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Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century.

Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, vol 2, pt. 2: Economic, Social, and Cultural history. By Irfan Shahid. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010. Pp. xxiii + 391. $50.

For the last forty-five years or so, Irfan Shahid has devoted his time and scholarship to the study of the history of Byzantium and the Arabs in late antiquity and, in addition to scholarly works on other topics, he has published a series of several multi-part volumes on the fourth, the fifth, and the sixth centuries thereof that are today some of the most definitive books on the subject.

The volume under review is concerned with the economic, social, and cultural history of the Ghassanids, the Arab foederati of Byzantium in Oriens. Scholars in this field know that research in it requires control of many languages, including Arabic, Syriac, Greek, and Latin, in addition to several modern European languages in which scholarly works on the subject have appeared; it also needs full acquaintance with the original sources and the necessary methodologies. This is a daunting task, which Professor Shahid has accepted confidently and fulfilled creditably.

The sixth-century contemporary sources that specifically deal with the Ghassanids are few and some are lost. However, references to the Ghassanids in sources of that century and in earlier times are plentiful, but they are fragmentary and scattered in many works in several languages. In his research Shahid obeys what he calls "Noldeke's Law" for reconstructing the history of Arab-Byzantine relations in pre-Islamic times, namely, the employment of Greek and Latin sources and early Arabic poetry, rather than the prose sources of later Islamic times. Although Shahid has sometimes judiciously used later Islamic sources, with qualifications, the history he has reconstructed is amazing with its interesting detail and development. Regarding some sections, it may be "partly inferential and partly evidential," as he says; but the caution and scholarly acumen with which he treats the invaluable references he finds are exemplary, his argument for a point of view when there is insufficient or mutually exclusive evidence is strongly persuasive, and the elegant literary style in which he presents his historical narrative gives the history he writes clarity and wholeness that bring alive the Ghassanids of the sixth century.

The picture of the Ghassanids that emerges in the end is that of a refined society of sedentary and urbanized Arabs, who are zealous Christians of the Monophysite conviction, living in Oriens under the rule of their king, and who are Arab foederati of the Byzantine empire and its supporters against the Sasanid Persians and their Lakhmid Arab supporters in al-Hira, and against the encroachments of the pastoralist Arab nomads of the Arabian peninsula. Although some aspects of this picture have been generally known earlier, Shahid brings to it unsuspected, important elements and additional, precise details that enliven it and give the Ghassanids a more significant role in the history of late antiquity and the region.

One of the major elements that stands out in his portrayal of the Ghassanids is their enthusiastic embrace of their Christian faith. As mentioned in the sources that he draws attention to, they built churches and monasteries, some of which have been recently noted archaeologically. Their warriors--like those of the Byzantines--took part in war liturgies and fought the Lakhmids and other pagan enemies as soldiers of Christ. St. Sergius, who was the patron saint of the Byzantine army, was theirs also, and his name was invoked in their battles. Sergiopolis (Rusafa) was their most important pilgrimage center after Jerusalem, another likely center--among a couple of others--being the shrine containing the graves of the two patron saints of medicine, Cosma and Damian in Cyrrhos, in Euphratensis. The Arab monks in the Ghassanid monasteries developed the Arabic script as they translated hymns and liturgical and scriptural texts from Syriac or Greek for the use of their churches into Arabic. In brief, Ghassanid culture was Christian Arab, and Shahid sees it as an intermediate stage in Oriens between the previous pagan Arab culture of the Nabataeans of Petra and the Palmyrenes of Tadmur on the one hand, and the later Muslim Arab culture of the Umayyads on the other hand. Highlighting this fact about Ghassanid culture, he says, "It was the first and last time in the course of two millennia that there evolved a mature Christian Arab culture" (p. 262). However, he emphasizes that Ghassanid culture was not only Christian but also strongly Arab in character, and he goes to great lengths to elaborate on this fact throughout the book. From references in extant Arabic poetry eulogizing the Ghassanids and composed by their poet laureate Hassan ibn Thabit, by al-Nabigha al-Dhubyani, and by a dozen other Arab poets, Shahid produces evidence of their attachment to Arab ideals of ethics, including muru'a with its various dimensions of bravery and endurance in battle, hospitality and generosity in peace, a sense of honor and a readiness to protect the weak, and chivalry at its best. He produces evidence of their pride in their Arab origins in South Arabia and of their continued relations with their relatives there and elsewhere in Arabia, and of their remembrance of the martyrdom of their Christian relatives in Najan in about a.d. 520, some of whose relics they translated to their churches in Oriens, as in Mahajja (= Pilgrimage Center) in Trachonitis (Harran) not far from Damascus, and in Nitil in the Madaba region of present-day Jordan.

From the same contemporary Arabic poetry, corroborated by references in Greek and Latin sources, Shahid demonstrates the high level of the refined sedentary and urbanized life that the Ghassanids led. Being at the crossroads of international trade, they protected and taxed traders passing through Ghassanland, coming to the Mediterranean from the Far East over the Mesopotamian route and from South Asia and Africa over the Western Arabia route. Furthermore, they had their own local industries and agriculture and achieved a measure of prosperity, which reflected itself in their social and cultural life. For example, in their region of Oriens, there were towns with theaters such as in Bostra (Busra) and in the cities of the Decapolis, including Gerasa (Jarash); but as good Monophysites, the Ghassanids viewed the mime and the theater as un-Christian but embraced the odeion as a venue for poetry recitals, oratory, and music (p. 284). Shahid draws attention to what he calls "crucial evidence" (ibid.) of an Odeion / odeum in Ghassanland, namely, a verse in the poetry of Hassan ibn Thabit in which the poet says that, after drinking wine in the tavern, he would listen to song in buyut al-rukham ('marble mansions'). Whether buyut al-rukham were odea in the classical sense is a matter of interpretation. Archaeological excavations of Ghassanid sites and inscriptions would be immensely helpful in revealing more about the Ghassanids' cultural history, let alone their art and architecture, as has been shown by the recent excavation of the sixth-century Ghassanid church of St. Sergius at Nitil in the region of Madaba in Jordan with its surviving mosaics and plan--a church that was first discovered by Alois Musil about a century ago and recently excavated and written about by the late Fr. Michele Piccirillo (1944-2008). More of this kind of archaeological evidence is still needed to learn more about the history and civilization of the Ghassanids, and to validate and amplify literary evidence about them.

At any rate, Shahid leaves no stone unturned, despite the paucity of sources, to diligently present the economic, social, and cultural history of the Ghassanids in Oriens and their relations with Byzantium in the sixth century. He reconstructs the daily life of the Ghassanids and discusses in great detail various aspects of it, including their fairs, their food and drink, their clothes, their music and dance, their women, their horses and hunt, their recreation in the desert, their medicine, their banquets and victory celebrations, their rituals and ideals. He describes their function asfoederati of the Byzantine empire, the visits of some of their kings and queens to Byzantium and their effect there, as well as Ghassanid heroic feats on battlefields, in which women were often present.

His book is very interesting and makes one look forward to his next published work. Undaunted by the great task ahead, he is continuing the study of the history of Byzantium and the Arabs and is currently engaged in writing the final work of the series in two parts; it will be entitled Byzantium and Islam in the Seventh Century, and it will deal with Byzantium and the rise of Islam and the Arab Muslim conquest of Oriens--a region that, henceforth, came to be known as Bilad al-Sham.


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Title Annotation:Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century: Economic, Social, and Cultural History, vol. 2, pt. 2
Author:Boullata, Issa J.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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