Jonesing for Arabic

Arabic’s past is out there, preserved in stone in the deserts of North Arabia and Syria. For the past few years, I have made several journeys to the Harrah (the basalt desert of Jordan and southern Syria) to document inscriptions in the Safaitic, Thamudic, Greek, Nabataean, Palmyrene, and early Arabic scripts. These precious artefacts attest to a long-lost period of Arabic’s history — pre-Islam. The following images and remarks hope to give readers a taste of what epigraphic fieldwork is like and how much there is to be learned with each trip to the desert.

Click here for a concise introduction to Safaitic and its grammar

Finding Safaitic inscriptions is not easy — we treked hours through the basalt before we encountered our first inscriptions. There was too much mud to take the truck because of the spring rains (daṯaʾ in Safaitic).

An ancient burial cairn, undisturbed. It is surrounded by Safaitic inscriptions, hundreds of texts.

This is the landscape of Arabic’s earliest history — the vastness of this country underscores the fact that the 40,000 inscriptions known so far are just the tip of the iceberg.

The greatest temptation on the field is to read and discuss interesting texts as soon as they are discovered. But this drains time and doesn’t allow the team to cover as much ground as possible. Sometimes, however, one needs to make sense of the text to properly photograph it. In this picture, al-Manaser, Macdonald, and I are studying a fascinating inscription written in very thin and elongated letters across 10 rock faces! The author explains: <wa naẓara nabaṭa> “he kept watch for the Nabataeans” <wa qanaṭa haś-śāneʾa> “and feared the enemy”, <sanata be-ʾaṯr sanat> “year after year”, at the end he blesses the reader of his text: <wa man daʿaya ġanema ʾebela> “may whosoever reads/makes an invocation gain camels as spoil”. Our driver Abû Sultân absolutely loves when we find such texts as he is assured plenty of time to rest. An experienced Bedouin driver is necessary to explore these regions, with a good 4×4 and an understanding of desert paths through the basalt.

The work day is long, sometimes up to twelve hours on the move. But tea breaks are necessary. Our driver and field hand prepare a special local tea, containing a plant called šīḥ. It is good for digestion.

Various Safaitic hands meet on a single rock. In their proper context, one would be at a high place in the landscape, surrounded by texts such as these and depictions of horses, camels, hunting, and war. Beauty and monumentalism through chaos.

“One thought succeeded another as I gazed at these marvellous stones, and tried to picture to myself what people there were who centuries ago had lived here … carving these curious symbols. What did it all mean?” These were Graham’s thoughts when he first discovered the Safaitic inscriptions in 1857. The field has come so far and we can only imagine Graham’s reaction to the text I have attached here that states the author followed water during “Aries” ذكر — the ancient Arabic name for the constellation, lost to history until the decipherment of these inscriptions.

The authors of the Safaitic inscriptions wrote elaborate curses to protect their texts against vandalism. The curse carved in this text, which we discovered a few days ago, was no deterrent. Only one word escaped hammering — the name of the god rdy! This is our first bit of evidence that the written form of a deity’s name was considered sacrosanct by the pre-Islamic nomads of this region!

Although the literature states the Ancient North Arabian inscriptions were produced between the middle of the first millennium BCE and the 4th c. CE this is simply a guess — we have no idea really. Thamudic B inscriptions are not uncommon in NE Jordan and we have no idea how old or young they are in this region. In the picture you can see that the large Thamudic B letters were on the rock before the finely carved Safaitic text. But are they separated by a decade or a millennium…. ?

Monumental is a subjective term. While many of the inscriptions we discover are simply names carved, sometimes rather crudely, on unmovable rocks (and so can be considered graffiti in the general sense), there are moments when the monumental beauty of Safaitic is hard to deny. In many cases our texts are not in their original context, as high places in the desert are reused generation after generation. Safaitic stones become building materials for modern cairns, or are thrown about by looters in pursuit of Turkish gold. But once and a while we come across an enclosure where almost each rock is carved, often with beautiful scenes of nomadic life: hunting, raiding, and desert fauna. These face towards the center of the enclousure — a stunning halo of inscriptions and rock art. You can get a small impression of this in the attached picture, although many rocks originally belonging to the wall have collapsed. In such cases, these texts and images were likely part of the original design — monumentality in a nomadic context. 


Sands from the Nefud are blown north, sometimes burying entire cairns. This inscription was barely visible. I dug it out and boy what a find! A long elegantly carved text filled with new expressions and grammar. The text states that the author <raʿaya sebʿata ʾaggom> “he pastured for seven star periods” <wa lam yesʿad> “but was unfortunate” and goes on <wa sameʿa nagʾata> “and he suspected (?) the evil eye”, and much more. Unknown scores of texts are buried under the sands but time is a resource and there simply isn’t enough to expose the entire cairn associated with them. Perhaps future archaeological missions will build on this survey.

Another wonderful day of surveying — hundreds of new and exciting finds. Here is a nice one to illustrate a very important point — inscriptions can be found anywhere, and not just at installations and high places. In front of you (can you see it?) is a lone safaitic text, not connected to a structure or cairn, long and unformualic, recounting the capture of two men. An excerpt reads: wa ʾaḫaḏa ragolayn howa wa māseka ben taym asarūhum garya qodūma mer-rawḍat “and he took two men, he and Masik son of Taym, they captured them, on foot advancing from the meadow (i.e. the low ground abounding in herbage near the wadi adjacent to the inscription)”. Not far from here we also discovered the first thamudic D inscriptions (AFAIK) in Jordan, two of them. These texts are concentrated in Northwest Arabia and express a language quite distinct from Arabic. It’s fun to speculate that these unwelcome visitors may have been the unfortunate captives of the author of our first inscription — but it is of course impossible to know for sure.

Context, Context, Con-text: the phrases <ʾaḫaḏa ha/ʾar-rogma> or <ʾeḫḏata> have been translated in various ways, from “taking possession of a cairn” to “taking a water pool”. In most editions it is impossible to verify if such translations are even possible because the surrounding site isn’t documented. I suggested in the past that the phrase <axadha h/a-rogma> meant “to bury a man in a funerary cairn”. Today we came upon clear proof of this interpretation! The first photo shows three large stones in front of a cairn: one says in part: <ʾaḫaḏa le-māsek har-rogma>, lit. “He took this cairn for Māsek” and the second <ʾaḫaḏa ha-ʾeḫḏata> (well get back to this) and another expressing grief for the loss of Māsek. These are funerary inscriptions recording the burying of Māsek in the cairn nearby and grieving for him. And ʾeḫḏat (أخذة) seems to refer to the same structure — indeed, in classical arabic (and probably other Arabics too, but the dialectologists will know best) the cognate means “land taken for a grave”. What’s more: there are no possible water pools around!

This is the boundary of the Harrah (black stone desert) and the Madbar (the inner desert, mostly mud). In good years the ancient nomads spent their summers at places of permanent water in the Harrah and the rainy season in the Madbar pasturing.