Semitic epigraphy is a new science, dating only from the past fifty years. At the beginning of the eighteenth century European scholars sought in vain to decipher two Palmyran inscriptions which had been discovered at Rome. At the end of the century Swinton in England and the Abbé Barthélemy in France succeeded in reconstructing the alphabet with the assistance of thirteen new bilingual texts copied at Palmyra by Wood. Thenceforth it was evident of what assistance inscriptions would be to the philological and historical knowledge of the ancient Orient. They are, moreover, of great utility in Biblical criticism. The true founder of this science was W. Gesenius, who collected and commentated all the Phoenician inscriptions then known in his remarkable work "Scripturae linguaeque Phoeniciae monumenta" (Leipzig, 1837). Since then attention has been devoted to the research of epigraphical monuments and the most eminent Orientalists are successfully applying themselves to deciphering and explaining them. In 1867 the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres of Paris undertook the publication of a "Corpus inscriptionum semiticarum", in which the monuments should be collected, translated and reproduced in facsimile by the most perfect processes. The publication, made with all desirable care, is regularly continued, despite the enormous expenses it involves. To afford an idea of Semitic epigraphy we shall follow the plan adopted in this work, which does not treat of numerous inscriptions in cuneiform characters, these falling within the province of the Assyriologist. We shall begin with the branches which belong to the group of North Semitic languages.
These are numerous and important, since on the one hand this great nation of navigators has not left us any other monuments of its language, and on the other hand the alphabet of these inscriptions is the prototype of all the Semitic, Greek, and Latin alphabets.
A. Phoenician Inscriptions
The Phoenician inscriptions properly so-called, i.e. those found in Phoenicia, are neither the most numerous nor the most ancient. The longest, such as that of the sarcophagus of King Eshmunazar (at the Louvre) and those of the foundations of the temple of Eshmûn at Sidon, date only from the Ptolemaic period. The stela of Jehumelek, King of Gebal (Biblos), now at Paris, dates from the fourth or fifth century of our own era. Another found at Hassanbeyli, dates from the seventh century. Several seals and carved stones are also of great antiquity; but the oldest of all inscriptions is a mutilated bronze tablet (now in the Louvre), discovered in 1877 in the Island of Cyprus and which bears a dedication to the god Baal of Lebanon; it belongs to at least the ninth century B.C.
The different colonies founded by the Phoenicians have furnished several hundreds of inscriptions, discovered in Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia, Malta, etc. Most of them are older than those of Phoenicia; that of Nola (Sardinia,) dates from the eighth century. They are generally funeral or religious texts, except those of Cyprus, which furnish historical documents.
B. Punic Inscriptions
This name is given to numerous Phoenician inscriptions found in North Africa and especially in the ruins of Carthage. They are more than 3000 in number. If we except several hundred consisting of religious texts (temple dedications, tariffs for sacrifices, etc.) or epitaphs of great persons (suffetes, priests, etc.) all others are votive offerings to the goddess Tanit or god Baal-Hammon, and give no information save the name of the one offering the little stone stella on which the dedication is inscribed.
C. Neo-punic Inscriptions
These are distinguished by the more cursive form of the writing and also by the language: they are of greater philological interest, some of the letters performing the office of vowels. Their contents are the same as those of the other document: historical inscriptions (such as that of Micipsa), dedications of monuments, epitaphs, votive offerings, and religious consecrations. They are derived for the most part from the vicinity of Constantine and from Tunis, some are from Sardinia and Sicily. About 200 are known, belonging to the period between the fall of Carthage and the end of the first century of the Christian era.
A. Ancient Aramaic
The most ancient monuments of western Aramaic which have reached us are a small number of lapidary inscriptions. The most important come from Northern Syria; these are: the inscription of Hadad (eighth century, thirty-four lines), those of Panamu (twenty-three lines) and of Barekub (twenty lines), kings of Sam'al, contemporaries of Theglathphalasar III; they were discovered at Zingerli and are in the Berlin Museum. Two stelae found at Nerab in 1891 are now in the Louvre; in 1908 a mutilated stela (thirty-five lines) erected by Zakir, King of Hamath, a contemporary of, Joas, King of Israel (eighth century), was discovered. Inscriptions of the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. have been discovered in Cilicia and Syria. Those of Arabissos in Cappadocia belong only to the second century. The great stela of the Louvre found at Teima in Arabia has twenty-three lines of writing; it belongs to the fifth century. Other inscriptions, most of them in the British Museum, are of Egyptian origin; that found at Sakkara dates from 482, another found at Assouan, from 458. Besides these large monuments there is a series of smaller ones, such as cylinders, weights, seals, several of which are contemporary with the oldest inscriptions.
B. Papyrus and Ostraka
Directly connected with inscriptions through language and period are the Aramaic texts written on papyrus and discovered in Egypt. Nearly all of them proceed from the Jewish military colony established in the Island of Elephantine (Philoe). Four large sheets in the Museum of Cairo, found in 1904, contain about 240 lines of writing, well preserved. The documents (sale, gift, release, marriage contract, etc.) proceed from the same Jewish family and are dated (471-411 B.C.). Other leaves, in greater number but less complete, belong to the Museum of Berlin and have just been published (1911) by M. Sachau. The first three concerning the worship and the sanctuary of Jahweh at Elephantine are of great interest to Biblical study. There are besides letters, accounts, lists of colonists, and what would not be looked for, fragments of the history of the sage Ahikar and a partial translation of the celebrated inscription of Darius, graven in cuneiform characters on the rocks of Behistoum in Persia. Elephantine has furnished also a large number of fragments of pottery, commonly called ostraka, bearing inscriptions in ink, of the same date as the papyri. Several hundred are preserved in the collection of the "Corpus I.S." at Paris. Thanks to all these documents we are at present able to form a more or less exact idea of the Aramaic language in the period prior to the Scriptural Books of Esdras and Daniel.
C. Nabatean Inscriptions
Those hitherto discovered are about 400 in number, apart from the Sinaitic inscriptions. Most of them have been found at Bostra and in the neighboring regions, at Petra, the capital of the Nabatean kingdom, even in Arabia, at Teima and especially at Hegra and its neighborhood. But the Nabateans, like all merchant peoples, left traces outside their own country, and inscriptions have been found in Egypt, Phoenicia, and in Italy at Pozzuoli and Rome, where their colony had a temple. The rocks of Sinai bear numerous and celebrated inscriptions, which the tradition of the Alexandrine Jews, as reported by Cosmas Indicopleustes, regarded as Hebrew and as dating from the time of Moses. Forster in his famous books published at London (1851, 1856) endeavoured to explain them in this sense and his ridiculously audacious attempt was repeated by Sharpe ("Hebrew Inscriptions from Mount Sinai", London, 1875). As early as 1840 F. Beer had established that they were Nabatean inscriptions, which is undoubtedly true. Some of them are dated, the oldest from the year 150 of our era, the most recent from 252; all the others date from about these two years. As a general rule they consist only of proper names accompanied by a religious formula. About 2000 of them have been published in the "Corpus". With the aid of inscriptions and coins it has been possible to reconstruct an almost uninterrupted series of the kings of Nabatene, from Obodas I (90 B.C.) to Maliku III (A.D. 106, the date of the Roman conquest).
D. Palmyran Inscriptions
The oldest is dated from the year 9 B.C., the most recent from A.D. 271, the others range themselves in the intervening space of time. About 500 are known to us. Many are bilingual, Greek and Palmyran. The longest and most curious (at the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg) is a customs tariff drawn up in Greek and Palmyran and promulgated by the local Senate in 137. The others are: honorary inscriptions carved on the base of statues erected in honour of princes and the leaders of caravans who had successfully conducted great commercial expeditions; religious inscriptions: dedications of temples, columns, votive altars, etc.; very numerous funeral inscriptions carved on the doors of tombs or beside the bust of the dead carved in relief. Many of these monuments, discovered at Palmyra itself, are now scattered throughout the museums of Europe and America. As a whole they furnish very valuable information concerning the religion, history and the civilization of the Palmyrans. Inscriptions have also been found in the vicinity of the Palmyra or in distant countries whither the Palmyrans went either for commerce or as archers in the Roman armies. This explains the presence of Palmyran inscriptions in Egypt, Algeria, Rome, Hungary, and England.
E. Syriac Inscriptions
Few belonging to the pagan period remain. The oldest is probably that of a queen (Helen of Adiabene, first century), carved discovers at Jerusalem in the so-called Tomb of the Kings. The others come for the most part from Edessa or its environs. Some funeral inscriptions are in mosaic and accompany portraits of the dead. Those of the Christian period, recovered throughout Syria and Mesopotamia, consist chiefly of dedications of churches or convents, and of epitaphs. One of the most interesting dedications (in the Museum of Brussels) comes from Zebed, south-east of Aleppo; it is trilingual, Syriac, Greek, and Arabic. Hundreds of funeral inscriptions have been discovered in the Nestorian cemeteries of Semirjetschie, north of Kashgar; they are mingled with Turkish and Mongolian names and date from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The most celebrated Syriac inscription is that of the stela of Si-ngan-fou, the authenticity of which no one now dreams of contesting. It is dated 781, and recalls the introduction into China of Christianity, at that time very flourishing. The inscriptions on the coins of the kings of Edessa make it possible to fix the chronology of these princes.
F. Mandaite Inscriptions
The oldest and longest (278 lines) is on a leaden tablet preserved in the British Museum; the others (about 50) are engraved or painted in ink on large terracotta vessels, found chiefly at Khouabir in Lower Babylonia. All these inscriptions consist of incantation formulae against evil spirits. They date from the period of the Sassanid Kings.
A. Those which are of real philological or historical interest for their contents or antiquity are but few in number. The inscriptions found in the Jewish catacombs of Rome and Venoza, Italy (fourth-fifth century of our era), and those carved on tablets found in Babylonia (same period) are of only secondary interest. Much more important are those which have been collected in Palestine, among which are several dedications of synagogues of the first centuries of the Christian era, dedications of tombs somewhat prior to our era, epitaphs graven on small stone coffers, called ossuaries which mostly belong to the first century of our era. Lapidary inscriptions have been found at Gezer, one fixing the limits of the city, the other containing a fragment of a calendar which may date from the ninth century B.C.; it was discovered in 1908. There have been found about a hundred archaic signets belonging to the period of the Kings of Juda and Israel. But the two most celebrated Hebrew inscriptions are that of the aqueduct of Siloe at Jerusalem and the famous stela of the Moabite King Mesa, found at Dhiban beyond the Jordan. The inscription of Siloe, discovered in 1880 and later taken to Constantinople, was graven on the rock to commemorate the opening of the subterranean aqueduct which King Ezechias (720-691) had constructed in order to bring the waters of the fountain into the city. The stela of King Mesa relates how this prince, a tributary of Israel, made himself independent during the reign of Ahab (875-853). From a palaeographic and historical standpoint this inscription (now at, the Louvre) is the most valuable monument of Semitic epigraphy.
B. Samaritan Inscriptions
These are few in number and of more or less recent date; they have been discovered in Palestine and Damascus. Save that in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Bologna, which remains an enigma, they consist of quotations from the Pentateuch.
The next section of this article will deal with inscriptions which belong to the South Semitic languages.
A. Minean and Sabean Inscriptions
The generic term Himyarite designates the proto-Arabic monumental inscriptions which have been discovered, especially in the past half-century, in the south of the Arabian peninsula. The Mineans and Sabeans are the tribes whose dialect seems to have predominated. The appearance of the writings remotely derived from the Phoenician, the large number of documents (2000 inscriptions and 400 coins), the length of the texts (often twenty to thirty lines), and especially the unwonted abundance of historical details endow this epigraphy with a special and long unsuspected character. It supplements the deficient information of ancient authors and enables us to reach a more or less exact knowledge of the social condition and religion of the tribes which occupied these regions during the two or three centuries prior to the Islamite movement. There have already been recovered the names of more than fifty kings or princes of these tribes.
B. Lihyanite Inscriptions
Specimens of an alphabet, derived from the Himyarite but more cursive, are found in numerous graffiti on rocks or single stones throughout the Arabian peninsula. They emanate from nomadic tribes who wrote their names at different migrations. These inscriptions are called Tamudean or Lihyanite from the names of their authors.
C. Safaidic Inscriptions
These derive their name from the Safâ, a desert and volcanic region north-east of Bosra, where they abound (more than a thousand). Their origin is the same as that of the above, but the alphabet is slightly different. They are short graffiti similar to the Nabatean inscriptions of Sinai. They seem to have been written in the second to fourth century of our era, like the Lihyanite inscriptions.
D. Ethiopian Inscriptions
These are still fewer in number and all posterior to the conversion of Ethiopia to Christianity. The royal inscriptions found at Aksum (fifth-sixth century) contain valuable historical details. The writing is similar to that still in use, a derivative of the Himyarite.
These are very numerous, but the most recent are of little interest. The most ancient, however, are a most useful contribution to history. The oldest (found at Nemara in the Hauran, now at the Louvre) is written in Nabatean characters. It dates from A.D. 328. There are a few of the period prior to Islam. Those which were written in the first centuries of the Mussulman invasion are in monumental letters called Cufic (from the name of the town of Cufa in Babylonia). They have been found on the mosques, tombs, public buildings, various articles of furniture, dishes, lamps, swords, etc. Arabic letters and inscriptions are often intertwined so as to form decorative motifs, which makes reading of them difficult. It will be readily perceived that a collection of the numerous inscriptions on the monuments erected by the Arabs in the conquered countries would be of great service in arranging or completing the details of their history; hence the Academy of Inscriptions has decided to add this collection to the "Corpus", which was at first intended to comprise only the texts prior to Islam.
An almost complete bibliography down to 1898 (1234 articles) for North Semitic epigraphy will be found in LIDZBARSKI, Handbuch. There is no similar work for the South Semitic epigraphy. Corpus inscriptionum semiticarum (Paris, 1881-); CHWOLSON, Corpus inscrip. hebr. (St. Petersburg, 1882); VOGÜÉ, Syrie centrale (Paris, 1868); SACHAU, Papyrus und Ostraka (Berlin, 1911); LITTMANN, Semitic Inscriptions (New York, 1904); POGNON, Inscriptions séitiques (Paris, 1907); CHWOLSON, Gräbinschriften aus Semirjetschie (St. Petersburg, 1886); HELLER, Die nestorianische Denkmal zu Si-nagan-fu (Budapest, 1897); POGNON, Coupes mandaïtes (Paris, 1899); LITTMANN, Zamudenische Inschr. Epigraphische Denkmaler aus Abessinien (Vienna, 1894); VAN BERCHEM, Corpus inscrip. arabicarum (Paris, 1894). For the study of inscriptions see LIDZABARSKI, handbuch der norsemitischen Epigraphik (Weimar, 1989), an excellent manual; IDEM, Altsemitische Texte (Giessen, 1907); COOKE, North-Semitic Inscriptions (Oxford, 1903); Clermont-Ganneau, Etudes d'archéol. or. (Paris, 1895); Recueil d'archéol. or. I-VIII (Paris, 1880-1911); LIDZBARSKI, Ephermeris für semit. Epigraphik, I-III (Giessen, 1901-11).
APA citation. (1912). Semitic Epigraphy. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13709a.htm
MLA citation. "Semitic Epigraphy." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13709a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Jeffrey L. Anderson.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.