Sixth century

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found nudity repugnant. The nymphaeum probably appealed to them function-

ally: water was the 

sine qua non of Ghassānid existence in the Peninsula and in 

the limitrophe.

III. Christianity

More important than the Byzantine influence in their social life was Christianity, 

which was required of them once they became Byzantium’s 

foederati. This factor 

revolutionized their social life.7


The feasts of the Christian calendar and the liturgical year had distinct social 

aspects.8 As devoted Christians, the Ghassānids scrupulously observed these feasts, 

which at the same time became social events; thus these celebrations became part 

of their cultural life. Indeed, the Ghassānids were truly a unique Christian com-

munity, not only in Oriens but also within the entire Christian oikoumene in late 

antiquity, for the following reasons.


1. As 

foederati encamped in the Provincia Arabia, Palaestina Secunda, and 

Palaestina Tertia, they were physically very close to the Holy Land, some of whose 

loca sancta they could even see from their military stations.9


5  In their rejection of many Byzantine pastimes, the Ghassānids must also have accepted both 

ecclesiastical animadversions on such diversions as gladiatorial games and chariot races and imperial 

legislation, which did not spare the old forms of entertainment.


6  The tavern is treated in detail below in Chapter 5, “Drink.” 


7  Some villages in the limitrophe provide insight into Christian concepts of social life; see E. A. 

Knauf, “Umm al-Jimāl: An Arab Town in Late Antiquity,” 

Revue Biblique 91 (1984), 578–86, and  

D. Whitcomb, “Urbanism in Arabia,” 

Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 7 (1996), 38–51.


8  Banquets accompanied religious festivities, and the distinction between the religious and the 

social was often blurred. The term ἀγάπη (“love feast”) speaks for itself.


9  Such places were especially visible from Palaestina Secunda, where Christ performed one of 

his miracles on the woman with the issue of blood (Mark 5:25–34). From Jābiya and elsewhere the 

Ghassānids could see the Sea of Galilee, sites of the lakeside ministry of Christ, and Mount Tabor, the 

scene of the Transfiguration, as well as the Jordan, the river of baptism. A verse in one of the poems of 

their panegyrist al-Nābigha may suggest that they even had a presence in northern Galilee (see 


II.1, 221); if so, they could see the place from which the Sermon on the Mount was delivered.


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century


2. In addition, they, together with the Byzantine regular troops, were the 

protectors of the Holy Land and its holy sites from the raids and incursions of the 

Lakhmids and the nomads of Arabia Pastoralis. This role gave their Christianity a 

military tone—they were literally 

milites Christi.


3. They were the relatives of the martyrs of Najrān, some three hundred men 

and women who chose martyrdom over apostasy around a.d. 520 in South Arabia. 

It is not difficult to visualize how vibrant their Christianity must have become in 

response to these martyrdoms, especially as their survivors appealed for help to 

their Ghassānid relative, Jabala, in Jābiya of the Golan. These martyrdoms, occur-

ring long after the Peace of the Church in a.d. 313, gave the Christian Arab com-

munity in the Near East a special position. The martyrs were sanctified by the 

church, which set 24 October as their feast day.10


4. Just as they were the military protectors of the Holy Land, so too they 

were the ecclesiastical protectors of the Monophysite church in Oriens, which 

they had resuscitated around 540 and continued to defend and protect until 

their own existence as a Byzantine phylarchate ended in 636, after the battle of 



Such then was the Christianity of those 

foederati of Byzantium in sixth-cen-

tury Oriens. The literary and epigraphic evidence for the Ghassānid celebration of 

the feasts of the liturgical year will be examined in the following section.12 The dis-

cussion will be set against the background of the larger community of Christians 

in Oriens, with whom, as fellow Christians, the Ghassānids shared these feasts and 

celebrations of the liturgical year, emphasizing a certain number of them both as 

Arabs and as Monophysites.

Feast Days

The Ghassānids no doubt celebrated the dominical, Marian, and sanctoral feasts 

of the Christian calendar. Most important were the dominical: Christmas, 

Epiphany,13 Transfiguration, Palm Sunday, Easter, and Ascension. Two or perhaps 

more are documented in the surviving poetic fragments, which attest as well to the 

social aspects of these feasts.


10  Their feast on 24 October is usually celebrated in the names of the chief male and female martyrs, 

Arethas and Ruhm. For these martyrdoms, see 

Martyrs. For the names of some 300 martyrs in Najrān, 

see my “The Martyrdom of Early Arab Christians: Sixth Century Najrān,” in 

The First One Hundred 

Years: A Centennial Anthology Celebrating Antiochian Orthodoxy in North America, ed. G. S. Corey et 

al. (Englewood, N.J., 1995), 169–88, especially 178–80.


11  The Ghassānid contribution to the welfare of the church was so substantial that a volume of some 

350 pages could be exclusively devoted to this theme; see 



12  Arabic contemporary poetry is the main authentic extant source.


13  In the Eastern Church, Epiphany marks not the Adoration of the Magi but the baptism of Christ 

in the Jordan.


Ghassānid Federate Society

Dominical Feasts

Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday is most frequently mentioned in the few verses that 

have survived. In the Orient, Easter was the great feast day of Christianity, but 

Palm Sunday was a joyous occasion, less somber than Easter and Holy Week. Palms 

were available in the region for the Ghassānids, and the day was widely celebrated 

in late antiquity among the Christians of the entire Arab area, even by those of 

Ḥijāz in pre-Islamic times.14


Significantly, the Ghassānid celebration of Palm Sunday was noticed by 

two of their panegyrists, Ḥassān and al-Nābigha, who complement each other in 

their eyewitness descriptions of the scene on Palm Sunday in the mansions of the 

Ghassānids. While al-Nābigha describes the young princesses of the royal house 

presenting their bouquets of flowers to the Ghassānid rulers,15 Ḥassān describes 

them busily weaving wreaths of coral for the occasion.16 Out of the practice of the 

presentation of flowers on Palm Sunday, the term 

taḥāyā (plural of taḥiyya), “salu-

tations,” was applied to the flowers presented during the salutation, and became 

the name by which the present itself was known—a term that apparently survived 

in this signification into Islamic times.17


Easter. The climax of all the feasts of the Christian calendar was referred to 

by its non-Arabic name, 

f-i-ṣ-ḥ, pascha in the dīwāns of pre-Islamic poets.18 Ḥassān 

mentions it once in an attractive verse of his ode, the rhyme in 

N,19 in which he 

says that Easter has drawn near and the young maidens are weaving the wreaths of 

coral quickly, that is, before it arrives. Though a 

hapax legomenon, the reference is 

significant; the Ghassānids must have celebrated Easter with great solemnity as the 

principal Christian dominical day, as 

Oriens Christianus still does (much more cer-

emonially than Christmas). 


Ascension. This day, one of the chief feasts of the liturgical year, falls on 

the fortieth day after Easter. It is not mentioned in the extant sources, but the 

Ghassānids had a special reason for celebrating it: on Ascension Day in May of 


14  Palm Sunday is referred to by the Prophet Muḥammad in a hadith asking his followers to stop 

celebrating it in favor of an Islamic feast; see Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Murtaḍa al-Zabīdī, 


al-ʿArūs Min Jawāhir al-Qāmūs (Kuwait, 1967), III, 41. 



Dīwān al-Nābigha al-Dubyānī, ed. M. Ibrāhīm (Cairo, 1977), 47, verses 25–26. That walāʾid in 

verse 26 refers to the princesses is made clear in Ḥassān, who refers to the daughters of the Ghassānids 

as royals not engaged in degrading and servile chores

Dīwān Ḥassān ibn Thābit, ed. W. ʿArafāt, Gibb 

Memorial New Series 25 (London, 1971), I, 174, verse 14.


16 Ḥassān, 

Dīwān, I, 255, verses 6–8; for “wreaths of coral,” akillat al-marjān, see verse 6.


17 On 

taḥiyya and taḥāyā, see Abū al-Faraj Iṣfahānī, al-Aghānī (Beirut, 1957), II, 304 and note 5; 

see also Ḥ. al-Zayyāt, “al-Diyārāt al-Naṣrāniyya fī al-Islām,” 

al-Machriq 36 (1938), 332–37. 


18  As also Aʿshā in his ode, eulogizing the Christian ruler in eastern Arabia; see 

Dīwān, ed.  

M. Ḥusayn (Cairo, n.d.), 111, verse 69. For the term as a loan from the Aramaic/Hebrew 

Pesah, see  

S. Fraenkel, 

Die aramäischen Fremdwörter im Arabischen (1886; reprint, Hildesheim, 1962), 276–77.


19 Ḥassān, 

Dīwān, I, 255, verse 6.


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

570 their distinguished general, Mundir, scored a famous victory against the 

Lakhmids.20 No doubt the very devout Ghassānids would have noticed the coin-

cidence, as did the Syriac chronicler who remembered the victory of the protec-

tor of the Monophysite church by saying that “The Lord helped Mundir and the 

Cross triumphed.”21 What word was used for Ascension in Ghassānland is not 

clear. Even some Arabic-speaking areas often used the Syriac term, Arabicized as 

Sullāq.22 Nowadays it is Ṣuʿūd, from the Arabic root 

ṣ-ʿ-d, “to ascend.”


Epiphany. Unlike Ascension Day, Epiphany is not mentioned in any extant 

texts. But the Ghassānids, who lived close to the river of baptism, surely celebrated 

the baptism of Jesus, which may well have taken place in Trans-Jordan (not in Cis-

Jordan)—that is, in the Provincia Arabia, the headquarters of the Ghassānid phy-

larchs.23 Of all the dominical feast days, this one would have been celebrated in the 

context of the events of Ghassānid family life, which included the baptism of the 

newly born. Such baptism was dignified as a sacrament and became a distinguish-

ing attribute of Christians, who were often called “the Children of Baptism.”24  

Up to the present day, Epiphany has been celebrated by the Christian Arabs of the 

Orient as a major social event.


It is not clear whether the Ghassānids followed the recommendation of  

St. Paul and gave up circumcision in favor of baptism.25 If they did, they would 

have been following the lead of Abgar the Great, the Arab king of Edessa; after he 

converted to Christianity, around a.d. 200, he ordered the discontinuation of cir-

cumcision (perhaps inspired by the Roman rejection of the practice).26


Transfiguration. The sources are likewise silent about the Ghassānids’ cel-

ebration of the Feast of Transfiguration, but their proximity to the Holy Land 

again argues that it did happen. According to tradition, Christ’s Transfiguration 

took place on Mount Tabor or on Mount Hermon, both of which were visible 

from the Ghassānids’ centers in Palaestina Secunda. Mount Hermon was referred 

to twice by their panegyrist Ḥassān (though not in a religious context) as Jabal  

al-Thalj, “the Mountain of Snow.”27


20 See 

BASIC I.1, 343–46.


21 See 

Chronicon Maroniticum, trans. J. B. Chabot, Chronica Minora, pars secunda, CSCO, 

Scriptores Syri, 3rd ser., vol. 4 (Paris, 1904), 111, lines 14–15, discussed in BASIC I.1, 345 note 138.


22  For Sullāq as an Aramaic term, see Fraenkel, 

Die aramäischen Fremdwörter, 277; Jawād ʿAli, 

al-Mufaṣṣal fi Tārīkh al-ʿArab qabl al-Islam (Beirut, 1971), V, 104. 


23  A view popularized nowadays by the Ministry of Tourism in Jordan, and supported by John 1:28 

(πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου).


24  Nowadays called 

ghiṭās, the ceremony involves the newborn’s total immersion in the waters of the 

baptismal font. 


25  On circumcision, see the final section of this chapter. 


26  On Abgar, see 

RA, 109–12.


27 Ḥassān, 

Dīwān, I, 270, verse 4; 308, verse 9. 


Ghassānid Federate Society

Marian Feasts

In the sanctoral cycle of feast days, no doubt those of the Theotokos, the Mother 

of God, were celebrated with considerable social activity. The Theotokos was espe-

cially revered among the Monophysites, who emphasized the divinity of Christ, 

as does the term Theotokos.28 Although no reference to her feast days have sur-

vived, the name Mary, Arabicized from the Greek version of the name as Māriya, 

appeared in the matronymic of their most famous king, Arethas.29 Both her virgin-

ity and her role as mother of Jesus were remembered in Ghassānid toponymy and 


Sanctoral Feasts

All the saints to whose shrines the Ghassānids made pilgrimage—namely, Julian, 

Sergius, Thomas, Cosmas and Damian, and the two Symeon Stylites—must have 

been honored by the celebration of their feast days in Ghassānid churches. Such cel-

ebrations must have received an impetus from the martyrdoms (ca. 520) in Najrān 

of their relatives, who were venerated as saints and whose feast day was undoubt-

edly celebrated with great solemnity. The martyrs of Najrān, usually identified by 

the names of the chief man and woman among them, Arethas and Ruhm, formed 

a special group of saints with whom the Ghassānids surely felt a certain affinity, 

since they were their congeners as Arabs. Such also were Cosmas and Damian, the 

Arab patron saints of medicine, whom the outbreak of plague during the reign of 

Justinian brought to even more prominence in the sixth century. To these may be 

added another Arab saint whose shrine or place of burial remains unknown, but 

who attained celebrity in the fourth century: Moses, the Chalcedonian bishop 

of Mavia, the federate queen of Byzantium, who raised the standard of revolt 

against the Arian emperor Valens and emerged from the struggle victorious. Moses 

was sainted and his feast day set for 7 February. Surely he was remembered by 


28  Luckily for the Monophysites, the term was coined after the Council of Ephesus in a.d. 431; after 

Chalcedon (451), when Christ was declared by Pope Leo the perfect man and perfect God, the epithet 

instead would have been Theandrotokos and thus doctrinally unacceptable to them. 


29  On Māriya, the mother of Arethas, see 

BASIC I.1, 69. L. Cheikho listed eight instances of 

the name Māriya assumed by Christian Arab women; see 

al-Naṣrāniyya wa Ādābuhā bayna ʿArab 

al-Jāhiliyya (Beirut, 1912), I, 244. For the name Fartanā among Christian Arab women as an Arabicized 

form of Greek 

parthenos, “virgin,” see BASIC II.1, 196; alternatively, Lecher suggested fortuna.


30  The Arabic for virgin, ʿ

adhrāʾ, appears in Ḥassān’s poetry as the name of a Ghassānid town, which 

still exists in Syria, northeast of Damascus; see 

Dīwān, I, 17, verse 1. Wālidat al-Ilāh appears in the letter 

of the Ghassānid king and phylarch Arethas, which he dispatched from Constantinople. For the town, 


BASIC II.1, 238, and Map XI, p. 441; for the letter, see BASIC I.2, 784. Toponymically, Maria, 

Maryam, has survived in the names of many monasteries in the region. Some of them may have been 

erected by Ghassānid queens, one of whom is explicitly credited with building a monastery, Dayr Hind 


BASIC II.1, 200).


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

the Ghassānids, who as Monophysites also rebelled against orthodoxy. The odes 

celebrating the victory of Queen Mavia and her bishop were noted in the fifth  

century by an outsider—the ecclesiastical historian Sozomen31—but they would 

have carried special meaning to the Ghassānid Arabs, as 

foederati of Byzantium.


Not Christian but possibly Arab was a figure of the Old Testament, Ayyūb, 

Job, for whom the Ghassānids had considerable veneration, reflected by the invo-

cation of his name during military encounters and by the giving of his name to a 

village in which a famous fair was held, Dayr Ayyūb.32 The Ghassānids, who appar-

ently looked to him as their role model for endurance, celebrated his feast day in 

March or May. The fact that in Islamic times his village, now called Shaykh Saʿd, 

was considered one of the sites to be visited by pious Muslims33 suggests a pre-

Islamic Ghassānid custom: visits to such shrines often were continuations of older 

traditions. But the figure closest to them as 

foederati was St. Sergius, their patron 

saint and that of the Byzantine army of Oriens. And it is not difficult to visualize 

the enthusiasm evinced by the Ghassānids when they celebrated the feast day of 

the saint whose name and banner they carried in their military engagements. 


Although pilgrimage was not a Christian religious duty and had no scriptural 

authority, as it has in Judaism and more clearly in Islam,34 it was popularized by 

the visit of Constantine’s mother, Helen, to Jerusalem in 326. Pilgrims from all 

over the Christian oikoumene flocked to visit the 

loca sancta, consecrated by the 

ministry of Christ. The four visits of Barsauma from Mesopotamia in the fifth 

century, and even more strikingly Egeria’s travels in the fourth century from far-

away western Europe to almost all the biblical sites from Edessa to Egypt, reflect 

this popularity.35


Both as Arabs and as 

foederati, the Ghassānids must have made pilgrimag-

es.36 For Arabs, pilgrimage was an important religious institution (entailing 



31  For Moses and Queen Mavia, see 

BAFOC, 138–202, and the ODB, s.vv. Moses, Mavia.


32  Many biblical scholars believe that Job was an Edomite, and the Edomites were an Arab peo-

ple; see 

BAFIC, 540–43, and below, p. 347; see also M. Avi-Yonah, The Holy Land (New York, 1972), 

25–26, 61–62. For more on Ayyūb, Job, and the Ghassānids, see the appendix to Chapter 11, below. 


33  See al-Harawi, 

Kitāb al-Ishārāt ilā Maʿrifat al-Ziyārāt, ed. J. Sourdel-Thomine (Damascus, 1953), 

translated by J. Sourdel-Thomine as 

Guide de lieux de pèlerinage (Damascus, 1957).


34 The 

aliyyah (going up to Jerusalem for the festival) in Judaism, and the hajj, one of the five pillars 

of the Islamic faith.


35  For Barsauma, who performed the pilgrimage on foot, see A. Palmer, “The History of the Syrian 

Orthodox in Jerusalem,” 

OC 75 (1991), 18–20; for Egeria, see Egeria’s Travels, trans. J. Wilkinson 

(Warminster, Eng., 1999). 


36  For the pilgrimage sites of the Arab Christians in Oriens generally, see the present writer in “Arab 

Christian Pilgrimages in the Proto-Byzantine Period (V–VII Centuries),” in 

Pilgrimage and Holy Space 

in Late Antique Egypt, ed. D. Frankfurter (Leiden, 1998), 373–89.


Ghassānid Federate Society

circumambulation around a shrine), and indeed Arabic contains an unusually 

large number of words related to pilgrimage.37 As 

foederati, the Ghassānids were in 

a special position vis-à-vis the Holy Land, since they lived so close to it and were its 

protectors as well as protectors of Oriens, a diocese that also had a multitude of 


sancta that were centers of pilgrimage.38

The Holy Land

The Holy Land in its widest acceptation comprised the Three Palestines. The evi-

dence in the sources that points or may point to visits by the Ghassānids may be 

summarized as follows.


1. Although the reference to the famous Arethas in Sinai is shrouded in 

obscurity,39 the presence of the king in Sinai, the province of his brother, Abū 

Karib, may be related to a pilgrimage he had undertaken to Mount Sinai, the site of 

the Decalogue, a popular destination in this period.


2. The presence of one of the Ghassānid princesses, Layla, in Jerusalem, which 

is analyzed in the following chapter, may have been related to a pilgrimage. The 

Ghassānids, though Monophysites, had some presence in Orthodox Chalcedonian 

Palestine, as demonstrated by Dayr Ghassānī, the Monastery of Ghassān, near 



3. The pre-Islamic poet al-Aʿshā, who hailed from eastern Arabia and eulo-

gized the Ghassānids, mentions Jerusalem as a place he visited.41 Perhaps the 

Ghassānids whom he eulogized happened to be pilgrims in Jerusalem then.


4. Circumstantial evidence from later Umayyad times also suggests that the 

Ghassānid royal house made pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Yazīd, the crown prince and 

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