Article by Laila Nehmé, CNRS, UMR 8167 Orient & Méditerranée, “Mondes sémitiques anciens”, Paris

Language Family and Linguistic Characteristics

Nabataean designates one of the dialectal variants of Middle Aramaic (of which the others are, among others, Palmyrenian, Hatran and Syriac), used largely within the frontiers of the Nabataean Kingdom. The first attested king of Nabataea is mentioned in an inscription from the Negev, undated, but probably from the late third or early second century BCE (according to palaeographic criteria), and the kingdom remained independent, first on the fringes of the Hellenistic kingdoms, and then of the Roman Empire, until the second century CE. At its greatest extent, the Nabataean Kingdom, with its capital at Petra, reached from Damascus to the Hijaz, and from the Negev to the Syrian desert, but in 106 CE it was annexed by Trajan to form the new Roman province of Arabia.

Middle Aramaic itself was a variant of Aramaic, which belonged to the North-West Semitic family, along with Ugaritic, Canaanite and Taymanitic.

The language spoken by the Nabataeans was certainly, at least in certain parts of the kingdom, a form of Old Arabic (the conventional expression used to designate the Arabic dialects attested before the rise of Islam), while Aramaic was used in inscriptions and texts smaller supports, although a number of Arabic loanwords are also found in these tests.

Nabataean is linguistically a variant of Middle Aramaic, and shares a certain number of its characteristics. It is a language based on consonantal roots, like Arabic and Hebrew.

Writing System

The Nabataean script belongs to the family of North-West Semitic scripts, of which the oldest example is Old Phoenician. Like Syriac, Hatran, Judeo-Aramaic and Palmyrene, it derives from the Aramaic of the Empire. It is an alphabetic writing system, which contains twenty-two characters. It is consonantal, but records the long vowels î and û (though not â in the middle of a word). Consonantal gemmination is not indicated, and there is no distinction between the stops which were unaspirated and those which were aspirated.

The Nabataean script was not completely uniform from one area to another, and there existed regional variations with more or less marked differences, notably in Hawrân (southern Syria) and in the Sinai. It also evolved over the course of time, changing from a script whose letters were relatively isolated from one another, to an increasingly cursive script, increasingly placed upon an imaginary line. The final stage of the development of the Nabataean writing system was the Nabataean script, which appeared, almost full-formed, in the course of the fifth century CE. The Arabic script was not, thus, invented de novo. The region where this evolution took place was almost certainly the north-west of the Arab peninsula.

Chronological and Geographical Extent

The oldest dated Nabataean inscription comes from Petra, and is dated to 96/95 BCE, whereas the last dated inscription is conventionally dated to 356 CE, and comes from Hegra, modern Madâ’in Sâlih, in the north-west of Arabia. This date is conventional in the sense that the more recent texts (of the second half of the fourth century and the fifth century) are not called Nabataean, but Nabateo-Arabic, due to their transitional character between the two scripts; they continue, however, in a sense, to be Nabataean.

There are tens of thousands of Nabataean inscriptions which come from Syria, Jordan, Arabian, Egypt, the Negev, and Sinai. Most of these were found in the sites which were part, at one time or another, of the Nabataean kingdom, but Nabataean traders also left inscriptions outside the frontiers of the kingdom, some bilingual (Latin-Nabataean, Greek-Nabataean, South-Arabic-Nabataean), in, amongst other places, Lebanon (Sidon), Greece (Cos, Miletus), Italy (Rome, Pozzuoli), and in Southern Arabia (Sirwâh).

The great majority of these texts, approximately 90%, are simply signatures (graffiti), while the remaining 10% are principally dedications and epitaphs. A separate group consists of thirty or so legal texts written on the façades of the tombs of Hegra. Nabataean was not used for literary texts, royal annals, or administrative archives. On the other hand, if we add texts written on smaller supports (mainly papyrus and a few on leather), there are a dozen or so longer texts and an equal number of fragments where Nabataean signatures are written below Greek texts. These generally relate to private contracts discovered in the caves of Nahal Hever, in the south-west of the Dead Sea and dating to the end of the first and the first half of the second century CE. These texts are written in a cursive related to the stone inscriptions.

Symbolic Value

The symbolic value of Nabataean does not seem to have been an essential element of this language. However there do seem to be two particularly striking elements:

  • the fact that Arabic writing derived from Nabataean can be almost certainly explained by the fact that the Arabic language began to be written in the north-west of the Arabic peninsula. Nabataean was, broadly speaking, the only prestige script which existed in this region at the period in which this development took place, between the third and fifth centuries, and particularly the fourth century, and thus had an important symbolic power;
  • the Nabataean signatures often accompanied by the roots dkr (Arabic ḏkr), “commemmorate”, brk, “bless” and šlm (Arabic slm), “to be well”, are very formulaic, and are found, almost unchanged, in the Nabateo-Arabic inscriptions of the fourth and fifth centuries, which attests to the symbolic importance of the formulas used.

The corpus incudes the inscriptions, of which the longest texts are published in a certain number of readily-accessible collections, and the papyri, now published in two volumes in the Judean Desert Studies collection.



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Writing system

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Text editions

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Online texts

To cite this article

Laila Nehm&eacute, "Nabataean", Les mots de la paix/Terminology of peace [on-line]. Translated by Korshi Dosoo. Uploaded 4/04/2016, accessed