designates a number of linguistically related ethnic groups who spoke the West Semitic language called Aramaic and who inhabited a considerable part of the Near East, particularly Syria and Mesopotamia, in the first millennium BCE. A number of Aramean nation-states developed in Syria in the late eleventh and the tenth centuries BCE that became influential in the political and cultural development of the Levant. Aramean tribes also became a major population element in both Assyria and Babylonia in the first half of the first millennium BCE, so that eventually Aramaic became the primary spoken language of the Fertile Crescent, largely replacing Akkadian in the east and the local West Semitic dialects, such as Hebrew, in the west.

The origins of the Arameans are obscure. They make their first certain appearance in historical texts only in the early eleventh century BCE. Some scholars believe that they were pastoralist tribes living on the borders of the Syrian desert who swept northward into northern Syria and Upper Mesopotamia during the last years of the second millennium.After establishing themselves there, the tribes migrated both toward the southwest, into central and southern Syria, and southeastward, into central and southern Mesopotamia. Those scholars who disagree with this model suggest that the Arameans were simply the descendants of the West Semitic population of Syria, known from earlier second-millennium sources as Amorites and Ahlamu. Although political power in northern Syria had been held by the Hurrians in the Late Bronze Age, the Iron Age saw a resurgence of Semitic aristocracies (i.e., Arameans) in control of many areas.

Arameans

Aramean City States

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The Arameans never developed a unified culture or political entity. Numerous small states developed throughout Syria and flourished between the eleventh and the late eighth centuries BCE, alongside other states whose aristocracies belonged to Luwian-speaking groups that had migrated into northern Syria after the collapse of the Hittite Empire. The Aramean states were eventually demolished, both economically and ethnically, by the Assyrians, through brutal military suppression and mass deportation of populations.

Although dozens of Aramean tribes and states existed throughout Syria, only a few of them became politically significant and played major roles in that region's political history.

  • 1. Bit-Zamani, Bit-Baḫiani, Bit-Ḫalupe, and Laqu. Four Aramean states developed quite early along the western border with Assyria, but they came under Assyrian domination by the ninth century BCE. The important city of Guzana (Tell Ḥalaf) was the capital of one of these states, Bit-Baḫiani. The excavations there provided significant evidence of early Aramean public art and architecture.
  • 2. Bit-Adini. Located in the great bend of the Euphrates River, Bit-Adini was a formidable opponent to Assyrian expansion during the early ninth century BCE. Excavations have taken place at two important cities of Bit-Adini—Til Barsip (Tell Ahmar), which may not actually have come under Aramean control until the reign of Aḫuni, the last king of Bit-Adini, and Hadatu (Arslan Tash), which became an important Assyrian outpost in the region after Bit-Adini was annexed.
  • 3. Bit-Agusi. In the region surrounding Aleppo, the state of Bit-Agusi was called Yaḫan early in the ninth century BCE, and, sometimes, Arpad, after its capital city, in the eighth century. This state, under vigorous kings, became a primary power in northern Syria in the ninth and eighth centuries BCE and was not fully subdued by the Assyrians until 743 BCE, during the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III. Limited excavations have been undertaken at Arpad (Tell Rifa῾at), and an important Aramaic treaty between king Mati῾᾽el of Bit-Agusi and one Bar-Ga'ya of the land of ktk, inscribed on stone stelae, was found at the site of Sefire, in the southern part of the kingdom.
  • 4. Aram Damascus. In southern Syria, Aram Damascus played a major role in the Levant in the ninth and eight centuries BCE, with the peak of its power occurring in the mid and late ninth century, under its kings Hadad-idri and Hazael. No excavations have reached Iron Age levels at Damascus.
  • 5. Sam'al (Zincirli). Mention should also be made of the small city-state of Sam'al (Zincirli). Excavations at this site produced considerable sculpture, architecture, and inscriptions that are an important source of study for north Aramean culture.
  • 6. Other states in Syria. There were certainly large populations of Arameans in other states in Syria, although they were often ruled by members of the Neo-Hittite aristocracy. Some states had both a Luwian and an Aramaic name, such as Pattina/Unqi. The important kingdom of Hamath was ruled in the tenth and ninth centuries BCE by dynasts with Neo-Hittite names, but by kings with Aramaic names in the eighth century BCE.

Literary remains of the Iron Age Aramean states are very limited. A few Aramaic inscriptions on stone are known, but most of the historical information available about these kingdoms comes from Assyrian texts and the Hebrew Bible. These two sources, while helpful, are of limited value, however, because they deal almost exclusively with the conflicts between their own nations and the Aramean states. They offer little or no insight into the internal structure of the Aramean kingdoms. In addition, remarkably little archaeological work has been done on the important sites, and most of the large-scale excavations that have taken place, such as at Arslan Tash, Tell Ahmar, Tell Ḥalaf, and Zincirli, were in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, before reliable field and recording techniques were developed.

Not much can be said about Aramean culture because so little archaeological and literary data has been recovered so far. The Arameans do not appear to have made major contributions either to political or social practices in the Levant; and their styles of art and architecture are largely based on those of others. In northern Syria, the artistic and architectural traditions of the Arameans were heavily influenced first by the Neo-Hittite states, which preserved many cultural elements of the Late Bronze Age Hittite civilization, and later by the Assyrians. The few artistic pieces from southern Syria show a strong cultural influence from Phoenicia. The Arameans in Babylonia appear to have adapted to Babylonian styles.

Aramaic inscriptions indicate that Aramean religion descended from the West Semitic religion of the second millennium. The weather/fertility god, Hadad, appears to have been the head of the pantheon in several of the Aramean states, while the moon god Sin/Shahar, El, Rakib-el, Shamash, and Resheph seem to have played significant roles.

The major legacy of the Arameans was their language and script. Because they were probably the largest population group in Syria, their language came to dominate that area early in the first millennium BCE. The mass deportations of Arameans into Assyria in the ninth and eighth centuries resulted in the spread of the language into northern Mesopotamia; by the late eighth century it was being used as a diplomatic language by the Assyrians themselves. In the Neo-Babylonian period, Aramaic became the most common language in Babylonia as well. The Persian government adopted Aramaic as its international language, so that it came to be used commonly across southwest Asia. Thus, archives of Aramaic papyri from Egypt in the Persian period, Aramaic documents from Palestine in the fourth century BCE, and inscriptions from Turkey, Iran, and even Afghanistan have been found. Eventually, Palestine's local West Semitic dialects, including Hebrew, died away and were replaced with Aramaic. By the last two centuries BCE, Aramaic had become an important language for Jewish literature, and Syriac, an Aramaic dialect, played an important role in the Eastern church in the Roman and Byzantine periods.

The Arameans borrowed their script from the Phoenicians, probably in the late eleventh or early tenth century. However, they made a significant adaptation to Phoenician writing customs: they were the first to use some of the alphabetic letters to indicate vowel sounds (the so-called matres lectionis). This important contribution to orthography was slowly adopted by other cultures, including Israel. Eventually, the Aramaic script itself came to replace the other national scripts of Syria-Palestine, including that of Hebrew. The square script commonly used in Judea (Judah) by the third century BCE, which is the ancestor of the Hebrew book script used today, is actually a descendant of Aramaic script.

[See also Aramaic Language and Literature; Damascus; Halaf, Tell; and Syria, article on Syria in the Bronze and Iron Ages.]

Bibliography

  • Brinkman, John A. A Political History of Post-Kassite Babylonia, 1158–722 B.C. Rome, 1968. See this and the following for information about the Aramean tribes in Babylonia.
  • Brinkman, John A. Prelude to Empire: Babylonian Society and Politics, 747–626 B.C. Philadelphia, 1984.
  • Fitzmyer, Joseph A., and Stephen A. Kaufman. An Aramaic Bibliography, part 1, Old, Official, and Biblical Aramaic. Baltimore and London, 1992. Monumental, comprehensive bibliography of all published Aramaic inscriptions and papyri.
  • Gibson, John C. L. Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions, vol. 2, Aramaic Inscriptions. Oxford, 1975. Convenient English translation of the major Aramaic inscriptions.
  • Greenfield, Jonas C. “Aspects of Aramean Religion.” In Ancient Israelite Religion: Essays in Honor of Frank Moore Cross, edited by Patrick D. Miller, Jr., et al., pp. 67–78. Philadelphia, 1987. Brief, helpful discussion of a topic that has barely been examined in print.
  • Hawkins, J. D. “The Neo-Hittite States in Syria and Anatolia.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 3.1, edited by John Boardman et al., pp. 372–441. Cambridge, 1982. Thorough, rather technical survey of the history and culture of Iron Age Syrian states.
  • Layton, Scott C. “Old Aramaic Inscriptions.” Biblical Archaeologist 51 (1988,): 172–189. Fine, recent survey of the earliest known Aramaic inscriptions.
  • Pitard, Wayne T. Ancient Damascus: A Historical Study of the Syrian City-State from Earliest Times until Its Fall to the Assyrians in 732 B.C.E. Winona Lake, Ind., 1987. Detailed account of this important southern Syrian state.
  • Pitard, Wayne T. “The Aramaeans.” In Peoples of the Old Testament World, edited by Alfred J. Hoerth, Gerald L. Mattingly and Edwin Yamauchi, pp. 207–230. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1994. General introduction to Aramean history and culture.
  • Sader, Hélène. Les états araméens de Syrie depuis leur fondation jusqu'à leur transformation en provinces assyriennes. Beirut, 1987. Deals in detail with Bit-Baḫiani, Bit-Adini, Bit-Agusi, Sam'al, Hamath, and Aram-Damascus.

Wayne T. Pitard