26 July 2011

Zenobia and the Manichean Convert (Part III)

(Click here for Part I & II)

Walk therefore in joy, drawn to the land of light

Whatever the true history of Nafsha, sister of Queen Tadhi (= Zenobia), there can be no doubt that the Manichean missionary, Mar Adda, believed that he had miraculously healed and so converted a high-born lady of Palmyra. As a result,  many other people were confirmed in the faith as well.  But did he really convert the queen herself, as he claimed?
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.
We needn't take this too seriously: kings and queens seemed remarkably convertible whenever Mani or one of his disciples performed a miracle or two.  It's standard Manichean hyperbole.  What is interesting is that, even by their own accounts, such royal conversions usually followed a missionary's success as healer rather than as proclaimer of a unique revelation. 

Still, healed is healed and it would be surprising if Zenobia had not become a fan of the Manicheans.  That is what seems to have happened.

For the next part of the story, we leave the Sogdian documents and return to the Coptic historical texts (see Part I).

Holy Men on the Move

The Coptic fragment which refers to Queen Thadamor (= Zenobia) makes no mention of Mar Adda.  Perhaps the unfolding events took place after he had left Palmyra to go to 'the great Alexandria' -- the farthest point of his mission, according to Middle Persian sources.  In any case, the scene now shifts to his younger colleague, Abiesou, whom Mani had sent to accompany Mar Adda on his western mission ...  and a previously unknown episode in the history of Palmyra is revealed: 

He (Abiesou) again went in before Queen Thadamor and she looked favourably on him.  Abiesou the teacher had confidence [in her and settled] there with other brothers.  She became a [great protectress] of the church in that place....

The most likely dates, I think, both for Mar Adda's Egyptian mission and Abiesou's meeting with Zenobia,would be 269-272 CE, that is, the years when the queen ruled over Egypt.  In what happens next, it isn't clear whether Abiesou acted at the urging of Thadamor/Zenobia or if it was his own idea:   
... after which Abiesou the teacher sent Sethel, the deacon ... to the fort of Hira [Abiran] so that they might build up the church in that place.  They healed numerous people.  The matter came before Amaró the king, who was the son of Lahim, so as to enable the brothers to go to his house for a cause of healing.  They befriended him by doing good. He helped us greatly and took care of us.  He became a great protector of the brothers, openly granting us his help and his protection....
Thus, the mission spread out from Palmyra, back across the Euphrates and into the desert areas between the Roman and Persian empires. That region was dominated by the Tanukh, an Arab tribe that had recently migrated into this part of the world.  In the 3rd century CE, they founded the town of al-Hira ('camp') --  7 km/4 miles from what is now the holy city of Najaf in Iraq.  According to Arab legend, Amaró was the first king of al-Hira and his name in Arabic, Amr ben Lakhm, was taken by his descendants of the Lakhmid dynasty of the city.  The Lakhmids were traditionally allied to the Persians and fought as their main desert allies in Roman-Persian conflicts.  We have every reason to think that they were already close allies of the Sasanians: King Amaró is mentioned as one of the supporters of Narseh I (r. 293-302 CE) in the Paikuli inscription, written soon after events of 293 to justify Narseh's right to the throne after he had violently deposed the former crown prince.*  So, by crossing back into the territory of a Persian client, the Manichean missionaries were playing a dangerous game.

End Game

During the last years of Mani's life, the new religion experienced ups and downs  inside Persia itself.  The Zoroastrian clergy (led by the high priest Kirdir) were furiously opposed to the upstart religion.  Worse, they regarded the Manicheans as heretics since they had assimilated some Zoroastrian concepts and names of deities into their system.  As the Zoroastrian 'Acts of the Religion' emphasizes: The most dangerous enemy of religion is the heretic who betrays the stronghold from within.  Political reasons, too -- not least, I would think, their missionary activities on both sides of the frontier and in client kingdoms -- made them seem a subversive element at a time when the Sassanians were facing renewed conflict with Rome.

In January 274 (or 276), Persian fury boiled over.  Their implacable opponent,  Kirdir, finally managed to set the King of kings Bahram I against the prophet. A telling encounter between Mani and Bahram is preserved. Mani arrives at the royal palace to be told that he is unwelcome. "What wrong have I done?" he asks the king.

The King said: "I have sworn not to let you come to this country".  And in his anger he spoke thus to the Lord [Mani]. "What are you good for since you go neither fighting nor hunting? But perhaps you are needed for this doctoring and this physicking? and you don't even do that!"

Mani was imprisoned, crucified (or, more likely, impaled), and his corpse flayed. It was said that Kirdir had his skin stuffed with straw and hung outside the city walls.   After his death, the Manicheans faced their bloodiest period of persecution:  

... Manichaeans were struck down, idol temples were destroyed, and the dens of the foreign gods were ruined and turned into thrones and seats for the gods.

Persecution continued until 293 CE ... and then a true miracle happened.

The 'Living Spirit' 

The reverse of the Coptic page that tells us about the Manicheans at Palmyra and at al-Hira preserves a short text that continues the story after the death of Mani:
He told us that the king [Amaró] had arrived in the neighbourhood of our shepherd Innaios, together with the noble Persians who were his assistants.  He spoke to him.... He asked him to go to the king [of kings].  He achieved mercy for us from him and stopped the destruction.
King Amaró apparently wrote several letters on behalf of the Manicheans to his overlord Narses, seeking an end to the persecution.  The 'shepherd' Innaios, possibly now the leader of the sect, carried the letters to Persia and managed to have an audience with Narses.  The persecution came to an end. 

So, in a way, it was because of Thadamor/Zenobia that they were saved.  The favour she showed to the sect during her lifetime led directly to their mission to the Lakhmids of Hira.  Now, twenty years after her demise, Amaró still provided the Manicheans with protection and vitally needed shelter from persecution.

If only for a time.

Under the successor of Narses (Hormizd II), the Zoroastrian priests once again clamoured for the extirpation of the sect and persecution was renewed. 

The End of the World

What happened next is entirely a matter of legend.  As legends will, as circumstances change, old stories shift and are turned, twisted, and refined in a poet's mind until little remains but names and dimly-remembered places.  Just so, in Arab legend, Zenobia and Amaró of al-Hira become deadly enemies.  All else is forgotten as they dual in the desert....  

Those stories are told in 'The Zenobia Romance I' and II: Truth or Fiction, brilliant inventions, true, but not nearly as enlightening as the history revealed by the Manichean fragments.

* § 92: Amru King of the Lahmids

Sources are the same as those listed in Part I and II; in addition, I have used part of my own account of Kirdir's career from Zoroastrian Stuff III


Above: Leaf from a Manichaean Book. Khocho, Temple α. 8th-9th c. Manuscript painting, MIK III 4979. Via Washington.edu

Middle:  Fragment of a Manuscript. Khocho. 8th-9th c. Painting on paper. MIK III 4937. Via Washington.edu

Below: The execution of Mansur al-Hallaj (858-922): Persian mystic, Sufi, and perhaps crypto-Manichean. Via Wikipedia.


  1. Dear Judith...as I told you before..the relation between Zenobia & Manicheism is quite new, interesting & important. According to my own view about Zenobia's personality this would be not unexpectable at all, for that region at that time - & all times - was crossed plenty of "silk roads", invaders, preachers & cultural exchange. meanwhike we have not to forget that Syria was "Heleno- Romano-Semetico-Arabic" at that time. In all circumstances, her open-minded, high-cultured, effective & tolerant personality played the major role not only in the military development of Syria, but - more or less - in the high advances in the human thinking which we still touch its traces till our present time....details in other comments for not to be bored...Salam...:)

  2. Hi again Judith...although I'm commenting on an older post, but something had interested me strongly which is the very important archaeological site in Syria of "Emar-Brbalissos-Meskene" on the Euphrates river. The importance of this site is some related to the great battle between the Persians & Romans a the doors of Zenobia's era. If you have any any documents, articles or posts about this site, could you please post it in your site?...
    With great appreciation..

  3. Hello Fawaz, I think you are referring to two different battles: 1) Mesikhe in 244 CE, between Gordian III and Shapur I; renamed Pirisabora (Victory of Shapur) after the battle; this is on the southern Euphrates near the border of Babylonia, deep inside Persian territory. For Mesikhe, see my post at http://judithweingarten.blogspot.com/2009/11/persian-no-spin-zone.html
    2) at Barbalissos in 252 CE, on the northern Euphrates, a Persian victory over a Roman army of 60,000 (according to Shapur's boast), probably under the command of the governor of Syria.
    Both battles are described by Shapur in his great Inscription (Middle Persian and Greek)


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