Observations on the Arabs and the Superpowers

Observations on the Arabs and the Superpowers

Posted on 13 May, 2007 by Kal

Recently, I have been doing research on the Ghassanid and Lakhmid Arab kingdoms/vassal states that once existed between the Byzantine and Sassanian empires in the years AD prior to Islam (for a school project). The Ghassanids were a large confederation of Arabic-speaking tribes that migrated into lower Syria (nowadays northern Saudi Arabia, Jordan and southern Syria), becoming Christianized and, as Hitti writes, “became the bulwark of Roman rule” (History of the Arabs: 10th Edition, Hitti, Philip, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2002, pp. 65). The Lakhmids also are thought to have migrated from Yemen, around the same time as the Ghassanids (as well as several other large Arab tribes; the late 200′s and early-mid 300′s AD).

The Lakhmids settled at Hirah in Iraq (south of Kufa). The Lakhmids arose before the Ghassanids as an organized force in the fourth century. They eventually came under the sway of the Sassanians. After a long series of Bedouin raids coming from the un-girded Meso-Arabian frontier during which “indecisive and mediocre andarzbad (lit. advisers), who proved incompetent at stopping the Arabs”, the young shah Shapur II came to power. Upon his ascension, “the advisors were pushed aside and Shapur immediately ordered the Savaran to crush the Arab invaders and expel them back across the border.” (Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, Farrokh, Kaveh, Osprey Publishing, 2007, pg. 198-99) Following his brutal expulsion of the raiders, Shapur established the Khandaq-e-Shapur to wall off the Arabs:

The seriousness of the Arab raids prompted the Sassanian high command to take military measures to protect the southern regions against future assaults. Defensive walls began to be constructed along the western regions of modern-day southern Iraq in an attempt to contain future Bedouin raids. The model for these wall was at least partly derived from the Roman system along the Romano-Syrian borders further west. Shapur’s defenses facing Arabia became known as the “Khandaq-e-Shapur” (Shapur’s ditch). The Sassanians also cultivated friendly relations with those Arab tribes who had earlier entered the Mesopotamian plains near Syria. Of these, the Bani-Lakhm or Lakhmids proved to be excellent warriors who maintained the peace along the southern frontiers. The Sassanians soon trained and equipped the Lakhmids to fight like the Savaran. The settling of warrior peoples along the Empire’s borders may have been inspired by the Roman limitanei system.

The Lakhmid house produced one Christian king during the reign of Nu`man III abu-Qabus (580-602). Hitti writes that he had “been brought up in a Christian home”, further noting “that no member of the Lakhmid house saw fit before this time to adopt Christianity, the faith of the Byzantines, may be explained on the ground that the Hirah kings found it to their political advantage to remain friendly with Persia.” Nu`man himself was baptized a Nestorian, the church “least objectionable to Persia.” (History of the Arabs, pg. 84).

These Arabs are described as being the cultural inferiors of the Ghassanids in Hitti’s writings. Given that both kingdoms patronized various poets to sing their praises, we find conflicting reports with this, though these are usually literary in nature. Wikipedia quotes poets describing it as a paradise, stating “One day in al-Hirah is better than a year of treatment”. Hitti, however, tells us that

The Arab civilization of al-Hirah, which faced Persia, did not attain the high degree reached by the Arab civilizations of Petra, Palmyra and Ghassanland under Syro-Byzantine influence. The Arabs of al-Hirah spoke Arabic as a daily language but used Syriac in writing, just as the Nabataeans and Palmyrenes spoke Arabic and wrote in Aramaic. The Christians of the lower valley of the Euphrates acted as the teachers of the heathen Arabs in reading, writing and religion. From al-Hirah the beneficent influences spread into Arabia proper. There are those who hold that it was the Syrian church of al-Hirah which was responsible for the introduction of Christianity into Najran. [. . .]

Hitti also notes that the Lakhmids tended to favor Bedouin lifestyles over settled life, whereas the Ghassanids favored sedentary living (pg. 81-82).

The Ghassanids were employed by the Romans along similar lines as the Lakhmids were along the Khandaq-e-Shapur. By fifth century the Ghassanids were under Byzantine control and “used as a buffer state to stay the overflow of Bedouin hordes.” Their capital was, according to Hitti, “first a movable camp; later it may have become fixed at al-Jabiyah in Jawlan (Gaulanitis) and for some time was located at Jilliq” (History of the Arabs, pg. 78).

Among the most notable of the Ghassanid kings was al-Harith II ibn-Jabalah, who engaged the Lakhmid king al-Mundhir III ibn-Ma`-al-Sama’ in battle. In 529 Junstinian I appointed the victorious Ghassanid “lord over all the Arab tribes of Syria and created him particus and phylarch — the highest rank next to that of emperor himself.” His Arabic title was malik (king). (pg. 79). Warwick Ball in Rome in the East: The Transformation of Empire writes that The Ghassanids were recognized under Emperor Anastasius “under their chief al-Harith I as supreme over their rivals, the Salih who fell increasingly out of favor.” Ball further mentions that

making the Ghassan supreme had a distinct advantage: the Ghassan unlike the Tanukh, had no blood ties with Rome’s enemies in the Arab world, the Lakhm of Hira. For the Sasanians of Iran made increasing use of their Lakhmid allies to strike deep at Rome’s Near Eastern possessions. Since they were just allies, rather than a dull part of the Sasanian Empire, excuses could be made that they were outside Sasanian control if these strikes came when there was supposedly peace between the two empires.

Ball mentions a Lakhmid raid on Antioch in 531 by al-Mundhir which was repelled by al-Harith ibn Jabalah; the Lakhmids then returned with 15,000 auxiliary forces from the Persians (It should also be mentioned that as early as 523, the Lakhmids had procured two Byzantine dukes.). He states that Arab “lightning tactics” were quite effective against Roman conventional forces, and that the Ghassanid troops “acquitted themselves with distinction” even when great Roman generals faltered (Ball, Rome in the East, Routledge, New York, 2001, pg. 102). Al-Mundhir was defeated near Chalcis in 554. Hitti traces a rivalry between the two camps back to 544 when after a battle with al-Mundhir III, one of al-Harith’s sons was captured. Al-Mundhir III reportedly “offered him as a sacrifice to al-`Uzza, the counterpart of the Greek Aphrodite.” He informs us that al-Harith “took his revenge and slew his Lakhmid enemy” at the 554 battle in Chalcis. He speculates that “this battle is perhaps the ‘Day of Halimah’ of Arabic tradition, Halimah being the daughter of the al-Harith who, before the battle, perfumed with her own hands the hundred Ghassanid champions ready for death and clad them in shrouds of white linen in addition to coats of mail.” (History of the Arabs, pg. 79)

For his victory, al-Harith was given a tremendous ceremony at Constantinople by Junstinian on a state visit. Both Ball and Hitti mention the “deep” (Hitti) and “long standing” (Ball) impression that was left on the imperial court. The Ghassanids, as mentioned earlier, were know for their high degree of civilization. “Greek and Syriac texts mention them alongside Byzantine emperors as ‘our most pious and Christ-loving kings”, even speaking of their ‘kingdom’. And in the verses of their poets there would seem to be none more powerful: ‘Do you not see’, wrote one to his Ghassanid master, ‘that God has granted you such a degree of power that you will observe every king trembling at your feet; for you are the sun, the kings are stars, and when the sun rises, no star will be seen’.” (The Oxford History of Byzantium, Ed. Mango, Cyril, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002, pg. 123-24).Al-Harith was succeeded by his son al-Mundhir who saw an open rebellion on the Ghassanid’s part on behalf of their Monophysitism. The Byzantines saw the autonomy of the Ghassanid church from their own Orthodoxy as a threat, as well as the growing power of the Bedouin kingdom in the region. Ball’s account of these hostilities runs thusly.

The Emperor Jusin II (565-78), however, did not inherit the personal relationship that existed between his predecessor and al-Harith and was suspicious of al-Mundhir — or rather of the Ghassan’s growing power. The Ghassanid ‘kingdom’ by now comprised virtually all of the eastern areas of the provinces of Arabia and Syria, ruled with little reference to Constantinople. In addition, the increasing Monophysitism espoused by the Ghassan and the subsequent virtual independence of the Syrian Church alienated Orthodox Constantinople.

Justin II resolved to have the Ghassanid king assassinated, and sent off his resolution in a letter to the governor of Syria. The letter found its way into Ghassanid hands before it reached the governor. “Mundhir responded by abrogating the alliance and allowing the Lakhmids to raid Roman territory”. Realizing the importance of the Arab role, a treaty was concluded at Rasafa in 575 and the status quo ante was restored with the Ghassanid bulwark back in place. The Ghassanids sacked al-Hirah, the Lakhmid capital, in 580 (Bowersock and Grabar in Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical Age (Belknap Press, Cambridge, 1999), put the year of burning at 578; Late Antiquity, pg. 536), a move that evidently put the Arabs back into good faith with the Byzantines (Rome in the East, pg. 103). Hitti relates that the Lakhmid capital was “raided and burned” (History of the Arabs, pg. 80). That same year Emperor Tiberius II met al-Mundhir together with his sons in Constantinople. At the ceremony, we are told by Ball that Tiberius II “personally placed a crown on al-Mundhir’s head.” (Rome in the East, pg. 103) Hitti adds that he “replaced the precious diadem on his head with a still more precious crown.” (History of the Arabs, pg. 80)

This was to last only briefly. Caesar Maurice suffered injuriously during a failed invasion of Mesopotamia and placed the blame on the Arab and convinced the emperor to have him exiled off to Sicily during the dedication of a church at Huwarin. Not long after, the Byzantines gave the Ghassanids a call to Orthodoxy, which they strongly opposed. Al-Mundhir’s sons began a revolt, during the course of which his eldest son Nu`man raided much Byzantine territory. This son was beseeched for negotiations by Maurice. Tricked much like a fool into heading to Constantinople to meet with the Byzantines, Nu`man found himself in exile as well. It is generally said that after this, the Ghassanids dispersed into various smaller units, losing much of their power and prestige. Hitti describes a period of anarchy in which each of the confederation’s tribes chose their own chiefs. However, there was no shortage of merriment in the court, it would seem. The Ghassanid ruling classes lived opulent lives, and the court was known for its “Makkan and Babylonian and Greek singers and musicians of both sexes and its free use of wine.” (History of the Arabs, pg. 81;Rome in the East, pg. 103)

The Ghassanids would join with the Romans in the 600′s, aiding in Heraclius’s conquest of Syria, and fighting on the Byzantine side (along with Armenians, Georgians, and an assortment of other Byzantine clients) at the Battle of Yarmuk (636). The last Ghassanid ruler, Jabalah ibn-al-Ayham, would fight here and the Ghassanids would be totally enveloped by the Muslim advance by the next year. According to al-Baladhuri, Jabalah met one of three fates:

Jabalah ibn-al-Aibam sided with the Ansar saying, “Ye are our brethren and the sons of our fathers,” and professed Islam. After the arrival of ‘Umar ibn-al-Khattab in Svria, year 17, Jabalah had a dispute with one of the Muzainah and knocked out his eve. ‘Umar ordered that he be punished, upon which Jabalah said, “Is his eye like mine? Never, by Allah, shall I abide in a town where I am under authority.” He then apostatized and went to the land of the Greeks. This Jabalah was the king of Ghassan and the successor of al-Harith ibn-abi-Shimr.

According to another report, when Jabalah came to ‘Umar ibn-al-Khattab, he was still a Christian. ‘Umar asked him to accept Islam and pav sadakah [a Muslim alms tax] but he refused saving, “I shall keep my faith and pav sadakah.” ‘Umar’s answer was, “If thou keepest thy faith, thou least to pay poll-tax”. The man refused, and ‘Umar added, “We have only three alternatives for thee: Islam tax or going whither thou willest.” Accordingly, Jabalah left with 30,000 men to the land of the Greeks [Asia Minor]. ‘Ubadah ibn-as-Samit gently reproved ‘Umar saying, “If thou hadst accepted sadakah from him and treated him in a friendly way, be would have become Moslem.”

In the year 21, ‘Umar directed ‘LTmair ibi)-Sa’d al-AnsAri at the head of a great army against the land of the Greeks, and put him in command of the summer expedition which was the first of its kind. ‘Umar instructed him to treat Jabalah ibn-al-Aiham very, kindly, and to try and appeal to him through the blood relationship between them, ‘so that be should come back to the land of the Moslems with the understanding that he would keep his own faith and pay the amount of sadakah lie had agreed to pay. ‘Umair marched until he came to the land of ‘the ‘Greeks and proposed to Jabalah what he was ordered by ‘Umar to propose; but Jabalah refused the offer and insisted on staying in the land of the Greeks. ‘Umar then came into a place called al-Himar-a valley– which he destroyed putting its inhabitants to the sword. Hence the proverb, “In a more ruined state than the hollow of Himar.” [Errors not my doing, see source - here.]

Hitti relates a story of his return to Byzantium in which

As he was circumambulating the Ka`bah in the ourse of his first pilgrimage, so the story goes, a Bedouin stepped on his cloak and the ex-king slapped him on the face. The Caliph `Umar decreed that Jabalah should either submit to a similar blow from the hand of the Bedouin or pay a fine, upon which Jabalah renounced Islam and retired to Constantinople.

For this variation, Hitti cites Ibn-`Abd-Rabbihi, Iqd vol. 1. (History of the Arabs, pg. 80).

Having made their way back from the establishment of the Muslims, the Ghassanid elite would make their way back to Byzantium, providing it with the Emperor Nicephorus I (802-11) (referred to as Niqfur in Arabic sources), whom Caliph Haroun al-Rashid would refer to as “the dog of a Roman”.

The Lakhmids met a similar fate to the Ghassanids, having their system of vassalage disrupted at the behest of the patron and being placed under the authority of imperial governors. In 602, the Persian shah Khosrow II, irritated that the Lakhmids had not aided him in suppressing the revolt of Bahram Chobin. Another account (Abu Obayda) has it that Nu`man III refused to marry his daughter off to the Persian. The Lakhmid King was supported by the Bani-Sheiban who brought with them several other Arab tribes. The Persians, by Farrokh’s count, fielded 2,000 Savaran and 3,000 allied Arab troops. The Persians were defeated by the Bani-Sheiban at the battle of Dhu Qar in 610. The Sassanians “utterly failed to appreciate the military significance of this defeat.” Farrokh attributes this to “a foolishly misguided tendency to deride the Arabs as military inferiors [. . .] while the Byzantines and the Turks were rightly seen as formidable and dangerous warriors, the Arabs were apparently not views in the same light,” even as they had demonstrated their prowess in battle against the Byzantines, with the favored example being at the battle of Callinicum.

Indeed, “the Lakhmids were indispensable in their ability to act as the guardians of the Empire’s southwest”. The Sassanians viewed the Byzantines with greater fear than they did perhaps any Arab threat to their southwest, making it easy for them to focus their energies on the former. Weakening their defenses along what was the Khandaq-e-Shapurwithout attempting to rebuild any meaningful system of defense, all the while wearing themselves down in battle with the Byzantines left the Persians open to the Arab invasions of 633/37 (Shadows in the Desert, pg. 255). The Byzantines, too, by dispersing their Arab vassals and keeping up weak and meager defenses against what would soon give rise to the region’s next big wave; Islam.