Did you know that when you study Arabic writing that you’re learning more than just a new language? In fact, you’re also learning about a major cultural contribution of the Middle East.

You see, the Middle East is the birthplace of a whole array of written languages. These include many phonetic alphabets where symbols were used to depict sounds. Relics of varied scripts present just how diverse early cultures were and how they progressed over time. Along with the today’s writing systems of the Middle East – namely Arabic and Hebrew – other scripts were developed, too. As a result, we can see the global effect early Middle Eastern writing systems had over the years.

Writing in Middle East History Explained

It’s not easy to express just how crucial a role writing played in the Middle Eastern history timeline. However, we’re going to try to explain it by starting where writing itself started.

There are four points in history that full writing systems seem to have been invented starting with the Middle East. In fact, the first form of writing known as cuneiform was used In Mesopotamia between 3400 and 3300 BC. Further, another form of writing showed up in Egypt a hundred years later in 3200 BC. Two thousand years later, the Shang Dynasty had a fully equipped writing system. What’s more, by 900 BC Mesoamericans were also using their own writing system.

These dates may infer that it’s possible that writing spread out from this one point of origin. However, very little has been brought forward to back up that theory. This is mostly due to the fact that each of these four writing systems has its own unique features.

Nevertheless, today we’ll be focusing on the two writing systems that started in the ancient Middle East.

Mesopotamian Origins

Most scholars agree that writing started over five and a half thousand years ago in ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). It is there that a complex system of symbols depicting the sounds of Sumerian speech slowly replaced early graphic symbols. Around 2900BC, writers began using a reed stylus, pressing into wet clay to create the wedge-shaped symbols we now call cuneiform.  Naturally, not everybody was on the same page, so to speak, and it took another 600 hundred years to perfect. By then, this new way of writing had replaced all pictograms. It was also at this time that reading from left to right replaced reading from top to bottom. Thus, the first writing system was born. It was used until at least 75AD.

Writing in Egypt

Recent findings have scholars now believing that writing started in Egypt around the same time it started in Mesopotamia. For instance, large carved scenes found in Egypt’s El Khawy are thought to date to sometime around 3250BC.  Their features are very close to the hieroglyphic forms, only these ancient ones are half a meter tall. Smaller versions of hieroglyphics written on ivory tablets found in the King Scorpion’s tomb appear to be from around 3200BC.

What’s more, writing with pen and ink can be traced back to Ancient Egypt around the same time.  Thus, ink writing became known as hieratic (“priestly” in Greek) while carvings became known as hieroglyphs (sacred carvings in Greek). Still both seem to have appeared around the same time. This only seems to prove that writing in Ancient Egypt was used for two reasons: ceremonies and record keeping.

The writing from Ancient Egypt evolved into a wide array of 24 letters in a sort of abjad of all consonants. Likewise, it also contained early versions of diphthongs and even homonyms. Moreover, it is from Egyptian writing that the very first alphabet would start to evolve sometime around 1850BC.

Ancient Writing Today

The ancient examples above still matter. That’s because it’s from these early forms of writing that today’s living languages of Arabic and Hebrew still exist. In fact, some Egyptians still speak the tongues of their forebears today in religious contexts of the Coptic Church. Indeed, it is Arabic and Hebrew that have survived the longest out of all of the ancient writing systems.

What’s more, however, is that Arabic writing has Islam to thank for its longevity as well. After all, it is Islam’s impact on the region that has carried the script even into modern times.

So, the next time you’re writing about Jordan in Arabic, remember you’re learning the oldest writing system in the world. That’s pretty cool when you think about it, isn’t it?

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