The writing on the rocks
The ancient Nabataeans are chiefly remembered for their breathtaking rock-carved capital of Petra in southern Jordan. Jane Taylor traces their fascinating story, from absurd theory to identification and decipherment of their inscriptions in Sinai
In their heyday some 2000 years ago the Nabataeans were known throughout the Middle East and in parts of Europe -- in other words, wherever they travelled to trade. At Alexandria and Rhodes, at Puteoli near Naples and other places along the sea routes to Greece and Italy, Nabataean merchants established trading settlements and built temples in which to worship their gods. Far from home, they could ease their souls in the presence of their own familiar deities. And wherever they went they left inscriptions carved in stone in the distinctive Nabataean version of the Aramaic script.
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A rock in Wadi Mukatteb, covered with inscriptions and drawings of animals, was identified in 1840 by a young German professor as the work of the Nabataeans (from Leon de Labord's Journey Through Arabia Petraea); a drawing of Forster's mistranslated inscription, numbered 1104 to 1107 (From Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum, Paris, 1902); the ancient high place on the summit of Gabal Muneijah was a special place of sanctity for the Nabataeans in Sinai
The Nabataeans and their gods were clearly at home in Egypt, and nowhere more so than in the Sinai, which may have been part of their kingdom. Their occupation of the peninsula probably began in the third century BC, at about the same time that other Nabataean groups were settling in Petra and southern Syria and taking control of the area around present-day Meda'in Saleh in the Hejaz. They used the ancient routes established from time immemorial by nomadic tribes and continued their itinerant lives through the mountains of Sinai, from time to time pausing at oases so that the herders could water their flocks and the merchants could trade with the people who had settled there.
In many wadis -- especially Mukatteb in the west, Haggag in the east, and Firan in the centre -- as they sheltered from the sun in the heat of the day, these tribesmen carved their names on the rocks, adding messages of peace and good wishes and drawings of the camels, horses, donkeys and ibex that were part of their lives. Over the following centuries some Nabataean-related groups gave up their wanderings to settle in oases like Wadi Firan, where a regular water supply and agriculture made sedentary life possible. Several became known by the places in which they settled, and some are named by ancient authors: Pharanites (from Pharan/Firan), Garindeans (from Gharandal near Suez), Raitheni (from Raithu, today's Al-Tur) and Autaei (from Qasrawet in the north). Today about 7,000 Nabataean inscriptions are known in Sinai. All those with dates come from the second and third centuries AD -- by reference to the beginning of the Roman province of Arabia in 106 AD -- suggesting that Sinai came under Roman rule with the rest of the Nabataean kingdom. From the fairly consistent style of writing it seems that similar dates apply to most of the inscriptions.
The Sinai inscriptions, although written well after the time when the Nabataean script in Petra and elsewhere had acquired its elegant cursive form, and informal as they are, resemble the older, monumental style of Nabataean script. This may be an indication of the lack of habituation in writing of this provincial and peripatetic people -- perhaps the "country cousins" of the Nabataeans of Petra.
It is with these Sinai inscriptions that the curious tale of the deciphering of the Nabataean script begins. It goes back to the early sixth century AD when Cosmas Indicopleustes, a world-travelling Egyptian merchant-turned-monk, walked the length and breadth of the Sinai peninsula. At every staging post he noticed puzzling inscriptions carved on the rocks in a language and script that were unknown to him; but some Jews travelling with him claimed they had been inscribed by their ancestors, the Israelites of the Exodus, led by Moses.
Cosmas's discovery was met with a resounding silence, and there the matter rested for about 1,200 years until another Egyptian monk, a Franciscan from Cairo, wrote about the inscriptions he had seen in Sinai in 1722 at what he called Gebel Al- Mokatab ("the inscribed mountain"). Though accompanied by "persons who were acquainted with the Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Coptic, Latin, Armenian, Turkish, English, Illyrican, German and Bohemian languages", all were baffled by the inscriptions. "It is probable," he wrote, "that these unknown characters contain some very secret mysteries, and that they were engraved either by the Chaldeans, or some other persons long before the coming of Christ."
This tantalising suggestion whetted the appetites not only of serious scholars but also of an army of biblical enthusiasts hungry to find corroboration for the Bible in the stones of the Holy Lands. In 1747 an Irish bishop, Robert Clayton, translated the Franciscan's journal into English and suggested to the Society of Antiquaries of London that they appoint someone to go to Sinai to copy and study these "Sinaitic Inscriptions", offering to contribute £500 (then a substantial sum) towards the expense. Like Cosmas's companions, he thought the inscriptions might prove to have been made by the Israelites of the Exodus. While Clayton's offer raised much interest throughout Europe, no immediate action was taken. And no two scholars agreed about their likely provenance or content. Some suggested they were a mixture of Coptic and Arabic characters; others that they might be Phoenician; and others again were sure they contained only names and dates, and had been executed in idle moments by travellers unskilled in letters.
Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who in 1812 had become the first modern Westerner to see Petra (but saw no inscriptions there), travelled through the Sinai in September 1816 and copied inscriptions from several places. He noticed that most began with the same character, from which he deduced that "they consist merely of short phrases, all similar to each other, in the beginning at least. They are perhaps prayers, or the names of pilgrims... the cliffs are so situated as to afford a fine shade to travellers during the mid-day hours."
Four years later the Reverend G F Grey copied 177 inscriptions in Wadi Mokatab which, when published in 1832, provided both scholars and enthusiasts with more accurate material for the work of decipherment. Eduard Beer, professor of palaeography at the University of Leipzig, took up the challenge and, just one year before his untimely death in 1841 at the age of 36, published his conclusions on the authorship and meaning of the enigmatic Sinaitic inscriptions -- he suggested they were the work of the ancient Nabataeans, or a tribe closely related to them.
Beer realised -- like Burckhardt and some others before him -- that many of the words were names. But he took the supposition a step further by identifying most of the names as Arab. Whatever language they were in was likely, from their location, to be in the Semitic group, and some of the characters resembled known Hebrew and Arabic letters. Working with a mixture of intuition and patient trial and error, Beer identified the most common initial word (of which Burckhardt had noted the first letter) as shlm, the Aramaic-Hebrew-Arabic word for "peace", and the next commonest as dkyr -- "let be remembered". Once he had made a tentative identification of a few characters such as these, they could be tested when found in other words. Gradually a full alphabet emerged. It was a form of Aramaic, he concluded, though with "a few Arabisms".
From then on the fat was in the fire. In 1851 a British clergyman, the Reverend Charles Forster, published The One Primaeval Language, a counterblast on behalf of the Bible. It was self-evident, he said, that the inscriptions were the work of the Israelites of Moses, and with vitriolic pen he heaped scorn on Beer's theories -- "the absurdity of learned hallucinations such as these... the utter untenableness of Professor Beer's hypothesis" -- safe in the knowledge that Beer could not answer back from the grave. Forster had concocted his own alphabet based on the bizarre principle that if a character in an unknown language looked something like a character in a known language, even one from a completely different group, it must have the same sound. On the basis of this "Harmony of Alphabets" he identified some characters in the Sinaitic inscriptions with symbols in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, others with characters in a South Arabian alphabet, and yet others in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, Ethiopic and old Syriac.
Breathless with anticipation, he tested his hybrid alphabet on one of the inscriptions copied by Grey which seemed to consist of five lines, dividing the characters into groups that had similar sounds to some Arabic or Hebrew words: "It is equally impossible to express or forget the sensation experienced, when my newly constructed alphabet... returned the translation... 'The People with prone mouth drinketh (at) the water- springs...The People (at) the two water-springs kicketh (like) an ass... smiting with the branch of a tree ... the well of bitterness he heals.'"
With mounting excitement Forster now applied his alphabet to other inscriptions, developing from it a wonderfully miscegenated lexicon. To his heightened imagination, not only did his translations make sense but also clearly referred to a series of events that had occurred during the Exodus -- the one above to the occasion when Moses transformed brackish water to sweet for the rebellious Israelites. How, he commented witheringly, could Beer suggest that the first word of the two top lines (and of hundreds of others) was not ôm (people, in Hebrew), as he himself proposed -- patently the People of Israel -- but shalom (peace)?
But it was the sober Beer rather than the visionary Forster who was proved right, and the five-line text from which Forster had squeezed such a vivid description of an incident in the Exodus turned out to be four brief invocations of peace and blessing:
"Peace! Kalbu son of Zaidu, for good.
Peace! 'Audu son of Wa'ilu, for good.
Blessed be Waddu son of...
Peace! Aushu son of Ibn..."
Thus it was from Sinai that the first Nabataean inscriptions became known to the world, and it was Beer's initial identification and decipherment that ultimately led to the rediscovery and study of this remarkable people about whom history had been silent for so many centuries.
Some scholars, disappointed that the inscriptions did not deal with profound subjects chiselled by Moses and the Israelites of the Exodus in the second millennium BC, tended to dismiss them as the valueless scribblings of an uncultured people. One 19th-century scholar wrote: "These are mere scratches on the rock, the work of idle loungers, consisting, for the most part, of mere names interspersed with rude figures of men and animals... the greater part of the inscriptions are due to a commercial people, traders, carriers and settlers in the land."
Why this should make the inscriptions uninteresting seems odder today than it did a century ago. The lives of ordinary people of any period are less known than those of their rulers, so any clues to the names, occupations and beliefs of this usually silent majority is grasped at with enthusiasm by modern archaeologists and historians. Many names from this period and this region are tribal or theophoric -- thus, even when written in isolation, they can reveal the origins and religion of the "idle loungers" who scratched them on the rocks nearly 2000 years ago.
By the fourth century, Nabataean inscriptions were no longer being carved in the Sinai -- nor were they common anywhere else. The last known Nabataean inscription is dated 355; there are none from the fifth century; and from the sixth century there are only three short carved texts in transitional styles that look backward to the late Nabataean forms and forward to the Arabic script of the seventh century.
Arabic, for so long an unwritten language, was widely spoken throughout the Middle East, and the Nabataean script -- particularly the more flowing form of it that was used in their writings in ink on papyrus -- was already being adapted to express the wider range of consonants in Arabic. The various stages of transition between Arabic-in-the-Nabataean-script to Arabic-in- the-Arabic-script remain unclear, but in the early seventh century the adoption of Islam in the Arabic-speaking world led to the urgent need to enshrine Islam's teachings in written form. As a result, the fledgling Arabic script, now independent of its Nabataean origins, was developed into an art form of surpassing beauty as the script of the Qur'an.
At Tell Al-Shuqafiya, west of Ismailia in the Delta, a Nabataean called Wahb'allahi erected a shrine to his great god Dushara. According to the dedicatory inscription (now in the Zagazig Museum) it was in "year 18 of Queen Cleopatra (VII), which is year 26 of Malichus (I) king of the Nabataeans... in the month of Nissan" -- sometime in April 34 BC. A second inscription from Tell Al-Shuqafiya, dated ten years earlier dedicates a temple to Al-Kutba, the Nabataean god of writing and commerce. It also refers to Al-Kutba being in 'Wytw, which is identified as present-day Qasr-awet in northern Sinai where a temple to this Nabatean god has been excavated.
Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans, Jane Taylor, I.B. Tauris Publishers, London and New York, 2001. (