22 June 2008

The Zenobia Romance II (Truth or Fiction?)

Continuing The Zenobia Romance (please click and read that first)

Tabari's life of Zebba (= Zenobia) is so deeply imbued with folklore that it is hardly possible to take the story seriously on any level. Besides, he makes her a member of a mythical tribe, the Amlaqi, and gives her a nomadic lifestyle so unsuited to the city of Palmyra that it's easy to dismiss his tale as a hotchpotch of epic proportions.

Once we clear away the fantastical and obviously legendary elements, what -- if anything -- is left in this Arabic version of her history?

Quite a bit, actually.

And there are inscriptions to prove it.

As an Arab proverb has it, A thousand friends are few, one enemy is many.

Zenobia's enemy in Tabari's story is undoubtedly the Tanukh tribe. This is a real tribe, originally from the northeastern Arabian peninsula -- not far from where Ptolemy's Geography had placed them in mid-second century. By the end of the Parthian period (before 220), or a little later -- after purportedly being attacked either by Ardashir I or Shapur I (ca. 240) -- some groups split off, leaving their homeland, and moved north into Iraq.

Inscription # 1

Tabari's report of their origins is confirmed by an inscription from Yemen (ca. 275) in the Himyaritic script, which describes the country as containing 'two royal provinces of Persia and the land of the Tanukh.' This may have marked the Sassanian encroachment into Arabia which caused some of the Tanukh to emigrate.

Tabari further says that they settled around al-Hira in Iraq (about 7 km [4 miles] south-east of the modern Shia holy city of Najaf), joining Arabs already established there. We hear from another historian that, on the advice of a female soothsayer, many Tanukh pushed on yet further north into the desert regions west of the Euphrates. There, according to Tabari, they were joined by Jadhima and his followers. When Jadhima appears in the story, we are in the time of Zenobia and he is ruling the Tanukh.

Inscription # 2

An extraordinary bilingual inscription in not-wholly-literate Nabataean and Greek from Um al-Jimal (which means "Mother of Camels", in northern Jordan near the Syrian border, a town still famous for its handsome white camels; right) is dated to mid-third century: it commemorates a man called Fihr (Pheros in Greek), who was the teacher of Jadhima -- who is explicitly named and described as 'king of the Tanukh':
This is the grave-monument of Pheros son of Solleos, tutor of Gadimathos, king of [the Tanukh]
Several scholars argue that this inscription proves that the Tanukh and their king were in Roman Arabia -- and probably in Syria as well -- by mid-century, well in time to confront the power of Palmyra.* But, no, it doesn't prove their presence in the region, or anywhere near it; all we know for certain is that Fihr was buried there. He may not even have been a native of the country where he died. For it is curious that the carver of his tombstone knew little Nabataean and less Greek. I would have thought that the family of a local, well-educated man would have ensured that at least one of the languages was correct! In short, there seems little reason to conclude from this document that Jadhima ever came into Nabataean territory, or into Syria for that matter.

What the inscription does show is that Jadhima is an historical figure, who was king of the Tanukh in the mid-third century (though even that date needs a question mark). Beyond that, the literary traditions about him are so encrusted with folkloric and mythical elements that they are of little historical value. They show Jadhima as founder of pagan cults in al-Hira, and the originator of many Arabic proverbs -- few of which sound properly proverbial when put into English:
Feeble thought and sheer treachery.

I see a matter that is neither odd nor even.

A minor occurrence in a major affair.
Since he was said to be a founder (or re-founder) of Al-Hira, we may credit him with the cultivation of proverbs that are such a feature in poetry at the later royal court of that city. For example, a 6th-C king of al-Hira supposedly quipped: Man's worth is in his two smaller [organs]; that is, the heart and the tongue.

It probably sounds better in Arabic. But you get the idea.

Another old Arab proverb: The man who accepts the word of his enemy is doomed.

Perhaps it wasn't yet proverbial at al-Hira, so Jadhima foolishly took Zenobia/Zebba at her word and got his wrists cut in return: after he bleeds to death, his nephew, Amr ibn Adi, becomes king of the Tanukh. Amr had been abducted by jinn in his youth but was rescued and returned to the bosom of his tribe. Now grown to manhood, we are told, he was
the first Arab king to settle in al-Hira, and the first of the Arab kings in Iraq whom the people of al-Hira glorified in their writings.
Despite having been maltreated by the jinn, he lived to the ripe age of 120 -- a good life, full of raiding, rape and murder, and booty.

In Tabari's History, he is succeeded by his son, Imru'l-qais.

Inscription # 3

A funerary inscription from Namara -- a small Roman frontier fort, about 120 km [90 miles] southeast of Damascus -- is in unequivocal Arabic though also written in the Nabataean script (below right); it can be precisely dated to the 7th of the month Kislev in the year 328/329 (that's about a year or so before the Emperor Constantine founded Constantinople). The stone commemorates Imru'l-qais, the very man we believe to be the son of our long-lived Amr ibn Adi.

This is the funerary monument of Imru'l-qais, son of Amr, king of the Arabs....

As for the rest of the text, little is certain except that he ruled over an extensive area and had subdued, overwhelmed and put to flight a number of enemy tribes; there is also a not quite comprehensible but seemingly friendly reference to the Romans. Finally, he boasts of himself:
And no king has equalled his achievements...
Oh the good fortune of those who were his friends!
So, the Namara inscription seemingly confirms the succession of rulers reported by Tabari -- Jadhima > Amr ibn Adi > Imru'l-qais.

You will not be surprised to learn that nothing is so simple.

How many kings were named Imru'l-qais?

Tabari tells us that Imru'l-qais ruled for 114 years and was a Sassanian vassal under a succession of Persian kings (from Shapur I [240-272] to Bahram II? [276-293]). Needless to say, this does not fit the explicit date of the Namara gravestone (328/9, when Imru'l-qais presumably died). Nor does it make any sense to have two inscriptions from Roman Arabia (both Namara and Um al-Jimal) if these kings owed their loyalty to Persia rather than Rome.

So, while there were two rulers, father and son, named Amr and Imru'l-qais, a closer look at the at the succession of kings of al-Hira after Amr ibn Adi shows great confusion. For there were several named Imru'l-qais, not all in a row but interspersed with the names of other kings.** That's bad enough but, even the shortest king list gives us two kings, both named Imru'l-qais the First. Finally, there is also a tradition Amr ibn Adi was not succeeded by his son Imru'l-qais but by his brother al-Harith. All we can be sure of is that at least the first part of the list of kings of al-Hira is legendary.

Here's why. Around 400 CE, a new dynasty came to power al-Hira and needed to establish their legitimacy by means of links to the heroic past. It appears that they knew of two different main lines of descent: one connected with South Arabia, the other with Amr ibn Adi. It is doubtful that either line is historical. What seems to have happened is that, at a fairly early stage, the two are fused into a single line -- with all the duplication and muddle you would expect. Though the new reigning kings had no connection with Amr ibn Adi in the third century, this line of descent -- as well as their ultimate origin from Jahima -- was spun by the poets and chroniclers of al-Hira in the fifth and sixth centuries and does not reflect any direct historical links.

The story of Jadhima's death, too, is pure legend, and may reflect the activities of these many later story-tellers.

All that seems factual is that the real Amr ibn Adi was in Syria in the 290's and established himself as the ruler of several tribes in the desert on both sides of the Euphrates. He -- or his son Imru'l-qais -- became a close ally of Rome, possibly after the treaty of Nisibis between the Romans and Sassanians in 298 , when the Sassanian king Narseh was forced to cede Mesopotamia back to Rome. Was Amr involved in the fall of Palmyra in 272? It's possible, but we just don't know.***

We can be pretty sure, however, that the romance about Amr and his revenge on Zebba/Zenobia is from a different epic cycle tacked on to the legendary origins of the kings of al-Hira. Indeed, it is told as a separate tale in fragments left by other historians. One of Tabari's sources is the pre-Islamic Christian Arab poet Adi b. Zayd from al-Hira. He is a fascinating figure, the most famous Arab poet of the time (d. ca. 600). He had been educated at the Sassanian court in the Imperial capital,Ctesiphon, and was for long a secretary and a translator between Persian and Arabic for the Sassanian King of Kings. Who better to have put together an epic Persian tale of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra with the Arab saga of the wanderings of the Tanukh and the legends about Jadhima to create a story glorifying the origins of the great kings of al-Hira in the sixth century CE?

It could well represent the official version of the founding of the royal house of al-Hira.

With no more credence than that.

* Most importantly, G.W. Bowersock, Roman Arabia, 133, 136.

** This reconstruction is my attempt to synthesize the very complicated, contradictory sources, masterfully disentangled by Jan Retso, The Arabs in Antiquity: their history from the Assyrians to the Umayyads (2003) 476-485.

*** Everything told about Amr, albeit legendary, locates him in the middle Euphrates region (map). Al-Hira is really very far from Palmyra [Ctesiphon is near modern Baghdad]:


Top of post: An entirely fanciful Orientalist picture of the timeless East :-)

Middle left: Construction of the castle at Khawarnaq, Al-Hira, 1494-1495, by Behzād, most famous of Persian miniature painters (British Museum).

Above right: a Himyarite inscription from Ma'rib (modern Yemen), Encyclopaedia of the Orient.

Middle right: the white camels of Um al-Jimal before the ruins of the town's grim basalt walls (© Zohrab) .

Below right: the Namara inscription

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