Remains of a Lost World

A Sabaean inscription on a red sandstone block offers a fleeting glimpse of life in the southwestern part of the Roman Province of Arabia in the fifth or sixth century, before the rise of Islam. Today, religious strife and military conflict involving Saudi and Houthi rebel forces make international headlines. But then, the area was relatively peaceful, with a substantial Christian and Jewish population. Great personal wealth was possible through the incense and spice trade. Caravans transported frankincense, myrrh, and other valuable South Arabian and African commodities, from Shabwah in Hadhramaut (now a part of Yemen), to the ancient city of Petra (now in Jordan). Though incomplete and broken (see below), the inscription has been identified as a Christian dedication for a fortified house or tower. It is incised in Sabaean, a pre-Islamic Semitic language spoken and written in the ancient kingdom of Saba (the Biblical Sheba), now Yemen. This South Arabian language is chiefly known from such inscriptions.

Karl S. Twitchell, an American mining engineer active in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, purchased the inscription in June 1943 at Dhat al-Ukhdud, Najran, a key place along the ancient caravan route trade, and donated it to the Princeton University Library three years later. It was initially in Princeton’s Epigraphical Museum, founded in 1933 and housed in the old chemistry laboratory. Professor Philip K. Hitti, Department of Near Eastern Studies, facilitated the inscription’s initial study in 1945 by the British Arabist Harry St. John Bridger Philby, who was coincidentally the father of Kim Philby, the British MI-6 intelligence officer and notorious Soviet double agent. Ten years later, after the inscription had moved to the Manuscripts Division, Albert Jamme modified the elder Philby’s preliminary reading of the inscription. According to Jamme, it says that A[l]hat Ta’lubān and a second person built the tower with the help of God (“The Merciful. He [who] is in heaven”).

For more information about the inscription, see the articles by Harry St. John Bridger Philby, “Three New Inscriptions from Hadhramaut,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, no. 2 (October 1945), p. 133; and Albert Jamme, “South-Arabian Antiquities in the U.S.A.,” Bibliotheca Orientalis, vol. 12, no. 5/6 (September-November 1955), p. 152.

Sabaean inscription. Islamic Manuscripts, Third Series, no. 317e

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