Mawiya of Arabia: A Legendary Arab Christian Queen in the Ancient World
By: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer
The last quarter of the fourth century in southern Syria, witnessed the reign of Mawiya (Mavia), the powerful warrior queen. She was an Arab who would come to personally lead her Arab army in battle, rebelling against Rome in the Roman occupied provinces of Palestine, Phoenicia, Arabia, what is today known as Greater Syria, and Egypt. An iron lady of the Ancient World, Queen Mawiya is known as the most powerful woman to have lived in the ancient Arab world after Zenobia. A Christian warrior queen, Mawiya personally led her armies into battle and was victorious in her initial wars with the Romans. Hence, her fame.
Born in the mid-4th century into the Tanukh tribe, Mawiya married al-Ḥawārī, the last king of the Tanukhids. When he died in 375 A.D., she took over leadership.
As soon as Mawiya took power she asked the Emperor Valens to appoint a Christian orthodox bishop for the Tanukhids. Going against her wishes Valens instead, appointed an Arian bishop.
Religious differences are believed to have been the main reason for the revolt. Valens decided to deny the requests of the Arabs for an orthodox bishop, insisting on the appointment of an Arian one. As well, the exile of orthodox bishops by Valens harvested dissatisfaction throughout Arabia and Syria, thus garnering support for Mawiya. This set off a rebellion of the Tanukhids led by Mawiya.
Being semi-nomadic the Tanukhids moved into the desert, forming alliances with other Arab desert tribes. From there they attacked the Romans in guerilla-style raids.
In the spring of 378 A.D. Mawiya defied Rome and launched a massive rebellion against the Romans. Commanding her troops in person, an inspiration for her Arab armies, she defeated the forces of Rome.
Her armies began by attacking the towns and cities in what is today the Greater Syria region, reaching the borders of Egypt and even crossed the Bosporus into Byzantium.
Mawiya’s forces, using Roman battlefield techniques and Arab traditional war tactics, had a highly mobile cavalry whose use of long lances was effective, and she easily won her battles. Her revolt was very effective – a guerilla blitzkrieg.
After two armies of Valens had been totally defeated he sued for peace. Mawiya agreed on condition that Moses, an Arab Christian hermit known for his piety who she met during the uprising, be made bishop of the Arabs. Even though Moses was orthodox, the Arian Valens agreed to this appointment and a peace treaty was signed, based on the terms of Mawiya. Moses would become the first Arab Christian bishop of the Arabs.
To cement the treaty, at the war’s end, Mawiya’s daughter, Princess Chasidat, was married to Victor a commander in the Roman army. The treaty brought the Arabs a just peace. Seventy years later, Sozomen, an historian of the Christian Church recorded that Arab songs were still being sung celebrating the victory of the Arab queen against the Romans.
In the treaty with Rome, Mawiya agreed to supply Arab auxiliaries to fight against the Goths. Mawiya kept her word and supplied her troops at the Battle of Adrianople (378 AD), which Valens lost. During the Roman retreat as the Goths pushed them back to Constantinople, Valens was killed. Mawiya`s auxiliaries returned home, badly defeated. It was after this that her star began to wane.
The new emperor, Theodosius I, befriended the Goths, appointing them to numerous positions in the Roman administration, replacing the Arabs.
After having demonstrated their loyalty to Rome at the Battle of Adrianople, the Arabs felt betrayed and in 383 A.D., rose in rebellion. The uprising was crushed and the Tanukh-Roman alliance ended and another Arab tribe, the Salih, replaced the Tanukh as an alley of Rome.
History does not record if Mawiya led this revolt and her life then becomes folkloric -tales, only remembered in Arab warrior songs and legendary stories of her life. It is said that Mawiya retired sometime during the reign of Theodosius possibly leading a private and sequestered life. But this may only be conjecture as there are little if no details recorded or written about her life after this. However, an inscription recording her death in 425 A.D. was found outside Anasartha, east of the city of Aleppo in the heart of the Tanukh tribal territory.
Why Arab historians have rarely mentioned Mawiya in their writings is to me unfathomable. Mawiya is virtually unknown to historians even in the Arab countries. It is a strange story that has all the fine attributes of not only a woman ruler but of a brilliant military commander. She was accomplished on the battlefield and known for her military strategical tactics – a military genius who demonstrated her superiority over her Roman enemies on a regular basis. More successful than Zenobia, a century earlier, she defeated the Roman armies in all her battles. An incredible female leader who stood up to Rome and almost ended their Empire she left her name in history, albeit hidden.