Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.09.18

Irfan Shahîd, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century. Volume II, Part 2: Economic, Social, and Cultural History.   Washington, DC:  Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2009.  Pp. xxiv, 391.  ISBN 9780884023470.  $50.00.  



Reviewed by Kenneth G. Holum, The University of Maryland (kholum@umd.edu)

This volume brings near to completion Shahîd’s project of exploring the history of the Christian Arab federates who guarded the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in the centuries before Islam. The project became a Herculian task that will comprise eight large volumes. Shahîd began with prolegomena in Rome and the Arabs (RA) and the first thematic volume Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth Century (BAFOC), both published in 1984. In 1989 came Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fifth Century (BAFIC), and in the subsequent two decades Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century (BASIC) in four parts: BASIC I, 1: Political and Military History and I, 2: Ecclesiastical History, both in 1995; II, 1: Toponymy, Monuments, Historical Geography and Frontier Studies in 2002; and now the final volume of the original series on economy, society, and culture. More awaits, however, for the author promises a sequel, Byzantium and Islam in the Seventh Century.

It was high time, when Shahîd began, for a committed scholar to undertake such a project. Although the topic is singularly freighted nowadays, preoccupied as we are with the past of the Middle East, the Arabs in this transition period have attracted far less attention than the contemporary Germanic peoples on the periphery of the western Roman Empire. Indeed, since Theodor Nöldeke and Gustav Rothstein in the late nineteenth century no one had addressed these federate Arab groups in focused studies: neither the Christian Ghassanids, who are Shahîd’s topic, nor the pagan Lakhmids, two murderous rival groups allied respectively with Rome and with Sasanid Persia.

The challenges were partly linguistic, and the qualifications that Shahîd possessed were rare indeed: native fluency in Arabic, a flare for other Middle Eastern languages, along with degrees in Classics and in Arabic and Islamic Studies. He has also long been a research scholar affiliated with Dumbarton Oaks, working in the company of Byzantinists. Written in this atmosphere, Shahîd’s whole series emphasizes a gradual symbiosis of the Arab federates with their imperial neighbor to the west, whom Shahîd (proleptically, in this reviewer’s opinion) terms “Byzantines” although they resolutely identified themselves, and were known to others, as “Romans” (Rhomaioi). Yet he also stresses that the Arabs on Rome’s eastern fringe retained a strong sense of Arab identity from their origins in the Arabian peninsula.

The federates Shahîd brings to the fore in BASIC, the four books on the sixth century, were the Ghassanids, an Arab clan, among whom the elite Jafnid house predominated (342-43). Originating in the south of the Arabian peninsula, by the sixth century the Ghassanids occupied the “eastern limitrophe,” as Shahîd terms it, or “Ghassanland,” the western arc of the Fertile Crescent from the Euphrates to the Sinai. Here the Ghassanids had abandoned nomadism and had become a sedentary group, inhabiting “urban” settings such as Jabiya in the Golan, their headquarters, or Jalliq (near Damascus?). Their foedus dated from 502 when their phylarch Jabala, with leaders of other tribes, accepted from Emperor Anastasius the military tasks of joining in wars against Persia and stabilizing the frontier against nomadic tribes in return for subsidies of cash and provisions. In 529 the phylarch Arethas, or el-Harith, received the title king (basileus) over all the Arab federates, ruling until his death in 569. The last Ghassanid phylarch/basileus was another Jabala, who took refuge in Constantinople with his followers after the Muslim victory on the Yarmuk River in 636.

Indeed, it is upon the Ghassanid phylarchs themselves, and on their kin and their elite followers, not on ordinary Arabs, that Shahîd focuses his scholarly lens in the present volume. Part I on the economy, downplaying both agriculture and pastoralism, presents the Ghassanids as protectors of the caravans, on the route through the Wadi Sirhan, on the West Arabian spice route or via oderifera from South Arabia via Mecca and Medina to termini at Gaza and Bostra, and on the Maritime Route via the Red Sea to Ayla. The periodic fairs over which the Ghassanids also presided, at Duma in the Wadi Sirhan, at Bostra, Dayr Ayyub, and Adri'at, were, like the trade routes, opportunities for Ghassanid tax levies, and both fairs and caravans highlight “feverish intra-Arabian economic expansion in sixth-century Arabia” under Ghassanid auspices (32-33). This expansion took place despite endemic regional conflict between Roman and Persia, even after the Sasanids occupied South Arabia in 570. Significantly, Muhammad himself emerged from a merchant family of Mecca that had flourished in this economy. Shahîd rightly observes that it was the Prophet’s experience in the caravans and spice trade that garnered him the worldly experience needed to organize the Arab-Muslim state in the brief period of ten years after the Hijra.

Shahîd’s treatment of “social history” in part II is of the same type, i.e. a focus specifically on social behaviors of the elite Ghassanids, beginning with religious behavior. Fervent monophysite Christians, they observed dominical feasts such as Easter, when Ghassanid maidens plaited wreaths of coral, and the feasts of martyrs, preeminently of their military patron St. Sergius and their relatives the Martyrs of Najran, Christians of South Arabia killed for their faith ca. 520. They made pilgrimages, among other places, to St. Sergius at Sergiopolis/Rusafa in Syria and to Jerusalem, visited by the Ghassanid princess Layla with her female entourage even after the Muslim conquest. In their private lives the Ghassanid kings were “zoned in chastity,” as Shahîd sees it. Monogamy is uncertain, but they did practice endogamy, stressing female as well as male descent and the purity of Ghassanid blood. Accepting St. Paul, in Shahîd’s view, and rejecting the Jews, they did not circumcise. A chapter on women emphasizes the relatively exalted position of female Ghassanids, an outcome of both devotion to Mary Theotokos and of traditional Arab matrilineality. Hence Ghassanid women accompanied the soldiers to the battlefield, perfumed the warriors, dressed them in their suits of mail, and remained nearby in their pavilions (qubbas) during the actual fighting. Shahîd’s prosopography of Ghassanid queens and princesses includes Mariya (Mary), mother of Arethas, named for the Theotokos, and Halima, daughter of Arethas, who participated in and gave her name to the epic battle of Chalcis in 569, when the Ghassanids triumphed over the Lakhmids, henceforth the celebrated “Day of Halima” (yawm Halima).

Following this are chapters on food, drink, and clothing. Shahîd proposes that luxurious Ghassanid banquets inspired the Koranic image of Paradise. So perhaps did the “bowered garden” (jannat ma'rushat) in which the Ghassanid elite sipped their wine--a potable not, of course, native to Arabia but widely and excellently produced in the Roman East and enthusiastically consumed both during Ghassanid banquets and in taverns equipped with couches, pillows, and carpets, waiters delivering wine, and female entertainers. Under the rubric “clothes” Shahîd again focuses on the elite, on the phylarchs/basileis, and their female counterparts. Notable was the proliferation of silks, as throughout the Roman East, and, in Shahîd’s view, the adoption of the normal Roman military uniform consisting of the decorated tunic and the military cloak fastened on the right shoulder with a bejeweled broach. Ghassanid women, it appears, veiled their heads, again following eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) practice, and perhaps their faces as well.

Under the rubric “rituals, entertainment, and leisure activity” Shahîd studies, first, the “songstresses” who played instruments, sang, and danced in taverns and at the Ghassanid court, some of them Greeks who performed in their own language (al-Rumiyya), clearly enslaved and also available for sex. A common Arabic word for prostitute, mumis, was of Greek origin. Likewise showing Greek influence, Shahîd thinks, were the Christian antiphons that Ghassanids sang when they mourned their dead. On the other hand, Ghassanid celebrations included “battle days” inherited from the peninsula, like yawm Halima, with horse parades, feasting, and recitals of poetry. The horses in Ghassanid stables had a special valence, being employed at war, in racing, and for the hunt. Finally, the Ghassanids were enthusiastic for the tabaddi, their resorts to the countryside for living in tents, riding, hunting, and composing poetry. The word is related to badw, nomads, but did not, in Shahîd’s view, signal reversion to nomadism.

Indeed, Part III, on cultural history, proceeds from the assertion, already documented in BASIC II, 1, that Ghassanids were a “sedentary frontier society” that lived in cities, though Shahîd has in mind not Bostra, Gerasa, Petra, and other poleis of the Arabs who were Rhomaioi but places like the “headquarters” settlements of Jabaya, Jalliq, Rusafa/Sergiopolis, and Huwwarin, of which only Sergiopolis is known from archaeology. Characterizing such “cities” were the praetorium and palace (qasr) of the Ghassanid king, along with guest houses, stables, taverns, nymphaea or pools, and of course churches. The Ghassanids also built and patronized monasteries in both city and countryside that were the real cultural centers. The monks wrote religious texts, including translations of Biblical books and Syriac theological works. Shahîd proposes that the same monks developed the pre-Islamic Arabic script known as Naskhi and its earliest calligraphic expression, evident in the celebrated bi-salam inscription on Mt. Nebo dated 536.

“Most enduring,” however, of Ghassanid cultural achievements were the poets flourishing under their patronage, who recited poems about nobility of character, purity of blood, and successful battle days at court and periodic fairs, and were “the best medium of propaganda among the Arabs” (308). Poetry became a profession under the Ghassanids, as in the case of the seventh-century court poets al-Nabigha and Hassan. Not indigenous to the Roman East, this poetry was “an exotic flower” transplanted from the peninsular world of Arab paganism. Yet it underwent the “civilizing” influence of Greek culture. Al-Nabigha, it appears, composed what was in effect an ekphrasis of Praxiteles’ nude Aphrodite of Cnidus, a copy of which he perhaps viewed at Palmyra or Dura, but he also extolled the “orthodox” Ghassanids celebrating Palm Sunday, while other poets in these circles no doubt created an Arabic hymnography.

Shahîd asserts in conclusion that the Gassanids created a new “Arab-Byzantine identity,” combining Roman, Christian, and Hellenic components. Remaining Arabs, though, and never becoming perfect Rhomaioi, they achieved nothing less than the Arabization of the limitrophe, laying the groundwork from which the Muslim Umayyads expanded in the seventh and eighth centuries.

In this volume Shahîd focuses on a powerful but numerically small elite, nevertheless recreating a cultural panorama that is both variegated and engaging. Shahîd laments that the attested Akhbar Muluk Ghassan, “Annals of the Ghassinid Kings,” have perished from which one might have recovered this panorama, while the Greek and Syriac sources are both sparse and hostile. Following what he calls “Nöldeke’s Law” he therefore reads critically the history the pre-Islamic Arabs found in the Arabic and Syriac historical tradition, in authors like al-Tabari and Michael the Syrian, drawing especially, however, on the Arab poets, al-Nabigha, Hassan, and the rest, for more immediate knowledge of this lost culture--lost prior to Shahîd to students of Late Antiquity and Byzantium with less impressive language skills. He also employs inference more freely than some might like, drawing in richer evidence for the Lakhmids and the later Umayyads, and parallels among contemporary peoples on the periphery, as in attempting to reconstruct Ghassanid royal costume from Procopius’ description of the insignia of the Armenian king. Yet by and large the panorama appears to be authentic. Only occasionally might inference have led the author astray, as in proposing, without archaeological evidence, that the Ghassanid cityscape included a concert hall or odeion where poets and orators held forth before an audience that was urban in the manner of the old Classical polis. On their face the words of the poet Hassan declaring that one could listen to poems and song in “houses of marble” (buyut al-rukham) evoke not the Classical odeion but lavishly decorated mansions. Anyway, the inventory of buildings in a Ghassanid settlement suggests not the traditional Late Antique polis but a settlement of distinct Ghassanid type equipped with royal facilities like stables, a praetorium, and of course the poet’s “houses of marble,” the grand habitations of the Ghassanid elites, their women, and their kings.

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