Sixth century

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Arabische Paläographie, II, 28–30.


8  For the two inscriptions, see 

BASIC I.1, 117–24, 325–31.


9  Its development recalls the similar development of the other style, the Satranjīli in Ḥīra, the 

Estrangela, which, according to one etymology, now the regnant, is related to 

Injīl, the Gospel, and 

not to the στρογγύλη proposed by Assemani, and followed by some other scholars. This conclusion sup-

ports members of the French school, who have argued for the derivation of the Arabic script not from 


The Arabic Script

The Development of Calligraphy

Arabic calligraphy is associated with Islam, and there is no doubt that it flowered 

and was perfected in the Islamic period, when Muslims were eager to make highly 

visible the word of God.10 Yet its roots may be traced to pre-Islamic times. In that 

period, too, religion was crucial to the development of calligraphy: Christianity 

stimulated and inspired efforts to make the Arabic script not only functional but 

also attractive, to glorify the word of God. This section explores the possibility that 

Arabic calligraphy had its roots among the Ghassānid 



Just as the term 

qawīm in the Dīwān of al-Nābigha (discussed in Chapter 4) 

indicates the rise of a theological literature, so another surviving term suggests that 

the pre-Islamic period witnessed the beginning of Arabic calligraphy. In the south-

ern sacristy of the church of St. George on Mount Nebo in the Madaba region is 

a mosaic, datable to a.d. 536 (see frontispiece). It contains the name of the bene-

factor in Greek, Σαώλα, and to its left is a Semitic phrase that has been correctly 

read as 

bi-salām, “in peace” or “with peace.”11 This phrase has often been discussed, 

as scholars have sought to identify its language and the variety of its script.12 

Although the phrase stands alone, it has great significance and deserves a thorough 

treatment, since it represents the first attested appearance of the Arabic script in its 

calligraphic expression; other examples that no doubt existed have been lost, along 

with almost all Christian Arab monuments. 


Supporting the Arabic character of the term is the ethnography of central 

Trans-Jordan and the Madaba region.13

Nabataean but from Syriac; see, e.g., F. Briquel-Chatonnet, “De l’araméen à l’arabe: Quelques réflexions 

sur la genèse de l’écriture arabe,” in 

Scribes et manuscrits du Moyen-Orient, ed. F. Déroche and F. Richard 

(Paris, 1997), 136–49; cf. Gründler, “Arabic Script.”


10  For Islamic calligraphy, see A. Schimmel, 

Calligraphy and Islamic Culture (New York, 1984), 

with its bibliography on Islamic calligraphy (161 note 5), and S. S. Blair, 

Islamic Calligraphy (Edinburgh, 



11  For the mosaic and its inscription, see S. J. Saller and B. Bagatti, 

The Town of Nebo (Khirbet  

el-Mekhayyat) with a Brief Survey of Other Ancient Christian Monuments in Transjordan, Publications 

of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum 7 (Jerusalem, 1949), 171. The authors rightly understood that 

Σαώλα is a proper name in the vocative but did not see that the name is Saul (the original name of the 

apostle Paul).


12  For the phrase as Arabic, see E. A. Knauf, “Bemerkungen zur frühen Geschichte der arabischen 


Orientalia 53 (1984), 456–58. Moreover, the crucial (second) consonant in the phrase is 

not a 

shīn, which appears in varieties of Aramaic, but a sīn, as appropriate for Arabic. Paleographic oddi-

ties such as 

lam aliph, which looks like the two sides of an isosceles triangle, is explicable by the medium: 

the phrase 

bi-salām is not written with a pen on some writing material but appears in a mosaic composed 

of various hard cubes. The mosaicist may also have taken liberties in expressing the 

lam aliph, perhaps 

wishing to emphasize symmetry.

    The leading Arabist/Semiticist of the twentieth century, on whom the mantle of Nöldeke fell, the 

late Professor Franz Rosenthal, gave his support to these arguments for the Arabness of the phrase in a 

personal letter to the author, dated 6 March 1987.


13  On the Arabness of the region, see 

BAFIC, 322–24.


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century


1. Its inhabitants were the Arabs of Nabataea before Nabataea was annexed 

by Trajan in a.d. 106.


2. The Greek and Roman elements in Trans-Jordan were to be found mostly 

in the various cities of the Decapolis, 

not in Madaba (and thus not in Mount Nebo).


3. The Arabness of this particular Madaba region is vouched for as early as the 

second century b.c.: I Maccabees calls its inhabitants the Bani Jambri (ʿAmr).14


4. The Madaba region had formed part of the phylarchate of the Salīḥids, the 


foederati in the fifth century. This was now territory of the Ghassānids, whose 

headquarters were in the Provincia Arabia, which included the Madaba region.


5. That this is not an argument from the general to the particular is made 

plain by an examination of the mosaics of Madaba. Their many inscriptions have 

preserved the names of donors and patrons of these works of art, and they clearly 

reflect a Rhomaic Christian 

Arab society; though it adopted biblical and Graeco-

Roman names of saints, many of the names have retained their indubitably Arab 



As an expression of Arabic calligraphy, 

bi-salām sheds new light on Arabic 

calligraphy in the Islamic period and suggests its pre-Islamic roots. Two of the 

questions raised by this inscription are the incipience of pre-Islamic Arabic callig-

raphy and the role of the Ghassānids, if any, in it.


1. The Rhomaic Christianized Arabs and the 

foederati were living in a region 

that witnessed an explosion of Christian art in the sixth century, and this progres-

sion from functional script to decorative calligraphy was a natural manifestation of 

a general artistic vibrancy, especially as both Syriac and Greek scripts were develop-

ing calligraphically to express God’s word.16


2. The area in which 

bi-salām was found had been part of the Nabataean 

kingdom, annexed in a.d. 106 by the Romans, when Nabataea became Arabia 

Provincia. In the sixth century, the Ghassānids established a strong presence in 


14  For “the sons of Jambri,” see I Maccabees 9:35–42 in 

The New Oxford Annotated Bible, ed.  

B. Metzger and R. Murphy (New York, 1991), 208 AP. For “the sons of Jambri” as an Arab Nabataean 

group, see ibid., note to 9:35. 


15  For one of these Arab mosaicists, “the son of Zayd/Zada,” see 

BAFIC, 323 and note 9. Fr. Michele 

Piccirillo sent me the MS of a short article, titled “Jordan Mosaicists,” which identifies at least four in 

this period who are recognizably Arab: Soel, Naum, Obed, and Salaman.

    Arab benefactors of churches are clearly evidenced by such names as Ouadia, Baricha, Soleos, and 

Robab in one of the churches of this region; in an inscription in the same church appear Arab names such 

as Soleos, Casiseos, Abdalaos, and Obedos. See M. Piccirillo and I. Alliata, 

Umm al-Rasās, Mayfaʿah I: 

Gli scavi del complesso di Santo Stefano (Jerusalem, 1994), 243, 259. 


16  Syriac calligraphy is more important than Greek for the Arab monks of Ghassānid monasteries, 

who had before them mostly Syriac texts when they were engaged in translation into Arabic. That the 

names of 

twenty Syriac calligraphers of the fifth to seventh centuries are known suggests that the supply 

of those texts was relatively plentiful; for their names, see I. Barṣoum, 

al-Luʾluʾ al-Manthūr (Aleppo, 

1987), 485. 


The Arabic Script

the region and became a new Arab demographic layer. So who is responsible for 

bi-salām, the Nabataean Arabs or the Ghassānid foederati?


a. After the Edict of Caracalla in a.d. 212, the Nabataean Arabs became 

Rhomaioi and were thoroughly assimilated into Graeco-Roman civilization.17 The 

language in which they wrote was Aramaic/Syriac, not Arabic, which they kept 

using in their daily life; Arabic appeared only fitfully in their inscriptions, which 

were written in Aramaic.18 Hence they would have had little interest in developing 

the Arabic script from the functional to the decorative. But it could have been a 

concern of the 

foederati, who were strongly aware of their Arab identity and relied 

on Arabic for their literary language as well as some of their inscriptions. As noted 

above, it was Ghassānid monks who were engaged in pursuits that could have led 

to this development in the script. These monks were conversant with Syriac and 

probably with Greek, and familiar with illuminated manuscripts of Gospels and 

Psalters calligraphically written. These might have inspired them to write the 

new Arabic script in a new artistic idiom; in so doing, they might have converted 

the Arabic script from the functional to the artistic, the calligraphic, as an act of 

piety. It is relevant to recall in this context that 

bi-salām appears in an ecclesiasti-

cal venue, the church of St. George on Mount Nebo. The artistic presence of the 

Ghassānids in this very region of Madaba is now established, following the exca-

vation of the sixth-century Ghassānid church at Nitil. Enough of its mosaics have 

survived to suggest that the Ghassānids were building in the style of Byzantine 

church architecture in Oriens in the sixth century.


b. How did Ghassānid calligraphy reach the church of Mount Nebo, which 

though in the Provincia Arabia, the headquarters of the Ghassānids, was outside 

their phylarchal and federate presence? It was built or endowed by some inhabit-

ants of the 

provincia—the Nabataean Romaic Arabs. There is no great difficulty 

in understanding this process of cultural transference from the 

foederati to the 

Rhomaioi. Both were Arabs, and their affinity was an important fact in the life of 

the Ghassānids. It ensured that in Oriens federate-Rhomaic relations were friendly, 

unlike federate-Roman relations in the Occident, where tensions existed between 

the Germanic federate newcomers and the established peoples of the Roman 

Occident, Roman and other. The Ghassānids meshed smoothly with Nabataean 


17  As an example of their thorough assimilation, three Nabataean Arabs may be mentioned. 

They assumed Greek names, became sophists, and lived in Athens. For Heliodorus, Callinicus, and 

Genethlios, see 

RA, xxii note 9.


18  Aramaic/Syriac was the language of the Nabataean Rhomaioi in their inscriptions and com-

munications. Arabic remained, of course, the language they used in their daily life and in dealing with 

their congeners, who would visit from the Arabian Peninsula. P. K. Hitti described them well: “Arabic 

in speech, Aramaic in writing, Semitic in religion” (

History of Syria, Including Lebanon and Palestine 

[London, 1951], 383–84); Greek can be added to his list.


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

society, as is well documented by the Petra Papyrus, which describes the Ghassānid 

phylarch of Palaestina Tertia, Abū Karib, brother of Arethas, as the arbiter chosen 

to settle a dispute in Sadaqa.19


It is therefore quite possible that the achievement of the Ghassānid monks 

became known to their congeners, the Nabataean Arabs. In this case of the church 

of St. George, the benefactor who endowed the church and had 

bi-salām engraved 

calligraphically in the sacristy of the church must have been a Nabataean Arab, who 

conversed in Arabic frequently; perhaps nostalgia for his native tongue explains 

his desire that the salutation addressed to him be expressed in Arabic, much as 

his Nabataean forebears were accustomed to insert Arabic words and phrases in 

their non-Arabic inscriptions. Perhaps even the Arabicization of the limitrophe by 

the Ghassānids, and its becoming a venue for the recitation of Arabic poetry, may 

have revived in the Nabataean 

Rhomaioi their love for their native language and 

caused one of them, Saola, to have an Arabic phrase engraved in the church that  

he endowed.

*  *  *

Bi-salām concludes the series of three Arabic hapax legomena, following majallat 

(scroll) and 

qawīm (straight). The first two were culled from contemporary poetry 

composed on the Ghassānids and the third from contemporary epigraphy; all illus-

trate Nöldeke’s Law for the scientific reconstruction of the history of the Arabs 

before the rise of Islam. The first suggested the existence of an Arabic Gospel of the 

Ghassānids, the second indicated that some Arabic theological works were com-

posed in the libraries of their monasteries, and the third revealed the beginning of 

Arabic calligraphy among the Arabs of sixth-century Oriens, 

Rhomaioi as well as 



These three terms, in splendid isolation, could not by themselves have yielded 

the conclusions on the contributions of Ghassānid culture just enumerated. But 

when set against the background of the rise of monasticism in Ghassānland, the 

number of Ghassānid monasteries, and their vibrant, activist Christianity, the 

three terms become evidence for the reality of these three facets of Ghassānid cul-

ture, a chapter in Arab cultural history that, far too long, has remained unknown.


19  See above, Part II, Chapter 1, note 2. 


Chivalry: The Birth of  an Ideal


hivalry was hardly a household word in ancient Greece and Rome, but it was 

a vital part of culture in Europe, in the Middle Ages. Its original provenance 

has been a matter of dispute. It certainly appeared in Arabia in pre-Islamic times, 

especially in the sixth century; some have maintained that the European version of 

it can be traced to the Arabs in Spain, a view contested by others.1 The relation of 

Arab chivalry to the Europeans is not the concern of this volume, but its relation 

to the Ghassānids is.


The components of chivalry were present in pre-Islamic Arabia before its 

mature appearance in the sixth century. Its base was Arabic 

murūʾa in its various 

dimensions, which included bravery in war, hospitality, respect for women and for 

honor, and protection of the weak and the orphan.2 When the Arab warrior, who 

was possessed of all those qualities of 

murūʾa, mounted the horse after its advent 

in Arabia, chivalry was born. As the rider became a 

fāris, a “knight” as the term 

was understood later in Europe,3 the horse became an essential component in chiv-

alry, to which it gave its name in Arabic, 

furūsiyya,4 as it did in French (chevalerie), 

Spanish (

caballería), Italian (cavalleria), and German (Rittertum). This horse that 

made chivalry possible was not so well known outside pre-Islamic Arabia; it was 

the Muslim Conquests of the seventh century that made the Arabian famous, after 

it was enlisted in the service of Islam.5


Arabia knew many of these pre-Islamic 

fursān, “knights,” by name, but the 

lord of them all was ʿAntara—called “ʿAntara of the 

fawāris,” the “knights”—who 

not only embodied in his person all the components of chivalry but also became a 


1  See W. B. Ghali, 

La tradition chevaleresque des Arabes (Paris, 1919).


2  For a complete enumeration of these dimensions, see B. Lewis, C. Pellat, and J. Schacht, “Fāris,” 

EI2, II, 800. 


3  Pre-Islamic Arabia never had orders of chivalry comparable to the Knights Hospitallers or the 

Knights Templars, however. The 

futuwwa of later Islamic times, as organized by the caliph al-Nāṣir 

(1181–1223), may be considered the nearest approximation to those European orders; see C. Cahen, 


EI2, II, 961–65, especially 964.


4  On Arab 

furūsiyya, see N. H. al-Qaysi, al-Furūsiyya fi al-Shiʿr al-Jāhili (Baghdad, 1964).


5  And it was hallowed in the Koran; see sura 100.


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

distinguished poet.6 His odes, in which his chivalry is displayed, address both his 

lady love, ʿAbla, and his horse; he engages the latter in something like a dialogue, 

elevating it to the status of a human being.7 ʿAntara became the paragon of Arab 

chivalry in the sixth century.


The Ghassānids were Arabs who hailed from the Peninsula in which chiv-

alry had been born. As Arabs they were possessed of the various components of 

chivalry, but in the sixth century they imparted to it something new: namely, a 

militant spirit of Christianity. Some two centuries earlier, Constantine had mil-

itarized the image of Christ by adding the Christogram to his labarum (impe-

rial standard) and having the cross painted on the shields of his legionaries. The 

Byzantine army had chaplains, and there was a liturgy of war. The Ghassānids were 

soldiers in the service of Byzantium. Although Christianity affected all aspects of 

their life, it did so in a very special way in their wars, particularly those waged 

against the Persians and their inveterate enemies, the Lakhmids. The Ghassānid 

wars against these pagans were a veritable 

militia Christi, fought by milites Christi

This Christian dimension to their wars is reflected not only in their participa-

tion in the campaigns of the Byzantine imperial army, during which religious ser-

vices were regularly held, but also in the special way in which they would invoke 

Christ and Job in combat.8 This dimension was perceived by the Syriac Christian 

sources, which recorded the victory of the Ghassānids with the words 

crux vicit

Thus Ghassānid chivalry developed in the sixth century and was spiritualized by 

Christianity, a process that brought it close to the Christian version of chivalry in 

medieval Europe.


Of all the military encounters of the Ghassānids, the famous battle of Chalcis 

in  a.d. 554, their greatest victory against the Lakhmids, represents Ghassānid 

chivalry at its best. It had the warrior Arethas, a 

miles Christi; his horse, al-Jawn; 

his two swords, Mikhdam and Rasūb; and above all the romantic figure of the 

princess Ḥalīma, whose hand was won by the warrior who acquitted himself well 

in fighting for the Ghassānid cause.9


The Ghassānids’ commitment to Christian chivalry, as one of the ideals that 


6  For ʿAntara, see “The Black Knight,” translated in J. A. Arberry, 

The Seven Odes: The First Chapter 

in Arabic Literature (London and New York, 1957), 148–78, and C. Dover, “The Black Knight,” Phylon 

15 (1954), 41–57, 177–93. Some argue that Venantius Fortunatus, bishop of Poitiers in the sixth century 

and so a contemporary of ʿAntara’s, was the first poet of chivalry; see Av. Cameron, “The Theotokos in 

Sixth-Century Constantinople,” 

Journal of Theological Studies 29 (1978), 105 note 6.


7  The long internecine war which ʿAntara fought, and in which his famous horse often figures, 

was caused by a race that went wrong between a horse, Dāḥis, and a mare, Ghabrāʾ (mentioned in Part 

II, Chapter 12; see note 32 there). For the “dialogue” with his horse, see his ode in Arberry, 

The Seven 

Odes, 183.


Dīwān al-Nābigha al-Dubyānī, ed. M. Ibrāhīm (Cairo, 1977), 53, verse 16.


9  For Yawm Ḥalīma, see Part II, Chapter 2. 


Chivalry: The Birth of  an Ideal

they developed and tried to live up to, especially in their wars, has hitherto been 

an unknown chapter in the history of this concept. It had no connection with the 

later development of chivalry in western Europe, however. The European version 

either developed independently or was rooted in that of the Arabs in Spain. The 

latter was a chivalry that had already been Islamicized; it was related to 

jihād, the 

wars of the Crescent, not those of the Cross.




xcessive attention to the role of the Ghassānids in the history of the Persian 

Wars and the Monophysite movement has thrown into relative obscurity 

their place in the history of Arabic poetry—a regrettable circumstance, since it is 

their contribution to Arabic poetry that has been the most enduring. The poetry 

with which they are associated and which they partly inspired has survived in 

the literary consciousness of Arabs as part of their literary tradition. This chap-

ter will analyze the role of the Ghassānids in the history of Arabic poetry and 

its significance for the Byzantinist and for the Arabist, examining a role that the 

Ghassānids played for 150 years.1 The interpretation of that role involves the expli-

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