Sites that yield inscriptions but do not have a history of permanent settlements are known throughout the ancient Near East from nearly every chronological period. The inscriptions they display can be classified into two distinct types: private inscriptions or graffiti on rough, unmodified rock surfaces and official proclamations often inscribed on a smoothed or otherwise modified surface, specifically for the purpose of public viewing. Inscription sites are best attested in Egypt and Syria-Palestine and on the Anatolian and Iranian plateaus. The paucity of examples from Mesopotamia is no doubt related to the character of its physical geography: Mesopotamia is a low-profile, alluvial plain with few outcroppings; the remainder of the Near East is generally more rugged and mountainous with ample rock surfaces suitable for inscriptions.
The first category of inscription sites is comprised mostly of graffiti. Thousands of private inscriptions have been cataloged throughout the Syro-Arabian desert and the Sinai Peninsula. As its name attests, Wadi Mukatteb (“wadi of the inscriptions”) in the Sinai is particularly rich in inscriptions, among them, Nabatean, Arabic, Aramaic, Greek, Armenian, and occasionally Latin texts. [See Nabatean Inscriptions; Arabic; Aramaic Language and Literature; Greek; Armenian; Latin.] Sometimes the inscription is merely a name with a patronymic, but often a prayer or memorial is included. Earlier hieroglyphic Egyptian inscriptions are also attested in the Sinai, in the vicinity of ancient mines. [See Hieroglyphs.] Throughout the Syro-Arabian desert fringe hundreds of private inscriptions in Thamudic and Safaitic script have been found dating from the first through fourth centuries CE. [See Safaitic-Thamudic Inscriptions.] Most of these, consisting of names and prayers, are also in the form of graffiti.
The second category of inscription sites, official proclamations, is better attested outside Palestine, in Egypt and Lebanon and on the Anatolian and Iranian plateaus. These inscriptions are also commemorative in nature. Numerous Egyptian inscriptions recording mining expeditions and military exploits are known from Wadi el-Mughara, in the ancient mining region of western Sinai, and from Wadi Hammamat and Wadi el-Hudi in the eastern desert. All date to as early as the Old Kingdom. The inscription of Henu, steward of Mentuhotep I, for example, describes an expedition to the Red Sea and to Punt, as well as quarrying activity carried out in the wadi. A rock stela of Mentuhotep III describes miraculous events that accompanied the quarrying of a sarcophagus.
In Lebanon, at Nahr el-Kalb, three hieroglyphic inscriptions of Rameses II and adjacent cuneiform inscriptions of Tiglath-Pileser I, Shalmaneser III, and Esarhaddon overlook the sea on the road leading north from Beirut. They commemorate successful military campaigns into this area. [See Beirut.] Each inscription is accompanied by a figural relief of the victorious ruler. Other Greek, Latin, and Arabic inscriptions are attested as well at this strategically important site.
In the central and southern portions of the Anatolian plateau, late second- and early first-millennium hieroglyphic Luwian inscriptions dot the landscape. [See Luwians.] Many of them are associated with a particular population center, while others seem to function as boundary markers or, less frequently, as proclamation inscriptions. One of the most striking from the Hittite imperial period is the rock relief and hieroglyphic inscription of Ḫattušili found at Firaktin (perhaps beside what was a road in antiquity) depicting the Hittite king pouring a libation. [See Hittite; Hittites.] A more dramatic inscription site is that of Akpinar near Manisa in western Anatolia. The relief with accompanying inscriptions is cut into a niche high on an outcrop. These and others from the imperial period are perhaps primarily art sites and only secondarily inscriptions sites. The inscriptions are mostly names—labels accompanying the figural relief. Similar inscription sites are known from the postimperial period. Many inscriptions ostensibly removed from settlements are concentrated in the Halys River basin, along what may have been transportation routes near, for instance, Asarjik, Sausa (near ancient Karaburna), and Bulgarmaden.
One of the best-known inscriptions sites from antiquity is that of Bisitun in western Iran. [See Bisitun.] Its inscriptions and accompanying relief, cut high above the main east-west road connecting the Iranian plateau and the Mesopotamian alluvium near ancient Kermanshah, commemorate the accession and reign of Darius I. Like other inscription sites in this category, Bisitun can also be considered an art site.
Sites with graffiti are often found along roads or pilgrim routes (e.g., Darb el-Hajj, Darb Zubaydah) and memorialize an individual's participation in a holy journey. [See Darb Zubaydah.] The inscriptions are generally short and only occasionally have a figural representation (perhaps a cross or menorah). Proclamation inscriptions, while often isolated, are also generally found along traveled routes—be they major highways or a road to a mine. Their often dramatic location (at times high on a cliff or rock outcrop that required scaffolding) bespeaks a greater expenditure of resources than was possible for the average individual. They acknowledge the presence of a ruler and boast of his exploits or military prowess. The two types of inscription sites, while exhibiting marked differences in quality and content, bear much the same intent and message: they attest to human-kind's desire for immortality and memorial.
- Černý, Jaroslav. The Inscriptions of Sinai, part 2, Translations and Commentary. London, 1951.
- Gelb, Ignace J. Hittite Hieroglyphic Monuments. Oriental Institute Publications, 45. Chicago, 1939.
- Giveon, Raphael. “Nahr el-Kelb.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, vol. 4, p. 319. Wiesbaden, 1982.
- Porter, Bertha, and Rosalind Moss. Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs, and Paintings, vol. 7, Nubia, the Deserts, and Outside Egypt. Oxford, 1951.
- Stone, Michael E., ed. Rock Inscriptions and Graffiti Project. 3 vols. SBL Resources for Biblical Study, 28, 29, 31. Atlanta, 1992–1994.
John S. Jorgensen