Sixth century


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Dīwān Ḥassān ibn Thābit, ed. W. ʿArafāt, Gibb Memorial New Series 25 (London, 1971), I, 316, verse 8.

279

Architecture and Decorative Art 

some artistic features have survived, illustrates his fourth observation, on mosaics. 

So, one can conclude that Iṣfahānī’s passage contains some measure of truth. Some 

individual points can be made about three of the monuments. 

 

1. The 



praetorium of Mundir at Ruṣāfa/Sergiopolis. This structure may be 

analyzed within the context of military architectural monuments of sixth-cen-

tury Byzantine Oriens, an approach supported by the discussion in 

BASIC II.1 

of its various functions during the phylarchate of Mundir in the second half of 

the sixth century. An architectural historian has recently challenged the view (first 

presented by Jean Sauvaget) that the structure was a 



praetorium, reverting to the 

older position that it was a church, but two arguments can be raised here in favor of 

the newer orthodoxy.9 First, Mundir was a pious, enthusiastic Christian; he would 

not, in order to blazon forth his own glory, have engraved a slogan from the hip-

podrome—ΝΙΚΑ Η ΤΥΧΗ10—in the holiest part of a church, the apse. Second, 

Ruṣāfa was well-supplied with churches within its walls; it and its saint needed not 

another church but a 

praetorium as protection from the pastoralists who used to 

raid such Christian shrines, attracted by their treasures. 

 

2. The monastery tower of Qaṣr al-Ḥayr al-Gharbī. This tower is impressive in 



its height and in the strength of its masonry, and it dominates what must have been 

an extensive settlement in sixth-century Oriens. In the preceding volume, 



BASIC 

II.1, it was set within the larger context of Ghassānid religious architecture.11

 

In this context it is enough to draw attention to two features. First, the height 



and the strength of the tower clearly imply that Ghassānid structures were impres-

sively monumental. Second, the Umayyad occupation of former Ghassānid sites, 

such as this one, has sometimes obscured the original structure beyond recogni-

tion. However, the tower remains an outstanding example of the Ghassānid sub-

strate in later Umayyad structures.

 

3. The church at Nitil. The remains of Ghassānid structures such as the 



prae-

torium at Ruṣāfa and the tower at Qaṣr al-Ḥayr allow only a superficial survey of 

the possible Ghassānid contribution to the art and architecture of the period and 

the region. Although they have survived, one is dilapidated and the other stands 

in splendid isolation. Scarcely any other Ghassānid building has survived except 

as a toponym and possible site. This circumstance explains the importance of the 

 

9  See J. Sauvaget, “Les Ghassānides et Sergiopolis,” 



Byzantion 14 (1939), 115–30—followed 

by C. Mango, 



Byzantine Architecture (New York, 1976), 94–95, and challenged by G. Brands, “Der  

sogenannte Audienzsaal des Mundir in Resafa,” 



Damaszener Mitteilungen 10 (1998), 211–35. See the 

present writer in the festschrift for T. Mathews, forthcoming.

 

10 See 


BASIC I.1, 501–2, and note 350.

 

11  On Qaṣr al-Ḥayr al-Gharbī, see 



BASIC II.1, 203–11; on Ghassānid religious architecture, see 

143–219. The long discussion there focuses mainly on identifying and listing the churches and monas-

teries related to the Ghassānids, which have survived mostly as toponyms rather than actual structures. 

For their possible influence in the Roman Occident and the Islamic Orient, see 213–15.



280

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

church at Nitil: though it is in ruins, its plan is traceable and some of its mosaics 

have survived. It remains the sole example of a Ghassānid church, and so to recover 

the appearance of their churches one must draw on literary evidence. Such efforts 

will not diminish the value to the researcher of the church of Nitil, which should 

be a touchstone for testing the validity of the conclusions derived from other 

sources.12 

Ghassānid Churches

As frequently noted in this volume, the most significant fact in the religious life 

of the Ghassānids was the martyrdom of their relatives in Najrān ca. a.d. 520. 

It profoundly influenced their thought and action, and the translation of the 

relics of these martyrs to Oriens affected the form of Ghassānid churches. This 

translation occasioned the rise of pilgrimage centers in Najrān and Maḥajja in 

Trachonitis, where the relics were deposited. Even more importantly, it encouraged 

the Ghassānids to include a reliquary or martyrion in their churches, which would 

gain added sanctity from the relics of their recently martyred relatives. Indeed, the 

excavation of the church at Nitil has revealed that a reliquary or martyrion had a 

place in its architectural plan.13 Should more Ghassānid churches be discovered

they are likely to contain a martyrion as an important element in their architecture.

 

Their other distinguishing features remain unknown, since to date no 



Ghassānid church other than the church of Nitil has been discovered or exca-

vated. But in view of the importance of religion in the life of the Ghassānids, many 

churches must have been built during the episcopate of Theodore. One can therefore 

hypothesize that Jābiya, their capital, had a more impressive church than the one in 

Nitil. This church in Jābiya was probably the seat of their newly appointed bishop, 

Theodore, and thus was something of a “cathedral” church.14 Its architectural fea-

tures, which must have reflected those of a sixth-century Byzantine cathedral (possi-

bly nuanced to suggest a partiality to Arab architecture), remain unknown.15 Three 

 

12  Long before the church at Nitil was excavated, I wrote an article suggesting that the form of 



Ghassānid churches might have reflected the Ghassānids’ background as Arabs and Monophysites. The 

dome would have reminded them of the 



qubba, a conical tentlike structure used by the Arabs on impor-

tant occasions, while the ambulatory would have reflected the importance of circumambulation in the 

religious life of the Arabs. For these features and others, see my “Ghassānid Religious Architecture,” in 

Mémorial Monseigneur Joseph Nasrallah, ed. P. Canivet and J.-P. Rey-Coquais (Damascus, 2006), 115–38.

 

13  See Piccirillo, “The Church of Saint Sergius at Nitl,” 278. For a picture of the martyrion, see ibid., 



photo no. 28. To the martyrion of the church at Nitil may be added that of Ḥarrān (Trachonitis), dedi-

cated to St. John by the Ghassānid phylarch Sharāḥīl. For its being a martyrion in the literal sense and 

not just an 

ecclesia, see BASIC I.1, 330–31. 

 

14 See 



BASIC II.1, 149–50.

 

15  Rudolf Brünnow, who visited Jābiya more than a century ago, after recovering a sculpture from 



its ruins vouched for its “former magnificent buildings”; see “I. Mitteilungen,” 

ZDPV 19 (1896), 18 (dis-

cussed in 



BASIC II.1, 103–4).

281

Architecture and Decorative Art 

pieces of evidence confirm that the church at Nitil, attractive as it was, did not com-

pare to other, more architecturally advanced, Ghassānid churches.

 

1. Iṣfahānī, as cited above, refers in specific detail to the beauty of the 



Ghassānid churches. He notes their height, the mosaics on their walls, and the gold 

and silver of their appointments and ceilings. It is natural to assume that a “cathe-

dral” church in the Ghassānid capital had all these features.

 

2. Yāqūt mentions one particular church, the votive church at Najrān in 



Trachonitis, a Ghassānid-related foundation. Impressed by it, he eloquently calls 

attention to its splendor and describes it as “great, beautiful, built upon marble 

columns and decorated with mosaics.”16 Columns, an element not included in 

Iṣfahānī’s general characterization, may thus be added to the speculative recon-

struction of the church of Jābiya.

 

3. Conclusions can also be drawn by analogy from the cathedral of Bostra,17 



which is so close to Jābiya, geographically and otherwise, that it could have been 

the model for the principal Ghassānid church there. This cathedral was of special 

interest to the Monophysites and to the Ghassānids in particular, since Bostra had 

been the capital of the Nabataean Arabs and now was the capital of the 



provincia 

with which the Ghassānid archphylarch had close connections. In addition, it 

was the repository of the insignia of the Ghassānid king.18 In a.d. 512 the cathe-

dral was consecrated with great pomp during the reign of the Monophysitically 

inclined Anastasius.19 In attendance were celebrated Monophysite figures, 

such as the soon-to-be patriarch of Antioch, Severus; Philoxenos of Mabboug; 

and most likely Jabala, the then Ghassānid king and phylarch—his presence is 

especially probable in light of the cathedral’s dedication to Saints Sergius and 

Bacchus, the first of whom was the patron saint of the Ghassānids. It was there 

in November 513 that Severus the Monophysite patriarch of Antioch was conse-

crated, when he delivered his cathedral homily denouncing Chalcedon and the 

Tome of Leo.20

 

The cathedral of Bostra was domed, strongly suggesting that the “cathedral” 



of Jābiya likewise had a dome. This leads the argument back to the question of what 

other features this church in Jābiya could have had that reflected the Ghassānids’ 

 

16  For the quotation from Yāqūt, see 



Muʿ jam al-Buldān (Beirut, 1957), IV, 758, and the present 

writer, “Byzantium in South Arabia,” 



DOP 33 (1979), 79. 

 

17  For the cathedral of Bostra, see G. G. Guidi, “Problemi di recostruzione della chiesa tetraconca 



dei SS. Sergio, Bacco, e Leonzio a Bosra,” in 

La Siria Araba da Roma a Bisanzio, ed. R. F. Campanata 

(Ravenna, 1989), 133–70; R. F. Campanata, “Bosra; chiesa dei SS. Sergio, Bacco e Leonzio; I nuovi 

ritrovamenti (1988–1989),” in 

La Syrie de Byzance à l’Islam: VIIe–VIIIe siècles, ed. P. Canivet and J. P.  

Rey-Coquais (Damascus, 1992), 173–78.

 

18 See 


BASIC I.1, 469.

  19 See BASIC I.2, 699.

 

20 Ibid.



282

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

character as both Arab and Christian. On the basis of the foregoing analysis, it is 

possible to say that it probably had a dome, a martyrion, and an ambulatory.21 

The 

Ōdeion/Odeum

The importance of poetry in the life of the Ghassānids both as an instrument of pol-

icy and as a form of entertainment strongly suggests that a special venue was nec-

essary for its performance. As demonstrated in 



BASIC II.1, the Ghassānids were 

great builders of many structures related to the various aspects of their lives as Arabs, 

Monophysites, and 

foederati. It would therefore be surprising if there was not in their 

urban landscape a structure especially designed for poetry recitals, particularly since 

it would also have been used for oratory and for the performance of some types of 

music, sometimes accompanying the recitals of poems.22 Such a structure would have 

been necessary, in view of the importance accorded by the Arabs to the art of poetry 

recitation, which they called 



inshād.23 Although its nature is not entirely clear, it evi-

dently was an art highly prized, and the reciter, the 



munshid, must have been a per-

forming artist who resembled the Homeridae and the rhapsodes of classical Greece.24 

In those days when the culture was largely oral, such performances must have taken 

place frequently, encouraged by the poet himself and welcomed by an audience that 

appreciated poetry recitals, an Arab partiality that has persisted to the present day.25

 

The importance of providing the poet or the orator with an appropriate 



setting was recognized by the peninsular Arabs. The famous Christian orator 

Quss ibn Sāʿida delivered his speech—heard by the prophet Muḥammad—while 

mounted on a camel.26 A red leather dome used to be set up for the poet al-Nābigha 

 

21  For the inclusion of an ambulatory, see note 12, above. 



 

22  For example, the Ghassānid king Arethas insisted that he would listen to a panegyric by the 

poet ʿAlqama only when the latter chanted it; see Abū Naṣr al-Fārābi, 

Kitāb al-Mūsīqī al-Kabīr, ed. G. 

Khashaba and M. al-Ḥifnī (Cairo, 1967), 73. 

 

23  An attempt to recover the secrets of 



inshād was made in recent times; see the work of the 

Franciscan Father Auguste Vicini, translated into Arabic by I. Salim and I. Ḥusayni as 



Fann Inshād 

al-Shiʿr al-ʿArabi (Jerusalem, 1945); see also D. F. Reynolds, Heroic Poets, Poetic Heroes: The Ethnography 

of Performance in an Arabic Oral Epic Tradition (Ithaca, 1995). Plato’s dialogue Ion (ca. 390 b.c.) pro-

vides a wealth of information on similar recitation in classical Greece; see B. Gentili, 



Poetry and Its 

Public in Ancient Greece: From Homer to the Fifth Century (Baltimore, 1988).

 

24  Much attention has been given to 



riwāya and rāwī, usually considered the transmitter of pre-

Islamic poetry, but not to the 



munshid and to inshād, the artistic recitation of poetry. The verb from which 

rāwī is derived, rawā or rawiya, primarily signifies not to transmit but “to drink to satiety,” though the 

terms 


rāwī and munshid could be used interchangeably and the rāwī is often the munshid. When the poet 

had an unattractive voice (as did the ʿAbbāsid poet Abū-Tammām) or a weak voice (as did Ahmad Shawqi, 

in modern times), a 

munshid recited his poetry. On rāwī, see R. Jacobi, “Rāwi,” EI2, VIII, 466–46.

 

25  Whereas the Greeks perfected other forms of artistic expression such as drama, the Arabs had 



only poetry; hence the intensity of their interest in it and response to it as entertainment, and their need 

to provide an appropriate venue for its recitation.

 

26  For Quss mounted on a camel, see al-Jāḥi



˙

z, 


al-Bayān wa al-Tabyīn, ed. A. Hārūn (Cairo, 1961),  

I, 308–9. On the delivery of speeches by pre-Islamic Arab orators, who sometimes leaned on a bow, see 370.



283

Architecture and Decorative Art 

in the fair of ʿUkā

˙

z, near Mecca, to judge the relative worth of poems presented 



to him.27 The Prophet himself let Ḥassān, his poet laureate, recite poetry at the 

mosque in Medina,28 sometimes from the pulpit. Whatever structures Byzantium 

had for artistic performances of poetry and music must have strongly influenced 

the Ghassānids. It is therefore necessary to sketch briefly the rise and develop-

ment of the 

ōdeion in late antiquity, before its adoption by the Ghassānids.29

 

In fifth-century Athens, Pericles erected at the foot of the Acropolis the first 



ōdeion, a rectangular roofed structure for musical performances; and Herodes 

Atticus reprised the work of Pericles in the second century a.d. After being a sepa-

rate structure in Athens, the 

ōdeion became part of a complex of two structures: the 

theatron proper and the ōdeion, distinguished from the theatron by being smaller 

and roofed.30

 

The Oriens of the Ghassānids contained a remarkable number of theaters, 



favored by the Rhomaic Arabs long before the Ghassānids; many were built in 

the Nabataean towns and cities, such as Petra and Bostra (the two capitals), and 

in Elusa in the Negev.31 Before them, the great Herod, representing the Edomite 

Arabs,32 filled his domain with Graeco-Roman structures—theaters among them. 

In the Byzantine world of late antiquity, there was a reaction against the theater 

and other pagan entertainments. Church Fathers and imperial legislation frowned 

on them33—especially on the mime, the bawdy farce to which the comedy of classi-

cal Greece had degenerated.

 

The Ghassānids were settled in a region in Oriens dotted with towns in which 



many theaters were to be seen,34 some of which still presented mimes. The Maiumas 

festival was still being celebrated in Oriens in the fifth century.35 The Ghassānids 

 

27  On Nābigha at ʿUkā



˙

z, see Ibn Qutayba, 



al-Shiʿr wa al-Shuʿarāʾ, ed. A. M. Shākir (Cairo, 1966),  

I, 167–68. 

 

28  On Ḥassān’s recitation of his poetry in the Medina mosque, see Abū al-Faraj Iṣfahānī, 



al-Aghānī 

(Beirut, 1955), IV, 148. 

 

29  Theaters have received more attention than odeia in scholarship on this early Byzantine period; 



the 

ODB has no entry titled “odeum.” 

 

30  On this history, see the long footnote in A. Segal, 



Theatres in Roman Palestine and Provincia 

Arabia (Leiden, 1995), 85 note 187; see also 85 note 185.

 

31 That 



theatron became teiatra in Nabataean also indicates how common the buildings were 

(ibid., 7).

 

32  On the Arabness of the Edomites, see the present writer in 



BAFIC, 240–43, further treated in 

“The Ethnic Origin of the Edomites,” a paper delivered at the Tenth International Conference on the 

History and Archaeology of Jordan, held in Washington, D.C., in May 2007 (forthcoming in 

ADAJ). 

 

33  See A. Karpozilos, “Theater,” 



ODB, III, 2031.

 

34  These included Bostra and Petra in the Provincia Arabia, Elusa in Palestina Tertia, and cities of 



the Decapolis close to the Ghassānids such as Pella, Skythopolis, and Gerasa; all are discussed in Segal

Theatres in Roman Palestine and Provincia Arabia. 

 

35  For this festival, orgiastic and licentious in nature, see “Maiumas,” in 



Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der 

classischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. A. F. von Pauly and G. Wissowa (Stuttgart, 1930), XIV, cols. 610–12. 

284

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

rejected the theater or whatever survived of its performance in the sixth century; 

as good Monophysites, they viewed the mime and the theater as un-Christian. But 

they embraced the 

ōdeion as a venue for poetry recitals, oratory, and music, conso-

nant with their ethos and mores as Arabs. These contrary attitudes must have been 

reflected architecturally in the separation of the odeum—a venue for the perfor-

mance of their favorite art, poetry—from the theater.36

 

The case for the existence of a Ghassānid odeum, or some structure that was 



used as an odeum, rests mostly on references in the verses of Ḥassān. These refer-

ences in his 



Dīwān may first be set against the general background of entertain-

ment venues in Ghassānland.

 

The tavern was a place where poetry could be heard, sung by the songstress, 



the 

qayna, to the accompaniment of a musical instrument, such as the mizhar

Another venue was offered by the three fairs held in Ghassānland, at Dayr 

Ayyūb, Adriʿāt, and Bostra; they, like the pan-Arab 

sūq of ʿUkā

˙

z near Mecca, 



featured cultural activities as well as commercial transactions.37 The tavern and 

the fair, however, were frequented by the common people and thus must be dis-

tinguished from the royal Ghassānid 

odeia; for both types of location, Ḥassān is 

the principal source. 

 

In one couplet, Ḥassān commends the union of song and poetry.38 Song is the 



miḍmār of poetry, the venue where it should be recited, just as the miḍmār is the site 

where horses are trained and their strength is developed. More crucial evidence of an 



ōdeion/odeum in Ghassānland is a verse which says that after drinking wine in the 

tavern, he would then listen to song in 



buyūt al-rukhām, “marble mansions.”39

 

36  Although there are references to 



ōdeia as independent structures in Italy, Greece, and Cyrenaica, 

those in the cities surrounding the Ghassānids in the Provincia Arabia and in the Near East in general 

do not seem to have been separated from 

theatra. The Ghassānids either separated the two themselves or 

copied 


ōdeia that had already been detached, as more suitable on Christian doctrinal grounds. For the 

ōdeion in Italy, Greece, and Cyrenaica, see Segal, Theatres in Roman Palestine and Provincia Arabia, 85 

note 187, which also discusses the thirty theaters in the Provincia Arabia and Palestine that apparently 

contained an 

ōdeion; on the latter point, see also A. Retzleff, “Near Eastern Theaters in Late Antiquity,” 

Phoenix 57 (2003), 115–38. For an ōdeion in Gerasa, see A. Retzleff and A. M. Mjely, “Seat Inscriptions 

in the Odeum at Gerasa,” 



Bulletin of the American School of Oriental Research 335 (2004), 37–47.

 

37  On the fairs, see above, Part I, Chapter 4. 



 

38 Ḥassān, 



Dīwān, I, 420. The second verse in the couplet suggests that setting verse to music and 

singing it is the true test of its quality, just as fire separates false from true silver.



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