Ghassanids: some of the first Christian knights in history

Antarah (a.k.a. “Antar“) ibn Shaddad (525-608 CE) may be the oldest knight celebrated in history around 500 years before the Crusades. He was also an accomplished poet

Scholars disagree where exactly the concept of chivalry first appeared. One should not confuse the celebration of the mounted warrior like in ancient Greece or ancient Rome with chivalry. Of course, morally speaking, the character’s refinement through the disciplines of war is not a recent idea. In a  simplistic way, chivalry combines the prestige and panache of this cavalry warrior – an elite in the battlefield since he supersedes the infantry warrior – and the honor code. This chivalric code, as we know today, is associated with the medieval institution of knighthood consolidated between 1170 and 1220 CE and made notorious by literature and popular culture since then. Some experts point the inspirational origins of this European ideal of chivalry to Arab Spain. Some disagree. However, one of the oldest manifestations of the actual knight, combining the cavalry skills and the moral code, appears in pre-Islamic Arabia, more accurately during the sixth century of the common era.

Image result for yawn halima
The Day of Halima a decisive victory of the Ghassanids in the sixth century

Honor above all, bravery in war, hospitality, respect for women, the protection of the weak and the orphans. That’s the ancient Arab code of “Muru’a“, the Arab “ancestor” of the Japanese “Bushido“, the medieval unwritten code of the samurai warriors. Reading the best-seller book “Tuareg” (ISBN 184694192X) a thriller novel written by Spanish author Alberto Vázquez-Figueroa, it’s easier to understand the seriousness of the “Muru’a” code for the  Middle Eastern warriors. The book was also adapted into a 1984’s movie named “Tuareg – The Desert Warrior“.

The greatest “Faris” (“knight” in Arabic) of the solidification of chivalry as a concept in the sixth century was for sure Antarah ibn Shaddad (Arabic: عنترة بن شداد العبسي‎‎, ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād al-ʿAbsī; AD 525–608 CE), also known as ʿAntar‘, famous for both his poetry and his adventurous life.

Nevertheless, what we understand by chivalry today is strongly connected with Christianity and, erroneously, people believe this idea was born in Europe with the advent of the Crusades. Although nothing points the pre-Islamic Arabia as a direct influence to the European chivalry, one of the first (if not “the first”) documented existence of Christian knights come from the Ghassanids’ “faris“.

The vision of Roman Emperor Constantine

A few centuries earlier, Roman emperor Constantine I had pioneered “militarized Christianity” after his vision of the holy cross in the skies and the “revelation” of the motto “in hoc signo vinces” (“In this sign you will conquer”), meaning that under the sign of the holy cross he’d win any battles against his enemies.

Constantine moved the see of the Roman empire to Byzantium in 330 CE. Fast forward around two hundred years, we see the Ghassanids as military allies of the Byzantine empire embodied of the “Muru’a” code and the Christian religion. According to Prof. Irfan Shahid (1926-2016), one of the top scholars in the world in pre-Islamic Middle East, when the Ghassanids fought their pagan enemies, the Persians and Lakhmids, it was one of the very first manifestations of the “Militia Christi“.

Although neither Ghassanids nor the other pre-Islamic knights had what we understand for a “chivalric order” they were certainly some of the first – again, if not “the first” – Christian knights in history.

“Thus Ghassanid chivalry developed in the sixth century [AD] and was spiritualized by Christianity, a process that brought it close to the Christian version of chivalry in medieval Europe.

(…) The Ghassanids’ commitment to Christian chivalry as one of the ideals that they developed and tried to live up to, especially in their wars, has hitherto been an unknown chapter in the history of this concept.”

Prof. Dr. Irfan Shahid (1926-2016), PhD (Princeton University) Professor Emeritus of Georgetown University Book “Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century”, pages 304-305 Dumbarton Oaks Research Library (Harvard University)

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