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Early Christianity in Arabia/Section 8


The news of the revolution in the affairs of Yaman, and the friendly professions of the new king, had been joyfully received at the court of Justinian, who hoped that he might at length rely on his assistance; but the promise of the king of Hamyar to take a part in the Persian war was never fulfilled. The ambassadors of Rome often urged Abrahah to the invasion of Persia, but the soldiers of Hamyar were disheartened by the prospect of a long and perilous march through the desert, to engage an enemy of such superior power and resources, and when Abrahah had once set out on the promised expedition, some domestic circumstance called him back almost as soon as he started.[1]

The last years of the reign of the Persian king Kobad were embittered by civil discord. This monarch had adopted the pernicious doctrines of Mazdak, who pretended to be a prophet sent from heaven to preach a community of women and possessions; the wives and estates of the Persian nobles were divided among the disciples of the impostor, and the mother of the great Noushirwan was only saved from prostitution by the urgent entreaties of her son. The king of Hirah, whose mother, from her beauty, had obtained the appellation of Ma-es-samai (celestial water), and who was known by the same name as his parent, had become obnoxious to Kobad for his opposition to the new doctrines, and he is said to have been deposed, and another king put in his place, who was willing to receive the doctrines approved by his master.[2] The defenceless state to which the dissensions between the Persian king and his nobles had reduced the empire, presented a favourable opportunity to the Arabs, and its provinces were laid waste by the continual incursions of the hordes of the desert.[3] Eastern writers give the following account of the hostile occupation of Hirah and of the death of Kobad.

The Persian monarch, having devoted himself to a life of abstinence and piety, shed not any blood, neither did he put any person to death, nor make war on any one, and Mazdak encouraged, him in this line of conduct. Then all veneration and fear of Kobad departed from the hearts of the princes, and no one respected or dreaded him; and as they were free from any apprehensions of his attacking them, all the princes in his empire began to form ambitious projects. The king of the Arabs, Naaman ibn Al Mondar was under his subjection, and his residence was at Hirah; and there was a king in Syria called Hareth, the son of Amru, who was the son of Hogr of Kendah, who was tributary to the king of Yaman. Then Hareth came from Syria to Kufa, and to Hirah, and slew Naaman, and seized upon his kingdom. Kobad sent a person to him, saying, "Why have you seized upon the kingdom without my commands? but as I hold you in esteem, a personal interview must take place between you and me, that I may prescribe to you the same conditions which were imposed on Naaman, and fix the boundaries of the land of the Arabs, and the limits of your kingdom; so that the Arabs shall not pass beyond them." Hareth came, and had an interview with Kobad, on the borders of the Suwad[4] of Irak, near Modaïene. Kobad assigned to Hareth the boundaries, saying—"The Arabian borders are from the desert to Kufa, and to the brink of the Euphrates; this side is the Suwad of Irak, and none of the Arabians must pass on this side from the brink of the Euphrates." Hareth acquiesced. But after this, Hareth, holding in contempt the words of Kobad, restrained not the Arabians; and they passed from their side of the Euphrates, and laid waste the villages of the Suwad. Kobad dispatched a messenger to Hareth, saying—"You have not observed the limits which I have assigned to you." Hareth replied—"Those plunderers are Arabs who prowl about night and day, it is impossible for me to watch them; for if I were to expend all that I possess in endeavouring to restrain them, I should not have the power to accomplish it." Then Kobad gave to Hareth six large villages of those belonging to the Suwad on the banks of the Euphrates. When Hareth had taken possession of these, he restrained the Arabs from entering the Persian territories. The Arab king, having thus made trial of the weakness of Kobad, persuaded others of the more southernly tribes to join with him, invaded Persia, and proceeded as far as Rei, where the Persian monarch was slain.[5] The accession of Noushirwan was marked by the destruction of Mazdak and his adherents: Hareth was driven from Hirah, and compelled to take refuge amongst the tribes of the peninsula, and the king who had been deposed by Kobad was restored to his throne.[6]

The more immediate consequence of the Roman embassy to Hamyar and Auxuma was the renewal of the Persian war. No sooner had Noushirwan learnt that Belisarius had left the east to prosecute the war in Italy, than he began to seek causes of rupture with the Byzantine emperor. The Saracen prince was easily induced to invade the border provinces of the empire. A district which bordered on the territories of the mondar, as well as on those of Hareth, the king of the Roman Saracens, was claimed by the former; and his pretensions were disputed by Hareth, on the plea that its name, Strata, indicated it to have been a Roman possession. The proud spirit of the king of Hirah would not deign to dispute with words, and the territory of Ghassan was quickly overrun by his hostile bands.[7] Justinian expostulated with the Persian king against the hostilities of his tributary, but Noushirwan only reproached him with his endeavours to rouse against him the arms of Hamyar,[8] and with having, in a time of peace, attempted to seduce from his allegiance the king of Hirah. The hostilities of the mondar were continued, and the forces of Persia followed and supported him. Hareth had recourse to the same species of argument as his rival; at the instigation of Belisarius, who had been recalled to the defence of the east, he invaded Assyria, and collected an immense booty from the plunder of that rich province. Their Saracen allies, however, seem always to have been regarded by the Byzantine court with suspicion, and Hareth is accused of having tried to deceive the Roman army, in order to secure his prey.[9] His faith was afterwards considered as proved by his inveterate hostility to the king of Hirah. In a war between the two Arab chiefs, which was carried on without the interference of either Persia or Rome, the son of Hareth fell into the power of the mondar, who sacrificed him to Venus, or Ozza, the deity worshipped by his tribe.[10] In a subsequent action the united forces of the mondar were defeated with great slaughter, and two of his sons made prisoners.

During the reigns of the mondar the son of Ma-es-samai, and of Amru ben Hind, flourished most of the celebrated poets, whose writings merited to be suspended in the Kaaba, and have thence received the name of Moallakat, or the suspended.[11] Despising the shackles of grammatical rules and prosody, which were not introduced till ages subsequent to Muhammed,[12] as much as they abhorred the chains of personal slavery, the greatest heroes amongst the Arabs were celebrated for the cultivation of eloquence and poetry.[13] The poems of the Arabs were of a peculiar character; commencing generally with the praise of his mistress, the poet proceeds to celebrate the bravery of his tribe, and almost always concludes by describing his personal exploits. Lebid was a hero of the tribe of Gafar,[14] which appears then to have been in alliance with that of Ghassan.[15] Whilst young, he accompanied the army of Hareth, king of Ghassan, against the son of Ma-es-samai, who was invading the Roman territory at the head of a powerful army. Lebid, with a hundred chosen companions, entered the camp of the enemy, penetrated to the tent of the king of Hirah, slew him, made good his retreat before the death of the king was known, and had a share in the battle which ensued, and which is celebrated by Arabian historians as the day of Holaimah.[16] Lebid is supposed to have composed his Moallakah in the reign of Amru ben Hind.[17]

The poet Amru'l-Kais was the son of Hogr, king of the Asadites, who was the son of that Hareth king of Kendah who had forcibly occupied the kingdom of Hirah in the reign of Kobad.[18] The sons of Hareth were all celebrated chiefs: Sjerhabil was king of Kelab, and Hogr had conquered the tribe of Asad, but his new subjects rebelled against him, and he fell a victim to their fury.[19] On hearing of the death of his father, Amru'l-Kais made a vow to abstain from the use of wine and oil till he had revenged it, and had killed with his own hand a hundred of the men of Asad. With the assistance of the Becrites and Taglabites, he fulfilled his vow, and regained the throne, but when he was left by his new allies, he was compelled to seek refuge from his subjects in Yemamah. The influence of the mondar of Hirah, who had been restored by Noushirwan, prevented the Arabian chiefs from giving assistance to the son of his enemy, and Amru'l-Kais, after many disappointments, fled to Ghassan, and sought assistance from the Roman emperor. Although, at first, he was well received by the court of Byzantium, he soon after fell a victim to its timid and treacherous policy, and was secretly poisoned.[20]

Various causes had long been combining to raise distrust between the Romans and their allies, but the breach was widened, and their connection finally destroyed by the bitterness of religious controversy.

  1. Procopius, lib. i. de Bel. Pers. c. 20.
  2. Rasmussen, pp. 11, 12. Pococke, Spec. p. 71.
  3. Asseman, Bibl. Orient. tom. i. p. 265.
  4. The name Suwad سواد is said to have been given to Irak from the black colour of the Arab tents with which it was covered when in their possession. Fundgruben des Orients, band. ii. p. 199. D'Herbelot in Souad.
  5. The foregoing is nearly a literal translation from the Tarikh Tabar, as given in Ouseley's Oriental Collections, vol. iii. p. 156, et seq. In the sequel the author confounds the incursion of the Arabs with the more ancient expeditions of the tobbaas of Yaman. Hamza relates, too, that the kingdom of Hirah was forcibly seized by Hareth. Rasmussen, pp. 11, 12.
  6. Rasmussen, p. 13.
  7. Procopius, de Bel. Pers. lib. ii. c. 1. I find mention of this Strata, or paved way, in the geography of Abulfeda, as cited by Schultens in his Index Geographicus to his edition of Bohaddin. Sarchadum is mentioned as a small town at the boundary of the Hauraun, in lon. 60° 20′, lat. 32° 15′. "A latere ejus Eoo viam pergis, quæ Strata appellator, Irakam ferens. Narrant viatores, si teneatur, Sarchado Bagdadum perveniri decem præter propter diebus."
  8. Theophanes, ad an. 563.
  9. Procopius, lib. ii. c. 1.
  10. Και απ’ αυτου εγνωσθη ου καταπροϊεσθαι τα Ρωμαιων πραγματα Πετρας Αρεθαν. Procopius, lib. ii. c. 28.
  11. Amru ben Keltum, cd. Kosegarten (4to. Jen. 1819.) p. 66. D'Herbelot in Moallakat. They have been translated by Sir W. Jones.
  12. Ante Muslemanisinum Arabes, qui ad eloquentiam sua natura facti esse videntur, grammaticæ regulis non utebantur. Schamseldinæus Altensaræus, ap. Casiri, Biblioth. Hispan. Arab. tom. i. p. 1. The first who reduced the Arabian poetry to fixed and determinate laws of prosody and versification, was" Alchalil Ibn Ahmed Al Farahidi, who flourished under the khalifate of Haroun Al Raschid. Clerici Prosodia Arabica, p. 2.
  13. Kosegarten, Amru ben Keltum, p. 62.
  14. Peiper, Dissert, de Moallaka Lebidi (4to. 1823), p. 1.
  15. Peiper, ib. p. 8.
  16. Id. p. 2. Eichhorn, Mon. Antiq. p. 164.
  17. Magasin Encyclopédique, tom i. p. 514.
  18. Hengstenberg, Amrulkeis Moallakah (4to. Bonn. 1823), prolegom. p. 5.
  19. The particulars of the history of Hogr, &c. have been before given in our third section.
  20. Hengstenberg, prolegom. p. 8. D'Herbelot in Amrulkeis. Poemation Ibn Doreid, ed. Haitsma (4to. Franeq. 1773), couplet 32, with the Arabian scholiast and notes, p. 189, &c.