11 Bahira

It is not known whether Bahira ever wore the ring that King Numan had left in the cell. As custodian of the Numan ring and other religious artefacts he most probably safeguarded the Ring along with the other relics and books in a place of safe keeping in his cell awaiting the second coming.Regardless, immediately Bahira saw the young Muhammad he was in no doubt that this was that moment. Without further thought he passed on the ‘Gift of God’ to the adolescent boy, the crest of which was to become the shape of the dome under which the Muslim faithful for all time would pray. This prophecy subsequently played out across the Islamic world as tens of thousands of Mosques were constructed, many replicating the exact form of the ring’s crest.

The dome is a symbolic shape and closely aligned to the architectural style favoured by most Muslim architects when designing new mosques. Whilst it is clear now as to why this particular shape is used many architects do not realise the humble origin of the form. The association between the mosque and the signet ring is obvious. The Prophet Muhammad dictated that the place of prayer,the mosque be of a simple construction and shape and style of the dome being consistent in shape with his ring.

Bahira’s mother came from a wealthy trading family. She was the youngest of five girls all of which
were married off by her father. When her turn for marriage came, her groom, a former Roman
legislator, and many years her senior settled down as a merchant in Sham. She was married at the
age of 12 or 13yrs and bore seven children the youngest of which was Georgious (Bahira). Her
beauty was legend. During an attack on Sham she was carried away as a hostage of war and never
returned to see her family again. Her bewitching eyes caught the attention of the commanding
general who took an immediate interest in the lady. He, like others was mesmerised by her beauty
and particularly her deep ‘green’ eyes. Rather than succumb to his wishes she gauged out her eyes
and offered them on a plate for her fated oppressor’s satisfaction. Thereafter, the young boy was
taken into the care of a fledgling monastic order known as the Nestorians who groomed and taught
him the cycle of a life of penitence and prayer. To all accounts his life as a monk was typical of the
time and uneventful until the day he met the young Prophet Muhammad.

As a practicing Nestorian Christian monk he settled in Sham (Syria). His birth name was Sergius or
Georgious. He was opinionated and for that trait expelled from a monastery and to expiate his fall
from grace set out as a young, penniless man on a journey to Arabia. He ended up taking residence
in a cave or cell near Bostra, Syria where he had his first encounter with the young Muhammad.
Sometime later he travelled to Mekkah where he was reunited with the Prophet Muhammad. The
couple had met some 10 years earlier when as a boy the young man was passing by his cave in a
caravan with his uncle. The relationship was re-ignited and Bahira spent much of his available time
with Muhammad. During that period he would have imparted knowledge and ideas about his
Christian belief.

The Prophet’s detailed knowledge of Christianity may well have emanated from such conversations.In particular the verses on the Psalms of David may well have come from Bahira. “We have sentthee inspiration, as we sent Noah and the Messengers after him; we sent inspiration to Abraham,Isma’il, Aaron, and Solomon, and to David We gave the Psalms”. Fifteen years after the initial meeting with Bahira Muhammad re-visited Bostra with Maysarah. They came to the same place aspreviously. A new monk called Nestor now inhabited the cell. He enquired as to who the other man was . Myasarah told the monk that he was from Quraysh. The monk immediately recognised the ring and said, “He is the Prophet”.

One of the wealthy merchants in Mekkah was a woman named Khadijah, daughter of Khuwaylid of the clan Asad. She was a cousin of a Christian called Waraqah. Muhammad had in the meantime
built a fine reputation for himself in Mekkah where he was called al-Amin, the Reliable and Trustworthy. Khadijah heard about the man and enquired as to whether he would take a shipment
of goods on her behalf to Syria. Muhammad agreed. She offered him the services of her trusted
servant Maysarah. It was when they reached the stopping point at Bostra that Muhammad settled
down beneath tree close to the Bahira cell where he had been given the Signet Ring some 15 years earlier.

On reaching Mekkah on their return leg they went to Khadijah’s house with goods purchased in Syria. Muhammad had negotiated a handsome profit for his mistress. At the time Muhammad was
25 years of age medium stature with fine bones and a broad shoulders long black hair and large oval eyes. He was a very good looking man, the likes of which did not pass Khadijah’s notice. Myasarah told his mistress about the meeting with the monk Nestor and the Angels who circled the Prophet whilst travelling. Waraqah confirmed this, and other facts.” If this is all true said Khadijah then if Muhammad is the Prophet of our people. Long have I known a prophet is to be expected, and this time hath now come.” The reassurance of Khadijah and Waraqah were followed by a reassurance from Heaven in the form of a second Revelation. We know that the Prophet was very specific when it came down to the design and building of his mosques. The distinctive shape of the ring’s frontal dome, although now coated in a patina compatible to its age depicts a plain, contoured, symmetric dome.

One can but imagine the young man pondering the future and what was to become as he spent those countless hours, alone on the hillside observing, and handling this small object between his
fingers. During such moments he would have had ample time to reflect on its robust albeit delicate
design, and whilst doing so observe its central characteristics and form, the strength of which was later to manifest itself in the thousands of mosques around the world. The impression that it had on his mind must have stuck. Years later, this simple shape was to have a new meaning and  relevance. The Faithful who prayed to His God did so within a design of his making. This fact is
relatively new to modern Islamic research as it was only when the ring was systematically examined
in minute detail that this connection was made. Hitherto experts had nothing upon which to establish the link other than by adding together scant evidence as recorded and projected through
the Hadith

The association with Bostra is not coincidental. Bostra was a thriving trading point on the North South caravan highway, a route used by the Mekkan, Medinah and Cairo caravans. Muhammad
would have been very familiar with both the route and the caravan watering halts. Bostra (Latin)
Greek Bosorra is a ruined Nabatean city in Syrian city 67 miles (108Km) south of Damascus. Cornelius Palma, a general of Trajan destroyed the kingdom in 103 AD. It still has many Roman ruins amongst them is the best preserved theatre. It became the capital of the Roman Province of Arabia, where the Third Roman Legion, Cyrenaica used the fortress as a garrison. The city was important as a great Roman road connected the city to the Red Sea. The governor of the Province took his residence there and at that time the city had a very large population of over 800,000 people. This was then a very sizable metropolis. Following Roman occupation the city was primarily a Christian city.16 Bishops are recorded to have resided in the place, the most celebrated being Beryllus. Over time it was suppressed by the Greeks and its citizens became subject to the diocese of Damascus. The Catholic Greeks or Melchites have always maintained this See under the title of Bostra or Hauran.Born about 362AD Sozomen names Titus among the great men of Contantius. In the Al-Hira context the significance of the city was marked by the actions and premonition of a Nestorian monk called Bahira. The city’s ultimate demise came much later. Following an earthquake in 1151AD the city was left in ruins. In 930AD the Qarmantians, who made business robbing, looting and applying taxes to pilgrims on the Hajj raided Mekkah. From there they launched a raid and stole the Black Stone from the Ka’bah. They kept it for 20 years until, thankfully, some wealthy Tunisian Ismailis returned it more, or less intact. The gifting of the Signet Ring to the young Muhammad by Bahira is a popular story, known by most schoolchildren, students and followers of Islam. The event was specifically recorded by his uncle and those who made up the auspicious Syria bound caravan train which included the ten year old Muhammad. The significance of that event cannot be over-stated. This was the first time that a third party outside the Prophet’s immediate family, other than his mother knew in advance that the young man was destined for greatness. At birth his mother saw a physical sign on her baby son’s back. Immediately she realised that her he was special. His mother had also witnessed a miracle, she had seen the clot of blood, the evil inside the infant being removed from his chest and the incision so made miraculously started healing itself.

This miracle was related to others by the family and the Quraysh clan members at the Ka’ba. Even so, those present still had no idea as to the true significance of the fact. It was not until some ten years later when Bahira announced to the boy’s uncle that he was destined to greatness that the true significance of his being was realised within the then pagan community. Some fifteen years later Nestor the Christian monk re-confirmed this fact. Even then it is unclear as to whether the clan’s folkin Mekkah fully appreciated the fact that they were then in the company of the Prophet of God.

Throughout his early life the Prophet wore the little ring as a symbol of his union with God. Upon the Prophet’s death, the ring’s significance increased. Conflicts within the fledgling Islamic
community which included his Companions and extended family caused tensions. The third custodian, the caliph Uthman reportedly lost the ring. From contemporary accounts this was not the
case. Rather than have it stolen by envious third parties he hid it along with other personal possession in an unassuming stone shrine on Mt Hira. This place was later known as the shrine of
Abdallah, close to where the Prophet had received his first revelation. Only now, some 1,400 years
after the event can we evaluate the true meaning and value of the ring. Shortly after having secreted away his inherited treasures Uthman was murdered and with his demise went his secret

This story commences with the first Christian pilgrims. When King Numan 1st cast off his robes and his trappings of office he was following a practice popular amongst the emerging Christian sect. This trend was not restricted to men but included a few ladies who likewise, for one reason or another sought out holy places. Between the years 381-4AD the western pilgrim Egeria travelled to and around the Holy Land and Egypt. She visited numerous holy shrines and places of biblical interesten-route. Her objective was to identify the places as were depicted in the Bible. During her
extensive travels she visited the Holy land and Egypt. In particular she attempted to re-trace the
route taken by the children of Isreal as they made their exodus from Egypt to the desert.

The Monastery of St. Catharine

The Monastery of St. Catharine is a historic and holy place. It is situated in an isolated spot
surrounded by mountains. The Monastery was built in a commanding location at the foot of the
mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments. As with Bahira and other
hermit monk’s early Christian hermits, searching seclusion from worldly affairs, was living in the area of the holy mountain since the very earliest of times of Christianity.

After her visit to the impressive site of’ the Burning Bush’ Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, decided in 330 AD to permit a chapel to be build at the site. This chapel was
dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Later on pilgrims reported about problems and a particular massacre
of some of the monks in the mountain retreat. In 527 AD Emperor Justinian ordered the construction of a fortress to protect the hermits of the High Mountains. Above the heavy wooden
entrance wooden frames carry the names of Justinian, his wife Theodora and the architect’s Stephanos. St. Catherine is among the oldest Christian monasteries, and the smallest diocese in the
world. The Monks today are Greek Orthodox and represent many different nationalities.

The Church of Transfiguration is built in the shape of a basilica and divided into the narthex, where a collection of icons is exhibited, the main body of the church, and the apses with the altar. Among the most impressive art work of over fifteen centuries are chandeliers each decorated with the egg of anostrich, and icons, among them the famous iconostasis presenting the huge icons of St. John the Baptist, the Holy Virgin, Christ, and St. Catherine. Amongst the many of its treasure is a 6th century mosaic showing the transfiguration of Christ.

The Chapel of the Burning Bush is the most sacred part of the monastery. Once it is believed to have contained the Burning Bush itself. This relic was replaced outside of the chapel and fenced behind a stone wall. Every Saturday the monks hold their liturgy in the chapel.

According to Greek legend in 634 a Christian priest Johannes of Damascus wrote a Christianised
version of the story of Guatama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. The story narrated an account of two men Barlaam and Josaphat. According to the legend King Abenner persecuted Christian which had been founded by the Apostle Thomas. Against this background he was concerned to hearthrough an astrologer that his own son would one day become a Christian. The son was born and named Josaphat. To prevent contact with the outside world he led a very sheltered life but one day a hermit called Saint Barlaam. Later he converted under his influence to Christianity. His father
resisted the conversion but eventually he too converted and gave up his throne to his son. Like Bahira he retired to the desert and lived in solitude in a cave. The son later followed in his father’s
footsteps by abdicating his throne and all the powers and influence that went with it.

The Gregorian monk Euthymios of Athos circa 1022 translated the story into Greek. This story was popular across Europe in the middle Ages. The word ‘Josaphat’ is derived from the Arabic ‘Judasal’.

12 NESTORIANS

This religious branch of the Christian church is now united with the Roman Church and is known as Chaldeans. They form the largest of the many small Christian communities in present day Iraq. TheNestorian Church played an important part in the spread of Christianity East. Nestorian missionariesfollowed the Silk Road to China and established a small Christian community there. The Nestorians have been marginalised over time. In 1934 many Nestorians immigrated to the United States where they still practice their version of Christianity. To best understand the basis and concept of theTheology of the Church the reader needs to understand the origins of the movement.

The Theology of the Church of the East has been stated briefly and clearly in the following
“Hymn of Praise (TESHBOKHTA)” Composed by Mar Babai the Great, in the sixth century A.D.,
(Mar Babai the Great was a noted academic and learned theologian of the Church)
One is Christ the Son of God,
Worshiped by all in two natures;
In His Godhead begotten of the Father,
Without beginning before all time;
In His humanity born of Mary,
In the fullness of time, in a body united;
Neither His Godhead is of the nature of the mother,
Nor His humanity of the nature of the Father;
The natures are preserved in their Qnumas*,
In one person of one Sonship.
And as the Godhead is three substances in one nature,
likewise the Sonship of the Son is in two natures, one person.
So the Holy Church has taught.

Qnuma, is an Aramaic word. The nearest equivalent is the Greek “hypostasis”, in Latin
substantia” and in English “substance”.

For most of us our knowledge of the Nestorian Church may be scant, however, Nestorian archive
chronicles provide evidence that King Numan (Numan 1st) had received the precious ring which
reputedly descended directly from the Archangel Gabriel. Upon receipt of the ring the King
abdicated, left his kingdom and converted to Christianity. From this point in time there is a clear or  a land written account of the physical passage via the Hadiths and Islamic folklore.

Nestorius, was born in Euphratesian Syria 31 years after Theodore of Mopsuestia (c.381AD). He was destined to have his name permanently linked with the great mepasqana because of his Dyophysite pronouncements and the adoption by the faculties of Edessa and Nisibis of his and Theodore’s polemics and commentaries. Together, Theodore and Nestorius served as the wellsprings of the two Mesopotamian schools that carried the banner of Nestorianism. Nestorius used his position as bishop of Constantinople (428AD) to preach against the title Theotokos, “Mother of God,” that was given to the Virgin Mary. He claimed a more authentic title should be the Mother of Christ. Although much of Nestorius’s sermons and teachings were ordered to be burned, the doctrine of Nestorianism survived and served as the basis for Dyophysite teachings in the fifth and sixth centuries, particularly at Nisibis, which had inherited the mantle of Syrian scholarship from Edessa.Fragments of Nestorius’s letters and sermons have been preserved in the Acts of the Council of Ephesus, citations in the works of St. Cyril of Alexandria (Nestorius’s creedal adversary), and throughthe interpolated Syriac text, The Bazaar of Heracleides, an apology, written near the end of his life (c.436). The Nestorian spirit was redoubtable. Secured in the Persian Church, it continued to flourish in the seventh century despite persecution from the Sassanids, and after the invasions of the Turks and Mongols. Nowhere is its intellectual vibrancy and spirit more apparent than in its theological school,Nisibis, the successor to Edessa. It is here where our narrative leads, and the explication of the environment that produced Paul’s Dyophysite text and Junillus’s Instituta Regularia Divinae Legis begins. Apart from the Bahira incident the West can thank two Nestorian monks for bringing silk to the West. Since 550AD when these two monks returned from the Emperor’s court in the Forbidden City, China and presented themselves to the Byzantine, Justinian’s court with silkworm eggs hidden within the shafts of the bamboo staves the Chinese secret was out. Under severe penalty the monks were instructed to hatch out the worms and create a competing silk industry to the Chinese. In this they were successful and, as instructed they kept the secret to themselves, sericulture or silk production then became a reality. For centuries sericulture in China was the most zealously guarded secret in history. Even the Romans could not create the prized cloth. Ever since 3000 BC when the ‘Goddess of Silk’ Lady His-Ling-Shih, wife of the Yellow Emperor invented the loom for spinning silk the Chinese Imperial Court strictly controlled all silk production and jealously guarded all aspects secret of production and manufacture. Up until that time silk had been produced in limited quantity but without the technology to cultivate the moth and manufacture the loom the industry never took off.

The Chinese, through a process of trial and error developed a sophisticated process to manufacture very high quality silk in volume. For this a dedicated force of workers were deployed. The first
challenge was to prevent the moth from hatching out, the second was to perfect a balanced diet on
which the silk worms would be fed. Temperature control during the pre-hatching period was vital.
Starting at 65 degrees the heat would gradually be increased to 77 degrees Centigrade. When this
point was reached the eggs would hatch. An intensive feeding programme would then commence
with finely chopped fresh mulberry leaves being fed at hourly intervals to the tiny worms. Within the space of 30 days the worms would be fully fattened. By this time their body mass would have increased by 10,000 times. All of this detail was scientifically worked out by the Chinese over 5,000 years ago. At that time the wild silk moth called Bombycidae was used. This lived of leaves from the white mulberry tree, a tree unique to China. This blind, flightless moth is capable of laying 500 minute eggs in four or five days. Once of these eggs will produce over 35,000 worms. Their ravenous appetite is capable of eating over a tonne of mulberry leaves from which 5 kg of pure silk can be produced. By the time the Nestorian monks reached Constantinople they would have been aware of each of the key steps of production. Over the previous millennia the wild moth had been
domesticated and its characteristics had greatly altered. Many types of silk worm have been used by the Chinese but in the end one species, Bombycidae dominated

Regarding monk cells and hermits generally, men have retreated to the desert sanctuaries for centuries in the search for God, drawn by the quiet and isolation, by the feeling of divine presence in the barren wilderness in the sand and the wind. Monk cells have been adapted or built in Egypt and elsewhere since the 3rd century. “When you live in a quiet place like a cell you are alone with God,you start to hear yourself.” Coptic monks have inhabited cells near Cairo since early times. The recent find by Maximous Elantony, a Coptic monk from the Apostle Church of St Anthony’s Monastery 100 miles southwest of Cairo is a fine example of such architecture. The monastery is breathtaking, rising up from the sand are two tall towers with a Coptic cross. The Monaster presently houses 110 monks. The cells are made of bricks and plaster. The church is an overlay of buildings dating back to the 8th century, and beneath are cells which pre-date the 4th century. To be a monk is to let you free of everything to connect yourself only with God. The church holds a library containing over 2300 ancient manuscripts.

In parallel with both Islam and the Christian faith Judaism is based on the belief that there is but one God. The Jews were not alone in recognizing and worshipping a universal ethical God. In Iran to the east the Medes and the Persians had evolved out of paganism a belief in a single deity, the ultimate power. Zoroaster, a prophet and Persian in the 5th c BC. With the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine (311-337AD) Christianity was established across the Roman Empire. This ultimately led to the Christianisation of the entire Roman state. By the time of the great Christian emperor Justinian ( 527-567AD ) the full panoply of Roman power was used to not only to establish supremacy of the state-approved doctrine among the many schools of thought into which Christianity were now divided. The eastern Roman Empire commonly referred to as the Byzantine Empire was always known as being the Roman Empire; they did not however speak Latin romoni but Greek rhomaioi. Both the Byzantine and the Persian empires were overwhelmed by the advancing tide of Islam in the early decades of the 7th century but there is a significant difference in their respective fates. The Byzantine armies suffered crushing defeats and lost many provinces to the Arabs. The core, the imperial capital Constantinople remained secure in Christian hands. Weakened it did however survive for another seven hundred years until 1453AD. Persia however was totally over-run and lost the entirety of its territories. All of which were incorporated within the new Arab Islamic Empire. In 25BC the emperor Augusta decided to attempt to conquer the Yemen. This, to establish a Roman foothold at the southern end of the Red Sea and thus a direct route east to India and beyond. The expedition was a failure never to be repeated by the Romans.

During the period 384-502AD when Rome and Persia were at peace there was little interest in Arabia by either of the two great rival powers. The overland trade routes across Europe, Asia Minor and Arabia were then expensive and hazardous to traverse. As a result in Arabia traffic decreased, even settlers in oasis migrated or reverted to a Bedouin existence when trade diminished. Nomadism had always been an important part of Arabian society. It now became predominant. This period is referred to as the Jahiliyya, or the Age of Ignorance. This concept is in direct contrast to the Age of Light, Islam. By the 6th century the world order changed with the resumption of Perso-Byzantine conflict. By this time the southern trade route was more important than the northern route partly because it was possible to get further away from the reach of Persia. The Byzantines opted to secure a direct route to India free from interference from the Persians. In this respect frontier states appeared as client principalities on both the Byzantine and Persian sides. On the Byzantine desert border, there was the Arab principality of Ghassan. This region occupied the territory now known as Jordan. On the Persian side was the principality of Hira. Both were Christian Arab, but political allegiance was markedly split.

In 527AD The Byzantine Emperor Justinian funded a war between these states. He gave the Ghassan chief adequate resources, including gold and he was later declared Patrician of the Roman Empire.The Roman influence expanded to include Ethiopia. They were funded to attack the Yemen and in 507AD attacked Mekkah. A Yemenite trading post and caravan route to the north. They were beaten off and replaced by Persian forces. During the early years of the Prophet’s life Yemen was under Persian control. This status was a major defeat for the Byzantines as it blocked there eastern trade route. The early Islamic chronicles tell of a group of people known in Arabic as Hanif who. While abandoning paganism were not prepared to accept any other the other religions or religious doctrines then on offer. They became the earliest converts to the religion of Islam. Christian records are scant when it comes to the former years of Islam. In general physical records were not made, the stories passing on from generation to generation verbally until alter they where put down in ink.The word Qur’an is an Arabic word which combines the meanings of reading and recitation.Muhammad was born in 571AD. to a Quraysh Arabic tribe in the Hejaz. In 622AD, 13 years after his first Revelation the Prophet entered into an agreement with emissaries from Yathrib, some 218 miles north of Mekkah. The content of this contract gave him and his companions 60 families’sanctuary against persecution from the Mekkahn authorities. Here he became ruler and exerted military and well as religious influence and authority. From this strategic point the Prophet and his fledgling army entered into a war with the pagans in Mekkah.

13 Writing and Records

The codex Sinaiticus written in the mid 4th century in vernacular Greek is the oldest complete Bible
in existence. This book presently resides in the British Library and represents the earliest complete
collection of Christian thoughts. As the fountain of Biblical knowledge all other variations and
adaptations of the Bible merely embellish these, age old words. This incredible work includes the
Septaugint, the Old Testament and as such provides the reader with an unparalleled overview of
knowledge.


Codex Siniaticus

Most early written records and communications were made using a pen, quill or writing stick. The
medium used was usually a carbon based ink or daub. The alphabet, a Middle Eastern invention was a great improvement on the various systems that preceded it, these included signs and pictures. The Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic alphabets all derived from the mercantile people of the Levant. By the eighth century when Chinese paper making technology was more widespread across the Levant region knowledge was transmitted quickly and much more accurately using the written word in a commonly accepted and understood medium. Shortly before Robert Purnell arrived in Egypt – in 1795AD the first newspapers were printed in Constantinople, the first of which was the Gazette François de Constantinople. There were said to be plans to print an Arabian newspaper in Cairo at about that time but it did not materialise. The newspaper superseded the age old Islamic tradition of spreading news during Friday prayers in the Mosque and speeches given in public places.Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt was the founder of the vernacular press in Egypt starting with a French edition of the official gazette and later printing an Arabic version. It was not until 1840 when the Jeride-Havadis was published in Istanbul that being a non-official paper, printed for sale to the public. Coincidentally, the name Persia or Persis is not strictly the name of the country but rather the name of a province, the south western province of Pars or Fars. Concerning the art of writing the ancient texts which form the Old Testament represent some of the earliest recorded chronicles of early events and happenings. Islam and Christianity incorporate this Book into their religion.

Unlike the Holy Qur’an the Bible is a collection of books written by various authors over time. No
one person claims exclusive rights or priority. It is up to the reader to assimilate the contents and
meanings of the verses and then take a consensus view as to the relevance . On the other hand the words that make up the Holy Qur’an are heaven sent.

As the written messages from God were delivered to Earth by an Angel the transfer of these
utterances into a form understood by all men is critical in our understanding and appreciation of this
central Islamic belief. Sophisticated examples of the calligrapher’s art evolved in the Middle East
and with came the first Qur’ans, beautifully worked manuscripts of exquisite style and form.

By the 7th century writing with quills or stylus was a fully evolved art form and practiced throughout Europe and the Middle East. Ever since the Roman Empire Roman writing had travelled with the army to every corner of the Roman world. The Romans had developed their alphabet from the alphabet created by the Phoenicians . In contrast, the Aramaic people of whom the Phoenicians were a part had settled in Syria 1,000 BC. Their writing disappeared following the Assyrian invasion in 732BC. Aramaic scripts spread throughout the Assyrian Empire replacing cuneiform systems. From this emerged Arabic and Hebrew. The Arabic script as used by Muslims the world over descended from the Nabatean branch of the family of Arabic scripts makes its first appearance in 500AD, over 1,000 years before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. The writing of the sacred Qur’an helped standardise Arabic script. Unlike the Romans Arab merchants recorded transactions using the cursive Arabic script for centuries writing from right to left on various substrates. Hebrew scribes also continued to write from right to left, but they had traditionally used leather as a writing surface and were amongst the first to use parchment for the making of records. Both these surfaces were harder and smoother than and considerably more sympathetic to the hard writing instrument than papyrus. Likewise, the rapid spread of Arabic script post the advent of Islam was extensively written on animal skins. Before they were able to benefit from the first of the imported fine smooth papers from China there was no other comparable substrate available. Regardless, their great calligraphicskill flourished. The elaborate cursive flourishes of the Arabic letters present a visual feast for the eye, a combination of pure art and calligraphy combined .

Papyrus had been in use since the 3000 BC. Parchment or writing skin evolved between 197 and 158 BC. The development of communication using papyrus meant that simultaneous facsimile messages could be sent across the Empire at great speed. Interception was a worry and for this the Egyptians developed ciphers, complex codes and Nomenclator. Their sophisticated communication system provided secure transmission of sensitive data without any fear an enemy breaking their
hieroglyphic ciphers. Such was the commercial and political sensitivity of this material that Ptolemy
cut off supplies of papyrus on which Eumenes scribes depended. The Dead Sea scrolls found in 1947 in the desert of Judea have miraculously survived 2,000 years of internment. This much studied fragments have enabled scientists to look deeper, and with more precision into the ancient Jewish mindset.

One of the most durable substrates favoured by calligraphers for writing is parchment, a smooth
natural, slightly oily surface which is made from sheep or goat skin. Once dry, ink bound onto this
material is secure. The natural skin is pliable, robust and impervious to water or most other liquids.
It does not perish and is reasonably fire and insect resistant. On the negative side, its preparation is
complex and slow making it a costly item. The skins are first steeped in lime and the hair and flesh
carefully scraped off. They are then damped and stretched over a wooded frame covered with chalk to remove excess fats and sun dried. The surface is then scraped with a moon shaped metal blade until a very flat surface is achieved. The final part of production is sizing. The skins are cut to shape and then written upon. Both sides can be used. Vellum is made from calfskin and is softer, papyrus is far more fragile. Until 273AD the Roman pretender, Firmus Brutus boasted that he could support an entire army on taxes generated from the sale of papyrus. The adoption of parchment as a universal writing substrate had a profound influence on the invention of the codex (ancient, hand written book), as opposed to the scroll form of the book. The reference in the Qur’an relating to the ‘pen’and tablet are at odds with one another. The pen, as such would not have been used on a stone or metal substrate. At best it would have been used on prepared leather. There is no evidence to support the fact that Muhammad ever created a hand written scroll or codex. Some Islamic accounts claim that the Prophet was illiterate, there being no evidence of him ever being schooled.However, a more durable record of the words of God could easily have been produced in Arabic script on soft gold plates, or tablets using a simple metal stylus. His relative and prodigy, Ali would have been well equipped to produce such a work as he was both numerate and literate.

This conclusion would support the claim made centuries later by the French Knight Raynald de
Châtillon that amongst the horde that he shipped to France were the very same engraved gold plates. His treasurer recorded that within the Macoraba horde that had been hijacked by the errant Knight ‘s army were a collection of such gold plates or ‘tablets’, each of which was numerically
coded. This explanation holds with the view that the end product was ‘an inviolable tablet’. The
significance of gold in Islam was important as its association was thereafter directly linked with the
gold substrate upon which was etched the Qur’anic script. This fact may have been the reason why
the Prophet Muhammad never used gold as either adornment or ring and forbade his Companions
and followers from so doing.

Climatic pressures, war and political discontinuities combined to play havoc with many rare and
precious documents resulting in a very poor survival rate.

Prior to the invention of paper papyrus was the common substrate for written communications. In
this respect nothing much had changed since Roman and Byzantine times. This material did not lend itself to codex production. Registers and records were invariably kept in roll format. The use of parchment was more limited in the Hedjaz region. It was not until paper was introduced that record keeping in book form became a more regular feature within offices and record offices. After the Arab Muslim conquests in the seventh century the Persian Empire crumbled and ceased to exist.From the rump of this ancient Empire emerged the new force that became the Arab Islamic empire.Egyptian papyri makers continued to serve this new order as if nothing had changed. The technology that they deployed was exacted the same as had been used for several thousand years. In Egypt the Christian officials continued to collect taxes according to the same rules, to use the same administrative documents and even dated their ledgers by the old era. The transition from Greek to Arabic was slow, until eventually Greek was removed from all official documents and replaced with Arabic. Similarly in Syria and Iraq Arabic replaced the Old Persian script and language.

Even with such change, which came gradually not all parties fell in with the new practices. Long after the arrival of the Arabs many old traditions and secrets remained. For example the mechanism of recording commercial and financial affairs was a closely guarded secret. Ancient accounting systems devised by wary Persian accountants prevented the Arab newcomers from prying into their affairs.Penetration into government was thus made extremely difficult and in the end the Arabs, who had unchallenged military might finally succumbed to the old clerks and let them get on with their business as they had done for centuries before. By the second century of Arab Islam rule the Arabic language was fully imposed as the language of government. This unification measure was successful in creating a common form of communication but it did not have a total effect on the ousted, old bureaucratic families many of which were Copts, or Christians. The precise location of many ancient places of historical or architectural interest including shrines and ancient mosques in Saudi Arabia are largely unrecorded. Architectural and infra-structure development in the Arabian Peninsula dates back to the earliest civilisations and as such the region has a provenance second to none.However, much of this history is unrecorded. Moveable type and mechanised letterpress printing was only introduced following the Ottoman period. Aggressive weather conditions, unbearable heat,erratic rainfall with seasonal deluges combine to make many parts inhospitable even to the scant nomadic population who inhabit this vast region. Permanent buildings, unless robust in every way inevitably fall prey over time to accelerated degradation due to the combined forces of the elements. The location of water, wells and cisterns are often better recorded than buildings of rudimentary construction. As with other places the practice of enforcing historic heritage conservation programmes is relatively new in the Arabian Peninsula. Even the most revered buildings in Mekkah and Madinah have, over time been repeatedly modified following fire, flooding,tempest and plunder. For this reason it is clear that many buildings that predate the unification of the four provinces in 1932 suffered from the lack of an enforced policy on heritage preservation. The creation of the Royal Kingdom of Saudi Arabia partly helped resolve this issue by creating limited planning and heritage preservation policies which are now in place. Against this back-drop the environment that Robert Purnell entered was far from organised and all but a few buildings and places of outstanding architectural value were preserved. At the time the Wahhabi uprising was in full swing and buildings of all types, especially mosques were under physical threat. Prior to the 18 th century few if any organised archaeological digs were undertaken in the Hedjaz region.

TO BE CONTINUED...