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Volume 34, Number 2March/April 1983

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The King of Ghassan

Written by Barry Hoberman
Illustrated by Michael Grimsdale

Despite the best efforts of generations of distinguished Arabists, the history of the Arabs before Islam remains exasperatingly obscure. But thanks to a new commitment to archeological reclamation in countries like Saudi Arabia (See Aramco World, March-April 1980), Yemen, and Oman, it is likely that such knowledge will expand dramatically in the coming years.

Paradoxically, far less is known about the three centuries immediately preceding the Hijra of the Prophet Muhammad in 622—his migration with his followers from Makkah (Mecca) to Medina—than about other, even more remote eras in the history of the Arabs. The ancient Sabeans of South Arabia, the Nabatean kingdom (See Aramco World, March-April 1981) with its capital at rose-red Petra, and the Palmyrene kingdom of Odenathus and Zenobia (See Aramco World, September-October 1981) are much better documented—and consequently more familiar to us—than such later Arab states as the Lakhmid state at Hira, the central Arabian confederation of Kinda, or—a vital force in the sixth-century rivalry between Sasanid Persia and Byzantium—Ghassan. Yet even for that dimly-illuminated, legend-enshrouded age, literary sources, when used judiciously and with extreme care, can shed light on a few key figures—such as al-Harith ibn Jabala of the Ghassan tribal confederation.

Properly speaking, the Ghassanids were an Arab dynasty whose members belonged to a clan of the south Arabian tribe of Azd, believed to have arrived in the Syrian desert about A.D. 250-300 and, about the year 500, to have become the dominant confederation in the desert east of the Jordan and southeast of Damascus. Scholars admit, however, that any attempt to reconstruct Ghassanid history rests on exceedingly shaky ground until we reach the year 529, when al-Harith ibn Jabala succeeded his father as head of the Bani Ghassan tribal confederation.

For the historian, perhaps the most frustrating problem in studying the Ghassanids is the relative lateness of the Arabic sources. The stirring odes of the pre-Islamic Arab poets overflow with references to Ghassan. Three of the most famous poets, Labid ibn Rabi'a—"the man with the crooked staff"—Nabigha al-Dhubyani, and Hassan ibn Thabit, were associated with Ghassan by virtue of either kinship or official Ghassanid patronage. But the poetry of "the days of anarchy or the days of ignorance"—as Muslims call the pre-Islamic era - was handed down orally and was not committed to writing until the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries. Moreover, many of the poems eventually underwent considerable revision. Coupled with the obvious fact that poets everywhere are creative artists and not academic historians, this makes it almost impossible for modern scholars to extract reliable historical data from the polished lyrics of the pre-Islamic bards. Think of the difficulty involved in trying to apprehend the history of, say, Britain or the United States on the basis of their poetry.

The key Arab and Persian historians wrote long after Ghassan had ceased to exist, and though each used all written and oral sources available, their results sometimes differ radically. Abu al-Fida, for example, lists 31 kings of Ghassan, whereas the scrupulously critical 10th-century historian al-Mas'udi, writing almost four centuries earlier, knows of only 11.

Fortunately, the modern historian's task is not hopeless. In many respects, in fact, it is easier than that faced by al-Mas'udi and Abu al-Fida. Written sources contemporary with the Ghassanids—in some cases even contemporary with the reign of al-Harith ibn Jabala—have survived in Greek and Syriac manuscripts, in Epigraphic South Arabian and in documents in Ethiopic, Coptic, Armenian, and Georgian. While they do not explicitly mention Ghassan, they do help elucidate the history of the sixth-century Arabs. By meticulously weaving such shreds of information into the picture 19th-century scholars like Theodor Noeldeke and today's Professor Irfan Shahid of Georgetown University have done much to foster the emergence of Ghassan from the proverbial mists of time.

From the standpoint of world history, the dominant motif of the sixth century was the epic rivalry between Byzantium and Sasanid Persia—and Ghassan played a pivotal part in that ongoing conflict. In fact, it is in its role as a Byzantine-sponsored buffer state that Ghassan definitely enters the clear light of history. This was in or around 529, when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, realizing the need for a strong ally in today's Syria and Jordan, appointed al-Harith ibn Jabala leader of the Arabs of the Syrian desert and authorized him to use the title of king—which may imply that the Ghassanid chiefs normally did not use the title.

The investiture of al-Harith ibn Jabala was Justinian's countermove in the endless political and military chess match with the Persian Emperor Chosroes Anushirvan (531-579), who, for years, had subsidized another Arab dynasty—the Lakhmids of Hira, in southern Mesopotamia—as its buffer state in the struggle with the Byzantines. Justinian hoped that al-Harith would neutralize the formidable Lakhmids who had already mounted a series of spectacular raids into Byzantine territory on behalf of the Persians.

As it turned out al-Harith was indeed up to the task. The first Ghassanid ruler to mold the Arabs of what are now Syria and Jordan into a cohesive tribal confederation, the dynamic and charismatic al-Harith, as the sixth-century Syrian churchman John of Ephesus put it, "was held in...awe and terror by all the nomad tribes of Syria..."

As a result of Justinian's move, the history of the northern pre-Islamic Arabs was dominated—from 529 to 554—by the wars of al-Harith and al-Mundhir—the also-remarkable leader of the Lakhmids. Sometimes their battles were part of the larger Perso-Byzantine conflict, but just as often, al-Harith and al-Mundhir carried on a private struggle of their own, one that looms large in Arab traditions. Even in the heavily embellished, stylized accounts found in later Arabic literature, the actual historical kernel of a bitter, hard-fought personal rivalry between these two remarkable adversaries can be discerned.

For 25 years, the pendulum of victory swung back and forth. First one, then the other, would make a daring raid into the territory of his opponent, or score a triumph in a border skirmish. And largely because the Ghassanids and Lakhmids were so evenly matched during this period, Byzantium and Persia were stalemated in the Middle East. Each of the Arab buffer states was a pivotal factor in the regional defense system of an empire.

The final encounter between al-Harith and al-Mundhir has gone down in Arab tradition as "The Day of Halima." The battle, which took place in northern Syria in 554, resulted in al-Mundhir's death and a decisive victory for Ghassan. Here is the account of the ninth-century Baghdadi historian, Ibn Qutaiba (as translated by R.A. Nicholson):

When al-Mundhir ibn Ma' al-Sama' marched against him with an army 1,000,000 strong, al-Harith sent 100 men to meet him—among them the poet Labid, who was then a youth—ostensibly to make peace. They surrounded al-Mundhir's tent and slew the king and his companions, then they took horse, and some escaped, while others were slain. The Ghassanid cavalry attacked the army of al-Mundhir and put them to flight. al-Harith had a daughter named Halima, who perfumed the hundred champions on that day and clad them in shrouds of white linen (to make them ready for burial in the event they were killed) and coats of mail...

The strife between Ghassanids and Lakhmids did not abate after al-Mundhir's death, any more than did the Perso-Byzantine wars, but, with his rival out of the picture, al-Harith ibn Jabala of Ghassan became the preeminent figure.

Unfortunately, little is known about Ghassanid society, in al-Harith's time, or for that matter, in any other time, since most of the clans and tribes were nomadic, with no permanent capital other than an encampment at Jabiya, south of Damascus.

Unlike many pre-Islamic Arab tribes, the Ghassanids were not pagans but monophysite Christians—members of what later came to be called the Syrian-Jacobite church. It was, in fact, through the personal intervention of al-Harith ibn Jabala that Ya'qub Bar-Addai, better known as Jacob Baradaeus (whence the term "Jacobite"), was consecrated Bishop of Edessa for the provinces of Syria and Mesopotamia, in 542 or 543. The rigidly monotheistic doctrine of Syrian Christianity probably helped to prepare the Arabs of Ghassan for the revelation of Islam, whose Prophet Muhammad was born very soon after al-Harith ibn Jabala's death in 569.

In November, in the year 563, al-Harith and the Emperor Justinian held a summit meeting in Constantinople, at which al-Harith was to tell Justinian which of his sons would succeed him. And though the Ghassanid king was the head of what we would today call a client state, he and the emperor met on an equal footing—as comrades in arms, as illustrious statesmen, as old veterans of international diplomacy, discussing matters of earth-shaking and, as colleagues may, of less-than-earthshaking importance.

We know that they covered the crucial question of al-Harith's successor—it was to be his capable son, al-Mundhir ibn al-Harith—and surely they talked of the prevailing military situation and speculated about the future plans of Chosroes Anushirvan, the Persian king of kings.

It is also easy to imagine that as these two titans of the sixth century sat face to face, they talked of things other than the pressing business at hand. Each man had been in power for well over 30 years, and each had lived—and made—an extraordinary amount of history. There was much that they should have been able to share and reminisce over, many events that they could now re-evaluate from hindsight.

Perhaps they chatted about Justinian's late wife, the Empress Theodora, whom al-Harith had met in Constantinople some 20 years earlier, and with whom he had arranged the consecration of Ya'qub Bar-Addai. And could they possibly have failed to recall—and grudgingly praise—that pertinacious foe of Byzantium and Ghassan, al-Mundhir ibn Ma' al-Sama' of Hira? A meeting in Constantinople between a Byzantine emperor and a pre-Islamic Arab king is truly a stimulant to the active historical imagination.

Unfortunately, the skimpy records from contemporary historians preclude our saying anything about al-Harith's appearance, the size of his entourage, or the impression he made upon Justinian and his courtiers. We can suppose that al-Harith's arrival in the Byzantine capital caused quite a stir among the citizenry, but barring an unforeseen manuscript discovery we will never know for sure.

We do know that al-Harith ibn Jabala has a role in Byzantine history, in Syrian and Jordanian history and in Christian ecclesiastical history. Above all, however, he is a protagonist of Arab history. He stands as one of the towering figures of the pre-Islamic era, right alongside Odenathus and Zenobia of Palmyra, al-Mundhir ibn Ma' al-Sama' of Hira, and the celebrated poets of Ukaz (See Aramco World, March-April 1980). Under his stalwart leadership, a significant portion of the Arabs were successfully united—prefiguring, in a secular sense, the more complete unification of the Arabs that was to take place only a few decades later, under the Prophet Muhammad and the early caliphs of Islam.

Barry Hoberman studied Islam at Harvard and is now Managing Editor of Biblical Archaologist.

This article appeared on pages 21-23 of the March/April 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1983 images.