Emesa In The 7th Century And The Tale Of The Burning Of Their Bishop

Emesa, located between Aleppo and Damascus, was a city that had been traditionally aligned with the Roman / Byzantine Empire since the days of Emperor Caracalla (r. 198-217), who designated the region as a colonia of Rome. Throughout its history, Emesa was visited by many emperors and played a prominent role in the various Roman-Persian wars that broke out over the centuries. Emesa’s history, however, became especially complicated after war broke out in the 630s between the Empire of Constantinople and the expanding Arab forces.  The city was aligned with Emperor Heraclius of Constantinople (r. 610-641) for much of his reign, and it also hosted a Christian church that was renowned for its beauty and was the seat of power for a bishop.

Emesa’s location in Syria eventually put it on the frontline of the wars between the emperors of Constantinople against the invigorated and aggressively expanding Arab forces. Juxtaposed to the energetic campaigns of the Arabians, the Roman / Byzantine Empire was contrastingly exhausted from a long destructive war with Persia that lasted from 602 to 628. This was compounded by an ongoing struggle with the Lombards in Italy that had been raging since King Alboin led his Lombard people into Constantinople’s Italian lands around 568. Emperor Heraclius, who had personally and ably led the troops of Constantinople to victory over the Persians, was beginning to fall into increasingly ill health during the time when Arab armies started to threaten his realm. He could do little but rush to fortify Anatolia while also sending deputies to try to defensively mitigate the damage of invasion. Nevertheless, Heraclius’ generals on the front lines often failed to outmaneuver their Arab opponents, leading to defeats in battle and loss of imperial territory. Emesa suffered in this time when Heraclius was no longer personally commanding his armies. The city had been the site of victory over the Arabs in 633, but it quickly fell under siege again by 636. When the exhausted, inconsistent and poorly-commanded imperial armies showed no sign of being able to arrive on time to come to the rescue during that later siege, the defenders of Emesa finally decided to surrender the city to the Arabs in 636, capitulating after an approximate four-month standoff.

After the surrender of the city, the local church and bishop in Emesa were evidently left alone and continued to function. The bishops there would have experienced the reigns of the caliphs, Umar I (r. 634-644) and Uthman (r. 644-656), as well as the rivalry between Ali (r. 656-661) and the Umayyad Dynasty’s founding leader, Mu’awiya (r. 661-680). The city of Emesa actively supported Ali, and Mu’awiya may have harbored a grudge against the city after he outlasted Ali to become the sole ruler of the Muslim empire. Otherwise, perhaps the city became troubled by violent zealots, such as the Khārijite movement. Whatever the case, the local bishop of Emesa suffered a mysterious death in the mid-660s. In an entry for the year Annus Mundi 6157 (approximately 665-666 CE), the chronicler, Theophanes (750s-818), wrote, “the Bishop of Emesa was burned alive” (Theophanes, Chronographia, entry for Annus Mundi 6157). Unfortunately, that brief statement was all that the chronicler said on the matter—no further details were divulged about anything regarding who, how, or why, involving the case. The only possible context clue, at least from the chronicle, was that a new wave of warfare between Constantinople and the Arabs had just broken out a few years prior to the bishop’s alleged death by burning. Whatever the case for the bishop’s mysterious demise, Emesa would continue to feature anti-caliph sentiment, for which the Caliph Marwan II (r. 744–750) would eventually tear down Emesa’s walls around 745.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Landscape with a Burning Tower, by Carlo Marchionni (1702–1786), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Smithsonian).


  • Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes, translated by Harry Turtledove. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity, edited by Oliver Nicholson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

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