Today we will embark on another journey to the roots of our history – to a city whose significance for Armenia is hard to overestimate. We are talking about one of the oldest cities in the world – the famous Armenian city of Urkha, or Edessa.
It was one of the first centers of Armenian Northern Mesopotamia, founded around the mid-4th millennium BC by Proto-Armenian and Chaldean tribes. It was initially called Urukhu or Ursu, from the Old Armenian Orek (Khoryan), and later the city’s name transformed into Urkha (under which it appears throughout Armenian history). Under Semitic-Arab influence, it was transcribed into Urfa (under which it became known to the world).
In the Hellenistic period and up until the time of the Crusades, Urkha was called Edessa. It was under this name that the city witnessed events that were fateful for Armenia and the entire world, which will be discussed below.
The Ottoman-Turkish yoke, until recently, maintained the name Urfa, but in recent decades changed it to Şanlıurfa, thereby Turkifying the name and distancing it from the Armenian Urkha.
Urkha-Edessa is located in Armenian Mesopotamia, in the province of Epratacik (i.e., the Euphrates Lands), on the Tsavdeatsvots plateau (Arabic Al-Jazira – Island, as the Arabs call all of Mesopotamia), in the southwestern foothills of the low ridge of Krmanch or Karmunj (from the Armenian krm – priest), north of the famous Harran.
From ancient times, Urkha was a major center of Armenian culture, as well as the capital of Armenian Mesopotamia and the Armenian Kingdom of Edessa. The most famous king of Edessa was Abgar the Great, who ruled in the 1st century.
Associated with King Abgar is one of the oldest sacred traditions of Christianity, linked to one of the most venerated relics – the so-called “Image of Edessa,” or, in Armenian, “Surb Dastarak” (Holy Cloth).
Suffering from a serious illness, Abgar, having heard about the miracles that Jesus was performing in Judea, sent his secretary to invite Him to live in Edessa and help the king heal.
Jesus, who already knew His fate, replied to Abgar’s secretary that He could not leave Judea, where He had a divine mission, but highly appreciated the faith and respect demonstrated by the Armenian king.
It was to Abgar that the famous words of Jesus were addressed, stating that people who saw the Messiah in person did not believe in Him, but Abgar, without seeing Jesus and His miracles, believed.
To the king’s secretary, Jesus also said that the people of King Abgar, the Armenian people, are chosen by God, for they are great in their nobility. As for Abgar’s illness, Jesus allowed the artist, who accompanied the secretary, to paint His portrait and deliver it to the king for his healing.
Despite the artist’s best efforts, nothing worked out. Then Jesus took a piece of cloth and, after washing, wiped His face with it, and miraculously the image of the Messiah was imprinted on the cloth. Thus, humanity received the greatest relics – Surb Dastarak, or the Holy Image of Edessa, with the only lifetime portrait of Christ.
Like many other Christian relics (the Spear of Longinus, the Holy Grail, a piece of the Lord’s Cross, etc.), Surb Dastarak (which, by the way, fulfilled its healing mission for Abgar) was delivered to Armenia with great difficulty – the first Christian nation in the world, the country of the biblical Paradise.
According to the earliest, still uncorrupted Christian traditions, it was the divinely chosen Armenian people who were deemed worthy of keeping all these relics on their blessed land, to pass them on to their descendants.
However, history had other plans. So, Surb Dastarak was safely delivered to King Abgar in Urkha-Edessa and was preserved here for many centuries. It was sealed into one of the city’s fortress walls, protecting it and the Armenian people from misfortune and calamities.
After the end of the era of the Crusades, Armenia, having encountered European treachery and deceit for the first time, was left alone to face the overwhelming armies of the Mamluks. Keeping Surb Dastarak in a city that would soon be captured by foreigners was no longer possible.
With the utmost secrecy and caution, the relic was transported to a place where, in theory, it should have remained inviolable and preserved for many centuries – to the capital of Christian Byzantium, Constantinople.
But even here, history did not leave it in peace – in the middle of the 15th century, the city was seized by the Turks. And the Armenians took Surb Dastarak to Europe, where it has been kept in honor and preservation to this day – in the former Armenian church of Genoa, which, after the departure of the Armenian community, passed under Catholic jurisdiction.
However, the Genoese are not Turks, and numerous Armenian inscriptions are fully preserved on the walls of the church; the abbots are well informed about the Armenian ownership of the church, telling parishioners and tourists about it and the relic kept there.
Surb Dastarak is stored in a special case, equipped with modern security measures, and is very rarely shown to the public. Your humble servant, while serving as a boatswain on the Armenian ship “Kilikia,” visited Genoa with the entire crew in 2004 and was honored with the special privilege of seeing Surb Dastarak with my own eyes.
By the way, recently one of the most worthy Armenian politicians of modern times, and one of the leaders of the Dashnaktsutyun party, the late Vaan Ovannisyan, published, in my opinion, the most successful work of today’s Armenian literature dedicated to Surb Dastarak – the historical and artistic novel “Mandylion,” presenting his view on the history and storage place of the Cloth.
As a non-lyrical digression with a somewhat vague subtext, I want to remind readers of one inconsistency in biblical texts. Jesus appeared in Jerusalem in the 33rd year of His life, being well-educated and speaking several languages.
The Bible does not contain direct information about His life before this, but there are indirect hints in various lists and texts that He was educated not just anywhere, but specifically in the Armenian Urkha — Edessa, which had excellent schools and a rich library.
And the native language of the Messiah was Aramaic – read, Armenian (the almost literal repetition leaves no choice for the conclusion – Aram was a descendant of Hayk Nahapet, one of the kings of Armenia of the Haykian dynasty).
Several centuries after the stunning story of King Abgar and Jesus, Urkha-Edessa again comes to the forefront of Armenian history. It was here that Mesrop Mashtots directed his steps at the end of the 4th — beginning of the 5th centuries for the full design and creation of the calligraphic base of the restored Armenian alphabet.
It was precisely the Armenian schools and the famous libraries of Edessa that attracted the wise and great scholar, whose goal was to finalize the formation of the oldest of alphabets, which he accomplished with genuine brilliance.
It was in Urkha-Edessa that Mashtots hoped to find books in the Armenian language, about which he had heard a lot, including from the famous Bishop Daniel. However, a very strange coincidence – just a week before Mesrop’s arrival in the city, a major fire occurred, which, among other things, completely destroyed the famous library.
Well, as for the reasons and consequences of the deliberate destruction of the ancient strata of the Armenian language, script, religion, and culture as a whole – that is a separate conversation…
Mashtots, nonetheless, fulfilled his mission – both in Edessa and in the nearby Samosata (ancient Armen – Urimn, now submerged in a reservoir) on the banks of the Euphrates, recreating an alphabet that is perfect in its cosmic systematization from the world’s most ancient scripts.
By the way, the truth, in the end, no matter how hidden and distorted, comes to light. An example of this is the fact that this year, during excavations at the site of Urkha – the ancient Urukhu (prototype of the Sumerian-Babylonian Ur and Uruk, now in Turkish – Göbekli Tepe), the tomb of King Abgar and members of his family was discovered.
And yet some of the pseudo-Armenologists still consider Abgar and Hayk Nahapet to be fictional, rather than historical, figures…
The history of Urkha-Edessa, as well as of all Armenia, has been conveyed to our generation, among others, by a native of this city, the Armenian chronicler and historian of the 12th century, Mattevos Urkhaetsi.
Until 1915, Urkha remained a major center of Armenian science and culture. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 15 Armenian schools operating here, and three churches – Surb Tsob or Sopi (Sophia of the Slavic and Sufi of the Semitic languages, founded in the 1st century by King Abgar), Surb Ovannes, and Surb Sargis.
10 out of the 15 mosques that existed in the city were also former Armenian churches, converted in the 12th to 17th centuries. About 35,000 Armenians lived in Urkha. In 1895 and 1915, the Armenians of Urkha demonstrated unprecedented heroism in self-defense against Turkish bands.
The famous self-defense of Urkha in September-October 1915 was led by Mkrtich Yotnekhparyan and others. Turkish artillery fire destroyed almost all 2,300 Armenian homes; the remaining property was destroyed by the Armenians themselves, who decided to fight to the death.
On October 23, those who remained alive fell in the last battle, and 15,000 women and children were driven into Deir ez-Zor. However, during the self-defense, more than two thousand soldiers were killed, along with a large amount of equipment and supplies. Now, under Ashtarak, the settlement of Nor Edessia has been established, in which a monument to the heroes of the Urkha self-defense has been erected.
by Grigor Beglaryan
Translated by Vigen Avetisyan