Ancient Arabia: Languages and Cultures

Map of the Arabian PeninsulaPlease note: The Ancient Arabia Languages and Cultures (AALC) project was a one year project funded by the University of Oxford's John Fell Fund, and came to an end in 2011. This website acts as a historical record of the project, and is no longer actively updated.

The Arabian Peninsula lies at the heart of the Middle East and in antiquity it stood between the mighty civilizations of Egypt and Mesapotamia. Yet, our ignorance until now of the history of Arabia before the emergence of Islam in the 7th century AD, has left a huge blank at the centre of what we know of the ancient Near East. This blank is now gradually being filled in, bringing to light not only previously little known - or even unknown - cultures spread over a vast region, but also a more complete picture of the ancient Near East as a whole.

Geographically "Ancient Arabia" refers to the Arabian Peninsula with, to the north, the Syro-Arabian desert stretching into what is modern Syria and Jordan. Chronologically, it covers all periods from the first evidence of human activity in the Peninsula, some 400,000 years ago, to the emergence of Islam.

The numerous and diverse cultures which developed in ancient Arabia are monuments to human ingenuity and creativity within challenging natural environments. The ancient Arabs had extensive contacts not only with their Near Eastern neighbours, Iran, Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt and the peoples of the Mediterranean, but also with Africa and India. From a very early period, Arabs are reported as living in many parts of the Middle East and they were famous merchants. They were particularly associated with frankincense and myrrh which grew in southern Arabia, and other aromatics which they imported from Africa, India and beyond, and sold on to neighbouring peoples. This commerce in what were some of the most valuable commodities in the ancient world, together with their strategic geographical position in the Middle East meant that the Arabs were deeply involved in the life of the region and, from at least the 6th century BC, attracted the interest of the Greeks and later of Rome.

Literacy was widespread throughout ancient Arabia from at least the early 1st millennium BC, and vast numbers of inscriptions in a variety of languages and scripts have been discovered there, with more coming to light every year. Arabia was unique in the ancient world in having its own branch of the alphabet (the South Semitic script family), varieties of which were used from the far north of the Peninsula to the south. It survives in the script used for Ge'ez, Amharic, etc. in Ethiopia.

The written records left by societies in different parts of the Peninsula inform us not only about their history and cultures, but also their languages and dialects. The inscriptions carved in the Ancient South Arabian languages and scripts, mainly in what is now Yemen, are being brought together online by the University of Pisa in the Digital Archive for the Study of pre-Islamic Arabian Inscriptions [DASI]. Those from the north and centre of the Peninsula are in the Ancient North Arabian dialects and scripts, and are being made available in the Online Corpus of the Inscriptions of Ancient North Arabia (OCIANA). Both these corpora are in the process of being created and they will be continuously updated as more material becomes available. Eventually, it will be possible to consult both together through the common portal of DASI.

One of the most remarkable aspects of literacy in ancient Arabia is that from the first millennium BC until about the 4th century AD writing was used extensively by nomads as well as by the settled communities. This is the only period in history when the nomads of this area have been able to read and write and they have left scores of thousands of graffiti on the rocks of the Arabian deserts. At the same period the inhabitants of the oases also produced numerous inscriptions and graffiti, in a number of languages and scripts, which are rapidly increasing our knowledge of the history, languages, and cultures of ancient Arabia. In addition, there are also vast numbers of ancient rock drawings (petroglyphs) throughout much of the Peninsula which provide a lively, and largely untapped, source of information on the wild and domesticated fauna of ancient Arabia and the activities of its human populations.

The AALC project is creating the OCIANA, which will bring together in one corpus the almost 50,000 Ancient North Arabian inscriptions known to date. The initial phase of this project has been completed and a sample of the corpus containing 3420 previously unpublished Safaitic inscriptions recorded by the late Geraldine King in 1989 on the Basalt Desert Rescue Survey can be viewed by clicking this link. The AALC project has also put online a downloadable pdf of Geraldine King's fundamental study of the inscriptions in a dialect and script used mainly by nomads in the Ḥismā sand desert of southern Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia, and which are therefore called "Hismaic" (formerly "Thamudic E").

In addition, the site is making available some 800 texts recorded in the mountainous region of Dhofar, in the south of modern Oman by the Dhofar Epigraphic Project. They were painted on cave walls and inscribed on stones in a script that as yet remains undeciphered and in a language that is still unknown. A concordance of the inscriptions has been provided which it is hoped will aid their eventual decipherment.

The OCIANA will be continuously updated as more inscriptions are discovered. Similarly, as more rock-art, and historical, archaeological, and linguistic material from ancient Arabia becomes available it is planned to make it accessible either on the AALC site or via links to other sites.

The AALC project is also making available other primary sources for ancient Arabia such as Norman Lewis's previously unpublished transcription of W.J. Bankes's journal of his visit to Petra in 1818 — only the second European to do so —, as well as links to websites, further reading and bibliography for the study of ancient Arabia, and biographical notes on some of the scholars who have contributed most to this website and its associated projects, and to the study of ancient Arabia.

Further Reading: A brief history and timeline of Ancient Arabia