Arabic Scripts: 9th-10th centuries


Manuscripts of the 9th and 10th centuries


The manuscripts for this lesson are all from Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai. The Library of Congress sponsored a microfilming expedition to Saint Catherine's in 1950, photographing about half of the collection. The other half were microfilmed by the Jewish National Library (now the National Library of Israel). Scans of all of these microfilms are being made available online. Bitonal microfilm offers challenges in reading that we will not meet in the full color images used for the rest of this course. For example, it is difficult to distinguish black ink from red. Fortunately, the letter-shapes are generally clear.


These codices are among the oldest Arabic books that survive. They offer a mix of “Kufic” features alongside what is usual for Naskh. The line is quite horizontal; that is, we see little of the down-and-up shapes found in later types of writing. The letters are generally more angular and less rounded than in later scripts, though the angularity varies in degree. For example, Sin. ar. 2 and 4, both perhaps of the tenth century, are not quite as angular as Sin. ar. 1. This angularity is especially notable in the letters kāf, dāl/ḏāl, mīm, and in the lām-alif ligature, which may be sharply angled on both sides at the bottom. The final yāʾ in the prepositions ilá, fī, and (not as commonly) ʿalá has a distinctive shape: flat and sitting on the line, with its bottom stroke pointing against the direction of the text. The cluster ṣād/ḍād/ṭāʾ/ẓāʾ has on the right side more of a squat, rectangular box than a loop.

Example 1

Sinai, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sin. ar. 1, f. 12r, 9th century (?)

Old Testament (Job, Daniel, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel)

Example 2

Sinai, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sin. ar. 151, f. 44v, 867 CE

Epistles and Acts

Example 3

Sinai, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sin. ar. 154, f. 101r, 9th century (?)


This manuscript again has writing with notable angularity. As with other Christian manuscripts of this and subsequent periods, hamzas are not indicated.

Example 4

Sinai, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sin. ar. 309, f. 48v, 909 CE


This tenth-century manuscript also shows the angularity especially characteristic of this early period, but there are places where curves are prominent.

Example 5

Sinai, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sin. ar. 589, f. 35r, 10th century (?)

Old Testament (Baruch, 4 Ezra)

Although this manuscript also displays the sharpness of writing in the early period of Arabic writing in codices, here the script is not as sharp and angled as in some other manuscripts. The lām-alif (see awlādihi in line 1), for example, is round, as is usual for later hands. The kāf and the final yāʾ in prepositions look exactly as one would expect.