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No notice is taken of these inscriptions in any writings subsequent to the time of Cosmas, and they appear to have attracted no attention until his treatise was first publish ed in modern times by Montfaucon, at Paris, in 1706. The learned editor does not seem to have ever heard of these mysterious inscriptions from any other quarter. He believes that Cosmas saw what he reports, simply on the ground of his credibility as a writer and a witness, though he supposes him to have been imposed upon by some mendacious Jews, when he imagines that they were written by the children of Israel. Sixteen years later, in 1722, the prefect of the Franciscans in Cairo passed through that region, and he is the first modern writer who gives any account of them from personal inspection. We shall give a brief extract from his narrative presently. His manuscript “ Journal from Grand Cairo to Mount Sinai” was translated into English by Clayton, bishop of Clogher, and published in London. The worthy Irish prelate, who was thus the first to direct the attention of European scholars to this subject was himself so profoundly interested in it, that he offered the sum of £500 to the traveller who should copy and bring to Europe the inscriptions of the Wady Mokatteb. “This was soon after followed up in the East by the enterprise of Dr. Richard Pococke (afterward bishop of Ossory), the first European traveller who visited the peninsula of Sinai with the object of examining and taking copies of its inscriptions. Additional copies were subsequently made by Montague, Niebuhr, Rüppell, Seetzen, Burckhardt, Laborde, and others. “Adequate materials” for a satisfactory investigation can scarcely be said to have existed, however, until they were supplied " by Rev. Mr. Gray, whose collection of one hundred and seventy-seven fairly copied Sinaitic inscriptions appeared in 1800 in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature.” “The following device was employed by this gentleman and his fellow-traveller, an Italian artist, to gain an opportunity of making their copies. Finding all efforts vain to induce their Arabs to stop for this purpose, they privately agreed, on reaching the Wady Mokatteb inscriptions, where they were to halt for the night, to loose the camels from their pickets while the guides slept, and let them wander over the desert. At day-break the Arabs missed their camels, and went off in quest of them; while, during their absence of some hours, Mr. Gray and his companion quietly and uninterruptedly took copies of all the inscriptions within their reach." Of the difficulties to be encountered in copying these inscriptions, a brief extract from a communication from another traveller (Rev. T. Brookman), may give some idea. Forster's "Primeval Language," pp. 170–1:
“I found that if we tarried three days, or even two, our water and provisions would not hold out till the convent, whither we must go to take in a six days' supply for our return. The expense, too, of detaining the camels and Arabs would be not inconsiderable. I therefore determined to select only the best and clearest inscriptions for copying, and worked almost unremittingly from noon to sunset under a burning sun; my servant and the Arab sheikh and his boy holding an umbrella over me in turn. The next morning, before sunrise, I went to work again; and when the sun began to wax hot, I called my servant to bear the umbrella as before. He, having something to do in the tent, called the sheikh; and he from out of a rocky cave where he lay, called the boy; and forth came the poor boy from another shady retreat, to face the fierce glare of the sun, wondering what could possess the Frangee to stop in this frightful desert to copy these useless, and, as he thought, unintelligible writings."
Every recent traveller in the desert of Sinai gives some account of these remarkable inscriptions. We insert the following from Dr. John Wilson's “ Lands of the Bible” :
“When we got beyond the entrance of the Magharah, our Arabs made to us the welcome announcement that we had entered the Wadi Mukatteb, or the 'written valley.' We had not far to look for the mysterious inscriptions which we had so much desired to see. In the first or western division of the valley, however, which, like the second, continues for about an hour and a half, they are not nu.
We dismounted at the broad expansion of the Wadi which marks its division, and where it strikes to the south; and here we had them in abundance to the fullest gratification of our curiosity. They are found on both sides of the valley on the perpendicular and smooth cliffs of the new red or variegated sandstone, the strata of which are of enormous thickness, and on the large masses of this rock which have fallen from above. The surface of these stony tablets seemed to have been naturally prepared for the 'graviug of an iron pen,' and the words which are written upon them, though not very deeply cut,* if we may judge from the small injury which the hand of time has committed upon them during the many ages they have existed, may probably 'last forever' in the sense of Job, the tried patriarch of Arabia Petræa, who wished such a commemoration of the language of his deepest sorrow.
* "In some instances they seem as if merely pricked by some instrument."
“The inscriptions are both literal and hieroglyphical, or I should rather say pictorial, for they do not seem the symbols of thought conventionally expressed. The letters vary in size from half an inch to six inches in depth, and they are generally arranged in single lines, as if representing a name and date, and preceded by a distinctive group of letters, representing the word 3 w or peace.' A few of them are in Greek, but most of them are in the ancient Nabathæan character. The figures occurring at several places are very rude. They are those of men with shields and swords, and bows and arrows; of camels and horses, both with and without their riders, seated or standing by their sides; of goats and ibexes, with large curved horns; of antelopes pursued by greyhounds; of ostriches and geese, and unknown birds, indistinctly represented; of lizards, tortoises, and other creeping things; and of divers quaint phantasies, which cannot be characterized.
“ The prefect of the Franciscan missionaries of Egypt, who visited them in 1722, and who was among the first in modern times to give precise information respecting them, says in his account of them, which we had with us on our journey: “They are cut into the hard marble (sandstone) rock, so high as to be at some places at twelve or fourteen feet distance from the ground; and though we had in our company persons who were acquainted with the Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Coptic, Latin, Armenian, Turkish, English, Illyrican, German, and Bohemian languages, yet none of them had any knowledge of these characters, which have nevertheless been cut into the hard rock with the greatest industry, in a place where there is neither water por any thing to be gotten to eat. It is probable, therefore, that these unknown characters contain some very secret mysteries, and that they were engraved either by the Chaldeaus or some other persons long before the coming of Christ.' They are to be found not only in Wadi Mukatteb, but in all the principal Wadis of the peninsula on the route to Mount Sinai. Specimens of them were observed by Burckhardt on the heights of Jebel Serbal, and, what is most remarkable, we found one or two of them on the rocks at Petra. The valley of Mukatteb opens out to a considerable breadth where the inscriptions are most numerous. After the large bend of the valley, they are confined principally to the western side.”
The gradual accumulation of materials stimulated European scholars to undertake the deciphering of these strange records, in the hope of penetrating the mystery in which their origin.. their authors, their design, and their character and contents were enshrouded. But this was attended with difficulties of a very serious nature, greatly aggravating the inherent perplexity of the task, which was no less than that of unriddling the meaning of inscriptions in an unknown character, while the language in which they were written, and their subject and occasion could only be matters of doubtful conjecture. Modern antiqnarian research has, however, achieved repeated triumphs of this very sort, as in the case of the Egyptian hie
roglyphics, where the bilingual decree of the Rosetta stone afforded the clue; and the cuneiform character, where a shrewd
a conjecture from circumstances of the design of an inscription led the way to its successful explanation ; and the old Zend manuscripts where a Sanskrit paraphrase facilitated the solution.
But in these scribblings upon the rocks of the desert, no one knew by whom, or when, or for what purpose, the problem was more than ever puzzling. And as has already been intimated, the puzzle was rendered still more intricate by various untoward circumstances.
1. They were not monumental inscriptions, in which the surface of the stone was first smoothed and carefully prepared for the purpose; and then the letters clearly and sharply cut by skilful workmen, with appropriate tools. On the contrary, the face of the sandstone rock was left in all its native roughness and inequalities; no graving tools were used. The letters were not carved, but rudely scratched by whatever the writer chanced to have at hand; mostly they appear to be formed by a series of little holes opening into one another, which have been dug or picked out by a pointed instrument resembling an awl. The writers' want of skill appears in the unequal size of the letters, and in the want of accuracy and uniformity in the shape of the characters. This is shown by the comparison of what is evidently the same inscription cut in different places, and even if the character were well known and familiar would make some of the inscriptions as difficult to decipher as those illegible scrawls which sometimes pass for writing and purport to be English.
2. The great multitude of these inscriptions, which are crowded or rather jumbled together in certain localities, makes it sometimes difficult to separate them, or to distinguish what belongs to each, or to tell where one ends and another begins. Especially as the lines are often not horizontal, but are turned in various directions to suit the surface of the stone or the convenience of the writer; and it is sometimes matter of doubt which way the line really does run. Some professed copies of inscriptions turn out to be confused fragments, combining disconnected parts of different inscriptions, but containing no one entire—a sort of cross-readings, which of course destroys all possibility of making any thing out of them.
3. The professed copies were in very many cases not reliable, as was shown by the wide divergence between the different representations given of the self-same inscription by different persons. It is a task of no small difficulty to copy an inscription in unknown characters, however clearly these may be traced. But in such roughly-made legends, the difficulty was incomparably greater. It was next to impossible not to mistake occasional inequalities in the stone itself for strokes of letters, or not to overlook what were designed to be strokes, but were never perhaps distinctly made, and which, after lying exposed for ages, are now scarcely, if at all, discernible. It was also nearly impossible to avoid confounding letters which were nearly alike, and which in the haste and want of care with which they were originally made, were not so formed by the authors of the inscriptions as to be clearly distingnishable. They may be compared to writing, such as we often see, in
, which, from a few letters capable of being recognized, the reader is obliged to guess at the remainder of the word, which, knowing the context and probable scope of the whole, he is mostly able to do. But it is manifest that one who undertook to copy such a manuscript, without the remotest idea of its meaning, or even of the shape or sound of a single letter, must, from the necessity of the case, produce something far less legible than the original writing itself. Many of the points of distinction still existing among the letters, and which are all-important in deciphering it, would be effaced, unless the most rigorous methods were adopted to insure perfect accuracy. Unfortunately, many of the transcriptions were so loosely and negligently made, as to be absolutely worthless. Contelle, for example, was so careless as to copy the lines from left to right, the reverse direction from that in which they were actually written; and as he further neglected to mark the limits of the lines, or keep each line distinct, the initial word of the inscription was often brought into the middle of the line, and every thing thrown into confusion.
4. The materials possessed were after all very scantytrvely a few hundreds of inscriptions from some of the more