The ancient city of Edessa was a city-state situated between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers in the upper Mesopotamian Fertile Crescent. It was long an important trading center on the Silk Road between China and India in the East and the Mediterranean basin area of the Roman Empire. It was also a very early Christian community starting around A.D. 200.
If you were to travel from Jerusalem to Antioch, as St. Paul did, you were, by the time you reached Antioch, two-thirds of the way to Edessa. At Antioch you might turn left and travel along the Roman roads to Tarsus, Paul’s home town. Or you might turn right and, by travelling about the same distance along the Silk Road, arrive at Edessa. (See: Map)
Today, the city is called Şanlıurfa or simply Urfa. It is located in south-eastern Turkey near the border with Iraq. As with northern Iraq, most of the population is Kurdish, though there are many Arabs and Turks in the city as well. The predominant religion is Muslim but there are Christian and Jewish minorities, some who claim heritage back to the 3rd century and 1st centuries respectively, and perhaps earlier.
According to local tradition and the belief of some Muslims, Urfa was the Biblical city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham. Most biblical scholars, archeologists and historians of ancient Mesopotamia think that the Chaldean city of Ur Kasdim, now Tell el-Mukayyar in southern Iraq near the Persian Gulf, is the Biblical city of Ur.
See Edessa History
There was, throughout the city’s history, a strong tradition that the apostle Thomas and a disciple variously named Addai, Thaddeus Jude (of the biblical 72 or 70) went to Edessa after the death of Jesus. This is legend and it is more likely that, as historian Jack Markwardt writes:
. . . Avircius Marcellus, the Bishop of Hieropolis, was summoned to Rome, where he was introduced to Abgar’s wife, Queen Shalmath, that he then travelled to Antioch, where he was joined by Palut and provided with the Shroud, identifiable as the historically-documented sacred Christ-icon which had been taken from Palestine to Syria, and that he then proceeded to Edessa, where he displayed the imaged relic to the king and baptized him into the Christian faith, thereby resulting in the Shroud’s commemoration, in legend, as the Portrait of Edessa.
Markwardt goes on the suggest us that the shroud was then brought back to Antioch where it remained until sometime in the 6th century. It was, Markwardt believes, concealed above the city’s Gate of the Cherubim in A.D. 362 where it remained until about 540. (The Gate of the Cherubim was so named because, reportedly, according to the biographer of St. Saint Symeon Stylites, the column sitter, Titus placed the Cherubim he took from the Temple in Jerusalem above this gate).
Edessa was a cosmopolitan city in Jesus’ day and one of the cities were Christian communities developed early as they did in Antioch. Edessa, located once where the modern Turkish city Urfa lies, is situated about 400 miles north of Jerusalem.
The earliest role for Edessa, as it relates to the Shroud of Turin, pertains to a legend that an image-bearing cloth was brought to King Abgar V Ouchama of Edessa sometime during his reign (13 0 50 CE) by one of Jesus’ disciples known to us as Thaddeus Jude (Addai) or by the apostle Thomas.
What is not legend, nor speculation, is that the cloth, with an image of what was in the sixth century believed to be a true and miraculous facial image of Jesus, was found in the walls of the city in the sixth century. During repairs of the city walls in 525 CE, or more likely, during a Persian invasion of the city in 544 CE, the cloth was discovered where it had been concealed above one of the city gates. At the time, a church was built especially for it. It was, to the people of Edessa, the lost cloth of the legend.
In the late sixth century, Evagrius Scholasticus’ Ecclesiastical History mentions that Edessa was protected by a 'divinely wrought portrait' (acheiropoietis) sent by Jesus to Abgar.
In 730 CE, St. John Damascene in On Holy Images describes the cloth as a himation, which is translated as an oblong cloth or grave cloth. This may be the first mention, among extant documents, of it being a grave cloth.