Ḥirta al-Ḥīra

Ancient city near the Euphrates to the southeast of present-day al-Najaf. Ḥirta was the capital of the pre-Islamic Arab kingdom of the Lakhmids, who were usually allied with the Sasanians and constantly at war with the Ghassānids, allies of Byzantium, to the west. It was an important center of pre-Islamic Arab culture, where many of its poets gathered and where the Arabic script is said to have originated. The name ‘Ḥirtā’ is indicative of its origin as a nomadic encampment, and in Syriac sources it is sometimes called ‘Ḥirtā d-Nuʿmān’ to distinguish it from other such settlements. ʿAmr b. ʿAdī (ca. 270–300) is said to have been the first Lakhmid to make Ḥirta his capital. By the 5th cent., the population under Lakhmid rule had a large Christian component, called the ʿIbād, which is understood to mean ‘servants’ or ‘devotees’ of the Lord. The Syriac Life of Shemʿun the Stylite tells us that Nuʿmān I (405–18) revoked the prohibition on his subjects travelling into Roman territory on pilgrimage to Shemʿun’s pillar after a visit from the stylite in a dream. Nuʿmān II (500–3), though not a baptised Christian, is said to have regularly attended church services. Mundhir III (506–54), who had a Christian mother (Māʾ al-Samāʾ) and a Christian wife (Hind, daughter of Arethas/Ḥārith b. ʿAmr al-Kindī), may have become Christian himself for a brief period before reverting to paganism. The only Lakhmid king to become openly Christian and persist in his faith was Nuʿmān III (583 – ca. 602), the last of the dynasty, who was deposed and killed by the Sasanian king Khusrau II (590–628). Ḥirta was taken by the Muslim army under Khālid b. al-Walīd in 633. Ḥirta began to decline when the new garrison town of al-Kūfa was founded near ʿĀqolā a few kilometers north of Ḥirta by Saʿd b. Abī Waqqāṣ in 638, to become the administrative center of al-ʿIrāq under Arab occupation and, for a time under the first Abbasids (750–63), the seat of the caliphate.

The first known bp. of Ḥirta is Hoshaʿ, who attended the synod of the Ch. of E. in 410. The Ch. of E. Catholicoi frequently resided in Ḥirta, especially at times of persecution in areas under direct Sasanian rule, and at least five of them found their resting places in Ḥirta (Dadishoʿ I [421–56], Babowai [457–84], Aba  I [540–52], Ḥazqiel [567–81], and Ishoʿyahb I [582–95]; perhaps also Aqaq [485–95/6] and, later, Abraham II [837–50]). There was a school at Ḥirta founded by Qiyore of Edessa, a disciple of Aba I, and housed in a monastery later called Dayr al-Askūl. Among the later bishops of Ḥirta was the lexicographer Ḥenanishoʿ b. Seroshway (9th cent.). The famous translator Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq al-ʿIbādī (d. 873) was a native of Ḥirta. The last known bp. of Ḥirta is Yūḥannā b. Nāzūk, who became cath. in 1012.

We hear of two attempts made to win the Lakhmids to Miaphysitism at the beginning of the 6th cent., through a letter purportedly sent by Philoxenos of Mabbug to Abū Yaʿfur (503–5) and through emissaries sent by Severus of Antioch to Mundhir III in 513. A little later the Miaphysite missionary-bishop Shemʿun of Beth Arsham was active in the area and reported from here about the events in Nagran in 524. A group of Miaphysites fleeing persecution by Emperor Justin I (518–27) took refuge in Ḥirta, but were expelled at the insistence of Cath. Shila (503–23) and resettled in the ‘Land of Payram’, around ʿAyn al-Tamr, to the northwest of Ḥirta. Some time before 549, the partisans of Julian of Halicarnassus also sent a bp. called Sergios to Ḥirta, who gained a following in the ‘Land of Payram’, which was settled by migrants from South Arabian Nagran. This Julianist community in Iraqi Nagran survived until the end of the 8th cent., when we hear of their final surrender to the Ch. of E. in two letters of Timotheos I. W.-Syr. presence near Ḥirta is indicated in the 7th cent. by a reference to Marutha of Tagrit staying in the cell of Rabban Shabur at ʿĀqolā/ʿOqulo just before 624, and in the 8th cent. by the mention of Bp. Bacchus of ʿOqulo, who became metr. of Tagrit ca. 706, as well as by Giwargi bp. of the Arab tribes styling himself as the bp. of the ‘Tanukhoye, Tuʿoye, and ʿOquloye’ in his letter to the priest Yeshuʿ of ʿAna.

The Lakhmid kings normally resided in palaces outside of Ḥirta, such as the famous palace of al-Khawarnaq to the east of Ḥirta. The township of Ḥirta itself was made up of a series of fortified dwellings, each of them normally associated with a certain clan. Some, at least, of the churches were also associated with specific clans, such as those of the Banū Māzin and Banū ʿAdī. Two churches, unfortunately without indication of their names, were discovered in excavations carried out at Ḥirta by an Oxford expedition led by D. Talbot Rice in 1931. The large number of monasteries that dotted the countryside around Ḥirta were described in the Kutub al-diyārāt, a special genre of Arabic literature dealing with monasteries, such as Shābushtī’s (d. ca. 988) ‘Book of monasteries’ (Kitāb al-diyārāt) and Hishām b. Muḥammad al-Kalbī’s (d. ca. 819) ‘Book of Ḥīra’ (Kitāb al-Ḥīra), which is now lost but was used, among others, by the geographer Yāqūt in his Muʿjam al-buldān. In these works, many of the monasteries around Ḥirta are associated with and named after (often female) members of the Lakhmid royal family, including al-Lajj, a daughter of Nuʿmān II, ʿAlqama, the father of Abū Yaʿfur (503–5), Ḥanẓala, a nephew of the same, Hind the Elder, the wife of Mundhir III, and Hind the Younger, a daughter of Nuʿmān III.


  • A.  Aigrain, in DHGE , vol. 3, 1158–1339. (s.v. ‘Arabie’, esp. col. 1219–33, 1319–20, 1330–1)
  • G.  Awwad, Kitāb al-diyārāt (Baghdad, 1951; repr. 2008). (work by ʿAlī b. Aḥmad al-Shābushtī)
  • A. F. L.  Beeston and I.  Shahîd, in EI 2, vol. 3, 462–3. (s.v. ‘al-Ḥīra’)
  • C. E.  Bosworth, in EIr , vol. 12, 322–3. (s.v. ‘Ḥira’)
  • Fiey, Assyrie chrétienne, vol. 3, 203–30.
  • Fiey, Pour un Oriens christianus novus, 214 (s.v. ‘Hira’), 226 (s.v. ‘Kufa’).
  • Th.  Hainthaler, Christliche Araber vor dem Islam (ECS 7; 2007), esp. 81–110.
  • E.  Hunter, ‘Syriac Inscriptions from al-Ḥīra’, OC 80 (1996), 66–81.
  • eadem,  ‘Christian matrix of al-Hira’, in Controverses des chrétiens dans l’Iran sassanide, ed. C. Jullien (Chrétiens en terre d’Iran 2; 2008), 41–56.
  • H.  Kilpatrick, ‘Monasteries through Muslim eyes: the Diyārāt books’, in Christians at the heart of Islamic rule, ed. D. Thomas (2003), 19–37.
  • Y.  Okada, ‘Early Christian architecture in the Iraqi south-western desert’, al-Rāfidān 12 (1991), 71–83.
  • I.  Shahid, in EI 2, vol. 5, 632–4. (s.v. ‘Lakhmids’)
  • J. S.  Trimingham, Christianity among the Arabs in pre-Islamic times (1979), esp. 154–8, 188–202.

How to Cite This Entry

Hidemi Takahashi , “Ḥirta,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay, https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Hirta.

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

Hidemi Takahashi , “Ḥirta,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018), https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Hirta.

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Takahashi, Hidemi. “Ḥirta.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018. https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Hirta.

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