One of the Earliest Examples of the Semitic Alphabet Has Been Discovered on a Piece of Egyptian Limestone

At some point in the second millennium BCE, speakers of ancient Canaanite languages—of which Hebrew was one—adopted the Egyptian hieroglyphic script to write their own tongues, using about two-dozen characters to represent particular consonant sounds. The writing system they developed later evolved into several Semitic alphabets, including Hebrew, Phoenician, and Arabic; from the Phoenician version, the Greek and Latin alphabets were later derived. Researchers have recently deciphered what seems to be a tool used by an Egyptian scribe for learning the new alphabet, as Amanda Borschel-Dan writes:

Newly deciphered Egyptian symbols on a 3,400-year-old limestone [fragment] from Luxor’s Tomb of Senneferi appears to be the first written evidence of the ABC letter order of the early Semitic alphabet, according to the University of British Columbia Egyptologist . . . Thomas Schneider. Schneider concludes that a small (approximately 10 x 10 centimeters, or about 4 x 4 inches) double-sided limestone flake was used by Egyptian scribes as a mnemonic device to remember the letter orders of not one, but two forms of early Semitic alphabets.

On one side of the flake is Schneider’s recent discovery: the transliteration into cursive Egyptian writing of the sounds that signify the beginnings of today’s Hebrew alphabet (alef, bet, gimel). On the other side is a contemporary though now lesser-known letter order, called “Halaḥam,” which was deciphered in 2015, on the same limestone flake. . . .

The limestone piece is dated to the Egyptian 18th dynasty, from the excavation of Theban Tomb 99 from the necropolis on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor, known as the Tombs of the Nobles. The director [of the excavations], Nigel Strudwick, found the object back in 1995, in what he calls “a later tomb shaft,” dating to about 1450 BCE.

“The reason why the object is in the tomb is really unknown,” Strudwick [stated]. He said . . . it is possible that it was introduced into the shaft as late as 110 years ago, as the tomb was used as a house as late as 1907. “[It] is, however, of roughly the same date as the tomb to judge from the handwriting style. So it could have been lying around somewhere in that area of the necropolis for over 3,000 years before it ended up where we found it,” said archaeologist Strudwick. Tomb 99 has been identified as belonging to Senneferi (also known as Sennefer), who was active in 1420 BCE. This ancient Egyptian noble was a known character, a mayor of Thebes, whose likeness is recorded in several statues.

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More about: Ancient Egypt, Archaeology, Hebrew alphabet, History & Ideas

Syria’s Downing of a Russian Plane Put Israel in the Crosshairs

Sept. 21 2018

On Monday, Israeli jets fired missiles at an Iranian munitions storehouse in the northwestern Syrian city of Latakia. Shortly thereafter, Syrian personnel shot down a Russian surveillance plane with surface-to-air missiles, in what seems to be a botched and highly incompetent response to the Israeli attack. Moscow first responded by blaming Jerusalem for the incident, but President Putin then offered more conciliatory statements. Yesterday, Russian diplomats again stated that Israel was at fault. Yoav Limor comments:

What was unusual [about the Israeli] strike was the location: Latakia [is] close to Russian forces, in an area where the IDF hasn’t been active for some time. The strike itself was routine; the IDF notified the Russian military about it in advance, the missiles were fired remotely, the Israeli F-16s returned to base unharmed, and as usual, Syrian antiaircraft missiles were fired indiscriminately in every direction, long after the strike itself was over. . . .

Theoretically, this is a matter between Russia and Syria. Russia supplied Syria with the SA-5 [missile] batteries that wound up shooting down its plane, and now it must demand explanations from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. That won’t happen; Russia was quick to blame Israel for knocking over the first domino, and as usual, sent conflicting messages that make it hard to parse its future strategy. . . .

From now on, Russia will [almost certainly] demand a higher level of coordination with Israel and limits on the areas in which Israel can attack, and possibly a commitment to refrain from certain actions. Syria, Iran, and Hizballah will try to drag Russia into “handling” Israel and keeping it from continuing to carry out strikes in the region. Israel . . . will blame Iran, Hizballah, and Syria for the incident, and say they are responsible for the mess.

But Israel needs to take rapid action to minimize damage. It is in Israel’s strategic interest to keep up its offensive actions to the north, mainly in Syria. If that action is curtailed, Israel’s national security will be compromised. . . . No one in Israel, and certainly not in the IDF or the Israel Air Force, wants Russia—which until now hasn’t cared much about Israel’s actions—to turn hostile, and Israel needs to do everything to prevent that from happening. Even if that means limiting its actions for the time being. . . . Still, make no mistake: Russia is angry and has to explain its actions to its people. Israel will need to walk a thin line between protecting its own security interests and avoiding a very unwanted clash with Russia.

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More about: Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Russia, Syrian civil war