August 28, 2003

Nabataeans & Writing

Ten days ago, in a post on Christopher Luxenberg's approach to reading the Qur'an, I suggested that near contemporaneous inscriptions might provide a way of verifying Luxenberg's key theory in his approach -- that the Arabic of the Qur'an borrowed heavily from Aramaic, and has been misunderstood ever since. So I googled "ancient Islamic inscriptions," and came across this interesting site devoted to the Nabataeans, who went from being nomadic tent dwellers to controlling the ancient trade in frankincense and spices. They built the ancient city of Petra, which was one of their capitals (it appears the Nabataean empire had more than one). Nabataean "history" (they left little of their own, but were mentioned by Greek and Roman historians) stretches from roughly 550 B.C.E. to about 600 C.E., and probably ceased to exist as an independent culture sometime during the first caliphate.

What caught my eye were these passages on Nabataean writing:

It seems that the Nabataeans created a new writing form to add to those in use in the Middle East of their day. They developed a running "cursive" or semi-ligatured script, which was used for both lapidary inscriptions and the more common graffiti. This writing form would later evolve into the "Arabic" writing still in use by Arabs today.

The Nabataean language seems to have been a variant of Aramaic with a strong Arab influence in it. However, archeologists have not come to any solid conclusions concerning the Nabataean language. Other Arabian languages include Lihynaite, Safaitic, Thamudic, Himyarite, Minaean, Qatabanian, Sabaean, and Palmyrene. The problem is that two of these languages are very similar to Nabataean in a number of ways. Safaitic and Thamudic have a different script to Nabataean, but they seem to be very similar languages. What is confusing is that the people who wrote in these other scripts had the same gods as the Nabataeans and often had the same names as Nabataeans. The people who wrote these languages were so similar that some archeologists have wondered if the three scripts were used by the same people for the same language. Was there one script for common people, one for religious leaders, and one for merchants? Were there three different groups of Nabataeans each with their own dialect? Or, do the three dialects tell us that there were three distinct tribes, who were closely related in many other ways, such as culture and religion?

When the Nabataeans sent their famous diplomatic letter written to Antigonus, Diodorus the historian notes that it was written in 'Syrian letters' (XIX.96.1). Syrian in this context is no doubt, Aramaic, the trade language used at that time by the Seleucids. This is important to note, because it demonstrates that the Nabataeans were capable of producing a letter in another language.

In light of Luxenberg's method, I found this of interest. Incidentally, I'm not sure how seriously to take the site -- there is a section devoted to the Voynich Manuscript, about which H.D. Miller of Travelling Shoes wrote here:

Both the Codex Seraphanius and the Voynich Manuscript have to be seen to be believed. Both works appear to describe plants, animals, and people that don't exist in a language that can't be read. And both works tend to inspire obsessive devotion in those who are drawn into their peculiar worlds.

Of course, any mention of the Voynich reminds me of my own rather pleasant, and thankfully brief, obsession with the Voynich Manuscript. A few years back, while in still in graduate school at Yale, a friend and I became briefly preoccupied with the Voynich manuscript. We spent several delightful afternoons at the Beinecke studying the manuscript, its background, and all of the various theories about it. Since we were both excellent researchers and fairly well-trained paleographers, who'd done extensive work with medieval manuscripts in Latin and Arabic, our attempt was by no means an amateur one.

Anyway, our ultimate conclusion was that it was a hoax, a fabulous, wonderful, beautiful hoax, one probably produced in the late 16th century.

According to the Nabataean site, the manuscript might be a badly copied book in Nabataean script.

Posted by Ideofact at August 28, 2003 11:48 PM

Very interesting.

Posted by: Zack at August 29, 2003 01:12 AM

I wouldn't say it's definitive one way or the other, but it does suggest that an amalgam of languages co-existed -- and there was probably a good deal of sharing of words and concepts among them all.

Posted by: Bill at August 29, 2003 11:05 AM