Amida (Diyarbakır)


Amida: town on the Upper Tigris, modern Diyarbakır.

The walls of Amida, from the south
The walls of Amida, from the south

Situated on a high platform commanding a crossing of the river, Amida is one of the strategically most important places in the Upper Tigris region. It comes as no surprise that already in the most ancient times, people were interested in seizing this town. There's a relief that represents the Akkadian king Naram-Sin (r.2255-2218; middle chronology), who was apparently interested in controlling this area.

Several centuries later, the city must have been visited by the Assyrian traders who went to Kaneš in Central-Anatolia. At the beginning of the first millennium, "Amedi" is mentioned as capital of Bit Zammani, an independent state that became part of Assyria before 819. In 856, Salmanasser III used it as base for a campaign against Armenia. The Royal Road, which connected the capitals of Persia, Elam, and Assyria, to Gordium and Sardes in the west, crossed the Tigris at Amida.

The Assyrian king Naram-Sin
The Assyrian king Naram-Sin

In spite of being an important node in the international trade networks, the city was not to become famous until the fourth century CE. For the Romans, the Upper Tigris was an important part of the frontier with Armenia,note, a kingdom that was at times a vassal of Rome's archenemy, the Sasanian Empire. In the early 330s, the Roman prince Constantius, who was to be emperor from 337 to 361, "surrounded Amida with strong walls and towers, and by establishing there an armory of mural artillery, he made it a terror to the enemy". note

It was of no avail, because in 359, the Sasanian king Shapur II (r.309-379) was able to take the city, although it was defended by its normal garrison, the Fifth Legion Parthica, and five other legions. Ammianus Marcellinus offers a famous eyewitness account of the siege, which lasted seventy-three days. When the two empires concluded a peace treaty in 363, the city was returned to the Romans, who reconstructed the damaged walls between 367 and 375.note By this same treaty, Nisibis was surrendered to the Persians, and the Christians living over there had to leave their hometown. They settled in Amida.

In the fifth century, we read about many kinds of Christians in Amida: adherents of the Nicene Creed, Nestorians, and Monophysites. The last-mentioned group appears to have been dominant, because a Monophysite bishop represented Amida at the Second Council of Constantinople (553).

The bridge at Diyarbakir
The bridge at Diyarbakir

In October 502, the city was besieged again, this time by the Sasanian king Kavad I (r.488-530), who captured Amida in January 503, on the 97th day of the siege. The population was massacred, and the Roman commanders Patricius and Hypatius were unable to recapture the city when they arrived in the spring. A second attempt, however, during the winter of 505/505, was more successful, although the Romans had to pay the Persian garrison to leave.note. It was left to the emperor Justinian (r.527-565) to reinforce the damaged walls.note; the walls we see today, essentially belong to this period.

By now, the nearby fortress of Dara was more important, and became the focus of new fights between the Byzantine and the Sasanian Empires. Amida remained Roman, although it was briefly Persian during the campaigns of Khusrau II (r.591-628); the emperor Heraclius recaptured it - but as is well-known, his military successes against the Sasanians were disastrous for the region, which was an easy conquest for the Arabs. Four years after the battle of the Yarmuk (636), Amida received new masters: the Beni Bakr, after which the city is still named, Diyarbakır.

Visitors can still see the ancient walls, built by Justinian; the Harput Gate - in Antiquity known as "Gate of the Armenians" - contains several interesting inscriptions. One of the Greek texts, which dates back to the fifth century, commemorates the building of a hospice by a man named Appius. The bridge, south of Diyarbakır, was built in its present form in the final years of the fifth century by bishop John Saoro.

A Latin inscription at the Harput Gate mentioning Valentinian I, Valens, and Gratian
A Latin inscription at the Harput Gate mentioning Valentinian I, Valens, and Gratian


To our emperors, leaders in virtuous initiative and unconquered - may they be safe and well! - Valentinian and Valens and Gratian, ever triumphant Augusti: the city, following their sense of patriotic duty, constructed this from the foundations.

Thanks... Bill Thayer.

This page was created in 2010; last modified on 13 October 2020.