Oldest Arabic inscription provides missing link between Nabatean and Arabic writing
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.
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. 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