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Nabataean Aramaic was the Western Aramaic variety used in inscriptions by the Nabataeans of the Negev, the east bank of the Jordan River and the Sinai Peninsula.

Nabataean Aramaic
Inscription Qasiu Louvre AO4988.jpg
Fragment from a dedicatory inscription in Nabataean script to the god Qasiu.[1]
RegionArabia Petraea
Extinctmerged with Arabic during the early Islamic era.
Nabataean alphabet
Language codes
ISO 639-3None (mis)

During the early Islamic Golden Age, Arab historians applied the term "Nabataean" to other, eastern Aramaic languages in the Babylonian alluvial plain of Iraq and the Syrian Desert.



With the collapse of the Achaemenid Empire (330 BC), the Aramaic language also increasingly lost importance as the lingua franca of the Near East. The Greek language now appeared beside it. The formerly unified written culture fell apart into local schools and the old dialects now also increased in importance as written languages. Nabataean Aramaic was one of these local developments. The language of the Nabataean inscriptions, attested from the 2nd century BC, shows a local development of the Aramaic language.

Linguistic classification and significanceEdit

Nabataean Aramaic was an offshoot of Imperial Aramaic.

Scholars used to be divided over the origins of Arabic script. One (contemporarily marginal) school of thought dates the Arabic script to the Syriac script, which also originated in Aramaic. The second school of thought, led by T. Noldeke, traces Arabic script to Nabatean.[2] This thesis was confirmed and fully documented by J. Healey in his work on the Syriac and the Arabic alphabet.[3] An inscription excavated in Umm al Jimal, Jordan, which dates to the 6th century, "confirms the derivation of the Arabic script from the Nabatean and points to the birth of distinctive Arabic writing forms".[4]

Decline of the Nabatean languageEdit

The Nabatean language was always linguistically influenced by its historical and geographical context. Nabatean was initially primarily used by Aramaic speakers, and therefore drew much influence from the Aramaic vocabulary and proper names. But at the beginning of the 4th century. it was increasingly used by Arab speakers, and therefore began to draw influence from Arabic. This, according to Semitists specialist Cantineau, marked to beginning of the end of the widespread use of Nabataean Aramaic, as it became merged in Arabic. During this process, "Nabatean seems to have emptied itself little by little of the Aramaic elements it had and to have successively replaced them with Arabic loans".[5]

This theory, while widely acknowledged, is contested. M. O'Connor argues that while Cantineau's theory may be historically true, his method of research to reach such conclusion is lacking, and may be misguided.[6]


Evidence of Nabataean writings can be found in the burial and dedication inscriptions of the cities of Petra, Bosra and Hegra (modern Mada'in Saleh) and there are numerous smaller inscriptions from the southern Sinai Peninsula. There are further Nabataean texts from Qumran.

The first Nabatean inscription was found in Elusa, which is now the Negev area in Israel. The inscription mentions Aretas, king of the Nabateans. Joseph Naveh argues that this inscription, that can be traced to king Aretas I, an "Arab ruler with whom Jason sought refuge in Petra in 169 BCE", lacks some of the Nabatean features and resembles uniform imperial Aramaic and Jewish script. Therefore, some scholars claim the earliest Nabatean inscription was found in Petra, Jordan, which can be dated back to the late Hellenistic Era in the years 96 or 95 BCE.[7]

Over 4,000 excavated inscriptions have been confirmed to be written in Nabataean Aramaic.[8] Most of the Nabatean inscriptions found are either burial designations or formal designations. The earliest inscription found to be written in cursive Nabatean was unearthed in Horvat Raqiq, close to the city of Beersheba, Israel. This inscription is unique not only because of its age, but also because it was written using ink applied on a large rock.[9]

The vast majority of Nabatean inscriptions are found engraved on stone, like the Ashla inscription from Petra (95 BCE), the dedication to the goddess al-Kutba from Wadi Tumilat (77 BCE) and the inscription of Rabbel I from Petra (66 BCE).[10] Some excavations have unearthed inscriptions on metallic objects. Most of such inscriptions were inscribed on metallic coins. Excavations in Wadi Musa in southern Jordan, unearthed dozens of bronze fragments with Nabatean inscriptions on them, yet the source of these fragments is uncertain. An important bronze inscription is found on a bronze oil burner excavated in Wadi Musa with a dedication from a priest and his son to Obodas, which dates to the reign of the Nabatean king Rabbel II, ruling between the years 70-106 AD.[11]

It was suggested that the annexation of Petra by Rome in 106 CE stopped the wide use of Nabatean language in that region, as there are no Nabatean inscriptions found in Petra which can be traced to a date after the annexation. The latest Nabatean inscription found dates back to 356 CE, which was found in the Hijaz, in the north of what is now Saudi-Arabia.[12]


Nabataean handwriting is characterized by a very characteristic cursive style. The Nabataean alphabet itself developed out of the Aramaic alphabet. It became the precursor of the Arabic alphabet, which developed out of cursive variants of the Nabataean script in the 5th century.


  • al-Khraysheh, Fawwaz: Die Personennamen in den nabatäischen Inschriften des Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum. Marburg 1986. In German
  • Euting, Julius: Nabatäische Inschriften aus Arabien. Berlin 1885. In German
  • Hackl, Ursula/Jenni, Hanna/Schneider, Christoph: Quellen zur Geschichte der Nabatäer. NTOA 51. Fribourg 2003. ISBN 3-7278-1410-1. In German


  1. ^ Basalt, 1st century CE. Found in Sia in the Hauran, Southern Syria.
  2. ^ (1) Noldeke, Theodor, Julius Euting, and A. von Gutschmidt. Nabatäische Inschriften Aus Arabien. Berlin: Reimer, 1885.
  3. ^ Healey, John F. Reading the past: The Early Alphabet. London: Published for the Trustees of the British Museum by British Museum Publication's, 1990. Print.
  4. ^ "Was the Nabatean Script the Root of the Modern Arabic Script?". Medina Phoenician and Nabatean Inscriptions. European Union. N.d.
  5. ^ Cantineau, J. Le Nabatéen. Paris: Librairie Ernest Leroux, 1930. Print.
  6. ^ O'Connor, M. “The Arabic Loanwords in Nabatean Aramaic”. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 45.3 (1986): 213–229.
  7. ^ Richard, Suzanne Louise. Near Eastern Archaeology: A Reader. Winona Lake, IN: Eirauns, 2003. Print
  8. ^ Richard, Suzanne Louise. Near Eastern Archaeology: A Reader. Winona Lake, IN: Eirauns, 2003. Print
  9. ^ Naveh, Joseph. "Nabatean Language, Script and Inscriptions".
  10. ^ al-Salameen, Zeyad, and Younis Shdaifat. "A New Nabataean Inscribed Bronze Lamp." Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 25.1 (2014): 43-49. Print.
  11. ^ al-Salameen, Zeyad, and Younis Shdaifat. "A New Nabataean Inscribed Bronze Lamp." Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 25.1 (2014): 43-49. Print.
  12. ^ Richard, Suzanne Louise. Near Eastern Archaeology: A Reader. Winona Lake, IN: Eirauns, 2003. Print.