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NABATAEAN WRITING

 

Introduction
As far as we know, the Nabataeans were not great writers of books. Very little literature has passed down to us. We have no literature from the early years, and the famous Petra Scrolls date from the Byzantine Era. While they contain only legal documents, these scrolls give us a glimpse into the life and times of Petra during the Byzantine era, and give us an excellent database of Nabataean words.

The main source of Nabataean writing comes from inscriptions made on tombs, and from graffiti written on rocks and boulders throughout the Middle East. It seems that Nabataeans and other tribes would scratch their names and sometimes a message, such as a lament for a loved one, on the rocks. These inscriptions are now being cataloged and much is being learned from examining them.

It is interesting to notice, however, that the Nabataeans must have had a high degree of literacy, for many of the inscriptions were written by shepherds. Historians tell us that literacy was not as widespread among other peoples at the same time.

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.

However, when one considers that the Nabataeans were merchants, importing, exporting, and marketing such important commodities as bitumen and frankincense, we must realize that they would have been able to write contracts, receipts, and letters of agreements. In order for them to buy in distant lands and sell in distant lands, members of their community must have mastered many different languages.

Years ago, while working in the Arab Gulf, I met a young man from Baluchistan who had mastered seven languages. He could easily translate back and forth between these languages, and most amazingly of all, he did not consider his skill particularly unique. Members of his community had always learned to deal with multiple languages. Likewise, one would assume that many of the Nabataeans learned a variety of languages, and that these languages would have had an impact on their own native tongue, just as their culture had been impacted by the customs of other civilizations.


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