Land of Two Rivers The Gnostic Apostle Thomas / chapter 8 / Herbert Christian Merillat

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Between the upper Tigris and Euphrates, whose waters nourished one of the first civilizations on our planet, we find Sanli Urfa, Turkey. Here is the homeland of Thomas lore, the native ground of the principal Thomas traditions and writings.

Arising in the Caucasus mountains, then making its way southwestward across the Anatolian plateau, the Euphrates describes a huge bend, about l00 miles across, as it turns south. Then it crosses from present-day Turkey into Syria, and then southeastward to meander the length of Iraq to the Persian Gulf. Within that bend lay, in ancient times, the province of Osrhoene. Its chief city, Edessa, nestled in a cup of barren hills at the southern fringe of the rugged Anatolian plateau. Edessa was the center of Syriac culture and the place where Thomas was elevated into a major figure in early Christianity.

Today the town is known as Urfa — or, more fully, Sanli Urfa; Kemal Ataturk bestowed the honorific sanli (heroic, worthy, courageous) after the inhabitants resisted French incursions from Syria in the wake of World War I.

Around much of the city the brown hills of the Anatolian massif form a barrier. To the south a gap opens to the fertile plain of Harran, where, according to biblical stories, Abraham tarried on his way to the land of Canaan. Dominating that gap, at the edge of the city, rises an independent hill, flattened at the top and developed, as in a Greek city, into an acropolis or citadel. It is crowned by two free-standing Corinthian columns, looking oddly misplaced, which dominate the skyline. One line of speculation attributes them to the cult of the Heavenly Twins — the Gemini of the zodiac, the Roman Dioscuri, or the sun god and moon goddess.

Edessa has its own river, known as Daisan or Leaping River. It was well named, for it often burst out of its banks when in spate. But it was more or less tamed by Byzantine rulers in the sixth century, dammed and diverted into a new channel across the northern edge of the ancient city. Edessa was not entirely dependent on the river for its water. Limestone formations around the town hold underground reservoirs that put forth generous springs.

(Late in the twentieth century, as the Turks installed huge dams along the course of the upper Euphrates, immense tunnels were excavated to bring water, from a lake thus formed, to Urfa and the plain of Harran. Urfa began changing from a quiet provincial capital into the hub of a huge, newly-watered agricultural district. Pipelines built to carry oil from Iraq to the Turkish port of Iskendrun pass just south of Urfa.)

With its plentiful supply of siege-proof water and its protective hills, ancient Edessa was a natural fortress in a strategic spot between the rival empires of Rome and Persia. And it lay sufficiently east of the Euphrates, about thirty miles away, to have warning of any forces threatening to cross that river from the west. Edessa was also a major junction of trade routes. One extended northward, branching to Armenia and the Black Sea. Caravan routes led eastward to China and India.

Although nominally autonomous, the kingdom of Osrhoene was subservient alternately to Rome and Parthia-Persia, as the centuries-long conflict between the two shifted control now to one, now to other, at this collision point. Its rulers sometimes skillfully played the two off against each other, and earned, in Roman annals, a reputation for duplicity and treachery.

Osrhoene was in the Persian rather than Roman sphere of cultural influence. Its inhabitants spoke, not Greek, but Syriac — a form of Aramaic, the language of commerce and everyday transactions from the Mediterranean to Punjab in the centuries that span the beginning of the Christian era. Aramaic was also the language of Jesus and his followers. Edessa was the center of Syriac literatureand thought. This is not to say that it was another Athens. Scholars have commented on the poor quality and scarcity of literature in Syriac. They have, of course, only such writings as have survived from the early centuries; most have been lost or destroyed.

In the second half of the second Christian century Edessa was under the Roman thumb most of the time. In the year l94, hoping to break Roman rule, the Edessans foolishly joined their Parthian neighbors in a siege of the Roman garrison in Nisibis, the main city to the east between the Euphrates and the Tigris. Septimus Severus put a new king on the throne in Edessa. In 201 the Daisan leapt its banks in a devastating flood, destroying the royal palace and causing the king to move to a new structure on the Citadel. A few years later he was received with honors in Rome. But the end of Edessan independence was approaching.

Caracalla – “the common enemy of mankind,” as Edward Gibbon calls him — and his brother Geta succeeded their father as joint emperors in Rome in 2ll. Caracalla soon disposed of his brother, having him murdered in the presence of their horrified mother, Julia Domna (whom we met earlier in these pages in connection with Apollonius of Tyana). Thereafter, leaving affairs of state largely in her capable hands, Caracalla spent most of his reign visiting his provinces. He especially liked the East, for he fancied himself a second Alexander and he meant to make war on the Parthians.

Caracalla had invited the Edessan king to Rome, but put him in chains on his arrival. He reduced the Osrhoene to the status of a colony and spent the winter of 2l6-2l7 there, intending to start a campaign against the Parthians in the spring. Mercifully for all his subjects, he was assassinated on a pilgrimage to the temple of the moon god in nearby Harran. But Edessa was no longer the capital of an independent kingdom.

Religions of Second-Century Edessa

The Osrhoene of this period offered a rich variety of religions. The citizen might be a worshipper of Atargatis, the fertility goddess of Syria, whose principal and widely famous shrine was southwest of Edessa in Hierapolis. Not surprisingly, in that arid region, pools, fountains, and lakes were often objects of worship. Edessa was — and , as Urfa, still is — famous for its Pool of Abraham and another sacred pool, fed by capacious springs and seething with fat carp. In the period that concerns us, the pools and the fish were dedicated to Atagartis.

Hierapolis, too, had sacred waters in the form of a lake teeming with fish dedicated to the goddess. Only her priests could actually feast on the creatures. Once a year the idols from the temple were brought to the little “sea” in a clamorous procession of cymbalists, drummers, flutists, and reed-players. With them were the galli , devotees of Atagartis who had emasculated themselves as a supreme act of dedication. Young men often cut and nailed to the wall their first beards. Two columns stood before the temple.

An Edessan might also worship the moon goddess, or the sun, or one of the planetary deities, such as Jupiter or Venus. Babylonian astrology was always powerfully attractive in this region. Some regarded Marilaha as one supreme god, presiding over the lords of the seven planets. The prophet Elkesai had a substantial following. Little is known for certain of the Elkesaites, but apparently they were originally a Jewish vegetarian baptist sect in southern Mesopotamia that later adopted a form of Christianity. They venerated water as the source of life and performed frequent ablutions of themselves and of their food. They abhorred Paul, the apostle to the gentiles. They believed in reincarnation, and regarded Christ and the Holy Spirit as elemental male and female principles. (It appears that the third-century Gnostic leader Mani was born into this community.)

Jewish communities flourished in and around Edessa, as elsewhere in Syria-Mesopotamia, although their main concentration was further to the east, in the city of Nisibis. And the Christian Gnostic Valentinus had followers in the region. A little-known sect called Quqites apparently combined elements of Judaism, Christianity, paganism, astrology, and Gnosticism, and was later listed by church fathers as one of the local heresies.

The sixth-century Chronicle of Edessa , in describing the flood of 20l, states that it destroyed the royal palace and everything near the river, and “caused damage, moreover, to the shrine of the church of the Christians.” In some scholarly opinion the “moreover” clause, with its curious redundancy (“shrine” and “church”) was inserted long after the flood, in an attempt to give orthodoxy earlier beginnings than other evidence supports. Almost certainly no separate church building for Christians of any persuasion had been built in Edessa by the end of the second century.

People of the Living Water

One unmistakably Gnostic sect survived into the twentieth century. It was not near Edessa but at the other end of the Tigris-Euphrates valley, where the rivers combine to form the marshy Shatt-al-Arab at the head of the Persian Gulf. The Mandeans were a small baptismal community. In their own language, a dialect of East Syriac or Aramaic, their name means “gnostics”– “knowing ones” (manda = gnosis). For them, the ruler of the world of light was the Great Life, from whom a hierarchy of lesser spirits emanated. At the bottom was the creator god. A King of Darkness, a defector from the realm of light, ruled over his own demonic creation of monsters and evil spirits, reared out of the “dark water.”

Once in existence, the kingdom of darkness could not be destroyed, but the Great Life could set limits. The creator god made the bodies of Man and Woman, Adam and Eve, but their inner souls came from the kingdom of light. To rescue these souls and restore them to their original home was the task of gnosis. The Great Light sent emissaries or messengers to show the way. Such redeemers helped to guide the soul, released by death, through the planetary spheres. At the end of the ascent a Keeper of Scales awaited, who weighed its deeds and its grasp of gnosis. If found wanting, souls would be kept in way stations, “places of detention.” If passed by the Keeper, they attained reunion with the Great Life.

The experience of knowledge was assisted by cult rites, of which the most important was baptism, an immersion in flowing, “living,” water. In historical practice, the ritual site was an enclosure by the river bank, with one channel bringing water in and another serving as an outlet. A pool in between was the site of a triple immersion in white robes, with appropriate invocations and prayers. A simple eucharist of bread and water and a handclasp of “truth” with the priest followed. At death, ablutions of the corpse were followed by forty-five days of special prayers and ceremonial meals, while the newly-released soul was in ascent.

The place of immersion was called Jordan. We are told that Mandeans originated with a heterodox baptismal sect that broke away from conventional Judaism in the first century and migrated eastward. They rejected all ties with Jews and Christians, and later with Muslims.

In the twentieth century this relic of early Gnosticism wasted away. Mandeans acquired fame as workers in precious metals, and their work took them to the bazaars of Baghdad and other cities. The young lost touch with their distinctive language and were interested in starting careers, not in becoming priests. Mandean territory, on both sides of the waterway, was bitterly fought over in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and again was devastated in the civil war that followed the coalition action against Saddam Hussein. Some of the survivors migrated to Europe and the United States.

In the second half of the second century, if a stranger to Edessa had asked how to find a Christian gathering (probably, in those times, a household where a group of Christians met to take a meal together and worship) he or she very probably would have been shown to a meeting of Valentinians or to a place where Marcion was regarded as the leader or to a gathering of followers of Bardaisan — an Edessan whom we will soon meet. We have already encountered the important Gnostic leader Valentinus. Marcion was even more important historically. Although very few Christian laymen today have ever heard his name, he had an enormous influence on the shaping of the new faith and its holy writ.

  The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.

Land of Two Rivers