Where was the first Christian church building, probably in 180 C.E.? Where was the first place outside of Antioch that Christian missionaries were sent out to the east? Where were two of the first Asian Christian theologians based, Bardaisan and Tatian? Where was the first Christian theological college/university, near to the year 200 C.E.? The answer is the city of Edessa, 180 km to the NE of Antioch. Edessa, now the modern Turkish city of Urfa, was the staging area for a strong missions movement to the east that may have included three of the original twelve apostles: Thomas, Thaddeus and Bartholomew. The gospel did not only move west to the areas around the Mediterranean Sea but also further east in Asia, a sometimes unknown or downplayed part of history.
The beginnings of the Christian church were not in the West but in Asia, in a region known today both as the Middle East as well as West Asia. Edessa, after Jerusalem and Antioch, became the key center for this spread east. The Church of the East, an overall name for the great Church of Asia with several branches, grew from Edessa with its Christological position consistent with the stance of Antioch, believing in both the divinity and humanity of Christ but attempting to articulate that mystery in their own linguistic and theological terms.
An early tradition of the Church at Edessa documented by the historian Eusebius has their King Abgar corresponding with Jesus Christ sometime during his three years of ministry. While there is no evidence to support this exchange, the closeness in proximity of Edessa to the Galilee and other areas of Palestine at least lends a plausibility to some form of connection going on between people in those areas in the first century. The King is suffering from a sickness and he writes the following to Jesus: “I have heard of you, that you heal without medicines or herbs making the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers clean. I beg you to come and heal me. I have heard that the Jews wish to harm you. I have a city, very small. but stately. It would do for us both.”
Traditions from Edessa state that Jesus responded to King Abgar: “Blessed are you that have not seen me but have believed. I must finish here all that which I was sent to do, and then return to Him that sent me. But after that, I will send one of my disciples to heal you and to bring life to you and those with you.” Supposedly the disciple that Jesus sent was Thaddeus (called Addai by the Church of the East) and he went to Edessa and the King was healed, becoming a follower of Jesus. Though perhaps a tradition that has no evidence factually, this exchange illustrates the strength of a real city named Edessa that became a crucial center for Christianity in the early centuries.
Today however there are no Christians left in Urfa (Edessa). What was once a major center for the spread of the Christian faith, with some form of University that included both theological studies and mission preparation, now has no more churches of any kind. In a book I would highly recommend for those interested, William Dalrymple travels throughout parts of Asia and Europe describing what he sees of the present while reflecting on the past. Titled From the Holy Mountain, it is an entertaining read packed with information on ancient sites of Christianity as well as present centers of devotion. Dalrymple is one of my favorite writers, and has been instrumental in helping start a Book Festival in Jaipur, India that has become widely popular not only in India but globally. Starting out as a travel writer with books like this one, he has shifted to writing histories on South and Central Asia, including his most recent on Afghanistan, Return of a King.
On pg. 77 of his book, Dalrymple describes his visit to modern Urfa in southeastern Turkey: “I climbed to the citadel and looked down over Urfa. On every side the hills were brown and parched. It was nearly noon, and beyond the town’s limits nothing moved except the shimmering heatwaves and, in the distance, a single spiral of wheeling vultures.” He then notes the situation related to Christianity: “There are no functioning churches in Edessa any more. Although legend has it that Edessa was the first town outside Palestine to accept Christianity-according to Eusebius, its King Abgar heard about Jesus from the Edessan Jews and corresponded with Him, accepting the new religion a year before Christ’s Passion-there has been no Christian community here since the First World War. For in 1915 the governor began ‘deporting’ the Armenians: rounding them up in groups, marching them out of town with a ‘bodyguard’ of Ottoman irregulars, then murdering them in the discreet emptiness of the desert.”
What happened in Edessa/Urfa has happened in many places in the Middle East/West Asia. Once thriving centers of the Christian faith that hosted Universities integrating scholarly learning with sending out missionaries, (like another city called Nisibis also in the Turkish/Syria/Iraq frontier region), there are many of these areas that have no Christian or Jewish communities today. With the takeover of the major city of Mosul in Northern Iraq last year by ISIS, another city with an over 1600 year history of the faith became virtually desolate of Christians.
These things could lead us to a conclusion that somehow Christians should take back these places and expel the Muslim communities residing there or limit them from living around our own cities. Instead as Christians we should seek to witness to our faith boldly yet with great hospitality, never ceasing to pray that someday places like Urfa, Nisibis and Mosul will again have loving followers of Christ living among the Muslim majorities there. Where we do have the freedom to live as Christians among Muslims, whether in the Middle East, other areas of Asia like India and Pakistan, or the West, we should do so with a commitment to loving witness however possible in the local context.
Having those different from us, the ‘other, living in our communities is absolutely essential to the hospitality and integrity of the Gospel of Jesus lived in the life of believers. May it someday be true in Urfa and Mosul as well.