Middle East Studies

Lecture | Digital Approaches to Ancient Literacy: The Case of Safaitic

event poster

Monday, October 16, 2017

12:00pm – 1:30pm

Joukowsky Forum

Registration on Eventbrite required. This event is now at capacity. 
MES will hold space and lunches until 12:00 p.m. after which seminar seating and lunches will be opened up to those on stand-by. 


Introduction | Elias Muhanna, Manning Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature

Guest speaker | Ahmad Al-Jallad, Director of the Leiden Center for the Study of Ancient Arabia, University Lecturer, Leiden University

This talk will present a newly discovered and ground-breaking Arabic inscription with significant historical implication. To date, over 50,000 inscriptions in an Ancient North Arabian alphabet called Safaitic have been discovered, and many more await study in the Syro-Jordanian Black Desert. The large quantity of these texts along with their seemingly mundane contents have suggested to researchers that literacy was widespread among the Arabian nomads of classical antiquity. In 2017, the OCIANA project (Oxford) completed the digitization of some 36000 Safaitic inscriptions, providing the first opportunity to study the massive corpus using the toolbox of digital humanities. This talk will investigate claims regarding mass literacy by looking at how many unique individuals there are in the corpus, how many individuals produced more than one text, and the relationship between content and authorship. We conclude that the corpus provides far less evidence for mass literacy than previously assumed. Furthermore, the answers to the aforementioned questions further underscore how the purpose and function of the Safaitic inscriptions remains a mystery.


Ahmad Al-Jallad is University Lecturer in Semitic Linguistics at Leiden University and Director of the Leiden Center for the Study of Ancient Arabia (2015-present). He specializes in the early history of Arabic and North Arabian, and has done research on Arabic from the pre-Islamic period based on documentary sources, the Graeco-Arabica (Arabic in Greek transcription from the pre-Islamic period), language classification, North Arabian epigraphy, and historical Semitic linguistics. He has written the first grammar of Safaitic, a corpus of Ancient North Arabian inscriptions from northern Jordan and southern Syria; its second edition, with a dictionary of more than 1400 entries, will appear in 2018. His current book project ‘The Word, the Blade, and the Pen: Three thousand years of Arabic’ (Princeton University Press) tells the story of the Arabic language, from its first attestations in the Iron Age until the age of the internet. Al-Jallad is Co-PI of the Landscapes of Survival Archaeological Project in the Jebel Qurma region of Jordan, of the Thaj Archaeological Project in Saudi Arabia, and co-leads epigraphic expeditions to the basalt desert of Northern Jordan yearly.