Literacy and Identity in Pre-Islamic Arabia: 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

Literacy and Identity in Pre-Islamic Arabia

1st Edition

By M.C.A. Macdonald


432 pages

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Hardback: 9780754659655
pub: 2008-12-28
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In these studies Michael Macdonald examines the extraordinary flowering of literacy in both the settled and nomadic populations of western Arabia in the 1500 years before the birth of Islam, when a larger proportion of the population could read and write than in any other part of the ancient Near East, and possibly any other part of the ancient world. Even among the nomads there seems to have been almost universal literacy in some regions. The scores of thousands of inscriptions and graffiti they left paint a vivid picture of the way-of-life, social systems, and personal emotions of their authors, information which is not available for any other non-élite population in the ancient Near East outside Egypt. This abundance of inscriptions has enabled Michael Macdonald to explore in detail some of the - often surprising - ways in which reading and writing were used in the literate and non-literate communities of ancient Arabia. He describes the many different languages and the distinct family of alphabets used in ancient Arabia, and discusses the connections between the use of particular languages or scripts and expressions of personal and communal identity. The problem of how ancient perceptions of ethnicity in this region can be identified in the sources is another theme of these papers; more specifically, they deal from several different perspectives with the question of what ancient writers meant when they applied the term 'Arab' to a wide variety of peoples throughout the ancient Near East.


’… this volume is a most valuable example of the kind of scholarship that generates far-reaching revisions of hitherto commonly accepted views…. Macdonald is an accomplished communicator. Plenty of common sense combined with a thorough knowledge of a vast corpus of data is what creates good scholarship. The volume is a shining example of this.’ Bulletin of the Society for Arabian Studies 'The Ashgate Variorum Series is noted for its tradition of reproducing individual studies by outstanding scholars which have, regardless of the time of their original publication, perdurably improved our knowledge of many aspects of the intellectual and material cultures of the Near East and the Islamic world. The volume under review has not fallen a step behind in this hallowed tradition…this volume will lastingly serve as a historic vademecum for all those interested in the antique subject of literacy…' British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies

Table of Contents

Contents: Preface; Part 1 Literacy, Language and Scripts: Literacy in an oral environment; Nomads and the Hawran in the late Hellenistic and Roman periods: a reassessment of the epigraphic evidence; Reflections on the linguistic map of pre-Islamic Arabia. Part 2 Ancient Ethnicity: Some reflections on epigraphy and ethnicity in the Roman Near East; Arabians, Arabias, and the Greeks: contact and perceptions; 'Les Arabes en Syrie' or 'La pénétration des Arabes en Syrie': a question of perceptions?; Part 3 Aspects of the History of Ancient Arabia: Was the Nabataean kingdom a 'bedouin state'?; On Saracens, the Rawwafah inscription and the Roman army; Trade routes and trade goods at the northern end of the 'incense road' in the 1st millennium BC. Addenda and corrigenda; Index.

About the Author

M.C.A. Macdonald is a Research Associate at the Oriental Institute, and a Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Oxford, UK.

About the Series

Variorum Collected Studies

The first title in the Variorum Collected Studies series was published in 1970. Since then well over 1000 titles have appeared in the series, and it has established a well-earned international reputation for the publication of key research across a whole range of subjects within the fields of history.

The history of the medieval world remains central to the series, with Byzantine studies a particular speciality, but the range of titles extends from Hellenistic philosophy and the history of the Roman empire and early Christianity, through the Renaissance and Reformation, up to the 20th century. Islamic Studies forms another major strand as do the histories of science, technology and medicine.

Each title in the Variorum Collected Studies series brings together for the first time a selection of articles by a leading authority on a particular subject. These studies are reprinted from a vast range of learned journals, Festschrifts and conference proceedings. They make available research that is scattered, even inaccessible in all but the largest and most specialized libraries. With a new introduction and index, and often with new notes and previously unpublished material, they constitute an essential resource. 

For further information about contributing to the series please contact Michael Greenwood at

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
HISTORY / General