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7  The importance of silk and the Silk Road was reflected in Julian’s embassy of around a.d. 530, 

which Justinian dispatched to the Ethiopian Negus to invoke his aid—military and other—against the 

Persians. This embassy is discussed below, in “The West Arabian Route”; see also M. Kordosis, “China 

and the West: The Silk Route,” 

Graeco Arabica 7–8 (2000), 233–41.


8  For the peace treaty of a.d. 561, see Menander Protector, 

The History of Menander the Guardsman

ed. and trans. R. C. Blockley (Liverpool, 1985), 70–77 (Greek text and English version).


9  Ibid., 72, 73. 


10  See “The Arabs in the Peace Treaty of a.d. 561,” in 

BALA III, 54–59.

Map I. The Mesopotamian Route. All maps by K. Rasmussen (, 

© 2009 by Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

industries such as silk manufacturing. The pursuit and arrest of those merchants 

who were engaged in illegal trading and thus tax dodging would have fallen to a 

great extent upon the shoulders of the Ghassānids.11 The power of these 


had been extended by Justinian in a.d. 529 to the whole of Oriens, including its 

northern provinces where Daras was located and where tax dodging would have 

occurred. The Ghassānids had taken part in campaigns involving those northern 

areas, such as the Assyrian campaign of Belisarius in 540. So they were perfectly 

familiar with the topography of the region, parts of which were ethnically Arab. 

The Ghassānids could conduct such operations involving Arab peoples more effi-

ciently than could the regular Roman 


*  *  *

The most important commodity carried over the Mesopotamian route was silk. 

A luxury article, silk was widely used for vestments by members of the imperial 

court as well as by clerics, and was also used to decorate both churches and secular 

buildings. The silk industry in Oriens passed through two stages. In the first stage, 

private factories in such cities as Berytus and Tyre manufactured goods from raw 

silk bought from the Persian merchants. When in 542 the manufacturing of silk 

became a state monopoly, it provided a welcome source of revenue for the state trea-

sury.12 The second stage began in 552 and witnessed the introduction into Oriens 

of sericulture, which made Byzantium less dependent on Persian raw silk. Oriens 

thus became the first region in the empire to pursue silk manufacture, which 

remained an important part of its economy. But this industry, like others more 

ordinary, could flourish only when security—a major duty of the Ghassānids—

prevailed in the Oriens provinces. 


Extant contemporary poetry refers to the clothes of the Ghassānids, includ-

ing linen and saffron robes.13 Though silk is not mentioned, it appears in the 

poetry of the Umayyads,14 who ruled Oriens immediately after the Ghassānids and 

who acquired many of their social graces from their predecessors. It is thus logical 

to conclude that the Ghassānids wore silk garments on festive occasions. Ḥassān, 

the brother of the Kindite lord of Dūma at the southern end of Wādī Sirḥān in 


11  One of the Arabic words for “thief,” 

liṣṣ, is suspected of being a Greek loanword, ληστής. Its 

appearance in Arabic may be related to such illegal activities in Byzantium on the part of the Arabs, who 

tried to evade the customs officials and avoid paying taxes on their merchandise. 


12  The imperial 

kommerkiarioi levied a substantial tax on the traders at emporia. By catching these 

tax dodgers, the Ghassānids contributed indirectly to the Byzantine economy. For the 


see N. Oikonomides, “Kommerkiarios,” 

ODB, II, 1141.


13  See “Clothes,” Chapter 6 in Part II, below, and 

BASIC II.1, 295 note 7.


14  For instance, it appears as 

sarik/q in the poetry of the Umayyad poet ʿUbayd Allāh al-Ruqayyāt; 


Dīwān ʿUbayd Allāh al-Ruqayyāt, ed. M. Najm (Beirut, 1986), 159, verse 8, where “silk” appears as 

sarak/q. Sarik is the Arabic version of σηρική, the term used by Procopius for silk in History, I.xx.9. 


The Ghassānids and International Trade Routes

northern Arabia, wore a silk robe woven in gold when Dūma was captured by 

Khālid ibn al-Walīd around a.d. 630.15 Ukaydir, the Kindite lord of Dūma, was 

less affluent than his Ghassānid allies; if his brother wore a silk robe, then 

a fortiori 

the Ghassānids also wore such robes.

II. The West Arabian Route

Of all the international routes, the overland route of West Arabia, the 

via odorifera 

(see Map II), was the most important for the economic history of Byzantium in the 

sixth century and for the Arab-Byzantine relationship involving the Ghassānids. 

The Roman Empire during the principate of Augustus tried and failed to con-

trol it through Aelius Gallus’ expedition against South Arabia; and after a check-

ered history, it languished before it revived in the sixth century at the height of 

the Ghassānid presence in Oriens. In a previous publication I have suggested five 

reasons for its sudden revival,16 of which the most important was the renewal of 

the Byzantine-Persian war after a fifth-century lull. The conflict, which resumed in 

a.d. 502 during the reigns of Anastasius and Kawad, broke out anew under every 

emperor of the sixth century, reaching its climax in the seventh century in the 

gigantic struggle during the reign of Heraclius. Another reason, of critical impor-

tance for the extraordinary events of the seventh century, which witnessed the 

birth of Islam and the Arab Conquests, was the rise in the sixth century of Mecca 

to a position of dominance as the main Arab caravan city.17 This rise contributed 

to the promotion of the spice route of western Arabia as a major artery of interna-

tional trade. Of the three western routes, this overland one, which extended from 

Arabia Felix in the south to Palaestina Tertia in the north, had a decided advantage 

over the maritime route, which required merchants to navigate the Red Sea with its 

contrary winds and dangerous shoals.


Even before Mecca reached its position of dominance late in the sixth century

the Byzantine emperor Justinian was promoting the revival of the western route at 

the expense of the Mesopotamian. Around 530, he sent his ambassador Julian to 


15  See Balāduri, 

Futūh al-Buldān, ed. S. Munajjid (Cairo, 1956), I, 73. Wāqidi’s account of the cap-

ture of Dūma by Khālid is fuller than that of Balāduri. According to him, Ukaydir, too, was wearing 

a silk brocade when he came to Medina after the capture of Dūma. Wāqidi also says that the silk robe 

of his brother Ḥassān elicited the admiration of the Muslims in Medina when the robe was sent to the 

Prophet; see al-Wāqidi,

 Kitāb al-Maghāzi, ed. M. Jones (London, 1966), III, 1026–27. 


16  Explored in detail in 

BALA III, 47–54.


17 See 

BALA III, 52–54. On the lively discussion started by Patricia Crone on this theme, see her 

Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (Princeton, 1987); in response, see R. Sergeant, “Meccan Trade and 

the Rise of Islam: Misconceptions and Flawed Polemics,” 

JAOS 111 (1990), 472–86. A comprehen-

sive response to Crone’s very stimulating work is a doctoral dissertation in Arabic submitted by Victor 

Saḥḥāb to the Lebanese University in Beirut, “Ilāf Quraysh” (1992). The precise identity of the goods 

these caravaneers brought with them to Bostra and Gaza and what they bought there has also been the 

subject of a lively discussion initiated by Crone’s volume. 


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

Map IIa. The West-Arabian Route


The Ghassānids and International Trade Routes

Map IIb. The West-Arabian Route


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

Map IIc. The West-Arabian Route


The Ghassānids and International Trade Routes

urge the military and economic mobilization of the Christian world of the Red Sea 

and the Arabian Peninsula against Sasanid Persia. The key to the success of his plan 

was the Ethiopian Negus. The economic component of his diplomatic offensive 

entailed the Ethiopians’ purchase of silk in Ceylon or India directly from Indian 

and Chinese merchants, thereby eliminating the hostile Persian intermediaries 

who sold silk to the Byzantines at exorbitant prices. In this way, he hoped to divert 

trade—at least the silk trade—from the Mesopotamian to the western route.18 

Justinian’s diplomatic offensive was too complex to succeed, but the western spice 

route prospered even though the contemplated crusade against Persia on the part 

of the southern Semites, Ethiopians and Arabs, never materialized. Nevertheless, 

it was a most enlightened foreign policy, and the words of Procopius are relevant in 

this context: 

At that time, when Hellestheaeus was reigning over the Aethiopians, and 

Esimiphaeus over the Homeritae, the Emperor Justinian sent an ambassador, 

Julianus, demanding that both nations on account of their community of 

religion should make common cause with the Romans in the war against the 

Persians; for he purposed that the Aethiopians, by purchasing silk from India 

and selling it among the Romans, might themselves gain much money, while 

causing the Romans to profit in only one way, namely, that they be no longer 

compelled to pay over the money to their enemy. (This is the silk of which 

they are accustomed to make the garments which of old the Greeks called 

Medic, but which at the present time they name “seric”).19


Before the Ghassānid role with regard to the 

via odorifera is discussed, some 

facts about this route should be set forth.


1. This long overland route started from South Arabia (Map IIc) and ended 

in the two Byzantine provinces of Palaestina and Arabia. One of its two termini, 

after its course ran mostly through Palaestina Tertia, was Gaza in Palaestina Prima 

(Map IIa). Its other terminus was Bostra (Map IIb), the capital of Provincia Arabia. 

Before reaching its two termini it passed through Phoinikōn, the “Palm Grove” 

(probably Tabūk), in Byzantine territory.20


2. While still traversing the peninsular segment of the route, caravans passed 


18  For an analysis of the embassy of Julian, see 

BALA III, xii–xvi.


19 Procopius, 

History, I.xx.9; trans. H. B. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library (1914; reprint London 

and Cambridge, Mass., 1961), I, 192.


20  Ibid., I.xx.9–13; for the Ghassānid presence in Phoinikōn, see I.xix.8–13. 

Pace the animadver-

sions of Procopius, Phoinikōn was an important station on the spice route, most probably identifiable 

with Tabūk. A very detailed and useful account of this route, culled from the Arabic sources, may be 

found in Jawād ʿAli, 

al-Mufaṣṣal fi Tārīkh al-ʿArab qabl al-Islam (Beirut, 1971), VII, 347–64.


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

through some of the main cities of western Arabia: Najrān, in the south; Mecca, in 

the center; and Yathrib/Medina, in the north.


3. The caravans that took this long route traveled through difficult and dan-

gerous terrain and needed protection, guides, and provisions, both while they were 

still in the Peninsula and after they crossed the Byzantine frontier at the southern 

portion of Palaestina Tertia.21


4. The prosperity of the route depended to a great extent on who controlled 

South Arabia in this tumultuous century. In the first part of the sixth century, 

the Ḥimyarites, under a Judaizing king, were unfriendly toward Byzantium. For 

some fifty years after the Ethiopian occupation, ca. 520, Arabia became a Christian 

country and was very friendly toward Byzantium. After 570 and until the rise of 

Islam, it was under Persian domination, but that political shift does not seem to 

have affected the flow of merchandise from South Arabia to Byzantium. 


The Ghassānids contributed substantially to this long-distance trade in west-

ern Arabia. 


1. The Ghassānids could be most helpful since they originated from the 

Arabian Peninsula—specifically, from South Arabia, with which they maintained 

ties—and they belonged to a large, powerful, and influential tribal group, the Azd, 

which had settled at various strategic sites on this trade route.


2. While the caravans were traveling in Byzantine territory, the Ghassānids 

exercised more immediate control over them and could provide even more sub-

stantial help, both because Justinian extended their power and influence to the 

whole of the diocese and because he established in the southern portion of Oriens 

a virtual dyarchy, composed of the famous Arethas in the Provincia Arabia and 

his brother, the very efficient Abū Karib, as the phylarch of Palaestina Tertia. Even 

more remarkable, the Byzantines endowed them with unusual responsibilities in 

handling the taxes imposed on foreign traders.


As noted above, the three principal centers through which caravans passed on their 

way from South Arabia to Oriens were Najrān, Mecca, and Yathrib/Medina. In 

all of these centers, the Ghassānids had a strong presence and were on good terms 

with the Arab inhabitants.


Najrān. The Ghassānids most probably had settled in that city during their 

wanderings from South Arabia to Oriens. The Arabs who ruled the city, the 

Balḥārith, were Azd, like the Ghassānids, although some genealogists describe 

them as affiliated with Madhhij. Around a.d. 520 the Najrānites appealed to 


21  See M. Marqaten, “Dangerous Trade Routes: On the Plundering of Caravans in the pre-Islamic 

Near East,” 

Aram 8 (1996), 213–36.


The Ghassānids and International Trade Routes

the Ghassānid king, Jabala, at his headquarters in Jābiya to help them against the 

Ḥimyarite king, Yūsuf; indeed, the Ghassānids may have participated in the expe-

dition that finally toppled Yūsuf. Ever since the Ethiopian victory, the Ghassānids 

were on the best of terms with Najrān, which they viewed as the Arabian city 

of martyrs. And when their king Mundir fell out with the emperor Maurice in 

a.d. 582, the Ghassānid phylarchs for a short time left the service of Byzantium; 

some of them went all the way to Najrān in South Arabia.22 Najrān was the most 

important urban Arab center in the Peninsula. In addition to its being a major car-

avan hub and a fertile oasis with a flourishing agrarian economy, it was an indus-

trial center noted for its leather work.23 Its caravan leaders and merchants must 

have been very welcome in Ghassānland, as its poets were.24


Mecca. The Ghassānid presence in Mecca was represented by two groups 

of allies, or 

halīfs. (1) The Khuzāʿa, who settled in Mecca and belonged to the 

Azd, had ruled Mecca before Quṣayy transferred its control to the Quraysh. 

They remained a power even after they had lost the rule. (2) The well-known 

Quraysh clan of Banū-Asad ibn ʿAbd al-ʿUzzā included Khadīja, the first wife of 

the Prophet Muḥammad. 


The Quraysh had some important relations with Byzantium. Quṣayy was 

aided by Byzantium when he seized Mecca, evicted the Khuzāʿa, and relieved them 

of their custodianship of the Kaʿba. In the sixth century ʿUthman ibn al-Ḥuwayrith, 

a Meccan who belonged to the clan of Banū-Asad, unsuccessfully attempted to 

become Byzantium’s representative in Mecca in what would have marked a turn-

ing point in Byzantine-Meccan relations. By the end of the century, Mecca was the 

main caravan city of western Arabia.25


Yathrib/Medina. Even closer to the Ghassānids than the Najrānites and 

Khuzāʿa were the Arabs of Medina, the Aws and the Khazraj groups, Banū-

Qayla. The Ghassānids had tarried with them on the last leg of their wanderings, 

before they crossed the Roman 

limes. These two Arab groups were so close to the 

Ghassānids that they always took pride in that affinity, even when they adopted 

Islam after the Prophet Muḥammad emigrated to Medina. The close relationship 


22  On all this, see the present writer, “Najrān,” 

EI2, V, 271–72, and “Najrān,” in Encyclopaedia of the 

Qurān, ed. J. D. McAuliffe (Leiden, 2003), III, 500–501. 


23  See L. Massignon, “Le rôle économique du Najrān,” in “La Mubāhala de Medine et l’hyperdule 

de Fatima,” 

Opera Minora, ed. Y. Moubarac (Beirut, 1963), I, 550–72.


24  On the Najrān poet Yazīd at the Ghassānid court, see “Music and Song in Najrān” below in Part 

II, Chapter 8. Riding parties are attested in South Arabia, in the verse of Ḥumayd ibn Thawr: he com-

pares the white tops of the mountains of Kullān/Kallān to the white robes worn by the Ghassānid rid-

ers or caravaneers—Arabic 

arākīb, plural of urkūb, riders of camels or horses. For the verse, see Bakri, 

Muʿ jam (Cairo, 1951), IV, 1133–34. On Byzantium and Najrān, see BAFIC, 360–76.


25  On Mecca in the two centuries before the rise of Islam and on its Byzantine connection, see 

BAFIC, 350–60.


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

between the Arabs of Medina and the Ghassānids may be sketched as follows. 

(1) The Ghassānids came to the rescue of the city’s Arabs when their chief, Mālik 

ibn al-Ajlān, invoked their aid against the Jews of Medina. (2) One of the Aws—

namely, Ibn al-Mughīra—actually became a commander in the Ghassānid army 

and had the Usays inscription carved to commemorate that service. (3) The Aws 

also served in a.d. 554 at the famous battle of Chalcis against the Lakhmids, cel-

ebrated by ʿAlqama in his panegyric on the Ghassānid Arethas.26 Medina was an 

important caravan station and, unlike Mecca, also a fertile oasis in which agricul-

ture flourished. It was made even more important by its Jewish inhabitants, whose 

skill as ironsmiths and jewelers ensured that it was an industrial center as well.


This strong presence of Ghassānids on the West Arabian route and their influ-

ential connections provide useful context for discussing the problems that attended 

the caravan trade within the Peninsula. The caravans that crossed the long dis-

tance from South Arabia to Oriens had to pass through inhospitable and dangerous 

regions,27 inhabited by Arab tribes who were indispensable for the smooth running 

of this international trade. They were paid to perform essential services for these 

caravans: (1) they acted as escorts, offering protection from the attacks of hostile 

tribesmen, who would have been attracted by the rich booty they could get from 

the caravans; (2) they guided the caravans along paths where such clear Roman 

strata as those in Oriens did not exist; and (3) they supplied them with provisions.


The dangers that attended the journeys along these routes can be illustrated by 

one of the 

ayyām, the battle-days of the Arabs in pre-Islamic times: Ḥarb al-Fijār, 

the “Sacrilegious War,” so called because it broke out in the holy months of pagan 

times, when war was forbidden.28 Although this war involved a caravan not of the 

Ghassānids but of their Lakhmid enemies, it is instructive. The war broke out late 

in the sixth century, over a caravan that was dispatched by Nuʿmān (d. 602), the 

Lakhmid ruler of Ḥīra, to the inter-Arab fair of ʿUkā


z near Mecca. A tribesman 

from Kināna, a group related to Quraysh, the tribe of the Prophet Muḥammad, 

murdered the caravan leader and took possession of it. War ensued between the 

two groups, the Quraysh/Kināna and the Hawāzin, centered between Mecca 

and Ṭāʾif. According to one account, its many encounters stretched over four 

years before peace was concluded. A detailed description of one of these encoun-

ters, Yawm Nakhla,29 provides some relevant data on this trans-Arabian trade.  

(1) The caravan is called 

laṭīma, the technical term for the camels of the caravan 


26  On Medina, see W. M. Watt, 

EI2, s.v. “al-Madīna.” On the Ghassānid connection, see BASIC 

II.1, 18; 

BASIC I.1, 122–23; for ʿAlqama’s ode, see in Part II, Chapter 6, “Clothes.” 


27  See Marqaten, “Dangerous Trade Routes.”


28  On this war, see J. W. Fück, “Fidjār,” 

EI2, II, 883–84.


29  See M. Jād al-Mawlā et al., 

Ayyām al-ʿArab fi al-Jāhiliyya (Cairo, 1969), 327–30.


The Ghassānids and International Trade Routes

that started from Lakhmid Ḥīra.30 (2) It could not have been sent to its destination 

in West Arabia before a.d. 570, the year that the Persian overlords of the Lakhmids 

occupied South Arabia, which under Ethiopian rule had been a Byzantine sphere 

of influence. (3) The caravan was expected to bring from Mecca back to Ḥīra its 

celebrated goods—

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