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hadith says that the Prophet Muḥammad likened his favorite wife ʿĀʾisha to the
other delicacies.21 Ḥassān, his poet, also employed the
tharīda in a remarkable sim-
ile: “The butter that appears on the sides of the
tharīda looks like the stars of the
Pleiades.” Although the point of the simile is not clear to a modern observer, the
verse plainly implies that the
Reference to meat in
tharīdat Ghassān raises the question of what other
kinds of meat were served at the Ghassānid table. A Syriac passage explicitly refers
to mutton and beef eaten during the encounter between a Monophysite Ghassānid
king, Arethas, and a Chalcedonian patriarch of Antioch, Ephraim, ca. a.d. 536.23
19 For these items, see M. Rodinson, “Ghidhā,”
EI2, II, 1057–61. For their appearance in the poetry,
Dīwān, I, 17, verse 6; 519 note 361. A
kiṭ is sometimes described as goat cheese, sometimes as
sour-milk cheese. It is mentioned in the poetry of Imruʾ al-Qays; see his
Dīwān, ed. M. Ibrāhīm (Cairo,
1958), 137. The Ghassānids, his maternal uncles, also had it. Honey was well known in the Arabian
Peninsula, where places famed for its production included Ṭāʾif; see H. Lammens,
M. Lecker, “Ṭāʾif,”
EI2, X, 115–16.
20 See Ibn Man
Lisān al-ʿArab (Beirut, 1997), I, 476; Murtaḍa al-Zabīdī, Tāj al-ʿArūs, ed.
ʿA. Hārūn (Kuwait, 1970), VII, 462–64; and
An Arabic-English Lexicon, ed. E. W. Lane (London,
1863), Book I, part 1, 334–35.
21 See van Gelder,
God’s Banquet, 25.
22 Ibid., 19–20. Both the Prophet and Ḥassān actually use the term
tharīd, not tharīda. For Ḥassān,
the choice may reflect metrical necessity; but the reading also brings to mind the great-grandfather of
the Prophet, Hāshim, who is credited in the sources with introducing
in some broth—to Mecca. Over the following century,
tharīda was developed into the choice dish
described above. For Hāshim and the
tharīd, see the English version of the Sīra of Ibn Hishām, The Life
of Muhammad, trans. A. Guillaume (1955; reprint, Karachi, 1990), 58. For a fairly detailed treatment of
tharīd/tharīda, see Jawād ʿAli, al-Mufaṣṣal fi Tārīkh al-ʿArab qabl al-Islam, VII, 577–78.
Chronique de Michel le Syrien, Patriarche jacobite d’Antioche (1166–1199), ed. and trans.
J. B. Chabot (Paris, 1909), II, 246–47, discussed in
BASIC I.2, 748–49.
The same Syriac passage also mentions camel meat,24 which the Arab pastoralists
often ate in the Peninsula. Camel meat was forbidden to the Jews by the dietary
laws prescribed in Deuteronomy (14:7), but not to Christians. The reference to it
in the Syriac passage clearly suggests that it was offered to Patriarch Ephraim for a
special reason, with the full knowledge on the part of the Ghassānid king that the
patriarch would not partake of it. The Syriac passage reveals the tripartite ethnic
division in Oriens. The Semites of the region were divided into Jews, who could
not eat camel meat, and the Arabs and Arameans, who could but probably did not;
the third group, the members of the Graeco-Roman establishment, would not, but
their refusal was not based in any religious sanction or dietary law. The Ghassānid
Arabs in the limitrophe provided a kind of dietary bridge between the Graeco-
Roman establishment and the Arabs of the Peninsula.
In addition to sheep and cows, goats roamed the Ghassānid countryside and
formed part of the livestock that they raised, attested in the poetry composed on
them.25 The meats of these various animals were either boiled, as clearly implied in
the Syriac passage, or broiled, as indicated by Arabic verb
The Ghassānids supplemented the meats provided by sheep, cattle, goats, and
camels with the game they bagged when they hunted. The limitrophe was contiguous
with the steppe land and deserts of North Arabia, where game was plentiful. And, as
has been discussed in Chapter 13, the hunt was one of the favorite Ghassānid sports,
pursued especially by the aristocracy. Of the many varieties of game they succeeded
in capturing, the gazelle, a type of antelope, was among the choicest.
A delicacy not explicitly linked to the Ghassānids is
al-maḍīra, a “stew of
meat, cooked in sour milk.”27 It is associated with Muʿāwiya, the founder of the
Umayyad dynasty, and is sometimes called
Muʿāwiya encountered this delicacy in the capital of the Ghassānids, Jābiya, where
he lived for two decades as the governor of Oriens before he became caliph in 661.
with the Ghassānids.
24 Discussed in
BASIC I.2, 752–53.
25 See Ḥassān,
Dīwān, I, 17, verse 3.
26 See al-Nābigha al-Jaʿdi,
Dīwān, ed. A. Rabbāḥ (Damascus, 1964), 37, verse 17; this verse also
characterizes the Ghassānids as
27 van Gelder,
God’s Banquet, p. 49; for a more detailed description, see Lane, Arabic-English
Lexicon, Book I, part 7, 2720, and G. Yver, “al-Maḍīra,” EI2, V, 1010. This dish attained celebrity by
being the subject of a
maqāma (a literary séance) by the brilliant Abbasid belle-lettrist al-Hamadānī. For
the translation of this
maqāma into German, French, Italian, and English, see van Gelder’s bibliography.
28 The reference appears in the section titled “Shaykh al-Maḍīra,” on the Companion of the
Prophet Abū Hurayra, in ʿAbd al-Malik al-Thaʿālibi,
Thimār al-Qulūb, ed. M. Ibrāhīm (Cairo, 1965),
112. It is also associated with Muʿāwiya by al-Hamadānī; see his
Maqāmat, ed. M. ʿAbduh (Beirut,
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
Though vegetables and legumes are not mentioned in the sources on the
Ghassānids, they must have been consumed. But fruits are mentioned, especially
apples and grapes. The fame of the first reached even al-Andalus, where one of the
region’s major poets, Ibn Khafāja, speaks of the apples of Lebanon.29 Grapes were
more important, however, since their juice produced wine—in Arabic, “the daugh-
ter of the grape”—a beverage that played an important role in the social life of the
Ghassānids and is well documented in contemporary poetry. Moreover, it was hal-
lowed as a beverage of Christian association (as discussed in the following chapter).
Its dried form—the
zabīb, the raisin or currant—must also have been known and
eaten by the Ghassānids.30 And they must also have eaten mulberries, especially
after the introduction of the silkworm and the rise of the silk industry in Oriens
during the reign of Justinian. To these may certainly be added dates. The date palm
was almost the “national tree” of the Arabs, remembered in pre-Islamic poetry. The
Arabs depended on dates for their staple food, just as they depended on milk for
Another fruit for which the region was known was the fig. The extant sources
have not preserved references to its appearance on the Ghassānid table, but indirect
reference to it and to olives has survived in the Koran (95:1–3). Fruits such as figs,
olives, and grapes were not grown in Mecca or its region, which the Koran (14:37)
describes as “a valley devoid of plantation or vegetation.” This was true of most of
Ḥijāz, with the exception of Ṭāʾif and the Jewish oases. Thus Oriens, with its luxu-
riant orchards, had the edge over Ḥijāz in terms of crop production. The Arabs to
whom the Koran was addressed, including the Prophet Muḥammad, must have
become acquainted with such fruits in the southern part of Oriens, which their
caravans reached.32 Similarly, Ḥassān, the poet laureate of the Prophet, tasted the
apples of Oriens when he used to come from Yathrib/Medina in Ḥijāz and visit his
relatives, the Ghassānids, as their panegyrist.33
29 For Ibn Khafāja’s verse that mentions the apples of Lebanon, see
Dīwān (Beirut, 1961), 267, verse
5. Apples are also mentioned by Ḥassān in a well-known poem whose first part treats the pre-Islamic
Ghassānids in Oriens; see
zabīb, see G. J. H. van Gelder, “Zabīb,” EI2, XI, 369–70.
31 Even when they reached al-Andalus, Spain, the Arabs remained nostalgic for dates and the date
palm. The Umayyad ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Dākhil (d. 788), who reconquered Spain for the Umayyads after
the dynasty fell in the Muslim Orient, remembered the date palm in a touching quatrain of verses; see
32 See the appendix, “Paradise in the Koran.”
33 The contrast between the arid and relatively infertile Arabian Peninsula, including Ḥijāz, and the
fertile regions of Oriens, such as the Golan, Bāshān, and Auranitis, where the Ghassānids were partly
settled and where Ḥassān used to visit them, is nowhere more poignantly stated than in a triplet in which
he refers to Ḥijāz as the “nursling of hunger and misery.” See Ḥassān,
Although food spices are not mentioned in the extant sources on the Ghassānid diet,
they must have been used. After all, spices were carried to the ancient and Byzantine
worlds by Arabian caravans, which the Ghassānids protected when they reached
their termini in Gaza and Bostra. Indirect evidence on spices at the Ghassānid table
may be sought in the Koran, where there are descriptions of the food of the elite,
of those in paradise, including ginger,
ral presumption is that these were spices known to the Meccans whom the Koran
addresses. The use of spices would have been common in the Peninsula, but a
sophisticated use of them in meals and banquets probably came from Ghassānland
in Oriens. The Prophet Muḥammad is said in the sources to have accompanied his
uncle Abū Ṭālib on the latter’s journeys to Oriens as a caravaneer.35 So it is pos-
sible that some Meccans tasted Ghassānid spiced food in Oriens. Two hadith of
the Prophet support Meccan acquaintance with Ghassānid food. In addition to the
hadith on his wife ʿĀʾisha mentioned above, in which he likens her to the
Ghassān, in another the Prophet tells his followers that Yawm ʿĀshūrā’, a Muslim
feast day, is better for them than the Christian Yawm al-Sabāsib,
tioned by al-Nābigha in his most famous ode on the Ghassānids.36 The celebration
of Palm Sunday in Mecca or Medina is most likely to have been introduced by the
Ghassānids, devout observers and propagators of Monophysite Christianity. The
Prophet’s relations with them were quite close, and it is likely that in Ghassānland
he witnessed the celebration and the banquets associated with Palm Sunday.
To understand the Ghassānids’ relationship to food, it is necessary also to under-
stand the place of fasting in their lives. The Ghassānids wrote an important chap-
ter in the history of monasticism in Oriens, which has been elucidated in great
detail in the preceding volume of this series. As monasticism institutionalized the
earlier phase of Christian asceticism, which involved fasting and abstinence, it is
useful after discussing Ghassānid food to sketch briefly this other side of their rela-
tionship to food.
as Arabs, as Monophysites, and as
foederati of Byzantium, examining how each of
these dimensions of their identity contributed to their strong interest in the ascetic
life.37 A brief restatement follows.
34 See the appendix, “Paradise in the Koran.”
35 See Ibn Hishām,
The Life of Muhammad, 79.
Dīwān, 47, verse 25. On this hadith, see Ibn Man
Lisān al-ʿArab, III, 235.
37 Ibid., 164–212, especially 171–76.
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
1. As Arabs with whom the desert was always associated, the Ghassānids
welcomed and admired the anchorites and eremites who had chosen to live in the
deserts of the region.
2. As Monophysites whose doctrinal persuasion emphasized Christ’s
nature, the Ghassānids were naturally interested in the expression of that divinity,
one dimension of which was the renunciation of the world illustrated by his forty-
day fast. Asceticism as
imitatio Christi became a Christian ideal, especially for the
foederati, the Ghassānids guarded the Byzantine frontier in Oriens
against the Persians, the Lakhmids, and the pastoralists of the Peninsula, fight-
ing as soldiers of the Cross. Near their military stations along the frontier, the
bly some monasteries. Hence a strong bond formed between the
of the body, and the monks, athletes of the spirit. Indeed, as mentioned above in
Chapter 2, after the battle of Chalcis in a.d. 554, a number of the Ghassānid war-
riors decided to stay with St. Symeon the Younger, who, they believed, had aided in
It was, therefore, not surprising that the Arab attachment to asceticism and
fasting impressed Aḥūdemmeh, a Monophysite bishop who was spreading the
faith among the Arabs in Persian Mesopotamia. His
Life contains the following
revealing paragraph on the Arabs:
And not only did they give their donations to the churches, the monasteries,
the poor, and the strangers, but they loved
fasting and the ascetic life more than
any other Christians, and so much so that they started the holy fast of the Forty
Days (Lent) one week before all the other Christians. Many individuals among
them never tasted bread throughout the whole period of the fast, and this was
true not only of the men but also of numerous women. They were fired by zeal
for the orthodox faith, and each time the holy church was persecuted, that is,
when it was pursued by its enemies, (the Arabs) gave their necks (suffered mar-
tyrdom) for the church of Christ, particularly the chosen and numerous groups
among them, namely the ʿAquoulayê, the Tanoukhâyê and the Ṭouʿāyê.38
The Arab federates of Byzantium in Oriens were not behind those of Persia
in their attachment to monasticism and the ascetic life. The Tanūkhids of the
fourth century and the Salīḥids of the fifth were both devoted to monasticism,
and many monasteries were associated with their names.39 One of their kings, the
38 PO 3 (Paris, 1909), 28–29; the italics are mine.
39 On the Tanūkhids, see
BAFOC, 418–35, 550–52; on the Salīḥids, see BAFIC, 289–301.
Salīḥid Dāwūd, actually renounced his kingship, became a monk, and gave his
name to a well-known monastery in Oriens, Dayr Dāwūd.40 But the Ghassānids of
the sixth century were the Arab federates whose association with monasticism and
the ascetic life was the most impressive. As often noted in this volume, they helped
revive the Monophysite church, dominated the Provincia Arabia at a time when it
contained at least 137 Monophysite monasteries, and felt an especially strong tie
to the Holy Land, to which their camps were adjacent and which they protected.
Given this background, it is certain that fasting was observed regularly and
strictly by the Ghassānids, although the sources are silent on this aspect of their
Typika for Monophysite or Ghassānid monasteries in Oriens have sur-
vived; and the work that might have provided this information—namely,
Mulūk Ghassān—is not extant. However, it is certain that the Ghassānids, as
devoted Christians, observed the many fasts of the liturgical year—especially the
Great Lent, the sole fasting period mentioned in the extant poetry composed for
the Ghassānids by al-Nābigha and Ḥassān.41 The reference in one of al-Nābigha’s
poems to Palm Sunday clearly and explicitly documents the celebration by the
Ghassānids of the feast, and the Ghassānids would have observed the Holy Week
fast until the following Easter Sunday. Easter itself is also explicitly mentioned by
Ḥassān, in a verse in which he writes “Easter was approaching” and describes the
Ghassānid maidens stringing coral as they were preparing the Easter wreaths.42
Surely this action was set at some time during the
Tessarakoste, the Great Lent,
which they observed.
40 On Dāwūd, see
BAFIC, 257–62. The Salīḥids owed to monks their conversion to Christianity;
41 Discussed in Chapter 14, “Ghassānid Banquets,” below.
Dīwān, I, 255, verse 6.
Paradise in the Koran
Unlike the Hebrew Bible of the Jews and the New Testament of the Christians, the
Koran contains a detailed description of paradise, focused on the righteous who
live in it: their food, their drink, and the appointments of their abode. The origins
of the description of paradise in Islam’s Holy Book are not entirely clear. Persian
and Judaeo-Christian provenances have been suggested,1 but closer to the Meccans
as a possible source of inspiration than either were certain urban centers in West
Arabia, such as Najrān and Ṭāʾif, both fertile oases where a relatively high degree
of urban life developed. Ṭāʾif is referred to in Koran 34:31 as one of the two cities,
1 For the views of Hubert Grimme and Tor Andrae on the Persian and the Judaeo-Christian
provenance of the Islamic Koranic paradise, see L. Gardet, “Djanna,”
EI2, II, 447–52, especially 448.
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
Ṭāʾif, was the first to suggest a connection between it and the Koranic para-
dise.2 Ṭāʾif could not compete, however, with the more advanced urban life that
obtained in Byzantine Oriens by the Ghassānids, with whom the Meccans had
close relations.3 It is therefore possible that Ghassānid banquets may have been to
some degree an inspiration for the Koranic paradise.
The description of Paradise in the Koran that appears in various suras may be
summarized as follows.4
(1) The righteous occupants recline on raised, lofty thrones, like couches,
surur, which have cushions, called arāʾik and namāriq; (2) under the couches
are carpets, called
zarābi; (3) their clothes are of fine green silk and silk brocade,
dībāja, sundus, istabraq; (4) they dine on fruits; (5) their beverages are mixed with
ginger and camphor; (6) they drink from gold and silver cups and eat from golden
plates; (7) the women are pure and wear bracelets of gold and silver; (8) young chil-
wildān, serve them; (9) and under them flow streams of water.
The royal banquets of the Ghassānids could easily match this description
of the Koranic paradisal scene, though no detailed and accurate account of a
Ghassānid banquet has survived in the extant primary sources. However, judging
by their affluence and prosperity in Oriens, it can easily be concluded that their
banquets must have contained all or most of these constituents of the Koranic
paradisal scene. The survival of one such description in the source
reported by the Ghassānid poet laureate, Ḥassān, is detailed enough to include
many of these elements, when due allowance is made for the difference between
a heavenly and a terrestrial paradisal scene.5 Some of the commonalities between
the Koranic version of paradise and the Arabic sources, verse and prose, on the
Ghassānid banquets may now be listed, keyed to the list above.6
2 See H. Lammens,
La Cité arabe de Ṭāif à la veille de l’hégire, Mélanges de l’Université Saint-
Joseph 8, fasc. 4 (Beirut, 1922), 139, 153; M. Lecker, “Ṭāʾif,”
EI2, X, 115–16.
3 The very close relationship between Mecca and Ghassān will be treated at length in the next vol-
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