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2012-12-07 10:01:01 Views : 1808 |

Prelude to Constantine: The Invented Tradition of King Abgar of Edessa

The following is a thesis by Alexander Mirkovic of Vanderbilt University titled "Prelude to Constantine: The Invented Tradition of King Abgar of Edessa."

In the year 943, the troops of Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (913-959) entered the city of Edessa, an important Mesopotamian town which the Arab Caliphs had held for over three hundred years. The takeover was one for the high points of the Byzantine re-conquest of the Near East undertaken by the rulers of Macedonian dynasty (867-1056). This effective ruling house represents not only the apogee of Byzantine military might, but also the pinnacle of the Byzantine ability to make diverse local Christian traditions of the Empire into an effective instrument of political propaganda.

For example, in August of the next year, the victorious troops brought back to Constantinople the most precious relic of the city of Eddesa, the cloth with the image of Jesus on it. At about the same time, while the Byzantinee emperors were re-conquering the Middle East and bringing sacred objects as trophies to the capital, a fresco was painted in the Monastery of Saint Catherine of Sinai, patronized by the funds directly from the imperial chancery. That fresco was a representation of the King Abgar of Edessa, the man who gave the order the the portrait of Jesus be made, according to the story preserved under the name of Abgar legend.


The history of Edessa is as turbulent as the past of any other city in the Middle East. The Byzantine reconquest did not last very long. Because the Byzantine Empire fell into a military and economic crisis, it was forced to abandon most of its territories in Asia after the decisive defeat by the Seljuk Turks at Mantzikert in 1071. After the Byzantines, the Crusaders arrived in the famous Mesopotamian city and organized themselves there for almost half a century. As a result they took ''the myth of Edessa'' back to Europe, where it gained in allure as a part of the enchanting baggage of the Crusaders. The image of the pious city standing calmly far away in the East, laden with Oriental grandeur and blessed directly by Jesus, captured the imagination of many Europeans.  Colonialism brought the English to the Near East and ''the myth of Edessa'' continued its transformation in the times of printing press. The myth of the blessed city captured the imagination of the Westerners once again. Many 19th century English homes had their possession a copy of the letter of Jesus to the king Abgar, and the discovery of a paptyrus fragment caused some excitement among the general public. 

To download the entire thesis, click here.

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