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


The Lonely Castle in the Middle of the Desert

In the desert landscape of northeastern Saudia Arabia you will find Qasr al-Farid aka “The Lonely Castle”. Built in the first century A.D. the Lonely Castle rises four stories; an unfinished tomb carved out of a solitary sandstone outcrop. Because the tomb was never completed, we can see how the façade was chiseled from the top, down.

Qasr al-Farid is part of Mada’in Saleh, a pre-Islamic archaeological site located in Al-Ula, Saudia Arabia. A majority of the vestiges, including 131 rock-cut tombs, date from the Nabatean Kingdom (1st century AD). The site constitutes the Nabatean Kingdom’s southernmost and largest settlement after Petra, its capital, located in present day Jordan.

In 2008 UNESCO proclaimed Mada’in Saleh as a site of patrimony, becoming Saudi Arabia’s first World Heritage Site.

Jordan, Day 6: The Ancient Nabatean City of Petra

The “rose-red city”! Petra is the historical city of the Nabatean civilization, one of Jordan’s most famous landmarks, as well as one of the 8 wonders of the modern world. My mom would like very much to see Petra, but these pictures will have to do for now. 

Near the entrance of the site, we immediately began to see the architecture of the Nabateans, carved directly into the sandstone hills. This is a tomb of a very rich family. The four pyramid towers on top mean that there are four people buried within the tomb. 

Daisy looks a bit too happy about being stopped by the gaurds.

We entered the high walls of the city around 9 in the morning, which is the best time to see the colours of the walls in the early sun. Later in the day the rock changes colour many times. 

In some places the walls of the Siq (the pathway to the city) are up to 80 feet high.  

The first glimpse of the Treasury through the rock walls.

The Treasury at Petra! Locals and explorers believed that it held treasures, hence the name. Once it was excavated they realized that it held no secret treasure hoard. You can see where the pillars have been restored by modern artists. Near the top left of the picture you can see the groves in the wall that would have acted as scafolding for the carvers. Sandstone is very easy to carve, but I can’t imagine being up that high to do it! 

Past the Treasury, in the city. 

SO many locals call Petra home. They live there full time selling their wares to tourists, including postcards, jewelry, and many other souvenirs. Small children came up to us dozens of times trying to sell us things. It’s very hard to say no to them. 

Those of us who were brave climbed the 800 step descent to the Monastery at the highest point of the city of Petra. Only 4 of us (including me!) climbed the whole way to the top. The rest took donkeys to get there. My reward for the hike up was a ride down the mountain on a donkey, which was an experience in itself. 

Daisy and Ciara standing in the mouth of the Monastery, which is 47 feet high. 

I wish I could post every picutre I took in Petra. I pick about 1 out of 30 photos to post on my blog every day, and there are so many more experiences that I just don’t have time to convey here. There’s really no way to understand it unless you experience it first hand. Petra was easily among the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. 

My experience at Petra, however, pales in comparison to my night camping in the desert of Wadi Rum. Next post! 

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]


Qasr Al-Farid, Mada’in Saleh, Al Ula | Saudi Arabia (by Elriz Buenaventura)

Qasr al-Farid is situated all by itself in a separate rocky outcrop and includes an architectural feature not found in other tombs, namely two Nabatean columns found on the lower part of the facade, as well as the side columns. The tomb was never completed, as is especially evident in its lower portion and the open space before the entrance. The foundation inscription of the tomb, which reads “For Hayyan bin Kuza and his descendants,” is undated.*

This is the biggest, and perhaps most distinguished, of all the tombs in the Archaeological site Mada’in Saleh. 

Kufic script is a lovely and ancient variant of the Arabic alphabet that developed out of the Nabatean alphabet of Classical-era Petra.