Oldest Nabatean-Arabic inscription found in Najran

A Saudi-French archaeological team has unearthed in Najran what might be considered the oldest inscription in the Arabic alphabet, said a spokesman from the French Foreign Ministry.

“The epigrapher Frédéric Imbert, a professor at the University of Aix-Marseille, found the Nabatean Arabic inscription about 100 km north of Najran near the Yemeni border,” said the spokesman. “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,” he said.

This script had previously only ever been seen north of Hejaz, in the Sinai and in the Levant. The second is the fact that these inscriptions are dated. The period indicated corresponds to the years 469-470 AD. This is the oldest form of Arabic writing known to date, the “missing link” between Nabatean and Arabic writing, he added. Read more.

Maidan Saleh

While the fabled city of Petra in Jordan (see
was the centre point of the Nabatean Kingdom, their trade routes, outposts and subsidiary towns were scattered throughout the nearby deserts whose exchange networks they controlled. (such as one of the western ends of the Silk Road from the Far East and the frankincense/myrrh routes flowing north from Arabia, all terminating in the rich, luxury loving empires that surrounded the Mediterranean). 

Also known as Al Hijr (Arabic for rocky place) and Hegra (maybe the original name), the site of Maidan Saleh is found in the Al Madinah region of Saudi Arabia and is the second largest Nabatean city known, situated some 500km from its mother city. While a settlement already existed there, most of the remaining visible structures are Nabatean and Roman (whose legions eventually conquered the kingdom in 106CE). 

Like in Petra, homes, temples and tombs were often carved out of the living rock (due to an obvious lack of other construction materials, and also effective against the burning desert heat), interwoven with complex well designed systems of water channels and cisterns that cleverly exploited the local geography, squeezing every possible drop of moisture out of the catchment area. Unlike Petra that was almost entirely dependent on clever water management, parts of the site have a relatively shallow and accessible water table. The site is on a plain below a plateau of basaltic lava that is more resistant to erosion than the sedimentary sandstones out of which the monuments were hewn.

The expansion of the growing city was mostly during the first century of the common era as the kingdom’s monopoly over the Arabian/Indian Ocean trade in particular was consolidated, and it eventually became a second capital. It was quite easy to control caravan routes across deserts, since all you had to do was put a fort and customs post at every water hole, thus ensuring that every trader would have to pay his due in order to water his animals, without which he was going nowhere. Many of the rock drilled wells are still in use today.

After the Roman conquest, both cities faded from glory as ship borne traffic through the Red sea and Egypt sapped their economic base, in much the same way that later journeys of discovery to the Indies and Far East destroyed the commercial value of the Silk Road. It later became a caravanserai on the Haj pilgrimage route to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, being mentioned in the famous travels of Ibn Batuta, a Muslim explorer of the 14th century CE who managed to wander around most of the known world (and whose subsequent book is a delight to read). Ottoman Sultan AbdulHamid the second then made it a watering and coaling post on the Hejaz railway, his modernised version of the old pilgrimage route (and the target of many of Lawrence of Arabia’s escapades).

It was named Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site partly due to its 131 rock cut tombs, similar to the glorious ones more familiar from Petra. The arid environment and lack oftourists mean that the site is excellently preserved.


Image credit: Saudi Sammy Six

Ancient City of Petra Built to Align With the Sun

An ancient civilization built the famous, stone-hewn city of Petra so that the sun would illuminate their sacred places like celestial spotlights, a new study says.

Petra, a giant metropolis of tombs, monuments, and other elaborate religious structures carved into stone cliffs, was the capital of the Nabatean kingdom, a little-understood Middle Eastern culture that ruled much of modern-day Jordan from the third century B.C. until the first century A.D.

These wealthy spice traders worshiped the sun, among other deities, and may have given importance to the equinoxes, solstices, and other astronomical events that are determined by how the sun moves across the sky. Read more.

Nabatean City of Avdat, Israel

The ruins of Avdat, the greatest Nabatean city in the Negev, are on a hill overlooking the desert in southern Israel. It was the most important city on the Incense Route after Petra, between the 1st century BC and the 7th century AD. This site is located where the ancient roads from Petra and Eilat converge into one and continue on to the Mediterranean coast. It was founded in the 3rd century BC and was probably named after the Nabatean king Oboda I.

 At the beginning of the 1st century BC the city was abandoned, probably as a result of the conquests of Alexander Yannai, who in 103 BC captured the Mediterranean coast and disrupted the spice trade. Years later, the city was rebuilt by Nabatean king Oboda III. The settlement reached its zenith during the rule of King Aretas IV (9 BC - 40 AD), when the city acropolis was fortified and a large temple built. Avdat city was continuously inhabited until its destruction by an earthquake in the early 7th century AD.

More on Avdat…