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Encyclopedia > Safaitic

Safaitic is the name given to an Old North Arabian dialect, preserved in the form of inscriptions which are written in a type of South Semitic script. These inscriptions were written by bedouin and semi-nomadic inhabitants of the Syro-Arabian desert. Dating of the inscriptions, although problematic, is conventionally placed between the 1st century BC and the 4th century AD. The Arabic language family consists of The Arabic macrolanguage (ISO 639-3 ara), including the living varieties of Arabic as well as Classical Arabic and Standard Arabic. ... The ancient South Arabian alphabet (also known as musnad المُسند) branched from the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet in ca. ... A Bedouin man resting on a hillside at Mount Sinai Bedouin, derived from the Arabic ( ‎), a generic name for a desert-dweller, is a term generally applied to Arab nomadic pastoralist groups, who are found throughout most of the desert belt extending from the Atlantic coast of the Sahara via... The Syrian Desert is a combination of steppe and true desert that is located in parts of the nations of Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. ...



Safaitic inscriptions are named after the area where they were first discovered in 1857: Es Safa, a region of basalt desert to the southeast of Damascus, Syria. Since then they have been found over a wide area including south Syria, eastern Jordan and northwestern Saudi Arabia. Isolated examples occur further afield in places such as Palmyra in Syria, in Lebanon, in Wadi Hauran in western Iraq, and in Ha'il in north central Saudi Arabia. The largest concentration appears to be in the Harrat Ash Shamah, a black basalt desert, stretching south and east from Jebel Druze through Jordan and into Saudi Arabia. Approximately 20,000 inscriptions have been recorded, although doubtless many hundreds of thousands more remain undiscovered due to the remoteness and inhospitable nature of the terrain in which they are found. Typically the inscriptions are found on the rocks and boulders of the desert scatter, or on the stones of cairns. In many cases it is unclear whether the inscriptions on the cairns pre- or post-date the construction of the cairns. Es Safa (Arabic: الصفا, transliteration: ), also known as Tloul Es Safa (Arabic: تلول الصفا, transliteration: ) Arabic for Es Safa hills, is a hilly region which lies in southern Syria. ... Damascus at sunset Damascus ( translit: Also commonly: الشام ash-Shām) is the largest city of Syria and is also the capital. ... A general view of the site Palmyra was in the ancient times an important city of central Syria, located in an oasis 215 km northeast of Damascus and 120 km southwest of the Euphrates. ... Hail (Arabic: ) is an oasis town in northwestern Saudi Arabia and the capital of the Hail Province. ... The Harrat Ash Shamah (also known variously as the Harrat Ash Shaam and the Harrat e-Shamah) is a volcanic field covering a total area of some 40,000 square kilometres. ... The western slopes of Jabal ad Duruz Tell Qeni (1803 m) the highest point of Jabal Druze Jabal ad Duruz (Arabic: جبل الدروز, Mountain of Druze; also known as Jabal el Arab Arabic: ‎) is an elevated volcanic region in southern Syria, in the As Suwaydā governorate (mohofazat Souweida). ...

The language and script

Safaitic is a branch of the early South Central Semitic languages (Arabic). Within the Arabic group there are a number of dialects which use h- rather than ’al for the definite article - these include Safaitic, Dedanite, Lihyanite, Thamudic and Hasaitic. The Safaitic alphabet comprises 28 letters. Three abecedaries (lists of the alphabet) are known, but all are written in different orders, giving strength to the suggestion that the script was casually learned rather than taught systematically. Arabic is a Semitic language, closely related to Hebrew and Aramaic. ... Al- is a common prefix for Arabic names meaning the. ... The Lihyanites were a tribe of northern pre-Islamic Arabia, known from Old North Arabian inscriptions dating to ca. ... The Lihyanites were a tribe of northern pre-Islamic Arabia, known from Old North Arabian inscriptions dating to ca. ... The Thamud are a people mentioned in the Quran as rejecting their Prophet Saleh. ... Hasaitic is an Old North Arabian dialect attested in inscriptions in the al-Hasa region of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and at Mileiha. ... An abecedarium is an inscription consisting of the letters of the alphabet in order. ...

Several forms of script are identified, including Safaitic, Square Safaitic and South Safaitic. The inscriptions are scratched, usually in a regular manner but sometimes using a 'zigzag' technique, or occasionally they are pecked. Inscriptions are often written in boustrophedon form: text travels from left to right (or vice versa) and then reverses for the next line. Boustrophedon is an ancient way of writing manuscripts and other inscriptions in which, rather than going from left to right as in modern English, or right to left as in Arabic, alternate lines must be read in opposite directions. ...


Most Safaitic inscriptions are graffiti, and reflect the current concerns of the author - the availability of grazing for his camel herd, mourning the discovery of another inscription by a person who has since died, or simply listing his genealogy and stating that he made the inscription. Others comment on raids and pray for booty, or mention religious practices. A few inscriptions by female authors are known. Inscriptions are sometimes accompanied by rock art, showing hunting or battle scenes, camels and horses and their riders, bedouin camp scenes, or occasional female figures. Graffiti (strictly, as singular, graffito, from the Italian — graffiti being the plural) is graphics applied without authorization to publicly viewable surfaces. ... Rock art is a term in archaeology for any man-made markings made on natural stone. ...

Material culture

Apart from the inscriptions and images left behind, very little is known of the material culture of the Safaitic people. Several factors play a part: the Bedouin of necessity have few belongings and a transient lifestyle and so relatively little will have been preserved in the archaeological record; the conditions for successful preservation are not good, and little research and very few excavations have been undertaken concerning this aspect of Safaitic life.


  • King, G. (1990) "The Basalt Desert Rescue Survey and some preliminary remarks on the Safaitic inscriptions and rock drawings" Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 20:55-78
  • Macdonald, M. C. A. (1992) "Inscriptions, Safaitic" in The Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol 3 (editor in chief D N Freedman) Doubleday
  • Macdonald, M. C. A. (2000) "Reflections on the linguistic map of pre-Islamic Arabia" Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 11(1):28–79
  • Oxtoby, W. G. (1968) Some Inscriptions of the Safaitic Bedouin American Oriental Society, Oriental Series 50. New Haven, Connecticut
  • Winnett, F. V. and Harding, G. L. (1978) Inscriptions from Fifty Safaitic Cairns Toronto

External links

  • Information on the Safaitic Database Project
  • Exhibition of Safaitic inscriptions



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