13 June 2008

The Zenobia Romance

The Persian historian and commentator on the Koran , al-Tabari (839-923 CE), seen left among his disciples, wrote a History of Prophets and Kings, ten thick volumes in Arabic recounting the history of the world from the Creation up to the events of his own day. When he reached the time of Zenobia, he told about the queen -- but it was an entirely different story from the one given in the Historiae Augustae -- or in any other Greek or Roman source -- and at least as fabulous.

At the Amsterdam All-Zenobia Day, it was Tabari's turn. Johan Weststeijn, who is writing his dissertation on the role of dreams in the History of Prophets and Kings, gave us Tabari's version of the life and loves of Queen Zenobia, a blood-curdling saga of Blood Revenge, Deceit, and Royal Murder.

In Tabari's tale, there are no Romans at all. There is no Roman empire, no legions and no Emperor Aurelian. Even the Persians and the King of Kings are hardly mentioned. It is rather an almost timeless world with Arab tribes battling each other -- a pot-boiler of war and intrigue -- in the desert.

The Arab Queen Zenobia

Unlike the historical Zenobia, Tabari's Zenobia is undoubtedly an Arab. Her father was Amr Ibn Zarib, shaikh of the nomadic Amlaqi tribe,* "ruler of the Arabs in the Jazirah and the fringes of Syria." He was killed fighting against a Shaikh Jadhima for control of the two banks of the Euphrates. Jadhima was ruler of part of central Arabia and king of their tribal rivals, the Tanukh. Amr's death -- in Arab society then, as now -- demanded blood revenge, and so it sets Tabiri's story moving.

'Amr had two daughters, Zebba (= Zenobia) and Zabibah. After his death, Zenobia became head of the tribe and continued a nomadic lifestyle, leading the tribe between summer and winter pastures. At some point, she marries Udaynath (Odenathus) of a more settled Palmyran branch of the same tribe,* and presumably spent some time with him in the city -- but the story is about her, not him, and he fades out. In any event, she is too busy plotting revenge to bother about a husband.
When her power was well established and she was well entrenched in her reign she wanted to avenge her father's death.
She builds a castle beyond the Euphrates with a tunnel under the river to link the two banks. For her forthcoming joust with Jadhima, her sister Zabibah advises her against battle and recommends cunning instead. So Zenobia sends a message to Jadhima suggesting that they unite their two realms by marriage. Come visit me, she tempts him. Zenobia's sister, it seems, was smarter than Jadhima's generals. Although one general, Qasir by name, bridled at the idea, arguing that Zenobia should come to him at his camp, others won the day and decided that Jadhima would go to meet her.

This was a bad mistake. One should never, never, forget blood revenge in the Middle East.

As they crossed the Euphrates, Jadhima asked Qasir what prudence would advise him to do now. 'Prudence!' replied Qasir, in a phrase that became proverbial, 'You left your prudence behind at [our camp].' How true! But before reality strikes, there's a curious interlude. Here's what happens when Jadhima and Zenobia meet somewhere in the desert to discuss the marriage proposal.

When Jadhima assents to the marriage, Zenobia lifts her skirts to reveal her private parts. The length and quantity of her pubic hair (her name in Arabic means 'with beautiful long hair') astonishes him. Zenobia remarks that a woman with such an appearance is not a suitable bride.

At this point, I'd like to insert some thoughts (marked in blue) on the folkloric themes that appear in this and other parts of the story.

This scene strongly recalls the meeting between King Solomon and the queen of Sheba in both Jewish and Islamic traditions. In the collection of homilies known as the Targum Sheni (perhaps late 7th/early 8th C. CE), when the queen of Sheba finally reaches Jerusalem, Solomon receives her at the royal baths. This unusual welcome disconcerts the queen, who lifts the hem of her dress just enough to prevent it from getting wet. Solomon catches sight of her hairy legs and says, with a certain lack of courtesy, "Madam, your beauty is feminine but the hair on your legs is masculine. Hairy legs are fine for a man but revolting on a woman." The queen's pride was hurt and she reacted by putting a long series of riddles to Solomon only to discover, to her astonishment, that he was cleverer than she for he solved them without difficulty. So she praised both him and the One God and, receiving gifts, took her leave. Whether or not she depilated is not stated.

The earliest Islamic version of this story comes from the 11th century writer, al-Tha'labi. Solomon receives the queen of Sheba in a glass building or a palace with crystal paving. The queen is tricked by the reflection (thinking it water) into lifting her skirt and thus reveals her hairy legs. Solomon, no longer the biblical king but owner of a magic ring, angrily summons demons and orders them to find a depilatory. They promptly produced a mixture of arsenic and quicklime and, thanks to that, the Queen of Sheba's attractiveness became proverbial (the Prophet Muhammed was supposed to have said that the queen was 'one of the women with the most gorgeous legs').

It seems that the only really important aspect of the meeting between the two sovereigns was the fact of the queen's excessively hairy legs. There can be little doubt that she is almost assimilated into a female demon (later tradition gives her donkey-hooves as well) because she is not prepared to accept the typical role of a female. Despite her beauty, she refused to serve any man. It was up to Solomon, who had mastery over the evil spirits, to put this dangerous woman in her place and restore the natural order. On this gender issue of setting things straight, both Judaism and Islam agree.** As for Zenobia
, it was probably not she, with her supposedly hairy pubes, who inspired these legends, but on the contrary, the same widely-spread folklore marked her dangerous attempt to subvert time-honoured rules of gender.

Meanwhile back in the desert, a squadron of Zenobia's cavalry surrounds Jadhima, unhorses him, and brings him to Zenobia. ' How do you wish to die?' she asked. And he replied, 'Like a king." He was served a last meal, with plenty of wine to make him drowsy. As he began to snooze, she cut the veins of his wrists and collected the blood in a suitably royal golden basin.

Naturally, this murder, too, demands blood revenge.

Qasir is the man who avenges Jadhima. But first he must get into Palmyra. How? He mutilates himself, cutting off his nose and scarring his back. In this pitiful state he goes to Zenobia, presenting himself as a fugitive from his tribe which had treated him so cruelly. Zenobia, seeing the general all but streaming with blood, was sure that he was speaking the truth and had deserted the Tanukh and come over to her side.

This trick recalls the famous story in Herodotus (3 153-160) when Darius the Great was besieging the rebellious city of Babylon without success. A Persian nobleman, Zopyrus, gets into the city by a similar ruse.

Zopyrus could not conceive of any other way of taking the city except to mutilate himself and then desert to the Babylonians.... He cut off his nose and ears and shaved his hair to disfigure himself and laid lashes on himself.

He then pretended to flee to the Babylonians. When they saw the most notable man in Persia in this state, they believed he had deserted and had come to be their ally and so gave him an army. As he had schemed with Darius, Zopyrus now encircled and killed a thousand Persian troops, then 2,000 troops, then 4,000 troops. Impressed, the Babylonians made him commander-in-chief. And soon enough he threw open the gates -- and it was bye-bye Babylon.

Zenobia should have read her Herodotus. And never, never, have let herself forget blood revenge in the Middle East.

Once accepted as a friend, Qasir gained her confidence by another trick. He announced that a train of a thousand camels, heavily laden with treasure of all kinds, was on its way to her. Each camel carried two large sacks, and the greedy queen admitted the caravan in delicious anticipation. Each sack proved to conceal an armed warrior. Once within the city, they emerged and massacred the garrison.

This, of course, reminds us of the tale of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves as told by Shahrazade in The 1001 Nights, when armed thieves were smuggled into Ali Baba's house within empty oil jars loaded on mules.

Very similar, too, is a story told by Tabari himself, which supposedly took place in the time of king Kawad I of Persia (488-531). There was an effete king of Samarkand whose intelligent daughter ruled in his place and "decided the affairs of the city". An Arab prince Shamir sent her gifts with an offer of marriage. To sweeten the deal, he promised her 4,000 chests full of gold and silver. She accepted -- but instead of treasure, two men were hidden within each chest. When the caravan got inside the city, "they sprang out and seized control of the gates. Shamir led a frontal attack with his troops and entered the city, killing its populace and seizing as plunder everything within it." Which is why, to this day, the city is called Samarkand (in Persian popular etymology, 'Shamir destroyed it').

The End of Zenobia

After the fall of her city, Jadhima's sister's son, Amr ibn Adi, pursues Zenobia, who attempts to flee via her tunnel under the Euphrates. But Qasir was inside the tunnel waiting for her. She evaded capture by swallowing poison. Because of her suicide, neither Amr nor Qasir are guilty of her death and the cycle of vengeance ceases. Her kingdom passed to Amr.

Truth and Fiction

Only a few points connect this story to the Graeco-Roman accounts:

1. The Arabic form of her name al-zabba is a reasonable approximation of Zenobia's name in Palmyrene, bt zby.

She is ruler of Palmyra.

3. In the Hist. Aug. Zenobia is captured on the Euphrates; in Tabari, she is trapped and kills herself in a tunnel under the Euphrates (but now see Johan Weststeijn's comment below, and my reply).

Though it is hard for us to disconnect Zenobia from Rome, Tabari's tale at least preserves what must have been an important Arab dimension to the struggle that was going on in the mid-third century in the Roman provinces of Syria and Arabia. We'll come back to discuss the importance of this -- and such evidence as there is -- in the next post.

* It is odd that the reality of the Amlaqi tribe is widely accepted: Warwick Ball (" probably one of the original four tribes of Palmyra", Rome in the East, 78); and becomes an underlying assumption with Irfan Shahid, (e.g., "the more recognizably Arab Odenathus and Zenobia. Their military operations were [conducted] from the Arab city of Palmyra ... with Arab troops...." Rome and the Arabs, 151). The Amlaqi are a mythical tribe of Arabs, their name derived from the biblical Amalek, to which many further legends and stories were added by Arab story-tellers (M. Perlmann, History of al-Tabari, Vol. 4: The Ancient Kingdoms, 131 fn 335). It can certainly not be taken as good evidence to identify any of the Palmyran tribes.

** On this fascinating subject, see Jacob Lassner, Demonizing the Queen of Sheba: Boundaries of Gender and Culture in Postbiblical Judaism and Medieval Islam, and Fabrizio Pennacchietti, Three Mirrors for Two Biblical Ladies. The Queen of Sheba and Susanna in the Eyes of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.


At top of post: Cover of Bal'ami's 14th century Persian version of Universal History by Tabari (Smithsonian Institute).

Above right: Arabian archers fighting from a dromedary, Assyrian relief , ca. 650 BCE (British Museum), via Livius.org.

Centre: Queen of Sheba facing the hoopoe, Solomon's messenger; from Persia, Safaid c. 1590-1600 (British Museum).

Below left: Terracotta figure of a Persian nobleman (Persepolis), via Livius.org.

Bottom left: Shahrazade, engraving by Thomas Dalziel (1823-1906).


  1. Anonymous15/6/08 20:31

    Interesting post, although there are certain recognisably Orientalist lines of reasoning apparent within the commentaries and the point of view from which you tell it. Also, I have always had quite an easy time seperating Zenobia from Rome, why is that hard? You also get your "historical facts" from the Roman sources, which were sitting quite a distance from where things happened. Rome, after all, is in Italy and the Roman presence in the Near East was as intruding and foreign as any colonial power.

    Also, was there ever a doubt that Zenobia was an Arab? What else would an inhabitant of a desert city between Eurphrates and Jordan be? Full blooded Latin?Q

  2. Thanks for your comment, khodadad.

    The sources we have are often 'Orientalist' (and much worse!) in viewpoint -- and, when I write about what they say, I do point out the biases as best I can. But I don't see how this particular post falls into that dreaded category -- since Johan Weststeijn was recounting Tabari's story, to which I added (in blue) some of the folkloric themes that Tabari incorporated.

    Yes, there are many doubts about Zenobia's ethnicity (see, for example, Zenobia Receives Royal Patronage). Although there were certainly Arabs at Palmyra, the arrival of large numbers of Arabs/Saracens in the Syrian desert only takes place in the mid-third C (and, more especially, the 4th C). That's what I'll be writing about next.

    I hope you'll read and comment on that post, too.

  3. Anonymous16/6/08 18:26

    Great post, Judith!
    Completely new for me was the story about the princess of Samarkand who is deceived in the same way as al-Zabba. I was already wondering if Tabari treated other female rulers in his History of Prophets and Kings… What page did you find this episode?

    I have to agree though with Khodadad’s remark about some ‘Orientalist’ (in the pejorative sense of the term) lines of reasoning in your version of the Arabic Zenobia story. Repeatedly you remark that blood feud is an essentialist, unchangeable aspect of the Middle East, regardless whether we speak about the third or about the twenty-first centuries. In your words: “It is rather an almost timeless world with Arab tribes battling each other -- a pot-boiler of war and intrigue -- in the desert…Death -- in Arab society then, as now -- demanded blood revenge…One should never, never, forget blood revenge in the Middle East…Zenobia should have read her Herodotus. And never, never, have let herself forget blood revenge in the Middle East.”

    When recounting Tabari’s version at the Amsterdam All-Zenobia day I did stress that this is a story about revenge: it speaks of a society that has no laws and no rulers to enforce them. My argument, however, was that, according to Tabari, this was only true of a particular society during a clearly defined period of time: the period of the mulūk al-tawā’if, or Regional Kings, a period which stretches from the death of Alexander the Great up to the first Sasanid ruler Ardashir (Artaxerxes). According to Tabari, only during this period of medieval backwardness were there no strong rulers over large empires who could unite the Arab tribes, bring peace and enforce the laws of civilization. Tabari’s point is NOT that the Arabs as a race are genetically predisposed towards blood feuds and infighting. Tabari himself was of Persian birth, but as a medieval Muslim he believed that the Arabs were God’s new chosen people and that Arab caliphs, by enforcing the laws of Islam, were destined to bring peace and order to the world.

    I also agree with Khodadad that we should not automatically assume (as almost everybody seems to do, Classicists, Orientalists, Irfan Shahid, even the reverend Diederik Burgersdijk) that the Greco Roman sources are ‘historical’, and the Arabic version nothing but legends, fables, and romance. Only after a thorough comparison between the two versions, their narrative motifs, their rhetorical effect, and a comparison with the available inscriptions, will we be able to decide which version is the more reliable.

    Some minor disagreements with your rendition of the Arabic version:

    Al-Zabba did not marry Udhayna (in Tabari’s version she remains single); Udhayna is the name of her great-great grandfather. It is only in the Greco-Roman version that Zenobia is married to Odaenatus. It is true that according to Tabari al-Zabba built a tunnel under the Euphrates, but she also built one at Palmyra to be able to escape from her city in case it came under attack. According to Tabari’s version of the story it was here, in the Palmyrene tunnel, that she killed herself, not at the Euphrates.

  4. Anonymous16/6/08 20:51

    I really enjoyed reading this post, Judith, and learned a lot. Now I found the comments interesting too. I look forward to reading your next.

  5. Welcome to Zenobia's blog, Johan.

    The princess of Samarkand story comes from Tabari p. 891.

    Yes, indeed, my notes from your lecture make clear that Tabari believes that the arrival of the law of Islam changes society and legitimises Arab rule. I will get to that -- and the rest of my story (including inscriptions!) in the next post.

    I seem to have brought Udaynath (Odenathus) in from another Arab source. I must check that reference. You are right, of course, that she does not marry Odenathus in Tabari's version.

    As for the tunnel, there are indeed two tunnels in the story: one in the city and one under the Euphrates. Are you quite sure, however, that the city being attacked in this case is, in fact, Palmyra and not 'Zenobia' (Halabiye) on the Euphrates? In translation, Tabari is not quite clear on this point (it only says 'city').

    Finally, I certainly do not accept the Graeco-Roman sources as 'true' or even as 'historical'. Have you read my post on Diederik's Historiae Augustae lecture? Credence given where credence due :-)

    And please wait, Johan and khodadad -- and anyone else ready to clobber me for Orientalism -- for my next post, on Sunday (I hope). 100swallows is exemplary in this regard! :-)

  6. Anonymous18/6/08 09:11

    That is interesting, Judith. Tabari mentions Palmyra only once in his story: "Al-Zabba built herself a fortress on the western bank of the Euphrates. She used to spend the winter with her sister, and the spring at Batn al-Najjar from where she would go to Palmyra." (Tabari, Tarikh, ed. De Goeje, I, p. 757). Maybe the Tanukhi Arabs from al-Hira in southern Iraq only destroyed a city of al-Zabba on the Euphrates, whereas the Romans sacked Palmyra. Later the two stories became conflated.

  7. That's what I was thinking, Johan. In translation, the 'city' attacked is never named. [I'm using both Perlmann's English translation and Arioli's Italian translation of Ibn al-Athir.]

    Given that two tunnels are a bit much, there may have been just one in the 'original' story. Now, Tabari says 'she built herself a fortress on the western bank of the Euphrates.' That is, Zenobia/Halabiya. And, later, Zenobia 'built a tunnel from the audience hall ... to a fortress inside her city....' We have heard nothing of any fortress in Palmyra --or indeed anything more than that she went there in the spring.

    One can't read too much into Tabari as a source (sorry!), but we should keep open the possibility that the (legendary) tunnel was not in Palmyra but rather in Zenobia/Halabiya. So it now becomes an archaeological problem: are there signs of a destruction there, and when (not ca. 270, as I recall)? Back to our books!

  8. Judith

    Great posts on Zenobia as always.

    She truly was a most fascinating women - and like many, the various accounts all portray a differing version of her life. And usually from a male perspective.

    Whether the accounts of this woman were flattering or not, it is important to read them all to gain our own perspective.

    Many thanks Judith for bringing Zenobia to life.

  9. It's a pleasure, Melisende!

    And your own blog just reminded me to update my key-word tags (it's funny how one changes emphasis over time), but I promise: no cats -- and certainly no stock cubes :-)

  10. Anonymous22/9/08 00:08

    What is most surprising is how little knowledge Europeans usually have of the peoples of the Arab peninsula, and yet they are willing to talk about them as if they had expertise. Such assertions that tribes such as the Banu Amlak were "legendary" borders on being ridiculous when even European visitors such as Robert Gordon Latham less than a century ago mention them in the Yemen.
    Secondly, whether Rogers got the facts wrong on Zenobia's relationship to Cleopatra doesn't change the fact many of the bedouin clans of Arabian origin of that time in Syria as today in the Transjordan region today look more like Moors and Sudanese Arabs than like Syrians. You might want to visit there sometime and see what the true sons of Sem looked like to the semitic-speaking Syrians and Romans.
    If Ammianus Marcellinus in the 4th century claimed the "Saracen" tribes like the Palmyrenes and other Arabians had "their primary origins on the cataracts of the Nile on the borders of the Blemyae" which is in Nubia it's not because they looked like swarthy Europeans.

  11. Anonymous, please check my footnote: the claim that the Amlaqi are a mythical tribe comes from the foremost Tabari scholar (M. Perlmann, History of al-Tabari, Vol. 4: The Ancient Kingdoms, 131 fn 335). That the name was used in much later times neither proves nor disproves this conclusion since it could be have been a deliberate revival to fabricate a link to the mythic past.

    I have spent many months over many years in the Transjordan. The local Bedu are a little darker than other Syrians (and have different physiognomic features) but, in my opinion, they are far from being as dark as Moors or Sudanese Arabs. Anyway, what would this prove?

    As far as I know, Ammianus never even mentions Palmyra: it had been destroyed and largely abandoned by his time. What he does say is that, to the east, Egypt faces the Red Sea and the 'Scenite Aarabs, whom we now call Saracens' (22.152, repeated at 23.6.13). Thus, he replaces the old Greek name, Scenitae, which means 'living in tents' by the Arabic proper name. Surely, this indicates that the desert Arabs had become a recognizable confederations(s) of tribes by the 4th C, a process which may well have begun in the 3rd and which was related to the demise of Palmyra.


  12. Thank you Blogger. I enjoy reading it and I hope you will continue to writing.. Love your blog, keep writing!!!! Translated Arabic Stories


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