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Mavia: A Powerful Warrior Queen Who Struck Fear in the Hearts of Ancient Male Rulers

Mavia: A Powerful Warrior Queen Who Struck Fear in the Hearts of Ancient Male Rulers

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A woman whose life isn't confirmed by any archaeological evidence is recognized as one of the most famous ancient Arab queens. Next to Zenobia of Palmyra, Queen Mavia is one of the heroines from the sands of the deserts. Her story has only survived in song and oral traditions, but with this information researchers have been able to reconstruct a probable version of her biography.

The deserts that belonged to the Arab tribes were ruled by many unknown leaders. Stories about these forgotten kings and queens have been lost amongst the grains of sand. Many of their people were illiterate, so their tales couldn't be recorded. However, some of their memories have survived through folk songs and oral legends that were later written down. One such story is the legend of Queen Mavia, who was more powerful than many men and an inspiring personality for ancient Arabic women.

A depiction of Saracens in a 15th-century woodcut (According to Sozomen provided details)

A depiction of Saracens in a 15th-century woodcut (According to Sozomen provided details) ( Public Domain )

A Queen of Deserts and Oasis

Her Arabic name was Mawiyya, but she is known in the English language as Mavia. She was probably a daughter of Tanukhids, a man who lost the support of his Arab tribes and migrated to the northern parts of the Arabian Peninsula. His daughter Mawiyya married al-Hawari, who was the king of the Tanukh tribe. He ruled in 375 AD. Mavia became his co-regent as her tribe demanded a revolt against the Roman Empire. When al-Hawari died, the Roman Emperor Valens believed that it would be a simple task to conquer and Christianize the people of Mavia’s tribe. However, Mavia, who inhabited Aleppo at that time, decided to withdraw from the city to the desert – greatly increasing her chances to defeat the enemy. Some researchers suggest that she could have been a Christian by then, but there is no clear evidence to this.

A marble bust, possibly representing Valens.

A marble bust, possibly representing Valens. ( Public Domain )

This supposition may be rooted in another legend - a tale of a meeting between Queen Mavia and an orthodox monk, who spent some time with her and apparently converted her to Christianity. Roman writers doubted this story however, suggesting that the legend of her conversion may have been created later. This means that Mavia was probably a pagan queen.

Mavia’s life mostly took place in the desert sands, on horseback, and in the battlefields. Apart from fights with the Roman Empire, she is also famous due to her rides in Phoenicia and Palestine. Her cavalry had terrifying power on the battlefield. It is said that Mavia rode a horse very well and was a remarkable fighter. Without any mercy, she defeated countless enemies who disrespected her for her gender. Many male rulers didn't respect her and hoped to conquer her lands easily in the beginning of her reign, but with time she became a force to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean area.

Regions under the authority of Odaenathus of Palmyra.

Regions under the authority of Odaenathus of Palmyra. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Was She a Real Person?

The task of finding primary historical references about Mavia isn't easy. Many of them are mixed with the stories of other rulers, including the legendary achievements of Zenobia of Palmyra. Thus, there are different theories about Mavia. According to Archaeology Magazine:

“De Vries notes that the nomadic nature of the Saracens would leave little archaeological evidence. “Thus, for Mavia’s material world, you may have to think ‘tents,’ not palaces,” he says. “In general, the material evidence for local Arab culture in this period is ephemeral, and, textually, they do not tend to write about themselves.”

“The revolt didn’t last very long and certainly didn’t leave any archaeological traces that I’m aware of. One could be hard put to date them unless they had a name on them,” says Bowersock. Islamic scholar Irfan Shahid believes that an inscription from A.D. 425, found near Anasartha, Syria, references Mavia’s contributions to local Christianity. The text praises a woman named Mavia and states that she built a martyrium, or building in honor of a saint, for St. Thomas. Shahid holds that both the timing and the laudatory tone of the inscription fit with the warrior queen. Bowersock counters with the assertation that the name “‘Mavia’ is not all that uncommon. We do have people called ‘Mawiya’ in inscriptions of this time, but there’s not the slightest reason to think that it’s this Mavia.” Adds de Vries, “Irfan Shahid, my friend, does stretch the evidence because he so desperately wants Mavia to be a great Arab Christian queen...he speculates a lot, and sometimes those speculations become facts when he returns to them later.””

Researchers have analyzed hundreds of texts that could be about her, but there are no known precious artifacts that are connected to this mysterious queen. It is, however, believed that she died in Anasartha, east of Aleppo. Most researchers agree that her death took place in 425 AD; about a century after the death of Zenobia of Palmyra, another great female ruler who became a legend.

Queen Zenobia's Last Look upon Palmyra by Herbert Gustave Schmalz.

Queen Zenobia's Last Look upon Palmyra by Herbert Gustave Schmalz. ( Public Domain ) Mavia is the second most famous Arab queen, only following behind Queen Zenobia.

Searching for a Semi-Nomadic Queen

Most researchers agree that Queen Mavia was a real person. She is believed to have been a strong ruler of the Arab world who was one of the most influential women in the ancient history of these lands. Yet some of the stories about her sound like tales about Zenobia of Palmyra and were probably mixed up over the years. But both women are still recognized as powerful icons of the Arab world and in the history of the Middle East.

Top image: ‘Arabian Eyes’ by mnadi ( flickr)

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Irfan Shahid, Rome and the Arabs: A Prolegomenon to the Study of Byzantium and the Arabs, 1984.

Warwick Ball,  Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire, 2001

Jan Retsö, The Arabs in Antiquity: Their History from the Assyrians to the Umayyads, 2003

Mavia of Arabia by Carly Silver, available at:
http://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/iron_ladies/mavia.html

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