Uncovering The Origins Of Arabic

There’s something haunting about tracing the lines of letters carved into the rocks at Jabal Ikmah. It brings a tangible connection to a person who stood in the same spot 2,500 years ago with the will to write down their thoughts: a plea for good fortune or plentiful spring rains. That the words are so well preserved only adds to their poignancy: they and their message still resonate across the millennia.

The power of the written word can define a people, and Jabal Ikmah certainly lays claim as one of the most significant sources of early written Arabic, which has evolved into the language now used by more than 300 million people worldwide. As such, Jabal Ikmah was unanimously awarded UNESCO Memory of the World status for the global historical and cultural importance of its hundreds of inscriptions—a unique insight into early Arabia and the evolution of its language.

Arabic was spoken long before it was written, originating in the northwest Arabian Peninsula, from where it spread and developed over millennia. Arabic tribes carried their language with them, evolving into the vast array of dialects found across the world, many unintelligible to each other. But written Arabic has much more uniformity: classical and modern standard Arabic differ slightly and are used everywhere. 

Jabal Ikmah, sitting at a crossroads of civilisations, a place of rest and respite where ideas and cultures were exchanged between tribes and visitors from near and far, stands as a testament to the importance of AlUla in the evolution of the written word.

The density of inscriptions can be dazzling, with whole rockfaces covered in closely packed writings that often blend into each other. The engravings, mostly from the second half of the first millennium BCE, include languages such as Aramaic, Safaitic, Minaic, and Nabataean, which all influenced the development of Arabic. But the most common is Dadanitic, the language of the Dadanite and Lihyanite kingdoms that dominated the region at the time. It was used for both formal inscriptions and simple graffiti, hinting at long-forgotten events—we’ll never know who “Blnsthe horseman” was or what compelled them to add their name to the rockface.

While Dadanitic has some similarities to Arabic, it is notable for not representing vowels within written words. But what is perhaps most intriguing about the Dadanitic inscriptions is the way we see some letters evolving. Amidst the ‘standardised’ letters uniformly carved into the rock, we find some that have been adapted slightly into a more informal and fluid script. This is a practice closely associated with writing in ink, where it’s useful to simplify and speed up the formation of letters. It’s a revelation that brings the tantalising possibility of finding paper-based writing from the period.

Beyond the walls of Jabal Ikmah, AlUla’s strong connection to Arabic literature and poetry in the region can be traced to the 7th century. Most notable among the stories passed through generations is the poetic tale of unrequited love between Jamil and Buthainah, a legend of the oasis now revived in the form of an immersive theatrical performance as part of the cultural renaissance of AlUla. 

Today, the languages in AlUla are more varied than ever: locals, schooled at the nearby Language Institute, are on developmental journey to becoming able to tell the story of the Arabic language in English, Spanish, Chinese, and dozens more languages, facilitating a shared experience between those who call AlUla home and the visitors from across the world.