The oldest known Arabic writing found in Saudi Arabia, from ca. 470 AD belong to a Christian context and predates the advent of Islam with 150 years.
In December 2015, researchers from a French-Saudi expedition studying rock inscriptions in southern Saudi Arabia published a 100-page-long report in France’s Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres that reported that the oldest Arabic text, carved on a large rectangular stone that was found in Saudi Arabia, is simply of a name, “Thawban (son of) Malik,” decorated with a Christian cross. The same cross systematically appears on the other similar stelae dating more or less to the same period.
The discovery is sensational since it shows that the origins of the Arabic alphabet used to write the Koran belongs to a Christian context. This pre-Islamic alphabet is also called Nabatean Arabic, because it evolved from the script used by the Nabateans, the once-powerful nation that built Petra and dominated the trade routes in the southern Levant and northern Arabia before being annexed by the Romans in the early 2nd century.
Example of Nabatean script to the god Qasiu. Basalt, 1st century AD. Found in Sia in the Hauran, Southern Syria. (Public Domain)
The ancient text is a legacy of a once flourishing Christian community in the area also linked to the rise of an ancient Jewish kingdom that ruled over much of what is today Yemen and Saudi Arabia
Christians in the Desert
The Muslim tradition preserved in the book of Koran portrays the pre-Islamic region as chaotic and filled with unrest that Mohammed manages to unify with the help of the powerful message of Islam
However, the Islamic text makes no mention of the numerous Christian and Jewish communities across the Saudi peninsula that flourished during the days of Mohammed.
Recent studies of works by ancient Christians and Muslim records have re-shaped our image of the societies that existed in the region and shed new light on the complex history of the region before the advent of Islam. One of the important kingdoms in Arabia at the time was the Jewish kingdom of Himyar.
A bronze statue of Dhamar Ali Yahbur II, a Himyarite King who probably reigned in late 3rd or early 4th century AD. Displayed in Sana’a National Museum. (CC BY 2.0)
The kingdom was founded in the 2nd century AD, and around 380 AD the elites of the kingdom of Himyar converted to some form of Judaism. By the 4th century,
Himyar had become an important player in the struggle for regional power. The Kingdom of Himyar’s headquarters was situated in what is today Yemen, from where its expansionist rulers led a series of campaigns conquering into its neighboring states, including the legendary biblical kingdom of Sheba.
Royal inscriptions found in the Saudi capital of Riyadhand and Bir Hima, north of Yemen, attest how the Himyarite kingdom during the 5th century expanded its influence into central Arabia, the Persian Gulf area, and into the region of Mecca and Medina, known as Hijaz.
Pre-Islamic rock art of Arabia at Bir Hima, carved into the eastern foothills of the Asir Mountains of Saudi Arabia. (CC BY 2.0)
According to ancient Christian sources, the Christians of the nearby city of Najran suffered a wave of persecution by the Himyarites in 470. The name of Thawban son of Malik appears on eight inscriptions, along with the names of other Christians. The French experts believe these inscriptions are a form of commemoration of Thawban and his fellow Christians that were martyred as they refused to convert to Judaism.
The researchers believe that the Christians choice of the early Arabic script to memorialize their comrades was an act of resistance that stood in sharp contrast to the inscriptions left by Himyarite rulers in their native Sabaean. To adopt a new writing system was a way of manifesting a separation from Himyar, and at the same time, a means to approach the rest of the Arabs to unify against their common enemy.
A portion of a war scene from the Himyarite era. (CC BY SA 3.0)
The growing resistance and outside pressure eventually brought down Himyar. In the years around 500, it fell to Christian invaders from the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum. For the next century, Himyar was a Christian kingdom that continued to exert control over Arabia. During the latter half of the 6th century, one of its rulers, Abraha, marched through Bir Hima, conquering, Yathrib, the desert oasis that 70 years later would become known as Medina – The City of the Prophet.
Featured Image: A photo showing some stelae found with Arabic inscriptions. Source: Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA)