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The Aramaic scripts of North Arabia

A partly damaged inscription from Taymāʾ in the Imperial Aramaic lapidary script. It records the offering of a pedestal (for a statue or altar) to the god Ṣlm (the chief deity of Taymāʾ). Now in the Musée du Louvre (AO 5009) Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum Pars II (Paris 1889-1954), no. 114. (Photograph by Michael Macdonald).Aramaic was probably introduced into North Arabia as an official written language by the last king of Babylon, Nabonidus. In 553 BC, he conquered Taymāʾ, Dadan (modern al-ʿUlā), Yathrib (modern Medina) and three other oases on the frankincense route and stayed at Taymāʾ for 10 years. Since Imperial (or Official) Aramaic was the administrative language of the Neo-Babylonian empire, it would almost certainly have been used by Nabonidus' officials in Taymāʾ, though we know that some of them could also write in Taymanitic, and some fragmentary cuneiform inscriptions from this period have also been found in the excavations. After Nabonidus returned to Babylon in 543 BC, it appears that Imperial Aramaic remained one of the written languages at Taymāʾ and seems gradually to have displaced Taymanitic.

The Persian empire of the Achaemenids, which succeeded the Babylonian, continued to use Imperial Aramaic in its administration, though, at present, there is very little evidence of an Achaemenid presence in North Arabia. However, recent excavations at Taymāʾ by a Saudi-German team have discovered that the Lihyanite rulers of Dadan ruled Taymāʾ at some point and the official inscriptions from this period are couched in Imperial Aramaic, rather than Taymanitic or Dadanitic.

An inscription in the local Aramaic script of Taymāʾ. It records a vow made to the goddess Trh (who is otherwise unknown). The end of the text is lost. Now in the the Musée du Louvre (AO. 26599) Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum Pars II (Paris 1889–1954), no. 336. (Photograph by Michael Macdonald).After Alexander the Great's conquest of the Achaemenid empire in 330 BC, North Arabia appears to have been more or less independent and, as in other parts of the former empire, local developments of the Imperial Aramaic script took place in Taymāʾ and possibly elsewhere, though not — on present evidence — in Dadan. However, by the late first century BC the Nabataeans had absorbed much of north-west Arabia into their kingdom, and the Nabataean form of the Aramaic script — itself a local development from Imperial Aramaic — became the standard. The Nabataeans set up the city of Ḥegrā (modern Madāʾin Ṣāliḥ) just 20 km north of Dadan and left large numbers of monumental inscriptions and graffiti throughout north-west Arabia.

Although, some of the nomads of North Arabia continued to write in Ancient North Arabian scripts until probably the 4th century AD, Nabataean Aramaic was used as the common written language of the settled inhabitants from the first century AD onwards. Indeed, when the Romans set up inscriptions on a small temple at Ruwāfah in the wilds of north-west Arabia, to mark the levying of a military unit from one of the local tribes (the Thamūd), the texts were in Greek for the Roman side and Nabataean as the local written language.

A Nabataean inscription over the entrance to a tomb in Madāʾin Ṣāliḥ (ancient Ḥegrā), Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is a legal document listing the property rights of the owner — a woman and her daughter — and the penalties to be inflicted on those who disturb or try to appropriate the tomb. The signature of the mason is carved just below the frame. See J.F. Healey, The Nabataean Tomb Inscriptions of Madaʾin Salih (Oxford, 1993) no. H 16. (Photograph by Andrew Peaock).Since Arabic appears to have remained a purely spoken language until probably the fifth century AD, it only appears in a handful of texts, e.g. when the writer wanted to make a point by his use of language, or did not have a very good grasp of Aramaic. In these cases, the Aramaic, Sabaic, Ancient North Arabian, or Greek alphabets had to be used. However, by the early fifth century in north-west Arabia, it appears that the Arabic language was being used to write in ink using the Nabataean script. This may have been because knowledge of the Aramaic language had faded and more and more people were discovering that it was possible to use the Nabataean script to express their spoken language (Arabic). We know that there must have been widespread use of the Nabataean script for documents in ink at this period because writing in ink is the stimulus for the development of a script. If a script is only used to carve on stone there is no pressure for development of letter forms and ligatures, apart from cosmetic changes dictated by fashion (as in the monumental Ancient South Arabian alphabet) and these are quite different from the developments we see in the Nabataean script. It was in this way that the Nabataean alphabet became widely used to express the Arabic language and developed into what we think of as the 'Arabic script'. From north-west Arabia, it appears to have spread to Syria in the late fifth century and it is there that the first inscriptions in what is recognizably the Arabic language and script are found in the sixth century.

For further reading see:

M.C.A.Macdonald, "Ancient Arabia and the written word"
L. Nehmé, "A glimpse of the development of the Nabataean script into Arabic based on old and new epigraphic material"

  • The Aramaic scripts of North Arabia

    A partly damaged inscription from Taymāʾ in the Imperial Aramaic lapidary script. It records the offering of a pedestal (for a statue or altar) to the god Ṣlm (the chief deity of Taymāʾ). Now in the Musée du Louvre (AO 5009) Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum Pars II (Paris 1889-1954), no. 114. (Photograph by Michael Macdonald).Aramaic was probably introduced into North Arabia as an official written language by the last king of Babylon, Nabonidus. In 553 BC, he conquered Taymāʾ, Dadan (modern al-ʿUlā), Yathrib (modern Medina) and three other oases on the frankincense route and stayed at Taymāʾ for 10 years. Since Imperial (or Official) Aramaic was the administrative language of the Neo-Babylonian empire, it would almost certainly have been used by Nabonidus' officials in Taymāʾ, though we know that some of them could also write in Taymanitic, and some fragmentary cuneiform inscriptions from this period have also been found in the excavations. After Nabonidus returned to Babylon in 543 BC, it appears that Imperial Aramaic remained one of the written languages at Taymāʾ and seems gradually to have displaced Taymanitic.

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  • Epigraphic Old Arabic

    Epigraphic Old Arabic is the name given to those pre-Islamic texts in the Arabic language that — unlike the pre-Islamic Arabic poetry and the Ayyām al-ʿArab — have survived independently, rather than being transmitted through the scholars of the Islamic period. The term 'epigraphic' is used because most of the texts that have survived independently are inscriptions.

    The ‘Namārah Inscription’ (Musée du Louvre AO 4083). It is the epitaph of Marʾ l-Qays ‘king of all ʿArab’ (part of the region known today as al-Jazīrah between the Tigris and Euphrates). It was found near a place of permanent water called al-Namārah in the desert of southern Syria and formed the lintel of the king's mausoleum. The text is composed in the Arabic language but written in the Nabataean script.

    Before the fifth century AD, Arabic was hardly ever written down and so there was no dedicated 'Arabic script'. Speakers of the various forms of Arabic had to use a different language for writing, such as Nabataean Aramaic or one of the Ancient North Arabian dialects or Greek or, possibly, Sabaic. So, on the rare occasions when someone wanted to write in their spoken language, Arabic, they would generally use the script of their habitual written language, such as Nabataean, Greek, an Ancient North Arabian script, etc.

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  • The Ancient North Arabian scripts

    Ancient North Arabian is the name given to a group of scripts belonging to the South Semitic script family, which also includes the Ancient South Arabian alphabets (musnad and zabūr) and the vocalized alphabets used in Ethiopia for Geʿez, Amharic, etc.

    The Ancient North Arabian scripts were used both in the oases (Dadanitic, Dumaitic, Taymanitic,) and by the nomads (Hismaic, Safaitic, Thamudic B, C, D, and possibly Southern Thamudic). There are tens of thousands of inscriptions and graffiti in these scripts which were used in the period roughly between the sixth century BC and the fourth century AD. See the descriptions of the individual scripts below. You can also see a comparison of the letter forms used in each script in the following table:

    A table of the letter forms in the Ancient North Arabian scripts (by Michael Macdonald).

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  • Dadanitic

    A stele with an inscription in Dadanitic. A. Jaussen & M.R. Savignac, Mission archéologique en Arabie vol. 2 (Paris 1914): Lihyanite no. 49.Dadanitic [formerly called 'Dedanite' and 'Lihyanite'] was the alphabet used by the inhabitants of the ancient oasis of Dadan (Biblical Dedān, modern al-ʿUlā in north-west Saudi Arabia), probably some time during the second half of the first millennium BC. Dadan was an important centre on the caravan route bringing frankincense from ancient South Arabia to Egypt, the Levant and the Mediterranean. Dadanitic has the same repertoire of 28 phonemes as Arabic and is the only ancient member of the South Semitic script family to use matres lectionis (i.e. some letters — h, w, and y — to represent both consonants and vowels or, in the case of y a diphthong). It was used for both monumental inscriptions and graffiti. The fact that many of the letters developed informal shapes, at the same time as the formal ones were being used — we can see both shapes in the same inscriptions — strongly suggests that the script was being used extensively to write in ink. This is because changing the shape of a letter is of no help to someone who only carves on stone. It is only when one is writing in ink that pressures of speed and ease provide the impetus for developing letter forms to make them easier and quicker to write. These new forms are then sometimes transferred to stone. Dadanitic inscriptions and graffiti are mainly concentrated in the oasis of al-ʿUlā and the mountains surrounding it, with a few distributed more widely.

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  • Dumaitic

    Dumaitic [formerly called 'Jawfian'] is the alphabet which seems to have been used by the inhabitants of the oasis known in antiquity as Dūma and later as Dūmat al-Jandal and al-Jawf. It lies in northern Saudi Arabia at the south-eastern end of the Wādī Sirḥān which leads up to the oasis of Azraq in north-eastern Jordan. According to the Assyrian annals Dūma was the seat of successive queens of the Arabs, some of whom were also priestesses, in the eighth and seventh centuries BC. The Assyrian king Sennacherib carried off images of six of its deities, three of whom (ʿAtar-Samain, Ruḍay, and Nuhay) are mentioned in the ANA inscriptions, including the Dumaitic. At present, only three graffiti are known in the Dumaitic script which has features which clearly distinguish it from the other ANA alphabets.

    A Dumaitic graffito with a prayer to the deities Ruḍay, Nuhay and ʿAtar-Samain. F.V. Winnett & W.L. Reed, Ancient Records from North Arabia. Toronto, 1970, p. 80, no. WTI 23.

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  • Hasaitic

    A gravestone inscribed in Hasaitic found at the site of Thāj, in north-east Saudi Arabia. A. Sima, ‘Die Hasaitischen Inschriften’, pp. 167–200 in N. Nebes (ed.) Neue Beiträge zur Semitistik (Wiesbaden, 2002), no. 10Hasaitic is the name given to the inscriptions — mostly gravestones — which have been found in the huge oasis of al-Ḥasā in north-eastern Saudi Arabia at sites like Thāj and Qatīf, with a few from more distant locations. They are carved in what may be an ANA dialect but expressed in a slightly adapted form of another member of the South Semitic script family, the Ancient South Arabian alphabet. Many of the personal names in these texts are etymologically ANA but there are other names, as well as features of the language of the texts, which are more difficult to explain as ANA. So far, just over 40 Hasaitic inscriptions are known and many of these are badly damaged. It will not be possible to make a more sophisticated linguistic analysis until more texts are discovered. They are thought to date from the first two centuries AD.

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  • Hismaic

    A Hismaic graffito from south of Tabuk, north-west Saudi Arabia, by a member of the Ḥwlt lineage group. M.C.A. Macdonald, ‘Wheels in a land of camels: another look at the chariot in Arabia’. Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 20, 2009, p. 179, no. 15.Hismaic [formerly 'Thamudic E'] is the name given to texts carved largely by nomads in the Ḥismā desert of what is now southern Jordan and north-west Saudi Arabia, though they are occasionally found in other places such as northern Jordan and parts of northern Saudi Arabia outside the Ḥismā. They are thought to date from roughly the same period as the Safaitic, i.e. first century BC to fourth century AD, though there is even less dating evidence in the case of Hismaic. However, some authors of these texts bear Nabataean 'basiliophoric' names — that is personal names formed with the name of a Nabataean king, thus ʿbd-ḥrtt ('the servant of Ḥrtt/Aretas') — which suggests that at least some of them were contemporary with the Nabataean presence in what is now Jordan and north-west Saudi Arabia. The alphabet has 28 characters which are assumed to be similar to the phonemes of Arabic.

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  • Safaitic

    Two Safaitic graffiti, one in large letters which starts at the bottom left corner and winds backwards and forwards up to the top, says that its author travelled from the inner desert to a place of permanent water, in the year that [the weather god] Baʿal-Shamīn withheld it [rain] from the [Roman] Province [of Syria or Arabia]; and that he stayed at this watering place during the dry season. It ends with curses on anyone who scratches out the inscription. The text in tiny letters above the beginning of the first records that the author mourned for someone. Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum Pars V, (Paris, 1950) nos 1240 and 1241. (Photograph by Michael Macdonald).Safaitic is the name given to an alphabet used by tens of thousands of ancient nomads in the deserts of what are now southern Syria, north-eastern Jordan, and northern Saudi Arabia. Occasionally, Safaitic texts are found further afield, in western Iraq, Lebanon, and even at Pompeii. They are thought to have been carved between the first century BC and the fourth century AD, though these limits can be no more than suggestions based on the fact that none of the approximately 35,000 texts known so far seems to mention anything earlier or later than these limits. Safaitic has an alphabet of 28 letters, which are assumed to represent a phonemic repertoire roughly equivalent to that of Arabic. No vowels or diphthongs (if they existed) are represented. The texts can be carved in any direction and there is no division between words. They are all graffiti or grave-markers. There is no indication that the Safaitic alphabet was ever used for writing in ink, which would have encouraged the use of a single direction and word division as aids to the reader. It appears that the nomads who used the ANA scripts lived in oral societies where they had few materials to write on except rocks and thus little use for writing except as a way of passing the time while guarding the flocks or on the look-out for game or enemies, which is exactly what their graffiti say they were doing. Thus, writing was a pastime for them and when they carved their texts they were doing so purely for their own amusement and, since they did not expect anyone to read them, they did nothing to assist a reader.

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  • Taymanitic

    A three-line Taymanitic graffito in the desert near Taymāʾ, by one of those who came there from Babylon with king Nabonidus. Kh. Eskoubi, Dirāsah taḥlīliyyah muqāranah li-nuqūš min minṭaqat (rumm) janūb ġarb taymāʾ (Riyadh 1999), no. 169. (Photograph by Michael Macdonald).Taymanitic [formerly called 'Thamudic A'] is the name given to the ANA script used in the oasis of Taymāʾ (in north-west Saudi Arabia). This was an important stopping point on the caravan route from South Arabia to the Levant and Mesopotamia. The Taymanitic alphabet is probably mentioned as early as c. 800 BC when the regent of Carchemish (on what is now the Turkish-Syrian border) claimed to have learned it. About the same time an Assyrian official west of the Euphrates reported that he had ambushed a caravan of the people of Taymāʾ and Sabaʾ (an ancient South Arabian kingdom, Biblical ‘Sheba’) because it had tried to avoid paying tolls. There are two Taymanitic inscriptions dated to the mid-sixth century BC, since they mention the last king of Babylon, Nabonidus (556–539 BC), who spent ten years of his seventeen-year reign in Taymāʾ. One of these texts is illustrated here. At present, Taymanitic appears to have the same phonemic repertoire as Arabic except that it seems to lack letters for [ḏ] and [ẓ]. The majority of the texts are gravestones and graffiti and at present we have no — even indirect — evidence of the alphabet being used to write in ink. Taymanitic inscriptions and graffiti are found both within the oasis and in the surrounding desert.

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  • Thamudic

    A Thamudic B caption to a drawing of an archer on foot. It says ‘By Shahr son of Maʾdabat, and Shahr is the Awsite foot soldier’. M.C.A. Macdonald, ‘Wheels in a land of camels: another look at the chariot in Arabia’. Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 20, 2009, pp. 170–172 and fig. 18.‘Thamudic’ is a name invented by nineteenth-century scholars for large numbers of inscriptions in ANA alphabets which have not yet been properly studied. It does not imply that they were carved by members of the ancient tribe of Thamūd. These texts are found over a huge area from southern Syria to Yemen. In 1937, Fred V. Winnett divided those known at the time into five rough categories A, B, C, D, E. In 1951, some 9000 more inscriptions were recorded in south-west Saudi Arabia which have been given the name 'Southern Thamudic'. Further study by Winnett showed that the texts he had called 'Thamudic A' represent a clearly defined script and language and he therefore removed them from the Thamudic 'pending file' and gave them the name 'Taymanite', which was later changed to 'Taymanitic' (see above). The same was done for 'Thamudic E' by Geraldine M.H. King, and this is now known as 'Hismaic' (see above). However, Thamudic B, C, D and Southern Thamudic still await detailed study. One of the problems is that large numbers of them were recorded only in hand copies by people who could not read them, and so it is difficult to know how accurately they reproduced the texts. Fortunately, in recent years, increasing survey work has rediscovered many of them and they have been photographed. It is hoped that by bringing all these texts together in one fully searchable corpus, with photographs wherever possible, OCIANA will speed up the accurate identification of the script and language of many more of these inscriptions which can then be removed from the 'Thamudic pending file' and given their own names.

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The Online Corpus of the Inscriptions of Ancient North Arabia,
The Khalili Research Centre, The University of Oxford,
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