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Financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, the French-Saudi team of archeologists in Najran has made a major scientific discovery during its latest round of fieldwork. About 100 kilometers north of Najran, Saudi Arabia, near the Yemeni border, the epigrapher Frédéric Imbert, a professor at the University of Aix-Marseille, unearthed what might be considered the oldest inscription in the Arabic alphabet.
The first thing that makes this find significant is that it is a mixed text known as Nabatean Arabic, the first stage of Arabic writing. Previously, this script had only ever been seen north of Hejaz, in the Sinai and in the Levant.
The second thing is that these inscriptions are dated. The period indicated corresponds to the years 469-470 AD. This is the oldest form of Arabic writing known to date, the “missing link” between Nabatean and Arabic writing.
Many examples of graffiti and inscriptions—largely of names and greetings—document the area of Nabataean culture, which extended as far north as the north end of the Dead Sea, and testify to widespread literacy; but except for a few letters no Nabataean literature has survived, nor was any noted in antiquity, and the temples bear no inscriptions. Onomastic analysis has suggested that Nabataean culture may have had multiple influences. Classical references to the Nabataeans begin with Diodorus Siculus; they suggest that the Nabataeans' trade routes and the origins of their goods were regarded as trade secrets, and disguised in tales that should have strained outsiders' credulity. Diodorus Siculus (book II) described them as a strong tribe of some 10,000 warriors, pre-eminent among the nomads of Arabia, eschewing agriculture, fixed houses, and the use of wine...