Historical account of the Sabean Writing System in Eritrea

About Eritrea - History & Culture

The ability to represent language graphically, to make language visible, stands as one of humanity’s greatest intellectual and cultural achievements.

The invention of writing was man’s attempt to convert language into graphic meaning. By putting the spoken language in to visible material form people’s word began to be recorded, stored and read for decades and centuries and transmitted across different times and places.

Writing is perhaps the world’s most important information technology human beings have ever invented. It was invented around five thousand years ago and coincided with the introduction of humans’ fundamental civilizations. The earliest text was invented with the advent of state society. It was invented independently in the five civilized places -- China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and Mesoamerica. These five regions were at that time centers of great civilizations. Initially writing was invented to record what transpired during trading and to serve bureaucratic duties. Using reeds as pens, wedge-shaped marks on slabs of damp clay people began to record laws, letters, poems, and taxes. The evidence of writing found in Mesopotamia was a text of economic record which was used for trade and bureaucratic needs.

The writing system of South Arabia, too, came into being with trade exchange. North Arabia was rich in incense tree, natural plants, cardamom, cinnamon mastic, perfumed calms and valuable medicine plants like sugar cane and olive, and the products went for trade to the great market place of Canaan, Syria, which were much sought after by Egyptian, Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittites and Cretesian. Later, it became a direct occupation of the South-Arabians. South-Arabia dominated the market and established a supply station which led to the routes of different regions as well as population centers. As a result of these activities, South-Arabia seemed to have exercised political power. The land routes led one to Eastern Arabia, Mesopotamia and the other route to Western Arabia.

South-Arabia imported several goods that they could receive in the form of trade from the voyage of Canaan, Syria, Egypt and Mesopotamia along with new elements of civilization in Gaza, but the most important import was writing. The South-Arabians learned in Gaza and in some other training centers of Canaan probably before the 11th century. They adapted the Canaanian writing system and modified it into their own writing system, the Sabean.

Sabean is a South Arabian writing system whose parent writing is proto Sinaitic scripts. Sabean writing system is a branch of the South- Arabian written language, which was spoken in Yemen between 1000 BC and the 6th century AD, by the Sabean people. The Sabaean language belongs to the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family, along many other languages found in the Arabian Peninsula, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia. The south Semitic, as a branch of the Semitic, is the ancestor of the languages that were used in the Arabian Peninsula and modern Eritrea and Ethiopia. In Eritrea the language is represented by the Semitic languages of Tigrigna and Tigre.

Sabean is written in south Arabic alphabet; it is marked only with consonant. In other words, the south Arabian script is a consonant type of writing system which is used around the southern Arabian Peninsula. It departed from the proto Sinaitic script in 1300BC, but it was not confirmed until the 8th century BC. The oldest South-Arabian alphabet contained twenty nine signs representing twenty nine consonants of most of any attested Semitic language. Some scholars argue that the Sabean writing system emanated directly from the proto-Canaanite script in about 8th century BC, which descended from south Semitic.

The South-Arabian moved to the coastal areas especially the Assab, Edi, Beilul and other areas. Their motive was attributed to the spirit of adventure and the hunt for the large amphibians which once spread all over the Red Sea along with elephants and slaves. As the climate was similar to the climate of their region, they easily adapted to the coastal area and settled there. The hot season of the coastal area from June to September forced the South Arabian people toward the highland, where it rains in the months of June through September. On the highlands the South Arabians engaged in farming and the region became a station of hunters, traders and farmers. There is high discovery of Sabean writing in the Adi-Qieh localities. Archaeologists have come to explore in the area and found numerous kinds of cursive South- Arabian writing. The southern region of Eritrea, especially the Adi Qeih area, is endowed with a variety of archaic South-Arabian writing systems.

In Eritrea, evidence of the Sabean writing system, though difficult to trace, is found in several archaeological sites. A variety of scripts have been found in several places of the country, including Adi- Gramaten La’lay, Adi-Zban, Mororo, Gobo Fenseh and Fqiya Keskese. The inscription in these sites was written without any techniques. The direction of the line is from right to left or the reverse. The archaic Sabean inscriptions which are found in the Adi Qeih area are of the ancient Sabean writing system, and they are preceded with different kinds of symbols. Hence they do not exhibit any specialized writing, and their interpretation is still uncertain.

Archaeologists have argued that they have found two kinds of Sabean writing systems in the region -- the cursive writing and the quasi monument -- and they conclude that the Sabean inscriptions found in Adi Qeih region were not monumental but cursive writing that migrated from the Arabian Peninsula. So, these historical evidences along with the sites indicate a strong link of the South-Arabian people to our region. The link led the communities in our region to introduce the Sabean writing system which later evolved intto Geez script.