In this vast plain of the Al Harrah desert, stretching from Syria across north-eastern Jordan and into Saudi Arabia, ancient drawings are carved into volcanic basalt rock.
Left untouched for centuries, the stones are inscribed with an ancient text believed to be Safaitic, an indigenous alphabet that flourished in northern Arabia more than two millennia ago.
The region’s early history is commonly linked to the birth of Islam, and little is known of its pre-Islamic past.
These carvings, however, provide eyewitness accounts into this lost period.
Doctor Ahmad Al-Jallad of Ohio State University, analyses the origin and authenticity of literary texts and inscriptions. He’s also an historian of language, focusing on pre-Islamic Arabia.
The Professor is among a small number of people who can read the Safaitic alphabet.
Every year, Dr. Al-Jallad leads archaeological expeditions into the Al Harrah desert, in the hope of gaining more insight into region’s past.
“You have to do surveys, you have to excavate & you have to read these inscriptions,” he told Euronews. “Only by doing that can you reconstruct the lives, the languages & the cultures of the people who actually inhabited the Arabian Peninsula before Islam.”
Language & lineage
With more than 50,000 texts written in the Safaitic alphabet, Al Harrah hosts what some experts consider to be the largest corpus of pre-Islam inscriptions.
Some academics also say the alphabet attests to the earliest stages of the Arabic language, challenging the notion that it materialised in the 1st century CE.
Dr. Al-Jallad has created an online dictionary and grammar portal that traces Arabic’s history. He’s also uncovered an Arabian zodiac, the oldest known records of Arabic poetry and new details about pre-Islamic Arabian mythology.
The rock drawings of Al Harrah desert are considered by some to be one of the first examples of graffiti and a very early form of regional artistic expression.
When Jordanian visual artist Rawan Al Adwan stumbled upon Safaitic sketches of camels, gazelles & hunters, she became determined to bring her ancestors' art alive. Al Adwan believes that by recreating the images on canvas, she could breathe life into a forgotten ancient society of talented people.
“I produced paintings that reflected their essence, but with a new composition and colour,” she told Inspire Middle East. “These people were educated, they used to teach reading & writing. Also, they taught philosophy and astronomy, which was very attractive to me. So, I worked through my paintings to promote them and exhibit them in different galleries in Jordan and abroad.“