Sixth century


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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

˙

kār,” 


EI2, II, 233. 

 

10  For the Barbarikon at Ruṣāfa/Sergiopolis, at which gifts to St. Sergius were stored, see E. K. 



Fowden, 

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 Book of Idols, 13. For the Aws at 

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,” 

DOP 33 (1979), 81–83.

 

13 Balādurī, 



Ansāb al-Ashrāf, I, 522.

223

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 



Θεωδώρου,” 

Ἐπετηρὶς ἑταιρείας βυζαντινῶν σπουδῶν 1 (1924), 295–339. 

 

15  See C. Foss, “Byzantine Responses to Turkish Attacks: Some Sites of Asia Minor,” in 



Aetos: 

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 

Culture and Memory in Medieval Islam: Essays in Honour of Wilferd Madelung, ed. 

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 

maʿājim of 

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, 

Life of Muhammad, trans. A. Guillaume 

(1955; reprint, Karachi, 1990), 552.



224

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 

this series, 

Byzantium and Islam in the Seventh Century.

 

22  See al-Maydāni, 



Majmaʿ al-Amthāl, I, 410–11. 

 

23 



BASIC I.1, 282–88, 384–89.

 

24  Ibid., 65.



225

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 

Flavius25—another sign of his loyalty to the Byzantine auto-

kratores, who since Constantine claimed to be the second Flavians. The title was 

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 

Rhomaioi: Banū al-Asfar, the Children of 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 



the 

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 

BASIC I.1, 48–49.

 

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, 

1835), 431. 

 

29  Ibid., 413; Malalas does not specify what gifts Tzath and his wife received from Justinian.



226

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 

have disappeared.

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 

Lives of the Eastern Saints, ed. E. W. Brooks, PO 17 (Paris, 

1923), 157, lines 5–8 of the Syrian text. She also wrote to the queen of Gothic Italy; see C. Foss, “The 

Empress Theodora,” 

Byzantion 72 (2002), 151.

 

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.

227

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 (



ḥulafāʾ) of 

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,” 



in 

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. 

 

36 See 



Martyrs, passim.

 

37 See 



BASIC I.1, 546–47.

228

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 



burda, 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-

fectly credible.

 

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. 

Appendix 

The Ghassānids and the Old Testament:

Job/Ayyūb

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, 

their panegyrist.1

 

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 

via odorifera that 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-

Islamic era.

 

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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