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found nudity repugnant. The nymphaeum probably appealed to them function-
ally: water was the
More important than the Byzantine influence in their social life was Christianity,
which was required of them once they became Byzantium’s
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.
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,”
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
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.
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
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
significant; the Ghassānids must have celebrated Easter with great solemnity as the
principal Christian dominical day, as
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;
Memorial New Series 25 (London, 1971), I, 174, verse 14.
Dīwān, I, 255, verses 6–8; for “wreaths of coral,” akillat al-marjān, see verse 6.
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
M. Ḥusayn (Cairo, n.d.), 111, verse 69. For the term as a loan from the Aramaic/Hebrew
Die aramäischen Fremdwörter im Arabischen (1886; reprint, Hildesheim, 1962), 276–77.
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
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
BASIC I.1, 343–46.
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
25 On circumcision, see the final section of this chapter.
26 On Abgar, see
Dīwān, I, 270, verse 4; 308, verse 9.
Ghassānid Federate Society
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
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,
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
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
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-
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).
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
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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