Drawings reveal lost Arabian culture from Jesus’ time
But as Eisenberg-Degen notes, there are also some types of rock art that can be fairly accurately dated by the inscriptions that sign them, like the drawings of the so-called “Thamudic-speaking” tribes who roamed Palestine’s southern deserts about 2,000 years ago during the heyday of the Nabatean kingdom.** And far from being “mere scratches,” many of these autographed drawings are detailed, complex narrative compositions that can justifiably be called “art.” For the better part of a decade, I have been studying these exceptional drawings to better understand the various messages their artists wanted to convey, both in art and in words.
Thamudic is a catchall term used by scholars to describe the various ancient dialects that were written by the largely nomadic peoples of Arabia in antiquity. The dialect common to the desert regions of Palestine is known as Thamudic E as well as Hismaic, since it was particularly prevalent in the Hisma desert of southern Jordan (modern Wadi Ramm). There are tens of thousands of Hismaic inscriptions carved on desert boulders across southern Jordan, almost all of which are the simple, personal messages of local nomads and pastoralists who wrote short prayers to their gods, mused about lost loves and departed friends and autographed often exquisite drawings of camels and hunting.
Most of the artists were fairly exacting in their depictions of the camel, highlighting its slender frame, mounded hump, wide gait and heavy haunches. A fair number also depict a warrior seated atop the camel’s hump who urges on his beast with reins and a riding stick. The majority of the drawings can be identified as she-camels, both because the accompanying inscriptions specifically refer to the camel as a “young she-camel” (bkrt/Arabic bakrah) and because these she-camel drawings consistently show an up-turned tail, as opposed to drawings of male camels (identified as gml/Arabic jamal), where the tail is shown hanging down.Hunting scenes, by contrast, tend to be complex narrative compositions that capture the last moments of the successful hunt. Scenes show the fleeing animal—usually an ibex but on occasion an oryx or ostrich—tracked down by approaching bow hunters who have released their arrows and trained hounds to bring down their quarry. But like the camel drawings, the artists’ inscriptions rarely give specific details about what is being depicted or why. Instead, the artists give only their name, the name of the hunted animal (w‘l/Arabic waal for ibex, or thr /Arabic thawr for oryx bull) and sometimes a brief note that they carved the entire drawing.
So why did desert nomads take the time to carve and sign their names to these often elaborate drawings? Were they inspired artistic reflections of everyday life in the desert, or did the images themselves convey some deeper meaning that was important to the artist? While we may never know for certain, my research into the significance of both camels and hunted animals within Nabatea and pre-Islamic Arabia suggests these images were intended to help mediate certain aspects of the shared human experience, especially death and the sacred. She-camels, for example, were often sacrificed and buried with their owners, presumably to serve as the warrior’s mount in the afterlife. Likewise, hunted animals like the ibex and the oryx had strong ritual associations; both were considered sacred to major deities and were also likely venerated by the desert tribesmen of the Hisma who still depended on hunting for a portion of their subsistence.
Glenn J. Corbett is associate editor with the Biblical Archaeology Society. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern archaeology from the University of Chicago where his research focused on the epigraphic and archaeological remains of pre-Islamic Arabia. Since 2005 he has directed the Wadi Hafir Petroglyph Survey in southern Jordan.
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