Origin of the Alphabet

6 Mar 2010

Biblical Archaeological Review (www.bib-arch.org ) March/April issue, 2010 ... has an article on the invention of the alphabet by Orly Goldwasser. He begins by outlining the close association of Asiatics from Syria-Palestine with Egypt - from the Old Kingdom through to the Hyksos era. Most of the time it was peaceful and during the Middle Kingdom large numbers of Asiatics were domiciled in Egypt, and many became Egyptianised. During dynasty 12 Egypt became interested in turquoise deposits in the southern Sinai mountains and at the site of Serabit el Khadem a temple to Hathor was constructed for the miners and workers. It was built by Sesostris I and dedicated to Hathor in her aspect as a 'blue-green' deity - somewhat reminiscent of Woden or Krishna (the colour of blue). The temple continued in existence, with repairs of course, from the reign of Sesostris I to the end of the New Kingdom - a period of around 800 years. Revisionists might disagree as this figure could be reduced by telescoping Egyptian history - but the conventional position is that such a long period of time took place. Many members of Egyptian expeditions into the Sinai left inscriptions and graffiti on the temple walls - which has been a boon to archaeologists. Stoneworkers appear to have been both Egyptian, Egyptianised Asiatics, and local bedouin or nearby Asiatic peoples. Basically, as the article develops, the theme is that the alphabet developed at Serabit el Khadem as a response by illiterate Asiatics who attempted to communicate by using pictograms - based on hieroglyphic signs. Whereas hieroglyphics and cuneiform writing required knowing 100s of individual signs - and conformed to certain basic rules, the alphabetic signs in contrast were restricted to just 30 basic signs - easily learnt and remembered.

Alphabetic signs began as imitations of hieroglyphics - during dynasty 12. Unlettered Asiatic workers devleoped proto-sinaitic pictograms that eventually coalesced into Phoenciian, Hebrew and Aramaic scripts. For example, Hebrew aleph comes from ox, bet is the word for house (a dwelling place of humans and a dwelling place of the gods = a temple) while ayin means an eye. The script developed and pictures have been lost but the name of the letters clearly defines it's origins.

Goldwasser goes on to claim it is even possible to be specific about who the inventors of the alphabet were, homing in on a character known as Khebeded, the Brother of the Ruler of Retunu (a Canaanite) who was able, over a lengthy period, to organise work parties for the Egyptians. He was a high ranking Canaanite but his adaptation of hieroglyphics, reducing it to 30 easily remembered characters, was preserved by the workers (it is assumed) through the long period of the later MK and the whole of the NK, by what Goldwasser describes as caravanners and itinerant traders. It is worth recalling, although not mentioned by Goldwasser, that Habiru elements, common to the MK and the NK, were itinerant groups active in a large area that included Palestine, Syria and the Transjordan. Such elements were an important part of the Iron Age influx into Cisjordan. 

During dynasty 18 Canaanite scribes were trained in wedge shaped cuneiform script - but developed what is known as Ugaritic cuneiform. Why the Phoenicians adopted cuneiform during the Late Bronze period is a puzzle as for most of the time they were subject to Egypt - and communicated with the Egyptians (a large number of clay tablets are known). I suppose it is assumed that Mitanni was responsible for the adoption of cuneiform - but it is still curious. Ugaritic is not cuneiform proper, it is an alphabetic adaptation of cuneiform. It only has 30 characters. However, it was still capable of producing a variety of documents from formal letters to literary pieces. Ugaritic was in use in Phoenicia and Canaan during the Late Bronze era yet the alphabet originated in the Sinai and was disseminated by transient people - such as the Habiru. Ugaritic, it seems, lived alongside the alphabetic script, and contemporary with it - one being the writing form of scribes and the elite in the great cities of Syria-Palestine and the other the script of caravanners (in the words of Goldwasser).

Goldwasser considers the alphabetic script was preserved by non-urban peoples, or elements outside the mainstream of society in the great cities of the region. Unsaid is the fact that this would have included the Habiru - and they became a feature of Iron Age society (important in the stories of Saul and David). It seems that Ugaritic was a translation of cuneiform into alphabetic script which must mean that the alphabet was already established (in at least Phoenicia) during the Late Bronze period - yet the alphebet during the early Iron Age is assumed to retain basic features common to the Sinai script. That is anomalous to say the least.

In addition, it seems an inordinately long time for alphabetic script to remain in vogue in a crude format from dynasty 12 all the way into the Iron Age - especially as it is now considered alphabetic script in a developed format is shifted forwards into the 9th and 8th centuries BC. Ugaritic was basically the script of the scribes - and the elite ensconsed in their Late Bronze cities - yet mostly allegedly paying homage to the Egyptians. It doesn't make sense. However, the comments at the end of the article are not all favourable, one of them in particular insists the alphabet is a Phoenician invention - presumably because of Ugaritic. Strangely, in spite of large scale excavations of Hyksos era in Egypt there is no evidence the Canaanite rulers of the Delta (with a specific Phoenician connection) used an alphabet - they used hieroglyphs in imitation of the Egyptians (probably via Egyptian scribes or scribal tuition). The alphabet was a script of caravanners according to Goldwasser, and by simply memorising the pictograms anyone could use it - which is why it persisted over a long period of time. However, at Serabit el Khadem the alphabet pictograms were used basically for graffiti, personal names (and divine names). Anyone could use it so it is possible that it survived in a crude form over a lengthy period of time - but exactly why did nomads require a writing system?