Sinaitic Inscriptions

Sinaitic Inscriptions

is the name usually given to certain singular marks cut or rather scratched on the rocks of the Sinaitic peninsula, which have in all ages given rise to great curiosity and many queries. Diodorus Siculus states that in his time there was an oasis in the wilderness, of Sinai containing a sacred shrine, to which the inhabitants of the surrounding country were accustomed to make pilgrimages every five years. There was a stone altar at the spot with an inscription in ancient unknown characters. This appears to be the first mention of the now famous Sinaitic inscriptions. The oasis Was probably Feiral, though some think it was the village of Tur, on the coast of the Red Sea. The quinquennial festival is mentioned by Strabo. But the first description of the inscriptions is given (about A.D. 535) by Cosmas, who supposed them to be the work of the Israelites. They are also referred to by several early travelers, as Neitzschitz and Monconys. Pococke and Niebuhr attempted to copy them, but with little success; Seetzen and Burckhardt were more accurate in their transcripts. In the Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature (1832, 3, 1), 177 of them are carefully engraved; nine of these are Greek, and one is Latin; the rest are of that peculiar character which recent paleographists, as Beer, have denominated Nabathmean. They are accompanied, wherever they occur, by rude figures of men with shields, swords, bows, and arrows; of camels and horses, of goats and ibexes with horns wondrously exaggerated; of antelopes pursued by greyhounds; of lizards and tortoises, besides a number of nondescripts which will puzzle the zoologist. They are met with in almost every part of the mountainous region of the peninsula, in groups and singly. They have been seen in wadies Sidry, Magharah, and Feiran; in wadies Humr and Birah, on the northern route to Sinai; on and around Mount Serbal; in Wady Leja at Sinai; on the plateau between wadies Seyal and El-Ain, on the route to Akabah; at Petra, and on the southern border of Palestine. They occur, however, in greatest numbers in Wady Mokatteb.

The inscriptions are in general very short, consisting of one or two brief lines; the letters are from two to three inches long; rudely cut with a sharp- pointed instrument. The surface of the rock is generally soft, so that with a pocket knife one could cut a shallow inscription in a few minutes. A few, however, are more deeply and regularly formed. Though Lepsius discovered some of the Sinaitic characters engraved over older Greek names, yet the Greek inscriptions are generally of a much more modern date than the others, judging from their appearance. Some of them have crosses attached; but these are not in all cases of Christian origin. The very same figures are found on Egyptian obelisks. Their position on the face of the cliffs is generally so low that a man could reach them. Some are higher, and would require a ladder, or at least an expert climber. None are so high as to suggest the necessity for ropes or scaffolding.

Prof. Beer, of Leipsic, has examined them with great care and constructed an alphabet. The results of the researches of this distinguished scholar are as follows:

1. The alphabet is independent; some of the letters are unique, others like the Palmyrene, Estrangelo, and Cufic. They are written from left to right.

2. The contents of the inscriptions, so far as examined, consist only of proper names preceded by some such words as, של, "peace," דכיר, "in memory," and ברו, "blessed" The word כה, "priest," is sometimes found after them. The names are those common in Arabic; not one Jewish or Christian name has yet been found.

3. The language is supposed to be the Nabathaean, spoken by the inhabitants of Arabia Petraea.

4. The writers were pilgrims. The great number around Serbal leads to the supposition that it was once a holy place. That some of the writers were Christian is evident from the crosses.

5. The age of the inscriptions he supposes to be not earlier than the 4th century. Had they been later, some tradition respecting them would probably have existed ill the time of Cosmas.

Prof. Tuch, of Leipsic, while agreeing with Beer in his alphabet and translations, differs from him in regard to the history of the inscriptions. He says the language is Arabic; the authors of them were ancient inhabitants of these mountains, in religion heathens. Pilgrimages were the occasions of the inscriptions. Their, date he fixes, not later than the 2d century B.C.

Dean Stanley, in his careful resume, states that there is a great difference of age manifested both in the pictures and letters; that they are intermixed with Greek, Arabic, and even one or two Latin words, apparently of the same date; that crosses are very numerous, and of such form as to show their Christian origin. He concludes that they are, for the most part, the work of Christian pilgrims.

It will be seen from the above statements that these singular inscriptions chiefly occur in the wadies, and on the roads leading to particular spots, such as mounts Sinai and Serbal, and the Deir at Petra. They seem to have been the work of idle loiterers, rude in their ideas of art, and ruder still in their morals; for the figures of animals are generally ludicrous, and occasionally obscene. Many of the inscriptions are evidently of remote antiquity, while others are plainly not older than our own era. That they are of Israelitish origin, as Mr. Forster maintains, no satisfactory evidence has as yet been produced. The letters are not Hebrew. Some of them resemble Phoenician characters, others are different from those of any known language. And yet it would seem they were the symbols of a language at one period universally known throughout the whole peninsula. It does seem strange that all knowledge of these characters and the people who used them has been entirely lost, and it seems stranger still that it was already lost in the 4th century. The researches of the greatest scholars of our age have been unable to solve the mystery of these inscriptions, or afford any satisfactory clue to their origin, authors, and object (Porter, Handbook for Palest. p. 17).

Prof. Palmer has carefully investigated these inscriptions in the Ordnance Survey of Sinai, and his conclusions are thus summarily expressed: "They are mere scratches on the rock, the work of idle loungers, consisting, for the most part, of mere names interspersed with rude figures of men and animals. In a philological point of view they do possess a certain interest, but otherwise they are as worthless and unimportant as the Arab, Greek, and European graffiti with which they are interspersed. The language employed is Aramaean, the Shemitic dialect which in the earlier centuries of our era held throughout the East the place now occupied by the modern Arabic, and the character differs little from the Nabathaean alphabet used in the inscriptions of Idumaea and Central Syria" (Desert of the Exodus, p. 160). See, in addition to the above, and travelers in the region, Beer, Inscriptiones ad Montem Sinai, etc. (Lips. 1840); Lenormant, L'Origine Chretienne des Inscr. Sin. (Paris, 1856); Schulmann, Ueber sinait. Inschriften (Wilna, 1856); Ebers, Durch Gosen und Sinai (Leips. 1872); Sharpe, Heb. Inscriptions between Egypt and Sinai (Loud. 1875); Jour. Sac. Lit. July, 1853; Ch. of Engl. Review, April, 1857. SEE INSCRIPTIONS.

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