“The Spotlight” brings to light the stories of Muslim women of the past and present. In this instalment, Wardah Abbas tells the Pre-Islamic Arab story of Queen Al-Zabbaʾ of Tadmur.
‘You’re talking about me, right? You’re afraid I will not be able to walk the whole way home. When will you forget that I am a woman? And when will you let go of the thought that a woman is always weak?’– Queen Al-Zabbāʾ of Tadmur
For centuries, the tale of Queen Al-Zabbāʾ of Tadmur was largely forgotten in the Arab world until the Egyptian author, Maḥmūd Diyāb (1932–1983) published his historical novel, Arḍ lātunbitu l-zuhūr. Before the publication of Maḥmūd Diyāb’s book, classical Arab scholars spoke of Queen Al-Zabbāʾ of Tadmur – a woman who ruled an empire which is now located in present-day Syria. The story of this great woman can be found in the histories of Al-Ṭabarı, Al-Masʿūdı, Ibn Al-Ath ̄ ır and in Al-Is’fahanı’̄s Kitāb al-Aghānı. However, the magnum opus of al-Ṭabarı̄ (839–923), Tārıkh al-rusul wa ̄l-mulūk (The History of Prophets and Kings) is the oldest, most authoritative and comprehensive history of the pre-Islamic Queen Al-Zabbāʾ of Tadmur.
Al-Tabari’s Account of Queen Al-Zabbāʾ of Tadmur
Al-Ṭabarı’s history of al-Zabbāʾ takes us to a third-century Syria of a very different atmosphere, where Arab tribal disputes and rivalry forms the backdrop to an interesting story of fate, blood feud and a fearless ruler. Al-Zabbā who was originally named Al-Nāʾila is the daughter of the Arab leader ʿAmr ibn Ẓarib, who controls Tadmur, a large part of Syria. His territory is attacked by Jadhıma, the king of the Tanukhid and an expansionist rival to the throne. ‘Amr ibn Ẓarib is killed in this attack and just as the enemy retreats from the territory, Al-Zabbā succeeds her father and takes charge of political leadership in the territory.
Al-Ṭabarı informs us that shortly after she ascended the throne, Al-Zabbā built a fortress on the west bank of the Euphrates and conceived of the plan to attack Jadhıma, in order to avenge her father. Learning about her plan, her sister, Zabibā who is described as “thoughtful, clever and cunning” warns Al-Zabbā not to take military action, as it could lead to unexpected consequences. According to her, the entire realm would fall if they lost the battle. Al-Zabbā considered her sister’s advice and took it to heart. Instead of launching a military attack, she decided to trick the enemy by writing him a letter in which she invites him to marry her. In her letter, she explained the prospect of such marriage as having the power to merge their two kingdoms together, which would ultimately make him king over the two realms “because the reign of women tended only toward ill repute, weak rule, and inefficient administration“.
When Jadhima received Al-Zabbā’s letter, his heart brimmed with happiness. He decided to accept the offer against the advice of his special advisor, Qası̣r̄ who warned him that the offer was likely to be a ruse. “You enraged her because
you killed her father“, he said to Jadhima. But Qası̣r̄’s opinions all fell on the greedy Jadhima’s deaf ears. On the way to Tadmur to visit Al-Zabbā, Jadhima is ambushed, captured and brought before Al-Zabbā.
Al- ̄Ṭabarı̄ recounts the following conversation:
“When she saw him, she uncovered and, lo and behold, her pubic hair was plaited. She said: ‘O Jadhıma, do you ̄– Al-Ṭabarı̄, Tārıkh al-rusul wa ̄l-mulūk
see the concern of a bride?’ At first sight, this passage seems bizarre, but there is a logical explanation. Al-Zabbā’s dramatic gesture reveals that Jadhıma, who was lured to Al-Zabbā with the promise of marriage, had fallen into a trap. Al-Zabbā’s physical appearance revealed that she never intended to marry Jadhıma, for women in her time and place used to shave their pubic hair before intercourse. The fact that her pubic hair was so long that it can be plaited also indicated that Al-Zabbā has not been with a man for a very long time.”
Upon capturing Jadhima, Al-Zabbā thought of the most effective way to take her vengeance. She had been told that Jadhıma’s death might not be avenged if his blood was not spilt. The culture at that time was that if all drops of the blood were collected in a bowl without a single drop touching the ground, then the fatal cycle of the blood feud will not be set in motion. Al-Zabbāʾ tried her best to avert fate and killed Jadhıma by bleeding him to death in a golden bowl. But mistakenly, a few drops of blood fell next to the bowl, and Jadhıma ̄ ’s successor began to prepare for revenge.
Jadhıma’s successor, ʿAmr ibn ʿAdı, was assisted by Qası̣r, the tragically ignored special advisor. They launched an attack on the city of Tadmur and in the end, ʿAmr and his troops, through a kind of Trojan-horse-strategy succeeded in overpowering the city of Tadmur. Upon realising that she had lost to the enemy, Al-Zabbā licked her poisonous signet ring and called out to ʿAmr: “by my own hand, not by yours, O ʿAmr“. ʿAmr, however, responded quickly and killed her with his sword.
Maḥmūd Diyāb’s Slightly Different Account of the Death of Queen Al-Zabbā
From, Al-Tabari’s account, Al-Zabbāʾs all-consuming quest for revenge renders her a tragic character, which is evident towards the end of the play when ʿAmr captured Tadmur and walked into Al-Zabbāʾs room. However, in Maḥmūd Diyāb’s very recent account of this history, without the display of Al-Zabbā’s pubic hair, Jadhıma is made to understand that he has fallen into a trap. Al-Zabbā is so filled with vengeance that she says in a straightforward tone to Jadhima “You mistake me. You think you play on a woman’s feelings, but you are plucking an oud with no strings’.
She then turns towards her sister, Zabıba and says:
“The day our father was killed, I realized I would bear neither son nor daughter. Rather he produced an avenger (muntaqima). That is the goal for me to achieve in my life; that I should avenge. You on the other hand will bring forth children. You are my womb, you are the womb of Tadmur.”
When eventually Jadhima’s heir, ‘Amr, takes revenge and conquers Tadmur, Al-Zabbāʾ is perfectly resigned to her fate and is ready to poison herself. However, ʿAmr refuses to kill her for one reason. This account goes as follows:
ʿAmr: Listen Zabbāʾ, I don’t understand what it is you’re saying. I don’t understand your reasons for wanting to die. You deserve to live a thousand years. (Suddenly speaking in a pleading manner) Now lend me your ear … You say
that you work wonders. So take me into the world of your wonders. Let’s do something wondrous (shayʾan gharıban ̄ ) together, something beyond people’s imagination.
Al-Zabbā: And what would that be?
ʿAmr: (He pauses to catch his breath) We get married.
Al-Zabbā considered ʿAmr’s suggestion a very silly one, even though his intentions were serious and praiseworthy. Besides the fact that he had suddenly fallen in love with al-Zabbāʾ, his motives were those of social reconstruction. He knew that both his people and the people of Tadmur will despise the married couple and hate their union, but in the long run, the result would be that the wheel of vengeance ceases to turn, bringing an end to the long history of a tribal blood feud. Al-Zabbāʾ, unsurprisingly, turns down the offer, saying—with reference to Maḥmūd Diyāb’s story —”On soil watered with hate, will never grow a flower of love“. She kills herself with the poison in her ring, leaving ʿAmr grief-stricken and perplexed.
To be continued in a second part, where we will explore the non-arabic accounts of this story where Queen Al-Zabba fights a long war with the Roman empire.
- Bryce, Trevor (2014). Ancient Syria: A Three Thousand Year History. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-100292-2.
- About Al-Zabba: 3rd-century Queen of the Palmyrene Empire (0240 – 0275) | Biography, Facts, Career, Wiki, Life (peoplepill.com)