Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources

Ancient North Arabian

- 6th c. BC - 4th c. AD (?)

edited by: Alessia Prioletta (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Index
  • Further information

Example of Safaitic inscription

Ancient North Arabian (ANA) is a conventional label grouping a number of consonantal alphabets belonging to the South Semitic script family and attested in a wide area stretching from southern Syria to northern Yemen and including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. ANA documents have also been found in Israel/Palestine, Egypt and Iraq.
These scripts are thought to have developed parallel to ancient South Arabian, perhaps sharing a common yet independent ancestor.
The period of documentation is entirely unknown; the earliest texts that can be roughly dated come from the first half of the first millennium BCE. It is unknown when the ANA scripts go extinct; the latest datable inscription comes from the 3rd century CE. According to the latest classification of these alphabets, they are divided into four established types, Dadanitic, Hismaic, Safaitic, and Taymanitic, and a pending category called Thamudic, which has several subtypes, B, C, D, and southern.    
These alphabets have been used by the inhabitants of the great oases of North Arabia, such as Dadan, Taymāʾ and Dūmā, and by the nomads and semi-nomads who lived in the areas surrounding the oases, in the mountains of the Ḥijāz and in the great deserts of Arabia: Ḥarra, Ḥismā, Nafūd, Najd and al-Rubʿ al-Khālī.

Go to the online resources.

Online resources


Classification and nomenclature

Ancient North Arabian includes a number of scripts that while different share evident mutual relations and that belong to the South Semitic alphabetic tradition along with Ancient South Arabian.
After the discovery of the first inscriptions, around the middle of the 19th century, the different ANA alphabets received labels - some of which are still in use today - that are often inappropriate and misleading.
The first Safaitic texts were discovered in 1857 near the Ṣafā region, a volcanic area southeast of Damascus. This location has thus given the name to the greatest corpus of ANA alphabets, although in reality no inscription in this script comes from the Ṣafā region.
The appellation of Thamudic, given to a broad and diverse group of graffiti whose first specimens were discovered in 1831, is equally improper, since it is based on the ethnonym Thamūd, which is virtually unknown in the texts themselves.
The inscriptions found in the oasis of Dadan were defined as Liḥyanite (Müller 1889) after the kingdom of Liḥyān, and Dedanite (Grimme 1932) after the oasis itself (the latter texts are considered chronologically prior to the Liḥyanite texts).
In the 1930s, Frederick Winnett first isolated different script varieties of Thamudic, which he defined as: A, B, C, D and E. In 1970, Winnett corrected these names proposing a geographical denomination (Najdi for Thamudic B, Ḥijāzi for the C and D, Tābūki for the E). However, these labels were not accurate and were not therefore adopted.
In a revolutionary article that appeared in 2000, the British scholar Michael Macdonald proposed a substantial terminological change. A new category was created, Oasis North Arabian (ONA), bringing together the scripts developed in the great oases of north Arabia: Dadanitic (Dadan), Taymanitic (Taymāʾ) and Dumaitic (Dūmā). A disparate group of texts inscribed on seals and ceramics by the Arab communities living in Babylon or connected with other regions of Syria and Transjordan was defined as Dispersed Oasis North Arabian.
There remain the thousands of graffiti left by the populations of the desert: the appellation, albeit improperly, of Safaitic was retained. From the Thamudic group, Macdonald set apart Taymanitic (formerly Thamudic A) and Hismaic (formerly Thamudic E). The other varieties (B, C, D, in addition to southern Thamudic) still await an analytical study and a better definition. Recently, a new graphic variety of Thamudic attested in the desertic area north of Najrān was isolated and given the label of Ḥimaitic, after the name of the most important site of the area, Ḥimā (Robin, Gorea 2016).


Dadanitic is the alphabet used in inscriptions originating from the site of Dadan (now known as Khirbet al-Khurayba, 3 km away from the oasis of al-ʿUlā, in Saudi Arabia). At first, researchers distinguished between Dedanitic and Liḥyanitic, from the name of the kingdoms that have followed each other in the oasis; M. C. A. Macdonald proposed a single name, based on the name of Dadan (also called Dedān), because the two varieties do not show great palaeographic or linguistic differences. Dadanitic belongs to the Oasis North Arabian (ONA) group together with Taymanitic and Dumaitic.
The oasis of Dadan, located along the caravan route leading to the Mediterranean, is mentioned in the biblical sources of the 6th c. BC and in a text of Nabonedo, king of Babylon. At a time that is difficult to indicate precisely but that is traditionally dated in the Ptolemaic period, the kingdom of Liḥyān replaced Dadan in the domain of the oasis, before being annexed by the Nabataeans towards the end of the 1st millennium BC. A south Arabian community from the kingdom of Maʿīn also settled there for commercial reasons.
Items found using the Dadanitic alphabet include written formal inscriptions, mostly found in the oasis but also in the surrounding areas, and some hundreds of graffiti. The chronology of Dadanitic inscriptions – and of the site itself – has not been established with certainty, even though they should date back to a period from the 6th c. BC to the 1st c. AD.
The alphabet consists of 28 consonants, one less than the alphabet of Ancient South Arabian (the s³ is missing). Moreover, the Dadanitic alphabet features a considerable variety in the form of the individual graphemes. In most cases, however, such differences are not diachronic but rather stylistic. Rectangles may be replaced by triangles (in the letters ʾ, b, ḏ, ġ, k, s¹, z), circles by rhombuses (in the letters ʿ, q, ṣ, ṯ, w, y). In characters with combinations of lines, the d and m show the greatest graphic variety.
In Dadanitic, a formal and an informal style are used. The difference seems to be only in the script style, and concerns neither the support nor the content of the texts. The two styles are used in both inscriptions and graffiti, and letters in formal and informal style may be found within the same text. The shape of some letters (especially ʾ, d, m, s1, ṯ) varies greatly between the two styles.
The main differences of Dadanitic compared to the rest of the ONA group concern the series of h, ḥ, and ḫ (drawn upside-down), the m (which can lose the two triangles and be open at the bottom) and the ṯ (represented like a y with two diacritical appendixes above the circle).
In a few cases, numbers are written in ciphers using symbols like the letters of the alphabet. Units are represented with a vertical stroke (similar to the word divider: |); 10 is indicated with the letter ʿ (the initial of the word for “ten”), while 20 is represented with two ʿ one above the other.
The engraving technique can be relief or incision. Dadanitic is predominantly written from right to left, though many letters can be occasionally drawn back-to-front. Boustrophedon and vertical ductus are not attested. The use of word dividers (in the form of a vertical stroke, sometimes cut in the middle) is regularly used in formal texts but not in graffiti.

Main bibliographical references
Jaussen, Savignac 1909, 1914
Sima 1999
Macdonald 2000
Macdonald 2004
Fares-Drappeau 2005
Hayajneh 2011
Hidalgo-Chacón Diez 2015


Taymanitic denotes the alphabet used in the oasis of Taymāʾ (located northwest of Medina, Saudi Arabia), and its surroundings. F. V. Winnett, who gave the original name of Thamudic A later changed it into Taymanite when he realised that most of the inscriptions originate in fact from this oasis. In recent years, M. C. A. Macdonald has redefined the script as Taymanitic, including it in the ONA group (Oasis North Arabian) together with Dadanitic and Dumaitic.
The Taymanitic corpus has grown tremendously over the last fifteen years, thanks to the surveys of Kh. Eskoubi in the area southwest of the city. These have brought to light more than 300 texts, of which two thirds were previously unknown. In these last few years, the German archaeological mission excavating the oasis of Taymāʾ under the direction of Macdonald also conducted epigraphic surveys in the outskirts of the oasis.  
Located along the trade route leading from southern Arabia up to the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, the oasis of Taymāʾ shows evidences of human occupation from at least the 2nd millennium up to the Islamic period. The Taymanitic script and language were known to the cultures nearby as early as the 8th century BC, according to the inscription of Yariris, governor of Carchemish. In the same period, the city is mentioned in the Assyrian texts (annals of Tiglath-Pileser III and inscription of Suḫu) and, two centuries later, in the biblical sources. The last king of Babylon, Nabonidus, occupied the oasis of Taymāʾ where he spent ten years of his reign (552-542 BC). Nabonidus is recorded in a group of four rock inscriptions written by members of his army; these texts contain one of the few references to external historical events or individuals that can yield an absolute dating.   
The Taymanitic graphic inventory includes 26 letters. It is distinguished from other ANA alphabets for the presence of the third non-emphatic sibilant s³. According to a recent hypothesis, however, the grapheme ṯ merged with s³ (as a result of the sound change /ṯ/ > /s³/). Moreover, there is no glyph for the letter ḏ, represented with z (s a result of /dh/ > /z/) or for ẓ, represented with ṣ (/ẓ/ > /ṣ/).
The main graphic differences of Taymanitic from the rest of ANA scripts concern the letters ḍ (identical to the Ancient South Arabian glyph, or having two further horizontal strokes), ġ (similar to the Ancient South Arabian glyph, but with two diacritical strokes instead of one), ṣ (upside-down, a feature shared with Thamudic B), ṭ (in the shape of a rectangle with a St. Andrew’s cross in the middle), and ṯ/s³ (as an asterisk or a radiated sun).
The direction of writing is from right to left or boustrophedic; word dividers in the shape of an apostrophe or a dot drawn in superscript or subscript are used, even though not regularly.

Main bibliographical references
Winnett, Reed 1970
Macdonald 1991
Eskoubi 1999
Macdonald 2000
Macdonald, King 2000
Macdonald 2004
Eskoubi 2007
Hayajneh 2011
Koostra 2016


Originally called “Jawfian” by Winnett, this alphabet was then defined Dumaitic by Macdonald and inserted into the ONA group. The Dumaitic script is at present attested only by three inscriptions found in Sakāka, a modern city of Saudi Arabia near the ancient oasis of Duma (Adummatu in Assyrian sources, Dūmat al-Jandal in the Islamic period, today’s al-Jawf).
Situated on the southern edge of the wādī Sirḥān, the oasis of Duma was an important stopover on the caravan route leading to Syria and Mesopotamia; Duma was home to the tribal confederation of Qedar (8th-5th c. BC) before being incorporated into the Nabataean kingdom.
Not all the letters are attested in the three available texts that probably date to around the middle of the 1st millennium. However, compared to the rest of ONA, the script has a different ḍ (identical to the Ancient South Arabian ḏ), ḏ (on the contrary, identical to the Ancient South Arabian ḍ), w (sometimes rectangular instead of circular) and z (of doubtful interpretation, with an oblique central stroke rather than horizontal as in the rest of ONA).
The direction of writing is from right to left and the texts make use of word dividers in the shape of a vertical stroke, even if not regularly.

Main bibliographical references
Macdonald 2000
Macdonald 2004
Hayajneh 2011


This label includes over 12,000 graffiti found in an area going from southern Syria to Yemen, through Jordan and Saudi Arabia but also northern Egypt and northwestern Iraq. The definition coined by scholars of the 19th century based on the alleged presence of the ancient Arab tribe of Thamud (Ṯmd, in Arabic Thamūd) is nowadays considered as purely conventional, a sort of Restklassenbildung or undetermined category, whose texts await a more precise classification.
Different varieties can be recognized within Thamudic, characterized by specific graphic features but also by different onomastics, formularies and content. The Thamudic corpus has been studied from two different standpoints: scholars such as van den Branden and Jamme believed that Thamudic is a single alphabet, product of the tribe of Thamūd, which they considered as a homogeneous and sedentary population. The geographical extent of the inscriptions would be due to the movement of these people because of their trade activities; on the other hand, the palaeographic differences would correspond to the different evolutionary stages of the script.
The second approach, inaugurated by Winnett, recognizing the miscellaneous nature of Thamudic, tried to divide the inscriptions into groups based on the graphic differences. In 1937, Winnett isolated five different groups, called neutrally: A, B, C, D, and E. In 1970, the scholar attempted a regional designation, which however was not afterwards retained.
Subsequently, Taymanitic (A) and Hismaic (E) were separated from Thamudic. The groups B-D remain to be defined more appropriately, in addition to a large number of graffiti from the south of the Arabian Peninsula called Southern Thamudic.
The Thamudic alphabet consists of 28 letters, although some of these have not been identified with certainty. The more remarkable graphic differences concern the letters g, ġ, ṯ, which are completely dissimilar among the various sub-groups. In certain cases, a symbol may have a different phonetic value in the various alphabets: for example, a vertical stroke represents the n in Thamudic B and the r in Thamudic D; a glyph similar to our capital E turned 45° clockwise represents the ḥ in the three groups but also the ṭ in Thamudic B. Differences are also found individually in the letters ʾ (C), ḏ (B), s² (D), ṭ (D), z (B).
The ductus also diverges within Thamudic: Thamudic B can be written in any direction (left to right and vice versa, upwards or downwards, circularly etc.); Thamudic C and D are mostly written in vertical columns; southern Thamudic is written mainly from right to left. Recently, Ch. Robin isolated a variety of southern Thamudic typical of the desert region north of Najrān, which he named Himaitic, from the site of Ḥimā.

Main bibliographical references
Winnett 1937
Ryckmans 1956
Winnett, Reed 1970
Macdonald, King 2000
Robin, Gorea 2016


The corpus of texts in Hismaic script comprises about 5.000 graffiti, found mainly in the desert area of Ḥismā, located in southern Jordan and to a lesser extent in northern Saudi Arabia. The script was originally named “Thamudic E” by Winnett, who then opted for “Tābūki Thamudic”; E. A. Knauf has instead proposed “South Safaitic”. It was G. King who recognized the graphic and linguistic distinctiveness of these texts, compared to both Thamudic and Safaitic. Afterwards, Macdonald and King proposed the definition of Hismaic, now come into use. It is believed that these inscriptions, found not far from Petra and often bearing Nabataean names and gods, are roughly contemporary to the Nabataean kingdom and date to between the 1st c. BC and 1st c. AD.
The Hismaic alphabet has 28 consonants (s³ is missing). The most numerous similarities are with Safaitic and Thamudic. However, 6 glyphs found in Safaitic have a different phonological value in Hismaic: g (Saf. ṯ), ḥ (Saf. ḏ), s² (Saf. l/n), ṭ (Saf. ḥ ), ṯ (Saf. ḍ) and ẓ (Saf. z). 
Letters can have a wide graphic variety. The texts can run in any direction (vertical, horizontal, circle, spiral), and have no word dividers. The letters are often drawn one in another and there can be ligatures between letters.
Some texts have a mixed script (Hismaic-Safaitic or Hismaic-Thamudic).

Main bibliographical references
King 1990
Macdonald 2000
Macdonald, King 2000


About 35,000 graffiti are written in Safaitic script, produced by nomadic people and found in the desert of southern Syria, northeastern Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia. According to some historical clues in the texts, they are generally believed to date from between the 1st c. BC and the 4th c. AD.
The alphabet has 28 consonants (s³ is missing). Safaitic shares the greatest number of signs with Thamudic B and Hismaic. Compared to Thamudic B, Safaitic has different glyphs for the letters ʾ, ḏ, ġ and ṭ. For the signs graphically identical to Hismaic but with different phonetic value, see the section “Hismaic”. At present, it is not possible to establish the type of relationship between these alphabets or the derivation process of one alphabet from another.
The Safaitic graffiti are written in continuous writing, with no word dividers and in any direction (horizontal, vertical, circle, spiral).
Different stylistic variations are found, which have often been wrongly interpreted as a diachronic evolution. For example, the “square style”, in which the letters become more angular than the normal style and acquire geometric decorations, was considered by some scholars as the most archaic style. In fact, letters belonging to both styles may be found within the same text; these changes are thus the product of the aesthetic competence or taste of the authors and have no diachronic value. However, not only varies the shape of the letters within the two styles, but also the phonetic value of a single glyph may be different between the normal style and square style. According to a hypothesis recently advanced by the research group of the University of Leiden, the square style would be a geographical variation and connected only to particular family groups.
Ligature is also found, in which the letters, normally separated from each other, are connected by means of segments, dots or short strokes. Defined by some as a form of cursive script, they seem to be the product of a deliberate and individual choice, often by third parties and thus subsequent to the incision of the graffito, done for fun or to damage the monument.

Main bibliographical references
Macdonald 1995
Macdonald 2000
Hayajneh 2011
Al-Jallad 2015


Among the ANA scripts, the Dadanitic alphabet is the one that shows the greatest graphic differences. Since the first studies at the end of the 19th century, the Dadanitic script has been the subject of palaeographic analysis and these changes have been interpreted as the result of a diachronic evolution. Scholars such as Grimme (1932), Winnett (1937) and Caskel (1954) have divided the documents into two periods: archaic (Dedanite) and more recent (Liḥyanite). Caskel and Fares-Drappeau (2005) have further divided the Liḥyanite period into two phases. However, this periodization has been questioned recently (Hidalgo-Chacón Diez 2015; Macdonald, in press), and the differences in the shape of the letters are thought to concern the style (formal vs. informal) and not the period. Letters belonging to the two styles, or one and the same letter drawn in both styles, can be found in the same text. The reason for this change is unknown, but it is not chronological.
In the case of graffiti left by nomads, as in all non-literate societies, it is likely that the palaeographic knowledge was transmitted orally and not through writing schools. The writing was learned randomly and mnemonically, without formal teaching. This implies that the many graphic variations recognizable within the different alphabets are not due to diachronic evolution, but rather to other causes: level of skill and taste of the authors, type of support (basalt, sandstone etc.), special circumstances in which the text was engraved.
This makes either an internal palaeographic approach to each alphabet or a comparative palaeography between different alphabets (Thamudic, Hismaic and Safaitic) impossible. Even more misleading is a palaeographic comparison of these alphabets with those of sedentary societies (particularly Dadanitic).

Main bibliographical references
Macdonald 2015

Textual typologies and formularies

Of the sedentary cultures of North Arabia that left documents in ANA scripts, the oasis of Dadan is the one that most attest to formal texts produced by a scribal school. The most widespread textual typologies in Dadan are: votive texts, which hand down the ceremonies in honour of ḏ-Ġbt, chief god of the oasis; funerary texts relating to the construction of tombs; royal inscriptions mentioning the kings of Dadan and Liḥyān and often bearing a date.
Taymāʾ was the other great oasis of North Arabia. In contrast to Dadan, in Taymāʾ official documents were written in external languages, associated with dominant powers and their bureaucracies: Babylonian cuneiform at the time of Nabonidus, Aramaic in the period of Achaemenids, Nabataean during the reign of the Nabataeans. Only recently has a few short inscriptions in Taymanitic been discovered within the site. Otherwise, the majority of the texts in Taymanitic writing and language are only in the form of graffiti and come from around the site.
The nomads and semi-nomads have produced only graffiti, engraved in thousands on the rocks that dot the great Arabian deserts and in the outskirts of the great oases. According to the definition of Macdonald, graffiti are a “self-expression on public surfaces”, namely they transmit a personal message but are recorded in places where they can potentially be viewed by anyone. According to the scholar, graffiti are almost entirely devoid of practical purposes, engraved by nomads as a pass-time during the long hours spent in the desert looking after the flocks, or as a guard against the enemy.
However despite this, there are considerable differences in the formularies of the various nomadic scripts: Thamudic (B, C, D and southern), Hismaic and Safaitic. This has led to revise the interpretation of the purposes and dynamics at the basis of the production of the inscriptions as well as the past time theory. According to al-Jallad, the limited repertoire of formularies and their differences among the scripts suggest that there was in fact some kind of writing tradition even for the graffiti. 
The Safaitic texts have long genealogies, which can reach up to 17 generations after the author's name, and thus have left a rich onomastics. The texts contain descriptions of the author’s mood or actions: invocations and prayers to the gods to request security, relief from deprivation, booty; curses against those who may damage the document; mention of the seasonal movements from region to region; construction of a tomb for a dead person; condolences for the loss of a loved one.
The Safaitic texts contain sporadic mentions of foreign populations and external events: the Romans and their emperors, the Nabataeans, the Persians or Ituraeans.
Roughly the same topics, albeit with different forms, are contained in Hismaic texts: simple claims of having written the text or drawn any design associated with it, prayers and invocations to the gods, curses, expressions of emotion.
The texts in Thamudic are textually very poor, and they contain especially claims of having written the text, simple invocations to deities, greeting statements.

Main bibliographical references
Macdonald 1995
Fares-Drappeau 2005
Hayajneh 2011

Literacy and script registers

With more than 65,000 inscriptions and graffiti discovered in the different countries of the peninsula, pre-Islamic Arabia is one of the most extraordinary regions of the ancient world as regards literacy. However, as far as literacy is concerned, it is necessary not only to distinguish between the various skills (writing, reading), but also to consider the kind of society in which writing is performed and written documents are produced.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, in fact, sociocultural diversity played a determining role in the use of writing. The dimorphism was a characteristic of the ancient inhabitants of Arabia, who are divided between a sedentary population, mainly agricultural and urban, and the nomadic and semi-nomadic populations, moving in the desert regions and living off herding.
In the sedentary and urbanized societies, either in the north or in the south of the peninsula, writing was essential to their functioning. One can speak of literate societies in the sense that literacy was practiced at different levels, both for practical aspects of society, such as bureaucracy, religion or economy, and without communicative purpose. In these societies, there were probably two levels of literacy: a first level, which is the ability to carve spontaneous graffiti with any need for communication; a second level, linked to practical needs, typical of scribal schools and of a class of literate persons belonging to the temple or the political authority.
The nomadic and semi-nomadic societies on the contrary were non-literate; writing had a limited practical purpose and never undermined the role that oral transmission played in communication. Unlike urbanized societies, these people have left only informal texts, namely graffiti, and the only material used is generally the stone of the desert.
In North Arabia, only public documents are attested, addressed to the community and not to a specific individual. Even graffiti, even though they convey a personal and unofficial message, can be defined as public documents, as they are engraved in places where they could be read by passing people.
Documents written in ink or engraved on wood or wax are not attested, materials that in other cultures were generally used for documents in informal writing, designed for practical use and related to everyday life. For this reason, only the formal register was used. On the other hand, in the oasis of Dadan an informal version of the script exists, which however does not differentiate from the formal script for support, purpose or type of texts.

Main bibliographical references
Macdonald 2005
Stein 2010
Macdonald 2015