Sixth century


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cation of the ways in which poetry served the Ghassānids, the many ways in which 

the Ghassānids served poetry, and the contribution of poetry to the cultural life of 

sixth-century Oriens.

 

Even before they crossed the Roman frontier into Oriens and entered the 



service of Byzantium, the Ghassānids as Arabs had been involved in poetry, for 

poetry was the central facet of their cultural life. A well-known medieval critic 

fully explained this involvement:

When there appeared a poet in a family of Arabs, the other tribes round 

about would gather together to that family and wish them joy of their good 

luck. Feasts would be got ready, the women of the tribe would join together in 

bands playing upon lutes as they were wont to do at bridals, and the men and 

boys would congratulate one another. For a poet was a defence to the honour 

of them all, a weapon to ward off insults from their good name, and a means 

of perpetuating their good deeds and of establishing their fame forever. They 

 

1  One sign of their involvement in poetry is that even around a.d. 630, after the Prophet 



Muḥammad’s expedition to Tabūk, the Ghassānids tried to defend Byzantium against the rising tide 

of Islam by sending a message to the poet Kaʿb ibn Mālik in Medina, attempting to lure him away from 

his support for the Prophet and the Islamic cause. See 

Dīwān Kaʿb ibn Mālik al-Anṣārī, ed. S. al-ʿĀnī 

(Baghdad, 1966), 66.



307

Poetry


used not to wish one another joy but for three things—the birth of a boy, the 

coming to light of a poet, and the foaling of a noble mare.2

 

The Ghassānids belonged to the large group of the Azd, Arabs who had lived 



in the Arabian South before they spread out into various parts of the Peninsula, 

which they dominated. South Arabia was the abode of many other groups who 

contributed substantially to Arabic poetry—especially Kinda, which produced 

Imruʾ al-Qays (d. 541), the foremost poet of pre-Islamic Arabia. The century of 

Ghassān’s 

floruit, the sixth, witnessed the explosion of Arabic pre-Islamic poetry,3 

much of which has survived. The new 



foederati of Byzantium thus entered the ser-

vice of Byzantium carrying with them the Arabic poetic tradition, which was part 

of their peninsular heritage.

 

Oriens, the abode of the Ghassānids for a century and a half, had seen earlier 



foederati, the Tanūkhids of the fourth century and the Salīḥids of the fifth, and in 

both centuries Arabic poetry was heard in Oriens. In the fourth century, the Arabs 

of Queen Mavia composed odes to celebrate her victory over the emperor Valens,4 

while the fifth century witnessed a court poet in the entourage of the Salīḥid king 

Dāwūd.5 Of the poetry associated with the Salīḥids, only four lines have survived: 

a triplet composed by the regicides who killed Dāwūd and one single verse from 

the response of Dāwūd’s daughter to those regicides.6

 

Such was the state of Arabic federate poetry in Oriens in the two centuries 



before the coming of the Ghassānids. The scantiness of the survivals from this fed-

erate poetry makes it difficult to draw conclusions on its nature and range, but 

it is fair to say that the fifth century, with the rise of the function or office of a 

federate court poet for the Salīḥids and the appearance of a woman poet who 

belonged to the royal house, showed development over the fourth. Moreover, it 

is in the sixth century, with the advent of the Ghassānids, that Arabic poetry in 

Oriens can be said to have shown a strong presence, which it maintained until the 

fall of the dynasty. This is consonant with the general state of Arabic poetry, which 

matured and proliferated in the sixth century in almost all parts of the Arabian 

Peninsula. The poetry is audible in the Ghassānids’ first victorious encounter with 

 

2  Ibn Rashīq al-Qayrawāni, in 



al-ʿUmda fī Maḥasin al-Shiʿr, ed. M. ʿA. al-Ḥamīd (Cairo, 1955); 

quoted in Suyūṭi, 



al-Muzhir fī ʿUlūm al-Lugha wa Anwāʿihā (Bulāq, a.h. 1282 [1865]), ed. M. Jād 

al-Mawlā, ʿA. al-Bajāwi, and M. Ibrāhīm (Cairo, 1971), II, 236, and translated by Sir Charles Lyall in the 

introduction to his 

Translations of Ancient Arabian Poetry: Chiefly Pre-Islamic, with an Introduction and 

Notes (1885; reprint, New York, 1930), 17. 

 

3  This outpouring of poetry resembled that in Greece in the seventh and sixth centuries b.c.  



See M. Schmidt, 

The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets (New York, 2005). 

 

4 See 



BAFOC, 552–54.

 

5 See 



BAFIC, 433–36.

 

6  Ibid., 436–38; see also Part II, Chapter 2, with notes 101, 110.



308

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

Salīḥ. Because they had their own poets to memorialize their achievements, they 

did not need poets to come from the Arabian Peninsula to sing their praises. The 

earliest poetry composed by a Ghassānid is associated with Jidhʿ, who helped spark 

the Ghassānid-Salīḥid conflict around a.d. 500. A poem of his has survived in 

which he entertains his 

jinn (spirits) and conducts a dialogue with them.7 From the 

reign of Jabala, in the first quarter of the sixth century, a sextet of verses has sur-

vived, composed by a poet of Medina named al-Ranq.8 But it was in the reign of the 

famous Arethas (a.d. 529–569) that poetry began to flourish, reaching its climax 

around a.d. 600, in the last decades of the dynasty.9

I. Poetry’s Service to the Ghassānids

Oriens witnessed a flowering of poetry under the Ghassānids, who were its patrons 

and promoters. What were the circumstances and conditions that caused it, and in 

what ways did this poetry serve the cause and interests of the dynasty?

 

1. One of the main assignments of the Ghassānids as 



foederati of Byzantium 

was to protect Oriens against the inroads of the pastoralists in the Arabian 

Peninsula. This they did on the battlefield when their armies crushed the invad-

ers. But it was also important to deter future raids by making known the pres-

tige of their arms. In those days, the best medium of propaganda among the Arabs 

was poetry, which was quickly transmitted throughout the Peninsula by various 

means, including the 

aswāq, the fairs. Hence the value of poetry as a deterrent, well 

expressed by the Maghribi Ibn Rashīq, a medieval scholar of Arabic poetry: “The 

Arabs needed to sing about their nobility of character, the purity of their blood 

and to recall their good battle-days and far-away abodes, their brave horsemen and 

compliant steeds, in order to incite themselves to nobility and direct their sons to 

good character . . . to perpetuate memorable deeds, strengthen their honor, guard 

the tribe and 

to inspire the awe of other tribes since others would not advance against 

them out of fear of their poet.”10

 

7  The appearance of 



jinn in the thirteen-line poem may incline critics to doubt its authenticity, but 

Arab poets did continue to refer to 



jinn even in late Islamic times; for the poem, see R. al-Maʿlūf, Shuʿarāʾ 

al-Maʿālifa (Beirut, 1962), 9. On Jidhʿ, see BAFIC, 285–86.

 

8  See al-Maʿlūf, 



Shuʿarāʾ al-Maʿālifa, 8–9. Nöldeke doubted the authenticity of these verses (GF, 7–8), 

but recent research on Jabala and the early Ghassānids suggests that they may in fact be authentic. On iden-

tifying the Abū-Jubayla of the sextet with Jabala, the Ghassānid king and phylarch, see 

BASIC I.1, 49. 

 

9  No poetry has survived for the reign of Mundir (a.d. 569–582), possibly owing to the period’s 



intense political, military, and especially religious tensions. Similarly, the Iranians during the period of the 

Safavids were more interested in religion than in poetry; see E. G. Browne, 



A History of Persian Literature 

in Modern Times: a.d. 1500–1924, vol. 4 of A Literary History of Persia (Cambridge, 1930), 24–30.

 

10  Quoted and translated by S. Stetkevych, in “The Abbasid Poet Interprets History: Three 



Qasīdahs by Abū Tammam,” 

Journal of Arabic Literature 10 (1979), 49. The italics are mine.

309

Poetry


 

The court of the Ghassānids was a center of attraction to poets, who converged 

on it in great numbers from all parts of the Arabian Peninsula—western (especially 

Ḥijāz and Yaman), central (Najd), and eastern (discussed below). Of all these poets

those who frequented the fair of ʿUkā

˙

z were the most important, since ʿUkā



˙

z was a 


pan-Arab 

sūq where poetry tournaments were held (for a time judged by one of the 

main panegyrists of the Ghassānids, al-Nābigha).11

 

2. Especially important were those poets who came from eastern Arabia, the 



sphere of Lakhmid influence; some had deserted the Lakhmids for Ghassānid 

Jābiya.12 The rivalry between Lakhmids and Ghassānids found expression in a spe-

cial genre of poetry called 

munāfarāt, strife poems: a poet would laud one of the 

two royal houses in response to another poet’s praise of the other, usually employing 

the same meter and rhyme. Some surviving examples are represented by specimens 

of 


prose literature, mentioned below in the chapter on oratory.13 Sometimes the 

verse fell to rather low levels, as when a poet at the court of the Lakhmid Mundir, 

the famous contemporary of the Ghassānid Arethas, composed a quintet of 

rajaz 

verse denouncing Arethas as a regicide of his father, Jabala14—a plainly slander-

ous accusation, since Jabala died at the battle of Thannūris in a.d. 528 fighting for 

Byzantium, as the Greek and Syriac sources attest.

 

Among those who deserted the Lakhmids for the Ghassānid court was a poet 



of the 

Muʿallaqāt, “the Suspended Odes,” ʿAmr ibn Kulthūm. He and other poets 

gave the Ghassānids the edge over their Lakhmid rivals, whose dynasty fell around 

602, making the Ghassānid triumph complete.15

 

3. In addition to the peninsular pastoral groups and the Lakhmids of Ḥīra, 



the poetry that advertised the military prestige of the Ghassānids was also recited 

among the other 



foederati of Oriens, especially those whom the Ghassānids had 

toppled, such as the Salīḥids and their predecessors, the Tanūkhids. When the 

emperor Justinian in 529 put all the Arab federate groups in Oriens under the 

command of Arethas, the other federates could not have been thrilled by his 

decision. Although the Ghassānids were able to control these other federates, 

 

11  See Ibn Qutayba, 



al-Shiʿr wa al-Shuʿarāʾ, ed. A. M. Shākir (Cairo, 1966), I, 167–68. For the 

poetry of Ḥassān at ʿUkā

˙

z, threatening an adversary, see 



Dīwān Ḥassān ibn Thābit, ed. W. ʿArafāt, Gibb 

Memorial New Series 25 (London, 1971), I, 153, verse 3.

 

12  Christian poets of eastern Arabia were naturally attracted to the Ghassānids, especially as some 



of the Lakhmid kings, such as the famous Mundir, were violently anti-Christian.

 

13  For a 



munāfara in prose at the court of the Ghassānids, see Abū al-Faraj Iṣfahānī, al-Aghānī 

(Beirut, 1958), XII, 11–12. 

 

14 See ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Baghdādi, 



Khizānat al-Adab, ed. ʿA. al-Salām Hārūn (Cairo, 1982),  

X, 89–93. 

 

15  See G. Rothstein, 



Die Dynastie der La

˘

hmiden in al-Ḥira: Ein Versuch zur arabisch-persischen 

Geschichte zur Zeit der Sasaniden (Berlin, 1899), 118–19.

310

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

their discontent on occasion revealed itself.16 So, a poetry that described the 

prowess of the Ghassānids could deter their potential rebelliousness as well.

 

4. Poetry was also an important feature of Ghassānid victory celebrations, 



both after a horse race and after a military encounter on the battlefield.17 In the 

case of the former, short poems were composed in a special meter, the 



rajaz; the 

latter were marked by longer poems in other meters. The most memorable of these 

victory celebrations were those for the battle of Chalcis, because it witnessed the 

death of their great adversary, the Lakhmid Mundir, who for fifty years had posed 

a threat to Oriens and to the Ghassānids.

 

5. Poetry also had a social function, at times celebrating the various aspects of 



everyday life discussed earlier in this volume. Many odes must have been composed 

on such occasions as births, baptisms, weddings, and deaths. Of these, two have 

survived: the 

lāmiyya by al-Nābigha, an elegy on the Ghassānid king Nuʿmān, and 

a quatrain on a Ghassānid youth, also by al-Nābigha.18

 

6. A final service that poetry rendered the Ghassānids is that it recorded the 



war that the Ghassānids waged in Arabia to impose the 

Pax Romana on its turbu-

lent tribes.19 In so doing, they spared Oriens the invasions of the Arabian pastoral-

ists, and thereby enabled it to flourish in the sixth century. This contribution of the 

Ghassānids, preserved in poetry, supplies additional evidence that they were not a 

pastoral group but a sedentary, urban one, which also contributed to the welfare of 

Oriens by urbanizing the limitrophe. 

 

On these aspects of Ghassānid history, Arabic poetry provides information 



found nowhere in the Greek, Latin, and Syriac sources, both enabling medieval 

Arab authors to understand the truth about the Ghassānids’ society as urban, not 

pastoral, and providing modern historians, Arabist and Byzantinist alike, with the 

data needed to write the history of this dynasty.

 

16  Non-Ghassānid federate coolness toward the Ghassānids was suspected during the battle of 



Callinicum in a.d. 531 (see 

BALA I, 25), as well as in the attempt of one Ghassānid to control two tribal 

federate groups in Oriens by sowing dissension between them (see Nöldeke, 



GF, 52 note 1).

 

17  The most spectacular example occurred in Abbasid times, during the reign of Hārūn al-Rashīd: 



when he returned from his Anatolian campaign against Heraclea, eight poets recited poetry celebrating 

his victory; see al-Ṣūlī, 



Kitāb al-Awrāq, ed. H. Dunne (Cairo, n.d.), 75, 80.

 

18  On these two poems, see 



Dīwān al-Nābigha al-Dubyānī, ed. M. Ibrāhīm (Cairo, 1977), 115–22, 

166. The first moved even the dour Nöldeke; see 



GF, 38–39.

 

19  Perhaps a 



Pax Ghassanica may have developed, when Arethas brought to an end the internecine 

strife between two subdivisions of the powerful tribal group of Ṭayyiʾ called Jadīla and al-Gawth, an 

achievement remembered in prose and in poetry; see 

Dīwān al-Ḥārith ibn Ḥilliza, ed. U. al-Ṭabbāʿ 

(Beirut, 1994), 88, no. 16, verse 5. For the best account of the Ghassānids’ war in Arabia, see N. ʿA. 

al-Raḥmān, “Fi Ayyām Ghassān Maʿa al-Aḥālif Fi al-Shiʿr al-Jāhili,” 

Majallat: Majmaʿ al Lughat 

al-ʿArabiyya al-Urdunnī 30 (1986), 97–146.


311

Poetry


II. The Ghassānids’ Service to Poetry

The efflorescence of Arabic poetry during the Ghassānid period in Oriens was due 

to their patronage. It is, therefore, necessary to examine the ways in which they 

contributed to that efflorescence and how they promoted that art.

The Institutionalization of Poetry

The Ghassānid patronage of poetry found expression in a number of services, some 

of which may be called technical.

 

1. Pre-Islamic peninsular poetry had not been a profession. The pastoral poet 



was a tribesman, and composing poetry was only the artistic dimension of his life, 

for which his tribe did not pay him. Although Zuhayr, a poet of the 



Muʿallaqāt, 

attached himself to an Arabian chief, Harim ibn Sinān, who had managed to 

end the internecine tribal Basūs War, and thereby benefited materially from the 

latter’s liberality, he was the exception.20 But when the Ghassānids (and also the 

Lakhmids) opened their courts to peninsular poets, who received from them hand-

some rewards (often in Byzantine denarii), poetry became a profession,21 and poets 

thenceforth expected and received remuneration for their verse.22

 

2. The rise of the poet laureate attached to the court was also a new phenom-



enon.23 The first recorded court poet was the Iyādi ʿAbd al-ʿĀs, at the fifth-century 

Salīḥid court of King Dāwūd; but Arab literary consciousness retains merely his 

name, since none of his poetry has survived. It is, however, the Ghassānids whose 

name is associated with court poets, two of whom were al-Nābigha and Ḥassān. 

Al-Nābigha’s relation to the Lakhmids suggests that he may not have been tech-

nically the Ghassānids’ court poet.24 Ḥassān, in contrast, stayed with them much 

longer and indeed was their relative; so he may be considered their true court poet. 

 

20  See L. Bettini, “Zuhayr,” 



EI2, XI, 556–58.

 

21  See H. A. R. Gibb, 



Arabic Literature, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1963), 18–19.

 

22  Alan Cameron has shown that poets in the late antique period began to expect remuneration 



and became traveling professionals; see his “Wandering Poets: A Literary Movement in Byzantine 

Egypt,” in 



Literature and Society in the Early Byzantine World (London, 1985), article I, 470–509. 

For the same phenomenon at the Byzantine court of a later age, see M. D. Lauxtermann, 



Byzantine 

Poetry from Pisides to Geometres, Wiener Byzantinistische Studien, 24/1 (Vienna, 2003), 36; he sug-

gests that professional poets expected, even begged, to be paid for their services from the twelfth cen-

tury onward. 

 

23  The first true court poet of Byzantium was George of Pisidia, who was the “poet laureate” for 



Heraclius; see W. Hörandner, “Court Poetry: Questions of Motifs, Structure and Function,” in 

Rhetoric 

in Byzantium, ed. E. Jeffreys, Society for the Promotion of Byzantine Studies 11 (Aldershot, Eng., 2003), 

76, where he also endorses the view of Lauxtermann on this point (76 note 4). On the poet laureate of 

the fifth-century Arab federate king Dāwūd, see 

BAFIC, 261.

 

24  But one verse in an ode addressed to the Lakhmids suggests that he had a special relationship 



with the Ghassānids; see Al-Nābigha, 

Dīwān, 73, verse 6.

312

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

He also functioned later as the poet laureate of the Prophet Muḥammad for a 

decade during his Medinan period (a.d. 622–632).

 

3. The third service that the Ghassānids rendered poetry was their contri-



bution to the rise of an appropriate venue worthy of poetry recitals—namely the 

ōdeion/odeum. In his Dīwān, Ḥassān apparently makes a specific reference to an 

odeum, the 



buyūt al-rukhām, “houses/mansions of marble,” in which he could 

hear song and poetry.25

New Subjects of Poetry

Other contributions were even more important and substantive. When the 

Ghassānids gave the peninsular Arab poets the chance to visit their court and 

eulogize them, they also offered a first glimpse of an outside superior civilization, 

that of Byzantium, and thus enabled the poets to incorporate into the texture of 

pre-Islamic poetry new tones and motifs—a particularly important consideration 

for poetry like that of the pre-Islamic Arabs, whose simplicity of life in Arabia 

Pastoralis had conduced to a certain exiguity in poetic themes. The poetry com-

posed for the Ghassānids derived not only from the Arabian scene but also from 

vibrant new developments outside the Peninsula; it thus represents the first stage in 

the thematic evolution of Arabic poetry and the expansion of its expressive range 

from its constricted pastoral surroundings to the breadth of the Arab 



imperium in 

later Muslim times.

 

The scene that inspired the peninsular poet was now urban Ghassānland and 



the even more sophisticated urban scene of Byzantine Oriens, with its Decapolis 

and cities. The three well-known components of Byzantine civilization—the 

Roman, Christian, and Hellenic—offered inspiration to the Arab peninsular 

poets, who also were stirred by a fourth component, the Syriac-Aramaic, emanat-

ing from the Semitic sector of the multicultural Byzantine Oriens.

 

1. The phrase “the urbanization of Arabic poetry” perhaps best describes 



what the Arab poet expressed in his poems after his experience in Oriens. Poets 

such as Ḥassān rarely allude to the Arabian scene with its desert elements of tents 

and pegs, referring instead to the urban landscape: the terms 

qaṣr and qastal 

(palace or castle), 



haykal (temple), and dayr (monastery) appear in their lexicon. 

Within the Ghassānid town, they mention the tavern (



ḥānūt, ḥāna), wine, song, 

and drinking parties. Within the Ghassānid house or mansion, clothes and fur-

niture are described; the princesses do not busy themselves with such desert veg-

etation as the colocynth, but instead weave coral wreaths as they prepare for Palm 



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