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Safaitic rock art:Ancient and contemporary

Jan 12,2022 - Last updated at Jan 16,2022

Since the beginning of creation, language has been a means of education, the first word written in the Koran is “Read”, and it was repeated three times to emphasise the importance of learning. The Koran states that humankind has learned everything from Adam. God revealed the various alphabets and names to Adam, who was made the first prophet, and was taught twenty-one scrolls and was able to memorise and then recite them himself.

I concluded from this dialogue that language was the means of communication between God and Adam, therefore language is a means of understanding witheach other. Diversity of languages enriches knowledge, contributes and broadens our awareness of our history and enables us to understand how humans have evolved over time

Languages are linked to each other, and in the Arabian Peninsulait appears that each language was built on the language that preceded it. For example, the modern Arabic language that we know today, evolved from the ancient Arabic writing called Al Musnad or Himyarits around the ninth-tenth century BC.Other important scripts also evolved from the Al Musnad script including the Safaitic, Hismaic, Nabatean, Thamudic, Dadanitic, Greek and Phoenician.

The German orientalist Mortens, believed that the origin of writing in hieroglyphs emerged in Yemen, and that this is where writing was invented. Mortens said that the Phoenicians based their writing on the Arabic Yemeni writing, then the Greeks took the writing from the Phoenicians, and the Himyarite’s who migrated to Abyssinia before Christ carried this line with them, so the oldest Semitic language originated from Yemen.

Safaitic Rock Art consists of writings and drawings engraved around 1000BC on the surface of basalt rocks and noting that the Safaitic alphabet consists of 28 letters.The term “Safaitic” is based onthe “Al Safa“ area or Al Safa mounds, which are located in the south of Syria and expand to northeast Jordan, north-western Saudi Arabia, Wadi Hauran in Lebanon and in western Iraq.The largest concentration of Safaitic inscriptions has been found in Al Harrah in the northeast of Jordan whereby more than 30, 000 inscriptions have been registered and other thousands are yet to be discovered. According to historians, the ancient Arabtribes, who emigrated from the Arabian Peninsula, settled in Al Safa region during the sixth century BC.

Later, the people of this area were called (Arab Al Safa), they were well known for their strong bodies and were called (the strong knights), they lived on hunting and grazing, and they built close relationships with the other tribes. Initially Arab Al Safa travelled frequently but over time, they settled and lived on agriculture.

Safaitic rock art is an expression of ancient Arab views, aspirations, emotions, intuitions and faith. These inscriptions depictthe way that that these bedouins experienced and interacted with the region surrounding them. Their rock art recorded hunting scenes, victories in battle, prayers for rain, ritual ceremonies for the purpose of obtaining a bountiful catch, biographies of individuals and the names of their ancestors as a sign of pride in documenting their lineage.

The inscriptions also include dancing and music scenes.Certain Jordanian dances today still have elements in common with old tribal art. For example, there is rock art that depicts a group of men dancing. Interestingly, modern-day Arab men still practice a traditional group dance called Al Dabkeh that resembles ancient dancing scenes depicted on the Safaitic rocks. As far as can be inspired from their ancestors, the way the dancers are grouped, the positions of their legs, arms and hands and their symmetrical movements correspond to the way of Al Dabkeh tribal dance is performed today. Another noteworthy inscription depicts a woman playing a musical instrument (flute)similar to what Jordanians call today (Al Shababeh).

Jordan museum for Archeology 

We can also find inscriptions showing the interaction of humans with animals, especially cattle and dogs, camels and their riders, horses.  Presumably these animals had been domesticated and were part of the everyday life and the social and cultural activities of the early tribes. Also, very interestingly foxes were also domesticated and used in hunting while dogs were only used to protect livestock.

Other drawings contain geometrical forms such as circles, arcs, dots, figurative forms in simple outlines, while the inscriptions depicting humans are mostly of males and only a few depict females. The drawings also include animal drawings like ostriches, horses, foxes and oxen, dogs, lions, dear, sheep and arare inscription of an elephant. However, camel figures and the sun predominated the Safaitic rock art.

It is worth noting that these inscriptions are usually found on higher ground in the form of rubble and cairns, some of which are graves stones, perhaps they indicate or refer to well known or high-ranking persons. Many inscriptions are also near the wells region in the northern Jordanian dessert or “badia”, these boulders and rocks were carved with sharp tools such as a flint.

It is very essential to protect the Safaitic rock inscriptions because it is the only source of information in the region that discloses the history of Arab life before Islam as well as the history of the region and its environment and the changes that occurred over time. These inscriptions record ancient Arab cultural heritage, their relationships with travel, also depicting beliefs and ritual practice, and the interaction of these people with one another and with their environment.

Furthermore, although these inscriptions are ancient, they were described as the only “modern art” that exists in this region by the orientalist author Philip Hitti asmentioned in his book“The history of Arabs”.  This characterisation is essential because Hitti stated that this form of written script and representations are ahead of their time. Although those who engraved the drawings and writings on these rocks were not artists, yet, some of these rock panels can be considered as works of art. They are aesthetically pleasing and powerful in terms of composition and form, these expressionist symbolic art works are emotionally and spiritually charged, energetic and evoke the imagination, as their subjects are rich and diverse. Rock art is not only something that depicts the past, but it is also believed to have influenced the works of many modern famous artists such as Picasso, GinoSeverini, Jackson Pollock and artist Walter Battiss.

  I was working at the Jordan National Museum for archeology in 2004 when a book about Safaitic inscriptions grabbed my attention. I admired the beauty of the drawings and inscriptions at first sight, and I decided to study this book to know more about the people who engraved these beautiful and mysterious inscriptions.  I realised that there is an interesting story behind each rock inscription. The Arab nomads who engraved these beautiful works were educated, they used to teach reading, writing, philosophy and astronomy. Noting that archeologistsconsiderancient societies that had the ability to   write, as a “civilized society”.

I became interested in Safaitic writings and I was amazed when I knew that the Safaitic text can be carved in any direction, from right to left or the opposite or in a spiral and circular shape; a unique feature which I found very attractive and interesting and which I utilised when creating my art works. 

I have been working through my art, since 2004, for the support and recognition of the Safaitic rock art to find its rightful place on the map of global art and I hope to find support from the national foundation in Jordan and abroad.

Unfortunately, Safaitic rock art in Jordan is endangered and at some sites irreversible damage and loss can be noticed. For example, I noticed when visiting Al Harraa region last summer that some of these volcanic rocks were removed from their original location. I believe the beauty and value of these rocks stands out when they arepresent in their original environment.I hope to help maintain and preserve this valuable heritage, by exhibitingand showcasing this art, both in original and adapted forms, and help raise global awareness about its importance not only for Jordan but for humanity.  

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