Researchers Crack Secret of 1,400-year-old Inscription From Catacomb in Israel

Exaltation my mouth? Graffito from Beit She’arim cemetery confounded scholars for decades – until they figured out it was written in Aramaic using a Persian alphabet. But its true meaning remains inscrutable

Ariel David
Ariel David
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כתבים פרסיים בית שערים
Inscription on wall of Beth She'arim catacomb, that nobody could read for decadesCredit: Beth She‘arim Expedition of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Photo Archive of the Institute of Archaeology
Ariel David
Ariel David

Around 1,400 years ago, or even earlier, somebody scribbled on the wall of a Jewish cemetery in Beit She’arim, in today’s northern Israel. The graffito was first spotted during excavations at this sprawling ancient necropolis in the 1950s, but experts could not make head or tail of it.

Now for the first time, the key to unraveling the mystery has been found after two experts in Iranian history saw the text.

They were the first to realize it was written using Pahlavi script, an ancient alphabet developed for the administration, coinage and royal inscriptions of the once mighty Sassanid Persian Empire. Plus some isolated Hebrew or Aramaic letters. But there was more to the mystery.

“When I saw it I immediately thought it was Pahlavi, but then as I kept reading I realized that while the alphabet was Middle Persian, the language was not,” says Domenico Agostini, a professor of ancient history at Tel Aviv University. “I was stunned.”

He also wondered what a Middle Persian graffito was doing at Beit She’arim in the first place. So, it turns out that the seven lines of text were written in Aramaic transliterated into the alphabet that was normally used to write Middle Persian, the form of Persian common at the time of the Sassanid dynasty (3rd-7th century C.E.). It’s kind of what we do today when we write the word “shalom” (Hebrew for “peace”) or the name of this newspaper, Haaretz (“The Land”), using Latin instead of Hebrew letters.

Bury me in Beit She’araim

The find is surprising not only for the unusual, but certainly not unheard of, linguistic play of transliteration.

Beit She’arim was a key spot for Jewish culture and learning in late antiquity. Following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the Sanhedrin Jewish council had its seat for a time in this Lower Galilean town. The settlement’s necropolis is also believed to host the tombs of major Jewish scholars, chiefly Rabbi Judah the Prince, who compiled the Mishnah in the second century.

Facade of catacomb no. 14, Cave of Rabbi Judah the PrinceCredit: Davidbena

Owing to this, for centuries Jews from across the Middle East wished to be buried next to their sages or make a pilgrimage to this hallowed ground. Funerary inscriptions and graffiti left by visitors point to people from across Palestine, Syria, Turkey and all the way down to Himyar, an ancient Jewish kingdom in Arabia, says Prof. Jonathan Price, a classicist at Tel Aviv University.

Greek is the most prevalent language in the Beit She’arim necropolis, followed by Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac, Price says. This reflects the fact that for Jews, Hebrew was a sacred language, but many spoke Greek or Aramaic (or one of its dialects, like Syriac) in their daily lives – as did most people across the Middle East.

The newly deciphered inscription is the only case known to date of a Persian alphabet being used at Beit She’arim, , Price notes. That’s no coincidence. In the heyday of Beit She’arim, from the third to the sixth century, which is when this inscription was made – Palestine was a province of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, a bitter enemy of Sassanid Persia.

Menorah and sarcophagus in "Cave of the Coffins", Catacomb no. 20, Beit She'arimCredit: Davidbena

Yanur, who art thou?

It was Price who, on a hunch, emailed a picture of the mysterious inscription to Agostini back in 2019. The historian then teamed up with his mentor and renowned Iran studies expert, the late Prof. Shaul Shaked of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to decipher the text.

The puzzle took two years to crack (Shaked passed away in 2021) and the research will be published in early 2023 in the Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae, a collection of all ancient inscriptions found across the Levant.

Here is the tentative translation of the inscription that Agostini and Shaked proposed:

“A king’s dwelling(?) to Yanur ... in between Rasam and Našna (in) the house of Panutas(?) ... and the treasurer new joy and exaltation my mouth(?) ... seal.”

Apparently, there are some pieces missing and the text requires much interpretation. Let’s start from the end, because is it’s the easiest part.

“Seal” is a pretty common way of closing a blessing or invocation, just like “amen.”

The mouth expressing joy and exaltation recalls other formulas used in graffiti left by pilgrims at Beit She’arim to invoke or bestow blessings and share their happiness at having reached the site, Price says.

Now for the hard part: It would seem that the writer of the graffito was someone called Yanur who had just been bestowed a house or estate by the king of Persia, located somewhere between these two places, Rasam and Nasna, Agostini theorizes. Yanur may be further giving us information about his status and employment by telling us he is a treasurer and belongs to a family of a certain importance, the house of Panutas, Agostini adds.

While it was scribbled on the walls of a catacomb, the graffito is not a funerary inscription, as it is not associated with a particular burial, Price says. Rather, it is one of the many texts that enthusiastic pilgrims scribbled on the walls over centuries to leave a sign of their visit, a common practice by adherents to many religions, he says.

“My assumption is he is identifying himself, where he is from, what his post is, and how happy he is to see what he is seeing,” Price says, adding that this was more or less the standard for the many inscriptions left at the cemetery by pilgrims.

The question is then who was this Yanur, a rare Persian-Aramaic speaker to visit Beit She’arim. The problem is that neither Yanur, nor Panutas, nor the locations that seem to be mentioned in the text could be identified in other historical records, Agostini says.

The most likely scenario is that he was an official in the Persian administration, and was thus familiar with Pahlavi script, but was probably a Jew and a native Aramaic speaker, the historian says. He may have hailed from Babylon, which was then part of the Persian Empire and hosted a large Jewish community, he speculates.

“Maybe he wanted to leave a cryptic message that only a few people could understand, or maybe he wrote it as a kind of exercise, to leave something unique that merged his mother tongue with his knowledge of Middle Persian,” Agostini says.

A jug of Aramaic wine, a loaf of Zoroastrian bread

When this writing was written on the wall, there were deep connections between Aramaic and Persian culture. Pahlavi script itself was derived from the Aramaic alphabet, and Aramaic was one of the major languages of this transnational empire, Agostini says.

In fact Aramaic was considered the language of high culture by the Persians and had an important religious role. So much so that in the holy texts of Zoroastrianism, the official faith of the empire, some key words like “bread,” “water,” or “wine” were often written in Aramaic transliterated into Pahlavi letters, just like Yanur did, Agostini says.

In the other direction, over the ages, Jews borrowed from Persian language and culture. For example, incantations composed in late antiquity by Babylonian Jews often contained Persian words or letters. Several scholars, including Shaked, have also raised the possibility that some of the theological concepts found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which predate the Beit She’arim necropolis by centuries, may have been influenced by the religious dualism, the idea of a cosmic battle between good and evil, typical of Zoroastrianism.

As to how a Sassanid official would have made it to the heart of the Byzantine Empire, Agostini and Shaked hypothesized that he may have visited Beit She’arim during the short-lived Persian occupation of the Holy Land during the last Persian-Byzantine war (602-628 C.E.), which left both sides exhausted and ripe for the soon-to-come Islamic conquest of the Middle East.

If indeed it was written during the Persian occupation, the graffito would date to the very end of the use of the Beit She’arim necropolis. However, since borders in ancient times were pretty porous, it is also possible that Yanur visited the cemetery at an earlier time, perhaps during a period of peace between Persia and Byzantium, Agostini says.

Lost again

Adding to the mystique of this graffito is that the fact that it has also apparently gone missing, says Price. The inscription was uncovered by archaeologists in the 1950s in Catacomb 14, one of the most lavish burials in Beit She’arim, decorated with a monumental façade and hosting the tombs of major rabbis connected to Judah the Prince’s family.

Now, it’s gone. During a recent survey of the cemetery, it was not possible to locate Yanur’s inscription, Price tells Haaretz.

This is not entirely unusual, as the Beit She’arim site, today a National Park, has greatly deteriorated since it was first excavated in the 1930s and 1950s, he says. “Inscriptions can disappear in many ways: erosion by water washes them away from the cave walls; ceilings collapse; and some unfortunately get covered by graffiti written by modern visitors,” he says.

So, it is possible that Yanur’s cryptic message lives on only in photographs. And whatever the assumed treasurer wanted to tell us, his brief message is yet another testament to the fame and importance of Beit She’arim for Jews around the world, Price says.

“It was known because of Judah the Prince, but it also became an impressive place to visit in its own right,” he says. “This inscription is another unique indication of the site’s major international fame at the time.”

Only time and further research might be able to give us more information about Yanur’s story, where he was from and what exactly he was trying to tell us with his enigmatic graffito.

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