Saint NameJohn the Baptist : S00020
Saint Name in SourceἸωάννης
Type of EvidenceInscriptions - Formal inscriptions (stone, mosaic, etc.)
Evidence not before568
Evidence not after568
Activity not before568
Activity not after568
Place of Evidence - RegionArabia
Place of Evidence - City, village, etcBosra
Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)Bosra
Sakkaia / Maximianopolis
Sakkaia / Maximianopolis
Sakkaia / Maximianopolis
Cult activities - PlacesCult building - independent (church)
Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and CustomsPrayer/supplication/invocation
Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and NarrativesAristocrats
Merchants and artisans
Cult Activities - RelicsConstruction of cult building to contain relics
SourceLarge stone lintel (H. 0.34 m; W. 2.19 m) with a moulding on the upper edge and at the right- and left-hand ends. Slightly damaged at the left-hand end. Decorated in the middle of the inscribed face with a carving of a circle containing a cross.
Dimensions of the inscribed field: H. 0.21 m; W. 1.95 m. Letter height 0.04-0.05 m. The first two lines of the Greek text are written to the left of the circle. The last Greek line is written below the circle and occupies almost the whole length of the lintel. The Arabic text is written in four lines to the right of the circle (the last two lines being very short; one word in line 1 is written to the left of the circle).
First seen and copied by Johann Gottfried Wetzstein, Prussian consul in Damascus and orientalist, and published by him in 1863/1864. Later revisited by a number of travellers. In the 1860s, William Waddington noted that the stone was positioned in situ, over the doorway of a church. In November 1883, P. Schroeder, together with Peter Julius Löytved, the Danish vice-consul in Beirut, while on their journey from Tyre to Hauran, saw it and also reported it as over a doorway of a ruined church. These testimonies can, however, be questioned, as we lack a detailed 19th c. description of the find-spot. The stone was seen and examined by Maurice Sartre several times between 1998 and 2008 (and photographed by Christian Robin). But when recorded by Sartre the lintel was reused in a doorway of a house in the north sector of the village, and not in a church.
The inscription is probably the earliest extant example of a bilingual Greek-Arabic text and one of the earliest cases of the use of Arabic in a monumental inscription. Charles-Jean-Melchior de Vogüé was the first scholar who observed that the script of the Arabic part of our inscription, dated 568 (see below), closely resembled Kufic script, believed to have originated in the city of Kufa (modern Iraq) not before the late 7th c. For these reasons, the inscription has attracted much scholarly attention and has been reprinted several times. In the Bibliography section we give only the most important editions and references. The most recent edition is that by Maurice Sartre and Annie Sartre-Fauriat in the fifteenth volume of Inscriptions grecques et latines de la Syrie in 2014. For other works, see: IGLS 15/1, 324.
DiscussionThe inscription is a bilingual text composed in Greek and Arabic. Waddington noted that a small cross was carved at the beginning of the Arabic text and at the end of the Greek text, which he interpreted as evidence that the Arabic text was the primary one, and the Greek secondary to the Arabic. The Greek text is, however, easier to understand, and is the basis for all interpretations of the Arabic; so we will discuss it first.
The Greek text commemorates the construction of a martyr shrine (martyrion) of an unspecified saint John. This figure could be a local martyr, but it is also possible that John the Baptist is in question, as he was also considered as a martyr and venerated as such in the East. For another sanctuary of a martyr John in the province of Arabia, see: E02040. The Greek text says that our shrine was apparently founded by a single donor – Saraelos, phylarch of an Arab tribe (head of a tribe recognised by the Roman authorities), an otherwise unattested person. Waddington believed him to have been a local chief in the Lajat region, very different from the great Ghassanid/Jafnid phylarchs who ruled a significant number of smaller tribes. Maurice Sartre, following an opinion by Christian Robin, suggested that Saraelos was unlikely to have belonged to the Jafnid dynasty, as the name he bore did not fit the onomastics of this group. It is more probable that we have here a representative of the Kindite tribes (as already suggested by Theodore Nöldeke in 1887).
The actual meaning of the Arabic part of our inscription has been disputed. It is, however, more or less clear that the first Arabic sentence reads ''I, Scharâḥil, son of Thâlim, built this martyr shrine in the year 463.' On the other hand, the rest of the inscription has been differently translated by various scholars. For example, Dussuad and Macler translate it as: 'Prosperity after corruption!', while Waddington understood the phrase as: 'Oh, lord John, remember me in the hour of my death! This is good and fortunate/prosperous'. Maurice Sartre follows the interpretation of Christian Robin who read the whole Arabic phrase as 'I, Sarahil, son of Zalim, built this martyr shrine in the year 463, in honour of Saint Hanan (John). Grace!'. Fiema, Al-Jallad, Macdonald & Nehmé (2015, 414), following an interpretation by Enno Littmann, see here a reference to the capture of Khaybar by al-Ḥārith, son of Jabala. Whatever the precise reading, it seems that the Arabic text lacks the mention of the artisan who carved the stone, which is present at the end of the Greek one. This is not surprising, as in antiquity bilingual texts were not faithful translation but sometimes differed in details.
Dating: the date is computed according to the era of the province of Arabia. Its year 463 together with the 1st indictional year corresponds to AD 568.
Sartre-Fauriat, A., and Sartre, M., Inscriptions grecques et latines de la Syrie, vol. 15/1: Le plateau du Trachôn et ses bordures (BAH 204, Beyrouth: Institut Français du Proche-Orient, 2014), no. 261 (Greek text; photograph by Chr. Robin).
Meimaris, Y.E., Kritikakou, K., and Bougia, P., Chronological Systems in Roman-Byzantine Palestine and Arabia: The Evidence of the Dated Greek Inscriptions (Meletēmata 17, Athens: Kentron Hellēnikēs kai Rōmaikēs Archaiotētos, Ethnikon Hydryma Ereunōn, 1992), 250, no. 337 (after Dussaud and Macler's edition).
Dussaud, R., and Macler, F., "Rapport sur une mission scientifique dans les régions désertiques de la Syrie moyenne", Nouvelles archives des missions scientifiques et littéraires 10 (1902), 726-727.
Wright A.G., and Souter, A., "Greek and other inscriptions collected in the Hauran", Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement (1895), 145, no. 81 (from a copy by W. Ewing).
Schroeder, P., "Epigraphisches aus Syrien", Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft 38 (1884), 530-532 and Plate I (from his own copy and squeeze).
Waddington, W.H., Inscriptions grecques et latines de la Syrie (Paris: Firmin Didot Frères, Libraires-Éditeurs, 1870), no. 2464 (Greek and Arabic text).
de Vogüé, Ch.-J.-M., Syrie centrale. Inscriptions sémitiques (Paris: J. Baudry, Libraire-Éditeur, 1868), 117-118 (Greek and Arabic text).
Wetzstein, J.G., "Ausgewählte griechische und latinische Inschriften, gesammelt auf Reisen in den Trachonen und um das Haurangebirge", Philologische und Historische Abhandlungen des königlischen Akademie des Wissenschaften zu Berlin (1863) , 296, no. 110 (Greek and Arabic text).
Bevan, G., Fisher, G., and Genequand, D., "The late antique church at Tall al-'Umayrī East: New evidence for the Jafnid family and the cult of St. Sergius in northern Jordan", Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 373 (2015), 62.
Bevan, G., Fisher, G., and others, "Arabs and Christianity", in: G. Fisher an others, Arabs and Empires before Islam (Oxford: OUP, 2015), 349-350.
Fiema, Z.T., Al-Jallad, A., Macdonald, M.C.A., and Nehmé, L., "Provincia Arabia: Nabataea, the emergence of Arabic as a written language, and Graeco-Arabica", in: G. Fisher (ed.), Arabs and Empires before Islam (Oxford: OUP, 2015), 414-415.
Ghabban, A., "The inscription of Zuhayr, the oldest Islamic inscription (24AH/AD 644-645), the rise of the Arabic script and the nature of early Islamic state", Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 19 (2008), 213 (translation and remarks by Christian Robin).
Hoyland, R.G., "Epigraphy and the emergence of Arab identity", in: P.M. Sijpesteijn, L. Sundelin, S. Torallas Tovar, A. Zomeño (eds.), From Al-Andalus to Khurasan. Documents from the Medieval Muslim World (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2007), 232-236.
Hoyland, R., "Epigraphy and the linguistic background to the Qur'a-n", in: G.S. Reynolds (ed.), The Qur'an in Its Historical Context (London; New York: Routledge, 2008), 55-56; 66 note 14.
Nöldeke, Th., "Die Ghassanischen Fürsten aus dem Hause Gafna's", Abhandlungen des königlischen preussischen Akademie des Wissenschaften zu Berlin (1887), 16.
Sartre-Fauriat, A., "Georges, Serge, Élie et quelques autres saints connus et inédits de la province d'Arabie", in: Fr. Prévot (ed.), Romanité et cité chrétienne. Permances et mutations. Intégration et exclusion du Ier au VIe siècle. Mélanges en l'honneur d'Yvette Duval (Paris: De Boccard, 2000), 308.
Shahîd, I., Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, vol. 1, part 1: Political and Military History (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1995), 325-331.
Trombley, F.R., Hellenic Religion and Christianization c. 370-529, vol. 2, (Leiden-New York-Cologne: Brill, 1994), 370.
Bulletin épigraphique (2014), 519.
For further references, see: Sartre-Fauriat, A., and Sartre, M., Inscriptions grecques et latines de la Syrie, vol. 15/1: Le plateau du Trachôn et ses bordures (BAH 204, Beyrouth: Institut Français du Proche-Orient, 2014), 324.