Al-Hira – How an Ancient City Dealt with Diversity
January 16, 2014
In her latest work, ‘Al-Hira: An Arab cultural metropolis in Late Antiquity’ (Brill, 2013), Dr Isabel Toral-Niehoff, Marie Curie Senior Research Fellow at ISMC, draws a vivid picture of this ancient frontier city which over 1,500 years ago was one of the main Arab urban hubs alongside Mekka, Najran and Yathrib. Al-Hira, situated on the west bank of the Euphrates, was the capital of the principality of the Arab Lakhmids (ca.300 until 602 CE). The city, renowned for its beauty, was situated near the long since vanished Sea of Najaf. In today’s terms it would be described as being about 100 miles south of Baghdad.
But whilst some seventeen centuries ago you would have found a great mix of cultures, ethnicities and religions living in this location, today you will find an almost exclusively Muslim population. What Dr. Toral-Niehoff describes as “the cultural achievement of knowing how to deal with differences” is perhaps one of the most striking ‘lost treasures’ of Al-Hira.
Dr. Toral-Niehoff explains how this thriving metropolis had to contend with both internal and external pressures. Cordial relations had to be fostered between the different strands of its hugely diverse population (Nestorians, Monophysites, Arab ‘pagans’, Manicheans and other Gnostics, Jews and Zoroastrians), and diplomatic relations had to be maintained with its two powerful neighbours, Byzantium and Sasanian Persia. Byzantium was a patron of the Christians, while the Sasanians were patrons of the Zoroastrians and sometimes the Jewish people. By contrast the Lakhmid rulers, right until the very last of the dynasty, were pagan.
The famous Arab poet Adi ibn Zayd is described by Dr. Toral-Niehoff as exemplifying the kind of culturally rounded person held in high esteem at the time. His parents sent him to live with a Persian family to learn the language and culture. A Christian by faith, he then served as a diplomat and translator in the Persian court, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, and indeed followed into this profession by his son.
“Later, Islam became the dominant religion and the religion of the people in power, but in reality there were a lot of Christians there and a lot of Jewish people – and they had to deal with it,” she explained. This sometimes meant forming unusual alliances, not infrequently on the basis of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ – a maxim that seems to have been applied throughout history.
Dr. Toral-Niehoff added that it would be useful for modern day leaders to study the lost legacy of Al-Hira.
“The idea of some monochrome, monolithic state or nation is not only impossible to achieve – I think it is profoundly inhuman – because it doesn’t consider that people are different and want to be different,” she concluded.