Day 17 / 20 (85%)

Since all the words on Ramat Rachel’s famous seal impressions are written in the Phoenician alphabet, I thought it would be useful to have a brief piece explaining how to read the letters used by the early inhabitants of the area.

The Phoenician alphabet is a forerunner to the modern Hebrew alphabet.  The square letters Hebrew readers will be familiar with today are actually borrowed from Aramaic and came into use later.  In Old Testament times Phoenician characters were the ones in common use, and we see them on coins, inscriptions and, here in Ramat Rachel, on jar handles.

Anyone who knows the Hebrew alphabet will have no trouble with the Phoenician one – it’s simply a matter of replacing one character with another.  For people who don’t it’s a little harder, but it’s still possible to puzzle out words and names.

Here’s the alphabet, with the letters next to their Hebrew equivalents and their approximate English ones:

Now let’s try it out on an actual example of Phoenician script.  Here’s a LMLK seal similar to the ones found in Ramat Rachel (remember that Hebrew letters read from right to left!):

Using the key, we can transcribe the letters as למלך/ממשת (LMLK / MMST) – adding vowels, it reads “lamelech / Mameshet”.  “Lamelech” means “to the king”, indicating that the vessel contained tribute to the monarch, and “Mameshet” is the name of the city or town that it came from.

This is another LMLK seal – at the top (a little scrunched up) it again reads LMLK.  At the bottom of the seal it reads ChBRN – Khevron (Hebron).

Now let’s try reading an actual LMLK seal:

Again it’s recognizable as LMLK/[Ch]BRN, even though one of the letters is broken off.

As you’ve probably noticed, there’s some variation between slightly different versions of the alphabet.  Luckily, at least with the stamp impressions, the inscription is usually one of only a few options.  With a basic knowledge of the alphabet it’s simple to identify the words on most seals.