A Trlingual Dictionary of an Ancient Arabic Language

A.F.L. Beeston, M.A. Ghul, W.W. Muller, J. Ryckmans, Sabaic Dictionary (English-French-Arabic)/ Dictionnaire Sabeen (anglais-francaise-arabe) (Beyrouth: Lbrairie du Liban; Louvain-la-Neuve: Editions Peeters; University of Sanaa, Yemen, 1982).

Sabaic is the ancient Arabic language of Sheba, whose present, Arabic name is, I believe, Marib. It’s located in what is now Yemen, and its Queen famously visited King Solomon. Fabulously wealthy, it flourished in the 10th century BC on the profits of the spice and perfume trades, and conquered Abyssinia, now Ethiopia. The Ethiopian languages Amharic, Tigray and Tigrina are Semitic languages descended from the South Arabic language spoken by these ancient settlers.

The book’s the product of a Colloquium on Yemeni Civilisation, which requested the four authors to compile this dictionary. It appears to be of the terms found on inscriptions in the Yemen, and possibly one or two other places. It is just a dictionary, and doesn’t include any texts or inscriptions although it does give the alphabet in which they were written. I picked it up really as a curiosity in one of the secondhand bookstalls in Bristol through my interest in archaeology and the Ancient Near East. The book’s really of use only to archaeologists, linguists and historians working in Yemen, and it’s another language that I haven’t learned. Nevertheless it’s a reminder of just how ancient and advanced civilisation has been in the Middle East. I don’t know if there are any books specifically on the archaeology of Yemen, but I found a book a few years ago on the archaeology of Arabia, which I think contained a chapter or two on Yemen.

And these nations’ antiquities are seriously threatened by the region’s wars. When I was doing the doctorate at Bristol Uni, one of the speakers at an archaeological seminar said that much of the archaeological heritage of Syria had been trashed by the fighting. We’ve seen ISIS destroy precious mosques, churches and other shrines, as well as an ancient sculptures from the ancient Mesopotamian civilisations like Babylon and Akkad. It therefore wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Yemen’s archaeological heritage, including that of an Sheba, isn’t also seriously endangered and damaged by the current war between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia. And I am afraid that Iran’s similarly ancient and precious archaeological heritage won’t also suffer catastrophic losses if Trump and the Neocons have their way and launch an invasion of that country.

We need to stop these wars, because the cost in human lives and to the nations’ cultural heritage has been immense. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, millions forced to flee and priceless objects and monuments destroyed. And so our knowledge of the past is diminished.

But books like this help preserve and stimulate an interest in the preservation and exploration of these ancient treasures, if only among those few scholars able to read the ancient languages.

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