Urhay writings and the birth of the Syriac Script

By Basil Ikoula Research director of the National Research Institute Scientific, Paris

Carved texts or ancient Syriac scripts and writings known as “Rahawi” – also known as Urhay and Edessa – constitute a group to be reckoned with and the number of finds is on the increase steadily.  In spite of the amazing similarity displayed by numerical data on Syriac in its two basic fonts, Estrangelo and the oriental transcript writing, we can only view them as being Syriac in the full sense of the word; for it is related to the local Aramaic of Urhay in the geographical kingdom of Osroene or in a broader sense related to the Aramaic of a Jazira, the island of Mesopotamia. The number of texts that have come down to us in the Edessan script, which we will sometimes refer to as the Osroene font, exceeds one hundred.

They are classified into writings, parchments and coins:

  • Greek-Rahawi writings (Ruha suburbs);
  • Two dated writings, one in Bircik and the other in Sirin on the eastern bank of the Euphrates;
  • Writing from Harran.
  • 37 books discovered in the city of Edessa or its suburbs. Three of them are either of unknown origin or their location is doubtful;
  • 25 writing we received from Sumatar;
  • Writing from Jabal Taq Taq (Taq Taq Mountain);
  • One Writing from Qal’at Najm (Castle of Najm);
  • Three writings from Dura-Europos;
  • One writing from Tal Matin to the southwest of Bandarkhan on the western bank of the Khabur river.


    Some of these writings are dated and all of them fall within the years 476-589 of Seleucia (which corresponds to 164/165 B.C. – 277/278 B.C.) – with the exception of the two writings of Bircik (6 BCE?) and Sirin which date back to 385 Seleucia (73/74 A.D).

    The upper part of Mesopotamia in the era of the writings (6 BC – 243/243 AD) consisted politically of two parts separated by the River Khabur: the eastern part begins at the eastern bank of the river and extends to the Tigris forming an area that usually fell under Parthian rule. The western part that includes the area between the Khabur and the Euphrates was part of the Roman empire since the first century B.C. and it generally constitutes the state of Edessa (Osroene) whose borders are not clear. No writings have come down to us from this eastern part of the Jazira apart from some Aramaic writings that can be summarized in three texts described as being from Hatra, which we will refer to as Parthian Assyria writing. It consists of the area extending from Tikrit in present day Iraq to the city of Garni in Armenia and which is digitally represented by the writings of Ashur and Hatra. The western part, however, has only yielded: 

    1. The Al-Abra Al-Saghira writing in the Northeast of Sinjar (195 Seleucia = 117/116 AD);
    2. The writing of Hasankeyf (Fortress of Kefa : Syriac ܟܐܦܐ) on the western bank of the Tigris that is reminiscent of the visit by the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus in the year 199/200, to the city of Nisibis (Nusaybin);
    3. The writing of Sari (Tur Abdin) dated 546 Seleucia = 235 CE.

    The writing of Sari and Al-Abra Al-Saghira, are considered among the Hatra writings mentioned above. However, the presence of separate and rare writings here and there is not in itself proof that this line indicates the places in which it was found. The example of the three Aramaic writings that we received from Dura-Europos is the work of people who are passers-by or residents who came from somewhere else, and it is similar to writings of Sari and Al-Abra Al-Saghira . In Hatra, on the other hand, there is a Palmyrene offering that was discovered in one of the many buildings known as: “Little Temples”. Moreover, the writings discovered in Shataba and the Tigris narrowing on its eastern bank, as well as the writing of Hasankeyf on the western bank, the site of one of the most famous bridges of ancient times linking the two banks of the Tigris, is considered to be a model of what may probably be the Adiabene writing (the Erbil region at the time).

    However, the absence of evidence from the major Mesopotamian cities such as Sinjar, Nusaybin, Amad (Diyarbakir) and Ajil and its subordinate regions, can lead the historian to view the texts of Sari, Al-Abra Al-Saghira, Hasankeyf as writings specific to  these regions and later, as the lines of the eastern part of Mesopotamia, a component of the Parthian Assyria. As for the minor differences in scripts and language, they can be explained by local characteristics. Thus, the writing of Hasankeyf can be considered an Adiabene writing due to its location and content. It is a memorial writing related to the visit of Emperor Septimius Severus to Nusaybin. However, and since the content of the writing is related to the guides who accompanied the emperor and whose origin was inevitably from Nusaybin or Adiabene, it appears in either cases that the people of the two banks of the Tigris could have read and understood the writing.

    But the question to be raised here is what kind of script or scripts did the city states in the upper part of the Parthian Mesopotamian island have in circulation under the Sassanid rule before the Christianization of the region from 313?

    One century separates Sari’s writing (dated 235 CE) and the Demonstrations ܬܝܝܘܝܬܐ by Aphrahat the Persian Wiseman ܐܦܪܗܛ ܝܝܟܝܡܐ ܦܪܣܝܐ in 237, which shows a Syriac language that reached its full maturity. In the intervening period silence reigns and the digital evidence is completely absent. Amid this geographical, cultural and political environment appears the decisive role played by the Aramaic script of Parthian Assyria, Hatra, and Adiabene. This can be deduced from the Edessan alphabet whose letters and their properties are borrowed, as is the case with links that join the letters together explaining at the same time the phenomenon of congruence among the narrative writings discovered in Sirin, Bicik and Sumatar before the beginning of transcription writing on parchments

    The Parchments

    The Parthian Assyrian inscriptions did not leave texts in Naskh script except for some writings in black and red ink on the walls in Assyria and Hatra. These writings are the ancestors of the Serto script used in the Edessan parchments which will later give birth to the Naskh writing. As for the script of Edessa (ܐܘܪܗܝ Ōrhāy ), its modernization is based on the development made by scribes on the alphabet borrowed from Parthian Assyria through the introduction of some characteristics, only to become a special regional script. The intended goal was to create an administrative writing that required speed and ease of use on light and portable materials. This technique required:

    • Ensuring that the letters are linked to each other: This explains the up-side down turning of the letter Alif used in the Assyrian alphabet in Parthia. This process allows the scribe to connect this letter to its ensuing one. In the Naskh transcription on mosaics and parchments, however, scribes would usually delete only one line;
    • Reducing the number of manual movements to write a letter, as was the case with e.g. the letter T (Taw);
    • Reducing the number of descending lines of the same letter, as is the case with the letter H, glottal H and Z, to obtain increased speed;
    • With an aim to facilitate the written process and its consistency, all the lengths found in some letters above and below the line, were reduced to the maximum as is the case with the letters Kaf, T (emphatic t) and S (Sade);
    • Adoption of new forms of letter linking as an essential and fundamental factor of the Naskh transcription, in order to get rid of all that would cause confusion in reading, a common occurrence in the Semitic horizontal scripts.

    The excavations carried out by the archaeological mission of the American University of Yale in Dura-Europos have provided us with a significant number of Greek parchments, one sheet of which is a bill of sale written in the Edessa script in two copies and one which is for the documents department in the city of Edessa. This parchment was discovered on February 20, 1933. It is the oldest document of this transcription line. It should be pointed out here, that Dura-Europos was undoubtedly the administrative center of the buyer whose origin is from Harran. Also found were two other parchments (documents A and B) which are warranty bonds. The first was written in 240/241 CE in the city of Haykla d-Sayda (Temple of Hunting) ܕܨܝܕܐ ܕܨܝܕܐ also called Karkha Hartha  ܟܪܟܐ ܝܝܕܬ̣ܐ which used to be the court headquarters of the King of Edessa, Abgar Severus. The second was written in 241/242 CE in Tella/Marcopolis.

    Also found were 17 Greek parchments which provide conclusive evidence of the existence of a complete and integrated administrative Naskh script used in conjunction with Greek documents at the beginning of the third century AD. The two parchments have a special significance because they are pertinent to a wider geographical area in the kingdom of Edessa, that is, the region of Tella, in contrast to what the publishers have allegedly said that they originated from the bank of the Euphrates. These documents include the names of agents, witnesses, clerks, sellers, farmers, and a number of names of cities and places mostly located to the east of Khabur and Tella which appear in the documents as important administrative centers, as was the case with Dura-Europus.

    This is an indication that this writing exceeded the scope of its use within the normal boundaries of the kingdom of Edessa to include the eastern part of the Khabur River. This suggestion annexes the city of Nusaybin (Nisibis) to this circle and making this line the line of Mesopotamia Island.

    Hence, the Roman expansion reached its maximum extension to the east as far as Sinjar. This process was facilitated by the rebellion of king Abgar Severus of Edessa against Rome during the reign of Emperor Gordianos III (238-240). This monarch seized the opportunity of the advance made by the Sassanids who occupied Assyria, Hatra, and Nisibis, to fulfill his ambitions. Parchment (a) shows that the situation was soon stabilized for the kingdom of Edessa is shown to be Romanized again with its borders extending to include the entire Upper Mesopotamian island. The city of Edessa, as described in the document, is one of the greatest cities of Mesopotamia.

    This inevitably leads us to inquire about the local factors and forces that led to this situation. We can confirm first that the Sassanids were not absent from this maneuver, which appears to have been quite successful, and that the reason for the rapid arrival of Gordianus III to the east finds justification in the religious revolt led by King Abgar Severus rather than in what is highlighted by the fall of Sinjar and Dura-Europos (year 239) and Nusaybin, a development that deprived Hatra of its strategic importance as the three Aramaic parchments are contemporary to these events. Its significance, therefore, lies in what is regarded as the oldest stage of administrative transcription writing in the Aramaic Middle East or the Arabicized Middle East and that the absence of digital evidence in the eastern part of Mesopotamia is in no way an act of concordance. This is so because the texts belonging to this stage should have emerged here and there amid modern excavations. Here, we can propose that the birth of administrative transcription writing is linked to King Abgar Severus, who imposed it in both parts of Mesopotamia, as opposed to Greek imposed as an official language since the coming of the Seleucids; therefore we come face to face with a political decision par excellence that aims to endorse this writing across what we call the Greater Edessan region described by parchment (a), because the King of Edessa created, for the first time, a written, political, and civilized unit for the upper part of Mesopotamia, preparing thereby for the writing unity that would culminate in Syriac.


    1. Numismatics (Onomastique): Several coins came from the city of Edessa of which 4 were inscribed on the back with: 
    2. The writing of the area of ​​Edessa, the name of one of its kings.
    3. The writing of King Wael (belonging to Emperor Elagabalus (also known as Heliogabalus, Roman emperor from 218 to 222), Caracalla or Septimus Severus).

    While the face was inscribed with:

    • a picture of a king, and on the reverse side was King Ma‘ano.
    • the figure of a king and on the back king Abgar.

    In the geographical area called Parthian Assyria, the city of Hatra occupied a central position, replacing the one occupied by the city of Assyria. If its writing was the work of the writers of this city and its schools, as attested by the writings, then its origin remains the Parthian writing of the court of the city of Ctesiphon to which belonged the eastern part of the Mesopotamian island. As was the case with cuneiform writing and the Akkadian language of Babylon, its rival Assyria had adopted them long before after imposing their fingerprints on them. The successive capitals of the Assyrian Empire: Assyria, Nimrud, Khorsabad and Nineveh had been, since ancient times, literary centres that left large numbers of texts for subsequent centuries.

    In a later period, that is, in the sixth century BC, when the scribes, with the coming of the Achaemenids, adopted the Aramaic language despite their long linguistic tradition. They enjoyed the required linguistic capabilities and tools to adapt this new language and new script. The high professionalism and ability those schools and scribes had and the potentials they had for adaptability, in addition to the long and ancient experience in cuneiform writing, all that made them highly qualified for this mission.

    We believe that we can distinguish in the subsequent period a set of writings that came to us from Assyria Parthia called Hatra writings represented by two types of lines:

    1. The lines of the region extending from Tikrit to the city of Sari in Tur Abdin whose centers are the cities of Assyria and Hatra. The digital data (writings and scribbles from the Parthian era) provide us with a complete and varied alphabet.
    2. The city’s scripts that extend from Hasankeyf to Shatbeh and to the neck of the Tigris on its left bank between Amad (Diyarbakir) and Ibn Omar Island, a region that is part of Adiaabene of this era until the city of Garni in Armenia. The digital data descends from the section lying to the east of the Tigris with Nineveh as its main centre. This writing has special significance because it is the work of scribes from Adiabene who accompanied Emperor Septimus in his visit to Nisibis.

    The aim of the scribe was to make the inhabitants of both banks of the Tigris, that is, Grand Adiabene, understand this script. 

    This division of Parthian Assyria into two digital “families” allows us to conclude that Sinjar and Nisibis, located on the main road leading from Ctesiphon to Asia Minor and from Adiabene to the Mediterranean, used to form part of the digital zone of Parthian Assyria. The same applies to Dura-Europos, Al-‘Abra Al-Saghira and Sari, which in turn belong to this geographical area, without being able to confirm that, according to their script, it was connected to Assyria, Hatra, Sinjar or Nusaybin.

    The dated writings of Hatra allow us to trace the development of this script from the year 45 B.C. to the year 238/240, which is the date of the fall of the city. The study of these writings shows us that this script did not go through fundamental transformation. Some letters, such as zai and ha, preserved two different forms, others such as waw and ya, preserved many forms according to the requirements of schools and the writers’ desire to choose a form rather than another influenced by the intended goal, the material used to write the text and to achieve text harmony. This script is boastfully characterized by its persistent interest in simplification. The scribes, with an aim to economize the number of movements made and the time spent, decided to remove the extra straight and twisted letters that forced the inscribers or scribes to make numerous moves that were useless or slowed down the work. This applies, for example, to the letters lam (L), beth (B), he (H), waw (O), zai (Z), emphatic H, yuth (E), sade (emphatic S) and semkath (S). In addition to reducing the number of movements made, the script of Assyria and Hatra preserved the square and rounded shapes of some letters of their alphabet together.

    The Syriac script in all its forms – the Estrangelo (Eastern) and Western Serto – descend from the scripts of Parthian Assyria or the Grand Adiabene without a need for the forms of scripts used or which were commonly used in the west of the Euphrates such as Palmyra, Petra or elsewhere.

    Mr. Basil Ikoula is Professor of Comparative Semitic Languages ​​and History of Ancient Religions, St. Joseph University, Beirut.

    Translated and edited by: Dr. Aziz Emmanuel Al Zebari, The Catholic University in Erbil