Sixth century


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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  

they were.”11

 

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 

maṣāyid in modern times.

 

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.

 

10 



BAFOC, 483–85.

 

11  Ibid., 485.



 

12  Fowden, “Desert Kites,” 114.

 

13  Ibid., 134.



 

14  Ibid., 113.



249

The Hunt


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 

especially 



BASIC II.1). 

XIV

Ghassānid Banquets

A

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 

and religious.2

 

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 

called a 



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. 

251

Ghassānid Banquets

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. 

 

4 See 



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.

 

6 See 



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.



252

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 

named 


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 

name, 

F-i-ṣ-ḥ, the Arabic equivalent of the Greek Pascha. He describes the elegant 

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 



shiwāʾ, “broiled 

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 

tharīdat 

Ghassān, and with it the bread of the highest quality, the white ḥuwwārā.14 The 

 

8  See Ibn Rashīq al-Qayrawāni, 



al-ʿUmda, 292.

 

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. 

 

11 See 


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.” 



253

Ghassānid Banquets

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 

autokratores, who did dine from such plates.18 

 

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, 

74–75. 


 

20  See al-Nābigha, 



Dīwān, 47, verses 26–27; these robes are discussed in detail in Chapter 6, 

“Clothes.” 



254

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 

fanak. The summer robe was called al-fiḍāl, worn by 

“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 

surur (plural 

of 


sarīr), the throne-like seats of rulers; to the kursi, the chair; and to couches with 

cushions, 



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 



monitored. The 

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.

XV

Recreation in the Countryside: 



Tabaddi

O

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 

in the 

bādiya for recreation, an amusement indulged in only by those Ghassānids 

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 

Damascus.

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 

kātib, the chief of the bureau 

 

1



  Nomadism was 

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,  

e.g., 9:97.

 

2

  The pursuit is best captured by the Italian loanword 



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. 

 

3



  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, 



GF, 27–28.
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