One of Pompeii’s Greatest Mysteries May Have Been Solved_freckle removal tips

Candida Moss·7 min read
Ciro De Luca
Ciro De Luca

In 1987 some clusters of mysterious graffiti found on the walls of Pompeii’s theater tunnel were published in an academic journal. They did not make much of a splash. After all, next to the brightly colored and pornographic frescos of the tragic city’s brothels and the remains of people and animals frozen in time and volcanic ash, inscriptions seem almost boring. But they might actually be Pompeii’s best-kept secret and one of its greatest mysteries.

These graffiti were written in an obscure form of Old Arabic otherwise completely unknown in the Western Mediterranean. For almost 35 years the inscriptions were a mystery: Who wrote them? And, frankly, what are they doing there? A new article published last month promises to unlock their secrets.

Part of the reason for the neglect of these unique inscriptions is the mystery surrounding their origins. They are written in Safaitic, a south Semitic script that records a dialect of Old Arabic. Scholars have plenty of Safaitic inscriptions—over 34,000 were written between the first century B.C. and the fourth century A.D.—but they are found in Ḥarrah, the black desert that stretches from southern Syria, down through northeast Jordan, and into northern Saudi Arabia. The script was used by the nomads who populated the region and bred camels, sheep, and goats. Prior to the Pompeiian discovery Safaitic had never been seen in the Western Mediterranean much less the Italian Peninsula. Other than “volcanic stuff” (the black desert is so called because it is made of basalt) it’s difficult to see what Pompeii and the Ḥarrah have in common.

The inscriptions—11 in total—were found scratched onto the north wall of the passageway (known as the theater tunnel) that connects the ancient theater complex with the Via Stabiana, one of the main roads that led in and out of the city. They were first noted in the 19th century, but they remained undeciphered until Jacqueline Calzini Gysens published an edition of them in 1987. (Her edition identified nine texts, but subsequent analysis has redivided the archeological evidence into eleven distinct examples.) Since then and apart from their inclusion in the Online Corpus of the Inscriptions of Ancient North Africa, they have barely been studied.

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