Ruin of ancient Edessa
Ruin of ancient Edessa

Both Edessa and its successor, Nisibis, were in northern Mesopotamia, in an area known for its military and its religious importance. Edessa has been called the Athens of Syriac learning; but after its educational institutions were shut down in 489 c.e., Nisibis, a city less controlled by Byzantine authorities, became the heir to the learning traditions of Syriac culture and church.

Edessa was founded in 303 b.c.e. Legends tell of its king Abgar who was so taken by Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth that he sent him a letter. Jesus responded by sending the famed apostle Addai to convert Edessa and the rest of Mesopotamia to Christianity.

Other ancient traditions indicate that Edessa was at center stage in early church development: The body of Thomas the Apostle is buried here; the Syriac translation of the Bible (the Peshitta), the synthesis of the Gospels (Tatian’s Diatessaron), Acts of Thomas, Odes of Solomon, Gospel of Truth, Acts of Thomas, and Psalms of Thomas all were written in Edessa. Nearby Dura-Europos was the site of the first-known Christian building dedicated to worship.

The area was also known as a potpourri of religious diversity, perhaps accounting for its powerful creative productivity. Besides Judaic, Mithraic, Greek, and Syrian influences, currents of Gnosticism and monasticism vied for popular attention.

As time went on Edessa succumbed to imperial pressures toward Orthodox Christianity. In the fourth century c.e. Edessan Christianity tended toward zealous monasticism.

Along with this movement come the intellectual bards of Syriac literature: Ephrem the Syrian (fourth century), Jacob of Sarug (fifth century), and Philoxenus of Mabbug. From 363 until 489 Edessa was the major intellectual center for Syriac Christians.

The ancestors of Alexander the Great established Nisibis. Because of its strategic position the city often changed hands, as armies and king perennially coveted control of its resources.

In the first five centuries of the first millennium c.e. Roman Caesars and Persian shapurs lay many sieges and battles upon its population. The modern city offers an ancient two-nave church, where Ephrem’s hallowed teacher, Jacob of Nisibis, is entombed.

Jacob’s academy itself is located in the no-man’s land between the barbed-wire boundaries separating modern Turkey and Syria, just south of the modern city of Nisibis. When Persians surrounded the city in 363, the Syriac Christians were expelled and resettled in Edessa.

Less than 120 years later disaffected Syriac Christians fled from Byzantine persecution (instigated by the Greek Church) in Edessa to fond refuge in Nisibis under Persian protection.

Greek authorities had officially shut down the theological school at Edessa, and the axis of dissent, led by followers of Nestorius, shifted back into Nisibis. Ties with the Byzantine Christian world foundered—and still suffer today. Nisibis eclipsed Edessa as a center for the Syriac Church.

The School of Nisibis would dominate Syriac Christianity in Persia for the next two centuries. One of Edessa’s refugees, Narsai, led the school for 40 years, and such stability allowed his successor to gather more than 1,000 students.

These graduates then became the leaders for the Assyrian Church and other churches outside of the Byzantine Christian pale. Eventually Ctesiphon displaced Nisibis as the Syriac intellectual center, but not until the eighth century.