Sixth century

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inter alia, leather and textiles of all sorts, which had originally 

come from Najrān. (4) Leading the caravan and its crossing of the tribal territories 

in Najd and Tihama, the 

ijāza, was the difficult part of the caravan’s journey from 

Ḥīra to ʿUkā


z; it was in those territories that its leader was murdered, causing the 

outbreak of the war. (5) Mecca and the future Prophet Muḥammad were involved 

in this war. J. W. Fück has accurately assessed the significance of the War of Fijār: 

“The real aim of it was the control of the trade routes in the Nadjd and conse-

quently the benefit of the great gains which this trade offered. In this great context 

the Kuraysh [Quraysh] were leading.”31


The extant sources have not preserved memories of Ghassānid caravans tra-

versing the West Arabian route southward to Najrān, but items of merchandise 

emanating from Ghassānland must have made their way to the south. Their echoes 

are detectable in a verse of the poet Ḥumayd ibn Thawr, of the tribe of ʿĀmir, which 

lived not far from South Arabia; a simile refers to Ghassānid 

arākīb, riders or cara-

vans, which he saw there.32


The Ghassānids became more directly involved in the long-distance trade and its 

caravans once they crossed the southern boundaries of Palaestina Tertia in north-

ern Ḥijāz. The first significant stopping place was Phoinikōn. Procopius explicitly 

documents the Ghassānid character of Phoinikōn/Tabūk, a site that belonged to 

the Ghassānids and was offered to Byzantium by its master, the Ghassānid phy-

larch Abū Karib. Even after becoming Byzantine territory, it continued to have a 

strong Ghassānid presence, consonant with the appointment of Abū Karib as its 



After Phoinikōn/Tabūk, the route ran through Palaestina Tertia to Petra, 

where it bifurcated:34 one branch ran through Palaestina Tertia to Gaza, in 

Palaestina Prima; the other went north to Bostra, the capital of the Provincia 


30  For the explication of this strange term, whose root is related to the word meaning “perfume,” see 

S. Fraenkel, 

Die aramäischen Fremdwörter im Arabischen (1886; reprint, Hildesheim, 1962), 176–77.


31  See Fück, “Fidjār,” 884.


32  See above, note 24. 


33 Procopius, 

History, I.xix.11.


34  Some believe that Adruḥ/Udhruḥ, not Petra, is the station where the route divided; see Z. T. 

Fiema, “Late-antique Petra and Its Hinterland: Recent Research and New Interpretations,” 

Roman and 

Byzantine Near East 3 (2002), 191–252.


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

Arabia.35 All these routes ran through territories of the ethnically Arab Nabatae-

ans, who had become 

Rhomaioi after the promulgation of the Edict of Caracalla 

in a.d. 212. And now in the sixth century, these territories formed the provinces 

of Arabia and Palaestina Tertia, the headquarters of the two Ghassānid phylarchs 

Arethas and Abū Karib. So the Ghassānids could provide the escorts, guide the 

caravans, and attend to their needs with perfect ease.


While the branch of the spice route that ran to the north reached its final ter-

minus in Bostra, the branch to Gaza continued on to the eastern part of the Delta 

in Egypt,36 also passing through a region that was Arab (and was called Arabia in 


Travels of Egeria), and indeed used to have an Arabarch as its governor.37 Gaza 

itself, the terminus in Palaestina Prima, had had a strong Arab element since the 

days of Alexander the Great;38 in the sixth century an Arab caravaneer named 

Hāshim, the great-grandfather of the Prophet Muḥammad, was buried there. 

The city is therefore often referred to as “the Gaza of Hāshim,” Gazzat Hāshim.39 

Before the caravans reached Gaza, they traversed the Negev, the southern desert 

of Palestine, passing through what might be called the Heptapolis of Palaestina 

Tertia—a cluster of seven Arab Nabataean settlements, the main city of which 

was Elusa.40 Their prosperity was clearly related to the sixth-century revival of 


via odorifera, which greatly benefited the Heptapolis. Conversely, the decline 

of the 

via odorifera after the rise of Islam, and the consequent drastic change in 

trade routes, explains the decline of urban settlements in this area of Palaestina 



In Wādī ʿAraba, which extends from the southern tip of the Dead Sea 

to Ayla/Eilat on the Gulf of Eilat, the last leg of the spice route, from Petra 


35  On routes involving the 

via odorifera in this region of Oriens and northern Ḥijāz, see D. Graf, 

“Les routes romaines d’Arabie Pétrée,” 

Le Monde de la Bible 59 (1989), 54–56; F. Zayadine, “L’espace 

urbain du grand Petra; les routes et les stations caravanières,” 

Annual of the Department of Antiquities 36 

(1992), 217–30.


36  See P. Figueras, “Road Linking Palestine and Egypt along the Sinai Coast,” in 

Madaba Map 

Centenary, ed. M. Piccirillo and E. Alliata, Collectio Maior 40 (Jerusalem, 1999), 211–14; and idem, 

From Gaza to Pelusium: Materials for the Historical Geography of North Sinai and Southwestern Palestine 

(332 bce–640 ce) (Beer-Sheva, 2000).


37 On the Arab character of this region in Egypt, see 

Egeria’s Travels, trans. J. Wilkinson 

(Warminster, Eng., 1999), 115–18; see also 

RA, 5 note 12, with its cross-references to the Arab presence 

in Egypt. On the Arabarch, see 

RA, 7 note 19.


38  See Jan Retsö, 

The Arabs in Antiquity: Their History from the Assyrians to the Umayyads (London, 

2003), index, s.v. Gaza.


39  See Ibn Ishāq, 

The Life of Muhammad, trans. A. Guillaume (1955; reprint, Karachi, 1990), 



40  On these cities of the Negev, see J. Shereshevski, 

Byzantine Urban Settlements in the Negev Desert 

(Beer-Sheva, 1991). The seven cities are Kurnub, Eboda, Nessana, Subeita, Elusa, Saadi, and Ruheibeh.


41  J. Magness has disputed the view that the arrival of Islam in the region caused a decline in these 

Negev cities; see 

The Archaeology of the Early Islamic Settlement in Palestine (Winona Lake, Ind., 2003).


The Ghassānids and International Trade Routes

to Gaza, ran most straight, especially in the central and southern part of the 

wādī.42 This area was under the phylarchal jurisdiction of the Ghassānid Abū 

Karib, appointed by Justinian over Palaestina Tertia; protecting the caravans and 

attending to their needs must have been among his main paramilitary duties, in 

which he had been involved even when he was the chief of Phoinikōn, an impor-

tant station of the spice route in northern Ḥijāz. In Roman times, the legionar-

ies of the Third Cyrenaica in this region engaged in work at the copper mines of 

Wādī ʿAraba and at Timna.43 The Ghassānid 

foederati might have undertaken 

similar work. 


Such then was the involvement of the Ghassānids in the spice route, which 

conveyed to the Byzantine world of the Mediterranean the luxury products of the 

Far East and India. Arabia provided its own unique product: frankincense, which 

grew only in the southern part of the peninsula and which became indispensable in 

the fourth century for Christian rites. 

III. The Wādī Sir

ān Route

Wādī Sirḥān in North Arabia was another major route to Oriens, running about 

360 kilometers from Dūmat al-Jandal in the southeast to al-Azraq in the north-

west, where its northern entrance led to the Provincia Arabia, the headquarters of 

the Ghassānids (see Map III). The term 

wādī, which suggests a narrow passage-

way, might seem misapplied to this broad lowland.44 Important personages passed 

through this 

wādī in ancient and medieval times—most relevant to our theme, the 

Salīḥids, the federates of Byzantium in the fifth century.45 In the sixth century, 

when the defense of Oriens was enhanced by the employment of the Ghassānids, 


wādī was controlled by a powerful Arab group of the Outer Shield, Kalb;46 

behind them were the Ghassānid 

foederati in the Provincia Arabia, the base 

from which Arethas protected the diocese from the nomadic threat. In conduct-

ing his own campaigns in inner and eastern Arabia, in what might be termed the 

Unknown War, Arethas marched through this 

wādī when he fought such tribes as 

the Tamīm. The poet ʿAlqama must have traversed the same 

wādī when he came 

as a suppliant and pleaded with the Ghassānid king for his brother’s release, which 


42  I should like to thank Professor Andrew Smith for informing me of the archaeological field 

research that has been going on for more than a decade in the Wādī ʿAraba region, about which he read a 

paper at the Tenth Conference of the History and Archaeology of Jordan, in Washington, D.C., on May 

24, 2007. I hope to visit this 

wādī in order to see the extent and degree to which archaeology can help 

deepen our understanding of this segment of the spice route.


43  See B. Rothenberg, 

Timna: Valley of the Biblical Copper Mines (London, 1972). 


44  A most valuable work on Wādī Sirḥān is 

Fi Shamāl Gharb al-Jazīra (Riyadh, 1981), by the late 

Saudi scholar Ḥamad al-Jāsir; see especially his description of the 

wādī (608–9). 


45  On the Salīḥids, see 

BAFIC, especially 346–37.


46  On the Kalb and the Outer Shield, see ibid., 478–79.

Map III. Wādi al-Sirhān


The Ghassānids and International Trade Routes

his splendid panegyric on the king effected.47 The 

wādī was protected by two for-

tresses: one at the southern entrance, at Dūma, and the other at the northern 

entrance, at Azraq. At both, Latin inscriptions commemorate the strong Roman 

presence there and the movement of Legio III Cyrenaica based in Bostra.48 When 

Justinian drastically reorganized Arab federate power in Oriens, around a.d. 530, 

the watch over Wādī Sirḥān fell not to Abū Karib but to his brother Arethas, as 

the supreme phylarch and king of all or almost all the Arab federates in Oriens;49 

the responsibility of this watch grew even greater when the 

foederati became in 

effect the 

limitanei of Oriens.50 The wādī was also protected and guarded by the 

powerful tribe of Kalb, which participated in the defense of the diocese as part of 

both the Inner and the Outer Shield.51 The Kalb’s influence reached as far as the 

southern entrance of the 

wādī at Dūma.


The historical geography of Wādī Sirḥān provides background necessary to 

understand its role in the economic history of Byzantium. Its soil made it an impor-

tant source of salt, which apparently was still sold in modern times in ʿAmmān, the 

capital of the Hashimite kingdom of Jordan.52 But more significant was the 


function as a gateway for caravans and as the site of the great fair that was held at its 

southern entrance at Dūma, where trans-Arabian trade routes intersected.53

IV. The Maritime Route

In addition to the three overland routes overseen in part by the Ghassānids was a 

maritime route, which is less well known than the other three but also involved the 

Ghassānids (see Map IV). 


Palaestina Tertia—the southernmost province in Oriens, assigned by 

Justinian to the Ghassānid Abū Karib—had two seaports: Zoghar on the southern


47  An incident discussed below in “Clothes,” Chapter 6 in Part II. 


48  The more remarkable inscriptions, of a Roman centurion, are at Dūma; for facsimiles, see  

G. W. Bowersock, 

Roman Arabia (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), plates 14, 15, and see his valuable appendix 

on the importance of Wādī Sirḥān for the prosperity of the Provincia Arabia, 154–59. See also M. P. 

Speidel, “The Roman Road to Dumata,” in 

Roman Army Studies (Stuttgart, 1992), 213–17, corrected by 

C. Zuckerman on the extent of the fortified road, which, he observed, ran only from Bostra to Azraq; see 

his “Aur. Valerianus (291/305) et Fl. Severinus (333), commandants en Arabie, et la forteresse d’Azraq,” 

Antiquité Tardive 2 (1994), 83–88.


49  A Ghassānid presence at Dūma may be implied in the verse in Ḥassān that refers to Qaṣr Dūmat; 


BASIC II.1, 241–42.


50  See ibid., 21–51. 


51  Kalb acted through its subgroup, Kināna. For Kalb in Wādī Sirḥān, Dūma, and northern Arabia, 

see L. Veccia Vaglieri, “Dūmat al-Jandal,” 

EI2, II, 625.


52  Ḥ. al-Jāsir, 

Fi Shamāl Gharb al-Jazīra, 75.


53  The most extensive account of Dūma, often called Dūmat al-Jandal in the Arabic sources, may 

still be found in A. Musil, 

Arabia Deserta: A Topographical Itinerary (New York, 1927), 532–53. The sūq 

of Dūma is discussed at length below in Chapter 4, “The Fairs



byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

Map IV. The Maritime Route


The Ghassānids and International Trade Routes

shore of the Dead Sea and Eilat/Ayla at the head of the Red Sea, with its two gulfs, 

the Gulf of Clysma and the Gulf of Eilat/Ayla. At the southern mouth of the Gulf 

of Eilat/Ayla was the island of Iotabe. The two ports and the island all were impor-

tant in the maritime trade of Byzantium in the sixth century, and the Ghassānids 

were involved in all three locations.


The Red Sea became a significant maritime route for the Ptolemies after 

Hippalus discovered the secret of monsoons in the first century b.c., enabling them 

to be harnessed by mariners; hence the Red Sea became the gateway to commercial 

relations with the world of the Indian Ocean, as spices, aromatics, precious stones, 

ivory, Chinese silk, and other products were imported from both its African and 

Indian shores.54 The route continued to be traveled in the Roman period, though 

its importance declined in certain periods (for example, the latter part of the fifth 

century). But it revived in the sixth, especially in the 520s when, during the long 

reign of Justinian, South Arabia became Christianized after the Ethiopian mil-

itary intervention supported by Byzantium. It was within the next five decades, 

before the Persian occupation of South Arabia in 570, that the Ghassānid involve-

ment in the Red Sea trade may be set. Bringing to light the Arab connection to this 

maritime trade route, and to the overland trade route, imparts a new paramilitary 

dimension to Abū Karib’s role in the Byzantine economy.


1. The island of Iotabe in the straits of Tirān at the mouth of the Gulf of Eilat 

was an important station on this Red Sea route. It had taken the place of Leuke 

Kome as the customs clearinghouse for ships sailing to the port of Eilat at the head 

of the gulf, and it thus provided the empire with considerable tax revenue.55 The 

Ghassānids were involved in Iotabe on various occasions.


a. During the reign of Leo I (457–474), Amorkesos, an adventurous Arab 

phylarch, took possession of this island and its taxes before Leo officially appointed 

him the phylarch of Palaestina Tertia. He was, most probably, a Ghassānid.56


b. During the reign of Anastasius (491–518), the Ghassānid Jabala controlled 

the island until Romanus, the 

dux of Palestine, dislodged him from it; but shortly 

thereafter, he was accepted as the Ghassānid phylarch and king, thus beginning 

the Ghassānid period in the history of the Arab federates in Oriens.57 The natural 

presumption is that he, and his descendants after him,58 returned to occupy the 


54  Agatharchides of Cnidus, a Peripatetic and guardian of a young Ptolemy in the second century 

b.c., wrote 

On the Erythrean Sea, ed. and trans. S. M. Burstein (London, 1989); see also The Periplus 

Maris Erythraei. 


55  See F. M. Abel, “L’île de Jotabè,” 

Revue Biblique 47 (1939), 510–38. 


56  On Amorkesos, see 

BAFIC, 61–113.


57  On Jabala and the island of Iotabe, see Theophanes, 

Chronographia, ed. C. de Boor (1883; 

reprint, Hildesheim, 1963), I, 141. For analysis of the passage in Theophanes, see 

BAFIC, 125–27; Jabala 

is discussed at greater length in 

BASIC I.1, 3–12, 63–70.  


58 See 

BAFIC, 125–27. 


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

island—but now as phylarch of the central government, collecting the taxes for the 

empire rather than for himself.


c. During the reign of Justinian, around 535, the 

dux of Palestine, Aratius, 

took possession of the island from an occupying group whose identity was left 

anonymous in Choricius’ account of the episode. The account does relate that 

after Aratius’ successful campaign to free the island, he turned it over to “trust-

worthy men,” ἀνδράσι πιστοῖς, who were appointed to levy taxes for the Byzantine 

autokrator.59 The identity of these “trustworthy men” in the ambitious operation 

carried out by Aratius is practically certain: they must have been the Ghassānids of 

Abū Karib, who had been entrusted with the phylarchate of Palaestina Tertia only 

recently and whom Procopius uncharacteristically praises.60


The data cumulatively provided by these sources indicate that the Ghassānids 

collected the taxes for the empire on the island of Iotabe—just as they collected 

them in Bostra, the terminus of the overland spice route in the Provincia Arabia, as 

the sources explicitly state.61


2. Eilat/Ayla was the window of Oriens on the world of the Indian Ocean and 

the Far East. It received merchandise that arrived on ships that had stopped at Iotabe 

and then sailed on after being taxed; from Eilat/Ayla, the goods were distributed 

to various parts of Oriens. Some reached Tyre and Sidon in Phoenike Maritima, 

whence they were conveyed to Constantinople. Because it also received merchandise 

that was carried over the overland spice route of western Arabia, Eilat/Ayla was an 

important emporium in this century, particularly during the reign of Justinian.


The involvement of the Ghassānids in Ayla was even deeper than in Iotabe, 

and it may be presented as follows.


a. The Ghassānids were given extensive military duties in 529 throughout 

Oriens, especially as they took over the responsibilities of the 

limitanei.62 At least 

some of the Roman troops stationed around Eilat/Ayla would have been replaced 

by the Ghassānids under the energetic phylarch Abū Karib. Consequently, the 

Ghassānids would have guarded Byzantine interests in the region of Ayla, so close 

to the pastoralist Arab threat, which they could handle better than the regular 




b. This involvement is confirmed by a verse of Ḥassān, the Ghassānid pan-

egyrist, which speaks of their being in charge of the region of Ayla on the two 


59 See 

Choricii Gazaei opera, ed. R. Förster and E. Richsteig (Leipzig, 1929), 67.


60 Procopius, 

History, I.xix.11. For these operations, see BASIC I.1, 129–30, 182–85. Customs were 

considerable, amounting to one-eighth of the merchandise’s value; see P. Meyerson, “The Island of Iotabê 

in the Byzantine Sources: A Reprise,” 

BASOR 287 (1992), 3 note 2.


61  On Bostra, see M. Lecker, “The Levying of Taxes for the Sassanians in Pre-Islamic Medina 


Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 27 (2002), 115–20.


62 See 

BASIC II.1, 35–51.


The Ghassānids and International Trade Routes

sides of the Gulf of Eilat.63 The Ghassānids thus had an extensive presence in and 

around Ayla. One of the poets speaks of the “glittering 

danānīr (dinars) of Ayla,” 

which he presumably observed or received while transacting some business with 

the Ghassānids there.64


c. The importance of Ayla is reflected in Koranic and Muhammadan sources 

in the last days of Byzantium in Oriens. It was almost certainly referred to in the 

Koran as Ḥādirat al-Baḥr.65 Moreover, the covenant that the Prophet Muḥammad 

struck with Yūḥanna ibn Ruʾba, the master of Ayla, refers to the security given by 

the Prophet to the caravans reaching it by land and the ships arriving by sea.66 In 

the later Islamic sources, which are more explicit and informative on Ayla, the city 

is described as very prosperous, and the presumption is that it had been so in the 

sixth century.67


Ayla was for centuries an Arab Nabataean city, whose inhabitants became 


Rhomaioi when Caracalla issued his edict in a.d. 212. They continued in that 

status, speaking Arabic as their native language, in the sixth and seventh century, as 

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