ANCIENT ARABIA Part.4 : The coming of Islam


Ancient Arabia re-interpreted   Part. 4 :The coming of Islam

Dr. Geoffrey King

Source :


Left to right: Basalt tombstones of Abbas bin Abd Allah bin Muhammad bin Nasih, 3rd C. H./9th C. CE, National Museum, Riyadh, Hasa bint Musa bin Salam and Al-Ghaliya bint Abd Al-Jabbar bin

Zuhayr inscription, found near Hegra/Madain Saleh, 24 H./645 CE. Copy in the National Museum, Riyadh.

No change in the Arabian Peninsula’s history has had so sudden and profound an effect as the revelation of Islam. Islam had a decisive and almost instantaneous impact on the material culture of Arabia as the archaeological finds from the Kingdom exhibited first in Paris and now in Barcelona show.

This process of change is especially marked with the primacy that the coming of Islam gave to the North Arabic script in which the Holy Qur’an was written down under the Rashidun Caliphs. The last of the well-established pre-Islamic scripts that had been a part of Arabia’s culture for over a millennium were abandoned, supplanted by the North Arabic script which is used still today. North Arabic had been the least widespread of Arabian scripts before Islam with only very few of these inscriptions known, scattered between southern Syria and western Arabia. However, fieldwork by Moshallah Al-Moraikhi of King Saud University has shown that there are rather more of these inscriptions in the pre-Islamic period than hitherto have been recorded.

The spread of Islam from Makkah and Madinah eventually ensured that North Arabic became one of the world’s universal scripts. It is one of history’s most remarkable cultural transformations, its beginnings precisely documented with the new evidence in the Saudi exhibition. There is every reason to assume that the North Arabic script used by the first Muslims was circulating at Makkah for use in documents well before the Hijra of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in 1 H./622 CE. It was used consistently for the earliest extant Islamic Arabic writing, both for the scribal hands in which the earliest surviving Qu’ran leaves are written and for the very different early Islamic rock-incised inscriptions and graffiti.

The so-called “Zuhayr” inscription, the oldest dated Islamic Arabic writing ever recorded, was found on a rock face at Qa Al-Mutadil near Hegra by archaeologists from King Saud University. A copy of the text (the original is still in situ and protected by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities) is a major exhibit in the Saudi exhibition. The content of this unique inscription, discussed in the exhibition catalog by Ahmad bin Umar Al-Zaylai, is so important that it has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The text is plain to the point of terseness. It is in the name of its writer, one Zuhayr, and it mentions the death of the Khalifa Umar bin Al-Khattab. It reads:

Line 1: In the name of God        Line 2: I , Zuhayr, wrote (this) at the time Umar died in the year four

Line 3: and twenty (i.e., 24 Hijri)

It is a fitting memorial in its simplicity to the unpretentious character of the Khalifa Umar and the austerity of his rule. The orthography of its Arabic includes the use of dots to distinguish the Arabic letters of similar form — nun, ba, ta, etc. This method of distinguishing letters in the inscription unravels past assumptions. Hitherto, it has been generally accepted that the dotting of Arabic letters was introduced in the Umayyad period to clarify the writing of government correspondence  but the “Zuhayr” inscription shows that the dotting system was in use as early as 24 H./645 CE in the Hijaz, if not earlier.

A group of little known inscribed Islamic gravestones from Al-Maalla cemetery at Makkah formed another highlight of the Louvre exhibition. The Al-Maalla cemetery lies north of the holy city, in the valley that leads to Muzdalifah and it was used from early Islamic times. Apart from the people of Makkah, Muslims who died during or en route to the Haj would be buried there. The Al-Maalla gravestones are of local basalt and were first studied in detail by Professor Sad Al-Rashid in 2004. The dedicatory inscriptions vary stylistically over time but they are consistently of the highest level of calligraphy and craftsmanship. Collectively, they form a unique record of Arabic calligraphy in the holiest city of Islam, stretching over many centuries. They also provide personal information about the people of Makkah and the city as an international center.

Some are objects of great beauty. Among the finest are those commemorating Hasa bint Musa bin Salam of Al-Ghaliya bint Abd Al-Jabbar bin Al-Ala and of Abbas bin Abd Allah bin Muhammad bin Nasih. An essay in the exhibition catalog by Carine Juvin discusses how the tombstones from Al-Maalla cemetery relate to others found at places as distant as Dahlak Kabir island in the Red Sea and Mosul in Iraq. These tombstones inscribed by the Makkan calligraphers and stone-cutters had been exported to meet the pious desire of Muslims in far off lands to be buried under a Makkan gravestone.

By the 6th-7th C. H./12th-13th C. CE, the practice of signing Al-Maalla tombstones by the master-craftsman responsible for their carving had become commonplace. This now allows us to identify specific members of the community of skilled craftsmen engaged in this work at Makkah and their genealogies.

An entirely different epigraphic aesthetic is conjured up by a powerful carved plaster inscription recording the Throne Verse of Surat Al-Baqara (II, 255) and it is justly given emphasis in the Louvre exhibition catalog. It is on the lintel of a doorway found at Al-Wajh on the Red Sea coast. Various parallels have been drawn for this inscription with its letters that become flowers and the elongated caps of its hastae, the vertical Arabic letters. The catalog entry suggests a 6th C. H./12th C. CE date and that it was made under Fatimid influence from Egypt, which is plausible. Taken as a whole, these fine Islamic Arabic inscriptions displayed in the Saudi exhibition show the deep complexity and variety of the calligraphic traditions that have circulated in the Kingdom since the revelation of Islam.


Nowhere else in the Islamic world do all of the international pilgrim routes come together within a single country as they do in the Kingdom. Over the past 30 years, the archaeology of the Haj roads of Saudi Arabia has formed an important area of research for the Kingdom’s scholars.

The vast landscape of the long courses of the Saudi Arabian sections of the Haj routes encompasses the diverse countryside of the Kingdom — the desert plains, the coastal strips and the mountains. This is hard to portray in a museum exhibition. By and large, photographs have sufficed in both the Paris and the Barcelona exhibitions and the catalog in order to convey the context and atmosphere of these roads and the harsh beauty of the deserts and mountains that they cross. Along with the objects excavated, photographs summoned up the physical context of the pious efforts of Muslims over many centuries to strive to reach Holy Makkah to complete their Haj and to stand at the appointed time on Jabal Arafat.

As large Muslim communities developed in countries far beyond Arabia in the early centuries of Islam, the obligation fell upon Muslim rulers to facilitate the journey of the pilgrims from these distant places to complete the Haj and the Umrah at Makkah. Initially, this involved the provision of water tanks and then ever more elaborate facilities to ease the difficult journey across Arabia to Holy Makkah. Of the network of Arabian Haj routes to the Holy Haramain, that which has been most thoroughly documented is Darb Zubayda, along the course of which Professor Sad Al-Rashid conducted sustained fieldwork over many years. The Darb Zubayda is ancient and was used long before Islam, but it takes its name as a Haj route from the generous sponsorship of Sitt Zubayda, the wife of the Abbasid Khalifa, Harun Al-Rashid, in the late 2nd C. H/8th C.CE.

The archaeological finds from Al-Rabadha, a major town on the Darb Zubayda, were excavated under the auspices of King Saud University, and they form an important part of the exhibition. During the khilafa of Uthman bin Affan, Al-Rabadha became the place of residence of a Companion of the Prophet, Abu Dhar Al-Ghifari who died there in 32 H./652-3 CE. In a discussion of the site in the exhibition catalog, Professor Al-Rashid mentions the oldest mosque at Al-Rabadha as being founded by Abu Dhar. There can be no doubt in the light of the excavations at Al-Rabadha that the foundations of a mosque excavated there is one of older extant mosques of the Islamic world with its foundations and original ground-plan surviving intact.

There are very visible manifestations of the level of Abbasid government investment at Al-Rabadha and elsewhere along the Darb Zubayda under the Khalifa Harun Al-Rashid and his wife, Sitt Zubayda. These include an immensely large water tank and a water cleaning filtration system at Al-Rabadha and of which there are many more at other halts along the Haj route. In such an arid desert a water supply was essential for pilgrims and camels alike, especially in summer.

Other structures at Al-Rabadha included silos for storing grain to provide for the pilgrims on their journey. Organizing food for large numbers of pilgrims crossing the desert was a major logistical task for the Abbasid authorities to which they devoted considerable resources. The pilgrim traffic through Al-Rabadha would have come from all of the lands of the Islamic East, Al-Mashriq — from the populous Islamic cities of Iraq, from Iran and Central Asia. By the 3rd–4th H./9th C.-10th C. CE thousands annually used the Darb Zubayda to reach Makkah to perform the Haj and this period marks the high-point of Al-Rabadha’s development under the Abbasid Caliphate.

The Al-Rabadha finds in the exhibition reflect the level of sophistication of the site in its great days. A formal painted Kufic inscription with the basmala and the shahada of Islam shows the standards of calligraphy at Al-Rabadha and it is evidence of the continuing skill of painting fine writing, khatt, in central Arabia far into the Islamic period.

Glass vessels from Al-Rabadha include some made at the site and other pieces imported from Iraq. At least some of the small glass phials found may have been intended for perfume to be bought at Makkah and for which the holy city was renowned. Ceramics found by the archaeologists at Al-Rabadha encompassed all types of early Abbasid wares, including large blue glazed alkaline glazed jars, gold lusterware plates and other vessels, blue and white wares and splashwares of the finest character, the latter the product of the most advanced kilns of 3rdC. H./9th C. CE Iraq. Such items are prized treasures in museums and private collections today yet this was the pottery for serving the pilgrims in remote Al-Rabadha, far into the central Arabian desert. It is a remarkable reflection of the distribution abilities of the early Abbasid world and the level of comfort provided at Al-Rabadha restaurants.

Steatite or soapstone vessels exhibited at the Louvre and excavated at Al-Rabadha were used for cooking and as oil-lamps. These were found in profusion, made in an Abbasid period factory at the site, the raw material taken from a local steatite mine. Other finds included elegant metalwork and decorated woodwork in typical Abbasid style.

The excavations at Al-Rabadha have been very valuable as the Saudi exhibition showed, but they are only a part of the archaeological picture that will eventually emerge with more research along the Darb Zubayda in its great days under the Abbasid Caliphate. Excavations at Fayd further north on the Darb by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities have already revealed its very impressive basalt town walls and a fine water tank. The Basra Haj route is little known but it deserves mention as it provided an alternative to Darb Zubayda.

The potential for future archaeological research on other Haj routes is indicated by essays in the exhibition catalog. An overview of the Syrian Haj route is given by Hayat Al-al-Kilabi, and excavations at Qurh or Al-Mabiyat, a Syrian Haj route site, recorded by Abdallah Al-Umayr, confirm the importance of this early Islamic Haj stop near ancient Lihyanite Dedan. Ali Ghabban has summarized the impressive sequence of archaeological sites and massive fortresses that served the Egyptian Haj route down to Ottoman times while Muhammad Al-Thunayan records the virtually unknown wealth of Islamic archaeological sites in the southern mountains of Saudi Arabia through which the Yemeni Haj caravan would pass. Research on the major pilgrim routes crossing Saudi Arabia in coming years has the potential of the transforming our view of the country’s Islamic period archaeology.

(To be continued)