the Edessan royal house. Caracalla conducted his Parthian campaigns in 214 from Edessa which he had just proclaimed a Roman colony. In April 217 the emperor died outside the walls of Edessa while he was on the way to the temple of the Moon god of Harran (Cassius Dio, LXXIX, 5, 4). Although the campaigns of Caracalla had not achieved the goal of pacifying Parthia, they marked the end of strong Edessa and its independent ruling house. Two more names appear in the list of Edessan kings after the slaughter in Rome, but they left no mark on the city's history. At the same time the Sassanids were about to take the reigns of the Persian Empire over from the Arcasids. As a result the Roman had to keep upper Mesopotamia under firm control. The Sassanids were a much more militant enemy then the Arcasids. Edessa was independent no more.


It is very difficult to determine the ethnicity (language) of the peoples living in and around Edessa. Parthian Arsacids left no literary sources. Most of our literary sources are Roman and hostile to the local population, because of the several centuries of open hostilities and hidden rivalries between Rome and Parthia (and later Sassanid Persia). Roman historians call Edessa's population Arabs (Pliny, Nat. Hist. VI, 117 and Tacitus, Ann. XII, 12). In this regard Edessa was not different from other similar cities in the region, much as Palmyra and Hatra, where a considerable part of the population consisted of the settled Arab nomads (Dussaud, passim).

Another part of population must have been of Aramean origin since the spoken language of the city for the larger part of its history was the Syriac dialect of Aramaic. The Edessans left several inscriptions in Syriac, which testify that this dialect of Aramaic was the language of administration in the city and its vicinity at least after 6 AD (Drijvers, Old Syriac Inscriptions). The oldest known inscription in Syriac dates to the year 317 of the Seleucid era (6 AD). It was found in Birecik on the left bank of the Euphrates River some 50 miles west of Edessa where the Silk Road crosses the river. The owner of this funerary inscription was a certain "Zarbin" the commander of the fortress. The inscription testifies to the usage of the local vernacular in administration. It is the oldest surviving written document in Syriac.

It is not clear how large the Greek speaking population of Edessa was. The city was founded as a Greek military colony and the number of people of Greek origin must have been significant even in the later period. The lack of inscriptional evidence for the Hellenistic period makes any reconstruction of ethnography of the whole area across the Euphrates speculative. Before Alexander, under the Achaemenids, the official language of the region was Aramaic. A city of Hierapolis has yielded a coin inscribed in Aramaic from the time of Alexander. The coin represents the last evidence which attests to the usage of Aramaic in the upper valley of the Euphrates (Millar 244). The overwhelming majority of inscriptional and numismatic evidence from the Seleucid period attests to the official usage of Greek. The same practice continued in Western Syria (Syria Coele) where we have not a single attestation of Aramaic or Syriac until the fourth century. In contrast to Syria Coele, Edessa, during the Pax Romana, became the center from which Syriac, the dialect of Aramaic written in the new "rounded" script (Estrangelo), spread throughout Mesopotamia. The first Syriac inscription dates to 6 AD. Before this date according to the general practice during the Hellenistic period, we should assume that Greek was the language of literate Edessans in their official communications.

The emergence of literature in the Syriac language began not with inscriptions, but with the Jewish Baptismal sect of Elkesaites around 100 AD. The exact location of the sect within Syria is unknown, but a location on the Parthian side of Euphrates is more probable. Prophet Elkesai founded the sect inspired by the Paraclete, (Jn 14:26, 15:26, 16 : 7), the comforter, the spirit of truth (Eusebius, Ecc. Hist. 6.38). The collection of 42 hymns in Syriac known as the Odes of Solomon is often attributed to the sect. The text dates to around 100 AD and it is the first known literary text in Syriac (Charlesworth, 725-771). Since the Pax Romana did not welcome novelties in religion, the sect had to wait for an opportune moment. The military collapse of the empire in the third century and humiliating defeats of Decius in 251 and Valerius in 260 provided the adequate environment. Mani was an Elkesaite before the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, revealed a new religion to him (Koenen, 735-56).

The main goal of Edessan rulers was to survive in the uneasy balance of power between Rome and Parthia. We do not know where their real loyalties were. When Roman historians write about this area the natives usually "welcome" the Roman armies (Cassius Dio, XL, 13, 1, and Plutarch, Crassus, 25). Lucian, a native of Samosata in his "How to Write History", satirizes one such historian who wrote a panegyric account of the Parthian War fought by Lucius Verus in 162-166 even though he "had never met a Syrian" (Lucian, Hist. 24). Except for the fact that Abgar VIII (177-212) changed his name to Lucius Aelius Aurelius Septimius Abgar there is no other evidence of the linguistic prestige of Latin. In any case, Abgar did not change his name because he admired the language of Cicero. Severian legions were in the area.

It is difficult to pick up a date when the population of Edessa started to resent Hellenistic culture. Bardaisan wrote in Aramaic (Syriac) and lived on the court of Abgar IX the Great (177-212); yet, in his writings we find no trace of nationalistic hatred of the Greeks. Bardaisan was a Stoic, last in the long line of Stoic philosophers from Syria. Tatian, on the other hand, is filled with hatred of the Hellenes. His birthplace is unknown, but he calls himself an Assyrian (maybe from Abiabene?). Tatian lived before Bardaisan and died in Antioch in 166. He must have had the same Hellenistic education that Bardaisan had. Yet, the outcome of that education was different. Tatian rejected it; Bardaisan appropriated it and expended it to his native tongue. If Late Antiquity is defined as the decline of Hellenism, apparently, it began earlier for Tatian than for Bardaisan. The rule of Abgar the Great was the cultural pinnacle of Edessa. His court was Hellenistic, but expressed itself in Syriac. Bardaisan was its best representative. He was a Stoic who wrote in Syriac and who integrated the local astrological tradition into his philosophy. The world for Bardaisan is predetermined, but human will is free.

The arrival of Christianity to Edessa, and the supposed conversion of the ruling house, is recorded in the Syriac document The Teaching of Addai which contains the purported correspondence between Jesus and his contemporary Abgar V, the ruler of Edessa (Eusebius, Ecc. Hist., I, 13). Burkitt believed that the legend reflects the conversion of Abgar VII (177-222) to Christianity and that the transfer to the time of Jesus was for the purpose of giving the greater prestige to the bishops of Edessa (Burkitt, 45-67). However, Walter Bauer successfully argued that the correspondence is a fourth century forgery (Bauer, 1-45). It is unlikely that Christianity became an official religion of Edessa any time before the onslaught of the Sassanids in the middle third century (Brook, 212-234). Nevertheless, there is a historical core to this legend. Christianity in Edessa was closely connected with Judaism, thus Addai, (Thaddeus, one of the seventy, sent to Edessa by Judas Thomas) stays in the house of a Judaean merchant Tobias (Eusebius, Ecc. Hist., I, 13.10.30).

Apart from the Teaching of Addai another Christian document associates Edessa with apostolic Christianity. The Acts of Thomas, an apocryphal document written in the 220s in Edessa narrates the story about the apostle's journey to India. The story itself might have been influenced by an Indian embassy that passed through Osrhoene in 218 on its way to a visit to the emperor Elegabalus. Bardaisan is also credited with writing an account of the history and practices of India (Segal, 31), since the earliest part of the Acts of Thomas, the Hymn of the Pearl, shows similarities with the teachings of Bardaisan. The book is commonly assigned to Edessa and to the early third century (Koester, 215-16). The reputed tomb of the apostle Thomas was in Edessa, at first outside the city wall. In 394, when the Arian controversies were over, it was transferred to its own shrine inside the city (Segal, 175).

Edessa was economically the most prominent city in Northern Mesopotamia, specially during the rule of Abgar VIII the Great (177-212) and before it finally had submit first to Caracalla in 214 and then to the Sassanid pressure in 242. The city seems to have had a monopoly of minting bronze coins in northern Mesopotamia. After 242 this privilege was divided among Edessa, Harran, Nisibis and Singara (Segal, 15). The coins of Edessa were found in great numbers in Dura-Europos, (Bellinger, 1393-1497) some 200 miles south and even in the desert city of Palmyra (Babelon, 209-96; Hill, 91-118). The source of the wealth was the city's position on the Silk Road. Numerous funerary monuments often illustrated by mosaics and furnished with inscriptions testify to the ability of local official to extract taxes from the trade. Rostovzeff called Edessa, Dura, Palmyra, Abiabene, and other similar cities of Syria and Mesopotamia, the caravan cities. The name accurately depicts the main source of wealth of these cities. It also describes the cosmopolitan and hybrid culture that developed in them.

APPENDIX: The List of Edessan Kings according to Ps-Dionysios of Tellmahre.

The list comes from the Syriac world-chronicle of c. AD 775 known from single manuscript (Vat. Syr. 162, ninth century). There is no complete translation into any modern language (Millar, 558; Segal, 15).

132-127 BC Aryu
127-120 BC Abdu bar Mazur
120-115 BC Fradhasht bar Gebaru
115-112 BC Bakru I, bar Fardhasht
112-94 BC Bakry II, bar Bakru
94 BC Manu I
94-68 BC Abgar I Piqa
68-53 BC Abgar II bar Abgar
53-52 BC interregnum
52-34 BC Manu II
34-29 BC Paqor
29-26 BC Abgar III
26-23 BC Abgar IV Sumaqa
23-4 BC Manu III Saphlul
4 BC-7 AD Abgar V Ukkama bar Manu
7-13 Manu IV bar Manu
13-50 Abgar V Ukkama (second time)
50-57 Manu V bar Abgar
71-91 Manu VI bar Abgar
91-109 interregnum
109-116 Abgar VII bar Ezad
116-118 interregnum
118-122 Yalur and Parthmaspat
112-123 Parthmaspat
123-139 Manu VII bar Ezad
139-163 Manu VIII bar Manu
163-165 Wael bar Sahru
165-177 Manu VIII (second time)
177-212 Abgar VIII the Great bar Manu
212-214 Abgar IX Severus bar Abgar
214-240 Manu IX bar Abgar
240-242 Abgar X Frahad bar Manu


Babelon, E. Numismatique d' Edesse en Mesopotamie, Melange numismatiques, 2eme serie. Paris, 1893.

Bauer, Walter. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.

Bellinger, A. R. The Excavations at Dura-Europos, Final Report vol. VI, The Coins. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949.

Brock, Sebastian, "Eusebius and Syriac Christianity" in Harold W. Attridge and Gohei Hata eds. Eusebius, Christianity and Judaism Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992.

Burkitt, F. Crawford. Early Christianity outside the Roman Empire: Two lectures Delivered at Trinity College, Dublin. Cambridge: University Press, 1899.

Charlesworth, James, ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vols. 1&2. New York: Doubleday, 1985.

Cook, S. A., Adcock, F. E., Charlesworth, M. P. Cambridge Ancient History, vol. XI. Cambridge: University Press, 1969.

Dussaud, R. La penetration des Arabes en Syrie avant l'Islam. Paris: 1955

Drijvers, H. J. W. East of Antioch. London: Variorum Reprints, 1984.

Drijvers, H. J. W. Cults and Beliefs at Edessa. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1980.

Drijvers, H. J. W. Old Syriac (Edessean) Inscriptions. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972.

Drijvers, H. J. W. Bardaisan of Edessa. Assen, Netherlands: Royal VanGorcum, 1966.

Hill, G. F. British Museum Collections, Arabia, Mesopotamia and Persia. London: 1922.

Koenen, Ludwig. "From Baptism to the Gnosis of Manichaeism" in Bentley Layton, ed. The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, II, Sethian Gnosticism. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1981.

Koester, Helmut. History and Literature of Early Christianity, vol. 2. Berlin and New York: Walter De Gruyter, 1980.

McCullough, Stewart W. A Short History of Syriac Christianity to the Rise of Islam. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982.

Millar, Fergus. The Roman Near East. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Segal, J. B. Edessa, the Blessed City. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.

Tscherikower, V. "Die hellenistischen Staedtegruendungen vom Alexander dem Grossen bis auf die Roemerzeit", in: Philologus Suppl. 19, Leipzig 1927, 51-58.

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