Sixth century

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authentic, this account provides valuable information on Ghassānid social life.


The maiden’s name is significant. Its consonantal skeleton

d-l-f, can support 

one of three roots—

d-l-f, z-l-f, or dh-l-f; the third reading is probably the correct 

one.23 Dhalfā, applied to a woman, refers to one who has a beautiful nose, small 

and straight.24 Dhalfāʾ is also attested as a female proper name belonging to some 

of the medieval 

qiyān (songstresses). It is a welcome addition to the onomasticon 

of Ghassānid women, just as her father’s name, Jarwal,25 is to the onomasticon of 

its men.


The description of the wedding party, however, is the most important part of 

the account.


1. The bride and the bridegroom are cousins. Clearly the Ghassānids engaged 

in endogamous marriages, since they were proud of the purity of their pedigree, 

mentioned in the odes that eulogized them: the phrase 

ghayr ashāʾib, “not sullied 

or adulterated by admixture with other blood,” appears in their panegyrics.26 The 

principle of 

kafāʾa, “equality” in pedigree for contracting a marriage, was appar-

ently observed by the Ghassānids.27


2. Dancing was a feature of the celebrations that attended their wedding; this 

is the only reference to dance in Ghassānid life.


3. The sister of the bride was leading the group; she appears both as an instru-

mentalist and vocalist. The entertainment was thus provided not by a professional 

artist, a 

qayna, but by a family member, a sister singing at her sibling’s wedding.


4. Al-Dhalfāʾ uses a 

duff, an instrument well-known and popular in this 

period and on such occasions.


5. Finally, al-Dhalfāʾ sang a couplet of 

verses. The impetus that the Ghassānids 

imparted to Arabic poetry by their patronage has been explained in this volume. 


22  Cambridge Manuscript, No. 1201, 115v; 

Nihāyat al-Arab, ed. Dāneshpazhuh, 233–35.


23  But for the roots 

d-l-f and z-l-f, see Ibn Man



Lisān al-ʿArab (Beirut, 1979), III, 405, 194–95.


24  Ibid., II, 467.


25  For Jarwal, meaning the rocky part of a mountain, see ibid., I, 411.


26  The phrase appears in the famous panegyric on the Ghassānids by al-Nābigha; see his 


al-Nābigha al-Dubyānī, ed. M. Ibrāhīm (Cairo, 1977), 42, verse 8. 


27 On 

kafāʾa, see J. Schacht, An Introduction to Islamic Law (Oxford, 1964), 160 note 85.


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

But the verses sung by al-Dhalfāʾ were not formal, solemn eulogies on their kings 

such as al-Nābigha or ʿAlqama composed; rather, they were light verses, related to 

entertainment and the social life of the Ghassānids. The author of the couplet is 

unknown, but it may have been composed by al-Dhalfāʾ herself, or by one of her 

relatives. The federates had women poets among them.28


The verses were apotropaic, as the princess wishes death upon those who envy 

her house and do not wish them well. Such sentiments are not implausible. The 

luxury and the splendor of the Ghassānid court must have elicited jealousy from 

other Arabs, such as the Lakhmids and even the Meccans.29 So, the content of her 

song corresponds with what is known about how the Ghassānids were perceived by 

some contemporaries.


That this account is set in the region of Antioch should cause no surprise; 

although Ghassānid power was centered in the south of Oriens, in the Provincia 

Arabia and in Palaestina Secunda and Tertia, their influence extended to the north 

and affected the whole of the region up to at least the Euphrates, after Justinian 

created the 

archiphylarchia around a.d. 529. Furthermore, after the start of the 

Muslim offensive against Oriens during the caliphate of Abū Bakr and the initial 

Muslim successes, there was a major redeployment of Byzantine troops in Oriens; 

it is quite possible that some of the Ghassānids who were fighting with Heraclius 

were moved to the north—the region of Antioch.30


A final aspect that deserves comment is the Islamic framework within which 

the account is set: namely, the dispatch of al-Nuʿmān to convert Heraclius to Islam. 

This is surely a later Islamic pious embroidery. Indeed, the attribution of the account 

to al-Nuʿmān ibn Bashīr may be cited as one of these later pieties; he was too young to 

be sent by Abū Bakr to convert Heraclius, but the account is ascribed to him in order 

to enhance its credibility, since he was one of the Companions of the Prophet.


Such then is the account on the Ghassānids in 

Nihāyat al-Arab. Notably, it is 

free of fantastic or miraculous elements, which would have made it completely unre-

liable, although it contains inaccuracies such as its attribution to al-Nuʿmān ibn 

Bashīr. Even the dramatic manner of the maiden’s death at the end of the account 

is not implausible. The reader has the choice of accepting Nöldeke’s judgment on 

Nihāyat al-Arab or the more sympathetic assessment of Edward G. Browne.


28  For the poet daughter of Dāwūd, the fifth-century Arab federate king, see 

BAFIC, 434; see also 

above, Chapter 2, note 101.


29  Even the Prophet Muḥammad, who was aware of the power of the Ghassānids, is said to have 

exclaimed, “O God, do away with the Ghassānid kingship.” See Ibn Qutayba, ʿ

Uyūn al-Akhbār (Cairo, 

1963), IV, 71. 


30  The move followed the incipient and unfinished thematization of Oriens after the Byzantine vic-

tory at the battle of Nineveh and the evacuation of Oriens by the Persians (see the five articles by the 

present writer in 

BALA I, 119–280).


Prose Accounts on the Ghassānids


Reynold Nicholson on the Ghassānid Royal Court

In the context of Chapter 3’s 

Quellenkritik involving prose literature on the 

Ghassānids, the views of a distinguished scholar of Arabic literature, Reynold 

Nicholson, deserve to be noted. From the compositions attributed to Ḥassān, he 

singled out the one in which the poet refers to a banquet given by the Ghassānid 

king Jabala, when the 

qiyān (songstresses) from Ḥīra and Mecca sang for him.1 

In Chapter 8, arguments have been advanced supporting the authenticity of the 

account on the dispatch of 

qiyān to Jabala from Ḥīra and Mecca; two other points 

may be added here. 


First, the statement on the king’s behavior, shunning all vulgarity or obscen-

ity in the course of that banquet,2 accords well with other poets’ allusions to the 

Ghassānids’ chastity and decency,3 reflections of their Christian faith. And sec-

ond, the reference to snow/ice in the piece is not surprising, since the Ghassānids 

lived so close to Mount Hermon, called in Arabic Jabal al-Thalj, “the Mountain of 

Snow.” It was seen by Ḥassān and remembered by him in two of his poems.4


Applying his critical acumen, Nicholson accepted the historicity of the vari-

ous elements of the account, but doubted that it could have come from Ḥassān. The 

distinguished scholar, however, wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century, 

before the development of Byzantine studies and, more importantly, of research 

on Arab-Byzantine relations, and so he was not clear about some aspects of that 



1. His main difficulty in accepting the attribution of the piece to Ḥassān 

derived from his erroneous belief that Jabala’s rule began in a.d. 6355—that is, one 

year before the battle of the Yarmūk. He therefore concluded that Ḥassān could 

not have met Jabala, since Ḥassān had accepted Islam long before Jabala acceded to 

the kingship of Ghassān. Yet despite his reservations about the chronology and the 

ascription of the passage in its present form to Ḥassān, Nicholson concluded that 

“this does not seriously affect its value as evidence.”6


2. The last days of the Ghassānids and the reign of Jabala are now much bet-

ter understood than they were when Nicholson wrote. Ḥassān’s last visit to the 

Ghassānids must be related to the 

terminus 614, when the Persians occupied 


1  See R. Nicholson, 

A Literary History of the Arabs (1907; reprint, London, 1969), 53 and note 4.


2  The Arabic text uses the strong words 

khanā and ʿarbada, which Nicholson discreetly translates, 

“I never knew him offend in speech or act.”


3  For example, see 

Dīwān al-Nābigha al-Dubyānī, ed. M. Ibrāhīm (Cairo, 1977), 47, verses 24, 27; 

101, verse 4. 


4 See 

Dīwān Ḥassān ibn Thābit, ed. W. ʿArafāt, Gibb Memorial New Series 25 (London, 1971),  

I, 137, verse 4; 308, verse 9. 


5 Nicholson, 

Literary History of the Arabs52. 


6  Ibid., 53 note 4.


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

Jerusalem and Oriens. Some Ghassānid kings are known to have had extended 

reigns—Arethas reigned for forty years, 529–569—so Jabala could easily have 

ruled long enough that Ḥassān might have visited him before 614.7 


3. Although Jabala quite possibly could have been the Ghassānid king 

involved in this prose piece ascribed to Ḥassān, it also could have been some other 

Ghassānid king who reigned before a.d. 614. The names of the Ghassānid king 

and his phylarchs between 600 and 614 are known from contemporary Arabic 

panegyrics on them: al-Ḥārith, al-Nuʿmān, ʿAmr, and Ḥujr. In the transmission of 

a prose account such as this one, the name of one Ghassānid king may have been 

substituted for that of a phylarch, but such an error would not affect the substance 

of the account. 


4. It might be added in this connection that female singers are attested at 

the Ghassānid court as early as the first half of the sixth century, during the reign 

of Arethas, who presented a poet, Ḥarmala, with two songstresses to convey his 



7  Ibn Khaldūn gives the year of Jabala’s death as that of Heraclius—i.e., a.d. 640/641; see 


(Beirut, 1956), II, 587. 


8  See Abū al-Qāsim al-Āmidi, 

al-Muʾtalif wa al-Mukhtalif, ed. ʿA. al-Sattār Farrāj (Cairo, 1961), 235. 





ood played an important role in the social life of the Ghassānids, who had 

belonged to a people whose ideal of 

murūʾa comprised the twin virtues of hos-

pitality in peace and courage in war.1 The former was made real in food, especially 

food offered to a stranger or guest. One of the fires that the Arabs lit was intended 

to guide the wayfarer at night to where he could find food to satisfy his hunger; it 

was called 

Nār al-Qirā, “the Fire of Hospitality.”2 


Their attachment to this virtue is clearly signaled even in their onomasticon. 

Their eponymous ancestor was called Jafna, which means “a large platter”; and 

they were often referred to as “the Sons of Jafna” (the Jafnids), 

Awlād Jafna, or 

“the House of Jafna,” 

Āl-Jafna. Thus, their very name reminded the Arabs of their 

hospitality, which became proverbial both in poetry and in prose. It was immortal-

ized by their poet laureate Ḥassān. In a verse that became celebrated in the annals 

of Arabic poetry, he says that their splendid hospitality even silenced their dogs: 

their supposed guardians against suspicious strangers, the dogs became so accus-

tomed to the frequent visits of guests that they ceased to howl!3 In prose, too, the 


Awqar li-al-Ḍayf min Banī-Ghassān, “More hospitable to the guest than 


1  The pre-Islamic concept of 

murūʾa included as many as seven elements, but the two main ones 

were bravery in war and hospitality in peace, reflecting the division of the life of the pre-Islamic pastoral-

ists between war and peace. Islam enlisted 

murūʾa in its service; according to a famous hadith, lā dīna 

bilā murūʾa, “religion cannot subsist without murūʾa.” On dīn and murūʾa, see I. Goldziher, “Muruwwa 

and Din,” in 

Muslim Studies, ed. S. M. Stern, trans. C. R. Barber and S. M. Stern (London, 1967), I, 

1–44 (especially 23 note 4, for the hadith); see also B. Farès, “Murūʾa,” 

EI2, VII, 636–38, especially 637.


2  The pre-Islamic Arabs also applied the term 

jawād (plural ajwād) to individuals known for their 

outstanding hospitality. For an enumeration of these 

ajwād in pre-Islamic time and on hospitality in 

general, see Jawād ʿAli, 

al-Mufaṣṣal fi Tārīkh al-ʿArab qabl al-Islam (Beirut, 1970), IV, 575–84; for the 

fire of hospitality, see 582. 


Dīwān Ḥassān ibn Thābit, ed. W. ʿArafāt, Gibb Memorial New Series 25 (London, 1971), I, 74, 

verse 12. 


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

Banū-Ghassān,” expressed their hospitality. Even as late as the tenth century, the 

famous belle-lettrist Badīʿ al-Zamān al-Hamadānī echoed it; in a memorable pas-

sage in one of his 

Epistles, he puns on the name “Jafna.”4


One of their phylarchs, Imruʾ al-Qays, was nicknamed Qātil al-Jūʿ, “the 

Killer of Hunger or Famine,”5 a sobriquet he acquired during a famine in which 

he attended to the needs of his people. The epithet was preserved even in Greek 

inscriptions that called him καθελόγος, as well as in an Arabic verse that the phy-

larch himself composed.6

I. Haute Cuisine

Food was important to all Arabs,7 and “the Sons of the Large Platter,” the 

Ghassānids, must have enjoyed at their tables a high level of cuisine. This is attested 

by the Arab authors who actually singled them out from all the Arabs for the high 

standard that their culinary art had reached. Speaking of one succulent Ghassānid 

dish, the 

tharīda (discussed below), Thaʿālibi (961–1038) wrote: “This group (the 

Ghassānids) distinguished themselves among the Arabs for their specialization in 

al-ṭayyibāt, the delicious foods, and to them belonged the tharīda, which is pro-

verbial. And about this dish the Arabs were united, declaring that there was no 

tharīda more delicious than theirs, neither in the food of the common people nor 

of the elite, and so it served as a proverb for the most delicious of foods.”8


Ghassānid cuisine may have been influenced by their origins in the Arabian 

Peninsula, where they associated with the Ḥimyarites,9 and by later contacts with 

the Palmyrene and the Nabataean Arabs, who accorded great importance to ban-

quets and feasts. Such expressions as “Children of the Banquet,” “Companions 

of the Banquet,” and “Chief of the Banquet” speak for themselves.10 It is also 


4 Hamadānī, 

Rasāʾil Abī al-Fadl Badīʾ al-Zamān al-Hamadānī (Cairo, 1898), 300–301; see 

BASIC II.1, 289–91.


5  See Ibn Ḥazm, 

Jamharat Ansāb al-ʿArab, ed. A. Hārūn (Cairo, 1962), 372.


6  See Hishām al-Kalbī, 

Jamharat al-Nasab, ed. N. Ḥasan (Beirut, 1986), 618–19; for the Greek 

inscription, published by Maurice Sartre, see 

BASIC I.1, 509–12; BASIC II.1, 44–46.


7  The importance of food in the life of the Arabs is reflected in the large number of dishes (twelve), 

each of which had a name; see Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih, 

al-ʿIqd al-Farīd, ed. A. Amīn, I. Abyārī, and A. Hārūn 

(Beirut, 1982), VI, 290–92. And likewise, banquets were given on twelve named occasions (292). For 

the list in English of these dishes and banquets, see G. J. H. van Gelder, 

God’s Banquet: Food in Classical 

Arabic Literature (New York, 2000), 16, 21. This is now the standard work on Arab food.


8  See ʿAbd al-Malik al-Thaʿālibi, 

Thimār al-Qulūb fi al-Muḍāf wa al-Mansūb, ed. M. Ibrāhīm 

(Cairo, 1965), 122–23. 


9  For food in Ḥimyarite South Arabia, see “Ghidhāʾ,” 

EI, II, 1060–61; for the food of the Arabs 

of the Peninsula in pre-Islamic times, see 1057–60. The entries “Ṭabkh” (“Cooking”) and “Matbakh” 

(“Kitchen,” “Cookhouse”) by D. Waines may also be consulted, in 

EI2, X, 30–32, and VI, 807–9, 



10  For these expressions in Nabataean and Palmyrene inscriptions, see R. G. Hoyland, 

Arabia and 

the Arabs (London, 2001), 136.



possible that Arethas introduced to the Ghassānid court foods that he had tasted 

at imperial banquets in Constantinople.11 Such banquets in later times attracted 

the attention of a Muslim observer, who left a vivid and detailed description of 

one of them.12


The fourth-century historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who judged a particu-

lar people or society by what they ate and what they drank, dismissed the Arab 

pastoralists of the fourth century as a people “wholly unacquainted with grain and 

wine.”13 But the Ghassānids displayed a high level of cultural development in their 

food and drink, recognized both by the poets who visited them and by the authors 

of later Islamic times such as Thaʿālibi. In particular, Ḥassān distinguished the 

Ghassānid princesses from the Arab women of the Peninsula by noting that they 


not consume pastoralist food.14 

II. Bread

Information on the Ghassānid diet is extremely limited. As bread was the staple 

food of Byzantium, so it was for the Ghassānids. At the court, a major compo-

nent of the diet would have been 

ḥuwwārā, bread made of the finest white flour

quite distinct from the bread made of coarse flour called 

khushkār.15 The Syriac 


ḥuwwārā,16 related to the root that means “white,” is attested in a piece of 

rhyming prose addressed to one of the Ghassānid kings—a panegyric on him in 

which the superiority of the food he eats is considered evidence for his superiority 

over his rival, the Lakhmid king of Ḥīra.17 Coarser bread, 

paximadion, was dis-

tributed to the Ghassānid troops when they were on duty.18 Ḥawrān/Auranitis 

and Bathaniyya/Bāshān, where the Ghassānids were partly settled, were known as 

cereal-growing regions in Oriens.


11  On Arethas in Constantinople, see 

BASIC I.1, 282–88.


12  For Hārūn ibn Yaḥyā’s description of the imperial Christmas banquet in Constantinople, see the 

English version of the Arabic text in A. Dalby, 

Flavours of Byzantium (Trowbridge, Eng., 2003), 118–19.


13  Ammianus Marcellinus, 

Res Gestae, On Ammianus’ value system, see P. Tuffin and M. 

McEvoy, “Steak à la Hun: Food and Drink, and Dietary Habits in Ammianus Marcellinus,” in 


Fast or Famine: Food and Drink in Byzantium, ed. W. Mayer and S. Trzcionka, Byzantina Australiensia 

15 (Brisbane, 2005), 69–84, especially 79–80. 


14  See Ḥassān, 

Dīwan, I, 255, verse 8, translated in BASIC II.1, 295. 


15 On 

khushkār, see van Gelder, God’s Banquet, 99, 120; it was probably baked in an oven called a 

tannūr. On bread among the Arabs generally, see C. Pellat, “Khubz,” EI2, V, 41–43; in Byzantium, see A. 

Karpozilos and A. Kazhdan, “Bread,” 

ODB, I, 321. For ḥuwwārā as the bread of the Ghassānids, see Abū 

al-Faraj Iṣfahānī, 

al-Aghānī (Beirut, 1957), XV, 124, verse 14. 


16  See S. Fraenkel, 

Die aramäischen Fremdwörter im Arabischen (1886; reprint, Hildesheim,  

1962), 32.


17  For this piece of rhyming prose, see Iṣfahānī, 

al-Aghānī, XV, 124–25. 


18  For the simple baked loaves and the double-baked biscuit in Roman and Byzantine times, the 

bucellatum and the paximadion/paximation, see J. Haldon, “Feeding the Army: Food and Transport in 

Byzantium, ca. 600–1100,” in Mayer and Trzcionka, eds., 

Feast, Fast or Famine, 87.


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century


Bread was accompanied by cheese, either 

jubn or a


kiṭ, and by honey, ʿasal, and 

also “clarified butter,” both of which are documented in contemporary poetry.19 

Olives and olive oil also went with bread as part of the Ghassānid meal. The olive 

tree grew in the regions where the Ghassānids were settled; indeed, Oriens was 

the major area of olives and oil production for Byzantium until the Arab Muslim 


III. Meat

A bread and meat broth called 

tharīdat Ghassān was highly prized among the 

Arabs and acquired proverbial fame in the words of medieval authors such as 

Thaʿālibi (quoted above). According to some, the meat in the dish was brains 

(viewed as particularly choice).20 Two distinguished personages sang its praises: a 

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