The ancient Arameans, or Aramaeans, (Aramaic: ܐܪ̈ܡܝܐ, ארמיא ; ʼaramáyé) were a Northwest Semitic people who originated in what is now present-day western, southern and central Syria (Biblical Aram) during the Late Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Large groups migrated to Babylonia in southern Mesopotamia during the 11th and 10th centuries BC, where they established small semi-independent Aramaic kingdoms, in the Levant and in Mesopotamia conquered Aramean populations were forcibly deported throughout the Assyrian Empire, e.g. under the rule of king Tiglath-Pileser III.
In northeast Syria, northern Iraq, northwest Iran and southeastern Turkey, Akkadian influenced Eastern Aramaic-Northeastern Neo-Aramaic dialects are still spoken fluently by between 575,000 and 1,000,000 people, but most of the speakers of these dialects are ethnic Mesopotamian Assyrians, the indigenous people of Upper Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), rather than Levantine Arameans (present-day Syria and Israel). The Western Aramaic language of the Arameans in Maalula is in danger of extinction, although Aramean personal and family names are still found among the Syriac Christians throughout the Middle East.
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 and Jordan. After the Bronze Age collapse, 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. 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.
There are limited mention of Arameans in Mesopotamian inscriptions supplemented by a few later descriptive situations associated with Rebekah from Aram-Naharaim in the book of Genesis in the Bible, which lists Aram, the son of Shem, and grandson of Noah, as their forbear.
The toponym A-ra-mu appears in an inscription at 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).
There is little agreement concerning what, if any, relationship there was between these places, or if the Aramu were actually Arameans; the earliest undisputed mention of Arameans as a people appears 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. In the early 13th 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. Other entities mentioned in the Hebrew Bible include Aram Damascus and Aram Rehob.
The Arameans appear to be one of the Ahlamû. Ahlamû appears to be a generic term for a new wave of Semitic wanderers and nomads who appeared during the 13th century BC across the Near East and Egypt. The term appears equivalent to the Egyptian term Shasu (Shsw = wanderer), who replaced the outlaw 'Apiru (cuneiform SA.GAZ) as the major source of instability in the Egyptian Levantine empire from the reign of Tutankhamun onwards, although the Shasu in relation to Egypt are generally believed to be Canaanite Semites. They are first mentioned in the el-Amarna letters alluding to the Kassite king of Babylon. The presence of the Ahlamû are also attested during the Middle Assyrian Empire (1365–1020 BC), which ruled the lands in which the Ahlau arose, in 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.
Bronze Age collapse
The people who had long been the prominent population within 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 Ebla and founding Babylon in southern Mesopotamia. However, they seem to have been displaced or wholly absorbed by the appearance of the Ahlamu by the 13th century BC, disappearing from history.
For the first time, an inscription of Tiglath-Pileser I (1115–1077 BC) 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, 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 to gain independence and take firm control of what is today Syria during the late 11th century BC. It is from this point that Syria was called Aramea.
The Bible tells 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.
The Arameans conquered, during the 11th and the 10th centuries BC, Sam'al (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 the whole region became known as Aram-Naharaim or "Aram of the two rivers." Aramean tribes entered Babylonia, whose weak Akkadian speaking kings were too powerless to prevent new waves of Semites entering their territory. One of their earliest 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 Assyria 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 loss of its empire, remained the best in the world. The Assyrians would launch repeated raids into Aramea, Babylonia, Ancient Iran, 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 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, 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. 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 Damaskus 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. The Assyrians conducted forced deportations of hundreds of thousands Arameans into both Assyria and Babylonia (where a migrant population already existed). These Arameans intermixed ethnically with the indigenous Mesopotamians of Assyria and Babylonia. Conversely, the eastern Aramaic language was adopted as the lingua franca of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which survives to this day amongst the indigenous Assyrian Christians 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, finally defeating it by 605 BC. During the war against Assyria, hordes of horse borne Scythian and Cimmerian marauders ravaged through Aramea and all the way into Egypt.
Aramea was then ruled by the succeeding Neo-Babylonian Empire, 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 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 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 Chaldeans.
Arameans in later antiquity and modern times
The Arameans were later conquered into the Achaemenid Empire, 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.
However, during the Greek Seleucid Empire, when the Greeks conquered Assyria from the Achaemenids, they applied the Indo-European name for Assyria to that land, which read Syria. They also applied this name to Aram to the west, 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 in Greco-Roman culture, despite the two peoples being geographically and ethnically distinct. This confusion would continue in the Western World until modern times.
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.
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 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) and to a lesser degree the Osroene kingdom, which was Assyrio-Aramean.
There was probably some synthesis with pre Islamic Arab migrants (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, northwestern Iran, northeast Syria, Armenia, Georgia 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 Russia. The Western Aramaic dialect is now only spoken by the Muslims and 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 ‘Attar), Shamash 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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