A Database of Arabic Graffiti from the Islamic Period in North-Eastern Jordan

The ḥarra, or basalt desert, of north-eastern Jordan is a treasure house of inscriptions from both the pre-Islamic and Islamic periods. It originated in extensive lava flows from Jabal al-Drūz/Jabal al-ʿArab during the Tertiary and Quaternary periods which, over millions of years, were gradually broken up to produce a landscape covered with basalt rocks and boulders. At the same time, the interaction of the chemicals in the rock and in the atmosphere have produced a thin black patina (or "desert varnish") on the exposed parts of the rock. When this is scratched or hammered, however, the light grey pumice colour of the rock is revealed, and this looks almost white against the black surface which surrounds it. This makes it very satisfying to inscribe, since the carving shows up very well.

For millennia, the inhabitants of the ḥarra and travellers have been leaving their mark on these rocks in the form of wusūm  (tribal marks), rock drawings, or inscriptions. By far the most numerous of these are the so-called "Safaitic" graffiti carved by literate nomads between approximately the first century BC and the fourth century AD (see http://krc.orient.ox.ac.uk/ociana/index.php/safaitic). However, there are also large numbers of Arabic graffiti in the ḥarra and these have received far less attention.

Indeed, the only survey for Arabic graffiti in the Jordanian ḥarra was carried out in the 1980s by Frédéric Imbert. He edited his finds in his doctoral thesis which, however, he never published. Some years later, a few were included in the proposed Corpus des inscriptions arabes de Jordanie du Nord, Imbert gives only 28 graffiti from the whole of Jordan, of which 19 are from the ḥarra.

Most of the expeditions to the ḥarra which were looking for Safaitic inscriptions also recorded Arabic inscriptions, but did not publish them. The OCIANA project has a rich collection of photographs of these Arabic inscriptions from the archives of G. Lankester Harding, F.V. Winnett, Michael Macdonald, Geraldine King, and the many Jordanian scholars who have given their photographs to Ali Al-Manaser. Many hundreds of Arabic inscriptions were recorded by the Badia Survey of April 2015 and these include texts from the first century AH to the modern day. Until now, the modern Arabic graffiti have been studiously ignored, and yet they are in many ways more informative about their authors and the changing society in which they live, than the older, more formal, ones. They are often quite long and are of interest not only to epigraphists, but to dialectologists and anthropologists.

The aim of this project, which has been undertaken by Dr Ali Al-Manaser, funded by The Barakat Trust, is to create a database incorporating Arabic inscriptions from the Jordanian ḥarra, collected by the OCIANA team and a number of Jordanian scholars. The database provides Arabic transcriptions and photographs and will later include English translations of all inscriptions, as well as GPS coordinates, which will help scholars to make maps for their own work of information including the locations where the inscriptions were found, the locations of tribes mentioned in the inscriptions, and so-forth.