Abgarids of Edessa

Dynasty of kings who ruled in Edessa from ca. 133 BC until the middle of the 3rd cent. The most common names in this line of kings are Abgar and Maʿnu, both of which are of a North Arabian type. The disintegration of the Seleucid Empire in the 2nd cent. BC allowed the Abgarids to establish their power. With the appearance of the Romans in the Near East in the 1st cent. BC, the Abgarids were able to maintain Edessa and the surrounding area of Osrhoene as a more or less independent buffer state between the Roman and the Parthian empires. Our main source for the list of ca. 30 Edessene kings is the late 8th-cent. Chronicle of Zuqnin. Additional information is occasionally provided by other sources, Syriac and non-Syriac, as well as by coins. Of particular interest is the E.-Syr. Chronicle of Eliya of Nisibis (d. 1046).

Our knowledge of the earliest history is very limited. It becomes more substantial from the moment when Rome began to extend its reach into Mesopotamia, i.e., from Abgar VII (109–116) on through the end of the dynasty. In the 2nd and early 3rd cent. the relationship between Rome and Edessa intensified; it reached its climax under Abgar VIII, the Great (177–212). Rome finally imposed its power on Edessa when in 212/13 the short-lived reign of Abgar VIII’s successor was ended and the city declared a Roman colonia . The dynasty was briefly restored in 239, but by 242 Rome had once again taken full control. Whether this was the definitive end or whether the dynasty in one form or another continued to exist for some years, as Yaʿqub of Edessa seems to suggest in his Chronicle, is unclear.

It is under the Abgarid kings that the distinctive Aramaic language form that later became known as ‘Syriac’ first started being used in inscriptions. The script of the inscriptions is closely related to the Esṭrangela of the earliest, 5th-cent. Syriac mss. (even though some of the mosaic inscriptions exhibit a slightly more cursive type). Mosaics, numismatic evidence, and a number of inscriptions, mostly funerary, provide glimpses into Edessa’s social and cultural life. In addition to its Aramaic background, these also reveal the impact of Roman as well as of Parthian culture. Several of the preserved mosaics can be dated to the reign of Abgar VIII or to the period when Edessa was under Roman rule.

The two kings most closely associated with Syriac Christianity are Abgar V Ukkama (‘the Black’, 4  BC–AD 7 and 13–50) and Abgar VIII. The former was alleged to have corresponded with Jesus and, at the arrival of the apostle Addai, to have converted to Christianity, along with most of the city. This legend is first mentioned in Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History (early 4th cent.) and is further developed in the early 5th-cent. Teaching of Addai. Some scholars have suggested that the historical kernel relates to Abgar VIII and was retrojected into the reign of Abgar V. However, the few indications that Abgar VIII might have been a Christian each pose their problems. First, the addition in the ‘Book of the Laws of Countries’, by Bardaiṣan’s pupil Philippus (ca. 200), that Abgar VIII outlawed the practice of self-castration ‘when he came to faith’ (kad haymen) may very well be a later interpolation, as it is lacking from the quotation of the relevant passage in Eusebius of Caesarea’s ‘Preparation for the Gospel’ (VI,10,44). Second, even though Sextus Julius Africanus describes Abgar VIII as a ‘holy man’ (as quoted from the ‘Kestoi’ in George Synkellos’s ‘Chronography’), this does not necessarily point to the Christian religion. As a matter of fact, the various renderings of this term include not only hieros ‘holy’ (Synkellos), sanctus ‘holy’ (Jerome’s Latin translation of Eusebius’s Chronicle), and kāhnāyā ‘priestly’ ( Yaʿqub of Edessa ), but also terms that do not take on a religious connotation, such as šappirā ‘excellent’ (Chronicle to the year 724) and azniw ‘noble’ (Armenian version of Eusebius’s Chronicle). Also noteworthy is the fact that the coins and the mosaic portrait of Abgar VIII (published by Drijvers) do not reveal any Christian symbols or ideology. It is very unlikely, therefore, that Abgar VIII — or any other king of the Abgar dynasty — ever converted to Christianity. Christianity, however, did exist in Edessa under Abgar  VIII. According to Sextus Julius Africanus, the Christian author Bardaiṣan was an intimate of the royal court. In addition, a brief comment (seen by some as a later addition) in the account of the flood of Edessa in the year 201, as preserved in the 6th-cent. Chronicle of Edessa, reports that the ‘sanctuary of the church of the Christians’ (hayklā d-ʿedtā da-kresṭyāne) had suffered damage.

If none of the Edessene kings ever was Christian, it is all the more interesting that the Abgarid dynasty, decades after its disappearance, had a Christian afterlife and became an important element in the self-definition of Syriac Christians.

See Fig. 1.


  • W. Adler, ‘Sextus Julius Africanus and the Roman Near East in the 3rd century’, JTS ns 55 (2004), esp. 530–9.
  • S. P. Brock, ‘Some new Syriac documents from the third century AD’, ARAM 3 (1991), 259–67.
  • S. P. Brock, ‘Eusebius and Syriac Christianity’, in Eusebius, Christianity, and Judaism, ed. H. W. Attridge and G.  Hata (1992), 212–234.
  • H.  J.  W.  Drijvers, ‘A tomb for the life of a king. A recently discovered Edessene mosaic with a portrait of king Abgar the Great’, LM 95 (1982), 167–89.
  • Drijvers and Healey, The Old Syriac Inscriptions.
  • A. Camplani and T. Gnoli, ‘Edessa e Roma. A proposito di un libro recente’, Mediterraneo Antico 4 (2001), 41–68.
  • A. Luther, ‘Elias von Nisibis und die Chronologie der edessenischen Könige’, Klio 81 (1999), 180–198.
  • A. Luther, ‘Die ersten Könige von Osrhoene’, Klio 81 (1999), 437–454.
  • Millar, Roman Near East, esp. 457–67, 472–81.
  • S. K. Ross, Roman Edessa. Politics and culture on the Eastern fringe of the Roman Empire, 114–224 CE (2001).
  • J. B. Segal, Edessa ‘The Blessed City’ (1970; repr. 2005).
  • L. Van Rompay, ‘Jacob of Edessa and the early history of Edessa’, in After Bardaisan, ed. Reinink and Klugkist, 269–85.

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