Sixth century


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Dīwān, ed. Ibrāhīm, 47, verse 25.

 

45  See Jubouri, 



al-Malābis, 318; quoting al-Jāḥi

˙

z, 



Al-Bayān wa al-Tabyīn, ed. ʿA. Hārūn (Cairo, 

1960), III, 107. The importance that Arabs accorded shoes is reflected in the many pages devoted to them 

by Jubouri (317–35). 

 

46  Translated in Nicholson, 



A Literary History of the Arabs, 53.

169

Clothes


al-Jaʿdi also enumerated various gifts from the Ghassānid dynast: 

inter alia, robes 

from Ḥaḍramawt, linen from Iraq, and 



rayṭ from Oriens.47 

The 


Patricius

The Ghassānid kings were also 



patricii, as is attested in inscriptions for both Arethas 

and Mundir.48 The garb of 



patricii during the ceremony of investiture is described 

in two chapters of 



De Ceremoniis by Constantine VII Prophyrogenitus, the first of 

which is devoted to the promotion of the military to that status.49 During the cer-

emony, the 

patricius appeared wearing a purple robe, σαγίον ἀληθινόν, and then a 

red robe, σαγίον ῥοῆς.50

 

Those who were promoted to the rank of 



patricius received the acclamations 

of the demes. After describing these acclamations, Constantine mentions those 

who dine with the 

patricius; among them were the demarchoi, who wear a robe 

called ἀβδία—which may be the Arab 



ʿabāʾa.51 Supporting that provenance is the 

renown of Arabian textiles, which Byzantium imported.52 In a.d. 580, as noted 

above, the Ghassānid Mundir brought with him to Constantinople some gifts for 

the emperor, Tiberius, including some garments from Arabia, or “barbaria.” Could 

one of these have been an 

ʿabāʾa

The Phylarch

As 

foederati, who fought regularly alongside the Byzantine army of the Orient, the 

Ghassānids were almost certainly dressed like the Byzantine troops. They were 

trained to fight in the Roman manner, as shown by the short obituary notice on 

Jabala,53 the father of the famous Arethas, who died fighting for Byzantium against 

the Persians at the battle of Thannūris in a.d. 528.

 

The Ghassānid contingent in the army of the Orient was mainly composed of 



 

47  See al-Nābigha al-Jaʿdi, 



Dīwān, 61–62, verses 13–14.

 

48 See 



BASIC I.1, 260, 490, 495.

 

49  For the Greek text and its French rendition, see Constantine VII, 



Le livre des cérémonies, ed. and 

trans. A. Vogt (Paris, 1939), II, chapters 56, 57 (in Reiske’s numbering 47, 48), pp. 44–50, 51–60. 

 

50  Ibid., chapter 56, pp. 48, 49. The color red, which figures prominently in federate Ghassānid 



dress, is considered the most striking of all colors; see A. B. Greenfield, 

A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, 

and the Quest for the Color of Desire (New York, 2005).

 

51  Constantine VII, 



Le livre des cérémonies, chapter 57, p. 60 and note 1. Errors of transcription are 

common, particularly in reproducing faithfully the ʿ



ayn and the hamza; hence ʿabāʾa could easily have 

become 


abdia. 

 

52  On the vogue of Oriental garments at court, see Ševčenko, “Costume,” 537, quoting N. P. 



Kondakov, “Les costumes orientaux à la cour byzantine,” 

Byzantion 1 (1924), 7–49. 

 

53  “Armis Romanorum multum exercitatus erat”; see Zacharia Scholasticus, 



Historia Ecclesiastica, 

ed. E. W. Brooks, CSCO, Scriptores Syri, ser. 3 (Paris, 1924), VI, 64. The 



sayf, “sword,” the weapon of 

which the Arabs were proud and which elicited from them so many complimentary tributes, was a Greek 

loanword, ξίϕος. And the tactical unit in the army, 

kurdūs, derived from Latin cohors, cohortis.


170

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

cavalry. The military uniform and armor of the supreme phylarch and king, as well 

as those of the rank and file, may be visualized from contemporary illustrations of 

Byzantine uniforms in works on military history in the sixth century.54 The bat-

tle dress of the Ghassānid troops may not have been an exact replica of what the 

Byzantines wore, but it could have been similar to it.

 

Just as the contemporary sources, especially poetry on the Ghassānids, have 



preserved some evidence for civilian costume, so has contemporary poetry pre-

served some verses on their military outfits. They have survived in two odes: one by 

al-Nābigha and the other by ʿAlqama, a poet from northeast Arabia, who belonged 

to the group Tamīm and who traveled to the Ghassānid court to plead for the 

release of his brother, who had been captured by the Ghassānids in battle.55

 

Al-Nābigha’s ode simply describes the swords and spears of the Ghassānids,56 



but the verses have attained celebrity in the annals of Arabic poetry owing to the 

portrayal of their swords: its most celebrated verse was quoted by none other than 

the Ḥamdānid Sayf al-Dawla, after a great victory scored by his troops during the 

epic Arab-Byzantine conflict in the tenth century.57 

 

ʿAlqama’s ode is unique among all panegyrics on the Ghassānids, as a fairly 



detailed 

ekphrasis of the celebrated Arethas leading his troops at the battle of Chalcis, 

or Yawm Ḥalīma, in a.d.  554.58 The most relevant portion is a sextet of verses 

describing the king, mounted on the famed 

equus caballus, the Arabian horse.59 

 

1. Verse 25 of the ode describes Arethas as a horseman. In giving the name 



of his famous horse, al-Jawn, it provides another way to name him: he is 

Fāris  

al-Jawn, “the Rider of al-Jawn.”

 

2. Verse 26 describes him spurring his horse forward until the white patches 



on the horse’s knees vanish, obscured either by the blood of the enemy or by the 

press of their ranks. He takes this action while striking his opponent hard with his 

sword. His adversaries wore helmets (

bayḍ) and also cuirasses that enveloped their 

chests and backs.

 

3. Verse 27 supplies evidence for the armor of the commander in chief of the 



Ghassānid 

foederati, as a cataphract. As is well known, cataphracts were deployed 

 

54  E.g., see G. Ravegnani, 



Soldati di Bisanzio in età guistinianea (Rome, 1988), Figures I, III, and IV, 

which respectively represent a Byzantine general, a 



magister militum, a rank Arethas held de facto; a cav-

alryman with his lance, such as constituted most of the Ghassānid contingent in the army of the Orient

and a rank-and-file soldier in the Byzantine army.

 

55  On the two poets, see Sezgin, 



GAS, II, 110–13, 120–22.

 

56  See al-Nābigha al-Dubyānī, 



Dīwān, ed. Ibrāhīm, 43, verse 14; 44, verses 17, 22.

 

57  Ibid., 44, verse 19; for its citation by Sayf al-Dawla, see al-Mutanabbi, 



Dīwān, ed. ‘A. al-Barqūqī 

(Cairo, 1930), II, 286 and note 4. This incident is discussed further in “Poetry,” Chapter 7 in Part III.

 

58  On the battle, see 



BASIC I.1, 240–51.

 

59  See al-Aʿlam al-Shantamarī, 



Dīwān ʿAlqama al-Faḥl, ed. D. al-Khaṭīb and I. Ṣaqqāl (Aleppo, 

1969), 43–45, verses 25–30. 



171

Clothes


in the Roman/Byzantine army in response to the rise of the Sasanids and the threat 

that their cataphracts posed. Rome had to adopt body armor to counter its eastern 

adversary more effectively. This verse mentions two 

sarābīl (plural of sirbal),60 coats 

of mail, that the Ghassānid commander wore while he was fighting. This immedi-

ately suggests the cataphract, who wore a protective coat of varied length and a sur-

coat that protected him from the blows or thrusts of lances. The sixth verse in this 

sextet, discussed below, addresses the material of which the coats were made. 

 

After describing Arethas’ two layers of protective armor, the coat and the sur-



coat of mail, the poet says that the king carried two choice swords, 

aqīlā suyūf, 

which he names 



Mikhdam and Rasūb, indicating that both were very sharp. Just as 

the horse had a name, so did the two swords, reflecting the importance which the 

fighters attached to their armor, especially the sword. For Arabs the swordsman 

was braver than the spearman, because his weapon is shorter; hence the sword’s 

wielder proved his courage in coming close to his adversary.61 Just as the swords 

of the Ghassānids in the ode of al-Nābigha resonated in later Islamic times, in the 

tenth century, so did these two swords in ʿAlqama’s poem. The life of one of them 

was much longer, since the Prophet Muḥammad gave it to his son-in-law ʿAli and 

it came to be known, because of its proverbial efficacy, as 

Du al-Faqār, “the Sword 

of the Vertebrae.”62

 

4. Verse 30 describes the coats of mail of the rank and file of the Ghassānid 



army, who are said to be wearing 

abdān al-hadīd, “coats of iron,” which emit a 

sound like the rustling of dry leaves when the south wind blows on them. The term 

for the sound is almost onomatopoetic, 

takhashkhash. The phrase “coats of iron” 

clearly indicates that their coats were made of iron rings or chains.

Queens and Princesses

As is true of male Ghassānids, the sources are interested mainly in members of the 

royal house. The queens and the princesses are mentioned sporadically, and very 

briefly.63

 

60  A Persian loanword, which appears even in the Koran; see Jeffery, 



Foreign Vocabulary of the 

Qurʾan, 168–69, and E. Yarshater, “The Persian Presence in the Islamic World,” in The Persian Presence 

in the Islamic World, ed. R. G. Hovannisian and G. Sabagh (Cambridge, 1991), 53. Naturally, the 

allies of Persia whom the Ghassānids fought also wore two coats of mail; in his ode on the Ghassānids, 

al-Nābigha al-Dubyānī called the double-breastplate 

al-salūqiyy al-muḍāʿaf nasjuh; Dīwān, ed. Ibrāhīm, 

46, verse 21.

 

61  In one of his epinician odes on Sayf al-Dawla, Mutanabbi said that the Muslim hero so despised 



spears that he threw them away; see 

Dīwān, II, 275, verse 4. 

 

62  For the fateful history of the two swords, see the discussion below in Chapter 11, “Votive and 



Victory Offerings.”

 

63  On female dress in this period, see M. Harlow, “Female Dress, Third–Sixth Century: The 



Messages in the Media?” in Carrié, ed., 

Tissus et vêtements dans l’antiquité tardive, 203–15.

172

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

 

1. The queens. The wife of the Ghassānid king was certainly a queen. Her 



Christian counterpart, Hind, the wife of the Lakhmid Mundir, was called queen, 

malaka, in a famous inscription.64 The clothes worn by these federate queens are 

nowhere described in the scant extant sources. The only article that can be safely 

inferred from other solid sources is the veil, 

naṣīf or khimār or burquʿ. The Lakhmid 

queen al-Mutajarrida, the wife of the last Lakhmid king, al-Nuʿmān, was described 

by al-Nābigha in an ode entirely devoted to her. But of the ode’s thirty-four verses, 

only two refer to dress items, namely, her veil (



naṣīf) and her necklace.65

 

These items were consonant with the Byzantine style of female dress, which 



included the wearing of the 

maphorion as a head covering. It was also consonant 

with the mores of a Bible-centric society like the Christian Roman Empire of 

Byzantium, which followed St. Paul’s recommendation that women should wear 

a veil during church services.66 The queens of so strongly Monophysite a confes-

sion as the Ghassānids would also have obeyed Paul’s injunction. Although his rec-

ommendations involve only the hair, the Ghassānid queens most likely also veiled 

their face. This can be inferred from the practice at the Lakhmid court, reflected 

in a verse of al-Nābigha where the context makes clear that the queen had her face 

covered before her veil fell off.67 Apparently aristocratic Arab women normally 

covered their faces with the 



khimār or naṣīf or burquʿ, a practice evident in the 

speech that Ruhm, the chief female martyr of Najrān, delivered before her death.68 

The Ghassānid queens were the relatives of Ruhm who shared her devotion to 

Monophysite Christianity, and they must have looked to her as a role model.

 

2. The princesses. The sources do provide information on the dress of the 



Ghassānid princesses. In one of his odes, when he was in a nostalgic mood remem-

bering his Ghassānid patrons, Ḥassān refers to the young Ghassānid maidens 

weaving coral wreaths for the celebration of Easter; in a single verse he describes 

them as draped in 



rayṭ (plural of rayṭa), “white garments,” and also in majāsid 

kattān, “linen robes.”69

 

64  See the present writer in “The Authenticity of Pre-Islamic Poetry: The Linguistic Dimension,” 



al-Abḥāth 44 (1996), 11. 

 

65  See al-Nābigha al-Dubyānī, 



Dīwān, ed. Ibrāhīm, 91, verse 10; 93, verse 17.

 

66  I Corinthians 11:5–6, 13.



 

67  See al-Nābigha al-Dubyānī, 



Dīwān, ed. Ibrāhīm, 9, verses 17–18.

 

68 See 



Martyrs, 57–58. The practice among Arab women of wearing veils that covered the face is 

confirmed by another verse that mentions the 



qināʿ of a ḥurra, a free Arab woman (not a slave); see 

al-Nābigha al-Jaʿdi, 



Dīwān, 72, verse 15. 

 

69 Ḥassān, 



Dīwān, I, 255, verse 7. This verse, which has already been discussed in various con-

texts, undoubtedly involves Ghassānid princesses. They are referred to as 



walāʾid (the plural of walīda), 

“daughters,” in verse 6, and the use of the term 



majāsid for “robes” confirms their royal character. A cou-

plet of verses by a pre-Islamic poet makes clear that they were robes worn by affluent women, luxuriating 

in fine clothes; see Jubouri, 

al-Malābis, 82.


173

Clothes


Appendix

The Vestimentary System: Further Observations

1. The first dynasty in Islamic history, the Umayyad, had for its metropolitan 

province the Oriens of Byzantium and of the Ghassānids. Before the inception 

of his caliphate in a.d. 661, the founder, Muʿāwiya, had made Jābiya, the capi-

tal of the Ghassānids, his own capital for some twenty years. And during his 

forty years of rule in Bilād al-Shām as 

amīr and caliph, the Ghassānids and other 

foederati had a strong presence in Bilād al-Shām and in the Umayyad state.1 

Furthermore, Muʿāwiya was the first Arab ruler to openly depart from the old 

modest and conservative dress recommended in Islam, assuming the more luxu-

rious dress he found available in the ex-Byzantine Diocese of Oriens, now Bilād 

al-Shām. Consequently, the sources for Umayyad history are rich in data on the 

pre-Umayyad period of Bilād al-Shām, including its dress and textiles. Particularly 

useful is Arabic poetry composed for the Umayyads, such as the verses of al-Akhṭal 

and ʿUbayd Allah ibn Qays al-Ruqayyāt, in which such terms as 



sariq (Gr. σηρική) 

for silk occurs. The 



dīwāns of Arabic poetry are indeed a mine of information for 

the history of the dynasty,2 including the history of pre-Islamic Arab dress, which 

Umayyad dress continued in many important ways. Needless to say, the identifica-

tion of the Byzantine element in, and influence on, Arab Ghassānid dress as more 

significant than the Persian will revive interest in the argument—presented as 

early as 1952 by Ernst Kühnel and Louisa Bellinger—that the Umayyad 



tirāz, the 

textile workshops in the Umayyad period, were related to the Byzantine 



gynaecea 

in Oriens.3

 

2. Of the various kinds of textiles and fabrics, silk, 



ḥarīr,4 had a privileged 

position, reflected in the many terms that designated it. Some were Greek loan-

words, including 

sariq from σερική, mustaka from metaxa (by metathesis), and 

siyarās from Σῆρες, the proper noun for Chinese or Indians. These were the terms 

known to the pre-Islamic and Umayyad poets. But the fortunes of silk experienced 

a setback with the rise of Islam.5 While Byzantine Christianity embraced silk, both 

in its ecclesia and its imperium, and emperors used it extensively in their dress and 

as imperial gifts, Islam frowned on it and the Muhammadan traditions are replete 

 

1  See A. Shboul and A. Walmsley, “Identity and Self-Image in Syria-Palestine in the Transition 



from Byzantine to Early Islamic Rule: Arab Christians and Muslims,” 

Mediterranean Archaeology 11 

(1998), 255–87.

 

2  See Ṣ. Agha and T. Khālidi, “Poetry and Identity in the Umayyad Age,” 



al-Abḥath 50–51 (2003), 

55–120.


 

3  See E. Kühnel and L. Bellinger, 



Catalogue of Dated Ṭirāz Fabrics: Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid 

(Washington, D.C., 1952). See also Y. K. Stillman and P. Sanders, “Ṭirāz,” 



EI2, X, 534–38.

 

4  The etymology of the most common word for silk in Arabic, 



ḥarīr, is still uncertain.

 

5  For silk in Islam, see N. Seedengaard, “Ḥarīr,” 



EI2, III, 209–21.

174

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

with warnings against its use by Muslims. The blessed in the Koranic paradise are 

described as dressed in fine silks, however.6

 

3. Poetry was important as a means of spreading publicity and propaganda 



for the Ghassānids in Oriens and in the Arabian Peninsula. The panegyrics were 

probably recited in an odeum specifically constructed for poetry recitation and 

other similar functions.7 This practice raises the question of whether the poets 

wore a special outfit during their recitations. In the days of al-Jāḥi

˙

z of the ninth 



century, the poets used to wear a special kind of dress, such as red silk. He also 

describes a poet who dressed in “the style of those who belonged to the past,” 



ziyy 

al-māḍīn; he used to don a black robe, burd, both in summer and in winter.8 This 

term 


al-māḍīn, “those of the past,” could refer to the pre-Islamic period; thus the 

Ghassānid poet may have worn an outfit that was appropriate to the occasion.

 

4. Another question pertains to Ghassānid identity and the extent to which 



Byzantine dress affected it. Although the Ghassānids’ Arab identity remained 

strong, they were naturally influenced by Byzantine dress in two important areas 

of their Byzantine experience: as 

patricii and as phylarchoi on the battlefield. 

Especially significant was the 



sagion draped over them when they received the 

patriciate.9

 

Nevertheless, the Ghassānids undoubtedly wore Arab clothes when they dealt 



with the Arabs both of Oriens—other 

foederati—and of the Arabian Peninsula. 

The Arab vestimentary system suited the climate and terrain of the arid region in 

Oriens and in Arabia Pastoralis. 

 

5. The various items in the vestimentary system of the pre-Islamic Arabs may 



be consulted in works on this subject.10 Here, two distinctively Arab items will be 

briefly noticed.

 

Because of the hot and dry climate of the Arabian Peninsula, the two most 



important items for the Arabs were their headgear, which protected their heads 

from the scorching sun, and footwear, which protected their feet from the hot 

ground. The two items gave rise to two sayings: 

al-ʿamāʾim tijān al-ʿArab, “the tur-

bans are the crowns of the Arabs,” and 



al-niʿāl khalākhīl al-rijāl, “shoes are the 

anklets of men.” The importance of these two items is reflected in the space given 

 

6  Koran, 76:21; 18:31; 55:76. See also the appendix to Chapter 4, above. 



 

7  On the possibility of an odeum in Jābiya or Jalliq, see the discussion in Part III, Chapter 3, 

“Architecture and Decorative Art.” 

 

8  See al-Jāḥi



˙

z, 


al-Bayān wa al-Tabyīn, ed. A. Hārūn (Cairo, 1960), III, 115, describing poets of 

his day as dressing 



al-muqattaʿāt, which the editor glosses as attire made of red silk material, khazz 

(115 note 7). 

 

9  See the section “The 



Patricius” in the chapter above. 

 

10  See Y. K. Stillman with N. A. Stillman, “Libās,” 



EI2, V, 732–35 (the portion dealing with pre-

Islamic attire); the Ghassānids must have worn some of the items discussed in this entry. The chapter on 

clothes in this volume has discussed only evidence in contemporary poetry and in some prose works. 

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