The single richest source of information about the world’s first alphabet is the ancient Egyptian mining site of Serabit el-Khadem, in west-central Sinai. The Egyptians were lured to Sinai by turquoise, a semiprecious blue-green stone from which artisans could fashion amulets, scarabs and necklaces. The earliest Egyptian mines in Sinai date to about 2650 B.C.E., but sometime during the XIIth Dynasty (1991–1786 B.C.E.) they moved their operations to the rich veins at Serabit. The photo below shows the view inside one mine.

Serabit el-Khadem operated for at least eight centuries and the site contains some of the most magnificent ruins in the entire vast peninsula. The remains of a temple dedicated to the goddess Hathor still stand on a plateau overlooking the mines; one of the names by which Hathor was known was “Lady of the Turquoise.” (A depiction of Hathor, with her trademark hairdo, can be seen in the foreground of the photo below.) The temple started simply as a cave where the goddess was worshiped; it grew over the centuries as a portico, chambers, halls, courtyards, pylons and room after room were added.

The inscriptions at Serabit el-Khadem are written in the earliest known alphabetic script, from which all other alphabets derive. That script is called Old Canaanite or proto-Canaanite (though in the form found at Serabit it is known as proto-Sinaitic script). Proto-Canaanite script works on the acrophonic principle (see drawing illustrating acrophonic principle). Sir Flinders Petrie, widely considered the father of modern Near Eastern archaeology, found ten such inscriptions in 1905.

The Serabit el-Khadem inscriptions were long thought to have been the earliest examples of proto-Canaanite script, but researchers have now dated them to 1500 B.C.E. (as did Petrie). A few older inscriptions, dating to the 16th century and possibly earlier, have been found in what was Canaan, making them the oldest alphabetic writings.

Scholars do not agree on how the inscriptions at Serabit el-Khadem should be read, though there is general agreement on the identity of most of the letters. The two photos and the drawing above show a 26-letter inscription in which several objects are easily recognizable: an ox head (letters 1, 11, 20, 23), which evolved into the Hebrew letter ’alep and our own A; a snake (2), precursor of nun and N; a fish (7), forerunner of dalet and D; a sign for water (9, 14, 18, 21), the source for mem and M; and a man’s head (22, 24), precursor of resû and R. William F. Albright deciphered the inscription to read, “Thou, O Shaphan, collect from ’Ababa eight(?) minas (of turquoise). Shime‘a, groom of the chief of the car[avaneers(?)].”

Another inscription (above), consisting of an ox-head and a crooked staff, the forerunner of lamed, reads, “El,” the principal north Semitic deity and one of the names for God in the Hebrew Bible.

Despite the general disagreement over the reading of the Serabit el-Khadem inscriptions, the meaning of one frequently occurring word is undisputed. The word is lb‘lt, l-ba-al-at, “to Baalat,” the feminine form of the Semitic word meaning “Lord.” That the name of a Semitic deity should appear so frequently on inscriptions at an Egyptian mining site in Sinai indicates that Semites were present at the site, probably in large numbers and probably as skilled workmen. Given the vast temple to Hathor at Serabit, many scholars believe that the Semitic workmen worshiped Ba‘alat in the form of Hathor.