1st Edition

Literacy and Identity in Pre-Islamic Arabia

By M.C.A. Macdonald Copyright 2009

    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.

    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.


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

    ’... 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