The Complete Text of the Abila Inscription Concerning Lysanias

Raphaël Savignac[*]
Suk Wady Barada (Abila)
Souq Wadi Barada, the site of ancient Abila. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Last April, while I was staying at the French hospital in Damascus with Father Jaussen, Mr. Gayraud, priest of the Mission and professor at the Collège des Pères Lazaristes, sent us a copy of an inscription that had recently been sent to him by a Mr. Albisseti, director of the electric power plant for the lighting the city of Damascus and the powering of its trams. The mention of several Augusti in the first line of this inscription, and the mention of a certain freedman of the tetrarch Lysanias in the fourth line, immediately reminded me of a rather famous inscription,[1] discovered, like this one, in the neighborhood of Souq Wadi Barada, which, as we now know, was the site of ancient Abila, the capital of the tetrarchy of Abilene. I wondered whether this newly discovered text might not actually be that same inscription rediscovered for a second time, since in the meantime the original inscription had gone missing. Back in Jerusalem, I hastened to compare the texts and was surprised to learn that in fact we now have two inscriptions, both displaying the same text. The newly discovered inscription, however, is in a better state of preservation and therefore is able to correct the readings of the earlier inscription, which was the only copy available until now.

Mr. Albisseti, having been informed of the importance of his copy of the famous inscription, has graciously authorized this publication. For his part, Mr. Gayraud, assisted by several of his colleagues, was kind enough to go and verify the reading of this copy on the spot and to provide me with a sketch of its location (Fig. 1) and to observe several interesting details.[2]

Lysanias Inscription
Figure 1: The new Greek inscription from Abila.

I hope that all those [534] who kindly assisted me in this endeavor will accept my most sincere thanks.

Figure 2: The environs of ancient Abila.

This new inscription was discovered about a year ago by a certain Youseph Sa’id, owner of the land on which stands the Neby Abil shrine, opposite Souq Wadi Barada, twenty-nine kilometers by railroad, north north-west of Damascus (Fig. 2). Imagining that this inscription would reveal to him to the location of a hidden treasure, he hid his discovery for a while. At last, however, he decided to mention it to Mr. Albisseti, in the hopes of learning from this engineer some valuable clue concerning the famous treasure. M. Albisseti hastened to raise the monument, and sent a copy to the Pères Lazaristes of Damascus, who communicated it to me in the circumstances described above.

Inscription Location
Figure 3: Abila. The location of the new inscription.

The inscription is engraved on the side of the mountain, apparently at the edge of an ancient path. This path, leaving Souq Wadi Barada, would have led directly to the temple which Mr. Gayraud described as “ruins at the top, on the the edge of the rock and overlooking the valley, in front of three villages: Kafra ‘Aouàmid a little to the right, Bourhelya in the middle and Souq Wadi Barada a little to the left” (Fig. 2, 3, & 4). “One may,” continues Mr. Gayraud, “come quite easily, though quickly down the rock, to the inscription. Beyond this are screes along the rock, but the path may have continued down to the bottom of the valley. A little further, according to [535] the testimony of the owner of the tomb of Abel, there are, in three different places, traces of stairs cut in the rock.” Presumably these are the vestiges of the road whichNymphaeus in the inscription claims to have constructed and by which one had to climb from Abila to the sanctuary of Kronos on the summit. Our inscription was engraved along the road, and another, the one previously known, had been inscribed in the walls of the temple,[3] so that the pilgrims would be unable either to ignore or forget the name of their benefactor.

The new inscription published here (Fig. 1) contains nine complete and well-preserved lines. It measures about 1 m. long and 60 cm. high. The letters have [536] an average height of 10 cm.; they are very clear and present no difficulty to the reader. The engraver must have been a local Syrian worker with very little knowledge of the Greek language, if, indeed, he had any. We see that he attempted to imitate the letters in his engraving, but he forgot some letters and distorted some of the others.[4]

Screen Shot 2019-11-03 at 3.48.07 PM
Figure 4: Abila. Location of the remains of the Kronos sanctuary.

Below is a transcription of this text; we put in square brackets the supplemented letters and parentheses those which obviously must be corrected.

A1. Ὑπὲρ τῆς τῶν κυρίων Σεβαστῶν

A2. σωτηρ[ί]ας καὶ τοῦ σύμπαντος (α)ὐτῶν

A3. οἴκου, Νυμφαῖος Ἀβιμμεου(ς)

A4. Λυσανίου τετράρχου ἀπ[ε]λε[ύ]θερο(ς)

A5. τὴν ὁδὸν κτίσας ἐπο[ί]ησεν καὶ τὸν

A6. ναὸν οἰκοδόμησεν καὶ τὰς φυτεί-

A7. ας πάσας ἐφύτευσεν ἐκ τῶν (ἰ)δί-

A8. ων ἀν(αλ)ωμάτον. Κρόνῳ κυρίῳ

A9. καὶ τῇ πατρίδι εὐσεβείας χάριν.

For the salvation of the lords Augusti and their entire house; Nymphaeus son of Abimmeos, freedman of Lysanias the tetrarch, who founded the road, constructed it and built the temple and planted all the orchards at his own expense. To the Lord Kronos and to the fatherland for the sake of piety.

To facilitate the understanding of the remarks that follow, we give here the second inscription as it was copied by Pococke, from the reproduction of the Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum.[5] [537]








B8. …ΩΝΙΔΙΩΝΑΝΑΛ………………………



{And to further facilitate understanding, this translation also includes the transcription that appears in Dittenberger’s Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones Selectae:[6]

B1. Ὑπὲρ (τ)ῆ(ς) τῶν κυρίων Σε[βαστῶν]

B2. σωτηρίας καὶ τοῦ σύμ[παντος]

B3. αὐτῶν οἴκου Νύμφαιος Ἀέ[του],

B4. Λυσανίου τετράρχου ἀπελε[ύθερος]

B5. τὴν ὁδὸν κτίσας ἄστε[ι]π[τ]ο[ν οὖσαν καὶ]

B6. τὸν ναὸν οἰκο[δομ]ή[σας τὰς περὶ αὐτὸν]

B7. φυτείας πάσας ἐφύ[τευσεν ἐκ

B8. τ]ῶν ἰδίων ἀναλ[ωμάτων θεῷ]

B9. Κρόνῳ κυρίῳ κα[ὶ —————-

B10. ————-] Εὐσεβία γυνή.

For the safety of the lords Augusti and their whole house; Nymphaeus…freedman of Lysanias the tetrarch, who built the road where there was none and erected the temple and planted all the orchards around it at his own expense for the divine Cronus, lord, and … Eusebia, his wife.[7]}

In spite of some copyist’s errors, there can be little doubt that this previously known inscription, which I shall refer to as “B,” reproduces word for word the text of the new inscription, which I shall refer to as “A.” Nevertheless the two inscriptions are certainly distinct. B was discovered carved in the stone ruins of a temple, while A is carved on a rock face some distance away. Moreover, the layout of the lines is also not quite the same in the two inscriptions and there are also some minor orthographical differences.

A1-2 The text of A fully confirms the reconstructions proposed for B and which otherwise seemed necessary. Note the spelling ΣΩΤΗΡΑΣ in A2 for B2’s ΣΩΤΗΡΙΑΣ and A2’s ΛΥΤΩΝ for B3’s ΑΥΤΩΝ.

A3 “The inscription definitely reads ΑΒΙΜΜΕΟΥΕ,” wrote Mr. Gayraud, responding to my request for verification. The photograph now verifies this reading as well. The certainty of the transcription notwithstanding, the last letter in A3 and at the end of A4 ought rather to be a sigma (Σ) than an epsilon (Ε). It has now become evident that the final letter in B3, which was transcribed as epsilon (Ε), is really a damaged beta (Β). The name Αβιμμεους appears to be of Semitic origin. The first element Αβι- corresponds to אבי, the word for “father,” which occurs as the first element in many proper names; the Semitic equivalent of the second element, -μεους, is less easy to determine; מעון (“strength”) is one possibility.

A4 With the discovery of A there can no longer be any hesitation to complete the last word of B4 as ἀπελεύθερος, despite the spelling in A4 which incorrectly reads ΑΠΛΕΘΕΡΟΕ for ΑΠΕΛΕΥΘΕΡΟΣ.

A5 Towards the middle of the line, the two copies of the inscription have a rather remarkable variant. After κτίσας, B5 reads ΑΣΤΕΠΟΙ…, which the Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum interpreted as ἄστ[ρωτον],[8] judging the transcription of the last four letters to be erroneous. We believe that the error is rather with the first three letters, which must be simply be deleted as proven by A. The letters ΑΣ are a dittography due to [538] to the copyist’s or engraver’s distraction. It was probably the same copyist or engraver who was responsible for the mistakes in the other text, A. The presence of the tau (Τ) in B5 is less easily explained, but the transcription was so poor! and on the other hand we now know that the artist was capable of making such drinks! After reading the full text, no one will hesitate to interpret ΕΠΟΙ by ἐποίησεν or ἐπόησεν, assuming that Ι is not one! but the first bar of a Η. The form ἐπόησεν was very common in κοινή and appears in other Syriac inscriptions; strictly speaking, it would not be necessary, therefore, to suppose that a Ι is missing in A. – Then came the conjunction καί.

A6 The new inscription shows that B6 ought to have read οἰκοδόμησεν καὶ τάς. The temple in question can only be the one I have already referred to whose ruins were visible in the vicinity. It would be interesting to have a complete plan of this monument; Pococke’s description does not inspires great confidence.

A7-8 The new inscription supports the previously suggested reconstructions of the B text. The spelling ἠδίων in A7-8 should be corrected to ἰδίων in B8, ΑΝΜΩΜΑΤΩΝ in A8 is obviously fa mistaken reading for ΑΝΑΛΩΜΑΤΩΝ (only partially preserved in B8). In the text given to the engraver, the two letters alpha and lambda (ΑΛ) were written too closely together with the result that the engraver mistakenly read them as the single letter mu (Μ). The orchard planted by Nymphaeus would have been a kind of sacred grove on the outskirts of the sanctuary. To this day, “We find here and there along the rock the green oaks which are considered sacred and which one is forbidden to touch.”[9] Without in any way suggesting that the oaks standing today are descendants of those planted by Nymphaeus, as tradition or legend might claim in such circumstances, it is, nevertheless, fascinating to observe the existence of sacred trees in this location.

A9 This line now allows us to complete the lacuna in B9 without difficulty as κ[αὶ τῇ τατρίδι]. As Renan had already surmised, the conjecture that the feminine name Eusebia appeared in B10 has been disproved; the formula εβσεὺ(ε)ίας χάριν is required.[10]

Building Housing Lysanias Inscription
Figure 5: Plan and reconstruction of the temple in Abila where the earlier inscription (B) was discovered. From Richard Pococke, A Description of the East and Some Other Countries (2 vols.; London: W. Bowyer, 1743-1745), 2:136.

Let us review briefly the great historical importance of these inscriptions, [539] which has been discussed by Renan[11] and Schürer,[12] in view of the reconstructed text which has now been guaranteed by the recent discovery.

Lysanias Coin
Figure 6: A coin issued by the elder Lysanias (the grandfather [?] of Luke’s Lysanias). Image courtesy of the Classical Numismatic Group.
According to the Gospel of Luke (3:1) the 15th year of Tiberius (AD 28/29) coincided with with the rule of Lysanias, tetrarch of Abilene. But since historians were aware of only one Lysanias, who ruled the Itureans and killed by Antony in 34 BC, some of them accused the evangelist of making a chronological error of some sixty years. But was this really the Lysanias St. Luke intended? It appears unlikely that St. Luke would call the elder Lysanias, who ruled a large territory, tetrarch of Abilene, which comprised only a small part of his realm. But precisely this part was named after Lysanias when Caligula awarded it to Agrippa I in AD 37, which conferral was confirmed by Claudius in AD 41 (Josephus, Ant. 19:275).[13] Therefore, some scholars have suggested that Lysanias, king of the Itureans, was an ancestor of a Lysanias who was tetrarch only of Abilene. This younger Lysanias would have been the one to whom St. Luke referred in his Gospel.

The inscriptions from Abila have now proven the existence of this younger Lysanias. Although the inscription does not bear a precise dated, the chronological indication provided the phrase τῶν Κυρίων Σεβαστῶν (“the lords Augusti”) is valuable. According to Dittenberger[14] this title, now known to be relatively common in Syria, may refer to the Roman emperor and his entire family. However, a reference to the entire imperial family cannot be the meaning of “the lords Augusti” in our inscription, which as we now know read καὶ τοῦ σύμπαντος αὐτῶν οἴκου (“and their whole house”) immediately after this phrase. Therefore we must return to the approach taken by Renan and Schürer, namely, to identify a time when two individuals simultaneously bore the title Augustus. Agrippina and Nero can be excluded, since from the year AD 37 the tetrarchy of Lysanias had ceased to exist. Therefore, our inscription must refer to Livia and Tiberius. Livia took the title Augusta after the death of Caesar Augustus, who died in the year 29 BC. Moreover, Nymphaeus, having been freed by Lysanias the tetrarch, would not have been old enough to remember elder Lysanias, king of the Itureans. All the indications suggest that our inscription refers to a reigning sovereign or one who was only recently deceased. St. Luke’s Lysanias was that prince. Beyond this point the terrain of religious history is much less solid and I dare venture no further.

Territory of Agrippa I
Figure 7: Northern territories governed by King Agrippa I of Judea. The red arrow indicates the site of ancient Abila. Map detail from George Adam Smith, Atlas of the Historical Geography of the Holy Land (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1915), Map 44.

The title Κύριος (“Lord”) is added to the name Κρόνος (“Kronos”) only in our text. Usually [540] this title is placed before the proper name of a divinity and takes at least the definite article (excluding vocatives). Might this title represent a Semitic substantive attached to the name of a god? According to Philo of Byblos, among the Phoenicians Kronos was equivalent to Elos or El.[15] But the title El-Ba‘al is not attested. If we regard Kronos as an equivalent of the mysterious MLK, we might think of the Canaanite deity Malakba‘al or Aramaic Malakbel. The latter was associated with the sun, but we have also repeatedly recognized this same association with regard to El-Kronos.[16] Be that as it may, this is a Semitic deity.

In their recent expedition to Neby Abil, the Professors of the Collège des Pères Lazaristes of Damascus discovered a fragment of a third inscription also bearing the name of Nymphaeus. Here is a drawing of this fragment from Professor Abel’s copy:

Nymphaeus inscription
Figure 8: Nymphaeus inscripton.

The second name is very clear and there can be little doubt that it refers to the same Nymphaeus as in inscriptions we have discussed. Nevertheless, from the letters that appear the first line, it seems that the content of this inscription differs from the other two (i.e., A and B). It would be of great interest to find the rest of this third Nymphaeus inscription. We hope that over the coming holidays our intrepid teachers will discover it. The stone, unearthed in May, upon which these two fragmentary lines are engraved was part of the ancient temple enclosure, which is still visible.

Raphaël Savignac
Jerusalem, June 1912


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[*] This article originally appeared as Raphaël Savignac, “Texte complet de l’inscription d’Abila relative à Lysanias,” Revue Biblique 9.4 (1912): 533-540. Since this article is now in the public domain, I have included the original version here. I have marked original page numbers at approximate breaking points in brackets like this: [195]. My thanks to Pieter Lechner for his technical assistance and his friendship, both of which are greatly appreciated.

[1] Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum (4 vols.; ed. August Böckh et al., Berlin: 1828-1877), 3:240, no. 4521 (Addenda, 1174). See also, Renan, Mémoires de l’Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, 26.2:67; and the edition published by Wilhelm Dittenberger, ed., Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones Selectae (2 vols.; Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1903-1905), 2:302-303.

[2] Since the expedition of the Pères Lazaristes to Abil, Mr. Albisseti, having erected a scaffolding in front of the inscription at his own expense, managed to make a copy which he was kind enough to photograph and to share with us through Mr. Gayraud. We reproduce this document in preference to the copy (Fig. 2). Fathers Abel and Dhorme, who were traveling in Damascus last July, went to check this text and Father Abel made the two sketches reproduced here (figures 3 and 4).

[3] The inscription published in the Corpus and discovered by Pococke “was part of a small Doric temple situated on the height and today almost destroyed” (Renan, Mémoires de l’Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, 26.2:66).

[4] M. Gayraud adds to the description of the monument a detail worthy of mention. “We see,” he says, “at the bottom and right of the inscription, but outside the frame, the three letters ONO accompanied by six arrows ONO:

↖︎ ↑ ↗︎
↙︎ ↓ ↘︎.

In addition, below and in the center, but still outside the frame of the inscription, is a stone relief in the shape of a square 15 to 20 centimeters per side.” From all these observations I am rather tempted to conjecture that the destroyed relief depicted the name [ΚΡ]ΟΝΟ[Σ] accompanied by a symbol of lightning.

[5] Because in this inscription the sigma (Σ) had the square form it is easy to understand the confusion in the first line where the transcriber wrote ΓΗΕ instead of ΤΗΣ.

[6] See Dittenberger, Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones Selectae, 2:302-303.

[7] Translation according to David C. Braund, Augustus to Nero: A Sourcebook on Roman History 31 BC-AD 68 (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1985), 232.

[8] Dittenberger reads ἄστε[ι]π[τ]ο[ν] in place of ἄστιπτον, “inaccessible.”

[9]Thus according to a letter from Mr. Gayraud. It is known that near wadis in Palestine one often finds one or more sacred trees that may not be touched.

[10] We can no longer rely on this text to establish that from the first century of our era there were proper names such as Εὐσεβία, Εὐσέβιος, Θεοσέβιος, etc. On this type of name, cf. Clermont-Ganneau in the Florilegium dedicated to M. le Marquis de Vegué, 117ff.).

[11] Renan, “Mémoire sur la dynastie des Lysanias d’Abilène,” Mémoires de l’Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, 26.2:49ff.

[12] Schürer, Geschichte des Jüd. Volkes (4th ed), 1:718ff.

[13] Ἀβίλαν δὲ τήν Λυσανίου καὶ ὁπόσα ἐν τῷ Λιβάνῳ ὄρει (“But he also added Abila, which had been ruled by Lysanias, and all the land in the mountainous region of Lebanon”; Josephus, Ant. 19:275 [Loeb trans.]). Cf. Bell. 2:215; Ant. 20:138.

[14] Dittenberger, Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones Selectae, 2:302 n. 2.

[15] Fragment 2:14; cf. Lagrange, Études sur les religions sémitiques, 2d ed., 422.

[16] R. Dussaud, Notes de mythologie syrienne, 19, 41, 63, 76.

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