Sixth century


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hadith says that the Prophet Muḥammad likened his favorite wife ʿĀʾisha to the 

tharīda, saying that she surpassed all other women just as the tharīda excelled all 

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 

tharīda is a great delicacy.22

 

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, 

see Ḥassān, 



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, 

La Cité arabe de 

Ṭāif à la veille de l’hégire, Mélanges de l’Université Saint-Joseph 8, fasc. 4 (Beirut, 1922), 153–54, and 

M. Lecker, “Ṭāʾif,” 



EI2, X, 115–16. 

 

20  See Ibn Man



˙

zūr, 


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 

tharīd—simply bread dipped 

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. 

 

23 See 



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. 

131

Food


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 

shiwāʾ, used by the poets.26

 

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 

maḍīrat Muʿāwiya.28 It is possible that 

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. 

Maḍīra seems to have been a development or variation of the tharīda, associated 

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 



Āl-Jafna

 

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, 

1983), 101.



132

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

IV. Fruits

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 

their beverage.31

 

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 

Dīwān, I, 17, verse 7. 

 

30 On 



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  

R. Nicholson, 

A Literary History of the Arabs (1907; reprint, London, 1969), 418.

 

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, 

Dīwān, I, 426, verse 2. 


133

Food


V. Spices

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, 

zanjabīl, and camphor, kāfūr.34 The natu-

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 

tharīda of 

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,

 Palm Sunday, men-

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.

VI. Fasting

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.

 

BASIC II.1 has explained the relationship of the Ghassānids to monasticism 

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.

 

36 Al-Nābigha, 



Dīwān, 47, verse 25. On this hadith, see Ibn Man

˙

zūr, 



Lisān al-ʿArab, III, 235.

 

37  Ibid., 164–212, especially 171–76.



134

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 



divine 

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 

Monophysites. 

 

3. As 


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 

maslaḥas and ḥīras, stood many a cell of the eremites and anchorites and possi-

bly some monasteries. Hence a strong bond formed between the 



foederati, athletes 

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 

their victory. 

 

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.

135

Food


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 

life. No 



Typika for Monophysite or Ghassānid monasteries in Oriens have sur-

vived; and the work that might have provided this information—namely, 



Akhbār 

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; 

see 253–54. 

 

41  Discussed in Chapter 14, “Ghassānid Banquets,” below. 



 

42 Ḥassān, 



Dīwān, I, 255, verse 6. 

Appendix 

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, 

al-qaryatayn, the other being Mecca. Henri Lammens, who wrote perceptively on 

 

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.

136

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-

dren, 


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 

al-Aghānī, as 

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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