Edessa (modern name Urfah or Orfa; Armenian name Edessia; Arab. Er-Roha; — Syrian, Urhoi), an ancient city of Mesopotamia, 78 miles S.W. from Diarbekir. An old legend attributes its origin to Nimrod, or to Khabiba, a female contemporary of Abraham. The Targums (followed by Jerome and Ephrem Syrus) make it the Erech of Ge 10:10. Another tradition (Jewish and Arabic) makes it Ur of the Chaldees (Ge 11:28). "With the conquest of Persia by the Greeks the history of Edessa first becomes clear. Seleucus, in particular, is said to have done much for the aggrandizement of the city. Christianity was introduced into Edessa at an early period. In the reign of Trajan the place was made tributary to Rome, and in A.D. 216 became a Roman military colony, under the name of Colonia Marcia Edessenorum. During this period its importance in the history of the Christian Church continued to increase. More than 300 monasteries are said to have been included within its walls. With the extension of the religion of Islam, Edessa fell into the hands of the Arabian caliphs. Christianity declined, and wars at home and abroad during the caliphate destroyed likewise its temporal splendor add prosperity, till, in 1040, it fell into the possession of the Seljuk Turks. The Byzantine emperors succeeded in recovering Edessa, but the viceroy contrived to make himself independent. He was, however, hard pressed by the Turks, and this rendered it easy for the crusader Baldwin, the brother of Godfrey of Bouillon, to gain possession of the city (A.D. 1097), and make it the capital of a Latin principality, and the bulwark of the kingdom of Jerusalem. Under the Frankish princes, Edessa held out valiantly against the Mussulmans, till at length Zengi, ruler of Mosul, succeeded in taking the town and citadel in the year 1144, when all the Christian churches were converted into mosques. After many vicissitudes, in the course of which Edessa fell successively into the hands of the sultans of Egypt, the Byzantines, the Mongols, Turkomans, and Persians, the city was finally conquered by the Turks, and has ever since formed a portion of the Turkish dominions. The population is variously estimated at from 25,000 to 50,000, of whom 2000 are Armenian Christians. The Jacobites, in the last century, had 150 houses and a church. The rest are Turks, Arabians, Kurds, and Jews. Edessa is regarded by the Easterns as a sacred city, because they believe it to have been the residence of Abraham" (Chambers, Encyclopaedia, s.v.). It is still the seat of a Greek archbishop and an Armenian bishop. A dialect of the Aramaic is still spoken at Edessa (comp. Etheridge on the Aramaic Dialects, page 10).
The report of the introduction of Christianity by king Abgar (q.v.), a contemporary of Christ, is probably an unfounded legend; but it is certain that Christianity became firmly rooted in Edessa at a very early period. The twenty-sixth Osrhoenian king (152-187) was, if not a Christian himself, a patron of Christianity, and the Gnostic Bardesanes is said to have been highly esteemed by him. Edessa was an early episcopal see, and in the 4th century became the chief seat of Syrian ecclesiastical learning. The emperor Julian threatened to distribute the large treasure of the churches of Edessa among his soldiers, but his death saved the churches from the execution of this threat. In 363, Ephrem (q.v.), the Syrian, came from Nisibis to Edessa, and by his preaching, teaching, and prolific writings, greatly distinguished himself in the defense of the orthodox doctrines of the Church. After the death of Ephrem, the Arians took possession of all the churches of Edessa, but after five years the ascendency of the orthodox school was restored. Different from the Edessene school established by Ephrem was the Persian school at Edessa, which was intended to be a seminary for the Christian subjects of the Persian king. It attained its highest prosperity in the time of Ephrem, became subsequently a stronghold of Nestorianism, and was on that account dissolved in 489. — Herzog, Real-Encykl. 3:645; Wetzer und Welte, Kirchen-Lex. 3:391; Chronicon Edessenum, in Assemani, Biblioth. Oriental. 1:387-428; Cureton, Ancient Syriac Documents relative to Edessa, etc. (London, 1866); Etheridge, The Syrian Churches (London, 1846), page 35 sq. SEE NESTORIANS.