The three Aramaic inscriptions on basalt stelae from Sefire, in Syria, constitute one of the most important sources for our knowledge of Aramaic in the first half of the first millennium BCE. The stelae were discovered at Sefire, 25 km (16 mi.) southeast of Aleppo, in the late 1920s. Stelae I and II were acquired by the Damascus Museum In 1948, and stela III by the Beirut Museum In 1956.

Stela I was first called the Sujin stela because Sébastien Ronzevalle, a French Jesuit and professor at Université St. Joseph, Beirut, had been misled about its findspot by the natives who claimed to have discovered it at Sujin. The stela is inscribed on three sides of a rectangular basalt stone. Because the stone was cut after it was engraved, not only was the text on the left side of face A lost, but also the beginnings of the upper lines on face A and the ends of the upper lines on face B. The stone had also been broken in the center, so that at least three lines are missing from the middle of the text extant on three sides. As reconstructed, stela I stands 131 cm high. Face A originally had forty-two lines; face B, forty-five lines; and face C, twenty-five lines. Stela II, reconstructed from a dozen fragments, must have resembled stela I. Its face A today has only fourteen fragmentary lines; face B, twenty-one lines; and face C, seventeen lines. Stela III was pieced together from nine fragments, forming a broad slab 102 cm wide and 72 cm high; it is inscribed only on the reverse, with twenty-nine fragmentary lines. Stela III also is of basalt and has the same kind of writing, absence of word dividers, and the same mention of “kings of Arpad.” Hence, it is certainly related to stelae I and II, and all three probably form the text of one and the same treaty, although this is presently debated.

The stelae are inscribed in Aramaic script dated to the middle of the eighth century BCE. They preserve the text of a treaty/treaties made by the north-Syrian ruler, Mati῾el, son of ῾Attarsamak, vassal-king of Arpad, with his overlord, Bar-Ga'yah, king of KTK. The terminus ante quem for the stelae is 740 BCE, when Tiglath-Pileser III conquered Arpad, making it part of the Assyrian Empire. The inscriptions presuppose the political autonomy of Arpad. As king of Arpad, Mati῾el had concluded a pact with Ashurnirari V In 754 BCE. He was also an ally of Sardur III of Urartu, prior to the resurgence of Neo-Assyrian might. These stelae, then, were important factors in the history of Syria in the time of Jeroboam II (786–747 BCE) of Israel and of Uzziah (783–742 BCE) of Judah.

The stelae record a suzerainty treaty, a pact concluded between a vassal and his overload. Their text identifies the contracting parties, sets forth the stipulations of the pact, mentions the curses invoked against Mati῾el if he is not faithful to them, and lists the gods, Canaanite and Babylonian, who are witnesses to the treaty. The main problem in the interpretation is the identification of the overlord Bar-Ga'yah, possibly Shamshi-Ilu, and of the country, KTK, over which he ruled, possibly the Kittakka of some Assyrian texts.

[See also Aramaic Language and Literature.]

Bibliography

  • Dupont-Sommer, André. “Une inscription araméenne inédite de Sfiré.” Bulletin du Musée de Beyrouth 13 (1956): 23–41, pls. 1–6. Editio princeps of stela III.
  • Dupont-Sommer, André. “Les inscriptions araméennes de Sfiré (stèles I et II).” Mémoires présentées par divers savants à l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 15 (1960) 195–351, pls. 1–29. New edition of stela I and editio princeps of stela II.
  • Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Aramaic Inscriptions of Sefire. Biblica et Orientalia, 19. Rome, 1967. Extensive commentary on the Aramaic text of the stelae, with a study of its grammar and a glossary.
  • Lemaire, André, and Jean-Marie Durand. Les inscriptions araméennes de Sfiré et l'Assyrie de Shamshi-Ilu. École Pratique des Hautes Études, 2. Hautes Études Orientales, 20. Geneva and Paris, 1984. Good status quaestionis and up-to-date bibliography.
  • Ronzevalle, Sébastien. “Fragments d'inscriptions araméennes des environs d'Alep.” Mélanges de l'Université Saint-Joseph 15 (1930–1931): 237–260. Editio princeps of stela I.
  • Rooy, H. F. van. “The Structure of the Aramaic Treaties of Sefire.” Journal of Semitics 1 (1989): 133–139.

Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J.