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“Saracen enclosures” he spoke of were the
ḥīras and ḥādirs of the federate Arabs,
their military stations and camps along the frontier.10 Poidebard described the
structures as enclosures encircled with walls, the salients of which were forti-
fied with round towers. His description seemed to link them to a defense sys-
tem against the nomads rather than to lodges for chasing gazelles! I ventured
these conclusions on the “Saracen enclosures” only tentatively some twenty years
ago, with the caveat “If these enclosures turn out to be what Poidebard thought
Fowden rejected Poidebard’s conclusions and by association also my sup-
port of them, conditional and contingent as it was.12 His argument is detailed,
ingenious, and full of insights, but the claim that ancient stone structures were
maṣāyid, “traps,” remains inferential, not evidential. He himself concludes by say-
ing that “our explicit ancient evidence . . . involves perishable types of trap, while
our explicit modern evidence . . . mostly concerns permanent stone structures.”13
Retroactive reasoning is legitimate and convincing when the two periods are so
close as to suggest continuity—but not in such a case as this, when some fifteen
centuries gape, separating “such massive public works”14 of ancient times or late
antiquity from their use as
The difference in the conclusions of Poidebard and Fowden may be traced to
the different approaches of the two scholars; the former had done extensive research
9 A. Poidebard,
La trace de Rome dans le désert de Syrie: Le limes de Trajan à la conquête arabe;
recherches aériennes (1925–1932) (Paris, 1934), 191–96.
11 Ibid., 485.
12 Fowden, “Desert Kites,” 114.
13 Ibid., 134.
14 Ibid., 113.
on the Roman defense system, manifest in such works as
La trace de Rome dans le
désert de Syrie, while the latter had been dealing with the hunt, which played such
a conspicuous role in Quṣayr ʿAmra—on which he was already focusing when he
was writing his article.15
15 Fowden devotes seven pages of his article (ibid., 127–34) to the hunting lodge that was the subject
of his sizable book published five years later,
Quṣayr ʿAmra: Art and the Umayyad Elite in Late Antique
Syria (Berkeley, 2004). My share in this controversy has been to elucidate the role of the Arab foederati
in the defense of Oriens (see
BAFOC, 483–85, on “Saracen enclosures”), which has been treated in the
many volumes of this series that correct Poidebard’s misconception that the
foederati were nomads (see
s noted in Chapter 4, “Food,” all Arab societies, even the pastoral, accorded
food great importance and attention, reflected in the names for their many
dishes and for the many different feasts and banquets they held on various occa-
sions.1 Sedentary Arab groups—such as the Ghassānids—naturally reached higher
levels of the culinary art than did the pastoralists, preparing the more elaborate
banquets required by the demands of civic life and its complex social structure.
The Ghassānids were Arabs, Christians, and
foederati of Byzantium; the feasts and
festivals of the Byzantines can shed light on those of the Ghassānids both secular
Of all the forms of entertainment given by the Ghassānids, the banquet was
the most significant. Although they reached an advanced level of sophistication
as they led their sedentary life in Oriens, their capacity to mount entertainments
was limited compared to that of their overlords in Constantinople. Because of
these limitations, the Ghassānids gave special attention to their banquets, which
not only were the most satisfying form of entertainment to the guests but also
expressed one of the two elements in the Arab ideal of virtue, enhanced by the
spiritual tone that Christianity imparted to banquets as connected with the feasts
and festivals of the liturgical year. Because of the scantiness of the extant sources,
however, circumstantial evidence and inferential reasoning must be used as neces-
sary to reconstruct Ghassānid banquets.
I. Secular Banquets
As Arabs, the Ghassānids must have given banquets on many occasions, such as
weddings, funerals, and births, usually in honor of a son. The wedding banquet was
nikāḥ. Before the wedding was the engagement banquet, when the hand of
1 For the dishes and the banquets of the Arabs in pre-Islamic times, with about twelve names for
each, see Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih,
al-ʿIqd al-Farīd, ed. A. Amīn, I. Abyārī, and ʿA. Hārūn (Beirut, 1982), VI,
290–92; for the English version of their names, see G. J. H. van Gelder,
God’s Banquet: Food in Classical
Arabic Literature (New York, 2000), 16, 21.
2 On Byzantine feasts, see R. Taft, “Feast,”
ODB, II, 781–82, with its bibliography.
the maiden was asked for. The party of the prospective bridegroom would ask their
spokesman to deliver a speech, called a
khutba; the same term was applied to the
engagement ceremony itself and its attendant banquet.3
Only a Syriac source, Michael the Syrian, refers to such a secular banquet,
in this case given on the occasion of the visit of the Chalcedonian patriarch of
Antioch to Arethas, the Monophysite Ghassānid king. Information on the types
of food that might be gleaned from such a source has already been examined in
Chapter 4; it also suggests that the participants sat on chairs, not couches.4
In light of the dearth of source material, one must rely on inferential and
analogical reasoning from the Byzantine scene to which the Ghassānids belonged
to suggest another type of banquet: that held after a military victory, celebrated
by the Byzantines5 and surely by the Ghassānids as well. The Byzantines also gave
banquets in conjunction with the consecration of churches, and the Ghassānids
must have done the same; they would have had many occasions to do so, since they
were responsible for the surge in church building after their king, Arethas, revived
the Monophysite church around a.d. 540. Such a banquet must have been given
by Magnus, the Roman
curator and commerciarius who invited the Ghassānid
king Mundir to the consecration of a church at Ḥuwwārīn, Evaria—an invitation
that proved disastrous, since the Ghassānid king was treacherously betrayed dur-
ing his visit.6
II. Religious Feasts
The liturgical calendar gives a clear picture of the feasts that the Christian
Ghassānids must have observed. Only two will be noted here.
Christmas was one of the two main dates of the Christian calendar and must
have been accorded special importance by both the Byzantines and the Ghassānids.
The Byzantine celebration of Christmas attracted the attention of even the Muslim
Arab Hārūn ibn Yaḥyā, who attended it in Constantinople and left an Arabic
description of the Christmas banquet.7 As noted above, Arabs marked childbirth
3 For a detailed account of the
khutba and the nikāḥ, see Jawād ʿAli, al-Mufaṣṣal fi Tārīkh al-ʿArab
qabl al-Islam (Beirut, 1970), IV, 644–50. Other characteristically Arab feasts were given on the birth
of a filly or the emergence of a poet among them; see Ibn Rashīq al-Qayrawāni,
al-ʿUmda fī Maḥasin
al-Shiʿr, ed. M. ʿA. al-Ḥamīd (Cairo, 1955), 65.
Chronique de Michel le Syrien, Patriarche jacobite d’Antioche (1166–1199), ed. and trans. J. B.
Chabot (Paris, 1901), II, 247–48; mention of the table at which the phylarch and the patriarch were hav-
ing their meal implies use of chairs.
5 See M. McCormick,
Eternal Victory: Triumphal Rulership in Late Antiquity, Byzantium, and the
Early Medieval West (Cambridge, 1986), 64–68.
BASIC I.1, 455–61.
7 For the English version of Hārūn’s Arabic description, see A. Dalby,
Flavours of Byzantium
(Trowbridge, Eng., 2003), 118–19.
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
with a banquet, which was followed by another banquet when the child reached
the age of seven; these occasions were named
al-khurs and al-ʿaqīqa, respectively.8
It is not difficult to imagine the gusto with which the Ghassānids must have cele-
brated the most famous of all childbirths, that of Jesus himself, in Bethlehem—not
far from their phylarchal presence in Arabia or Palaestina Tertia.
Even more important in the Christian Orient was Easter, which reminded
the Ghassānids of the bereavements that as Arabs they used to mark with banquets
al-walīma.9 So, they must have celebrated the most significant of all deaths,
the Crucifixion, with great care and enthusiasm. Again, in reconstructing the tone
of their celebration and what it meant to them, it must be remembered that they
were the guardians of the Holy Land. The importance of Easter and its domini-
cal feast is reflected in contemporary Arabic poetry on the Ghassānids, which
recorded details about Easter rather than Christmas, as discussed below.
III. Ghassānid Receptions and Banquets in Arabic Literature
The Arabic sources are more informative than the Syriac on the feasts of the
Ghassānids, both in contemporary poetry and in later Islamic prose literature.
The two major poets of the Ghassānids, al-Nābigha and Ḥassān, described
the celebration of Easter at their court. The first refers to it on Palm Sunday by
its correct name in Arabic, Yawm al-Sabāsib, and relates how the members of the
royal family would receive fragrant flowers from the young maidens/princesses.10
Ḥassān mentions the approach of Easter, which he calls by its correctly Arabicized
coral wreaths that the Ghassānid maidens/princesses were stringing.11
Neither poet described the food; such descriptions were apparently viewed as
inappropriate, just as the food at Graeco-Roman banquets “was regarded beneath
literary considerations.”12 One poet, however, did refer to the
meat,” that was served, and mutton and beef were mentioned in the Syriac source.13
Surely the choicest of all must have been the celebrated dish called
8 See Ibn Rashīq al-Qayrawāni,
9 See Jawād ʿAli,
Mufaṣṣal, IV, 685.
10 For the relevant verses, see
Dīwān al-Nābigha al-Dubyānī, ed. M. Ibrāhīm (Cairo, 1977), 47,
verses 25, 26.
Dīwān Ḥassān ibn Thābit, ed. W. ʿArafāt, Gibb Memorial New Series 25 (London, 1971),
I, 255, verse 6.
12 S. Malmberg, “Visualising Hierarchy at Imperial Banquets,” in
Feast, Fast or Famine: Food and
Drink in Byzantium, ed. W. Mayer and S. Trzcionka, Byzantina Australiensia 15 (Brisbane, 2005), 14.
13 See al-Nābigha al-Jaʿdi,
Dīwān, ed. ʿA. Rabbāḥ (Damascus, 1964), 37, verse 17; Michael the
Syrian, cited in note 4.
14 Both are discussed above in Chapter 4, “Food.”
food at such banquets must have included many other dishes as well, well known
at Byzantine banquets.
Two of the later sources, written in Islamic times, are much more expansive
on banquets. In one account, Ḥassān described his visit to the Ghassānid court of
Jabala, surrounded by singing girls, while he was still in the service of Byzantium
in Oriens. This is the more reliable of the two accounts, despite some inaccuracies
that must have crept in during the process of transmission. But it contains no refer-
ence to food.15
The other is a description of the court of Jabala in Constantinople, where he
settled for a while, after the Muslim victory in Oriens.16 The narrator was an emis-
sary whom the caliph Omar is supposed to have sent to Jabala in Constantinople.
Though the long account is full of glaring inaccuracies, it is relevant because it men-
tions food served on silver and gold plates, which the Muslim emissary refused to
eat; he insisted on being served on ordinary plates, since the Prophet Muḥammad
had warned against using gold and silver cups and plates.17 The Ghassānid king was
only imitating the Byzantine
Another account involving Ḥassān refers to etiquette at the royal table: the
ḥājib, the chamberlain, warns him not to start eating before the king asks him to
do so. And Ḥassān is counseled to eat only in moderation, not extravagantly, since
such restraint would commend him to the king.19
The sources also mention the garb worn by Ghassānid kings at such banquets
and on such occasions.
The poet al-Nābigha, in his celebrated ode on the Ghassānids, states that
their robes were of red silk (
iḍrīj) and were hung on pegs (mashājib). Another robe
was pure white at the sleeves (
ardān) and green around its shoulders (manākib).20
15 See R. Nicholson,
A Literary History of the Arabs (1907; reprint, London, 1969), 54. The Arabic
original may be found in Abū al-Faraj Iṣfahānī,
al-Aghānī, XVII (Beirut, 1959), 105–6. Nicholson’s
footnote rightly vouches for the value of the account as evidence. His reservations on Ḥassān and Jabala
are not justified, however; writing in the early twentieth century, he did not know that Ḥassān was a
contemporary of Jabala, to whose house he was attached while Jabala was still the Byzantine phylarch
and ally of Byzantium in the first two or three decades of the seventh century.
16 For this account, see Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih,
al-ʿIqd al-Farīd, ed. A. Amīn, I. Abyārī, and A. Hārūn
(Beirut, 1982), II, 56–62.
17 See Jawād ʿAli,
Mufaṣṣal, VII, 565.
18 See Dalby,
Flavours of Byzantium, 118.
19 See Iṣfahānī,
Aghānī, XI, 34. On etiquette in the Roman world, see Malmberg, “Visualising
Hierarchy at Imperial Banquets,” 11–24, especially 14–15. Dietary moderation was considered a
virtue in the Graeco-Roman world, admired in Julian, Constantius, and Valentinian by Ammianus
Marcellinus; for their
temperantia, see P. Tuffin and M. McEvoy, “Steak à la Hun: Food, Drink, and
Dietary Habits in Ammianus Marcellinus,” in Mayer and Trzcionka, eds.,
Feast, Fast or Famine,
20 See al-Nābigha,
Dīwān, 47, verses 26–27; these robes are discussed in detail in Chapter 6,
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
Ḥassān provides more details, both in his prose piece describing a reception
at the court of Jabala and in his poetry. In the latter, as noted above, he says that
the Ghassānid king wore light clothes in summer and so did his courtiers, while
in winter he wore fur called
“throwing a portion of one’s garment over his left shoulder, and drawing its extrem-
ity under his right arm, and tying the two extremities together in a knot upon his
bosom.”21 And poets such as Ḥassān called the Ghassānid king
du-al-tāj, “he of
the crown,”22 suggesting that kings must have worn the crown, the symbol of their
sovereignty, on formal occasions and at banquets.
The Arabic sources are silent on the seating arrangement at these banquets.
As noted above, the Syriac source, Michael the Syrian, speaks of a table at the
Ghassānid court on the occasion of Arethas’ entertainment of Ephraim, the patri-
arch of Antioch. In addition, certain passages of the Koran refer to
sarīr), the throne-like seats of rulers; to the kursi, the chair; and to couches with
wasāʾid,23 all of which must have been seen by the Meccan Arabs of the
time of the Prophet Muḥammad (a contemporary of Jabala), most probably at the
court of the Ghassānids. They must also have been known to the Umayyad Arabs,24
who inherited the legacy of the Ghassānids. In a description of a scene from early
Abbasid times, when the first Abbasid caliph was trying to decide the fate of cap-
tured Umayyads, the throne, chair, and cushions appear; it is clear, moreover, that
those reclining on cushions were inferior in status to those sitting on chairs.25
Admission to the Ghassānid court for prospective guests was regulated and
ḥājib, chamberlain, controlled access, and he often counseled the
guests on etiquette to be observed at audiences and banquets.
21 For the English version of this prose piece, see Nicholson,
A Literary History of the Arabs, 53, with
notes 2–3. His reading in note 2,
yatafaḍḍalu, is correct; it points to the robe, al-fiḍāl.
22 See Ḥassān,
Dīwān, I, 255, verse 10.
23 These passages are discussed in more detail in “Paradise in the Koran,” the appendix to Chapter 4.
24 References to the
kursi and the maqṣūra, the thronelike chair and the enclosure reserved for the
Umayyad caliph, Muʿāwiya, as well as to the table at which the
kātib or secretary sat, appear in Masʿūdi,
Murūj al-Dhahab wa-Maʿādin al-Jawhar, ed. C. Pellat (Beirut, 1970), III, 220, 221, 222.
25 See Iṣfahānī,
al-Aghānī, IV, 346.
Recreation in the Countryside:
ne of the most important aspects of social life among the Ghassānids was
tabaddi—going out to spend some time in the countryside, the steppe, the
bādiya. The term is related to badw, “nomads,” but tabaddi has no conceptual rela-
tion to nomadism and did not imply a reversion to it.1 It meant spending some time
who could afford it, including the Ghassānid royal house. It was the pastime of a
sedentary aristocracy, much as the English aristocracy had their country houses,
the Russians their
dachas, the Italians their villegiatura, and the Spaniards their
haciendas.2 As is true for other aspects of Ghassānid social life, data on it can
be assembled directly from the little surviving evidence and indirectly from the
abundant and detailed sources on the Lakhmids of Ḥīra and the Umayyads of
I. Sources on the Lakhmids and Umayyads
The Lakhmids of Ḥīra were Arabs from the same region of South Arabia as the
Ghassānids and became client kings of Sasanid Persia, serving it as the Ghassānids
did Byzantium. They provided a shield for the western Persian frontier against
pastoralist invasions from the Arabian Peninsula, near whose steppes they lived.
Hence the Lakhmid
tabaddi resembled the Ghassānid,3 and it is best illustrated
in the life of a member of a noble family of Ḥīra. ʿAdī ibn Zayd, an Ayyūbid, was
a statesman and the foremost poet in Ḥīra; as the
taʿarrub, “going the way of the Aʿrāb,” the nomads, of which even the Prophet
Muḥammad was censorious. In the Koran the nomads,
al-Aʿrāb, are often harshly castigated; see,
villeggiatura, a noun derived from the verb
villeggiare (Arabic tabaddā), “to live at a country villa.” On Arab tabaddi, see Jawād ʿAli, al-Mufaṣṣal fi
Tārīkh al-ʿArab qabl al-Islam (Beirut, 1970), IV, 680.
See the account, perhaps slightly embroidered, in Abū al-Faraj Iṣfahānī,
al-Aghānī (Beirut, 1971),
II, 114. The Lakhmid king was relaxing during one of these villeggiaturas
when the Ghassānid captured
Ḥīra and burned it (negligence for which ʿAdī, the poet of Ḥīra, chided the Lakhmid king); see Nöldeke,
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