Sixth century

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successor of the first Umayyad caliph, Muʿāwiya, is known to have visited Jerusalem 

with the Christian poet laureate al-Akhṭal.42 Jerusalem was not a tourist attraction 

for the two hedonists Yazīd and Akhṭal, who usually found diversions in Jalliq. 

But Jerusalem was important for the Umayyads, who were anxious to legitimize 

their usurpation of the caliphate from the ʿAlids and so associated themselves with 


37  See ibid., 373–74; to the words listed there may be added 

muʿtamir, the one who performs the 

pilgrimage not in the canonical month, and 

hujayja, the diminutive form of hājja, “female pilgrim” (see 


Murūj al-Dahab wa-maʿādin al-jawhar, ed. C. Pellat [Beirut, 1966], I, 281). 


38  See I. Peña, 

Lieux de pèlerinage en Syrie, Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, Collectio Minor 38 

(Milan, 2000).


39  The reference is to a monk from Sinai who was a prisoner in the camp of Arethas. Doctrinal dif-

ferences in this period could result in violence—Arethas’s own son, the Monophysite Mundir, was cap-

tured by the Chalcedonian central government—and perhaps the monk was captured while Arethas was 

performing the pilgrimage. On the monk of Sinai, see 

BASIC I.2, 769.


40 See 

BASIC II.1, 190–91.


41  See ibid., 273–74.


42  See J. Naṣrallah, 

Saint Jean de Damas: Son époque, sa vie, son oeuvre (Harissa, Lebanon, 1950), 67. 


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

the Holy City to which the Prophet Muḥammad made his nocturnal journey; a 

desire for such legitimation may explain Yazīd’s journey. Similarly, both Muʿāwiya 

and ʿAbd al-Malik announced their accession to the caliphate in Jerusalem. The 

Umayyads imitated and followed in the steps of the Ghassānids in many respects, 

perhaps including pilgrimage to the Holy City. Moreover, Yazīd was the son of 

a Christian mother, Maysūn, and the husband of another Christian woman, the 

Ghassānid Umm Ramla.43


Ghassānid pilgrimages to the Holy Land probably included visits not only  

to Jerusalem but also to the other two holy cities associated with Jesus, Nazareth 

and Bethlehem.


Oriens had other pilgrimage sites in addition to the three provinces that constituted 

the Holy Land. Some of them were associated with figures of Arab Christianity

others were not but were nevertheless visited by the Ghassānids.


1. Julian of Antioch was a saint especially revered by the Monophysites and 

thus no doubt by the Ghassānids. Epigraphic evidence of their veneration is found 

in the inscription at al-Burj, near Damascus, in which he is thanked by their king, 



2. More important was St. Sergius, the patron saint of the Byzantine army 

of Oriens and of the Ghassānids, whose name was invoked during military 

encounters.45 The church of Mundir in the capital, Jābiya, was dedicated to him, 

and his city, Sergiopolis, was protected by the Ghassānids.46 After Jerusalem, 

Sergiopolis was the most important pilgrimage center, and it also had a 


a πανήγυρις. Ghassānids undoubtedly performed the pilgrimage to his shrine in 



Syriac hagiography provides evidence for such activity. In the 

Life of 

Aḥūdemmeh, the Arabs of Persian Mesopotamia are described as so dedicated 


43  On Ghassānid-Umayyad relations, see 

BASIC II.1, 375–91.


44  For this inscription, see 

BASIC  I.1, 495–501, and I.2, 965–66. On Julian, see H. Kaufhold, 

“Notizen über das Moseskloster bei Nabk und das 

Julianskloster bei Qaryatain in Syrien,” OC 79 (1995), 



45  In addition to the well-known invocation in the poetry of al-Akhṭal (see 

Sharḥ Dīwān al-Akhṭal, 

ed. I. Ḥāwī [Beirut, n.d.], 533, verse 3), there may be another one in the ode of al-Nābigha on the 

Ghassānid al-Nuʿmān (

Dīwān, 53, verse 16). Its final verse invokes Jesus and Job; though the interven-

ing name is Duʿmiyy—explained in the commentary as a personage related to the Iyad group—it likely 

originally was Sarjis, the Arabic for Sergius, whom the Ghassānids invoked in war. Such substitutions in 

pre-Islamic verses sometimes occurred in later Islamic times. 


46  On the Ghassānids and Sergius, see 

BASIC I.2, 949–62. On Sergiopolis, see E. K. Fowden, The 

Barbarian Plain: Saint Sergius between Rome and Iran (Berkeley, 1999).


Ghassānid Federate Society

to St. Sergius that they undertook the long journey from Persian territory to 

Sergiopolis in order to visit his shrine. Consequently, to spare them the hardship of 

traveling to Euphratensis, Aḥūdemmeh built them a shrine for Sergius in Persian 

Mesopotamia.47 If Sergiopolis was a goal of Arab pilgrims from Sasanid territory, 

surely it also drew Arab 

foederati living in Roman territory such as the Ghassānids, 

who furthermore looked at Sergius as their patron saint and defended his shrine.48


Other pilgrimage centers in Oriens were associated with Arab figures. 


1. Edessa, which contained the remains of the Apostle Thomas, was the city 

that its Arab dynasty, the Abgarids, made the principal center of the Christian 

Semitic Orient when Abgar the Great adopted Christianity.49 Abgar’s correspon-

dence with Jesus and his receipt of the Holy Mandylion (a miraculous image of 

Jesus), though legendary, enhanced the sanctity of Edessa in the eyes of the Arabs. 

Abgar lived long in the memory of the Christians in Oriens and elsewhere.50


2. Cyrrhos, in the province of Euphratensis, contained the graves of two 

important Christian saints, Cosmas and Damian the Anargyroi (the Silverless), 

the patron saints of medicine. Whether the Ghassānids were aware of the physi-

cians’ Arab origin is not clear, but they most probably made the pilgrimage to their 

shrine—especially in a century that witnessed outbreaks of plagues and the dedica-

tion of many churches to them.51


3. Qalʿat Simʿān/Telanissos was also a great pilgrimage center whose saint, 

Symeon Stylites the Elder (d. 459), was associated with the Arabs of the fifth 

century. Indeed, they would have immediately carried off the body of the deceased 

saint to their settlements, had it not been for the arrival of the 

magister militum, 

Ardabūr.52 Although the extant sources do not retain a reference to a pilgrimage by 

the Ghassānids, they must have visited the shrine, since they also became attached 

to Symeon the Younger of the sixth century, buried at the Wondrous Mountain, 

near Antioch.53


47  For the 

Life of Aḥūdemmeh, the metropolitan of the East in Persian Mesopotamia, see PO 3 

(Paris, 1909, 15–51); see also 

BASIC II.1, 177–82.


48  For more on Sergius and the Arabs, see 

BASIC I.2, 949–62.


49  For the Arab dynasty of the Abgarids in Edessa, see 

RA,  Appendix, s.v. Abgarids (especially 



50  His fame and Edessa’s reached distant Ethiopia. A ceremonial center consisting of a group of 

churches was created during the period of the Zagwē dynasty (a.d. 1137–1270) and was called Roha 

(present-day Lālibālā), the Semitic form of the Greek Edessa. On Abgar, see G. Haile, “The Legacy of 

Abgar in Ethiopic Tradition,” 

Orientalia Christiana Periodica 55.3 (1989), 375–410. Abgar has sur-

vived in the Near Eastern onomasticon, especially among the Armenians, as Apgar, and also among the 

Arabs, as Abjar; see I. ʿAbbās, 

Shiʿr al-Khawārij (Beirut, 1923), 61.


51 See 

BASIC I.2, 963–65.


52 See 

BAFIC, 160 note 7. 


53 See 

BASIC I.1, 244–48.


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century


4. Especially important and meaningful to them must have been the pilgrim-

ages associated with Najrān and its martyrs, their relatives. Najrān itself in South 

Arabia became the great pilgrimage center of the pre-Islamic Arabs and must 

have been visited by the Ghassānids.54 In addition, the strong Najrāni presence in 

Oriens was concentrated in two towns.


a. Najrān in the Trachonitis was the namesake of Najrān, the martyropolis 

in South Arabia. According to the most reliable source, Yāqūt, it had a magnifi-

cent church, where vows and votive offerings were made.55 This description sug-

gests that it was also a local pilgrimage center.


b. The Ghassānids most probably had another local pilgrimage site related 

to their martyred relatives: Maḥajja, not far from Damascus, whose very name 

(“Pilgrimage Center”) reveals its function. It is the only such toponym in Oriens. 

Presumably the Ghassānids asked for some of the relics of the martyrs of Najrān, 

which were transported to Oriens from South Arabia and went through a 


at the site, which they then named Maḥajja.56 A recent work on Syrian toponymy 

has revealed that the town still contains ancient oratories, churches, palaces, cem-

eteries, wells, canals, pools, and wine presses. Two miles to the north of it is Tall 

Qaswa, which also has remains from the Byzantine period.57

IV. Private and Family Life

The religion that revolutionized the public social life of the Ghassānids similarly 

affected their private family life. Indeed, it was only natural that their Christian 

faith should have been reflected in the everyday life of such a religious community. 

Its traces are clearly visible in the scant surviving sources.


1. In one verse of al-Nābigha, the panegyrist uses the phrase 


hujuzātuhum, “zoned in chastity,” to describe the sexual purity of the Ghassānid 

kings.58 In another he alludes to their Christian faith by implication, marking 

their calm reaction to the vicissitudes of life.59 In a third, he employs the phrase 

fama yarjūna ghayra al-ʿawāqibi:60 they look forward not to this world and its blan-

dishments but to the other world, to life after death and to the Resurrection. In a 

fourth verse, they are saluted as a unique people, whom God favored with a virtue 


54  See the present writer in “Byzantium in South Arabia,” 

DOP 33 (1979), 69–76.


55  Ibid., 78–79; Yāqūt, 

Muʿ jam al-Buldān (Beirut, 1950), II, 539.


56  For Maḥajja and its 

dayr in the list of the subscriptions of the 137 archimandrites in their letter 

addressed to the Ghassānid Arethas, see 

BASIC I.2, 828; see also Map V in BASIC II.1, 429.


57 See 

al-Muʿ jam al Jughrāfi li al-Quṭr al-ʿArabi al-Sūri, ed. M. Ṭlas (Damascus, 1992), IV, 438. 


58 al-Nābigha, 

Dīwān, 47, verse 25.


59  Ibid., 48, verse 28.


60  Ibid., 47, verse 24. See ʿAbd al-Baghdādī, 

Khizānat al-Adab, ed. ʿA. Hārūn (Beirut, 1981), III, 

331, for al-Aṣmaʿī’s perceptive scholium. 


Ghassānid Federate Society

granted to no other group, 

lahum shīmatun lam yuʿṭihā Allāhu ghayrahum.61 Their 

Christianity was so clearly manifest that the Arabian poet noticed it; and in salut-

ing their virtues he was not simply parroting clichés, since these terms had never 

been used in pre-Islamic panegyrics.62


The lives of ordinary families were also touched, even suffused, by Christianity

which gave certain events new significance. The newborn child was now baptized 

sacramentally, rather than circumcised;63 marriage ceased to be simply a con-

tract and became a sacrament; and death itself could be viewed as a journey to the 

other world, which for good Christians meant Resurrection. These changes are 

reflected clearly in a verse of an elegy on one of their kings, al-Nuʿmān, composed 

by al-Nābigha.64 Thus, when a member of the royal family, the crown prince Jabala, 

died in battle, he died as 

miles Christi and was buried as a martyr in a martyrion 

in Chalcis.65 Comparisons and contrasts with the pagan Arabs, their congeners in 

the Arabian Peninsula, and with their predecessors in Oriens, the Nabataeans and 

Palmyrenes, are instructive in illustrating the long social distance traversed by the 

Ghassānids in their spiritual journey from paganism to Christianity.66


Because Christianity affected every aspect of Ghassānid social life, it also 

influenced their urban landscape, especially since the kings of the dynasty were 

lovers of building, 

philoktistai. In Ghassānid towns, the important architectural 

landmarks were not those of pagan Rome—the circus (hippodrome), the theater, 

the amphitheater, the nymphaia—but the church, the monastery, and possibly the 

baptistery (in this early period a detached structure, separate from the church). 

These were significant venues for various social functions in addition to the reli-

gious ones for which they were primarily designed.67


61 al-Nābigha, 

Dīwān, 46, verse 23. Al-Baghdādī’s Khizānat al-Adab, III, 330, has the better read-


mina al-nāsi (instead of the Dīwān’s mina al-jūdi). 


62  The Christian sentiments expressed by al-Nābigha in this sextet of verses in his famous ode on the 

Ghassānids are noteworthy. Rather than responding to specific events, they reflect general conclusions 

that the poet drew on the life of Christians and their expectations—conclusions perhaps arrived at after 

he had read the New Testament, or at least one of the Gospels. He does refer to Majalla (

Dīwān, 47, verse 

24), accepted by all commentators as the Gospel; see al-Baghdādī, 

Khizānat al-Adab, III, 331.


63  Circumcision was abandoned generally by the church, following the views of St. Paul; after the 

Council in Jerusalem, ca. a.d. 50, circumcision was no longer obligatory on gentiles. For circumcision 

among the Ismailites, see Josephus, 

Jewish Antiquities, books I–III, trans. H. St. J. Thackeray, Loeb 

Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass., 1930), book I, 193; among the Arabs in general, 214. 


64  See the attractive epicedium on the Ghassānid king al-Nuʿmān, in al-Nābigha, 

Dīwān, 122, verse 

30; also G. T. Dennis, “Death in Byzantium,” 

DOP 55 (2001), 1–7.


65 See 

BASIC I.1, 243–49.


66  For such aspects of social life as marriage, communal meals, and banquets among the South 

Arabians, whence the Ghassānids had hailed; in Arabia Pastoralis, where they had stopped on their way 

to the north; and among the Rhomaic Nabataeans and Palmyrenes of Oriens, see R. G. Hoyland, 


and the Arabs (London, 2001), 128–38.


67  See “The Ghassānid Sedentary Presence,” Chapter 2 in Part III, below. 


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

Childhood and Children in Federate Oriens

The interest of Byzantinists in children as a serious branch of historical research 

has grown in the second half of the twentieth century.68 The latest reflection of this 

interest was the Dumbarton Oaks Spring Symposium of 2006, at which the many 

dimensions of childhood in Byzantium were explored.


As has been the case with other aspects of Ghassānid social life, the con-

temporary poets are the best sources of evidence; and the two most prominent 

Ghassānid panegyrists, al-Nābigha and Ḥassān, are also the two main sources on 

this theme. 


1. al-Nābigha. In an attractive quatrain,69 the poet meets a Ghassānid prince, 

still a young boy, a 

ghulām, and provides a detailed description of him. The first 

verse is remarkable for its inclusive, comprehensive quality. The poet notes the 

handsome face of the boy, who is on his way to distinguishing himself morally, and 

he is physically strong enough to reach his majority or youth quickly.70 These are 

the physical and moral qualities that the poet praised in the Ghassānid kings and 

phylarchs, whom he eulogized more expansively in his long odes.


Also noteworthy in the quatrain is its inclusion of the female as well as male 

progenitors of the Ghassānid boy. As discussed in the following chapter in this 

volume, Ghassānid queens were prominent and influential, and one or two of 

the Hinds mentioned in the quatrain may have come from the celebrated group 

Kindat al-Mulūk, Royal Kinda.71 Hence the moral and physical qualities of their 

offspring were outstanding, and the child would be called 

muʿimm, “one with 

distinguished paternal uncles,” and 

mukhwil, “one with distinguished maternal 



The quatrain is thus remarkable as a poetic expression of the image of the 

Ghassānids as perceived by their contemporaries: a family and clan, distinguished 


68  Groundbreaking work was first done by Ph. Koukoules; see his 

Byzantinon bios kai politismos 

(Athens, 1948), I.1, 1–184. He was followed by such scholars as E. Patlagean, 

Structure sociale, famille, 

chrétienté à Byzance, IVe–XIe siècle (London, 1981), 85–93; A. Moffatt, “The Byzantine Child,” Social 

Research 53 (1986), 705–23; and now C. Hennessy, Images of Children in Byzantium (Aldershot, Eng., 

2008) and A.-M. Talbot and A. Papaconstantinou, eds., 

Becoming Byzantine: Children and Childhood 

in Byzantium (Washington, D.C., 2009).


69  See al-Nābigha, 

Dīwān, 166. The quatrain attracted the attention of Nöldeke, who discussed it in 

GF, 33–35.


70  The Arabic phrase 

mustaqbil al-khayr may be translated in various ways. One possibility is “pros-

perity and good things lie close to him”; Nöldeke rendered it 

dem das Gute bevorsteht (GF, 33). Al-khayr 

is made plural in the fourth verse of the quatrain; though the context suggests a moral connotation, its 

meaning is still not entirely clear.


71  The mother of Arethas was Māriya, a Kindite princess; relations between the two royal houses 

were always good, unlike Ghassānid-Lakhmid relations.


72  These epithets were used in a verse of ʿAntara, one of the poets of the Suspended Odes. See 


Dīwān ʿAntara, ed. K. al-Bustani (Beirut, 1958), 57, verse 8.


Ghassānid Federate Society

morally and physically, who kept the purity of their Ghassānid blood unadulter-

ated.73 This image is inspired by the impression made by the Ghassānid prince, 

who thus elicits from the poet the description and eulogy of the royal house as his 

pedigree is recounted. It is a reflection of the premium that the Arab Ghassānids 

placed on childhood and on their children, made so clear in the background of the 

quatrain, which, according to the scholiast, was an invitation extended to the poet 

to see the child in whom the Ghassānid king took such fatherly pride.74 That such 

parental care elicited filial care is demonstrated by the heroic efforts of Nuʿmān to 

win the release of his father, Mundir, the Ghassānid king, after he was captured 

and exiled during the reign of Tiberius II.75 


2. Ḥassān. While al-Nābigha’s attention was drawn by the handsomeness 

of the young Ghassānid prince, Ḥassān was attracted by Ghassānid children of 

a riper age: the maidens who on Palm Sunday were fashioning the coral wreaths 

in preparation for the celebration of Easter.76 It was these very maidens who, in 

the famous ode of al-Nābigha, appear presenting their parents and other members 

of the Ghassānid royal house with these wreaths and other appropriate gifts, the 

taḥāyā, described above.77

Baptism, Nomenclature, Nursing

The sacrament of baptism was especially important in late antiquity, when infant 

baptism superseded the adult catechumenate. The Ghassānids lived so close to the 

Jordan, the river of baptism, that the baptism ceremony of their children must have 

represented a major celebratory occasion. 


Baptism also raises the question of Arab identity, which was strong among 

the Ghassānids. Even after living for a century and a half in the orbit of a Christian 

Roman Empire and helping to refound the Monophysite church after its suppression 


73  See al-Nābigha, 

Dīwān, 42, verse 8; Ḥassān, Dīwān, I, 205, verse 7. The Ghassānids win in battle 

when they fight alongside those whose blood is purely Ghassānid. In both verses this belief is subtly 

expressed by the use of derivatives from the root 

a-sh-b, “mixed.”


74  The scholium and the quatrain recreate a domestic scene still common in the Arab Near East: 

parents proudly show their young children to their guests. On the Arab affection for their children, see 

the section “On the Love of Children” in Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih, 

al-ʿIqd al-Farīd, ed. A. Amīn, I. Abyārī, and 

A. Hārūn (Beirut, 1982), II, 437–41. 


75 See 

BASIC I.1, 341, 378, 468, 474, 531.


76  See Ḥassān, 

Dīwān, I, 255, verse 6, and the discussion in BASIC II.1, 295 note 6.

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