Sixth century


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praetorium outside the walls of 

Ruṣāfa, one can conclude that these structures must have been palatial. The church 

at Nitil in the region of Madaba raises the question of whether the famous mansion 

in the same region called al-Mushattā (Mshatta), which is anepigraphic, was built 

by the Ghassānids (as Rudolph Brünnow had originally suggested).16 Mushattā as 

it stands now, with its mosque, is certainly an Umayyad structure. But it may have 

been built over a much less impressive Ghassānid structure.

 

Two other elements in Ghassānid settlements are tombs and gardens, each 



discussed in more detail below. 

Tombs


References in the odes of al-Nābigha and Ḥassān suggest that the Ghassānids were 

buried not in modest graves but in elaborate tombs, possibly in mausolea when 

the deceased was the chief archphylarch. Cemeteries in this Christian period were 

no longer outside the cities but inside them; they must have formed part of the 

Ghassānid urban space, though their precise location is not clear. 

 

In his most famous ode, the rhyme in 



B or bāʾiyya, al-Nābigha refers to two 

Ghassānid towns as burial places for two Ghassānid kings.17 The first is Jalliq, one 

of the two capitals of the Ghassānids, and the other is Ṣaydāʾ.18 Three localities 

had the latter name, and it has been argued that the poet was alluding to Ṣaydāʾ 

in the Golan,19 or possibly the biblical Bēth-Saydā. The language of the references 

suggests that they were landmarks of which the Ghassānids were proud—most 

probably mausolea.

 

While al-Nābigha in the 



bāʾiyya simply twice mentions the burial, in another 

ode, a 


lāmiyya or rhyme in L, he is more expansive.20 The Ghassānid king to whom 

 

14  Ibid., 53, verse 28.



 

15  Ibid., 106, verse 10.

 

16  R. E. Brünnow and A. v. Domaszewski, eds., 



Die Provincia Arabia auf grund zweier in den Jahren 

1897 und 1898 unternommenen Reisen und der Berichte früherer Reisender (Strassburg, 1909), III, 

174–75. See also 



BASIC I.1, 526 note 9.

 

17 See 



Dīwān al-Nābigha al-Dubyānī, ed. M. Ibrāhīm (Cairo, 1977), 41, verse 6. 

 

18  Discussed at length in 



BASIC II.1, 226–28.

 

19  For this Ṣaydāʾ, see R. Dussaud, 



Topographie historique de la Syrie antique et médiévale (Paris, 1927), 

Map I, D3, and 



al-Muʿ jam al-Jughrāfi li al-Quṭr al-ʿArabi al Sūri, ed. M. Ṭlas (Damascus, 1992), IV, 165. 

 

20  Al-Nābigha devotes five verses to it



Dīwān, 121, verses 25–29.

273

The Ghassānid Sedentary Presence

he refers by name, al-Nuʿmān, is buried in the Golan between two towns, Tubnā 

and Jāsim.21 Yet despite the three toponyms, al-Nuʿmān’s precise burial site is left 

tantalizingly unclear.22 The poet further wishes that the spot continue to have aro-

matics and fragrant flowers around it. This could imply that the tomb was sur-

rounded by a garden. If so, then gardens constituted an element in the construction 

of Ghassānid tombs and mausolea, and would have been included in those built 

within the limits of cities such as Jalliq and Ṣaydāʾ. 

 

Ḥassān’s ode has only one verse on the tomb of the Ghassānid king Arethas, 



son of Māriya.23 It suggests that the tomb was a most unusual one, which became a 

Ghassānid landmark and in effect a pilgrimage center for the Ghassānids. The first 

hemistich of the verse reads: “The Sons of Jafna [the Ghassānids, his descendants] 

are around the tomb of their father.” Ḥassān composed this ode when he was visit-

ing Oriens after its conquest by Islam and was reminiscing about the good old days 

at the Ghassānid court. Those who were going around it were not Arethas’ literal 

sons but rather Ghassānids who were paying tribute to their king, who had died in 

a.d. 569.24

 

All this suggests that the tomb was more like a mausoleum—a centralized 



domed structure that accommodated visitors and his relatives long after his death. 

He was probably buried in a sarcophagus (the use of which is discussed below), but 

there was certainly an elaborate tombstone reciting his many achievements, not 

unlike the epitaph of Imruʾ al-Qays provided by the Namāra inscription in the 

fourth century.25 The place of his burial is not clear. A fragment by Labīd, a con-

temporary poet who had knowledge of the Ghassānids, mentioned the day of his 

death, Yawm Jalliq, “the Day of Jalliq.”26 Perhaps he was buried in Jalliq, where he 

died: in hot countries, to avoid putrefaction burial customarily occurs the day after 

death (unless the body is embalmed). But the ode of al-Nābigha clearly suggests 

that the elegized king, al-Nuʿmān, was transported from the place of his death back 

 

21  Tubnā is a better reading than Busrā, as Nöldeke cogently argued in 



GF, 40 note 1. For Jāsim and 

Tubnā, see Maps IV and V respectively in 



BASIC II.1, 427, 429.

 

22  This unspecified place lay between two towns that each contained a Monophysite monastery 



associated with the Ghassānid king Arethas, as has been noted in 

BASIC II.1, 228–29. So there may 

have been some religious significance in the choice of that spot.

 

23 Ḥassān, 



Dīwān, I, 74, verse 11.

 

24  One medieval scholiast, unaware that it was a mausoleum, expressed his surprise that the poet 



found it necessary to refer to Arethas’ tomb surrounded by his descendants, and questioned the point 

of the reference. Another lauded the poet for the statement, which he understood as a reference to 

the Ghassānids as a sedentary group (which they were) and not roaming pastoralists; see Ibn Rashīq 

al-Qayrawāni, 



al-ʿUmda fī Maḥasin al-Shiʿr, ed. M. ʿA. al-Ḥamīd (Cairo, 1955), I, 319–20. 

 

25  This inscription was studied in detail in 



BAFOC, 31–53, and it appears as the frontispiece of that 

volume.


 

26  See Labīd, 



Dīwān, ed. I. ʿAbbās (Kuwait, 1962), 266, verses 49–52, discussed in BASIC II.1, 

278–80.


274

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

to Gaulanitis; so perhaps Arethas, too, was embalmed and carried back to Jābiya, 

the more fitting capital for his burial.

 

In addition to the two poets’ allusions to towns where Ghassānid kings were 



buried, the prose sources refer to other burial sites. Jabala, the son of Arethas, 

was buried in a martyrion at Qinnasrīn/Chalcis after dying at the famous battle 

in a.d. 554.27 A late prose writer speaks of al-Barīṣ, identified near Kiswa, as the 

burial place of the Ghassānid Jafna.28 Nevertheless, the Golan was without ques-

tion the main burial place for the dynasty, and their most famous kings must have 

been buried in Jābiya.

 

As for the location of the tombs or mausolea of the Ghassānid royal house



most were attached to churches. This had been customary for emperors since the 

days of Constantine, whose tomb was attached to the Church of the Holy Apostles. 

The Ghassānid kings who visited Constantinople must have seen it and that of 

Justinian, and tried to imitate this imperial burial practice. The Ghassānid church 

at Nitil supports this inference in a most concrete fashion. The Ghassānid phylarch 

Thaʿlaba was buried in the church’s subterranean vaulted chamber, the hypogeum 

(where his mortal remains are still apparently preserved).29 If a simple phylarch 

was honored by burial within the church, such prominent leaders as those elegized 

in the two odes must have been similarly honored. Furthermore, that Thaʿlaba’s 

burial place was marked by an epitaph on the phylarch30 suggests that the much 

more famous phylarchs, such as Arethas, must have been honored with inscrip-

tions detailing their reigns. 

 

Sarcophagi were used in this period for celebrated personages, and the 



Ghassānid kings no doubt were buried in them. Support for this hypothesis is 

provided by the early Abbasid author al-Jāḥiz, who associates sarcophagi with the 

Ghassānids.31 The term he uses is 

nawāwis (plural of nāwūs), transliterated from 

the Greek ναός rather than the more correct term, σαρκοϕάγος.32

 

It may be stated with certainty that tombs and mausolea were landmarks 



in the Ghassānid landscape or townscape. Within the Ghassānid city or town, 

the royal tomb or mausoleum would have been an important landmark, whether 

 

27 See 


BASIC I.1, 243.

 

28  See Ibn Saʿīd al-Andalusi, 



Nashwat al-Ṭarab, ed. N. ʿA. al-Raḥmān (Amman, 1982), I, 208. The 

reliability of this statement remains to be shown, since it came from a very late writer. Al-Barīṣ is identi-

fied as Khān al-Shīḥa, west of Kiswa; see 

BASIC II.1, 241.

 

29  See M. Piccirillo, “The Church of Saint Sergius at Nitl: A Centre of Christian Arabs in the 



Steppe at the Gate of Madaba,” 

Lib.ann. 51 (2001), 278–80, and the present writer, “The Sixth-Century 

Church Complex at Nitl, Jordan: The Ghassānid Dimension,” ibid., 285–92, especially 290–91.

 

30  For the inscription, see the finispiece of 



BASIC II.1.

 

31  See al-Jāḥiz, 



Rasāʾil al-Jāḥiz, ed. A. Hārūn (Cairo, 1964), II, 292.

 

32  The choice of ναός reflects the law of phonetic facility in Arabic. 



275

The Ghassānid Sedentary Presence

attached to a church or not. Apparently it was built in the midst of a garden, possi-

bly visited by loyal Ghassānids on the anniversary of the death of the archphylarch 

and king buried in it. On the tomb, or on the sarcophagus itself, the epitaph for 

each Ghassānid would have been inscribed. These tombs could be set against the 

background of Byzantine funereal and burial practices of the sixth century.33 

The Garden

One might expect a palace or royal mansion to have a garden and a game preserve, 



ḥadīqa and a ḥāʾir. In a prose composition attributed to al-Nābigha, the panegyr-

ist refers to the beauty of the Ghassānids’ gardens.34 Adding credence to this state-

ment is a comment by the author of the 



Book of Monasteries, who mentions that 

their ecclesiastical structures are located near trees and gardens.35

 

References to flowers in contemporary poetry on the Ghassānids are many, 



suggesting that the garden occupied a space in the Ghassānid cityscape—a con-

clusion that could receive support from one prose account written in late Islamic 

times and another that purports to be composed for a Ghassānid king (hence a 

contemporary document). These two prose sources apply the terms 



riyāḍ (gardens) 

and 


hadāʾiq (plural of ḥadīqa) to the Ghassānids’ gardens. This was yet another 

area in which Byzantium influenced the Ghassānids, for “gardens were essential 

to Byzantine horticulture.”36 The chances then are that Ghassānid mansions and 

houses did have gardens, as did their monasteries. A number of references gleaned 

from the sources support the argument that gardens were an element in Ghassānid 

structures, both secular and religious.

 

1. Monasteries were woven into the fabric of the urban scene in Ghassānland 



cities as well as countryside. Orchards were an essential part of the monastery, 

whether urban or rural, as attested by a well-known passage in Iṣfahānī’s special-

ized work on monasteries. He states that in choosing where to build a monastery, 

the Ghassānids and other Christian Arabs such as those of Ḥīra and Najrān looked 

for sites that abounded in trees, gardens (

riyāḍ), and streamlets.37 The Garden of 

 

33  See A. Sartre, “Tombeaux antiques de Syrie du Sud,” 



Syria 60 (1983), 83–99, and idem, 

“L’architecture funéraire en Syrie,” in 



Archéologie et histoire de la Syrie, vol. 2, La Syrie de l’époque 

achéménide à l’avènement de l’Islam, ed. J.-M. Dentzer and W. Orthmann (Saarsbrücken, 1989), 423–

46. More generally, see J. Kyriakakis, “Byzantine Burial Customs,” 



Greek Orthodox Theological Review 

19 (1974), 37–72, and A. Rush, 



Death and Burial in Christian Antiquity (Washington, D.C., 1941).

 

34  For this prose piece by al-Nābigha, see Abū al-Faraj Iṣfahānī, 



al-Aghānī (Beirut, 1958), XV, 124. 

 

35  Abu al-Faraj Iṣfahānī, 



Kitāb al-Diyārāt, ed. J. al-ʿAtiyya (London, 1991), 163.

 

36  See A. Kazhdan, “Gardens,” 



ODB, II, 822.

 

37  See Iṣfahānī, 



Kitāb al-Diyārāt, 163. On the similar approach in Byzantium, see A.-M. Talbot, 

“Byzantine Monastic Horticulture: The Textual Evidence,” in 



Byzantine Garden Culture, ed. A. Little-

wood, H. Maguire, and J. Wolschke-Bulmahn (Washington, D.C., 2002), 37–67.



276

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

Eden and the Garden of Gethsemane, associated with Jesus in the Gospels, would 

have inspired a society so devoted to its Christianity.38

 

2. That gardens were attached to Ghassānid secular structures, their man-



sions and houses, is demonstrated in a prose piece addressed to one of their kings 

by al-Nābigha, who says that the Ghassānid king had the most attractive and 

appealing of gardens.39 These apparently had not only fruits but also flowers, to 

which the poet refers in his famous ode on the Ghassānids; he describes the scene 

on Palm Sunday, when the Ghassānid rulers would be greeted by their maidens 

with 


rayḥān, fragrant flowers.40 In his elegy on al-Nuʿmān, the same poet prays that 

rayḥān may continue to grace the Ghassānid king’s tomb and wishes that two fra-

grant Arabian flowers called 



ḥawdhān and ʿawf may also grace it.41

 

The Ghassānids’ association with flowers is further confirmed by a prose piece 



by Ḥassān, who in early Islamic times often reminisced on Ghassānid entertain-

ment of their guests; he once described how the Ghassānid king Jabala would sit 

on a couch under which were scattered leaves of myrtle and jasmine and all sorts of 

fragrant flowers.42 The cumulative effect of these references is striking and under-

scores the importance of flowers in Ghassānid life.

 

38  The only extant reference to a garden in a Christian city and a strictly Christian context involves 



Najrān, the Arabian martyropolis. According to the sources, a “Church to the Holy Martyrs and the 

Glorious Arethas” was built there on a site that had previously bloomed as a luxuriant garden; see the 

present writer in “Byzantium in South Arabia,” 

DOP 33 (1979), 27. 

 

39  See Iṣfahānī, 



al-Aghānī, XV, 124, verses 11–12.

 

40 Al-Nābigha, 



Dīwān, 47, verses 25–26.

 

41  Ibid., 121, verses 27–28.



 

42  See Iṣfahānī, 



al-Aghānī, XVII, 105.

III

Architecture and Decorative Art 

T

he hiatus in the Arab artistic presence between the Nabataeans and the 



Palmyrenes of the Roman period (first century b.c.–third century a.d.) and 

the Umayyads in the early Islamic period (seventh century a.d.) can be bridged 

by the federate artistic presence in this proto-Byzantine period, especially by the 

Ghassānids. This chapter aims at examining the remains of that presence in sixth-

century Oriens.

 

Fortunately, a number of monuments of diverse character enable that pres-



ence to be examined. Ghassānid secular military architecture is represented by 

the 


praetorium of Mundir, outside the walls of Sergiopolis;1 secular civil architec-

ture, by a house in Hayyat;2 monastic religious architecture, by the tower at Qaṣr 

al-Ḥayr al-Gharbī;3 and church religious architecture, by the church at Nitil in 

Trans-Jordan.4 A fifth architectural form, the odeion, has not survived, but the 

final section of this chapter argues that it must have existed.

 

The various ethnic groups in 



Oriens Christianus—Armenian, Georgian, 

Aramaean, Copt, and Ethiopian—responded to the new faith by enlisting all 

forms of art in its service. Each of these peoples developed a distinctive expression 

of Christian art; likewise, the Nabataeans of Petra and the Palmyrenes of Tadmur,5 

 

1 See 


BASIC I.1, 501–5, 129; BASIC II.1, 129–33. Another example of military architecture is  

al-Burj (the Tower) of Ḍumayr; see 



BASIC I.1, 495–501.

 

2 See 



BASIC I.1, 489–94. Hayyat lies to the north of Philippopolis (Shahbāʾ); see Map VII in 

BASIC II.2, 433. For the house in late antique Oriens, see the relevant part of C. Castel, M. al-Maqdissi 

and F. Villeneuve, eds., 



Les maisons dans la Syrie antique du IIIe millénaire aux débuts de l’Islam, Actes 

du Colloque international, Damas, 1992 (Beirut, 1997). The mansion called al-Mushattā in the region 

of Madaba may also, in its substrate, represent Ghassānid secular civil architecture; see Chapter 2 above, 

with note 15. 

 

3 See 


BASIC I.1, 258–61; BASIC II.1, 205–11. The tower is the frontispiece of BASIC I.1.

 

4  See M. Piccirillo, “The Church of Saint Sergius at Nitl: A Centre of Christian Arabs in the 



Steppe at the Gate of Madaba,” 

Lib.ann 51 (2001), 267–84. The frontispiece and finispiece of BASIC 

II.1, as well as the volume’s four color plates, all reflect various facets of this church. 

 

5  On Petra and the Nabataeans, see S. G. Schmid, “The Nabataeans,” in 



The Archaeology of Jordan, 

ed. B. MacDonald, R. Adams, and P. Bienkowski (Sheffield, 2001), 367–404, especially 403–4; on 

Palmyra, see 

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, ed. E. M. Meyers (New York, 


278

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

as well as the Umayyads of Damascus, developed an art and architecture peculiar 

to themselves. So, did the Ghassānid Arabs, in the same region, do the same? The 

question is appropriate, since the Ghassānids served Byzantium a long time and 

their 


floruit in the sixth century coincided with the explosion of Christian art in 

the capital and the provinces, including the Oriens of the Ghassānids.

 

The state of surviving manuscripts precludes any definitive answer to this 



question, but a number of observations may be made. The Arabic sources of the 

later period singled out the Ghassānids of all pre-Islamic dynasties, presenting 

them as lovers of building—what a Greek author would have called ϕιλοκτίσται; 

thus Ḥamza (d. 961) credited them with a large number of structures of various 

types.6 But he could not comment on the structures’ artistic character, since he 

had not seen them; he was simply quoting earlier Ghassānid sources, such as the 

no longer extant 

Akhbār Mulūk Ghassān,7 which had probably listed these struc-

tures. Another Muslim author, Iṣfahānī, the author of the monumental 



al-Aghānī, 

referred to the art and architecture of the Ghassānids, as well as to that of the 

Lakhmids of Ḥīra and the Balḥāriths of Najrān. In a surviving passage from what 

must have been an invaluable source on Christian structures in the Byzantine 

period, 

Kitāb al-Diyārāt, he mentions the following features of their religious 

structures, the 



biyaʿ (plural of bīʿa, “church”): (1) their extreme height; (2) appoint-

ments made of gold and silver; (3) 



sutūr, screens and curtains of brocade; (4) mural 

mosaics; and (5) golden ceilings.8 Iṣfahānī lived in Aleppo during the renais-

sance of the Ḥamdānids under Sayf al-Dawla; he both had seen the buildings he 

described and read the verses of the poets who had visited these churches. So, the 

statements of Ḥamza and Iṣfahānī indicate that the Ghassānids did contribute to 

the artistic life of Oriens. And in the artistic development of Christian structures, 

Ghassānids of Jābiya surely had an edge over the Lakhmids, since they themselves 

were Christian and lived in the shadow not of Persia but of Byzantium, a Christian 

empire that itself surpassed Persia’s achievements in art and architecture.

 

Of these four Ghassānid monuments listed above, the tower of Qaṣr al-Ḥayr 



al-Gharbī illustrates the first observation by Iṣfahānī, on the height of Ghassānid 

buildings; the church of Nitil, the only surviving Ghassānid structure in which 

1997), IV, 238–44. Two issues of 

Aram are devoted to the Nabataeans of Petra and the Palmyrenes of 

Tadmur; see 



The Nabataeans, 2.1–2 (1990) and Palmyra: History and Archaeology, 7.1 (1995). See also 

C. E. Bosworth, “Tadmur,” 



EI2, X, 79–80; J. Taylor, Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans 

(London, 2001).

 

6  See Ḥamza al-Iṣfahānī, 



Tārīkh Sinī Mulūk al-Arḍ wa al-Anbiyāʾ, ed. Y. Maskūni (Beirut, 1961), 

98–106; Ḥamza is discussed more generally in 



BASIC II.1, 306–41.

 

7 See 


BASIC II.1, 364–62.

 

8  See Abū al-Faraj Iṣfahānī, 



Kitāb al-Diyārāt, ed. J. al-ʿAṭiyya (London, 1991), 163–64. In his con-

temporary poetry, Ḥassān documents some of these features, such as the height of their buildings; see 




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