The Elect of the Apostle of the Light
Manicheism was a self-consciously missionary religion from the very beginning. The prophet Mani actively sought to deliver his message to a wide range of audiences in every part of the known world. The uniqueness of his revelation would thus be proved by his spectacular missionary successes. Mani himself undertook missionary journeys throughout the Sasanian Empire and to lands further east. He is known to have preached in India and was said to have converted the king of Turan (a country in northeastern Baluchistan). His disciples followed suit, called to a lifetime of travel and evangelism.
In the lands of Rome
The rich variety of Manichean texts found by German archaeologists in the Turfan Oasis in Central Asia consisted not only of hymns, psalms, and homilies but also records recounting the history of their founder and their church. Fragments include an account of the missionary exploits of Mar Adda, the earliest and best known of the Manichean missionaries sent by Mani into the Roman Empire. Mani gave Adda instructions for this mission to the western region, so that
.... this goodness should be received in greatness. And be very learned and educated in it, wise and well-spoken in the district where you are going. And when you act the way that I have commanded you, then the religion will be spread in these districts, and your work and doings will result in [its] furtherance.
Accordingly, Mar Adda traversed the frontier and entered Roman territory.
First Stop: Palmyra?
For those who travelled to the Roman Empire from southern Mesopotamia in the third century, Palmyra (Tadmor) was the entry point for caravans as they began the last lap at the western branch of the Silk Road. This location between east and west gave the city huge commercial advantages and great wealth. Being at the crossroads also had major strategic implications, especially when, in mid-century, Palmyra was forced willy-nilly to be a bulwark against Sasanian Persia. In 252-253 CE, the King of Kings, Shapur I, crossed the Euphrates and invaded Syria. The Roman legions stationed to the north were woefully unprepared to defend the province. As Shapur boasted,
The nation of Syria and whatever nations and plains that were above it, we set on fire and devastated and laid waste. And in that campaign we took ... a total of 37 cities with their surrounding territories.Six years later, the Roman emperor Valerian tried to regain lost territory and avenge Rome's defeat. Valerian crossed into Mesopotamia with an army of 70,000 men. They met Shapur in battle and the Roman army was annihilated. Valerian himself was taken prisoner -- to spend the rest of his life rotting in Persia. The Persian king followed up this victory with another invasion of Syria. This time around, he destroyed 34 cities, including the eastern capital, Antioch.
No organized Roman forces remained to protect the eastern provinces. Then, like a deus ex machina, Odenathus, prince of Palmyra (ras tadmor) leapt into action. His army pushed the Persians back into Mesopotamia and chased them all the way to their capital, Cteisiphon, even briefly laying siege to the city. As reward, the Roman Emperor Gallienus (son of Valerian), granted Odenathus the title 'Restorer of all the East', and raised him to consular rank. Odenathus now outranked any other Roman official or general in Syria. At some point, he also adopted the more grandiose title of 'King of Kings', thus putting himself on a metaphorical par with Shapur I. The end game came in 266/67: at the height of his powers, Odenathus was murdered -- almost certainly by a cousin, quite possibly at the instigation of Gallienus -- and his wife Zenobia seized the regency on behalf of their young son.
It was probably while Zenobia ruled Palmyra herself (267-272 CE) that the Manichean missionary Mar Adda arrived in the city.
How important was the Manichean presence in Palmyra? That's the first thing to establish. Then, I'll tell you the most amazing story about Mar Adda bringing his 'Hope' to Palmyra.
The Special Manichean Script
The writing and circulation of Manichean scripture played almost as important a part as preachers and teachers in the diffusion of Mani's faith. Professional scribes and painters were included on the early missionary journeys in order to spread the 'The Living Gospel' among literate and illiterate audiences alike (with such elegant results as above, left). The scribes adopted an Aramaic script as the official script of their sect and used it to write their literature in Syriac as well as Persian and other central Asian languages as the religion spread eastward over the centuries. There is good reason to think that some early-bird scribes arrived at Palmyra at the very beginning of the Manichean western mission: as it happens, the so-called Manichean script is virtually identical with the Palmyran script (as attested in Palmyrene inscriptions). It is possible, of course, that the scribes chose a script already known to them from foreign merchants who travelled along the western Silk Road; but it seems to me altogether more likely that it was created by scribes who accompanied Mar Adda on his mission to Palmyra and stayed there long enough to record the history of his evangelical success.**
Healer and Wonder Worker
And I have a religion the radiance of which is brighter than the sun.Two recently-published fragments of Manichean history from the Turfan Oasis (written in Sogdian*) tell us about an important convert brought by Mar Adda to the new faith. This was a woman named Nafsha, sister of the queen of the city. Nafsha was cured of her illness by invoking the name of Jesus and the laying on of hands by Adda. Here's what the Manicheans said happened next:
And I have as provisions divine profit[?], the taste of which is sweeter than honey.
And right away the lord [Mani], the apostle, descended openly into the presence of Nafsha and laid his hand upon her, and Nafsha was healed at once and was made complete and without pain. And all the people were astounded at the miracle. And there were many who received the truth anew. And also Queen Tadhi, Nafsha's sister and the wife of the Caesar (kysr), came before Mar Adda with great ... and from him received the truth.(So 18223, 18222)
Since the word kysr in Sogdian is used invariably to denote a Roman ruler, and the only ruler with such a title in a frontier region in this period was Odenathus, it seems certain that these events took place at Palmyra (though the surviving fragments do not name the city) -- and that Queen Tadhi, the sister of Nafsha, is none other than Odenathus' wife, our dear Queen Zenobia.
How did Queen Zenobia turn into Queen Tadhi? Simple, really. First of all, the good book of missionary history was translated from Syriac Aramaic or Parthian into Sogdian hundreds of years after Palmyra/Tadmor had been destroyed by Aurelian (273 CE). The city itself may well have been forgotten and its name ('Tadhi' in Sogdian) confused with the personal name of the queen. And so, the Queen of Tadhi was turned into Queen Tadhi. Much the same had happened, you may remember, in the Coptic Manichean texts from Egypt, with Tadmor translated as Thadamor (Homilies of Mani; see Part I) -- and Zenobia hides there, too, behind the name of 'Queen Thadamor'. The city and the queen are again conflated in some later Arab legends, where she is simply named as 'Tadmur'; perhaps the Arab poets -- who did remember Tadmor -- imagined that she had founded the city and given it her own name.
In short, kysr is Odenathus and Tadhi is Zenobia.
... but who is Nafsha? And did Zenobia really have a sister?
Graeco-Roman sources do not mention any sister. That doesn't mean much, to be honest, as they tell us very little about her family (even the name of her father is uncertain). However, Arab legend, as recorded by the Persian historian al-Tabari (839-923 CE),*** does put a sister in her story -- a rather shrewd tactician named Zabibah (or Zaynab, Zubayba, or Zalubya). Most Arab histories call Zenobia herself 'al-Zabba', a reasonable approximation of her name in Palmyrene, zby [Tabari's account is told in an earlier post, The Zenobia Romance, so we needn't rehearse it here.] Although not known earlier than Tabari's 6th C source, we can at least point to a regional tradition that gives Zenobia a sister.
Yet there is no Nafsha at all at Palmyra.
Or, rather, there is no name like 'Nafsha' among the thousands of Palmyrene names known from inscriptions.
Why, I ask myself, is no real woman ever named Nafsha? Was this really a given name -- or something else entirely?
Let me make a guess. In the context of the story -- a sickbed conversion -- I naturally wonder if 'Nafsha' is, in fact, a description of the convert: in Palmyrene, naphsa (related to Hebrew nephesh) refers to the 'spirit' or 'soul' (discussed in 'The Secret Language of Palmyra II'). So we may have a personification of a 'soul' that is saved when it accepts the truth taught by Mani,
fear not, righteous soul, but step forward to the Light Paradise and receive joy.Just as the place-name 'Tadhi' is confused with the name of the queen in this late translation of an old story, I suggest that the soul, the 'nafsha' that is saved, becomes mistakenly the convert's personal name.
That might be the be-all and end-all of the matter.
But, not so fast! This may be true but there are yet more Manichean stories connected with Zenobia/Tadhi/Thadamor behind this tale -- the subject of my next post, in Part III. Sorry to be so long about it but there's a whole lot of forgotten history lurking in the Manichean fragments.
Click here for Part III
* The centre of ancient Sogdiana was around the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan.
** Mani himself used this script to write his confessions in Middle Persian, a non-Semitic language (M 172 [= MIK III 196]), adding a few letters and diacritical marks necessary to express specifically Iranian sounds not found in Aramaic: see 'The Manichean Script' in the Encyclopaedia Iranica.
*** His stated source was the pre-Islamic Christian Arab poet Adi b. Zayd (died ca. 600) from al-Hira.
Sources for this post (in addition to those used in Part I) include: U. Hartmann, Das palmyrenische Teilreich, Stuttgart, 2001, 311-313; Prods Oktor Skjærvø, Manicheism II: Texts, Sept 21, 2006; I. Gardner-S.N.C.Lieu, Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire, CUP, 2004,112-114; S.N.C. Lieu, Manichaeism in the later Roman Empire, Manchester UP. 1992, 73-75.
Top left: Manichean priests, 10th/11th c,. Wall painting, Museum für Indische Kunst, Berlin-Dahlem. Photo credit: Gryffindor via Wikipedia.
Upper middle: Cover leaf of a Manichaean hand scroll (detail). Turfan Oasis. 10th c. Paper. MIK III 4614. Via Washington.edu
Lower middle: Leaf from a Manichaean Book. Turfan Oasis (Khocho Temple) 8th-9th c. Manuscript painting. MIK III 4959. Via Washington.edu
Bottom left: Manichaean Female Elect. Turfan Oasis. 10th c. Painting on silk. MIK III 4815. Via Washington.edu