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Sunday and Easter.
Dīwān, I, 106, verse 10; on the odeum and the evidence for it in Ḥassān’s poetry, see the
discussion above in Chapter 3.
2. The sources do not neglect the Roman component of Byzantinism, as
their description of the Ghassānid army makes clear: no longer primitive raid-
ers of Arabia Pastoralis, the Ghassānids deployed a
jaysh, an army composed of
katāʾib, “divisions,” led by commanders who fought in the Roman manner. All this
is reflected in the panegyrics composed on the Ghassānids.26
3. Hellenism is the least prominent of the components of Byzantinism. This
was the age in which “Hellene” and “pagan” were used interchangeably and rejected
with equal force by the Christian Roman Empire. It is the century that witnessed
Justinian’s closing of the Academy in Athens in a.d. 529.27 However, Greek science
was not forgotten or frowned upon; it has survived in loanwords in Arabic such as
diryāq/tiryāq for antidote (θηριακή) and bayṭār (ἱππιατρός) for veterinarian. And
in spite of disapproval by the church, mimes continued to be performed in Oriens,
as two loanwords in the
An attempt has been made to see direct Hellenistic influence on Arabic
poetry, as in the case of al-Muraqqish the Elder, a poet who visited the Ghassānids
and was said to have died of love.29 One might wish to think that Hellenism was
the provenance of this kind of love, but it is difficult to trace the route taken by this
influence to reach the pastoralist poet of pre-Islamic Arabia.
Yet Hellenism did not fail to leave a remarkable impress on the Arabic poetry
of this period. On one of his visits to the Ghassānids, al-Nābigha seems to have
gone by Palmyra, possibly when he was visiting his patrons in Ruṣāfa/Sergiopolis.30
Palmyra inspired him to refer to its legendary builder, Solomon, and to admire its
colonnaded streets.31 More intriguingly, Palmyra may be connected to al-Nābigha’s
devoting a lengthy poem of thirty-five verses to a detailed, almost anatomical,
description of a woman’s body.32 It was said to have been a panegyric on a queen—
the wife of his patron, al-Nuʿmān, the king of the Lakhmids of Ḥīra. The king was
26 See al-Aʿlam al-Shantamarī,
Dīwān ʿAlqama al-Faḥl, ed. D. al-Khaṭīb and I. Ṣaqqāl (Aleppo,
1969), 33–48; al-Nābigha,
27 See Al. Cameron, “The Last Days of the Academy in Athens,” in
Literature and Society in the
Early Byzantine World, article XIII, 7–30.
28 For what may be the earliest references to these Greek terms, see Ḥassān,
Dīwān, I, 74, verse 14;
106, verse 13; see also the appendix to Part II, Chapter 8, above.
29 G. E. von Grünebaum,
Medieval Islam: A Study in Cultural Orientation (Chicago, 1953),
30 Palmyra was a station on the way to Sergiopolis, which al-Nābigha did visit, as his verse referring
to a cross set up on its walls makes clear; see
31 See ibid., 20, verse 22; 21, verse 23. Legend has it that Palmyra/Tadmur was built by Solomon and
this was known to the pre-Islamic Arabs; see C. E. Bosworth, “Tadmur,”
EI2, X, 79–80. A. Arazi has
added that knowledge of the legend would have spread through the Arabs of the pre-Islamic period who
had converted to Judaism; see his “al-Nābigha al-Dhubyāni,”
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
not thrilled to have his wife so intimately described and the description alienated
him from the poet, who had to flee Ḥīra.33
The prosopographical accuracy of this episode is not relevant here; what
matters is the surprising description of a woman’s body.34 It has been cogently
argued that its inspiration was Palmyra, Dura/Europos, or some other Graeco-
Roman city in Oriens, where the poet saw a copy of the famous nude statue of
Aphrodite of Cnidus, sculpted by Praxiteles in the fourth century b.c.35 One
could extend this hypothesis further to suggest that the poem in fact was
mostly or entirely on the statue of Aphrodite rather than on al-Mutajarrida, the
Lakhmid queen.36 The key point is the possibility that the statue of the famous
Athenian sculptor inspired a poet of pre-Islamic Arabia, and that the resulting
poem was to some degree an
see an unambiguous instance of such an
ekphrasis of a Graeco-Roman work of
art: the ode of Buḥtūrī on the mosaic depicting the Persian victory at the battle
of Antioch in 540, which the Abbasid poet found in the ruins of the palace of
Chosroes in Ctesiphon.37
The possibility of
ekphrasis of Praxiteles’ statue of Aphrodite by the Arab
poet al-Nābigha, even after the lapse of a millennium between the two artists, sug-
gests the persistence of the Hellenic heritage in Oriens.38
4. Of all the components of Byzantinism, Christianity proved to be the most
influential, as it was with all the peoples who adopted Christianity through what
has been called Byzantium’s
mission civilisatrice. Their conversion entailed the rise
and development of Christian literatures among such peoples as the Slavs, the
Armenians, the Copts, and the Ethiopians. And so it was in the case of the Arabs.
The existence of a substantial corpus of Christian Ghassānid verse is vouched for
by the distinguished ninth-century author al-Jāḥi
z, who specifically referred to
33 See Ibn Qutayba,
al-Shiʿir wa al-Shuʿarāʾ, I, 166.
34 For a similarly surprising description in a funeral oration, see Appendix II.
35 A. Maydāni, ʿ
Ayn al-Nābigha, Madha Raʾat (Damascus, 1984).
36 Evidence within the poem supporting such an argument includes the description of her as a
statue of marble, placed on a pedestal (al-Nābigha,
Dīwān, 91, verse 16), and the mention of her veil
having fallen from her body so that she covered herself with her hand (verse 17). The reference to her
complexion as yellow or golden (verse 11) also suggests a statue, since statues at the time were colored;
see K. Clark,
The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (Princeton, 1956), 128. Moreover, it seems implausible
that al-Nābigha would risk seriously offending the king who was his patron by writing such verses on the
queen. Another possibility is that the graphic close of the poem was added later; such additions some-
times occurred in the transmission of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, a process that might also explain the
name given to the Lakhmid queen: al-Mutajarrida, “the one who has taken off her clothes.”
37 For a translation of the ode, see A. J. Arberry,
Arabic Poetry: A Primer for Students (Cambridge,
1965), 75; see the discussion in
BASIC I.1, 235–36.
38 See G. W. Bowersock,
Hellenism in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 1990).
their well-known Christian poems.39 Most of this poetry has not survived, but a
fruitful examination of the remnants is possible.40 This examination of poetry that
has survived makes possible speculation about the poetry that has been lost.
a. The Ghassānids lived in the shadow of a Christian empire, in an age when
hymnography was the principal original creative component of Byzantine litera-
ture.41 In the sixth century, their diocese produced the great Byzantine hymnog-
rapher Romanus the Melode, born to Jewish parents in the neighboring city of
Emesa, which had had a strong Arab character since the days of the empresses
of the Severan dynasty in the third century.42 Arabic no doubt was the language
of the Arab Ghassānid church in Oriens, used in its liturgy, lectionary, Gospel,
and Psalms—all necessary and indispensable to the service.43 It is difficult to
believe that Christian hymns were not sung in Ghassānid churches, both transla-
tions and originals composed in Arabic. New hymns often accompany Christian
revival movements, such as occurred in the nineteenth century in Arab Christian
Lebanon, when the American mission sponsored the publication of a new Arabic
Protestant version of the Bible.44
The Arabic hymns sung in Ghassānid churches, like the various other compo-
nents of the church service, have been lost. The pitiable remains of this poetic tradi-
tion have survived only indirectly and allusively in a single verse by Ḥassān. In the
nūniyya or rhyme in N, while reminiscing on his old days among the Ghassānids,
he refers to
ṣalawāt al-Masīh, “prayers addressed to Christ”; to the invocation of
al-qissīs; and to the monks, ruhbān, in the monastery, dayr.45
b. Poetry of an entirely different kind must have been inspired by the phe-
nomenal rise of monasticism in Oriens, and by the Ghassānids’ great interest in
39 See Jāḥi
z, ed. A. Hārūn (Cairo, 1965), III, 312.
40 The Jesuit priest Louis Cheikho collected a large number of references to this literature; his
work is a mine of information for those who wish to pursue the problem of a Christian literature in
pre-Islamic Arabia. He did not subject what he had gathered to strict criticism, however, since his main
interest was to collect the references: see his
(Beirut, 1912–23). For the state of the problem, see
41 See E. Jeffreys, “Hymnography,”
ODB, II, 960–61. The basic work is E. Wellesz, A History of
Byzantine Music and Hymnography (Oxford, 1961); see also K. Metsakes, Βυζαντινὴ ὑμνογραφία ἀπὸ τὴν
ἐποχὴ τῆς καινῆς διαθήκης ἕως τὴν εἰκονομαχία (Thessalonike, 1971).
42 On Romanus, see B. Baldwin, “Romanos, the Melode,”
ODB, III, 1807–8. On the visit around
a.d. 540 of the poet Imruʾ al-Qays to Emesa, where he consorted with some of its Arab inhabitants, see
BASIC II.1, 263.
BAFOC, 435–43; BAFIC, 422–30, 449, 450.
44 The nineteenth-century man of letters Nāṣīf al-Yāzijī wrote many hymns for the church service,
as did others; see the often-reprinted hymnal prepared jointly by various Christian missions and groups
from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt,
Mazāmīr wa Tasābīḥ wa Aghāni Rūḥiyya (Beirut, 1913).
45 See Ḥassān,
Dīwān, I, 256, line 7. The dayr may have been that of Fīq, referred to earlier in the
poem (line 3).
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
monasteries. The Syriac contemporary document of 137 subscriptions of monastic
archimandrites to the Ghassānid king Arethas has been mentioned several times
in this volume. It was also suggested in earlier volumes that the foundation of
these monasteries was probably related to the appointment of Theodore as bishop
of the Ghassānid and Arab church in Monophysite Oriens.46 The devotion of the
Arabs to monastic life has also been noted by Syriac writers.47 The appearance of
this new structure, the monastery, in the Ghassānid landscape must have elicited
some response from the poets of the period, as it did in the Islamic period, when
a whole genre of Arabic poetry related to the monasteries came into existence.48 It
is true that the poets of the Islamic period were interested only in the amenities
of the monastery—wine and hospitality; one would not expect Muslim poets to
reflect the institution’s Christian message. But Christian poets of the sixth century
would have reacted differently to the monastery and its ascetic ideal. No poetry of
this kind has survived, however. The verse of Ḥassān quoted in the preceding para-
graph could be invoked again in this context as expressing the Christian sentiment
that the monastery evoked in a poet better known as a hedonist.
c. A kind of poetry called ʿUdrī, related to the group ʿUdra, expressed chaste
and nonsensual sentiments of love that may be conveniently described as Platonic;
though it flourished in early Islamic times, its roots no doubt go back to this pre-
Islamic period. A discussion in
the virtues of chastity as an ideal of Christianity, with the Virgin Mary serving
as their role model.49 Because the Monophysite Ghassānids greatly venerated the
Virgin Mary—who to them even more than to the Dyophysite Chalcedonians was
Theotokos, since the term emphasized the divine rather than the human in Christ—
it is natural to expect that some of this chaste poetry might have been composed by
or for the Ghassānids. But no poems reflecting this kind of love have survived; only
echoes and traces of ἀγάπη remain in contemporary prose and poetry, in the form
of single words or phrases. Such are the references in al-Nābigha to Ghassānid
chastity in a sexual context,
ṭayyibun ḥujuzātuhum, “zoned in chastity,” and their
freedom from the usual sins,
itham, that plague humans of lesser moral fiber.50 The
former elicited the admiration of the distinguished medieval critic Ibn Qutayba,
who declared it the finest statement on chastity in the whole corpus of Arabic
BASIC I.2, 773–74, 824–38, 850–60; BASIC II.1, 176–95.
47 See the Syriac
vita of Aḥūdemmeh, PO 3 (Paris, 1909), 15–51; discussed in BASIC II.1, 177–82.
48 For this poetry, see Iṣfahānī,
Kitāb al-Diyārāt, ed. J. al-ʿAṭiyya (London, 1991).
BAFIC, 443–49, 453–55.
Dīwān, 47, verse 25; 101, verse 4 (which also includes a reference to their “bodies
purified”—that is, from sin).
51 Ibn Qutayba,
al-Shiʿr wa al-Shuʿarāʾ, I, 163.
A quintet of verses, however, was luckily preserved in the invaluable
graphical Dictionary of Yāqūt;52 it expresses a combination of monastic poetry
and ʿUdrī poetry, since it unites the two together. The quintet was composed and
recited by a female resident of Dayr Buṣra, the monastery of Bostra, in the mid-
dle of the ninth century. Its monks were Arabs whose affiliation was described
as Banū al-Ṣādir, ultimately related to the group ʿUdra, the very group associ-
ated with this kind of Platonic love poetry. So, if two centuries after the demise
of the Ghassānid dynasty, poems of conventual provenance and Platonic senti-
ment were composed in Bilād al-Shām, then surely such poetry must have been
composed in the Oriens of the sixth century, at the heyday of the Ghassānid
dynasty, celebrated for its partiality to monastic life and the Christian ideal
Influences on the Arabian Ode
A discussion of Byzantinism’s influence on the themes of Arabic poetry would not
be complete without considering its effect on the structure of the Arabic ode.
pre-Islamic Arabia. It was a mono-metered, mono-rhymed longish poem contain-
ing a fixed set of themes. It begins with the halt at the deserted encampment of
the departed tribe, a section that includes an amatory passage on the beloved, also
departed. Then follows a description of the desert scene in Arabia Deserta, both
the mount, horse or camel, and the fauna and flora of the landscape. It may end
with some reflections on life or with the praise of the group to which the poet
belonged.53 It was traditional to follow rigorously this canonical sequence of
themes,54 leading to a considerable amount of repetition and imitation. Some of
the poets in the late pre-Islamic period lamented the fact that they were replicating
what their camels were doing, namely, chewing the cud.55
1. The prelude of the
qasīda was its most important and distinctive compo-
nent, perfected by the masters of Arabic pre-Islamic poetry. The Ghassānid poets,
however, finding themselves now in a highly urban environment, apparently did
not feel it necessary to avail themselves of this prelude with its pastoralist associa-
tions. Al-Nābigha completely omits it from his finest ode, the
Muʿ jam al-Buldān (Beirut, 1956), II, 500–501; the quintet is discussed in BAFIC,
53 On the
qasīda, see F. Krenkow and G. Lecomte, “
EI2, IV, 713–14; the same entry traces
its later development in other Islamic literatures—Persian, Turkish, and Urdu.
54 See Ibn Qutayba,
al-Shiʿr wa al-Shuʿarāʾ, I, 76–77.
55 A sentiment expressed by ʿAntara and Zuhayr; see Sezgin,
GAS, II, 113–15, 118–20.
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
life with its amenities to the mounts he used to ride,57 thereby anticipating the
urbanization of Arabic poetry in later Islamic times.
2. When the Ghassānid poets did follow tradition and include a prelude in
qasīda, they generally avoided the prelude’s constituents, such as tents, pegs,
and dung; instead they introduced new elements derived from the urban scene in
Oriens. One of the attractive features of the pastoral prelude had been the string
of place-names at which the beloved stopped or lingered, a device that added both
realism and musicality to the ode. But names such as al-Ablāʾ and Thahmad were
hardly intelligible to the urban society of Oriens, and so a new toponymic necklace
of well-known places was introduced, featuring towns and cities familiar to the
Arabs of Oriens such as Jāsim, Jalliq (Gallica), Jābiya, Dārayyā, Sakkāʾ, Bilās, and
Dūma. Two of them attained celebrity—Ḥamāt and Shayzar, the Semitic names
of Macedonian-era Epiphaneia and Larissa (both in Syria), which became known
even to the poets of faraway Andalusia.58
3. The deserted encampment in the pastoral landscape of the pre-Islamic ode
gave way when the poets of the Ghassānids saw the splendid
aṭlāl, decayed and
fragmented remains of such Arab metropolises as Petra and Palmyra, both on the
way to Jābiya, Jalliq, and Ghassānid Ruṣāfa. Only echoes have survived of their
compositions on these urban centers. In one celebrated ode, al-Nābigha described
the large slabs of stone of which Palmyra was built as well as the columns still
standing in its streets.59
reate of the Ghassānids came to visit Ghassānland after the demise of the dynasty,
and he stood over the remains of a city he had known in his youth and whose fate
he poignantly lamented.60 In so doing, he initiated a new type of Arabic poetry,
elegies on fallen dynasties and kingdoms; the last in this Classical Arabic genre
were the odes on the fall of Muslim Spain, al-Andalus, to the conquistadors.
4. While the monastery attracted the Ghassānid poets, they were drawn
even more strongly to an important constituent of the urban scene—namely, the
tavern, with which Ḥassān became most closely associated. As he devoted some
of his poems exclusively to wine, the polythematic ode contracted to address a
single theme.61 Hence Ḥassān must be considered one of the poets who initiated
Dīwān, I, 316, verses 6–9; elsewhere he begins a poem by declaring that neither the
traces of the deserted encampment nor the departure of the tribe moves or stirs him (106, verse 1).
58 On Ḥamāt and Shayzar, see
BASIC II.1, 264. The two toponyms appeared in a passage of the
Caesar Ode of Imruʾ al-Qays that attracted the attention of the literary critic ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Baghdādi,
who offered a fine analysis in
59 See al-Nābigha,
Dīwān, 20–21, verses 22–27.
Dīwān, I, 74–75, 194–95, 316.
61 Also disentangled from the complex
qasīda was the monothematic love poem; see, for example,
Ḥassān’s attractive poem on al-Naḍīra (
Dīwān, I, 52–54), discussed in Part II, Chapter 2.
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