Sixth century


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Sunday and Easter.

 

25 Ḥassān,



 Dīwān, I, 106, verse 10; on the odeum and the evidence for it in Ḥassān’s poetry, see the 

discussion above in Chapter 3. 



313

Poetry


 

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 

Dīwān of Ḥassān attest: maymas (μῖμος) for actor and 

mumis (μιμάς) for prostitute.28

 

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, 



Dīwān, 40–48.

 

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), 

313–14.


 

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 

Dīwān, 52, verse 10. 

 

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,” 

EI2, VII, 840–42. 

 

32 Al-Nābigha, 



Dīwān, 89–97.

314

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 

ekphrasis of the statue. The ninth century was to 

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).

315

Poetry


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 

the priest, 



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, 


Rasāʾil al-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 

al-Naṣrāniyya wa Adābuhā bayna ʿArab al-Jāhiliyya, 2 vols. 

(Beirut, 1912–23). For the state of the problem, see 



BAFIC, 422–49.

 

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.

 

43 See 



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).



316

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 

BAFIC related it to the rise among the Arabs of 

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 

poetry.51

 

46 See 


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).

 

49 See 



BAFIC, 443–49, 453–55.

 

50 Al-Nābigha, 



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.

317

Poetry


 

A quintet of verses, however, was luckily preserved in the invaluable 



Geo-

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  

of chastity.

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.

 The 

qasīda, the polythematic ode, was a major achievement of the poets of 

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 

bāʾiyya or rhyme in  

B on the Ghassānids;56 so did Ḥassān, who explicitly states that he prefers urban 

 

52 Yāqūt, 



Muʿ jam al-Buldān (Beirut, 1956), II, 500–501; the quintet is discussed in BAFIC, 

447–49. 


 

53  On the 



qasīda, see F. Krenkow and G. Lecomte, “

˙

Kasida,” 



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. 

 

56 Al-Nābigha, 



Dīwān, 40–48.

318

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 



their 

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 

 The 

aṭlāl theme was also used by Ḥassān, but in a different way. The poet lau-

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 

 

57 Ḥassān, 



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 

Khizānat al-Adab, I, 329–35.

 

59  See al-Nābigha, 



Dīwān, 20–21, verses 22–27. 

 

60 Ḥassān, 



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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