one side and Syria and Egypt on the other. The commercial activity of the people, however, was widely extended, and their monuments are found not only round Petra and in N. Arabia, but as far north as Damascus, and even in Italy, where there was a trading settlement at Puteoli. The inscriptions are mostly votive or sepulchral, and are often dated, but give little historical information except in so far as they fix the dates of Nabataean kings.
A distinct subdivision of Nabataean is found in the Sinaitic peninsula, chiefly in the Wādī Firān and Wādī Mukattib, which lay on the caravan route. The inscriptions are rudely scratched or punched on the rough rock, without any sort of order, and some of them are accompanied by rude drawings. A few only are dated, but, as shown by de Vogüé in the C.I.S. (ii. 1, p. 353), they must all belong to the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. This accounts for the fact that already in the 6th century Cosmas Indicopleustes has no correct account of their origin, and ascribes them to the Israelites during their wanderings in the wilderness. They were first correctly deciphered as Nabataean by Beer in 1848, when they proved to consist chiefly of proper names (many of them of Arabic formation), accompanied by ejaculations or blessings. It is clear that they are not the work of pilgrims either Jewish or Christian, nor are they of a religious character. The frequent recurrence of certain names shows that only a few generations of a few families are represented, and these must have belonged to a small body of Nabataeans temporarily settled in the particular Wādīs, no doubt for purposes connected with the caravan-traffic. The form of the Nabataean character in which they are written is interesting as being the probable progenitor of the Kufic Arabic alphabet.
Another important trading centre was Tadmor or Palmyra in northern Syria. Numerous inscriptions found there, and hence called Palmyrene, were copied by Waddington in 1861 and published by de Vogüé in his great work Syrie Centrale (1868, &c.), which is still the most extensive collection of them. The difficulties of exploration have hitherto prevented any further increase of the material, but much more would undoubtedly be found if excavation were possible. The texts are mostly sepulchral and dedicatory, some of them being accompanied by a Greek version. The language is a form of western Aramaic, and the character, which is derived from the Hebrew and Aramaic square, is closely related to the Syriac estrangelo alphabet. The inscriptions are mostly dated, and belong to the period between 9 B.C. and A.D. 271. The most important is the tariff of taxes on imports, dated A.D. 137. Nearly all were found on the surface at or round Palmyra and remain in situ. Of the very few in other places, one (with a Latin version) was found at South Shields, the tombstone of Regina liberta et conjux of a native of Palmyra.
Syriac inscriptions are few. The earliest is that on the sarcophagus of Queen Ṣaddan (in the Hebrew version, Ṣadda), perhaps of about A.D. 40, found at Jerusalem. Others were found by Sachau at Edessa, of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and by Pognon.
2. South Semitic.—The South Semitic class of inscriptions comprises the Minaean, Sabaean, Himyaritic and Liḥyanitic in South Arabia, the Thamudic and Safaitic in the north and the Abyssinian. A great deal of material has been collected by Halévy, Glaser and Euting, and much valuable work has been done by them and by D. H. Müller, Hommel and Littmann. Many of the texts, however, are still unpublished and the rest is not very accessible (except so far as it has appeared in the C.I.S.), so that South Semitic has been less widely studied than North Semitic.
The successive kingdoms of South Arabia (Yemen) were essentially commercial. Their country was the natural intermediary between Asia (India), Africa and Syria, and this position, combined with its natural fertility, made the south far more prosperous than the north. In language, the two most important peoples, the Minaeans and Sabaeans, differ only dialectically, both writing forms of southern Arabic. The Minaean capital was at Ma’īn, about 300 m. N. of Aden and 200 m. from the west coast. Here and in the neighbourhood numerous inscriptions were found, as well as in the north at al-‘Öla. Their chronology is much disputed. D. H. Müller makes the Minaean power contemporary with the Sabaean, but Glaser (with whom Hommel and D. S. Margoliouth agree) contends that the Sabaeans followed the Minaeans, whom they conquered in 820 B.C. Mention is made in a cuneiform text (Annals of Sargon, 715 B.C.) of Ithamar the Sabaean, who must be identical with one (it is not certain which) of the kings of that name mentioned in the Sabaean inscriptions. Their capital was Marib, a little south of Ma’īn, and here they appear to have flourished for about a thousand years. In the 1st century A.D., with the establishment of the Roman power in the north, their trade, and consequently their prosperity, began to decline. The rival kingdom of the Himyarites, with its capital at Zafar, then rose to importance, and this in turn was conquered by the Abyssinians in the 6th century A.D. With the spread of Islām the old Arabic language was supplanted by the northern dialects from which classical Arabic was developed. A peculiarity of the South Arabian inscriptions is that many of them are engraved on bronze tablets. Besides being historically important, they are of great value for the study of early Semitic religion. The gods most often named in Sabaean are ‘Athtār Wadd and Nakraḥ, the first being the male counterpart of the Syrian Ashtoreth. The term denoting the priests and priestesses who are devoted to the temple-service is identified by Hommel and others with the Hebrew “Levite.”
Closely connected with South Arabia is Abyssinia. Indeed a considerable number of Sabaean inscriptions have been found at Yeha and Aksum, showing that merchants from Arabia must at some time have formed settlements there. D. H. Müller thinks that some of these belong to the earliest and others to the latest period of Sabaean power. The inscriptions hitherto found in Ethiopic (the alphabet of which is derived from the Sabaean) date from the 4th century A.D. onward. They are few in number, but long and of great historical importance. There can be no doubt that exploration, if it were possible, would bring many more to light.
From time to time emigrants from the southern tribes settled in the north of Arabia. Mention has already been made of Minaean inscriptions found at al-’Öla, which is on the great pilgrim road, about 70 m. south of Taimā. In recent years a number of others has been collected belonging to the people of Liḥyān and dating from about A.D. 250. Nearly related to the Liḥyānitic are the Thamudic (so called from the tribe of the Thamūd mentioned in them), and the Safaitic, both of which, though found in the north, belong in character to south Arabia and no doubt owe their origin to emigrants from the south. The Thamudic inscriptions, collected by Euting (called Proto-Arabian by Halévy), are carelessly scrawled graffiti very like those of the Sinai peninsula. Their date is uncertain, but they cannot be much earlier than the Safaitic, which resemble them in most respects. These last are called after the mountainous district about 20 m. S.E. of Damascus. The inscriptions are, however, found not in Mount Ṣafā itself but in the desert of al-Ḥarrah to the west and south and in the fertile plain of ar-Ruḥbah to the east. They were first deciphered by Halévy, whose work has been carried on and completed by Littmann. Their date is again uncertain, since graffiti of this kind give very few facts from which dates can be deduced. Littmann thinks that one of his inscriptions refers to Trajan’s campaign of A.D. 106,
- ed. E. O. Winstedt (Cambr. 1909), p. 154.
- A view revived by C. Forster, even after Beer, in The Israelitish Authorship of the Sinaitic Inscriptions (London, 1856) and other works.
- The cross and other Christian symbols often found with the inscriptions have been added later by pilgrims.—C.I.S. ii. 1, p. 352.
- Reise in Syrien (Leipzig, 1883).
- Inscriptions sém. de la Syrie, &c. i. (Paris, 1907).
- J. H. Mordtmann, “Beitr. zur Minäischen Epigraphik,” in Semitistische Studien, 12 (Weimar, 1897).
- In Bent’s Sacred City of the Ethiopians (London, 1893).
- Revue sémitique (1901).
- Journ. As. x., xvii., xix.
- Zur Entzifferung d. Safā-Inschr. (Leipzig, 1901).