The ancient Arameans, or Aramaeans, (Aramaic: ܐܪ̈ܡܝܐ, ʼaramáyé) were a Northwest Semitic people who emerged during the 12th century BC in what is now present-day western, southern and central Syria (Biblical Aram) during the Late Bronze Age and the Iron Age, at a time when the region was ruled by the Middle Assyrian Empire (1365-1050 BC). Subsequent to the decline of the Middle Assyrian Empire in the latter half of the 11th century BC they established a patchwork of small Aramaic kingdoms in the Levant (modern Syria), then known as Eber-Nari and Aram). During the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-605 BC), e.g. under the rule of king Tiglath-Pileser III Aramean tribes were conquered and deported to different parts of the Assyrian empire.
The Western Aramaic language of the Arameans has been in steady decline in the face of Arabic since the Arab Islamic conquest of the 7th century AD, and the last vestige in and around Maalula is in danger of extinction, although Aramean personal and family names and identity are still found among the Syriac Christians in The Levant.
However, in northeast Syria, northern Iraq, northwest Iran and southeastern Turkey, Akkadian influenced Eastern Aramaic-Northeastern Neo-Aramaic-Central Neo-Aramaic dialects are still spoken and written fluently by between 575,000 and 1,000,000 people, however these people are largely regarded as indigenous Assyrians, descendant from the ancient Assyrians-Mesopotamians rather than Arameans, the Assyrians having adopted Imperial Aramaic during the 8th century BC and formed the Syriac language in 5th century BC Achaemenid Assyria.
The Arameans never had a unified nation; they were divided into small independent kingdoms across parts of the Near East, particularly in what is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the north western Arabian peninsula and south central Turkey. Their political influence was confined to a number of states such as Aram Damascus and the partly Aramean Syro-Hittite states, which were entirely absorbed into the Neo-Assyrian Empire by the 9th century BC.
By contrast, Imperial Aramaic came to be the lingua franca of the entire Near East and Asia Minor when introduced as the official language of the vast Neo-Assyrian Empire by Tiglath-pileser III in the mid-8th century BC. This empire stretched from Cyprus and the East Mediterranean in the west to Persia and Elam in the east, and from Armenia and the Caucasus in the north to Egypt and Arabia in the south. This version of Aramaic later developed in Mesopotamia into the literary languages such as Syriac and Mandaic, together with the local Neo-Aramaic dialects of the modern Assyrians. Scholars have used the term "Aramaization" for the process by which the Assyrian and Babylonian Akkadian-speaking peoples became eastern Aramaic-speaking during the later Iron Age and intermingled with the Arameans.
The toponym A-ra-mu appears in an inscription at the East Semitic speaking kingdom of Ebla listing geographical names, and the term Armi, which is the Eblaite term for nearby Idlib (modern Aleppo), occurs frequently in the Ebla tablets (c. 2300 BC). One of the annals of Naram-Sin of Akkad (c. 2250 BC) mentions that he captured "Dubul, the ensí of A-ra-me" (Arame is seemingly a genitive form), in the course of a campaign against Simurrum in the northern mountains. Other early references to a place or people of "Aram" have appeared at the archives of Mari (c. 1900 BC) and at Ugarit (c. 1300 BC).
However, there is no historical, archaeological or linguistic evidence that the Aramu, Armi or Arame were actually Arameans or related to them; and the earliest undisputed historical attestation of Arameans as a people appears much later, in the inscriptions of Tiglath Pileser I (c. 1100 BC).
Nomadic pastoralists have long played a prominent role in the history and economy of the Middle East, but their numbers seem to vary according to climatic conditions and the force of neighbouring states inducing permanent settlement. The period of the Late Bronze Age seems to have coincided with increasing aridity, which weakened neighbouring states and induced transhumance pastoralists to spend longer and longer periods with their flocks. Urban settlements in The Levant diminished in size, until eventually fully nomadic pastoralist lifestyles came to dominate much of the region. These highly mobile, competitive tribesmen with their sudden raids continually threatened long-distance trade and interfered with the collection of taxes and tribute.
The people who had long been the prominent population within what is today Syria (called the Land of the Amurru during their tenure) were the Amorites, a Canaanite speaking group of Semites who had appeared during the 25th century BC, destroying the hitherto dominant East Semitic speaking state of Ebla, founding the powerful state of Mari in the Levant, and during the 19th century BC founding Babylonia in southern Mesopotamia. However, they seem to have been displaced or wholly absorbed by the appearance of a people called the Ahlamu by the 13th century BC, disappearing from history.
Ahlamû appears to be a generic term for a new wave of Semitic wanderers and nomads of varying origins who appeared during the 13th century BC across the Near East, Arabian peninsula, Asia Minor and Egypt. The presence of the Ahlamû are attested during the Middle Assyrian Empire (1365–1020 BC), which already ruled many of the lands in which the Ahlmau arose, in the Babylonian city of Nippur and even at Dilmun (modern Bahrain). Shalmaneser I (1274–1245 BC) of Assyria is recorded as having defeated Shattuara, King of the Mitanni and his Hittite and Ahlamû mercenaries. In the following century, the Ahlamû cut the road from Babylon to Hattusas, and Tukulti-Ninurta I (1244–1208 BC) of Assyria conquered Mari, Hanigalbat and Rapiqum on the Euphrates and "the mountain of the Ahlamû", apparently the region of Jebel Bishri in northern Syria.
The Arameans would appear to be one part of the larger generic Ahlamû group rather than synonymous with the Ahlamu.
Bronze Age collapse
The arrival of the Arameans occurred during the Bronze Age collapse (1200-900 BC) which saw great upheavals and mass movements of peoples across the Middle East, Asia Minor, The Caucasus, East Mediterranean, North Africa, Ancient Iran, Ancient Greece and Balkans, leading to the emergence of new peoples and polities across these regions.
The first certain reference to the Arameans appears in an inscription of Tiglath-Pileser I (1115–1077 BC) which refers to subjugating the "Ahlamû-Aramaeans" (Ahlame Armaia) and shortly after, the Ahlamû rapidly disappear from Assyrian annals, to be replaced by the Aramaeans (Aramu, Arimi). This indicates that the Arameans had risen to dominance amongst the nomads, however it is possible that the two peoples had nothing in common, but operated in the same area. By the late 12th century BC the Arameans were firmly established in Syria, however they were conquered into the Middle Assyrian Empire, as had been the Amorites and Ahlamu before them.
The Middle Assyrian Empire (1365-1050 BC), which had dominated the Near East and Asia Minor since the first half of the 14th century BC, began to shrink rapidly after the death of Ashur-bel-kala its last great ruler in 1056 BC, and the Assyrian withdrawal allowed the Arameans and others to gain independence and take firm control of what was then Eber-Nari and is today Syria during the late 11th century BC. It is from this point that the region was called Aramea.
Some of the major Aramean speaking kingdoms included; Aram-Damascus, Hamath, Bit Adini, Bit Bahiani, Bit Hadipe, Aram-Bet Rehob, Aram Sobah, Bit-Zamani, Bit-Halupe and Aram-Ma'akah, as well as the Aramean tribal polities of the Gambulu, Litau and Puqudu.
Later Biblical sources tell us that Saul, David and Solomon (late 11th to 10th centuries) fought against the small Aramean kingdoms ranged across the northern frontier of Israel: Aram-Sôvah in the Beqaa, Aram-Bêt-Rehob and Aram-Ma'akah around Mount Hermon, Geshur in the Hauran, and Aram-Damascus. An Aramean king's account dating at least two centuries later, the Tel Dan Stele, was discovered in northern Israel, and is famous for being perhaps the earliest non-Israelite extra-biblical historical reference to the Israelite royal dynasty, the House of David. In the early 11th century BC, much of Israel came under Aramean rule for eight years according to the Biblical Book of Judges, until Othniel defeated the forces led by Chushan-Rishathaim, the King of Aram-Naharaim.
The Arameans conquered, during the 11th and the 10th centuries BC, Sam'al (modern Zenjirli), also known as Yaudi, the region from Arpad to Aleppo which they renamed Bît-Agushi, and Til Barsip, which became the chief town of Bît-Adini, also known as Beth Eden. At the same time, Arameans moved to the east of the Euphrates, where they settled in such numbers that for a time the whole region became known as Aram-Naharaim or "Aram of the two rivers." Aramean tribes (together with Suteans and later also Chaldeans) entered Babylonia, whose weak Akkadian speaking kings were too powerless to prevent new waves of Semites entering their territory. One of their earliest semi-independent kingdoms in southern Mesopotamia was Bît-Bahiâni (Tell Halaf).
The Arameans were even powerful enough to sack the city of Babylon itself in 1026 and 977 BC. North of Sam'al was the Aramean state of Bit-Gabari was sandwiched between the Neo-Hittite states of Carchemish, Gurgum, Khattina, Unqi and the Georgian state of Tabal. While these later states maintained a Neo-Hittite hieroglyphic for official communication, it would seem that the population of these small states was progressively Aramaeanized, leading to the formation of the so-called Syro-Hittite states.
Attempts to encroach upon East Semitic Assyria in northern Mesopotamia however, met with repeated failure. Assyrian annals from the end of the Middle Assyrian Empire c. 1050 BC and the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 911 BC are littered with descriptions of battles between Aramean and other tribal peoples and the Assyrian army, which despite the temporary loss of its empire, remained the best in the world. The Assyrians would launch repeated raids into Aramea, Babylonia, Ancient Iran, Elam, Asia Minor, and even as far as the Mediterranean, in order to keep its trade routes open, and tribal peoples clear of its borders. However, despite this, by the mid-10th century BC, much of what had once been ruled by the Middle Assyrian Empire in the Levant, northern Canaan, southern Asia Minor and even Babylonia, was in Aramean hands.
Neo-Assyrian Empire, 911–605 BC
The Aramean kingdoms, like much of the Near East and Asia Minor were subjugated by the Neo Assyrian Empire (911-605 BC), beginning with the reign of Adad-nirari II in 911 BC, who cleared Arameans and other tribal peoples from the borders of Assyria, and began to expand in all directions (See Assyrian conquest of Aram). This process was continued by Ashurnasirpal II, and his son Shalmaneser III, who between them destroyed many of the small Aramean tribes, and conquered the whole of Aramea (modern Syria) for the Assyrians. In 732 BC Aram-Damascus fell and was conquered by the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III. The Assyrians named their Aramean colonies Eber Nari, whilst still using the term Aramean to describe many of its peoples. The Assyrians conducted forced deportations of hundreds of thousands Arameans into both Assyria and Babylonia (where a migrant population already existed). These Arameans (along with other deported peoples) were absorbed into the indigenous populations of Assyria and Babylonia and disappeared as distinct ethnicities. Conversely, the eastern Aramaic language was adopted as the lingua franca of the Neo-Assyrian Empire In the 8th century BC, and the native Assyrians and Babylonians began to make a gradual language shift to distinctly Mesopotamian Eastern Aramaic dialects (including the Syriac language, which evolved in 5th century BC Assyria), which still survive to this day amongst the indigenous Assyrian Christians and Mandeans of northern Iraq, southeast Turkey, northeast Syria and northwest Iran.
The Neo Assyrian Empire descended into a bitter series of brutal internal civil wars from 626 BC, weakening it greatly. This allowed a coalition of many its former subject peoples; the Babylonians, Chaldeans, Medes, Persians, Parthians, Scythians and Cimmerians to attack Assyria in 616 BC, sacking Nineveh in 612 BC, and finally defeating it between 605 and 599 BC. During the war against Assyria, hordes of horse borne Scythian and Cimmerian marauders ravaged through Aramea and all the way into Egypt.
Aramea/Eber-Nari was then ruled by the succeeding Neo-Babylonian Empire (612-539 BC), initially headed by a short lived Chaldean dynasty. The Aramean regions became a battleground between the Babylonians and the Egyptian 26th Dynasty, which had been installed by the Assyrians as vassals after they had conquered Egypt, ejected the previous Nubian dynasty and destroyed the Kushite Empire. The Egyptians, having entered the region in a belated attempt to aid their former Assyrian masters, fought the Babylonians (initially with the help of remnants of the Assyrian army) for decades in the region, before being finally vanquished.
The Babylonians remained masters of the Aramean lands only until 539 BC, when the Persian Achaemenid Empire overthrew Nabonidus, the Assyrian born last king of Babylon, who had himself previously overthrown the Chaldean dynasty in 556 BC.
Arameans in later antiquity and modern times
The Arameans were later conquered into the Achaemenid Empire (539-332 BC), where little changed from the Assyrian period, the Persians, seeing themselves as successors to the Assyrians, and having spent three centuries under Assyrian rule, maintained Imperial Aramaic as the language of empire, together with Assyrian administrative structures, and the name Eber Nari still applied to the region.
However, during the Greek Seleucid Empire (312-150 BC), when the Greeks conquered Assyria from the Achaemenids, they applied the 9th century BC Indo-European name for Assyria to that land, which read Syria, a derivative of "𒀸𒋗𒁺 𐎹" Aššūrāyu, which had hitherto only referred historically and geographically to Assyria and the Assyrians, a land and people in modern terms situated in the northern half of Iraq, north eastern Syria, south eastern Turkey and the north western fringe of Iran, and not to the Levant or its largely Aramean populace (see Etymology of Syria). From the late 4th or early 3rd century BC the Seleucid Greeks also applied this name to Aram/Eber-Nari to the west of Assyria/Syria, which had been an Assyrian colony for three centuries. This caused both the Assyrians from Assyria and the Arameans to the west in Aram, to be labelled Syrians (and later Syriacs) in Greco-Roman culture, despite the two peoples being geographically, historically and ethnically distinct from one another. This confusion would continue in the Western World until modern times with the Syria versus Assyria naming controversy (see Name of Syria).
The Parthian Empire, Roman Empire and Byzantine Empire followed, with the Aramean lands becoming the front line between the Parthian and Roman empires, and then the Sassanid Empire and Byzantine Empire. There was also a brief period of Armenian rule during the Roman Period.
Between the 1st and 4th centuries AD the Arameans began to adopt Christianity in place of the polytheist Aramean religion, and the Levant became an important centre of Syriac Christianity, along with Assyria to the east from where the Syriac language and Syriac script emerged. Syriac Christianity survives among the indigenous pre-Arab population to the present day.
However, Arameans continued to be the majority population in their homeland (most of modern Syria and part of south central Asia Minor) until well after the Arab Islamic Conquest of the mid-7th century AD. A number of Aramaean kingdoms sprang up in the region, the most important being Palmyra, (which for a brief period became the Palmyrene Empire, rivaling Rome).
There was probably some synthesis with pre Islamic Arab migrants in the southern deserts (and possibly Greeks and Phoenicians also), and the Nabatean civilisation of what is today Jordan and southern Syria had a mixed Aramean-Canaanite-Arab identity. After the Arab Islamic conquest of the region in the 7th century AD, native Arameans gradually became a minority in their homelands, the language was gradually replaced by Arabic, as ever increasing numbers of Arabs (together with Turkic and Iranian peoples) began to move into the region. Those indigenous Arameans who were converted to Islam rapidly lost their Aramean identity, intermixed with the Arab rulers and essentially became culturally and ethnically Arabs.
However, some Syriac Christians known as Suryanis ("in Turkey, the Arameans are called: Süryani. In Arabic they are called Al- Suryan"), mostly adherents of the Syriac Orthodox Church with smaller percentages followers of the Syriac Catholic Church, in the Middle East (particularly in Syria and Israel) still espouse an Aramean ethnic identity to this day and a minority still speak various Aramaic dialects or languages.
Arameans are mostly defined by their use of the West Semitic Old Aramaic language (1100 BC – AD 200), first written using the Phoenician alphabet, over time modified to a specifically Aramaic alphabet.
As early as the 8th century BC, the Aramaic language competed with the East Semitic Akkadian language and script in Assyria and Babylonia, and thereafter it spread throughout the Near East in various dialects. By around 800 BC, Aramaic had become the lingua franca of the Neo Assyrian Empire. Although marginalized by Greek in the Hellenistic period, Aramaic in its varying dialects remained unchallenged as the common language of all Semitic peoples of the region until the Arab Islamic conquest of Mesopotamia in the 7th century AD after which it was gradually superseded by Arabic.
The late Old Aramaic language of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, Neo-Babylonian Empire and Achaemenid Persian Empire developed into the Middle Aramaic Syriac language of Persian Assyria which would become the liturgical language of Syriac Christianity. The descendant dialects of this branch of Mesopotamian Aramaic (which still retains Akkadian loan words) still survive as the spoken and written language of the Assyrians to this day, and is found mostly in northern Iraq, north western Iran, south east Turkey and north east Syria, and to a lesser degree in migrant communities in Armenia, Georgia, southern Russia, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Azerbaijan, as well as in diaspora communities in the West, particularly the USA, Canada, Great Britain and Sweden, as well as in Australia and Germany. The Western Aramaic dialect of the Arameans themselves is now only spoken by Syriac-Aramean Christians in Ma'loula, Jubb'adin and Bakhah. Mandaic is spoken by up to 75,000 speakers of the ethnically Mesopotamian Gnostic Mandean sect, mainly in Iraq and Iran. A small number of Israeli Jews, particularly those originating from Iraq, and to a lesser degree from Iran and eastern Turkey, retain Aramaic as a spoken tongue, however this is largely being eroded by Hebrew, especially within the Israeli born generations.
Religion and art
It appears from their inscriptions as well as from their names that Arameans worshipped Assyro-Babylonian gods such as Haddad (Adad), Sin, Ishtar (whom they called Astarte), Shamash, Tammuz, Bel and Nergal, and Caananite-Phoenician deities such as the storm-god, El, the supreme deity of Canaan, in addition to Anat (‘Atta) and others.
The Arameans who lived outside their homelands apparently followed the traditions of the country where they settled. The King of Damascus, for instance, employed Phoenician sculptors and ivory-carvers. In Tell Halaf-Guzana, the palace of Kapara, an Arameans ruler (9th century BC), was decorated with orthostats and with statues that display a mixture of Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Hurrian influences.
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