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Oldest Arabic inscription provides missing link between Nabatean and Arabic writing

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A Saudi-French archaeological team has discovered the oldest known inscription in the Arabic alphabet at a site located near Najran in Saudi Arabia, according to a report in Arab News .  The finding is incredibly rare as it reflects a composite of Nabatean and Arabic writing, shedding light on the emergence and evolution of the Arabic alphabet. 

The script, which was found on stelae that has been preliminarily date to 470 AD, corresponds to a period in which there was a missing link between Nabatean writing and Arabic writing.

“The first thing that makes this find significant is that it is a mixed text, known as Nabatean Arabic, the first stage of Arabic writing,” said epigrapher Frédéric Imbert, a professor at the University of Aix-Marseille.

 Stelae found with Arabic inscriptions

A photo released by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) shows some of the stelae found in the Kingdom with Arabic inscriptions. (AN photo)

No Nabatean literature has survived, however, examples of Nabatean graffiti and inscriptions have been found in the various Nabataean cities in the Negev, in Wadi Rumm, the city of Petra, and in Meda'in Saleh, and are a testament to widespread literacy within Nabatean culture, which extended as far north as the north end of the Dead Sea.

The Nabataean script was developed from Aramaic writing during the 2 nd century BC and continued to be used until around the 4 th or 5 th century AD. Nabataean is therefore considered the direct precursor of the Arabic script. In fact, one of the earliest inscriptions in the Arabic language was written in the Nabataean alphabet, found in Namarah (modern Syria) and dated to 328 AD. Until now, this date was considered by many scholars to be the date that Nabataean script "became" the Arabic script, although in reality the transition from one to the other occurs gradually over centuries. The latest finding suggests that this transition occurred earlier than previously believed.

Ancient Nabatean writing at Wadi Rum

Ancient Nabatean writing at Wadi Rum. Credit: Brian Searwar

The enigmatic Nabataeans were originally a nomadic tribe, but about 2,500 years ago, they began building great settlements and cities which prospered from the first century BC to the first century AD, including the magnificent city of Petra in Jordan.  As well as their agricultural activities, they developed political systems, arts, engineering, stonemasonry, astronomy, and demonstrated astonishing hydraulic expertise, including the construction of wells, cisterns, and aqueducts.

They expanded their trading routes, creating more than 2,000 sites in total in the areas that today are Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Archaeologists are still trying to unravel the history of the Nabataeans, which in large remains unknown. Just how they managed to make the rapid conversion from a Nomadic tribe to the builders of great cities is mind-blowing, and has led some to doubt whether they were in fact the original creators of these great cities and monuments.  

Featured image: Petra, Jordan, believed to be built by the Nabateans. Photo source: BigStockPhoto

By April Holloway

Comments

The writer speaks about the boundaries of the Nabataean territoy extending south to the edge
of the Dead Sea…. then incorporates in Nabatea Mada’in Saleh, which is no less than a few hundred miles south of the the southern edge of the Dead Sea!

Which of these limits are true?

 

KSB

These writings on the stele, is there a translation of it especially the one infront of the 1st photo.

I wanna know what it says.

Thank you so much

Your obsession with the adjective “nomadic” is rather strange!

The description of the Nabataean Kingdom as a “Nomadic” is probably inspired by emptional or religious considerations which as usual, do not translate into history!

The “Nomadic Nabataeans” controlled trade reaching China in the East, Sri Lanka in the South and used the ports of the Philistines and the Phoenicians to reach Europe.

Their impact on trade in their region led to even the introduction of Arabic Hebrew used by Hebrew traders which dominated the more active part of the Hebrew tribes well before Hebrew became extinct and gave way to Aramaic and Greek!

Annoying facts I am sure, but it is enough to look at Petra to see that the Nabataean civilization reached a level of civilization not reached by others in the region, including the Israelites!

Where in Palestine do you see structureslike those in Petra and Mada’in Saleh, even if one is to take seriously your proposition that they actually did not build them themselves, a queer proposition to say the least?

You might argue that Solomon’s Great Temple is an example of a matching structure – an only structure, only that we cannot find an evidence it was ever built, and the learned archaeologists, such as Dr. Israel Finkelstein, who heads the Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, and his colleagues there, in the Netherlands and at Harvard, came to the conclusion that the wretched King Solomon did not even exist, and the existence of his father David is itself in doubt!

That makes the Nabataean civilization shines even brighter…

 

KSB

In the space of 20 short years China has gone from a technological backwater, to competing ably in all areas of technology and manufacture. Such rapid technology transfers are nothing new in human history.
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Yeah and the reason behind the success of China are craftsmen from Greece who used hammers and chisels.

4) Nomadic people who now are trading with and visiting civilized places such as Egypt, Jerusalem, and Greece take note of the structures in these places.
5) Formerly nomadic rich people hire and commission master builders and craftsmen from Greece to build structures in their kingdom.

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Bravo you have solved the mystery.

Notwithstanding, archaeologists says these people have left no written records of their times. According to anthropologists, as ascertained by the many graffiti and carvings on the walls these people were capable of writing. So why not leave any written evidence of one’s glory?

Simples, they didn't build it. They might have built some structures here and there, like Inca did. But just like Inca they didn't build any of the megalith structures.

There is no great mystery here regarding how a nomadic people so rapidly build such structures. Here is how it happened:

1) Warlike nomadic people discover an area with a thriving trade in a commodity.

2) Nomadic people then take over the area and "sit on it" in order to rake in the easy profits.

3) Nomadic people become rich.

4) Nomadic people who now are trading with and visiting civilized places such as Egypt, Jerusalem, and Greece take note of the structures in these places.

5) Formerly nomadic rich people hire and commission master builders and craftsmen from Greece to build structures in their kingdom.

6) Locals are hired to help build. Inevitability locals become trained and apprenticed in the building arts. Then they continue on their own.

In the space of 20 short years China has gone from a technological backwater, to competing ably in all areas of technology and manufacture. Such rapid technology transfers are nothing new in human history.

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