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patch of the two swords to al-Qalīs also makes sense in view of the intimate rela-
tions between the Ghassānids and South Arabia, the region of their relatives, the
9 For ʿAli’s mission to the two idols, see Hishām ibn al-Kalbī,
The Book of Idols, trans. N. Faris
(Princeton, 1952), 13–14, 52–53. For another account of the sword, see E. Mittwoch, “Dhuʾl Fa
EI2, II, 233.
10 For the Barbarikon at Ruṣāfa/Sergiopolis, at which gifts to St. Sergius were stored, see E. K.
The Barbarian Plain: Saint Sergius between Rome and Iran (Berkeley, 1999), 65 note 28.
11 Another scenario could be related to the group al-Aws, who fought with Arethas at the battle of
Chalcis. They came from Medina/Yathrib in Ḥijāz, a circumstance that might explain why the shrine
of Manāh near Medina had the two swords. As Hishām explains, “Khazraj” was a label applied to both
the Arab tribes of Medina, al-Aws as well as al-Khazraj; see Hishām,
the battle of Chalcis, see al-Aʿlam al-Shantamarī,
Dīwān ʿAlqama al-Faḥl, ed. D. al-Khaṭīb and I. Ṣaqqāl
(Aleppo, 1969), 48, verse 32.
12 See Balādurī,
Ansāb al-Ashrāf, ed. M. Ḥamīdullāh (Cairo, 1959), I, 522. The reading “al-Qalīs”
appears twice (notes 3, 4), following the Istanbul MS, on which the edition of Balādurī depended. Of
significance here are the vow and particularly the reference to al-Qalīs, which provide evidence for the
role played by South Arabia, the region of the great Arabian martyropolis Najrān, in the consciousness
of the Christian Arabs of pre-Islamic times. On the location of al-Qalīs and Sanʿāʾ in South Arabia, and
on the possibility that the church in Sanʿāʾ had within its precincts some relics of St. Arethas, see the
present writer in “Byzantium in South Arabia,”
Ansāb al-Ashrāf, I, 522.
Votive and Victory Offerings
martyrs of Najrān, whose chief saint, Arethas, was the namesake of the Ghassānid
warrior king Arethas.
The dedication of swords at religious shrines is not unknown in other parts of
the Byzantine world. A soldier, after scoring a victory in a military encounter, com-
monly dedicated his sword to a military saint, Theodore.14 And in Islam, spoils of
war were often dedicated at mosques.15
The mystique of these Ghassānid swords continued in Islamic times, and
Dhu al-Faqār became the most famous Islamic sword, reputedly resting now in
Istanbul in Topkapi Saray. A Byzantine source mentions this sword in the tenth
century during the reign of Nicephorus Phocas. Leo the Deacon relates that dur-
ing an encounter with the Muslims in Oriens, it was acquired by the Byzantines.
Nikephoros dispatched an embassy to the Fatimid ruler in Tunisia with the view
of ransoming the
patricius Niketas, who had been captured by the Fatimids. His
offer of the sword of Muḥammad in exchange for the
patricius was accepted, and
al-Muʿizz released his captive.16
III. The Two Earrings of Māriya
The Islamic sources also report that two earrings of the Ghassānid queen Māriya,
the mother of Arethas, were dedicated by her to the Kaʿba in Mecca.17 This may
sound strange, but it should be remembered that religion in pre-Islamic Mecca,
including the pilgrimage,18 was syncretistic: in its pantheon, Allah, the biblical
God, was represented, and the Kaʿba contained a picture of Mary and Jesus.19 Thus
the dedication of the two earrings to the Kaʿba ceases to sound so incredible.
14 See A. Sigalas, “῾Ἡ διασκευὴ τῶν ὑπὸ τοῦ Χρυσίππου παραδεδομένων θαυμάτων τοῦ ἁγίου
Ἐπετηρὶς ἑταιρείας βυζαντινῶν σπουδῶν 1 (1924), 295–339.
15 See C. Foss, “Byzantine Responses to Turkish Attacks: Some Sites of Asia Minor,” in
Studies in Honour of Cyril Mango Presented to Him on April 14, 1998, ed. I. Ševčenko and I. Hutter
(Stuttgart, 1998), 154–71, Plates XXXIV–XXXVII, nos. 9–15.
16 On this Byzantine-Fatimid episode, see
The History of Leo the Deacon: Byzantine Military
Expansion in the Tenth Century, trans. A.-M. Talbot and D. F. Sullivan (Washington, D.C., 2005),
126–27 (note 5 discusses what may be an Arab-Muslim version of the episode involving the sword). For
more on the fortunes of this sword and the involvement of the Fatimids, see P. E. Walker, “Purloined
Symbols of the Past: The Theft of Souvenirs and Sacred Relics in the Rivalry between the Abbasids
and Fatimids,” in
F. Daftary and J. W. Meri (London, 2003), 364–87.
17 See Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad al-Maydāni,
Majmaʿ al-Amthāl, ed. M. Ibrāhīm (Cairo, 1978), I, 411.
18 For Mawqif al-Naṣrāni, “the station of the Christians” was one of the stations on the pre-Islamic
pilgrimage route to Mount ʿArafāt. It appears as Wādī Muḥassir or Baṭn Muḥassir in the
Yāqūt and Bakri, s.vv.
19 See M. Azraqi,
Akhbār Makka, ed. R. Malḥas (Mecca, 1965), I, 165. On the conquest of Mecca in
a.d. 630, the Prophet Muḥammad moved the many idols out of the Kaʿba, and he protected the pictures
of Mary and Jesus from destruction; see ibid. and Ibn Hishām,
(1955; reprint, Karachi, 1990), 552.
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
The Ghassānids were zealous propagators of the Christian faith in Arabia,
and their bishop Theodore, whose episcopate lasted from 540 to 570, had Ḥijāz
under his jurisdiction.20 The Ghassānids had as allies in Mecca the clan of Banū
Asad ibn ʿAbd al-ʿUzzā,21 one member of which was the Christian Waraqa—the
uncle of Khadīja, the wife of the Prophet Muḥammad. It is thus not altogether
impossible that the Ghassānid queen whose name was Māriya/Mary sent her two
earrings to the Kaʿba, which housed a picture of her namesake, the Virgin Mary.
These two earrings are described as being as large as the eggs of a pigeon. They
gave rise to the proverbial saying—
Khudhu wa law bi-Qurtay Māriya, “Take it
(buy it), even though it costs as much as the two earrings of Māriya”22—uttered
when a commodity is expensive but worth buying at any price. Because these two
earrings had a history in later Islamic times, they give rise to two questions: what
was the provenance of these two earrings, and what is the truth about their fate in
post-Ghassānid Islamic times?
The Provenance of the Earrings
The Ghassānid kings traveled to Constantinople on various occasions, especially
when they were endowed with the patriciate or kingship. Their wives could accom-
pany them on these journeys. The wife of the prospective patrician had a func-
tion to perform during the ceremony of promotion. On such occasions, royal gifts
were extended to the spouse of the honorand, as has been documented in at least
in two cases (discussed below). Both Arethas and his son Mundir are attested as
having been in Constantinople;23 the sources are silent on whether Jabala visited
Constantinople, where his wife Māriya might have acquired these famous earrings
as a gift.
A passage in the Syriac text of Zacharia, which illuminates so much on Jabala,
may provide the key to the answer.24 In the obituary notice on him, Zacharia says
in the Latin version of the notice that Jabala was “bellicosus et sapiens,” “armis
Romanis multum exercitatus est,” and “et in locis diversis pugnis illustris factus
erat.” This sheds light on the career of Jabala, so ignored by the Greek sources such
as Procopius, who was no friend of the Ghassānids. It can easily be concluded
from this notice that Jabala became a faithful ally of the Byzantines, as shown by
his assimilation of Byzantine military tactics and by his fighting for their cause
20 On Theodore, see
BASIC I.2, 771–74.
21 On this clan, see al-Zubayr ibn-Bakkar,
Jamharat Nasab Quraysh wa Akhbāruhā, ed. M. Shākir
(Cairo, 1961), 425–38. Its relations with the Ghassānids will be treated in detail in the next volume of
22 See al-Maydāni,
Majmaʿ al-Amthāl, I, 410–11.
BASIC I.1, 282–88, 384–89.
24 Ibid., 65.
Votive and Victory Offerings
in various engagements in which he distinguished himself. The Syriac source also
referred to him as Aṭfar/Aṣfar, which has been correctly interpreted to mean
that he also became
most probably conferred on him rather than assumed by him, reflecting the con-
fidence reposed in him by the central government. The crowning sign of his loy-
alty was his death at the battle of Thannūris, fighting for Byzantium. Under such
circumstances, it seems quite possible that he was asked to visit Constantinople,
where he was honored.26 This provides the background for the hypothesized visit
of his wife Māriya, a woman who the Byzantine intelligence service knew came
from a powerful and influential group, Kinda.
The hypothesis of a visit by Jabala and Māriya to Constantinople sets the
stage for understanding the possible provenance of the two earrings that became
so famous. At this time, late in the 520s, Justinian was ruling as well as reigning,
after the death of his elderly uncle, Justin, in 527. Alternatively, the visit may have
taken place toward the end of Justin’s reign, when Justinian and Theodora were the
de facto rulers.
The imperial gifts of Theodora to various female personages were an effec-
tive instrument of Byzantine diplomacy. The sources present analogies that sup-
port the proposition that the two earrings of Māriya emanated from her: (1) when
the queen of the Iberians appeared with her husband in Constantinople in 534,
Theodora gave her all kinds of jewelry decorated with pearls;27 (2) when the queen
of the Sabir Huns, Boa, came to Constantinople, she was given gifts that included
raiment, silver vessels, and money;28 and (3) gifts were also given to Valeriana, the
wife of the Lazic king, Tzath.29
Byzantine imperial gifts were sometimes given to the recipient not in
25 For the identification of Aṭfar/Aṣfar with Flavius, see
Martyrs, 273–76; BASIC I.1, 66–67. The
title Flavius (Yellow), translated into Arabic as Asfar, was applied to the Ghassānid ruler Jabala, the
father of Arethas, and it became a generic name for the
Yellow One. On
Banū al-Asfar, see I. Goldziher, “Aṣfar,” EI2, I, 687–88. See also Martyrs, 273–375,
where, in 1971, I entertained various interpretations for the Syriac term
Aṭfar, applied to the Ghassānid
king Jabala in a.d. 528. Since then it has become clear that Aṭfar was none other than Flavius/Aṣfar.
26 Jabala was referred to as king in the two incontestable authentic Syriac sources—Zacharia and
Letter of Simeon of Bēth-Arshām, for which see BASIC I.1, 66 note 4; Martyrs, 63. It is not clear
from the scant sources whether he was also
patricius. Although obscured by the pitiable remnants of the
sources, the principal facts of his reign were salvaged and put together from the Syriac sources with help
from the Greek in
27 Ὁμοίως καὶ αὐγούστα τῇ αὐτοῦ γυναικὶ κόσμια παντοῖα διὰ μαργαριτῶν ἐχαρίσατο; Theophanes,
Chronographia, ed. C. de Boor (1883; reprint, Hildesheim, 1963), I, 216.
28 Καὶ προτραπεῖσα ὑπὸ τοῦ βασιλέως Ἰουστινιανοῦ ξενίοις πολλοῖς βασιλικῆς ϕορεσίας καὶ σκευῶν
διαϕόρων ἐν ἀργύρῳ καὶ χρημάτων οὐκ ὀλίγων; John Malalas,
Chronographia, ed. L. Dindorf (Bonn,
29 Ibid., 413; Malalas does not specify what gifts Tzath and his wife received from Justinian.
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
Constantinople but at his or her place of residence, as was done with the gift of
Theodora to the wife of the Persian king in Ctesiphon.30 This example clearly
indicates that the recipient did not have to be in Constantinople. Thus the two
earrings could easily have reached Māriya in Oriens. The analogy with the gift to
the Persian queen is especially apposite. That gift was understandable, addressed,
as it was, to her counterpart, the queen of the other superpower, Sasanid
Persia. Māriya, on the other hand, came from a small federate entity, a vassal of
Byzantium; but she would have had spiritual kinship with Theodora, since she
was the wife of the chief federate figure in Oriens, Jabala, a Monophysite and
a faithful servant of Byzantium in wars with Persia. Hence, the importance of
enlisting the powerful federate queen in the service of Theodora’s cause—the res-
urrection of the Monophysite church in Oriens. It is worth noting that this par-
ticular empress, Theodora, boasted of jewelry that included earrings visible to the
present day in the famous mosaic at San Vitale. Both earrings, those of Theodora
and those of Māriya, became famous: while Theodora’s can still be seen, Māriya’s
The Fate of the Earrings
The two earrings were well known in later Islamic times. The sources state that
they ended up in the possession of the Umayyad caliph ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān
(a.d. 685–705), who gave them to his daughter, Fāṭima, on the occasion of her
marriage to ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd al-Azīz, the future Umayyad caliph (717–719).31 It is
difficult not to accept the authenticity of this account and its sequel.32 Before the
earrings came into the possession of ʿAbd al-Malik, the Ghassānid queen, accord-
ing to the sources, had presented them as an offering to the Kaʿba.33 A question
thus arises of which Kaʿba is meant: the one in Mecca or the one in Najrān.
In support of the Kaʿba of Mecca, the following may be adduced. There was
a strong Ghassānid presence in Mecca represented by Khuzāʿa, the lords of Mecca
before Quraysh; as Azdites, they were the relatives of the Ghassānids. In addition,
30 Both Justinian and Theodora sent gifts to the Persian king and queen: ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ ἡ Αὔγουστα
κατέπεμψε τῇ βασιλίσσῃ Περσῶν, τῇ οὔσῃ αὐτοῦ ἀδελϕῇ (ibid., 467).
Theodora corresponded with foreign queens: for the letter to the Persian queen, see John of
Ephesus, “Life of Simon the Bishop,” in
1923), 157, lines 5–8 of the Syrian text. She also wrote to the queen of Gothic Italy; see C. Foss, “The
31 See J. ibn Nubāta,
Sarḥ al-ʿUyūn, ed. M. Ibrāhīm (Cairo, 1964), 435–36.
32 The specific details of the story enhance its plausibility: on the orders of her ascetic and conscien-
tious husband, she returned the two earrings to the state treasury when he became caliph; and after his
death, out of respect for his wishes, she rejected the suggestion of his more hedonistic successor, Yazīd,
that she take them back (ibid.).
33 See al-Maydāni,
Majmaʿ al-Amthāl, I, 411.
Votive and Victory Offerings
the clan of Banū-Asad to whom belonged Waraqa ibn Nawfal, the Christian uncle
of Khadīja, the first wife of the Prophet Muḥammad, were the allies (
the Ghassānids in Mecca. These were enthusiastic Christians who tried to spread
the faith in the Arabian Peninsula. It is possible that traces of Christianity in
Mecca—notably the images of Jesus and Mary in the Kaʿba; Masājid Maryam (the
mosques of Mary), not far from Mecca; and Mawqif al-Naṣrānī, “the station of the
Christians,” one of the stations of the pre-Islamic pilgrimage route34—were associ-
ated with them. So, the presentation of the earrings would have been highly appro-
priate within this context, and an act of piety consonant with the practice of votive
offerings among the Christians of the early church.
It is equally likely that the earrings were offered to the Kaʿba of Najrān,
the famous Christian martyrium erected in the wake of the martyrdoms of
ca. a.d. 520. Najrān became the Arabian martyropolis in the Arabian Peninsula;
and the Ghassānids were the relatives of the Arabs of Najrān, the Ḥārithids, who
endured those persecutions. Especially relevant was the fact that at least one hun-
dred of those martyred in Najrān were women.35 As often noted in this volume,
relations between the Ghassānids of Oriens and the Ḥārithids of Najrān had been
close ever since the Najrānites came to the Ghassānid king Jabala, invoking his
aid against Yūsuf, the king of South Arabia who started the persecutions and was
responsible for the martyrdoms.36 It should also be remembered that in the 680s,
after their quarrel with the emperor Maurice, some of the Ghassānids emigrated
to South Arabia, no doubt mainly to Najrān, the city of their relatives.37 A gift by
a Ghassānid queen to the Kaʿba of Najrān, a city of martyresses, would have been
very fitting and in harmony with the dedication by the Ghassānid king of his two
swords, Mikhdam and Rasūb, also to a Christian shrine.
Islam inherited many of the relics of the pre-Islamic period. As already noted
in this chapter, after the conquest of Mecca by the Prophet Muḥammad in 630,
the idols in the Kaʿba were smashed, but the graphic representations of Mary and
Jesus were spared; at the same time, the two swords of the Ghassānid Arethas came
into the possession of the Prophet. It is, therefore, quite possible that the two ear-
rings from the Kaʿba either of Mecca or of Najrān fell into the hands of Muslims.
34 See the present writer in
BAFIC, 390–92; BASIC I.2, 997; and “Islam and Oriens Christianus:
Makka 610–622 ad,” in
The Encounter of Eastern Christianity with Early Islam, ed. E. Grypeou,
M. Swanson, and D. Thomas (Leiden, 2006), 12–13. The strong presence of the Virgin Mary in Mecca,
represented by her image in the Kaʿba and by Masājid Maryam, would have made it an attractive destina-
tion to receive earrings from a Ghassānid queen who was her namesake.
35 See the present writer in “The Martyrdom of Early Arab Christians: Sixth Century Najrān,”
The First One Hundred Years: A Centennial Anthology Celebrating Antiochian Orthodoxy in North
America, ed. G. S. Corey et al. (Englewood, N.J., 1995), 180.
BASIC I.1, 546–47.
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
The Umayyads, in turn, when they were established in Oriens as the first dynasty
in Islam, started to acquire relics: for example, Muʿāwiya acquired the
mantle, belonging to the Prophet and given by him to the poet Kʿab.38 So the
account of how the two earrings found their way into ʿAbd al-Malik’s hands is per-
38 For the
burda and other relics in Islamic history, see P. Hitti, History of the Arabs, 10th ed.
(New York, 1981), 186 and note 2.
The Ghassānids and the Old Testament:
In their military encounters, the Ghassānids invoked religious figures for assis-
tance against the fire-worshipping Persians and the pagan Lakhmids, as did the
regular Byzantine troops of Byzantium, the Christian Roman Empire, who even
celebrated a liturgy of war before going into battle. It was not unusual that they
should invoke God or St. Sergius, their patron saint and that of the army of the
Orient. More surprising was the Ghassānids’ invocation of the figure of Job, which
has survived in the best of contemporary sources: the Arabic ode of al-Nābigha,
Job, Ayyūb in Arabic, the well-known Old Testament figure who epitomized
the concept of patient suffering, was very much alive among the Semites of Bilād
al-Shām, especially those in the region of the strongest Ghassānid presence, the
northern part of the Provincia Arabia and in Palaestina Secunda. The village of
Dayr Ayyūb evidenced that presence toponymically, as did the
sūq that used to be
held there and that the traders of Arabia and Mecca used to frequent.2 And it was
to them and their congeners who engaged in trade along the
Koran was addressed, which contains a passage on Job/Ayyūb, on the rock over
which he sat, and on the spring of water that was supposed to have cured him of his
ulcers.3 The name itself, so Arabic-sounding, was assumed by some Arabs in the pre-
But Job’s special place in the life of the Ghassānids calls for an explanation.
The Ghassānids were
foederati, employed to fight the wars of Byzantium in the
Orient and to defend the Holy Land, around the boundaries of which they were
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