Edessa is the historical name of a town in northern Mesopotamia. For the modern history of the city, see Sanli Urfa.
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The name under which Edessa figures in cuneiform inscriptions is unknown; the native name was Osroe, after its purported founder (who was probably only legend), this being the Armenian form for Chosroes; it became in Syriac Ourhoļ, in Armenian Ourhaļ in Arabic Er Roha, commonly Orfa or Sanli Urfa, its present name. Seleucus I Nicator, when he refounded the town as a military colony, 303 BC, called it Edessa, in memory of the ancient capital of Macedon of similar name (now Vodena). Under Antiochus IV Epiphanes the town was called Antiochia on Callirhoe by colonists from Antioch who had settled there.
On the foundation of the Kingdom of Osroene, Edessa became the capital under the Abgar dynasty. This kingdom was established by Nabataean or Arabic tribes from North Arabia, and lasted nearly four centuries (c.132 BC to 214), under twenty-eight kings. It was at first more or less under the protectorate of the Parthians, then from the time of Pompey under the Romans. Following its capture and sack by Trajan, the Romans even occupied Edessa from 116 to 118, although its sympathies towards the Parthians led to Lucius Verus pillaging the city later in the second century. From 212 to 214 the kingdom was became a Roman province. The literary language of the tribes which had founded this kingdom, was Aramaic, whence came the Syriac.
Rebuilt by Emperor Justin, and called after him Justinopolis (Evagrius, Hist. Eccl., IV, viii), Edessa was taken in 609 by the Persians, soon retaken by Heraclius, but lost to the Arabs in 638. The Byzantines often tried to retake Edessa, especially under Romanus Lacapenus, who obtained from the inhabitants the "Holy Mandylion", or ancient portrait of Christ, and solemnly transferred it to Constantinople, August 16, 944. This was the final great achievement of Romanus' reign. For an account of this venerable and famous image, which was certainly at Edessa in 544, and of which there is an ancient copy in the Vatican Library, brought to the West by the Venetians in 1207, see Weisliebersdorf, Christus und Apostelbilder (Freiburg, 1902), and Dobschütz, Christusbilder (Leipzig, 1899).
In 1031 Edessa was given up to the Byzantines by its Arab governor. It was retaken by the Arabs, and then successivelly held by the Greeks, the Seljuk Turks (1087), the Crusaders (1099), who established there the County of Edessa and kept the city until 1144, when it was again captured by the Turk Zengui, and most of its inhabitants were slaughtered together with the Latin archbishop. These events are known to us chiefly through the Armenian historian Matthew, who had been born at Edessa. Since the twelfth century, the city has successively belonged to the Sultans of Aleppo, the Mongols, the Mameluks, and from 1517 to 1918 to the Ottoman Empire.
The exact date of the introduction of Christianity into Edessa is not known. It is certain, however, that the Christian community was at first made up from the Jewish population of the city. According to an ancient legend, King Abgar V, Ushana, was converted by Addai, who was one of the seventy-two disciples. In fact, however, the first King of Edessa to embrace the Christian Faith was Abgar IX (c. 206). Under him Christianity became the official religion of the kingdom. As for Addai, he was neither one of the seventy-two disciples as the legend asserts, nor was he the Apostle Thaddeus, as Eusebius says (Hist. Eccl., IV, xiii), but a missionary from Palestine who evangelized Mesopotamia about the middle of the second century, and became the first bishop of Edessa. He was succeeded by Aggai, then by Palout (Palut) who was ordained about 200 by Serapion of Antioch. Thence came to us in the second century the famous Peshitta, or Syriac translation of the Old Testament; also Tatian's Diatessaron, which was compiled about 172 and in common use until St. Rabbulas, Bishop of Edessa (412-435), forbade its use. Among the illustrious disciples of the School of Edessa special mention is due to Bardesanes (154 - 222), a schoolfellow of Abgar IX, the originator of Christian religious poetry, whose teaching was continued by his son Harmonius and his disciples.
A Christian council was held at Edessa as early as 197 (Eusebius of Caesarea, Historia ecclesiastica, V, 23). In 201 the city was devastated by a great flood, and the Christian church was destroyed (Chronicon Edessenum, ad. an. 201). In 232 the relics of the Apostle St. Thomas were brought from India, on which occasion his Syriac Acts were written. Under Roman domination many martyrs suffered at Edessa: Sts. Scharbīl and Barsamya, under Decius; Sts. Gūrja, Schāmōna, Habib, and others under Diocletian. In the meanwhile Christian priests from Edessa had evangelized Eastern Mesopotamia and Persia, and established the first Churches in the kingdom of the Sassanidss. Atillātiā, Bishop of Edessa, assisted at the Council of Nicaea (325). The Peregrinatio Silviae (or Etheriae) (ed. Gamurrini, Rome, 1887, 62 sqq.) gives an account of the many sanctuaries at Edessa about 388.
When Nisibis was ceded to the Persians in 363, St. Ephrem left his native town for Edessa, where he founded the celebrated School of the Persians. This school, largely attended by the Christian youth of Persia, and closely watched by St. Rabbula, the friend of St. Cyril of Alexandria, on account of its Nestorian tendencies, reached its highest development under Bishop Ibas, famous through the controversy of the Three Chapters, was temporarily closed in 457, and finally in 488, by command of Emperor Zeno and Bishop Cyrus, when the teachers and students of the School of Edessa repaired to Nisibis and became the founders and chief writers of the Nestorian Church in Persia (Labourt, Le christianisme dans l'empire perse, Paris, 1904, 130-141). Monophysitism prospered at Edessa, even after the Arab conquest.
Under Byzantine rule, as metropolis of Osroene, it had eleven suffragan sees (Echos d'Orient, 1907, 145). Lequien (Oriens christ., II, 953 sqq.) mentions thirty-five Bishops of Edessa; yet his list is incomplete. The Eastern Orthodox episcopate seems to have disappeared after the eleventh century. Of its Jacobite bishops twenty-nine are mentioned by Lequien (II, 1429 sqq.), many others in the Revue de l'Orient chrétien (VI, 195), some in Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft (1899), 261 sqq. Moreover, Nestorian bishops are said to have resided at Edessa as early as the sixth century.
Famous individuals connected with Edessa include: Jacob Baradaeus, the real chief of the Syrian Monophysites known after him as Jacobites; Stephen Bar Sudaļli, monk and pantheist, to whom was owing, in Palestine, the last crisis of Origenism in the sixth century; Jacob, Bishop of Edessa, a fertile writer (d. 708); Theophilus the Maronite, an astronomer, who translated into Syriac verse Homer's Iliad and Odyssey; the anonymous author of the Chronicon Edessenum (Chronicle of Edessa), compiled in 540; the writer of the story of "The Man of God", in the fifth century, which gave rise to the legend of St. Alexius. The oldest known dated Syriac manuscripts (AD 411 and 462), containing Greek patristic texts, come from Edessa.
This entry uses text from the Catholic Encyclopedia, 1909