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praetorium outside the walls of
Ruṣāfa, one can conclude that these structures must have been palatial. The church
at Nitil in the region of Madaba raises the question of whether the famous mansion
in the same region called al-Mushattā (Mshatta), which is anepigraphic, was built
by the Ghassānids (as Rudolph Brünnow had originally suggested).16 Mushattā as
it stands now, with its mosque, is certainly an Umayyad structure. But it may have
been built over a much less impressive Ghassānid structure.
Two other elements in Ghassānid settlements are tombs and gardens, each
discussed in more detail below.
References in the odes of al-Nābigha and Ḥassān suggest that the Ghassānids were
buried not in modest graves but in elaborate tombs, possibly in mausolea when
the deceased was the chief archphylarch. Cemeteries in this Christian period were
no longer outside the cities but inside them; they must have formed part of the
Ghassānid urban space, though their precise location is not clear.
In his most famous ode, the rhyme in
B or bāʾiyya, al-Nābigha refers to two
Ghassānid towns as burial places for two Ghassānid kings.17 The first is Jalliq, one
of the two capitals of the Ghassānids, and the other is Ṣaydāʾ.18 Three localities
had the latter name, and it has been argued that the poet was alluding to Ṣaydāʾ
in the Golan,19 or possibly the biblical Bēth-Saydā. The language of the references
suggests that they were landmarks of which the Ghassānids were proud—most
While al-Nābigha in the
bāʾiyya simply twice mentions the burial, in another
lāmiyya or rhyme in L, he is more expansive.20 The Ghassānid king to whom
14 Ibid., 53, verse 28.
15 Ibid., 106, verse 10.
16 R. E. Brünnow and A. v. Domaszewski, eds.,
Die Provincia Arabia auf grund zweier in den Jahren
1897 und 1898 unternommenen Reisen und der Berichte früherer Reisender (Strassburg, 1909), III,
174–75. See also
BASIC I.1, 526 note 9.
Dīwān al-Nābigha al-Dubyānī, ed. M. Ibrāhīm (Cairo, 1977), 41, verse 6.
18 Discussed at length in
BASIC II.1, 226–28.
19 For this Ṣaydāʾ, see R. Dussaud,
Topographie historique de la Syrie antique et médiévale (Paris, 1927),
Map I, D3, and
al-Muʿ jam al-Jughrāfi li al-Quṭr al-ʿArabi al Sūri, ed. M. Ṭlas (Damascus, 1992), IV, 165.
20 Al-Nābigha devotes five verses to it;
Dīwān, 121, verses 25–29.
The Ghassānid Sedentary Presence
he refers by name, al-Nuʿmān, is buried in the Golan between two towns, Tubnā
and Jāsim.21 Yet despite the three toponyms, al-Nuʿmān’s precise burial site is left
tantalizingly unclear.22 The poet further wishes that the spot continue to have aro-
matics and fragrant flowers around it. This could imply that the tomb was sur-
rounded by a garden. If so, then gardens constituted an element in the construction
of Ghassānid tombs and mausolea, and would have been included in those built
within the limits of cities such as Jalliq and Ṣaydāʾ.
Ḥassān’s ode has only one verse on the tomb of the Ghassānid king Arethas,
son of Māriya.23 It suggests that the tomb was a most unusual one, which became a
Ghassānid landmark and in effect a pilgrimage center for the Ghassānids. The first
hemistich of the verse reads: “The Sons of Jafna [the Ghassānids, his descendants]
are around the tomb of their father.” Ḥassān composed this ode when he was visit-
ing Oriens after its conquest by Islam and was reminiscing about the good old days
at the Ghassānid court. Those who were going around it were not Arethas’ literal
sons but rather Ghassānids who were paying tribute to their king, who had died in
All this suggests that the tomb was more like a mausoleum—a centralized
domed structure that accommodated visitors and his relatives long after his death.
He was probably buried in a sarcophagus (the use of which is discussed below), but
there was certainly an elaborate tombstone reciting his many achievements, not
unlike the epitaph of Imruʾ al-Qays provided by the Namāra inscription in the
fourth century.25 The place of his burial is not clear. A fragment by Labīd, a con-
temporary poet who had knowledge of the Ghassānids, mentioned the day of his
death, Yawm Jalliq, “the Day of Jalliq.”26 Perhaps he was buried in Jalliq, where he
died: in hot countries, to avoid putrefaction burial customarily occurs the day after
death (unless the body is embalmed). But the ode of al-Nābigha clearly suggests
that the elegized king, al-Nuʿmān, was transported from the place of his death back
21 Tubnā is a better reading than Busrā, as Nöldeke cogently argued in
GF, 40 note 1. For Jāsim and
Tubnā, see Maps IV and V respectively in
BASIC II.1, 427, 429.
22 This unspecified place lay between two towns that each contained a Monophysite monastery
associated with the Ghassānid king Arethas, as has been noted in
BASIC II.1, 228–29. So there may
have been some religious significance in the choice of that spot.
Dīwān, I, 74, verse 11.
24 One medieval scholiast, unaware that it was a mausoleum, expressed his surprise that the poet
found it necessary to refer to Arethas’ tomb surrounded by his descendants, and questioned the point
of the reference. Another lauded the poet for the statement, which he understood as a reference to
the Ghassānids as a sedentary group (which they were) and not roaming pastoralists; see Ibn Rashīq
al-ʿUmda fī Maḥasin al-Shiʿr, ed. M. ʿA. al-Ḥamīd (Cairo, 1955), I, 319–20.
25 This inscription was studied in detail in
BAFOC, 31–53, and it appears as the frontispiece of that
26 See Labīd,
Dīwān, ed. I. ʿAbbās (Kuwait, 1962), 266, verses 49–52, discussed in BASIC II.1,
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
to Gaulanitis; so perhaps Arethas, too, was embalmed and carried back to Jābiya,
the more fitting capital for his burial.
In addition to the two poets’ allusions to towns where Ghassānid kings were
buried, the prose sources refer to other burial sites. Jabala, the son of Arethas,
was buried in a martyrion at Qinnasrīn/Chalcis after dying at the famous battle
in a.d. 554.27 A late prose writer speaks of al-Barīṣ, identified near Kiswa, as the
burial place of the Ghassānid Jafna.28 Nevertheless, the Golan was without ques-
tion the main burial place for the dynasty, and their most famous kings must have
been buried in Jābiya.
As for the location of the tombs or mausolea of the Ghassānid royal house,
most were attached to churches. This had been customary for emperors since the
days of Constantine, whose tomb was attached to the Church of the Holy Apostles.
The Ghassānid kings who visited Constantinople must have seen it and that of
Justinian, and tried to imitate this imperial burial practice. The Ghassānid church
at Nitil supports this inference in a most concrete fashion. The Ghassānid phylarch
Thaʿlaba was buried in the church’s subterranean vaulted chamber, the hypogeum
(where his mortal remains are still apparently preserved).29 If a simple phylarch
was honored by burial within the church, such prominent leaders as those elegized
in the two odes must have been similarly honored. Furthermore, that Thaʿlaba’s
burial place was marked by an epitaph on the phylarch30 suggests that the much
more famous phylarchs, such as Arethas, must have been honored with inscrip-
tions detailing their reigns.
Sarcophagi were used in this period for celebrated personages, and the
Ghassānid kings no doubt were buried in them. Support for this hypothesis is
provided by the early Abbasid author al-Jāḥiz, who associates sarcophagi with the
Ghassānids.31 The term he uses is
the Greek ναός rather than the more correct term, σαρκοϕάγος.32
It may be stated with certainty that tombs and mausolea were landmarks
in the Ghassānid landscape or townscape. Within the Ghassānid city or town,
the royal tomb or mausoleum would have been an important landmark, whether
BASIC I.1, 243.
28 See Ibn Saʿīd al-Andalusi,
Nashwat al-Ṭarab, ed. N. ʿA. al-Raḥmān (Amman, 1982), I, 208. The
reliability of this statement remains to be shown, since it came from a very late writer. Al-Barīṣ is identi-
fied as Khān al-Shīḥa, west of Kiswa; see
29 See M. Piccirillo, “The Church of Saint Sergius at Nitl: A Centre of Christian Arabs in the
Steppe at the Gate of Madaba,”
Lib.ann. 51 (2001), 278–80, and the present writer, “The Sixth-Century
Church Complex at Nitl, Jordan: The Ghassānid Dimension,” ibid., 285–92, especially 290–91.
30 For the inscription, see the finispiece of
31 See al-Jāḥiz,
Rasāʾil al-Jāḥiz, ed. A. Hārūn (Cairo, 1964), II, 292.
32 The choice of ναός reflects the law of phonetic facility in Arabic.
The Ghassānid Sedentary Presence
attached to a church or not. Apparently it was built in the midst of a garden, possi-
bly visited by loyal Ghassānids on the anniversary of the death of the archphylarch
and king buried in it. On the tomb, or on the sarcophagus itself, the epitaph for
each Ghassānid would have been inscribed. These tombs could be set against the
background of Byzantine funereal and burial practices of the sixth century.33
One might expect a palace or royal mansion to have a garden and a game preserve,
ist refers to the beauty of the Ghassānids’ gardens.34 Adding credence to this state-
ment is a comment by the author of the
Book of Monasteries, who mentions that
their ecclesiastical structures are located near trees and gardens.35
References to flowers in contemporary poetry on the Ghassānids are many,
suggesting that the garden occupied a space in the Ghassānid cityscape—a con-
clusion that could receive support from one prose account written in late Islamic
times and another that purports to be composed for a Ghassānid king (hence a
contemporary document). These two prose sources apply the terms
hadāʾiq (plural of ḥadīqa) to the Ghassānids’ gardens. This was yet another
area in which Byzantium influenced the Ghassānids, for “gardens were essential
to Byzantine horticulture.”36 The chances then are that Ghassānid mansions and
houses did have gardens, as did their monasteries. A number of references gleaned
from the sources support the argument that gardens were an element in Ghassānid
structures, both secular and religious.
1. Monasteries were woven into the fabric of the urban scene in Ghassānland
cities as well as countryside. Orchards were an essential part of the monastery,
whether urban or rural, as attested by a well-known passage in Iṣfahānī’s special-
ized work on monasteries. He states that in choosing where to build a monastery,
the Ghassānids and other Christian Arabs such as those of Ḥīra and Najrān looked
for sites that abounded in trees, gardens (
33 See A. Sartre, “Tombeaux antiques de Syrie du Sud,”
Syria 60 (1983), 83–99, and idem,
“L’architecture funéraire en Syrie,” in
Archéologie et histoire de la Syrie, vol. 2, La Syrie de l’époque
achéménide à l’avènement de l’Islam, ed. J.-M. Dentzer and W. Orthmann (Saarsbrücken, 1989), 423–
46. More generally, see J. Kyriakakis, “Byzantine Burial Customs,”
Greek Orthodox Theological Review
19 (1974), 37–72, and A. Rush,
Death and Burial in Christian Antiquity (Washington, D.C., 1941).
34 For this prose piece by al-Nābigha, see Abū al-Faraj Iṣfahānī,
al-Aghānī (Beirut, 1958), XV, 124.
35 Abu al-Faraj Iṣfahānī,
Kitāb al-Diyārāt, ed. J. al-ʿAtiyya (London, 1991), 163.
36 See A. Kazhdan, “Gardens,”
ODB, II, 822.
37 See Iṣfahānī,
Kitāb al-Diyārāt, 163. On the similar approach in Byzantium, see A.-M. Talbot,
“Byzantine Monastic Horticulture: The Textual Evidence,” in
Byzantine Garden Culture, ed. A. Little-
wood, H. Maguire, and J. Wolschke-Bulmahn (Washington, D.C., 2002), 37–67.
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
Eden and the Garden of Gethsemane, associated with Jesus in the Gospels, would
have inspired a society so devoted to its Christianity.38
2. That gardens were attached to Ghassānid secular structures, their man-
sions and houses, is demonstrated in a prose piece addressed to one of their kings
by al-Nābigha, who says that the Ghassānid king had the most attractive and
appealing of gardens.39 These apparently had not only fruits but also flowers, to
which the poet refers in his famous ode on the Ghassānids; he describes the scene
on Palm Sunday, when the Ghassānid rulers would be greeted by their maidens
rayḥān, fragrant flowers.40 In his elegy on al-Nuʿmān, the same poet prays that
rayḥān may continue to grace the Ghassānid king’s tomb and wishes that two fra-
grant Arabian flowers called
ḥawdhān and ʿawf may also grace it.41
The Ghassānids’ association with flowers is further confirmed by a prose piece
by Ḥassān, who in early Islamic times often reminisced on Ghassānid entertain-
ment of their guests; he once described how the Ghassānid king Jabala would sit
on a couch under which were scattered leaves of myrtle and jasmine and all sorts of
fragrant flowers.42 The cumulative effect of these references is striking and under-
scores the importance of flowers in Ghassānid life.
38 The only extant reference to a garden in a Christian city and a strictly Christian context involves
Najrān, the Arabian martyropolis. According to the sources, a “Church to the Holy Martyrs and the
Glorious Arethas” was built there on a site that had previously bloomed as a luxuriant garden; see the
present writer in “Byzantium in South Arabia,”
39 See Iṣfahānī,
al-Aghānī, XV, 124, verses 11–12.
Dīwān, 47, verses 25–26.
41 Ibid., 121, verses 27–28.
42 See Iṣfahānī,
al-Aghānī, XVII, 105.
Architecture and Decorative Art
he hiatus in the Arab artistic presence between the Nabataeans and the
Palmyrenes of the Roman period (first century b.c.–third century a.d.) and
the Umayyads in the early Islamic period (seventh century a.d.) can be bridged
by the federate artistic presence in this proto-Byzantine period, especially by the
Ghassānids. This chapter aims at examining the remains of that presence in sixth-
Fortunately, a number of monuments of diverse character enable that pres-
ence to be examined. Ghassānid secular military architecture is represented by
praetorium of Mundir, outside the walls of Sergiopolis;1 secular civil architec-
ture, by a house in Hayyat;2 monastic religious architecture, by the tower at Qaṣr
al-Ḥayr al-Gharbī;3 and church religious architecture, by the church at Nitil in
Trans-Jordan.4 A fifth architectural form, the odeion, has not survived, but the
final section of this chapter argues that it must have existed.
The various ethnic groups in
Oriens Christianus—Armenian, Georgian,
Aramaean, Copt, and Ethiopian—responded to the new faith by enlisting all
forms of art in its service. Each of these peoples developed a distinctive expression
of Christian art; likewise, the Nabataeans of Petra and the Palmyrenes of Tadmur,5
BASIC I.1, 501–5, 129; BASIC II.1, 129–33. Another example of military architecture is
al-Burj (the Tower) of Ḍumayr; see
BASIC I.1, 495–501.
BASIC I.1, 489–94. Hayyat lies to the north of Philippopolis (Shahbāʾ); see Map VII in
BASIC II.2, 433. For the house in late antique Oriens, see the relevant part of C. Castel, M. al-Maqdissi
and F. Villeneuve, eds.,
Les maisons dans la Syrie antique du IIIe millénaire aux débuts de l’Islam, Actes
du Colloque international, Damas, 1992 (Beirut, 1997). The mansion called al-Mushattā in the region
of Madaba may also, in its substrate, represent Ghassānid secular civil architecture; see Chapter 2 above,
with note 15.
BASIC I.1, 258–61; BASIC II.1, 205–11. The tower is the frontispiece of BASIC I.1.
4 See M. Piccirillo, “The Church of Saint Sergius at Nitl: A Centre of Christian Arabs in the
Steppe at the Gate of Madaba,”
Lib.ann 51 (2001), 267–84. The frontispiece and finispiece of BASIC
II.1, as well as the volume’s four color plates, all reflect various facets of this church.
5 On Petra and the Nabataeans, see S. G. Schmid, “The Nabataeans,” in
The Archaeology of Jordan,
ed. B. MacDonald, R. Adams, and P. Bienkowski (Sheffield, 2001), 367–404, especially 403–4; on
byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century
as well as the Umayyads of Damascus, developed an art and architecture peculiar
to themselves. So, did the Ghassānid Arabs, in the same region, do the same? The
question is appropriate, since the Ghassānids served Byzantium a long time and
floruit in the sixth century coincided with the explosion of Christian art in
the capital and the provinces, including the Oriens of the Ghassānids.
The state of surviving manuscripts precludes any definitive answer to this
question, but a number of observations may be made. The Arabic sources of the
later period singled out the Ghassānids of all pre-Islamic dynasties, presenting
them as lovers of building—what a Greek author would have called ϕιλοκτίσται;
thus Ḥamza (d. 961) credited them with a large number of structures of various
types.6 But he could not comment on the structures’ artistic character, since he
had not seen them; he was simply quoting earlier Ghassānid sources, such as the
no longer extant
tures. Another Muslim author, Iṣfahānī, the author of the monumental
referred to the art and architecture of the Ghassānids, as well as to that of the
Lakhmids of Ḥīra and the Balḥāriths of Najrān. In a surviving passage from what
must have been an invaluable source on Christian structures in the Byzantine
biyaʿ (plural of bīʿa, “church”): (1) their extreme height; (2) appoint-
ments made of gold and silver; (3)
sutūr, screens and curtains of brocade; (4) mural
mosaics; and (5) golden ceilings.8 Iṣfahānī lived in Aleppo during the renais-
sance of the Ḥamdānids under Sayf al-Dawla; he both had seen the buildings he
described and read the verses of the poets who had visited these churches. So, the
statements of Ḥamza and Iṣfahānī indicate that the Ghassānids did contribute to
the artistic life of Oriens. And in the artistic development of Christian structures,
Ghassānids of Jābiya surely had an edge over the Lakhmids, since they themselves
were Christian and lived in the shadow not of Persia but of Byzantium, a Christian
empire that itself surpassed Persia’s achievements in art and architecture.
Of these four Ghassānid monuments listed above, the tower of Qaṣr al-Ḥayr
al-Gharbī illustrates the first observation by Iṣfahānī, on the height of Ghassānid
buildings; the church of Nitil, the only surviving Ghassānid structure in which
1997), IV, 238–44. Two issues of
The Nabataeans, 2.1–2 (1990) and Palmyra: History and Archaeology, 7.1 (1995). See also
C. E. Bosworth, “Tadmur,”
EI2, X, 79–80; J. Taylor, Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans
6 See Ḥamza al-Iṣfahānī,
Tārīkh Sinī Mulūk al-Arḍ wa al-Anbiyāʾ, ed. Y. Maskūni (Beirut, 1961),
98–106; Ḥamza is discussed more generally in
BASIC II.1, 306–41.
BASIC II.1, 364–62.
8 See Abū al-Faraj Iṣfahānī,
Kitāb al-Diyārāt, ed. J. al-ʿAṭiyya (London, 1991), 163–64. In his con-
temporary poetry, Ḥassān documents some of these features, such as the height of their buildings; see
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