A time for killing*

by Andrew Palmer

17th April 1997

This is dead time, like dead ground, where something big, like a canyon, can hide from a close observer. No one knows where I am. In England they think I am in Syria; in Syria they think I am still in England. I have time to kill. Indeed, it is a time for killing: tomorrow is the Kurban Bayrami, the Muslim Festival of the Offering. That is why I have come back early: to redeem my car from the Customs Office before the six-day holiday begins. Yesterday or the day before there was a big conflagration among the tents at Mecca, in which about 200 died. It was covered last night on Turkish television to the point of saturation. Today all the pilgrims, including the Turkish Prime Minister, Erbakan, will go up Mount Arafat. When I left Turkey from Adana airport on 20th March, I was surrounded by old men and women in white, about to fly to the Hadj. Tomorrow the slaughter will begin. Here in Turkey it will continue for four days. The animals which shed their blood will be sheep and cows, at least a million of them in Turkey alone. Muslims do this because Abraham did it. Abraham who, according to a Muslim tradition, was born at Urfa. I arrive in the evening. All the way along the road from Adana I have been passing trucks full of sheep. In Urfa, certain shops are open until late; the people are buying new clothes, new shoes, jewellery, toys, tape-recorders, ceremonial knivesÉ The men are having haircuts and getting shaved; the old-fashioned cut-throat razor at their helpless throats seems too suggestive for comfort, in a place where thousands of throats will be cut after prayers tomorrow morning. I shall feel under-dressed, unless I go out and buy myself a new shirt to wear with my suit. An old man comes in to the shop, asking me for small cash, and protests, as the sales assistant shows him out of the shop: “He knows! He knows!”. But it is only later – cooling off around the fountain in the Turkish Baths – that I learn that Muslims should not refuse to give alms on this, of all days. The hammam in the cellar of my hotel (the “Harran”) is full of old men and young men, fathers and their prepubescent sons.

18th April 1997

I sleep late, avoiding the sight of slaughter in the streets, but I awake nonetheless to the sound of bleating, instead of birdsong. From the roof of my hotel I can see a river of blood in a very large ditch. I remember reading how 400 monks opposed to the Byzantine Emperor’s religion were slaughtered in the ditch outside the Southgate of this city. After a moment, I realise that what I see is blood mixed with water and the ditch is the cutting through which the Kara Koyun, or “Black Sheep”, river runs, collecting the life-blood of countless animals today.

The ancestor of the Kara Koyun, the Daysan (Greek: Skirtos), or “leaping river”, destroyed the lower part of the city (then called Orhay, or, in Greek, Mesopotamian Edessa) on several occasions. I imagine it was more powerful than this sickly stream between its banks of ordure. According to the Syriac Chronicle of Edessa (AD 540) the first recorded flood was in AD 201. Afterwards measures were taken to prevent another similar disaster: the river-bed, which passed, of necessity, through the city-walls from west to east, was widened and the banks were built up high. It was forbidden to sleep near the river (the disaster had occurred at night) and a special watch was kept above the water-gates. The king, whose name was Abgar, the son of Ma’nu, built himself a high palace on a rock outside the city to the south and stayed there in the winter. He also rebuilt the palace inside the wall, around the springs at the foot of that same high rock, as the summer residence of the king. All these works were recorded in the annals of the city. There is no word of a cutting to the north of the city or a dike to the north-west which diverted the river around the northern wall. These must have been made at a later time.

Procopius, in the Buildings, flatters Justinian by attributing this solution of the problem to that emperor. But already in the fourth century, in this same month of April, AD 384, a pilgrim from the Far West, Egeria, had seen the channel dug to divert the river around the northern wall, although at that time it was dry. The bishop who showed her around the city told her that the Persians had dug the channel to pressurise the besieged by thirst; but this can hardly be true, any more than the story (preserved in a XIIIth-century Syriac chronicle) that it was Nimrod the Giant who diverted the river. More likely the channel, a deep cutting through the shoulder of rock which forced the river southwards towards the springs and made it necessary to include either both, or neither, within the city-walls, was dug after the flood of AD 303. The city was at that time a Roman colonia not far from the eastern frontier and thus important to the Roman Empire, which feared the ambition of the young Sasanian Empire of Persia to recover all the territory once ruled by Xerxes and Darius. Constructing the ditch and the dike must have been a routine matter for the Roman engineers. The memory of the event was suppressed by the bishops who came to control the annals of the city, because the emperor under whom the work was done, Diocletian, had persecuted the Christian Church.

For many years this work of the Roman engineers protected the city from calamities; but the arches of the bridge over the ditch were narrowed by branches and other vegetation and the channel began to silt up, until the water came up over the dike and the river returned to its former bed. It was only a matter of time before the next catastrophe would occur (this happened in AD 413, as we read in the Chronicle of Edessa). By AD 384, the time of Egeria’s visit, the dryness of the channel had become the “proof” of a “miracle”. The bishop who was her guide told the gullible pilgrim that the Persians had diverted the river in order to reduce the city by depriving the inhabitants of water; but that God caused springs to be opened within the city-walls, inside the palace of King Abgar, and dried up the river, so that the Persians themselves were driven away by thirst. Egeria did not ask why the Persians did not benefit from the stream flowing from the springs, although she crossed what she understood to be that stream and remembered it as “a great river of silver”. In fact, on just such a sunny day as this, she must have crossed the river Daysan, which had returned to its original bed and which passed, augmented by the water of the springs, through the lower part of the city and out below the eastern walls into the Plain of Harran.

So did the holy man, a monk and confessor tell a lie? Not just one, but several! Since the annals of the city, as far as we know them from the Chronicle of Edessa, were largely taken up, from the early IVth century onwards, with the affairs of the bishops, Egeria’s guide, who was the bishop of Edessa, must have known that the high palace on the rock was built after the palace on the springs, but he told Egeria that Abgar’s first palace “was on high ground, like most palaces in those days”, a phrase which betrays the glib tongue of a none-too-scrupulous cicerone. He must also have known from the annals that the Tomb of Abgar, which he showed Egeria, was not yet made in the time of Abgar the Black (“In the year 400 [AD 88-89] King Abgar [Abgar VI bar Ma’nu reigned from 71-91] built a nafsho [that is, a tomb-tower] for himself”: Chronicle of 540; described as the mausoleum of the House of Aryo in the Teaching of Addai), yet he told her that it was his. He probably knew, or guessed, that the marble busts of Abgar and of his son, Ma’nu, were of the Severan period, shortly after AD 200, not of the Ist century, as Egeria was told (they were probably sculpted in Rome during Abgar VIII’s sojourn in that city, which is recorded by Dio Chrysostom and echoed by Procopius, though the latter projects it back to the time of Augustus).

The bishop certainly knew that the original text of Jesus’ letter to Abgar the Black, as quoted by Eusebius from the annals of Edessa, contained no promise that Edessa would be impregnable to its enemies, yet he included this promise in the translation he gave to Egeria. She naïvely supposed that this version was more complete than the shorter letter which she had read in a translation at home, presumably one brought back to the Far West by an earlier pilgrim. In fact, it seems likely that Egeria’s guide was personally responsible for this most daring fraud of all: an addition to a text which claimed Jesus himself as its author. His tour of the city was designed to focus attention on that promise. Knowing all this, one can believe that the holy bishop even dared to hoodwink Egeria on the subject of the river’s course. But how did he do that? He must have prevented her, during her three-day stay, from seeing the upper course of the river. To do this he had to keep her away from the western walls (especially from the water-gates, which were probably out of bounds anyway as belonging to the military precinct of the praetorium) and from the north side of the Palace Rock.

Traffic from the direction of Antioch entered Edessa in those days from the north, not, as today, from the west. The Westgate was used for burials: it was named after the kappe, or burial-niches, in the quarter now called the Forty Caves. Egeria was escorted to the martyrium of St Thomas, then, perhaps, lodged outside the Eastgate, near the other martyria on that side and to the north (the Chronicle of 506 speaks of “all the convents and inns that were close to the wall [on the outside]” and of “the bones of all the martyrs which were around the city”, presumably including the shrines of Sharbil, Babai, Barsamya and the famous pair, Gurya and Shmona on the north side of Edessa). She was kept busy the following day and the day after that with chaperoned visits to these martyria and to the holy monks who lived among them. Later there would be two monasteries directly outside the Harran Gate: that of the Oriental Brothers, and that of the Mother of God. Egeria says that “other [monk]s had their cells further away from the city, where it was more private”. The sites of the future Monastery of Saint Cosmas, now the shrine of the Righteous Job, and of the Monastery of the Domes, further to the south, are possible candidates. Egeria, who climbed many mountains, may even have gone up to the Monastery of the Tomb-Towers, which would have taken her the better part of a day. That she gives no further details is not difficult to explain. She surely intended to write another letter full of the wisdom of the desert-fathers (and the desert-mothers) in Egypt, in Sinaï, in Palestine, in Mesopotamia and in Cilicia. She visited them everywhere she went and they are the first justification she gives to her sisters for the unplanned excursion to Edessa. Other books of this kind have survived, such as the History of the Monks in Egypt, the Lausiac History, by Palladius, and John Moschos’ Spiritual Meadow. Egeria’s surviving letter has a separate section on the Jerusalem Liturgy, into which she gathers all her observations on this subject. She has the self-discipline to refrain from telling them in the course of her earlier narrative, so she was certainly capable of holding back details of her visits to the ascetics and keeping them for their proper place.

Two days, then, were spent gathering sayings for a book or a letter on the monks and nuns of the east, sayings which Egeria will have heard in the words of an interpreter and noted by shorthand, as she noted the narrative of the bishop, with evident accuracy. The bishop’s tour probably took place on Sunday, the day of the Resurrection; Egeria will have been presented to the bishop after church. If he was aware that she was planning to write letters and perhaps a book about her pilgrimage, he may have attached considerable importance to her as a mouthpiece and a means of communication with the western world.

After the Eucharist, then, the bishop, a successor to the apostles and, like them, “a fisher of men”, took the pilgrim from the cathedral to the nearby palace of the king and gave her a breakfast of fishes from the pools created by the springs within that palace. By doing so he imitated the resurrected Jesus, who roasted the “miraculous draught of fishes” for St Thomas and the other apostles on the lakeside in Galilee, as related in the Gospel According To John. The action was richly symbolic, but the symbolism was lost on Egeria.

He then went out of the palace, showing her the busts of the king and his son and no doubt suggesting to her (inspired by the Acts of Judas Thomas and by Ephraims madroshe on the pearl) the pearl-like sheen which she ascribes to the marble, and crossed by a bridge the very river which he would later tell her had been dried up for ever by a miracle. He even drew her attention to this river and to the abundance of its water and made her believe that all this water came out of the miraculous springs in Abgar’s palace. It must have been impossible, then, to see the western watergates from the bridge.

He then took her on what seemed to be a complete tour of the city. First they will have walked up the street parallel with the western walls, which Egeria must have seen marching beside them. Then they will have mounted the battlements at the Gate of Hours (now the Gate of Samsat). From here they will have had a view very much like mine from the roof of the hotel; the hotel is further to the east, and so further downhill, but its roof (above the sixth floor) compensates by being higher than the battlements. The intervening buildings will not have been so high as they are today. Far away to the south they could see the Palace Rock and, below it, the greenery which grew around the springs in the palace gardens of King Abgar. To the west they could see the ancient acropolis (of which Egeria says nothing – presumably it had only pagan temples and was thus without interest for her) and, beyond the western walls, the hills in which the river rises, crouching low on the horizon. The hill on which the acropolis stood and the walls which marched along its western crest blocked Egeria’s view of the Valley of the Stadium and of the upper course of the river. Just below her, she could see the vast cutting on either side of the Roman bridge outside the Gate of Hours, and satisfy herself that it was dry. Over to the east was visible the plain, on which the Persians must have pitched camp. To the south was the Gate of the Sun-Temple (now the Harran Gate), where King Abgar had held up Jesus’ letter as a talisman against the besiegers.

Egeria evidently had an interpreter who sat with her while the bishop told his story. She got the story down word for word, presumably by shorthand, something she could only do if they were resting. From the wording of the story we can see that it was told from a vantage-point at which everything could be seen: “the small hill you see up there”, from which the city had its water; “the springs you can see over there”; the dry channel, which “is like that today, as you can see, for since then there has never been any water running in it”; Abgar’s palace, which, “as you can see, had been on high ground”. The bishop ended by saying, “Now let us go to the gate where the messenger Ananias came in with the letter of which I have been telling you.”

So, whether they went back the way they had come, or (more probably) walked along the battlements, he took her to the Southgate, where he read her the letters of Abgar and of Jesus, including the fraudulent passage containing the promise that Edessa would be impregnable to her enemies, the promise which gave point to the whole story of the Persian siege. They then went around, outside the city walls, and Egeria and her interpreter were shown the Tomb-Tower of Abgar and his family. Egeria writes, “The holy bishop also showed us the tomb É and he took us up to Abgar’s first palace (the one on the Palace Rock, according to the bishop), and showed us all the other things there were to see.” This seems to mean that they did not actually go up to the Tomb-Tower of the House of Ary.

By now, it being time for Evensong, the bishop will have taken his guest back to the cathedral by way of the Harran Gate. She thought she had seen, in the hydrography of the city, the incontrovertible proof of the power of God and of his favour towards King Abgar and his city. It was a superb conjuring trick, which the bishop insisted on performing in person; for who would dare to doubt the word of a holy monk and confessor? If any shadow of a doubt should subsequently arise in the mind of the pilgrim, it would be dispelled by the illusion that the whole city and the surrounding land had been surveyed. But why did the holy man indulge in fraud? For two reasons, I suggest, as usually in Byzantine times, one theological, the other political; and, as usual in Byzantium, the theological reason is also political, the political reason also theological.

The theological reason has to do with the Old Covenant passing away and being replaced by the New. The drying up of the river, which is reminiscent of the parting of the Red Sea and the Jordan, two events central to Jewish sacred history, was intended by the bishop, as I think, to symbolise the redundancy of Judaism, while the welling up of the springs in the palace of Abgar stood for the birth of Christianity. The Persian siege represented the persecution of the new religion by the Romans; and the diversion of the river into the Persian camp was like the alliance between the Jews and the Romans in crucifying Jesus. The city of Edessa stands for the Church, nourished by the miraculous Resurrection of the crucified Jesus. This symbolism was politically charged, because there had been, in the period before Egeria’s visit, a resurgence not only of the more Jewish interpretation of Christianity, Arianism, but also of Judaism itself. Julian the Apostate (AD 360-363) had given confidence to the Jews by authorising the rebuilding of the Temple of Solomon, although his reign was too short to allow the project to be realised; his successor, Jovian, had reigned only a few months; after that came Valens in the east and his brother Valentinian in the west, both of whom gave their support to Arianism and thereby, according to Saint Ephraim (who died at Edessa in AD 373), removed the essential difference between Christianity and Judaism, namely Jesus’ property of bridging the divine and the human by his full identity with both. Valens died at Adrianople in AD 378 in battle against the Goths and the Visigoths. His successor, Theodosius, became sole emperor, ruling from Milan, where he was influenced by Ambrose, the bishop of that city, to initiate an anti-Jewish bias in the imperial administration and legislature. He also convened a General Council of the Church at Constantinople in AD 381, which reaffirmed the doctrine of the first General Council at Nicaea in AD 325 and condemned Arianism. It was not yet “a time for killing” the Jews, but persecution of various kinds was beginning to be the order of the day.

This leads us to the second, political, reason which the bishop of Edessa may have had for practising deceit on Egeria. The defeat of the Roman army and the death of the emperor on the field of battle at Adrianople in AD 378 placed a large question-mark beside the power of the Cross to defend the Roman Empire against its enemies. The Cross had been put forward as the new talisman of Rome by Constantine the Great, whose statue at Edessa, as in other cities around the empire, held a Cross as the standard-bearer holds the standard in the field. Indeed, oblivious of Christ’s words that “those who live by the sword shall die by the sword”, the Roman standard-bearers now carried a kind of cross, the labarum, into battle. The chief political justification of the favoured position of the Church in the Roman Empire of Constantine and his successors was this: that the power of Jesus protected the Roman Empire against its enemies and made the emperor victorious. The spectacular defeat of the only non-Christian successor of Constantine, Julian, and his death of the field of battle, seemed to confirm this reasoning. But it must have rung hollow after Adrianople. One can imagine how much capital the Jews made out of this defeat, since already in the time of Saint Ephraim they were crowing over the Church, split as it was between the Nicaeans and the Arians, both of whom rested their case on the text of the Gospels. The only answer was to attribute the defeat to the Arian sympathies of Valens and to restate the Constantinian doctrine with renewed vigour, saying that all Roman emperors would be victorious, provided that they were not heretics, like Valens.

The promise of Jesus to King Abgar, that his city would never be taken by its enemies, can be understood as a transferred restatement of the doctrine of Constantine. It was invented, I suggest, by Bishop Eulogius, who had been exiled by Valens for his opposition to Arianism, and who, after his return from exile, received Egeria and many other pilgrims at Edessa. Edessa epitomises both the Church and the Empire. Abgar set an example which was followed by Constantine. Where Constantine was victorious in the sign of the Cross, Abgar was saved by the letter of Jesus. For pilgrims like Egeria, it was recommended to go from Jerusalem to Constantinople, taking in Edessa on the way, just as the Christian Faith, which spread from Jerusalem, only became the religion of the Roman Empire after first becoming the religion of the little kingdom of Orrhoene. This one small city’s role in epitomising all that the Church and the Roman Empire stood for was reinforced by the visit to Harran. The largely pagan population of that city stood in contrast to the largely Christian population of Edessa; and the bishop of Harran drew attention to the proximity of the Persian border when he told Egeria that Abraham’s birthplace (Ur of the Chaldees, according to the hebrew tradition, not Urfa, as Muslims say) was in Persian territory and thus inaccessible to pilgrims.

Pilgrims like Egeria may have been generally identified by eastern churchmen as receptacles for ideas and chosen as the vehicles by which those ideas could be spread to other parts of the Empire. The usefulness of these ideas (their “truth”, as the bishops would have said) was ample justification for trivial fraudulence, such as pretending that the river had dried up, when in fact it had returned to its former bed. It even justified, I believe, so far as Eulogius was concerned, misrepresenting the contents of a letter supposedly written by Jesus himself and attributing to him a promise which would be seen to have failed, if ever Edessa should actually be taken by the Persians. This happened in 609 and no doubt the event deeply undermined the confidence of the local Christians, who, thirty years later, surrendered the city to the Arabs after a token resistance and began to lose their faith. Today the city, renamed Urfa, is entirely Muslim. The last Syrian Christians left in 1924 and went to Aleppo. Nine years before that the Armenians had been the victims of the worst “time of killing” in recent memory.

All these things occur to me as I stand on the roof of my hotel. Then I descend from that height, coming down at the same time out of my cloud of historical reflections. I walk down to the Great Mosque, built in AD 1170, and approach it through an archway on the north side, which looks Roman. The row of arches continues as part of the wall to the west. In the courtyard are numerous sculpted capitals and in the prayer-hall several marble columns. The imam’s assistant tells me that this used to be a church, called “the red church”, probably because the columns are of pink marble. (According to Segal, this may have been the church of St Stephen, constructed with imperial funds in the early Vth century on the site of the former Jewish synagogue.) Here there is a well from which pilgrims drink in faith, wishing to be cured of their skin ailments and of eye-diseases. I drink from the well, with little faith, hoping that my weak eyes will grow stronger and that my skin will cease to itch – perhaps hoping to cure my lack of faith. The assistant tells me that the well is known as that into which the towel (mendil) of the prophet Jesus was thrown. I ask him whether Jesus visited Urfa. No, he says, Jesus lived in a village near Jerusalem; but he sent the towel as a present to the king of Urfa. Outside the Great Mosque I am struck by the quantity of doctors advertising their services by red and white notices. Does this mean that Urfa has more than its fair share of sick residents, or is the phenomenon connected with the pilgrimage, which must attract many sick people? No doubt they are ready to try medical remedies in addition to religious ones.


* For literature mentioned here, see S. Brock: “Syriac historical writing: a survey of the main sources”, Studies in Syriac Christianity: history, literature and theology, Aldershot, 1992 (Variorum collected studies ; 357)