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Written in Stone
Written In Stone: Pre-Islamic Period Inscriptions
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This kind of incised stone is know by the Greek word stele (Greek plural stelai; cf. Latin stela, Latin plural stelae), an upright stone incised with an inscription and used as a monument or marker. This stele found in a well near the Nabataean tombs at Mada'in Salih in northern Saudi Arabia, has an inscription in Greek. This reflects the Greco-Roman influence in the Arabian peninsula's history. The presence of this stone implies that Mada'in Salih was a part of Roman Arabia.

This incense burner bears one of the Aramaic inscriptions within the "Pre-Islamic Epigraphy" collection of the National Museum of Saudi Arabia.

T u ch ê
B o s
t r ôn
A d r i a
n o s
z ô g r a
ph o s s u n
l e g. | | |
K u

"To the Fortune [Tyche] of Bostra / Hadrian [Adrianos], a painter with the Third Cyrenaican Legion, [set this up.]"

fig03 color fig03 b&w
fig03 drawing
Incised Stone (stele)
Inscribed face: 50cm x 15.5cm
c. 200 A.D.
Click for larger images


This stele and its intriguing inscription have been discussed in several works since the stele's serendipitous discovery in 1965. These include: Barger, T. (1966). "The Riddle of Meda'in Salih." Archaeology, 19. 217-219. Barger, T. (1969). "Greek Inscription Deciphered; Seal Found in Arabia." Archaeology, 23. 139-140. Bowersock, G. (1971). "A Report on Arabia Provincia." The Journal of Roman Studies, 61. 219-242 [note page 230]. Bowersock, G. (1983). Roman Arabia. Harvard University Press: Massachusetts. [note page 96].

Professor G.W. Bowersock has noted that, since the painter referred to in this inscription took his name from the Roman emperor Hadrian (reigned 117-138 A.D.), the inscription could not be earlier than Hadrian's reign; its lettering also is characteristic of the second or third centuries A.D. The headquarters of the Third Cyrenaican Legion, during Hadrian's reign, were at Bostra in Rome's Province of Arabia. Apparently, a painter (presumably a shield-painter) among the Roman troops at Mada'in Salih, a southernmost outpost of the Nabataeans in this province of Rome, set up this marker to honor the fortune of Bostra.

The language of the inscription is Greek, though the official language of the Roman army was Latin. This reflects the personal character of this dedication, which is not an official document emanating from the Legion.

The Tyche of a city was the presiding deity of the city and often the symbol of the city. By dedicating this stele to the Tyche of Bostra, Hadrian (the shield-painter) is demonstrating his allegiance to the city where his legion had its base. He is declaring himself to be a person from Bostra in a foreign land.*

This Greek stele was outside Saudi Arabia for many years, but was returned in 1999, and placed on display in the National Museum. It has not yet been catalogued into the National Museum's collection of pre-Islamic epigraphy. The story of this stele's discovery, export and return to Saudi Arabia has been recounted in "Well of Good Fortune" by P. Kesting, in Saudi Aramco World (May/June, 2001, pp. 14-17).

*Special thanks to Prof. G.W. Bowersock and Dr. Joseph Greene for information on this stele.

Pre-Islamic Exhibit: Origin & Develpment | Thamudic | Lihyanite | Safaitic | Musnad al Janubi
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