ḤIRA, a city on the desert fringes of southwestern Mesopotamia; known in pre-Islamic times as the capital of the Lakhmid Arab dynasty, clients of the Sasanians. It survived as an urban settlement into the early centuries of the Islamic period.
Figure 1. The region of Ḥira in the late Sasanian era, ca. 600 A.D.
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. Ḥira’s environs were first investigated by the Japanese Archaeological Expedition to Iraq 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 ḥērəṯā “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 ḥwr “to settle” in Sabaic (cf. Shahid, 1984, pp. 490-98).
Exactly when the encampment was founded cannot be ascertained. Arabic lore attributed its origin variously to: Buḵtnaṣṣar (Nebuchadnezzar); the Arsacid Ardawān, as a concentration point for his Arab allies against the Sasanian Ardašir I; the South Arabian Tubbaʿ king, etc. (see Yāqut, II, pp. 328-29). In Ḥira, which was the seat of a Nestorian bishop, there was a Christian community by the fifth century, which formed the nucleus of the future ʿEbād (see below). The bishop Hosea attended the first synod of the Nestorian Church in 410. A later bishop, Išōʿdād, is reported to have been killed ca. 640, when Muslims conquered the town of Šuštar in Ḵuzestān. A line of bishops continued until 1013, when Yoḥannā b. Nazuk of Ḥira was elected Catholicos of the Nestorian Church (Trimingham, pp. 156-57).
Ḥira was strategically situated in the border region between the irrigated agricultural lands of Sasanian Mesopotamia and the northeastern corner of the Arabian Desert. Whatever its origins, the encampment of Ḥira soon became a flourishing city. Its core population most likely consisted primarily of Aramaeans, who spoke and wrote in Syriac and were called the Nabaṭ al-ʿErāq 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, Tanuḵ, Ḡassān, and Laḵm (the tribe of the ruling family of Ḥira) seem to have been represented. Boasting a rich tradition of Christianity (see the list of the church leaders, monasteries, and churches in the district in Fiey, III, pp. 203-30), Ḥira became renowned for its literate population of Arab Christians, or ʿEbād [al-Masiḥ] “devotees [of Christ].” Many early Arab traditions identify Ḥira as the place where the Arabic alphabet first evolved, whence knowledge of it was spread across the 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 Ḥira from the late 4th century, although they tended to reside outside the city itself in nearby palaces, such as Ḵawarnaq 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 inner Arabia. Ḥira thus became a focal point in the struggle of the Sasanians and Byzantines for influence and control of northern Arabia and its fringes. 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 and Hajar (al-Ḥasā), 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 judgement of Ḵosrow II Aparviz in deposing in 602 the last Lakhmid king, Noʿmān III b. Monḏer IV, thereby weakening the empire’s defenses on its southwestern flank.
Culturally, Ḥira under the Lakhmids functioned as a meeting point of three cultures: those of Sasanian Persia, Nestorian Christianity, and Arabian paganism. The close personal connections of the Lakhmids with their suzerains are illustrated in the fact that the future emperor Bahrām V Gōr’s (see BAHRĀM v.) spent his youth under the Lakhmids’ tutelage. Likewise, the most famous Arab poet and littérateur to emerge from the ʿEbād of Ḥira, ʿAdi b. Zayd (d. ca. 600), who had been educated at the Sasanian court in Ctesiphon, was for long a secretary and a translator between Persian and Arabic for Ḵosrow II; he was to use his diplomatic skills and contacts at Ctesiphon to secure the succession in Ḥira for the future Noʿmān III (see Rothstein, pp. 52, 67, 109-11; Bosworth, op. cit., pp. 607-8). It was very likely through Ḥira that various loanwords came into Arabic from Middle Persian in pre-Islamic times; the poet Aʿšā Maymun (d. after 3/625), born in the vicinity of Ḥira 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 Persian positions along the fringes of Iraq collapsed in the second quarter of the 7th century, Ḥira surrendered to the Arabs under Ḵāled b. Walid in 12/633 (Balāḏori, pp. 241-48). It then slid into a long decline and was eclipsed by the nearby military encampment of Kufa (q.v.). When Hārun al-Rašid (q.v.) was in Ḥira in 190/796-7, he had houses built and allotted plots of land to his retinue (Ṭabari, III, p. 646; Ebn al-Aṯir, VI, pp. 152-3). In 315/927, Bedouins plundered the Sawād of Kufa, including Ḥira, forcing the caliph to send an army (Ebn al-Aṯir, VII, p. 180). The geographers of the 4th/10th century give it little attention; Ebn Ḥawqal (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. Balāḏori, Fotuḥ, Ebn al-Aṯir, ed. Beirut, VI, pp. 152-3.
Ṭabari, I, pp. 821-1039 passim; tr. Th. Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser; tr. C. Edmund Bosworth, The History of al-Ṭabari V. The Sāsānids, the Byzantines, the Lakhmids and Yemen, Albany, 1999, esp. pp. 74, 76-77, 197, 215.
Yāqut, Boldān (Beirut), II, pp. 328-29.
Studies. C. Edmund Bosworth, “Iran and the Arabs before Islam,” in Camb. Hist. Iran, III/1, pp. 593-612.
Gerhard Endress, “Die arabische Schrift,” in W. Fischer, ed., Grundriss der arabischen Philologie, Wiesbaden, 1982, I, pp. 169-70.
Jean-Maurice Fiey, Assyrie chrétienne, Beirut, 1965-68, III, pp. 203-30.
B. Meissner, Von Babylon nach der Ruinen von Ḥira und Ḫuarnaq, Deutsche Orientgesellschaft Sendschriften 2, Leipzig, 1901.
Alois Musil, The Middle Euphrates. A Topographical Itinerary, New York, 1927, pp. 99-118, 283-314.
Gustav Rothstein, Der Dynastie der Laḫmiden in al-Ḥîra, Berlin, 1899, pp. 12-40, 139-43 and passim.
Irfan Shahîd, “al-Ḥira,” in EI2 III, pp. 462-63.
Idem, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth Century, Washington, D.C., 1984, pp. 490-98.
John Spencer Trimingham, Christianity among the Arabs in Pre-Islamic Times, London and Beirut, 1979, pp. 142, 154-57, 169, 188-202, 227.
(C. Edmund Bosworth)
Originally Published: December 15, 2003
Last Updated: March 22, 2012
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Vol. XII, Fasc. 3, pp. 322-323