Sixth century

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is clear from the Prophet Muḥammad’s covenant with them. The Ghassānids, who 

levied the tax on the caravaneers of the spice route at Bostra, may also have been 

responsible for levying it on those who sailed the Red Sea on their way to Iotabe and 

thence to Ayla, especially if they were Arab merchants. The Ghassānids thus had a 

presence in the Gulf of Eilat in both Iotabe and Ayla—an outgrowth of the strong 

Byzantine presence in the Red Sea in this period.68 One demonstration of that pres-

ence is the number of ships that sailed from the Red Sea’s northern Byzantine ports 

to support the Negus of Ethiopia in his South Arabian campaign. The survivors 


63 See 

Dīwān Ḥassān ibn Thābit, ed. W. ʿArafāt, Gibb Memorial New Series 25 (London, 1971),  

I, 308, verse 9. 


64  For this verse, see Uḥayḥa ibn al-Julāḥ in Yāqūt, 

Muʿ jam al-Buldān (Beirut, 1955), I, 292, 

Column B, verse 2. 


65  Koran, 7:163. 


66  See M. Hamidullah, 

Majmūʿat al-Wathāʾiq al-Siyāsiyya, li al-ʿAhd al-Nabawi (Beirut, 1987), 

16–118. The covenant clearly implies that the inhabitants of Ayla with whom the Prophet dealt were 

Arabs, and it reflects the new world order—the Prophet is now himself taxing the 

Rhomaioi Arabs who 

earlier had taxed him when he arrived at the frontier as a caravan leader.

    Nöldeke thought that Yūḥanna ibn Ruʾba was a descendant of Abū Karib, whom he believed was 

a Kindite; see 

GF, 17 note 1. But he came to that conclusion before the discovery of the Sabaic Dam 

inscription of Abraha, which proved that Abū Karib was the brother of Arethas, a Ghassānid. Nöldeke 

recognized his mistake in his 



67  Ayla was especially prosperous in the Mamlūk period. These Islamic sources have important data 

on Ayla, now al-‘Aqaba; one of them, 

Khitat al-Maqrīzi, refers to the existence of a bāb maʿqūd, possibly 

a vaulted porch, that contained a military station for the Romans (referred to as 

Qaysar, Caesar), where 

taxes (

miks) were levied; see the index of Y. Ghawanmeh, al-Tārikh al-Siyāsi li Sharq al-Urdunn fi ʿAsr 

Dawlat al-Mamālīk al-Ūlā (Amman, 1982), s.v. al-ʿAqaba.


68  In effect, the Red Sea became a Byzantine lake, especially in the reigns of Justin I and Justinian; 

see J. Ruska, “Milāḥaʾ,” 

EI2, VII, 41–42.


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

from the martyrdoms of Najrān around 520 had come to Jābiya in the Golan to 

ask their relative, the Ghassānid king Jabala, for military help; though Jabala could 

not at that time aid them, the emperor Justin, according to the 

Martyrium Arethae, 

soon thereafter sent fifteen ships from Ayla, twenty from Clysma, seven from 

Iotabe, and two from Berenice.69 Surely these ships, especially those that sailed 

from Ayla and Iotabe, also carried Ghassānid troops, eager to exact vengeance for 

the martyrs, which they had been unable to do without Byzantine support. 


3. Although seafaring and water-borne traffic in the Dead Sea is not explic-

itly mentioned in the contemporary sources, the Madaba Mosaic map does include 

a scene depicting ships. That evidence from the mosaic—together with references 

in the Islamic sources of later times, when the two shores of the sea were similarly 

united under one power—suggests that some vessels traversed the Dead Sea. Dubbed 

Mare Mortuum, it did not support fishing, but there must have been some traffic in 

such products as bitumen and salt; the Islamic sources specifically name indigo, 


and boats built at Zoghar that reached the Dead Sea shore near Jericho.70 


69 See 

BALA III, 39 and note 53.


70  See Gawanmeh, 

al-Tārikh al-Siyāsi li Sharq al-Urdunn fi ʿAsr Dawlat al-Mamālīk al-Ūlā


The Fairs



aswāq (plural of sūq), the markets or fairs, were a key feature of the eco-

nomic and social life of the pre-Islamic Arabs in the Arabian Peninsula as 

they were in the Byzantine Empire. They were the centers at which the urban and 

the pastoral sectors of Arab society met and connected within an inter-Arab and 

intra-Arabian framework.1 The 

aswāq became more important when, after mon-

soons were harnessed, the Red Sea began offering an alternative route for interna-

tional trade between the two worlds of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean; 

the Ptolemies, Romans, Byzantines, and Ethiopians subsequently began partic-

ipating in this maritime commerce, sometimes as competitors with one another 

and with the Ḥimyarites of South Arabia. The importance of these intra-Arabian 

markets reached its peak when hostilities between Byzantium and Persia resumed 

in the sixth century and war broke out in the reign of every emperor and shah 

of that century. Because of these conflicts, traffic shifted from the Mesopotamian 

route to the overland Arabian route, the famous 

via odorifera, which extended 

from South Arabia to the southern part of Oriens, comprising Palaestina Tertia 

and the Provincia Arabia. The same century also witnessed the rise of Mecca to the 

position of the dominant Arab caravan city, as nearby ʿUkā


z became the primary 

market of the Arabs in pre-Islamic times—a development of great importance to 

the rise of Islam and the Arab Muslim Conquests of the seventh century.


Nothing better illustrates the surge in the economic life of Arabia and the 

Arabs than the rise of about ten of these fairs, which sprang up throughout the 

Peninsula.2 This feverish intra-Arabian economic expansion in sixth-century Arabia 


1  For the 

aswāq, see T. Bianquis and P. Guichard, “Sū



EI2, IX, especially 786–87 (on the pre-

Islamic period); see also I. M. Ḥammūr, 

Aswāq al-ʿArab (Beirut, 1979); S. al-Afghānī, Aswāq al-ʿArab 

fi al-Jāhiliyya wa al-Islam (Cairo, 1993). For the fair, πανήγυρις, in Byzantine life, see Ph. Koukoules, 

Byzantinon bios kai politismos (Athens, 1949), III, 270–83, S. Vryonis, “The Panegyris of the Byzantine 

Saint,” in 

The Byzantine Saint: University of Birmingham Fourteenth Spring Symposium of Byzantine 

Studies, ed. S. Hackel (London, 1981), 196–227; L. de Ligt, Fairs and Markets in the Roman Empire: 

Economic and Social Aspects of Periodic Trade in a Pre-industrial Society (Amsterdam, 1993).


2  A highly intelligent account of this surge and the importance of the 

aswāq as local trade within 

the Peninsula may be found in M. B. Piotrovski, “L’économie de l’Arabie préislamique,” in 

L’Arabie avant 


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

Map V. The Three Arab Fairs, 

Aswāq, in Oriens

benefited the Ghassānids, both as protectors of the caravans and as conveners and 

tax collectors at these fairs.


The Ghassānids were involved in these markets in two different areas, one outside 

Oriens in the Arabian Peninsula and the other within Oriens.


The sources are clear on the Ghassānid ties to one important market in Arabia, 

that of Dūma. Dūma was an important strategic site for Byzantium, both because 

l’Islam, ed. S. Noja (Aix-en-Provence, 1994), 211–39 (reviewed by the present writer in International 

Journal of Middle East Studies 32 [2000], 538–41). For the medieval Arabic sources on the aswāq, see 


Tārīkh (Beirut, n.d.), I, 313–14; Ibn Ḥabīb, Kitāb al-Muḥabbar, ed. I. Lichtenstädter (1942; 

reprint, Beirut, n.d.), 263–68; Abū-ʿAli al-Marzūqi, 

Kitāb al-Azmina wa al-Amkina (Hyderabad, 1914), 

II, 169–70.

    Yaʿqūbi lists ten fairs (for the English version, see R. G. Hoyland, 

Arabia and the Arabs [London, 

2001], 109–10); though Ḥammūr’s work (

Aswāq al-ʿArab) makes clear that the actual number was 

higher, these ten were the most important. 


The Fairs

it was located at the southern entrance of an important gateway to Oriens from the 

Arabian Peninsula, namely Wādī Sirḥān (Map III), and because it was the loca-

tion of a fair that had international as well as Arabian significance.3 The Byzantine 

presence there was simultaneously direct, through its Ghassānid 

foederati, and 

indirect, through allied groups such as Kinda and Kalb. The sources speak of the 

involvement of the Ghassānids in this 

sūq, noting that they used to run it alter-

nately with Kalb or a Kalb subdivision, the Kināna.4 The merchants who used to 

frequent the 

sūq were tithed by the Ghassānids when they were in charge of it. One 

of the sources uses the verb 

ghalaba,5 “gain the upper hand,” to characterize the 

alternating control of the 

sūq between Ghassān and Kalb—a curious term to use 

of allies. Another source, however, relates the term to a contest of wits between the 

two groups that involved solving an enigma, 

uḥjiya;it explicitly states that taxes, 

ʿushūr, were levied.6


Of all the fairs in Arabia, the one in Dūma had the most international impor-

tance—an importance derived from the strategic position of Dūma itself at the 

intersection of several routes, halfway between Ḥīra and Persia on the one hand 

and Mecca and Medina on the other: it was a central point on an international 

trade route running from east to west. One of the two main sources on 

aswāq gives 

it more space than all the other fairs of Arabia. Apparently, the 

sūq was a site of 

Byzantine-Persian rivalry,7 which further endowed it with international impor-

tance and naturally involved the Ghassānids, as 



3  On the 

sūq of Dūma, see Afghānī, Aswāq al-ʿArab,  232–39, and Ḥammūr, Aswāq al-ʿArab, 



4  For the medieval Arabic sources on the 

sūq of Dūma, see Yaʿqūbi, Tārīkh, I, 270–71, and the 

expansive account in Ibn Ḥabīb, 

al-Muḥabbar, 263–64. Ibn Habīb provides a detailed description of 

how business in the 

sūq was conducted and what role the Ghassānids played; M. Lecker has clarified 

some of its confusing elements in “Were Customs Dues Levied at the Time of the Prophet Muhammad?” 

Al-Qantara 22 (2001), 19–43 (on Dūma, see 27–28).


5 Yaʿqūbi, 

Tārīkh, 270.


6  Ibn Ḥabīb, 

al-Muḥabbar, 264.


7  The rivalry is perceptively noted by Lecker in “Were Customs Dues Levied?” For the Sasanid 

presence in the Arabian Peninsula and its economic implications, see M. Morony, “The Late Sasanian 

Economic Impact on the Arabian Peninsula,” 

Nāme-ye Irān-e Bāstān 1.2 (2002), 26–37.


8  The work of the most recent traveler to Dūma, the scholar Ḥamad al-Jāsir, should be noted; see 

Fi Shamāl Gharb al-Jazīra (Riyadh, 1981), 528–33. Inter alia he refers to a church that used to be in the 

vicinity of the fortress, the 

qalʿa (530), perhaps recalling the phrase qaṣr Dūma in Ḥassān’s verse; see 

Dīwān Ḥassān ibn Thābit, ed. W. ʿArafāt, Gibb Memorial New Series 25 (London, 1971), I, 75, verse 20. 

    A verse in an ode by the Umayyad poet Kuthayyir ʿAzza (d. 723) refers to a monk, to merchants, and 

to pilgrims in Dūma, suggesting that much of Dūma’s pre-Islamic Christianity persisted at least until the 

middle of the Islamic Umayyad period. Reference to pilgrims might also imply that Dūma was a pilgrimage 

center, perhaps featuring a 

martyrion in which the relics of some martyrs (those of Najrān?) were deposited. 

Dūma thus emerges as a 

sūq that, like Dayr Ayyūb in Oriens, may have had some religious significance. For 

the verse, see Abdulla al-Majdhūb, 

al-Murshid il-a Fahm Ashʿār al-ʿArab (Cairo, 1995), I, 436.


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century



Three important markets were located in Oriens,9 and they all involved the 

Ghassānids (see Map V).


1. The 

sūq of Dayr Ayyūb. Nowadays an insignificant village called Shaykh 

Saʿd,10 in ancient and Byzantine times Dayr Ayyūb was much more important. It 

lay 10 kilometers to the south of Jābiya in the Golan. As its name indicates, it was 

related in the popular mind to Ayyūb, the biblical Job, a connection that has sur-

vived in the form of a 

maqām, a religious site associated with him in Ḥawrān, in 

Ghassānland proper. This biblical figure was of importance to the Ghassānids as 

warriors, since in war they invoked not just St. Sergius but also Ayyūb, Job,11 cel-

ebrated in the Bible for his endurance and fortitude in the face of adversity—quali-

ties that the Ghassānids saw in themselves. They identified so strongly with the 

virtue of 

ṣabr (endurance) that a clan or a subdivision within the Ghassānids was 

called the 

ṣubr: that is, those who were known for their endurance.12


The sources state that Dayr Ayyūb was the first stop for the Arabs of the 

Peninsula after they completed their transactions at the three 

aswāq of Ḥijāz—



z, Majanna, and Dhu al-Majāz. Their caravans would then proceed to the three 

markets of Oriens, beginning with Dayr Ayyūb.13 And because this 

sūq was also 

one of the 

loca sancta of Oriens, it brings to mind ʿUkā


z, the pan-Arab 

sūq near the 

sites of the pre-Islamic Arab pilgrimage to ʿArafāt; for the Byzantine world, it recalls 

the fair at Thessalonike, so closely associated with the feast day of St. Demetrios.


2. Bostra. The second 

sūq visited by the caravans from Arabia was Bostra, the 

most important of the three markets in Oriens. The town had been founded by 

Nabataean Arabs and had become the capital of the Provincia Arabia. The rise to 

prominence of the West Arabian spice route enhanced its importance, since Bostra 

was one of the route’s two termini (the other being Gaza). It therefore developed 

into a great emporium frequented by the Arab caravans carrying international 

goods that hailed ultimately from Abyssinia, South Arabia, and India.14


9  All unknown to the medieval sources Ibn Ḥabīb and Jaʿqūbi, but known to Marzūqi; see  

al-Azmina wa al-Amkina, II, 169–70.


10  See R. Dussaud, 

Topographie historique de la Syrie antique et médiévale (Paris, 1927), 244.


11  See Al-Nābigha, 

Dīwān, ed. S. Fayṣal (Beirut, 1968), 53, verse 16. The biblical figure appears in 

the Koran (38:41–44). See also the appendix to Chapter 11 in Part II. 


12  The association of 

ṣabr with Ghassān, and the unit called al-ṣubr or al-ṣubur, survived well into 

the Umayyad period, since it appears in the verse of al-Akhṭal, the poet laureate of the Umayyad caliph 

‘Abd al-Malik; see his 

Dīwān, ed. A. Ṣālḥāni (Beirut, 1969), 106, verse 4 (with the footnote making clear 

that Ḥassān in the text should read Ghassān). 


13  See Ḥammūr, 

Aswāq al-ʿArab, 195–96, and Afghānī, Aswāq al-ʿArab, 362–63. 


14  On Bostra, the standard work is M. Sartre, 

Bostra, des origines à l’Islam (Paris, 1985) (see G. W. 

Bowersock’s review in 

American Journal of Philology 106 [1985], 139–42); see also A. Abel, “Bosrā,”  

EI2 I, 1275–77.


The Fairs


The Arabic sources single out for special mention two items for which Bostra 

was known among the Arabs: the wines sold there, whether locally pressed or 

brought thither from other parts of Oriens, and its swords with broad blades, 

safā’iḥ, mentioned in Arabic pre-Islamic poetry.15 The swords’ prominence at this 

fair suggests that there may have been a 

fabrica in Bostra in addition to the better-


fabricae in Oriens.


One sign of Bostra’s importance is the length of its 

sūq, which was held for 

twenty-five days, a fact that no doubt derives from its being the terminus of the 

spice route. The 

sūq clearly kept its importance in Islamic Umayyad times, as its 

duration increased to thirty or forty days.16


With the rise of Mecca to a dominant position as the main caravan city of 

Arabia, Bostra became a final destination of the Meccans and their caravans.17 

One of the caravaneers, according to the sources, was none other than the future 

Prophet of Islam, who is supposed to have visited Bostra on two occasions—once 

as a child in the caravan of his uncle Abū Ṭālib and again when he himself led the 

caravans of his wife Khadīja. It was during one of these visits that he is said to have 

met the monk Baḥīra in a monastery, the famous Dayr Bostra.18 


As the capital of Provincia Arabia, the main Ghassānid province under the 

celebrated Arethas, the supreme phylarch, and until the end of the dynasty, Bostra 

was a key city for the Ghassānids. There were kept the regalia of the Ghassānid 

kings.19 So, as the guardians of Bostra’s 

sūq full of peninsular Arabs, the Ghassānids 

acted for Byzantium as they tithed Arabia’s caravaneers, who brought their mer-

chandise thither.


It was only natural that the Ghassānids should have been responsible for levy-

ing the tax in Bostra. The sources attest to their delegation of that charge to the 

tribe of Judām at the point where the merchants first crossed the Byzantine fron-

tier in Palaestina Tertia, when the merchandise was still in transit.20 In Bostra, 

selling and buying were taxed, again by Arabic-speaking Ghassānids dealing with 

Arabic-speaking peninsulars.21


3. Adriʿāt. After Bostra, the Arabs and Arabian caravans visited the third 

sūq, at 


15  See Afghānī, 

Aswāq al-ʿArab, 370–71.


16  See Marzūqi, 

al-Azmina wa al-Amkina, 167.


17  On Bostra’s relations with Mecca and Ḥijāz, see Sartre, 

Bostra, 129–32. 


18  See S. Gero, “The Legend of the Monk Baḥīra: The Cult of the Cross and Iconoclasm,” in 


Syrie de Byzance à Islam, ed. P. Canivet and J.-P. Rey-Coquais (Damascus, 1992), 47–57. 


19 See 

BASIC I.1, 469.


20  See Chapter 5, below. 


21  See M. Lecker’s ingenious argument and the sources he cites for the phrase “taxes of Bostra,” 

kharāj Busrā, in “The Levying of Taxes for the Sassanians in Pre-Islamic Medina (Yathrib),” Jerusalem 

Studies in Arabic and Islam 27 (2002), 109–26; on the taxes of Bostra, 115–20.


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

Adriʿāt. It lay to the northwest of Bostra in the Bathaniyya region (biblical Bāshān), 

and it survives nowadays in Syria as the chief town of Ḥawrān, called Derʿa.22


The sources that mention it make clear that the 

sūq of Adriʿāt lasted a long 

time, apparently longer than the other two

 aswāq. Al-Marzūqi, a writer of the 

fifth century of the 

hijra, says that it was still functioning in his day, some five 

centuries after the fall of the Ghassānids.23 Adriʿāt, like Dayr Ayyūb, was under 

Ghassānid phylarchal control in the Provincia Arabia. The few sources extant 

do not expressly state that the Ghassānids levied the taxes on its caravaneers—a 

responsibility (according to these sources) they had for Bostra’s, as Arabs dealing 

with Arab traders—but it seems very likely. One sign of the Ghassānid associa-

tion with Adriʿāt is provided by the Kindite poet Imruʾ al-Qays, a relative of the 

Ghassānids, who visited it, as a verse of his reveals.24 The association is confirmed 

by the famous battle of Adriʿāt in a.d. 614. The Ghassānids were employed to 

defend Oriens against the Persians during the Persian war of Heraclius’ reign, 

and they participated in the battle fought at Adriʿāt.25 Such links strongly suggest 

Ghassānid involvement in the town and in the 

sūq associated with it.26


It is not clear whether Adriʿat had any religious significance (such as Dayr 

Ayyūb had), which would have made its 

sūq more attractive. When members of the 

Jewish community of Banū al-Naḍīr were expelled from Yathrib/Medina in a.d. 626, 

they chose to settle in Adriʿāt; perhaps that was their place of origin,27 or perhaps the 

place held some religious association for them. 28 Such an association would also have 


22  On Adriʿāt, see Dussaud, 

Topographie historique de la Syrie, 325ff.


23 Marzūqi, 

al-Azmina wa al-Amkina, 170.


24  See Imruʾ al-Qays, 

Dīwān, ed. M. Ibrāhīm (Cairo, 1958), 31, verse 2. The poet, known as the 

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