The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
By: C. Edmund Bosworth
Map of Hira in Khvarvan Province
[click on the map]
Hira is a city on the desert fringes of southwestern Mesopotamia [Khvarvaran province]; known in pre-Islamic times as the Sasanian vessel capital of the Lakhmid dynasty, it survived as an urban settlement into the early centuries of the Islamic period.
Today all that remains are its ruins, which are located 7 km/4 miles east-southeast of Najaf. They were first mentioned by the German Assyriologist B. Meissner (1901), and were investigated for the first time in 1931 by an Oxford expedition. Hira's environs were first investigated by the Japanese Archaeological Expedition in the 1970s and 1980s, but proper excavation of the city is a great desideratum.
The city's name has traditionally been derived from Syriac hêrətâ "enclosure," referring in the first place to the permanent encampment of the Lakhmid chiefs (cf. Rothstein, pp. 12-13), but it may stem from the Arabic rather than the Aramaic milieu, since we find h "to settle" in Sabaic (cf. Shahid, 1984, pp. 490-98).
Exactly when the encampment was founded cannot be ascertained [the main reason for permitting Lakhmid-Arabs living Iranian territories, was mainly to act as a buffer zone between Iranian mainland and Arab Bedouins]. Arabic lore attributed its origin variously to: Bukht al-nassar (Nebuchadnezzar); the Arsacid Ardawân, as a concentration point for his subject allies against the Sasanian Ardašir I; the South Arabian Tubba´ king, etc. (see Yâqut, II, pp. 328-29).
In Hira, which was the seat of a Nestorian bishop, there was a Christian community by the fifth century, which formed the nucleus of the future ´ (see below). The bishop Hosea attended the first synod of the Nestorian Church in 410. A later bishop, Išô´dâd, is reported to have been killed ca. 640, when Muslim invaders conquered the town of Šuštar in Khuzestân province
Hira was strategically situated within the border region of Sasanian Empire, which was the irrigated agricultural Iranian lands and the northeastern corner of the Arabian Desert. Whatever its origins, the encampment of Hira soon became a flourishing city. Its core population except Persians, most likely consisted primarily of Aramaeans, who spoke and wrote in Syriac and were called the Nabat al-´Erâq by the Arabs. There must also have been an admixture of Arabs who had arrived from the desert to settle there, and several tribes, including Tamim, Tanukh, Ghassân, and Lakhm (the tribe of the ruling family of Hira) seem to have been represented. Boasting a tradition of Christianity (see the list of the church leaders, monasteries, and churches in the district in Fiey, III, pp. 203-30), Hira became renowned for its population of Christians, or ´Ebâd [al-Masih] "devotees [of Christ]." Many early Arab traditions identify Hira as the place where the Arabic alphabet first evolved, whence knowledge of it was spread across to Arabia including Najd to Mecca in western Arabia during the course of the 6th century (see Trimingham, pp. 156-57, 227; Endress, I, pp. 169-70).
The Lakhmid chiefs seem to have controlled Hira on behalf of Sasanian government from the late 4th century, although they tended to reside outside the city itself in nearby palaces, such as Khawarnaq and Sadir. One of their historic roles was to act as wardens of the marches for the Sasanians, facing their enemies, the Byzantines and the Ghassanids across the Syrian Desert and protecting their rich agricultural lands in Mesopotamia from the Bedouins of Arabia.
Through the various contingents of troops in the Lakhmids' service, including mercenaries and mailed cavalrymen provided by the emperors themselves, communications were policed across the desert to the Sasanian outposts in eastern Arabia, in Bahrain [Iranian Mishmahig] and Hajar (al-Hasâ), which had been established since the time of the first emperors, and attempts were made to extend Sasanian influence as far west as Medina (see Bosworth, in Camb. Hist. Iran III/1, pp. 599-601). The fortunes of the Lakhmids and Sasanians were so interlinked that the imperial dynasty did not manage to survive for long the poor judgment of Khosrow II Aparviz in removing in 602 the last Lakhmid vessel king, No´mân III b. Mondher IV, thereby weakening the empire's defenses on its southwestern flank.
Culturally, Hira under the Lakhmids functioned as a meeting point of three cultures [since it was in Iranian domain]: those of Sasanian, Nestorian Christianity, and Arabian paganism. The close personal connections of the Lakhmids with their suzerains are illustrated in the fact that the future emperor Bahrâm V Gôr's spent his youth at the Lakhmids' tutelage. Likewise, the most famous Arab poet and litterateur to emerge from the ´of Hira, ´Adi b. Zayd (d. ca. 600), who had been educated at the Sasanian court in the Imperial capital, Ctesiphon, was for long a secretary and a translator between Persian and Arabic for Khosrow II. It was very likely through Hira that various loanwords came into Arabic from Middle-Persian [Pahlavi] in pre-Islamic times; the poet A´šâ Maymun (d. after 3/625), born in the vicinity of Hira and educated there, was noted by later critics as being fond of introducing Persian words into his verse (Bosworth, op. cit., pp. 609-11).
When the Iran invaded with a voracious force by the Arab-Bedouins in the second quarter of the 7th century, Sasanain Hira also fall to the Arabs under Khâled b. Walid in 12/633 (Balâdhori, pp. 241-48). It then slid into a long decline and was eclipsed by the nearby military encampment of Kufa (q.v.). When Hârun al-Rašid (q.v.) was in Hira in 190/796-7, he had houses built and allotted plots of land to his retinue (Tabari, III, p. 646; Ebn al-Atir, VI, pp. 152-3). In 315/927, Bedouins plundered the Sawâd of Kufa, including Hira, forcing the caliph to send an army (Ebn al-Atir, VII, p. 180). The geographers of the 4th/10th century give it little attention; Ebn Hawqal (q.v.) mentions that its surviving population was sparse and scattered (I, p. 239; tr. Kramers-Wiet, I, p. 232), but thereafter it is no longer mentioned.
Texts. Balâdhori, Fotuh, Ebn al-Atir, ed. Beirut, VI, pp. 152-3. Tabari, I, pp. 821-1039 passim; tr. Th. Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser; tr. C. Edmund Bosworth, The History of al-Tabari V. The Sâsânids, the Byzantines, the Lakhmids and Yemen, Albany, 1999, esp. pp. 74, 76-77, 197, 215. Yâqut, Boldân (Beirut), II, pp. 328-29.
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