Sixth century


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central Arabia, where it linked up with another route that extended through Wādī al-Rummah and led 

to Ḥīra—must have been active as well. 

 

6  See M. Morony, “Late Sasanian Economic Impact,” 35. On Raḍrāḍ, he refers to al-Hamdānī’s 



Kitāb al-Jawharatayn, Das Buch von den beiden Edelmetallen: Gold und Silber, ed. and trans. C. Toll 

(Uppsala, 1968), 142–43. 



54

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

the merchants who brought them;7 these products would travel thence to Sanʿāʾ 

(since Ethiopian days, the capital), where another 



sūq was held.

 

3. The Persians also gave an impetus to the leather and cloth industry that 



had already developed in South Arabia.8

 

During the forty years that extended from 570 to the beginning of the reign 



of Heraclius in 610, two events may be singled out. Both were related to the eco-

nomic interests of the two world powers, and both illustrate their rivalry in the 

wake of the Persian occupation of South Arabia.

 

1. The 



Ḥarb al-Fijār, the “Sacrilegious War,” was related to the laṭīma, the 

caravan, that the Lakhmids and the Persians started to send to western Arabia 

along the direct overland route connecting Ḥīra with Mecca and ʿUkā

˙

z, the most 



important inter-Arab fair. This war was an aggressive initiative by the Persians to 

break into the Byzantine sphere of influence, in western Arabia.9

 

2. Working to expand Byzantine influence was ʿUthmān ibn al-Ḥuwayrith, 



a Meccan of the clan of Banū-Asad, with whom the Ghassānids were allies; he had 

the ambition to become the Byzantine phylarch/king over Mecca. In his address to 

the Byzantine authorities, ʿUthmān had argued that with their support, his phy-

larchate over Mecca would countervail the Persian occupation of South Arabia; 

and in his address to the Meccans seeking their acceptance of him as Byzantium’s 

representative, he argued that such a connection would facilitate the passage of 

Meccan merchants into Byzantine Oriens. After some initial success, his plan  

fell through.10

 

In the last quarter of the sixth century, Byzantine-Persian rivalry persisted in 



two of the stations of the spice route, Medina and Mecca. In Medina the Persians—

through the intervention of the last Lakhmid king, Nuʿmān—succeeded in per-

suading an Arab who belonged to the Khazraj tribe, ʿAmr ibn al-Iṭnāba, to be 

their representative.11 As he became the lord of Medina, he represented a Persian/

Lakhmid influence in that important station on the spice route, but he does not 

seem to have seriously affected Ghassānid and Byzantine influence on that route. 

Indeed, it was at just this time that Mecca reached its position of dominance as 

the principal caravan city of the spice route. The Persian occupation of South 

 

7 Morony, “Late Sasanian Economic Impact,” 35–36, quoting Abū-ʿAli al-Marzūqi, 



Kitāb  

al-Azmina wa al-Amkina (Hyderabad, 1914), II, 164. To Sanʿāʾ, the merchants brought cotton, saffron, 

and dyes, and at Sanʿāʾ they bought cloth and iron. 

 

8  Morony, “Late Sasanian Economic Impact,” 36.



 

9  This war is discussed in “The West Arabian Route” in Chapter 3, above.

 

10  The most reliable account of this episode is found in al-Zubayr ibn Bakkār, 



Jamharat Nasab 

Quraysh wa Akhbārihā, ed. M. M. Shākir (Cairo, [1961]), 425–38, especially 425–26, see also Ibn 

Ḥabīb, 


al-Munammaq, ed. Kh. Fāriq (Hyderabad, 1964), 178–85. 

 

11  On ʿAmr ibn al-Iṭnāba, see Kister, “al-Ḥīra,” 147–49.



55

Economic Rivalry in Arabia: Byzantium and Persia

Arabia brought new masters to that region, after fifty years of occupation by the 

Ethiopians. This change was not conducive to stability in South Arabia, and so con-

trol of the spice route, which historically was mainly in the hands of its own peo-

ples—Sabaeans, Minaeans, and Ḥimyarites—slipped into other hands. This was 

Mecca’s opportunity to move into a dominant role.12 Ghassānid-Meccan relations 

during this period were good. The clan of Banū-Asad counted the Ghassānids as 

their allies,13 a relationship that neutralized whatever advantage the Lakhmids had 

gained in Medina through ʿAmr ibn al-Iṭnāba. Ghassānid relations with Najrān 

also remained positive, reflected 

inter alia by the visits of its chief, Yazīd, to the 

Ghassānid court.14

*  *  *

Before the storm that wrecked Persian-Byzantine relations in the seventh cen-



tury broke out, the Ghassānids had served the economic interests of Byzantium 

in the sixth century; in so doing, they deserved well of the empire. Although dur-

ing the reign of Maurice friction obtained, the Ghassānids’ good relations with 

Byzantium were restored not long after, in the late 580s,15 and so they continued to 

function as wardens of the three western trade routes: the maritime route over the 

Red Sea, the overland spice route in western Arabia, and the Wādī Sirḥān route. In 

addition to protecting the caravans, they also participated in holding one impor-

tant fair outside Oriens, at Dūma, and they held three fairs within it. The eco-

nomic life of Oriens was much stimulated by these three

 aswāq—Dayr Ayyūb, 

Bostra, and Adriʿāt—where the Ghassānids also levied taxes for the empire. These 

important functions, involving the three trade routes, were performed mostly by 

the Ghassānid phylarch of Palaestina Tertia, who had an autonomous status and 

whose function was mainly to look after the economic interests of the empire. In 

contrast, the principal phylarch/king to the north had primarily a military func-

tion, keeping Oriens secure from the Persians, the Lakhmids, and the Arabian pas-

toralists; at the same time, he contributed indirectly to the economic welfare of 

Oriens by ensuring its safety. The fifty years between 520 and 570, mostly dur-

ing the reign of Justinian, were the halcyon days of Ghassānid-Byzantine relations: 

Justinian’s Arab and Arabian policy functioned smoothly and fruitfully in the 

economic sphere, as implemented by the archphylarch and king, Arethas, and his 

brother, Abū Karib, the phylarch of Palaestina Tertia.

 

12 See 



BALA III, 52.

 

13  One of its members, Khadīja, was the wife of the future Prophet of Islam. She was a wealthy 



woman who ran caravans, which Muḥammad conducted to Oriens.

 

14  See Abū al-Faraj Iṣfahānī, 



al-Aghānī (Beirut, 1958), XII, 11–12. 

 

15 See 



BASIC I.1, 562–68.

56

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

Epilogue

 

The balance of power in the Peninsula was shaken in a.d. 570 by the Persian 



occupation of South Arabia. This signaled a major turn in the Persian-Byzantine 

struggle, as Persia gained the advantage; the struggle reached its climax in the reigns 

of Heraclius and Parvīz, when the final Byzantine-Persian conflict broke out.16 The 

Persians occupied the whole of Oriens and Egypt; as a result, they took possession 

not only of the Silk Road, both by land through Asia and Mesopotamia and by 

sea through the Persian Gulf, but also of the western routes formerly controlled 

by Byzantium and the Ghassānids: the maritime Red Sea route and the overland 

spice route, together with the two termini in Gaza and Bostra. The Ghassānids and 

the imperial Byzantine army were overwhelmed by the Persians and withdrew to 

Anatolia, not to return to Oriens to resume their control of the spice route until 

around 630. 

 

The forty years or so that followed the Persian occupation of South Arabia 



witnessed the rise to prominence of Mecca as the principal caravan city of the spice 

route; the following twenty years or so of the Persian occupation of Oriens and 

the whole of the Fertile Crescent witnessed the birth and rise of Islam in Mecca, 

and its subsequent development in Medina as a state, when “Muhammad acted 

as his own Constantine.”17 During the five-year period after the Ghassānids and 

Byzantium returned to Oriens around a.d. 630, most of Arabia was united by 

Islam, and the Arab armies were readied to be the instruments of the future con-

quests. Within two years, 636–638, the two world powers were reeling from two 

historic defeats: the first gave the Arabs Oriens, and the second almost destroyed 

Persia itself. As a result, the Arabs found themselves in control of both the silk and 

the spice routes, as the Persians had been while they occupied Oriens. But whereas 

Persian control was relatively brief, the Arab/Muslim occupation of the two prin-

cipal arteries of international trade lasted for centuries. Hence the economic revo-

lution that the Arab Conquests brought about in the struggle for the control of 

the arteries of world trade, whose masters the Arabs became.18 The economic life 

of the empire, now an Anatolian-Balkan state, entered an entirely new and differ-

ent phase. 

 

These conquests had a prime mover. They were initially inspired by a truly 



extraordinary personage, Muḥammad, who before his prophetic call in a.d. 610 

 

16  See the present writer in “The Last Sasanid-Byzantine Conflict in the Seventh Century: The 



Causes of Its Outbreak,” in 

Convegno internazionale La Persia e Bisanzio (Rome, 2004), 222–43.

 

17  B. Lewis, “Politics and War,” in 



The Legacy of Islam, 2nd ed., ed. J. Schacht and C. E. Bosworth 

(Oxford, 1974), 156.

 

18  A leading historian of the Arabs and Islam aptly observed of the pre-Islamic period that “The 



successive displacements of these routes determined the changes and revolutions in Arabian history”; see  

B. Lewis, 



The Arabs in History (1957; reprint, New York, 1966), 33.

57

Economic Rivalry in Arabia: Byzantium and Persia

had spent a good fifteen years as a caravan leader on the spice route. He then began 

the religio-political movement, Islam, that in the seventh century brought an end 

to the three centuries of late antiquity. The relevance of the spice route in this 

context is its formative influence on the political, diplomatic, and administrative 

genius of the Prophet, who created the Arab-Muslim state of Medina in a mere 

ten years, between 622 and 632. From Medina he sent the first military expedi-

tions against Oriens, initiating the future celebrated conquests. During the years 

that Muḥammad had led substantial caravans of the spice route, he had to deal 

with the Byzantine authorities and their federates, the Ghassānids, in Oriens, a 

complex operation involving negotiations at the frontier, at the termini (Bostra 

and Gaza), and between termini and frontier. In addition to honing his secular 

skills, the spice route enabled him to have an intimate knowledge of the geogra-

phy of the southern part of Oriens, the Provincia Arabia and Palaestina Tertia.19 

It was against these regions that he directed the first military expeditions of the 

conquests, and it was again in this sector in Oriens, shortly after his death in 632, 

that his successors won the first victories of Islam, especially the decisive battle of 

Yarmūk in 636. These two provinces of Oriens, so well-known to the Prophet, 

were the first target of conquests that soon would encompass a wide belt of the 

globe extending from India to Spain.

 

Of all the parts of the present volume, it is this economic section that is the 



most relevant and crucial as prolegomenon to the final volume of this series, namely, 

Byzantium and Islam in the Seventh Century, since it elucidates the relevance of the 

spice route to the formation of Muḥammad, the prime mover of Islam and of the 

conquests that changed the course not just of Arab, Byzantine, and Persian history 

but also of the Mediterranean world.

 

19  In the fifth century, Malchus of Philadelphia criticized the emperor Leo I for inviting the phy-



larch Amorkesos to Constantinople, a journey that, he thought, acquainted the Arab phylarch with 

what he should not know about Byzantium. In view of the events of the seventh century, his words sound 

prophetic. On Malchus and his animadversions against Leo, see 

BAFIC, 100–106, especially 100 note 5; 

on the surviving fragment of his 



History, see 112–13. For a more detailed account see “The Arabs in Late 

Antiquity” (Beirut, 2008), 22–30 by the present writer. 

Appendix

Al-Nuʿmān ibn al-Mundir: 

Ghassānid or Lakhmid?

In his work 



Ṣifat Jazīrat al-ʿArab (The Description of Arabia), the Arab medieval 

author al-Hamdānī states that a member of the tribal group Bāhila, namely, Ibn 

ʿIsām, was the 

ṣāḥib, or friend, of al-Nuʿmān ibn al-Mundir, and later refers to him 

as the 


khādim, servant, of the same al-Nuʿmān ibn al-Mundir.1 In his article on the

 

1 al-Hamdānī, 



Ṣifat Jazīrat al-ʿArab, ed. M. al-Akwaʿ (Riyadh, 1974), 293, 310. 

58

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

gold and silver mines in Arabia, D. M. Dunlop concluded that al-Nu‘mān was 

the Ghassānid king.2 If his conclusion had been correct, this would have been a 

remarkable penetration of the Ghassānids into a Lakhmid and Sasanid sphere of 

influence.3 The Bāhila, however, was a tribal group that lived in Yamāma in eastern 

Arabia, where it is unlikely that the Lakhmids would have tolerated a Ghassānid 

presence. 

 

Namesakes were common among the Lakhmids and the Ghassānids; both 



had Nuʿmāns and Mundirs. The individual mentioned by Hamdānī must have 

been a Lakhmid, the famous last king of the dynasty in the fourth quarter of the 

sixth century, who was killed in a.d. 602. His identity is confirmed by the verse 

that Hamdānī quotes: it is by al-Nābigha and addressed to ʿIsām, the well-known 



ḥājib, chamberlain, of the Lakhmid al-Nuʿmān.4 

 

2  See D. M. Dunlop, “The Sources of Gold and Silver in Islam according to al-Hamdani,” 



Studia 

Islamica 8 (1957), 39 note 1. 

 

3  As a matter of course, the Ghassānids would have been interested in the silver mine in the 



thaniyya, defile, of Bāhila; on the silver mines of Bāhila, see G. W. Heck, The Precious Metals of West 

Arabia and Their Role in Forging the Economic Dynamic of the Early Islamic State, King Faiṣal Center for 

Research and Islamic Studies (Riyadh, 2003), 344–46.

 

4 al-Hamdānī, 



Ṣifat,  310, lines 10–11, quoting Dīwān al-Nābigha al-Dubyānī, ed. M. Ibrāhīm 

(Cairo, 1977), 105, verses 1–2; see also M. al-ʿAshmāwi, 



al-Nābigha al-Dhubyāni (Cairo, 1960), 111. 

II

Social History



A. BACKGROUND

I

Ghassānid Federate Society



I. The Arab Background 

O

f the 



foederati of Byzantium during the three centuries of the proto- 

Byzantine period, the Ghassānids endured longest in its service, 150 years, 

forming the last layer of a long, strong Arab presence in Oriens in late antiquity. 

Hence their social history is complex. They were settled in the Byzantine limi-

trophe, the home in Hellenistic and Roman times of the Nabataean and Palmyrene 

Arabs—Arabs who became 



Rhomaioi through the Edict of Caracalla in a.d. 212, 

which made them citizens of the pagan Roman Empire.1 The Ghassānids’ prede-

cessors during this proto-Byzantine period were the Tanūkhids of the fourth cen-

tury and the Salīḥids of the fifth, Arabs much more like themselves than were the 

Nabataean and Palmyrene 

Rhomaioi. They were settled in roughly the same area as 

those predecessors, the easternmost portion of Oriens, where the Rhomaic Arabs 

of Petra and Palmyra had also lived. 

 

As Byzantinized 



foederati and as Christianized Arabs, the Ghassānids were 

well integrated into Byzantine society in Oriens. Unlike the Germanic peoples of 

the Roman Occident, who derived from an entirely different stock, the Ghassānids 

were Arabs like these 



Rhomaioi and were accepted by them as such. This acceptance 

is well illustrated in the Petra Papyrus, Roll 83, which records a request to the Arab 

Ghassānid phylarch Abū Karib that he arbitrate a dispute between two Arab fami-

lies.2 The relations with the Salīḥids and the Tanūkhids were equally close. Together 

 

1

  For the strong Arab presence in Oriens in the Roman period, see 



RA, 1–16.

 

2



  For this papyrus (P.Petra inv. 83), see L. Koenen, “The Carbonized Archive from Petra,” 

JRA 

9 (1996), 177–88; M. Kaimio, “P.Petra inv. 83: A Settlement of Dispute,” in 



Atti del XXII Congresso 

Internazionale di Papirologia, ed. I. Andorlini et al. (Florence, 2001), 2:719–24, and eadem, ed. “P.Petra 

inv. 83,” in 



The Petra Papyri, ed. J. Frösén et al. (Amman, forthcoming), vol. 4; see also BASIC II.1, 46 

note 55. Somewhat similarly, the Ghassānid phylarch was invited to take part in the consecration of a 

church in Ḥuwwārin; see 

BASIC I.1, 455–61. 


62

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

these groups helped give the Arab phylarchate a new look, after Justinian in 529 

put under the command of the Ghassānid Arethas almost all the other 



foederati of 

Byzantium. And so the Ghassānids inherited much of what the other 



foederati had 

assimilated from Byzantium in the two centuries prior to their own advent in Oriens.

 

The social life of the Ghassānids was thus exposed to many influences, Arab 



and non-Arab, emanating from the Graeco-Roman establishment. In writing the 

history of their social life, ideally one would identify those many influences and 

their provenance; but as usually happens, the sources deal mainly with the rulers 

and with their political and military history. 



Akhbār Mulūk Ghassān, despite its 

title (


Accounts of the Kings of Ghassān), must have contained much social history, 

but the manuscript is lost. However, the surviving sources contain enough data 

to paint a fairly clear picture of Ghassānid social life, especially when set against 

the background of what is known of the social history of Oriens in this period 

from the Greek sources and from some Arabic sources. The more plentiful material 

on the Ghassānids’ rivals, the Lakhmids of Ḥīra,3 serves to illuminate Ghassānid 

social history, since the Lakhmids, like the Ghassānids, had come from South 

Arabia and lived in the shadow of a world power—in their case, Sasanid Persia. The 

same applies to the Umayyads and the sources about them. Living in the same area 

in Oriens as the Ghassānids before them, they were the first Muslim dynasty; they 

came to power shortly after the end of Byzantine rule in Oriens and the fall of the 

Ghassānids, whose presence in the Umayyad state remained very strong.4

 

The difficulties presented by the paucity of the sources can be negotiated by 



remembering the tripartite character of the Ghassānids; as Arabs who had hailed 

from the Peninsula, as 



foederati of Byzantium in Oriens, and as pagans who were 

converted to Christianity. This realization can shed much light on their social 

life, secular and religious, deriving from what is known about the social aspects of 

Byzantine culture, and of Christianity in Oriens in late antiquity.

II. The Byzantine Influence

The social life of the Ghassānids reflected the Arab heritage of both their pen-

insular congeners and the urban communities of 

Rhomaioi in Oriens. It is well 

to begin with the Byzantine influence. Once they crossed the Roman frontier, 

the Ghassānids as 

foederati became exposed to two major influences: one from 

Byzantium, the other from Christianity.

 

Byzantium was the lesser of the two influences, and the Ghassānids are known 



 

3  Because Islamic historians such as Ṭabarī and Balādurī were Persians, they were naturally more 

interested in the Lakhmids, who were clients of the Persian Sasanids, than they were in the Ghassānids. 

As Muslims, they also naturally were more interested in the Umayyads of Oriens, the first Muslim Arab 

dynasty in Bilād al-Shām, than in the Ghassānids, Christians who had moved in the orbit of Byzantium.

 

4 See 



BASIC II.1, 375–91, 403–4.

63

Ghassānid Federate Society

to have rejected two important aspects of Byzantine social life. (1) Although  they 

were avid horsemen, they did not enjoy chariot races, a sport very popular in 

Byzantium and pursued in hippodromes in Oriens, including Bostra. (2) They were 

not partial to theatrical performances, whether serious or light. Hence in the town-

scapes of the Ghassānids, such as Jābiya and Jalliq, the hippodrome, the amphithe-

ater, and the theater—mainstays of the early Byzantine cityscape—did not appear.5

 

On the other hand, the tavern was an important center of social life, pro-



viding wine, women, song, and dance.6 For the Ghassānids, the baths or 

thermae 

were not the social centers that they had been in Roman times; though Byzantine 

baths were sexually segregated, the Ghassānids’ Arab ethos and mores must have 



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