Post-classical history

Edessa, County of

A Frankish state in northern Syria and Upper Mesopotamia (1097-1150). The first of the principalities established in Outremer in the course of the First Crusade (1096-1099), the county of Edessa was also the first to be conquered by the Turks. The brevity of Edessa’s history has left it the least studied of all the principalities of Outremer, but its many distinctive qualities make it more important than the duration of Frankish political authority might suggest. Edessa was the training ground for many leaders of Outremer, including two kings of Jerusalem (Baldwin I and Baldwin II). Unlike other parts ofOutremer, Edessa has a history that is traceable not only through Latin sources but also through a number of indigenous Armenian and Syriac chronicles. Another distinctive feature of Edessa was that the county was entirely landlocked, unlike the principalities of Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem, which depended on their seaports for survival.

Geography and Economy

At its greatest extent, the county of Edessa covered a large portion of what is now southeastern Turkey as well as parts of modern Syria. It stretched from Marash (mod. Kahramanmaras, Turkey) in the west to Tell-Mawzan (mod. Viranflehir, Turkey) in the east and from Gargar (mod. Gerger, Turkey) in the north to ‘Azaz in the south. The river

Euphrates cut through the center of the county, providing both a line of communication and a line of defense. The town of Bira (mod. Birecik, Turkey) commanded the crossing of the Euphrates between the city of Edessa (mod. Şanlıurfa, Turkey) and Antioch on the Orontes (mod. Antakya, Turkey) and was the furthest point north that river traffic from the Persian Gulf could travel.

Most of the land within the county was dry high plateau, suitable for raising horses, cattle, and sheep. The fertile areas around the Euphrates and other rivers, such as the Khabur, the Sadjur, and the Balikh, allowed the cultivation of wheat and other grain crops. On hillsides, produce such as olives, walnuts, and almonds were grown, whereas oak forests provided grazing grounds for pig herds. Sheep, goats, and cattle were also raised. The wealth of the county was based largely on its agricultural products; its advantageous position for controlling trade routes across northern Syria may also have provided revenue, although few sources shed light on how profitable this may have been. Unlike the Holy Land, Edessa had only minimal pilgrim traffic, and it never attracted dependencies of Italian merchant republics.

Succession to the County of Edessa, 1100-1150

Succession to the County of Edessa, 1100-1150


Frankish domination was established in the course of the First Crusade. The first important conquest was Turbessel (mod. Tellbasar Kalesi, Turkey), an important fortress and later residence of the counts, captured in the fall of 1097 by Baldwin of Boulogne, a younger brother of Godfrey of Bouillon. The city of Edessa, however, did not come under Baldwin’s authority until March 1098. Baldwin established the county through a strange combination of conquest and political subterfuge. After having shown himself to be an effective fighter against the Turks by capturing Turbessel and other fortresses, Baldwin came to Edessa to help protect the city from Turkish attacks, invited by either the city’s T‘oros, a Melkite Armenian, or by the citizens. T‘oros adopted the crusader, but within fifteen days of Baldwin’s arrival, a mob had killed T‘oros and proclaimed Baldwin the new leader of the city. Baldwin I soon added Saruj (mod. Suruç, Turkey) and Samosata (mod. Samsat, Turkey) to his domains and married the daughter of an Armenian lord. In October 1100, Baldwin left Edessa to claim the throne of Jerusalem, which had been left vacant by the death of his brother Godfrey. The county he left behind was a patchwork of castles, cities, and rural areas, some directly under Frankish authority, but most under local Armenian leaders. Some were allied with Baldwin, but others were opposed to the new Frankish influence. Baldwin directly ruled a core of territory on the western bank of the Euphrates River, but in the eastern area, his authority only extended to Edessa, Saruj, and Samosata.

The County of Edessa, 1097-1144

The County of Edessa, 1097-1144

Baldwin I’s successor was Baldwin II of Bourcq, a distant cousin, who eventually established comital authority on a more formal basis. Soon after becoming count, he installed his cousin Joscelin I of Courtenay as lord of Turbessel, which effectively gave authority over the western half of the county to Joscelin, leaving Baldwin free to concentrate on establishing Frankish authority over the eastern portion. But more importantly, Baldwin had an ally on whom he could rely. Baldwin’s marriage to Morphia, the daughter of Gabriel of Melitene, temporarily brought that city under his influence sometime between 1100 and 1104, but it was conquered soon after by the emir of Sivas.

When Baldwin and Joscelin fell captive to different Turkish emirs at the battle of Harran in 1104, Tancred of Antioch and Richard of the Principate, Normans from Antioch, assumed authority over the county, which they were loathe to relinquish when Baldwin and Joscelin were eventually released in 1108. Armenian and Syriac chroniclers denounce Richard as a vile usurper who exploited the county for financial gain and did nothing to protect Baldwin’s interests. The intervention of Baldwin I of Jerusalem was necessary to force Tancred and Richard to return the county to Baldwin II.

Baldwin II had scarcely reestablished his authority when the county fell under attack by Mawdûd, the atabeg of Mosul. Mawdûd was the first to employ the ideology of jihād (holy war) to rally Muslims against the Frankish settlers. While failing to conquer any significant portion of Frankish territory, Mawdûd did establish a model of Islamic leadership that would later prove very effective against the Franks in the time of Zangī and Nûr al-Dīn. It was perhaps these attacks that spurred Baldwin to establish his authority over all the Christian areas of northern Syria, seeking to replace local Armenian leaders with Franks loyal to him. Taking advantage of the death of Kogh Vasil in 1113, Baldwin seized his territory, capturing the important towns of Kesoun (mod. Keysun, Turkey), Raban, and Behesni (mod. Besni, Turkey). The important crossing point of Bira on the Euphrates came into Frankish hands in 1117, when Baldwin’s cousin Waleran of Le Puiset married the daughter of its lord, the Armenian Ablgharib, thereby resolving the siege under which the Franks had placed the fortress. By 1118, many of the more independent-minded Armenian leaders had either died or been forced out by the Franks, though some still held important fortresses within the county, such as Vasil in Gargar and Michael in Duluk.

In 1118, Baldwin II succeeded Baldwin I as king of Jerusalem. He subsequently established Joscelin as count of Edessa. Joscelin I proved to be a vigorous leader and was particularly admired for his military prowess and his close relations with local Christian communities. He first married a daughter of the Armenian lord Rupen, who was the mother of his only son, Joscelin II; he later married Maria, the sister of Roger of Antioch. Joscelin and Baldwin II, acting as regent of Antioch, gained a significant victory over īlghāzī, Artuqid ruler of Mardin and Aleppo, but their triumph was short-lived. Soon after īlghāzī’s death (1122), his nephew Balak captured Joscelin and Waleran of Bira. Baldwin II was also captured not long after that, leaving northern Syria leaderless. A resourceful band of Armenians infiltrated the fortress where Joscelin and Baldwin II were imprisoned, allowing Joscelin to escape. Once free, he sought to force Balak to free Baldwin by continuously attacking his former captor’s territories. Balak’s death in May 1124 led to Baldwin II’s release, but Joscelin continued his attacks on Aleppo, now ruled by Aq Sunqûr al-Bursuqī. The chronicles documenting these sieges and battles created a picture of plundering and devastation that may be exaggerated. Most of the conflict consisted of raids along Edessa’s border with Aleppo that probably did not affect the remainder of the county.

Joscelin died in 1131 and was succeeded by his son, Joscelin II. Edessa was relatively untroubled during the first few years of his reign, since Zangī, son of Aq Sunqûr, was concentrating on subduing his Turkish opponents. Joscelin resided chiefly in Turbessel, perhaps because of its proximity to Antioch. By 1135, however, Zangī had united much of Muslim Syria and Mesopotamia behind him, and he began to focus his considerable military resources on the Franks, first attacking Antioch. Little effort was made to defend the principality, however, as a result of political conflict within Antioch.

Within two years, the threat posed by Zangī was recognized throughout Outremer. A combined Frankish army was assembled under the leadership of Fulk, king of Jerusalem, which temporarily haltedZangī’s attacks, but Edessa and Antioch could not always rely on the military aid of Jerusalem. Joscelin and Raymond of Antioch turned to the Byzantine emperor, John II Komnenos, and both leaders swore an oath of fealty to him in return for protection. The price of Byzantine military support came largely at the expense of Antioch, but Joscelin feared that John’s ambitions extended to Edessa as well. In the spring of 1138, the emperor led a Frankish-Byzantine army to Syria, capturing Kafartab and Atharib from Zangī with Frankish help. The siege of the independent Arab city of Shaizar, however, failed because of Joscelin’s and Raymond’s unwillingness to cooperate with the Byzantines, as well as because of the approach of Zangī’s army.

While John Komnenos was alive, his army deterred Zangī’s attacks. In 1143 he again returned with his army to Syria and demanded hostages to ensure Joscelin’s cooperation. Following John’s death later that year, however, the Byzantine army withdrew, leaving Zangī unopposed. While Joscelin II was aiding a Saljûq enemy of Zangī in late 1144, Zangī attacked and captured the city of Edessa. The loss of the city was a blow to the economy and prestige of the county, but more importantly, it signaled to locals and foreigners alike that the Frankish presence in the Levant was by no means permanent. Joscelin, however, still controlled important towns and castles on the western side of the Euphrates that together formed a viable principality. His attempt to recapture Edessa in 1146 was briefly successful, but within a month the Frankish and Armenian forces were again expelled and the city’s Christian population massacred.

Although it was launched as a response to the fall of Edessa, the Second Crusade (1147-1149) did little to aid Joscelin or the much diminished county. Instead of attacking Nûr al-Dīn, Zangī’sson and successor in Aleppo, the crusaders attacked the independent Muslim state of Damascus, which had the paradoxical effect of pushing it into Nûr al- Dīn’s growing empire. Joscelin obtained a truce from Nûr al- Dīn to protect the remnants of his county and thus did not aid Raymond of Antioch when the latter attacked him in 1148 and 1149. Following the death in battle of Reynald, lord of Marash, Reynald’s lands fell to Mas‘ûd, the sultan of Rûm, despite Joscelin’s attempts to defend it. Gargar similarly fell to Joscelin’s erstwhile ally, Kara Arslān, and in 1150 Joscelin himself was captured on his way to Antioch. He was blinded, imprisoned in Aleppo, and died in 1159. His wife, Beatrix, defended Turbessel against Nûr al-Dīn’s attacks, but on the advice of Baldwin III of Jerusalem, she sold the remaining portion of the county to the Byzantine emperor, Manuel I Komnenos. The strongholds there fell to the Turks by the end of 1151.

Religious Communities

The county of Edessa had a diverse religious population of Armenian Orthodox, Melkites, Syrian Orthodox (Jacobites), and Muslims as well as a small population of Latins. The city of Edessa was home to a Latin archbishop and Armenian Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox bishops. The Armenian Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox patriarchs (whose nominal see was at Antioch) frequently resided within the county. The Franks had perhaps the most frequent religious interactions with the Armenians. Baldwin II encouraged one of the Armenian patriarchs, Barsegh I, to settle in Edessa in 1103/1104, with gifts of land and wealth. Although Barsegh eventually settled in Kesoun under the protection of the Armenian prince Kogh Vasil, Baldwin’s endeavors show the importance the Franks put on close relations with local religious leaders. When Countess Beatrix sold the remnants of the county to Manuel Komnenos, she gave to the Armenian patriarchate the castle of Hromgla (mod. Rumkale, Turkey), which became the seat of the patriarch for the rest of the century.

The counts of Edessa also enjoyed a measure of influence over the Syrian Orthodox Church. Baldwin II had supported Basil Bar-Shabouni, bishop of Edessa, in his quarrel with his patriarch, Athanasius VII. Following Athanasius’s death in 1129, Joscelin I had the patriarchal election take place under his supervision in the Latin church of Turbessel, ensuring that the next patriarch was more favorably inclined toward Edessa. Comital influence also ensured that the candidate favored by Joscelin II was elected as bishop of Edessa in 1135. Frankish relations with other religious communities are harder to uncover. A small community of Melkites lived in Edessa, and perhaps in other cities as well, but little information survives as to their relationship with the Franks. It is certain, however, that the Muslim population, particularly in Saruj, was treated harshly, often due to resistance to the Franks. The county also held Jewish communities about which we know little, and a small group of Armenian Zoroas- trians (known in Armenian as Arewordik) continued to flourish in Samosata.

Political Institutions

Although few sources survive concerning the institutional history of the county, references in charters and chronicles suggest that the county had a similar structure to that of the kingdom of Jerusalem, many of whose founding crusaders also came from northern France. The counts of Edessa operated a mint that produced a series of copper coins, beginning soon after the establishment of the county and continuing through to its demise. The coins drew on a range of imagery, including crosses, busts of Christ and St. Thomas, images of Frankish soldiers, and inscriptions in Latin, Greek, Armenian, and Syriac. The quality and diversity of the coinage seems to have declined after 1110. Serving under the count were several officers: the chancellor, who was often also the chaplain, and was concerned with civil affairs; the constable, who had military functions; and the marshal, also a military commander. Evidence also survives of castellans who defended fortresses that remained under comital authority. Early twelfth-century texts suggest that city councils, largely composed of indigenous Christians, also continued to play an influential role in ruling urban communities. Vasil, an Armenian who placed an inscription on Edessa’s city wall in 1122, may well have been a leading member of such a council.

The county contained several lordships: Saruj, Bira, Duluk, Gargar, Kuris, Ravendel, and (up to 1113) Turbessel. The rest of the land remained in the hands of the count. Not all of the lordships were Frankish: Gargar continued to be ruled by an Armenian lord, albeit under Frankish sovereignty, and the same may be true of Duluk. However, it is not clear that these lordships all existed contemporaneously. We have no evidence for a Frankish lord in Saruj after 1113, and no evidence for one in Ravendel before 1134. Marash has often been listed among the county’s lordships, but it may have been a part of the principality of Antioch or accorded a semi-independent status. Marash was actually entitled a county, thus giving it, at least semantically, the same status as Edessa. A further sign of Marash’s independence is the evidence that the counts of Marash minted coins, a regalian right not exercised by lesser lordships in twelfth-century Outremer.

Relatively little archaeological excavation has been carried out within the borders of the county of Edessa, but the few excavations along the Euphrates River (particularly at Grit- ille, Turkey) suggest that on a material level, the Frankish presence in northern Syria and Mesopotamia had little impact on daily life. Both archaeological and literary sources suggest that cities and local rural centers were fortified, often extensively. In many towns, buildings continued to be built in the mudbrick style indigenous to the region, and intensive agriculture, including irrigation, was not disturbed. Perhaps the greatest impact came from the intensive fortifications that the Franks built around cities and rural centers.

The history of the county of Edessa has often been portrayed as a struggle of an embattled island of Christianity striving to maintain itself in a surrounding sea of Islam. Yet the conflicts cannot be so neatly separated into Christian against Muslim. The counts of Edessa relied on Muslim allies to maintain their position; Joscelin II was aiding a Muslim emir when Zangī captured Edessa. Similarly, Franks turned to Muslims for support, as both Baldwin II and Tancred did during their feud over control of Edessa. The victories of Zangī and Nûr al-Dīn were opposed not only by the Franks, but also by Turkish and Arab rulers who sought to maintain their independence. Frankish authority over Edessa thus fit into a Levantine world of fragmented local authority, whether Christian or Muslim, which could not survive in the united world of Nūr al-Dīn and Saladin.

Counts of Edessa


Baldwin I (of Boulogne)


Baldwin II (of Bourcq)


Joscelin I of Courtenay


Joscelin II of Courtenay


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