Safaitic is the name given to an Old North Arabian dialect, preserved in the form of inscriptions which are written in a type of South Semitic script. These inscriptions were written by bedouin
The Bedouin are a part of a predominantly desert-dwelling Arab ethnic group traditionally divided into tribes or clans, known in Arabic as ..-Etymology:...

 and semi-nomadic inhabitants of the Syro-Arabian
Syrian Desert
The Syrian Desert , also known as the Syro-Arabian desert is a combination of steppe and true desert that is located in the northern Arabian Peninsula covering 200,000 square miles . also the desert is very rocky and flat...

 desert. Dating of the inscriptions, although problematic, is conventionally placed between the 1st century BC and the 4th century AD.


Safaitic inscriptions are named after the area where they were first discovered in 1857: Es Safa, a region of basalt desert to the southeast of Damascus
Damascus , commonly known in Syria as Al Sham , and as the City of Jasmine , is the capital and the second largest city of Syria after Aleppo, both are part of the country's 14 governorates. In addition to being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Damascus is a major...

, Syria
Syria , officially the Syrian Arab Republic , is a country in Western Asia, bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the West, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south, and Israel to the southwest....

. Since then they have been found over a wide area including south Syria, eastern Jordan
Jordan , officially the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan , Al-Mamlaka al-Urduniyya al-Hashemiyya) is a kingdom on the East Bank of the River Jordan. The country borders Saudi Arabia to the east and south-east, Iraq to the north-east, Syria to the north and the West Bank and Israel to the west, sharing...

 and northwestern Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia , commonly known in British English as Saudi Arabia and in Arabic as as-Sa‘ūdiyyah , is the largest state in Western Asia by land area, constituting the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula, and the second-largest in the Arab World...

. Isolated examples occur further afield in places such as Palmyra
Palmyra was an ancient city in Syria. In the age of antiquity, it was an important city of central Syria, located in an oasis 215 km northeast of Damascus and 180 km southwest of the Euphrates at Deir ez-Zor. It had long been a vital caravan city for travellers crossing the Syrian desert...

 in Syria, in Lebanon
Lebanon , officially the Republic of LebanonRepublic of Lebanon is the most common term used by Lebanese government agencies. The term Lebanese Republic, a literal translation of the official Arabic and French names that is not used in today's world. Arabic is the most common language spoken among...

, in Wadi Hauran in western Iraq
Iraq ; officially the Republic of Iraq is a country in Western Asia spanning most of the northwestern end of the Zagros mountain range, the eastern part of the Syrian Desert and the northern part of the Arabian Desert....

, and in Ha'il
Ha'il , also spelled Hail, Ha'yel, or Hayil, is an oasis city in Nejd in northwestern Saudi Arabia. It is the capital of the Ha'il Province. The city has a population of 356,876 according to Ha'il Province....

 in north central Saudi Arabia. The largest concentration appears to be in the Harrat Ash Shamah
Harrat Ash Shamah
The Harrat Ash Shamah is a volcanic field covering a total area of some . This massive alkaline volcanic field extends from southern Syria, across Jordan and into northwestern Saudi Arabia....

, a black basalt desert, stretching south and east from Jebel Druze through Jordan and into Saudi Arabia. Approximately 30,000 inscriptions have been recorded, although doubtless many hundreds of thousands more remain undiscovered due to the remoteness and inhospitable nature of the terrain in which they are found. Typically the inscriptions are found on the rocks and boulders of the desert scatter, or on the stones of cairns. In many cases it is unclear whether the inscriptions on the cairns pre- or post-date the construction of the cairns.

The language and script

Safaitic is a branch of the early South Central Semitic languages (Arabic
Arabic languages
The Arabic language family consists of*Classical Arabic and its descendants, including** Modern Standard Arabic and colloquial varieties of Arabic **The various Judeo-Arabic languages **Maltese...

). Within the Arabic group there are a number of dialects which use h- rather than ’al
is the definite article in the Arabic language; a particle whose function is to render the noun on which it is prefixed definite. For example, the word kitāb 'book' can be made definite by prefixing it with al-, resulting in al-kitāb 'the book'...

for the definite article - these include Safaitic, Dedanite, Lihyanite, Thamud
The Thamūd were a people of ancient Arabia who were known from the 1st millennium BC to near the time of Muhammad. Although they are thought to have originated in southern Arabia, Arabic tradition has them moving north to settle on the slopes of Mount Athlab near Mada'in Saleh...

ic and Hasaitic
Hasaitic is an Old North Arabian dialect attested in inscriptions in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia at Thaj, Hinna, Qatif, Ras Tanura, Abqaiq in the al-Hasa region, Ayn Jawan, Mileiha and at Uruk....

. The Safaitic alphabet comprises 28 letters. Three abecedaries
An abecedarium is an inscription consisting of the letters of an alphabet, almost always listed in order. Typically, abecedaria are practice exercises....

 (lists of the alphabet) are known, but all are written in different orders, giving strength to the suggestion that the script was casually learned rather than taught systematically.

Several forms of script are identified, including Safaitic, Square Safaitic and South Safaitic. The inscriptions are scratched, usually in a regular manner but sometimes using a 'zigzag' technique, or occasionally they are pecked. Inscriptions are often written in boustrophedon
Boustrophedon , is a type of bi-directional text, mostly seen in ancient manuscripts and other inscriptions. Every other line of writing is flipped or reversed, with reversed letters. Rather than going left-to-right as in modern English, or right-to-left as in Arabic and Hebrew, alternate lines in...

 form: text travels from left to right (or vice versa) and then reverses for the next line.


Most Safaitic inscriptions are graffiti
Graffiti is the name for images or lettering scratched, scrawled, painted or marked in any manner on property....

, and reflect the current concerns of the author - the availability of grazing for his camel herd, mourning the discovery of another inscription by a person who has since died, or simply listing his genealogy and stating that he made the inscription. Others comment on raids and pray for booty, or mention religious practices. A few inscriptions by female authors are known. Inscriptions are sometimes accompanied by rock art
Rock art
Rock art is a term used in archaeology for any human-made markings made on natural stone. They can be divided into:*Petroglyphs - carvings into stone surfaces*Pictographs - rock and cave paintings...

, showing hunting or battle scenes, camels and horses and their riders, bedouin camp scenes, or occasional female figures.

Material culture

Apart from the inscriptions and images left behind, very little is known of the material culture of the Safaitic people. Several factors play a part: the Bedouin of necessity have few belongings and a transient lifestyle and so relatively little will have been preserved in the archaeological record; the conditions for successful preservation are not good, and little research and very few excavations have been undertaken concerning this aspect of Safaitic life.


  • King, G. (1990) "The Basalt Desert Rescue Survey and some preliminary remarks on the Safaitic inscriptions and rock drawings" Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 20:55-78
  • Macdonald, M. C. A. (1992) "Inscriptions, Safaitic" in The Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol 3 (editor in chief D N Freedman) Doubleday
  • Macdonald, M. C. A. (2000) "Reflections on the linguistic map of pre-Islamic Arabia" Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 11(1):28–79
  • Oxtoby, W. G. (1968) Some Inscriptions of the Safaitic Bedouin American Oriental Society, Oriental Series 50. New Haven, Connecticut
  • Winnett, F. V. and Harding, G. L. (1978) Inscriptions from Fifty Safaitic Cairns Toronto

External links

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