By Simon Brelaud
Simon Brelaud, « The First Syriac Inscription on Jar in the Arab-Persian Gulf », Le carnet de la MAFKF. Recherches archéologiques franco-koweïtiennes de l’île de Faïlaka (Koweït), 20 mars 2020. En: https://mafkf.hypotheses.org/1958
Three years ago, the French-Kuwaiti Archaeological Mission in Failaka discovered a sherd with three bitumen letters written on it in pottery bags from the 2014 season at al‑Qusur monastery. It is, therefore, the first Syriac inscription discovered in Kuwait, and one of the rare testimonies of this writing in the Arab-Persian Gulf. Apart from this example in Kuwait, Syriac writings south of Iraq are known only on the island of Kharg (Iran) and perhaps now – for some months – in Bahrain (Insoll 2019). Paleographic comparison of the al‑Qusur inscription makes it possible to date it between the late 7th and early 9th centuries which is consistent with the general dating of the site according to its pottery, glass and stucco remains. But unlike other Mesopotamian epigraphic parallels, the al‑Qusur inscription belongs to a very rare category of inscription among the Semitic corpus: inscriptions on jars. The writing is close to that of the Syriac ostraca as well as the magic bowls found in Mesopotamia (Harrak 2010; Moriggi 2014).
Syriac in the Persian-Arabian Gulf area
Syriac was the Aramaic language of the city of Edessa in Northern Mesopotamia, and it became one of the means of evangelization throughout the territories to the east of the Roman Empire (Briquel Chatonnet & Debié 2017). It quickly became the liturgical language of most Eastern Christian communities as far as India and China, and especially in Mesopotamia and probably also around the Arab-Persian Gulf. Its script is part of the Western Semitic alphabets and has been used to write various Aramaic dialects. In Babylonia, a local version of Syriac – known as “Manichean” – existed since at least the 6th century on magic bowls, i.e. ritual bowls containing magical formulas aimed at healing or obtaining protection for their owners (Moriggi 2014). The letters are not always linked to each other, as in traditional Syriac writing; there, the influence of the Palmyrene Aramaic Script can be detected. The al‑Qusur inscription does not belong to this local category of writing, which is found only on the continent. However, another Syriac script, similar to the so-called estrangela script, close to that of Edessa, can also be distinguished. The language that one reads through these Aramaic documents reveals some local peculiarities as well. Finally, this custom of recording magical inscriptions is also known in other epigraphic documents such as the Jewish Aramaic (Shaked et al. 2013) or Aramaic Mandean (Pognon 1899) bowls.
On the other hand, most of the other ancient Syriac testimonies in Mesopotamia are ostraca and they have been found mainly in three regions: around al‑Hira, near Najaf; in the ancient capital of the Sasanian Empire, Seleucia-Ctesiphon; and then especially in Takrit, an ancient stronghold of the Miaphysite community in Iraq at the end of the Sasanian era and the beginning of the Islamic period. There, one can read extracts from the ḥudra – the book of East Syrian liturgy – or extracts from the Scriptures. In addition, there are other ostraca which are extremely important documents for understanding the daily life of Christians during the first centuries of the Islamic caliphates. They are significant pieces of evidence which prove that the Syriac script could be used for economic matters (Harrak 2009). Finally, the other closest inscriptions were written on harder materials, such as plaster and stone, but they date from a later period and are of a more common nature among the Syriac epigraphic corpus.
An inscription on jar
At al‑Qusur, this first Syriac inscription is easy to read but its significance is harder to determine. There are three letters of a longer inscription written on the shoulder of a jar. Because of the size of the letters (about 2 cm high), it is clear that a short text was written on it, so it is not an ostracon like most other testimonies of Syriac inscriptions on ceramics. Ostraca are sherds of broken pottery reused as a writing medium. On the contrary, the text of the Failaka’s inscription works with the use of the pottery as a vessel. This category of inscriptions can be called “inscription on jar” or “inscription on pottery”. Ostraca are quite numerous among Syriac inscriptions. Instead, when we take into account all the Semitic inscriptions in this region in Antiquity and Late Antiquity, there are very few examples of “inscriptions on jars” compared to the many Greek tituli picti or dipinti on amphorae around the Mediterranean (Pieri 2005). Here, the meanings of the inscriptions were very diverse: measures of content, identification of content, origin, and very often abbreviated theological formulas or Christian symbols. In Edessan or Palmyrene inscriptions on pottery, it is the names of the owners that are typically written (e.g. Drijvers & Healey 1999: 202‑203), engraved before or after firing; and this is not different in Palestinian Christian documents of Late Antiquity. Our al‑Qusur inscription can also be compared to the Arabic and Middle Persian inscriptions written on the belly of torpedo-like jars found in Middle Iraq (Harrak 2010: 609‑610), but their readings are still under discussion.
In fact, in Syriac, only one true parallel is relevant: it is a small sherd preserved until 2015 in the Raqqa Museum. The reading is very clear: dyrʾ dtlʾ, “the monastery of Tella” (Briquel Chatonnet 2015: 144‑145). It is dated to around the 6th century. One would then be tempted to understand that the inscription indicates the object’s provenance, even if the Syriac particle d‑ that marks the origin is not written. Other parallels in Palestinian Christian inscriptions on jars thus show that toponyms, as well as product names, can be written on the belly or shoulders of the jars.
The three letters of al‑Qusur inscription represent a significant discovery both for the knowledge of Syriac geographical diffusion in Late Antiquity and for the use of its writing in a context other than the liturgy. They at least confirm the use of Syriac script in the southern part of Mesopotamia, and hypothetically in the Arab-Persian Gulf. Indeed, several hypotheses exist. If the pottery came from Failaka Island or from the nearby mainland, it means that Syriac writing was used locally. If, on the contrary, the pottery is produced in Mesopotamia like most of the ceramics found at al‑Qusur, then it is difficult to draw clear conclusions about the language spoken at al‑Qusur: the inscription must be understood at least by the seller, the buyer and the carrier. The ongoing study of the type of jar on which this inscription was written will help to answer some of these questions: therefore, a more detailed chapter will provide an in-depth study of the al‑Qusur inscription in its context (Brelaud forthcoming). So, it is at the very least possible that Syriac script was understood by the inhabitants of ancient al‑Qusur. Indeed, from ancient literature, we know of famous Christian writers from the area called in Syriac Bet Qaṭraye, which corresponds to the western coast of the Arab-Persian Gulf (Kozah et al. 2014). However, unusually the Syriac script on the inscription does not seem to convey the Christian faith but was most likely used as a vernacular script.
A reading of the inscription
Unfortunately, the use of the jar is difficult to understand because the inscription is too incomplete. Nevertheless, let us suggest an assumption. The reading of the first two letters is easy, but the last letter is truncated. It is likely that the three letters are ܦ ܣܒ; i.e. “p sb”. Consequently, there are many possibilities in the interpretation of these letters, including names of persons or places, common nouns or numbers. The hypotheses are numerous and we could assume among other possibilities something like ܚܠܦ ܣܒܐ “for Saba”, unless it is about other proper names very much in use in the Church of the East like Sabrišoʿ; or ܐܠܦ ܣܒܛ̈ܐ “thousand sbaṭe”, i.e. the Syriac name for a salted meat. The hope now is that other comparable documents will emerge from the sands of Failaka to further our understanding of the languages in use in this part of the Arab-Persian Gulf. Already, the three letters of al-Qusur sherd bring our attention to the use of Syriac writing outside the religious domain.
Simon Brelaud is a doctor in ancient history and currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tübingen within the DFG-Center for Advanced Studies, “Migration & Mobility in Late Antiquity & the Early Middle Ages”.
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