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Written in Stone
Written In Stone: Pre-Islamic Period Inscriptions
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Notes on the Origin and Development of Writing in Arabia

Arabic Text

It is generally thought that writing gradually developed from the human, animal and other figures that prehistoric artists had been depicting on rocks for thousands of years before the first alphabets. Thousands of petroglyphs are located all over the Arabian Peninsula. To many observers, the various phases of rock art suggest that such images were initially created as an aesthetic activity, but they later became increasingly symbolic and semantic.

Writing was an important means of communication between the Arabian Peninsula and the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt. Writing is thought to have originated around 3500 BC in Mesopotamia and perhaps originated independently in Egypt as well. The oldest scripts are known as Cuneiform in Mesopotamia and Hieroglyphic in Egypt. These writing systems had developed over time from the use of pictographs, signs and symbols. The available evidence suggests that writing might have developed in the Arabian Peninsula from the early Sinatic script around 2000 - 1500 BC.

By around 1000 BC two families of ancient writings had developed in the Arabian Peninsula. The one in the north (the North Arabic family) was called Musnad al-Shamali and the one in southern Arabia (the South Arabic family) was called Musnad al-Janubi.

Musnad al-Shamali (North Arabic) spread out around the first millennium BC through northern Arabia, and from this developed the Lihyanite, Safaitic and Aramaic writing systems, which flourished in the north of Arabia around the middle of the first millennium BC. From Aramaic Nabataean script and from Nabataean, Arabic writing developed.

Meanwhile the use of South Arabic forms of writing also expanded, and developed into the Sabaean, Qatabani, Hadrami, and Hassanean scripts.

With the rise of Islam, Arabic spread all over the region, both north and south, and the more ancient writing forms vanished. Thus none of these other writing systems has been in common use in Arabia for around 1,400 years.


Aramaic Inscription
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Comparative Chart of Scripts
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Greek inscription
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Sabaean inscription
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Pre-Islamic Exhibit: Origin & Develpment | Thamudic | Lihyanite | Safaitic | Musnad al Janubi
Islamic Exhibit: Islamic Period | Kufi 1 | Kufi 2 | Naskh
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