Another decipherment, this one on the wall of Beth She'arim catacomb in Israel

« previous post | next post »

We just finished looking at this recent decipherment from France:  "Decoding an emperor's letter: the dark arts of diplomacy" (11/29/22).  Now we have an equally challenging case from Israel:

Researchers Crack Secret of 1,400-year-old Inscription From Catacomb in Israel

Exaltation my mouth? Graffito from Beit She’arim cemetery confounded scholars for decades – until they figured out it was written in Aramaic using a Persian alphabet. But its true meaning remains inscrutable

Ariel David, Haaretz (11/28/22)

Credit: Beth She‘arim Expedition of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Photo Archive of the Institute of Archaeology

Around 1,400 years ago, or even earlier, somebody scribbled on the wall of a Jewish cemetery in Beit She’arim, in today’s northern Israel. The graffito was first spotted during excavations at this sprawling ancient necropolis in the 1950s, but experts could not make head or tail of it.

Now for the first time, the key to unraveling the mystery has been found after two experts in Iranian history saw the text.

They were the first to realize it was written using Pahlavi script, an ancient alphabet developed for the administration, coinage and royal inscriptions of the once mighty Sassanid Persian Empire. Plus some isolated Hebrew or Aramaic letters. But there was more to the mystery.

“When I saw it I immediately thought it was Pahlavi, but then as I kept reading I realized that while the alphabet was Middle Persian, the language was not,” says Domenico Agostini, a professor of ancient history at Tel Aviv University. “I was stunned.”

He also wondered what a Middle Persian graffito was doing at Beit She’arim in the first place. So, it turns out that the seven lines of text were written in Aramaic transliterated into the alphabet that was normally used to write Middle Persian, the form of Persian common at the time of the Sassanid dynasty (3rd-7th century C.E.). It’s kind of what we do today when we write the word “shalom” (Hebrew for “peace”) or the name of this newspaper, Haaretz (“The Land”), using Latin instead of Hebrew letters.

According to Prof. Jonathan Price, a classicist at Tel Aviv University, visitors came to this hallowed ground from across Palestine, Syria, Turkey, and all the way down to Himyar, an ancient Jewish kingdom in Arabia, leaving behind funerary inscriptions and graffiti.

Greek is the most prevalent language in the Beit She’arim necropolis, followed by Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac, Price says. This reflects the fact that for Jews, Hebrew was a sacred language, but many spoke Greek or Aramaic (or one of its dialects, like Syriac) in their daily lives – as did most people across the Middle East.

The newly deciphered inscription is the only case known to date of a Persian alphabet being used at Beit She’arim, Price notes. That’s no coincidence. In the heyday of Beit She’arim, from the third to the sixth century, which is when this inscription was made – Palestine was a province of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, a bitter enemy of Sassanid Persia.

It was Price who, on a hunch, emailed a picture of the mysterious inscription to Agostini back in 2019. The historian then teamed up with his mentor and renowned Iran studies expert, the late Prof. Shaul Shaked of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to decipher the text.

The puzzle took two years to crack (Shaked passed away in 2021) and the research will be published in early 2023 in the Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae, a collection of all ancient inscriptions found across the Levant.

Here is the tentative translation of the inscription that Agostini and Shaked proposed:

“A king’s dwelling(?) to Yanur … in between Rasam and Našna (in) the house of Panutas(?) … and the treasurer new joy and exaltation my mouth(?) … seal.”

Apparently, there are some pieces missing and the text requires much interpretation. Let’s start from the end, because is it’s the easiest part.

“Seal” is a pretty common way of closing a blessing or invocation, just like “amen.”

The mouth expressing joy and exaltation recalls other formulas used in graffiti left by pilgrims at Beit She’arim to invoke or bestow blessings and share their happiness at having reached the site, Price says.

I will omit most of "the hard part" (the second half of the article) — figuring out who Yanur was and why he was so exultant — except for the opening of the conclusion section, which is titled "A jug of Aramaic wine, a loaf of Zoroastrian bread".

When this writing was written on the wall, there were deep connections between Aramaic and Persian culture. Pahlavi script itself was derived from the Aramaic alphabet, and Aramaic was one of the major languages of this transnational empire, Agostini says.

In fact Aramaic was considered the language of high culture by the Persians and had an important religious role. So much so that in the holy texts of Zoroastrianism, the official faith of the empire, some key words like “bread,” “water,” or “wine” were often written in Aramaic transliterated into Pahlavi letters, just like Yanur did, Agostini says.

In the other direction, over the ages, Jews borrowed from Persian language and culture. For example, incantations composed in late antiquity by Babylonian Jews often contained Persian words or letters. Several scholars, including Shaked, have also raised the possibility that some of the theological concepts found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which predate the Beit She’arim necropolis by centuries, may have been influenced by the religious dualism, the idea of a cosmic battle between good and evil, typical of Zoroastrianism.

The Israeli team was able to read most of the inscription, but its full implications remain to be worked out, perhaps with more historical research.  In any event, what we already know is tantalizingly vivid.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Hiroshi Kumamoto]


  1. martin schwartz said,

    December 1, 2022 @ 2:00 am

    What a pleasant discovery–thanks ot Prof. Kumamoto for bringing it to our attmtion. It should be added that Prof. Agostini (bravo, Domenico!) is a Pahlavist. Since scholarly narration often gets garbled or compressed in journalistic mediation, I feel I should explain–and I'm sure Profs. Agostini and Kumamoto will agree–
    re the presence, in Pahlavi Middle Persian, of words like "water", "bread" and "wine" written in forms which go back to Aramaic.
    Already within the reign of Darius I, what we call Imperial Aramaic
    was taken up as the written lingua franca of the Achemenid Empire, so that even as far as Afghanistan there were Araamic documents (the study of which preoccupied Prof. Shaked in his later years). So, Aramaic was the secretarial ("chancelllary") language
    of texts in Persia, Parthian, Chorasmia, and Sogdiana.
    In these areas 3 things began to happen–the Aramaic alphabet
    took on local shapes; more and more Iranian words, beginning with
    names and specific; Iranian concepts, came to be written in the local Aramaic alphabet; and, with the proliferation of Iranian rather
    than Aramean scribes, spellings became mnemonically stereotyped against correct Aramaic usage. Centuries later, independently in
    inscriptional/documentary Middle Persian (the Pahlvi langauge), Parthian, Chorasmian, and Sogdian, most words were spelled out in the local scripts as Iranian words of these respective languages,
    but the most common notions–depending on the period–were written, using the local scripts, in stereotyped Aramaic–so we get words like "water", "bread", etc. written as logograms/ideograms, i.e. Aramæograms.
    This in effect parallels the situation of languages written in cuneiform based on Sumerian. Religious relationships is an independent matter. I'm curious to learn what the quasi-Khayyamian Aramaic jug of wine and Zoroastrian loaf of bread
    are about.

  2. Bloix said,

    December 2, 2022 @ 10:48 am

    It's common today for important Jewish prayers to be written out in both Hebrew and Latin script so that participants who don't read or understand Hebrew can participate. For example, at funerals and at shiva observance the participants are given "prayer cards" that print the mourners' kaddish in both Hebrew and Latin letters, with a translation. Example: This can be important, because the mourners' kaddish cannot be said unless there is a quorum of ten.
    Similarly, on the podium of a synagogue there is often a card with the prayers before and after the Torah reading printed in Hebrew and Latin letters, so that a person who reads no Hebrew – say, the relative of a Bar Mitzvah celebrant – can play a public role in the service.
    (For the quibblers among us, the kaddish is written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, but this doesn't affect the point I'm making.)

    Perhaps the Beit She'arim inscription is a prayer or incantation, meant for visitors who don't know Aramaic but who want to articulate the correct sounds – either to join in a group ceremony or to invoke a magical effect that doesn't rely on understanding.

RSS feed for comments on this post