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Volume 31, Number 6November/December 1980

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We Three Kings of Orient Were

Written by Caroline Stone
Illustrated by Michael Turner

In the traditional Christmas story the Three Wise Men - also called the Three Kings of the East and the Magi - came to Bethlehem on Twelfth Night bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

A fascinating part of the Christmas story, the Three Kings were endlessly painted, from the second century - when they first appear in the catacomb of Santa Priscilla in Rome - to the present, and in one mosaic, in Ravenna, they are named: Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar.

Later they added a touch of exotic splendor to dramas andmiracle plays of the Middle Ages, and for children, in certain countries, replaced Saint Nicholas or Father Christmas as bringers of gifts. Furthermore, their feast day, the Epiphany, on January 6, was one of the most ancient of the church, as well as being, in Europe, more important than Christmas itself.

And yet the Wise Men are mentioned by only one of the Evangelists, Matthew, and even then in onlyafewverses:"... wisemen from the east came to Jerusalem... and lo, the star which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And they came into the house and saw the young child with Mary his mother... and opening their treasures they offered unto him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh." (Matthew 2:1, 9-11)

In the Koran - which has a very beautiful description of the Nativity (See Aramco World, November-December 1971) - the Three Kings are not mentioned at all. The story, nevertheless, was known throughout the East from an early date - possibly because the gospels existed in Arabic. They were translated, according to the authoritative collection of traditions by al-Bukhari, by the uncle of Khadija, the Prophet Muhammad's first wife.

Where did the Three Kings come from? The question was much discussed and never entirely resolved. John of Hildesheim, who in the 14th century wrote one of the most popular accounts of the Three Kings, maintained that Melchior came from Arabia, which he describes thus:

Now ye shall understand that there be three Indies of which these three lords were kings. In the first India was the land of Nubia and also the land of Arabia; and in those lands reigned Melchior at the time that Christ was born. Now, a man may lightly sail into this India out of Egypt and Syria by the Red Sea. And pilgrims and merchants that pass from India by the Red Sea say that all the ground of the Red Sea is so red that the water above seems as though it were red wine, notwithstanding that the water is of the color that other water is...And in that land is found gold... and that gold is the best gold that is in all the world.

According to John of Hildesheim, Melchior, the "smallest in stature," brought gold as his offering - including the treasure of Alexander the Great and "all the ornaments that the Queen of Saba [ShebaJ offered in Solomon's temple." Among Alexander's treasures was a golden apple and 30 pieces of money, gathered as tribute from all over the world. These, according to tradition, were the "30 pieces of silver" for which Christ at last was betrayed.

The second king, Balthazar, was from Saba where "there groweth incense more than in all the other places of the world; it drippeth out of certain trees in the manner of gum."

Gaspar, the third king, this account says, came from a mysterious kingdom called Tharsis: "In his isles myrrh groweth more plentifully than in any other place in the world. It groweth like ears of wheat..." According to John of Hildesheim, Gaspar was the "tallest of person and a black Ethiope without any doubt."

The significance of their gifts is well known from Christmas carols, or this hymn translated from the Latin of Pruden-tius and dating back to the early Church:

Sacred gifts of mystic meaning: Incense doth their God disclose, Gold the King of Kings proclaimeth, Myrrh his sepulchre foreshows.

This is precisely the interpretation given by the Arab historian al-Tabari, writing in the ninth century, who gives as his source Wahb ibn Munabbih, born about A. D. 654. They went out to search for him, al-Tabari writes, bearing gold and myrrh and incense, and on the way they met the King of Syria, Herod, who asked them what they were seeking. When they told him, he replied:

'What is the meaning of the gold, the myrrh and the frankincense, which you are offering in preference to all other gifts?' And they said: These are symbolic of Him, for gold is the lord of the material world, and this prophet is the lord of the people of his time; and myrrh is used to heal wounds and sores and thus God through this prophet will heal the crippled and the sick; and the smoke of incense reaches heaven as does no other smoke, and thus this prophet will be raised to God in heaven as no other prophet of his time shall be.'

In the 12th century, Saint Bernard offered a more practical interpretation. He proposed that the gold was given to Mary "to relieve her poverty, incense against the stench of the stable... and myrrh... to put away vermin." It never became popular.

Much to the annoyance of the orthodox theologians, one of the Three Kings' titles, "the Magi," inevitably continued to be associated in the popular mind with Magians, Magicians, Parsees and Fire Worshippers. But Ludolph of Saxony, a contemporary of John of Hildesheim, in his popular Vita Christi, suggested that there was another reason for using the term "Magi".

The three pagan kings were called Magi not because they were magicians but because of the great science of astrology which was theirs. Those whom the Hebrews called scribes and the Greeks, philosophers, and the Latins, wise men, the Persians called Magi. And the reason that they were called kings is that in those days it was the custom for the philosophers and wise men to be rulers...

The Arab historians: Yaqut al-Hamawi and al-Mas'udi both give versions of the legend associating the Three Kings with fire worship. Al-Mas'udi tells the story as follows:

In the province of Fars they tell you of a well called the Well of Fire, near which there was a temple built. When the Messiah was born the king of Koresh sent three messengers to him, the first of whom carried a bag of Incense, the second a bag of Myrrh, and the third a bag of Gold. They set out under the guidance of the Star which the king had described to them, arrived in Syria and found the Messiah with Mary His Mother. This story of the three messengers is related by the Christians with sundry exaggerations; it is also found in the Gospel. Thus they say that the Star appeared to Koresh at the moment of Christ's birth; that it went on when the messengers went on, and stopped when they stopped... It will be seen that Mary gave the King's messengers a round loaf, and this, after different adventures, they hid under a rock in the province of Fars. The loaf disappeared underground, and there they dug a well, on which they beheld two columns of fire to start up flaming at the surface; in short, all the details of the legend will be found in our annals.

According to Yaqut al-Hamawi the temple was at Sis, or Takht-i-Sulaiman - The Throne of Solomon. This is interesting because in Persian tradition, Zoroaster was born nearby, at Urmiyah, and as recently as 1951 the story that the Magi were buried there was still current.

When Marco Polo was in Persia, probably in about 1271 or 1272, he too was shown the tomb of the Magi:

In Persia is the city of Saba, from which the Three Magi set out and in this city they are buried, in three very large and beautiful monuments, side by side. And above them there is a square building, beautifully kept. The bodies are still entire, with hair and beard remaining... Messer Marco Polo asked a great many questions of the people of that city as to those Three Kings...

At Saba, they could tell him very little, but further on, at "the Castle of the Fireworshippers," he heard a story very similar to that of al-Mas'udi's; clearly it was the version current in the East. Again, there is a flaming well - one is tempted to think of ignited oil seeps in that part of the world - just as there is«a very old Christian myth that the star descended into a well between Bethlehem and Jerusalem and can still be seen there by the pious.

The place of the tombs of the Magi is also much debated. It is generally agreed that they died in the East - some say in India, where they are associated with St. Thomas and his place of martyrdom at Madras. Others claim that they died and were buried in Hadhramaut, where they were discovered by St. Helena while she was searching for the True Cross. She brought the bodies back to Constantinople and reburied them in Hagia Sofia. Later they were taken to Milan and at last, in the 12th century, were transported to Cologne, where they rest to this day.

It is hardly surprising, with all their wanderings, that the Three Kings became the patrons of travelers. In art, they are most often represented offering their presents to the baby Jesus, but occasionally they are shown on their wanderings.

They are illustrated thus in the Tres Riches Heures du Due de Berry, perhaps the most famous of all Western manuscripts, painted by the Limburg brothers a few months before they all three died in the great plague. The Three Kings appear on horseback with their retinues at the meeting of the three ways - always a place of mystery - outside Jerusalem. Their sumptuous clothes, flowing beards and glittering scimitars proclaim them kings from the Arab East, and the glowing colors lend the little painting something of the look of a Persian miniature. For a moment, the sober Christian story seems to shimmer and blend into the marvelous tales of The Thousand and One Nights.

Caroline Stone writes regularly for Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 2-3 of the November/December 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1980 images.