Writing tablets from ancient Palmyra

Part II: The forgotten island

Read Part I of this post here.

Where in the world is Socotra?

Desert rose (Adenium obesium)

Situated smack in the middle of nowhere, in the Indian Ocean 250 km/155 miles east of Somalia and 340 km/210 miles from the coast of Yemen (to which it now belongs). Socotra is a weirdly wonderful island, with wide sandy beaches, karst limestone plateaus full of caves (some as long as 7 km/4.3 miles) and mist-shrouded mountains rising to 1525m/5000’ high.

The climate is ghastly: hot, harsh, and windswept at the best of times. The summer monsoon is far from the best of times: from June to September, the island is so battered by fierce winds that, even today, maritime traffic comes to a dead halt. Greeks, Arabs, Turks, Portuguese, and British mariners all tried to establish a permanent base on the island – and all gave up because it was just too horrible. A place so utterly isolated makes it, though, a happy home for a great number of strange plants and animals, many of them endemic to the island (i.e., found only here).

Over a third of the species of flowering plant on the island are endemic. Not only are they unique to Socotra, but devilishly bizarre to boot. What is one to make of such botanical oddities such as these?

Dragon blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari)

Cucumber tree (Dendrosicyos socotranus)

Take the fat Desert Rose (adenium obesium), pictured at the top of the post – if that isn’t the original Triffid, I don’t know what is!

Or the cucumber tree (Dendrosicyos socotranus, left) – and yes, it is related to the creeping vines of the cucumber and pickles family).

‘Kartab’ (Dorstenia gigas)

Or the dragon blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari, above centre); a tree that has no wood in it but its trunk and branches are made of a strange spongey substance so, when the tree dies, it falls to dust.

Or the Dorstenia gigas, right, otherwise known only by the Socotran name of ‘Kartab’, meaning ‘dried out, withered; stunted’ (and I can see why) – a plant that apparently doesn’t require any soil and sinks roots straight into the bare rock.

But I don’t really want to talk about Socotra’s botany, fascinating though it is, but rather about one of its caves:

The al-Hoq cave, on the side of a cliff about 300 m above the sea on the northeast coast of the island. Its entrance is impressive.

The cave was first explored by Belgian speleologists less than 15 years ago. The spelunkers found plenty of ancient pottery in the two long galleries inside (1200m/1300 yards; 800m/900 yards long), mostly containers used to collect water that dripped from the ceiling into natural basins. Much more remarkable were the grafitti found scratched into the walls of the shorter gallery by sailors and merchants who took refuge on the island when the monsoon winds unexpectedly turned against them. As far as they can be read, some 250 inscriptions record men’s names scrawled in the scripts of ancient India (Brāhmī, Ethiopia (Guèze), Yemen (S. Arabian), and Bactria – all written between the 1st and 6th centuries CE.*

Pieces of at least 20 incense burners were found nearby, which means that the names were not meant simply to record their presence (‘Kilroy Was Here’) but to call out to, or remember themselves to their gods. One of the few longer texts makes this clear. Written in ancient S. Arabian, it reads: ‘Abdsiyà came here and you [the god] remained hidden from him’. I think what poor ‘Abdsiyà is saying is: ‘This is a god-forsaken place’. Literally.

But that’s not all, folks

There were two wooden tablets and one at least is written in clear Palmyrene.

As noted in Part I of this post, the only surviving wooden tablets from Palmyra itself are those seven written by a schoolboy practicing his Greek. And, now, we have a genuine tablet (below) written in the cursive Palmyrene script by a named adult man who had landed on Socotra and entered the Hoq cave. The extra-large tablet (50 x 20 cm/20”x 8”) must have been made elsewhere for there is no wood on Socotra. We can imagine that he came with a supply of tablets to use on his journey, making notes or contracts whenever and where they were needed. Socotra was probably the last thing on his mind when he set out from Palmyra on the long, long journey to India (see the map above right; click for a larger picture). But this is where the monsoon took him, and he left the tablet carefully placed against a stalagmite (below). We don’t know who wrote the second tablet, as it fell face down and no writing is preserved; but that, too, had been specially positioned, originally leaning against a small mound with an incense burner on top. Happily, the first tablet is legible …

… and this is what it says:

In the month of Tammuz, day 25 of the year 569, I, Abgar, son of Abbshamay, ‘navigator’ [or ‘emissary’], have come here, to the country of Nysy; bless the god who has brought us here, and you, the man who reads this tablet, bless me [us] as well and leave the tablet in this place [where you find it].

The date is exact: the 25th day of the Semitic month of Tammuz in the year 569 = July 258 CE.

Who is this Abgar?

Though the odds are hugely against it, there’s a very good chance that we know something about Abgar’s family. His father’s name Abbshamay means “servant of Heaven”, so they were probably worshippers of the Palmyran god, Balshamin (whose small, perfect temple was blown up by ISIS last year). The name is only known at Palmyra in two inscriptions, both from the tomb of Nasrallât in the southwest necropolis. The inscriptions are dated to 574 (262-263 CE) et 576 (264-265 CE), and both refer to a Julius Aurelius Yedibêl, son of ‘Abdshamaya’, son of Malkû. Given the rarity of the family name as well as the closeness in dates, it seems more than likely that Abgar and Yedibêl are related, possibly even brothers.

Alas, it is unlikely that our Abgar made it back to Palmyra. At least, he seems not to have been buried in the family tomb. Someone so literate that he asks for a blessing from his god on the forgotten island of Socotra, and writes it in a very nice hand, would surely have left a funerary inscription for us to read.

Even if his god didn’t save him, at least those who read his plea left his tablet where he had placed it, just as he had asked them to do.

You can’t ask for more than that on Socotra.

* Now published in Ingo Strauch [ed.]: Foreign Sailors on Socotra : the Inscriptions and Drawings from the Cave Hoq, Bremen : Ute Hempen Verlag.

Sources and Illustrations

Ch. Robin, Maria Gorea, Les vestiges antiques de la grotte de Hôq (Suqutra, Yémen) (note d’information). In: Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 146e année, N. 2, 2002. pp. 409-445. The blogs The Dark Roasted Blend, Travel to Socotra, Socotra, Dream Island.

Header image by Rod Waddington, Creative Commons license.

About Judith Weingarten

Judith Weingarten studied Classical Archaeology at the University of Oxford and is a member of the British School of Athens. She has excavated for many years on Crete and on the Greek mainland and travelled extensively in the Middle East. She has lived and worked among the ruins of the three great Caravan Cities: Petra, Palmyra, and Baalbek. She gave the keynote speech at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s May 2016 ‘Palmyra Day’ event in memory of Dr Khaled al-Asaad (23 May 2016). Whilst living within the grounds of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra she began to write her historical novel on Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra and the rebellion that she led against imperial Rome (available in June).


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