Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A 6th Century Christian Inscription from Northwest Arabia

The new issue of Arabian Epigraphic Notes, published by the University of Leiden, has an article by Laila Nehmé describing an inscription dated to 548/9 AD, numbered DaJ144PAr1, found near Dumat al-Jandal, in modern Saudi Arabia, which includes photos and illustrations and can be downloaded here.

The text reads:

dkr ʾl-ʾlh
ḥgʿ{b/n}w br
{b}y{r}[ḥ] šnt 4×100
+20+20+3 cross

Which Nehmé translates as:

“May be remembered. May God remember Ḥgʿ{b/n}w son of Salama/Salāma/
Salima {in} the m[onth] (gap) year 443 [ad 548/549].”

As regards pre-Islamic Christian use of the name 'Allah' for God:

Finally, one needs to comment on the divine name ʾl-ʾlh, which occurs here for the first time in north-west Arabia. It occurs, also in a Christian context, in Ḥimà-Sud PalAr 8 (Robin et al. 2014: 1099–1102, see the commentary on ʾl-ʾlh p. 1102), north of Najrān and it is the name of the Christian God in the Zebed inscription. It is the normal Christian pre-Islamic Arabic name for God. I formerly thought, in the edition of the Nabataeo-Arabic inscription DaJ000NabAr1 (Nehmé 2016), that ʾl-ʾlh was used in the theophoric name brʾlʾlh, a compound made of br + ʾl-ʾlh, but a closer examination of the stone (fig. 9) shows that it is also possible, and probably better, to read [d]kr ʾl-ʾlh, i.e. the same formula as the one in Zebed and in DaJ144PAr1. The stone is broken on the right, and one can just see, to the right of the k, the bottom part of the missing d. There is however a theophoric name built with ʾl-ʾlh, and that is ʿbdʾlʾlh in LPArab 1. Indeed, in the first line of this inscription (fig. 10),17
I suggest to read ʾnh ʿbdʾlʾlh instead of ʾllh ʿfrʾ lʾlyh (“God, [grant] pardon to ʾUllaih”) of the editio princeps, which was followed by various other unsatisfactory readings. Lastly, ʾl-ʾlh is the name of God in the foundation inscription, in Arabic, of the monastery of Hind in al-Ḥīra, in c. ad 560 (on this inscription, Hind and the date, see Robin 2013: 239 and § 3.4.2 below), as it is preserved in two transcriptions of al-Bakrī and Yāqūt.

As to the text's significance, Nehmé concludes:

DaJ144PAr1 is important for several reasons. First, it is the only text dated to the sixth century from north-west Arabia. Until its discovery, there was a 170 year gap, possibly slightly less, between the latest Nabataeo-Arabic text, from Eilat, probably dated to the last quarter of the 5th century (Avner et al. 2013), and the earliest Islamic one in the Ḥijāz, the so-called Zuhayr inscription, dated ad 644 (Al-Ghabban 2008). This gap is now partly filled by this mid-sixth century text. Second, the presence of the cross and the use of the divine name ʾl-ʾlh are two strong arguments to suggest that the author was a Christian, possibly a Ḥujrid who was a member of one of the chieftains who succeeded the reign of al-Ḥārith al-Malik after ad 528. Third, it shows that in the mid-sixth century, one of the scripts used in this region was definitely Arabic, as was probably the language spoken by the people who used it. This does not, however, exclude the persistence of Nabataeo-Arabic script fossils, as evidenced by the repetition of dkr at the beginning of the text. Finally, this text is important for the history of the region of Dūmat al-Jandal because it shows that there was, if not a Christian community, at least one individual who was a Christian, who claimed it by drawing a cross and by asking the Christian god to remember him. It is a nice coincidence that recent excavations in Dūmat al-Jandal have yielded, in pre-Islamic levels of a sounding undertaken near the ʿUmar b. al-Khattāb mosque, a small silver bell interpreted as a liturgical bell (Loreto 2017) which would be the first archaeological evidence of Christianity in Dūmat al-Jandal.

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