Urha, One of the Most Ancient Cities

Urha, One of the Most Ancient CitiesToday, we will make another trip to the sources of our history, to a city the importance of which is difficult to overestimate in Armenia. It’s about one of the oldest cities in the world, the famous Urha or Edessa.

It was one of the first centers of the Armenian Northern Mesopotamia founded in the middle of the 4th millennium BC by proto-Armenian and Chaldean tribes. It was originally called Uruhu or Ursu (from the ancient Armenian).

Then, the city’s name was transformed into Urha (under which it appears throughout the Armenian history), and under the influence of Semitic-Arab was transcribed to Urfa, which is its most known name.

In the Hellenistic period and right up to the era of the crusades, Urha was called Edessa. Under this name, events fateful for Armenia and the whole world took place, which will be examined below.

Until recently, the Ottoman-Turkic state preserved the name Urfa, but lately changed it to Shanlıurfa to distance it from the Armenian “Urha”.

General view of Urha-Edessa.
General view of Urha-Edessa.

Urha-Edessa was located in the Armenian Mesopotamia in the Gavar Epratatsik (the near Euphrates lands) on the plateau of Tsavdeatsvots (the Arabian Al-Jazira, which is how Arabs call the whole Mesopotamia), in the southwestern foothills of the mounts Krmants or Karmunj (from the Armenian Kurm – priest), north of the famous Harran.

Since ancient times, Urha was the largest center of Armenian culture and also the capital of the Armenian Mesopotamia and the Armenian Kingdom of Edessa. The most famous king of Edessa was Abgar the Great, who reigned in the first century.

The name of King Abgar is connected to the most ancient of the sacred traditions of Christianity associated with the so-called Surb Dastarak (Image of Edessa).

Abgar, who suffered from a serious disease, having heard about the miracles of Jesus in Judea, sent his secretary to him in order to invite him to live in Edessa and heal the king.

Jesus, who knew in advance about his fate, answered the secretary of Abgar that he cannot leave Judea where he had a divine mission, but asked to deliver his appreciation of the faith and respect of the Armenian king.

It was Abgar who was addressed to by Jesus with these words, “Those who saw the Messiah personally did not believe in him, but you believed in me and my miracles even without seeing them.”

Jesus also told the king’s secretary that the people of King Abgar, the Armenians, were chosen by God, for they are great in their nobility. As for the Abgar’s disease, Jesus allowed the artist accompanying the secretary to draw his portrait and deliver it to the king so that he could be healed.

One of the tombstones of Dzoraberd in Nork.

But no matter how much the artist tried, he was unable to complete the drawing. Jesus took a piece of cloth, performed ablution, and wiped his face with it. The face of the Messiah got miraculously imprinted on the scarf. This is how the greatest relic Surb Dastarak or Image of Edessa appeared to mankind, which is supposedly the only lifetime portrait of Jesus.

Like many other Christian shrines (the Holy Lance, the Chalice of Holy Grail, part of the True Cross, etc.), Surb Dastarak (by the way, it healed Abgar) was brought to Armenia, the world’s first Christian country, the country of biblical Paradise, with great difficulties.

According to the first, not vulgarized Christian traditions, it was the chosen people of God who were worthy of keeping all these holy things in their blessed land in order to pass them on to their descendants.

So, Surb Dastarak was safely delivered to King Abgar in Urha-Edessa and kept there for many centuries, immured in one of the fortress walls of the city, keeping it and the Armenian people safe.

After the end of the era of the crusades, Armenia faced the European perfidy and cunning nature for the first time and was left alone in its fight against the superior hordes of Mamluks. Further keeping Surb Dastarak in the city became impossible as the city would be soon captured by foreigners.

With the greatest precautions, the relic was taken to where, in theory, it would remain intact and safe for many centuries. That place was the capital of Byzantium Constantinople.

However, even here, disasters did not leave the relic alone. In the middle of the 15th century, the Turks seized control of the city. The Armenians took Surb Dastarak to Europe, where it is kept preserved and in high esteem to the present day in the former Armenian church of Genoa, which was passed to Catholic jurisdiction after the Armenian community of the city left.

Excavations of the ancient Urha.

The Genoese are not Turks, so there are many preserved Armenian inscriptions on the walls of the church. Talking about the relics stored there for display, the abbots are well informed about the Armenian belonging of the church. The Surb Dastarak is kept in a special casing equipped with modern means of protection and is rarely displayed.

Recently, one of the most dignified Armenian politicians of our time and one of the leaders of the Dashnaktsutyun party, Vahan Hovhannisyan, who died prematurely, published the most successful opus of today’s Armenian literature dedicated to Surb Dastarak, the historical and artistic novel “Mandylion” presenting his view on the history and place of storage of the Image of Edessa.

We wish to remind our readers of one discrepancy in the biblical texts. Jesus appeared in Jerusalem when he was 33, being perfectly educated and speaking several languages.

The Bible does not have direct information about his life before, but according to indirect hints in various texts, he was educated in the Armenian Urha – Edessa, which had excellent schools and a rich library.

And the native language of the Messiah was Aramaic, which is supposedly closely related to Armenian (the word itself leads to Aram, a descendant of Hayk Nahapet, one of the kings of Armenia of the Haykazuni dynasty).

A few centuries after the stunning story of King Abgar and Jesus, Urha-Edessa re-enters the first place in Armenian history. It was here that Mesrop Mashtots restored the Armenian alphabet at the end of the 4th – beginning of the 5th centuries. It was the Armenian schools and the famous libraries that attracted the wise and great scientist whose goal was the final formation of the oldest of the alphabets.

The Armenian quarter of Urha in 1906.

It was in Urha that Mashtots hoped to find books in the Armenian language, which he had heard a lot about. However, literally a week before his arrival in the city, it was caught on fire, which among other things, of course, destroyed the famous library. A rather strange coincidence.

The causes and consequences of the purposeful destruction of the oldest samples of the Armenian language, writing, religion, and culture are a whole another issue…

However, Mashtots still carried out his mission in both Edessa and nearby Samosate (Armen-Urim, which went down in a flooding), recreating the perfect alphabet in its cosmic systematization from the world’s oldest letters.

The hidden and distorted truth was eventually uncovered. An example of this is the fact that lately during the excavations near the modern Urfa in the so-called Portasar (Turkish: Göbekli Tepe), the tomb of King Abgar and his family was discovered. Nevertheless, some of the pseudo-Armenologists still consider Abgar and Hayk Nahapet fictional, not historical characters.

The history of the Urha-Edessa as well as all Armenia, among others, was brought to our generation by the native of the city, the Armenian chronicler-historian of the 12th century Mattevos Urhaetsi.

Until 1915, Urha remained the largest center of Armenian science and culture.  In the city at the beginning of the 20th century, there were 15 Armenian schools and three churches – Surb Tsob or Sophi (founded in the 1st century by King Abgar), Surb Hovhannes, and Surb Sargis.

10 out of 15 mosques in the city are also former Armenian churches rebuilt in the 12th-17th centuries. About 35 thousand Armenians lived in Urha. In 1895 and 1915, the Armenians of the city demonstrated unparalleled heroism in their self-defense against Turkish gangs.

In September-October 1915, the famous Urfa Resistance was led by Mgrdich Yotneghparian and other partisans who preferred to fight to the death rather than surrender to the Ottomans. Turkish artillery’s bombardment destroyed almost all 2,300 Armenian houses in the city. The rest of the property was destroyed by the Armenians, who decided to fight to the death.

On October 23, the last survivors fell in their final battle, and 15,000 women and children were sent to Deir ez-Zor. However, during the self-defense, more than two thousand Turkish soldiers were eliminated along with a large number of equipment and supplies. In the modern village of Nor Edessa near Ashtarak, Armenia, a monument to the heroes of the Urfa Resistance was erected.

by Gregor Beglaryan

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