|Aramean funeral stele bearing an Aramaic|
inscription. Dated ca. 7th century BCE and
discovered at Tell Afis in Neirab, Syria.
Presently at the Louvre, Paris, France.
Image credit: Wikipedia
Aramaic & Aramaeans / Arameans
Aramaic was the language of the Aramean (also spelt Aramaean) people, a people who inhabited the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, an area that would have placed it within and in close proximity to Ranghaya, the sixteenth Aryan nation listed in the Vendidad, a book of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta.
Language & Racial Constructs
Aramaic is often called a Semitic language perhaps because it came to be used by a people called the Semitic people who lived in that region including the Jews. The fact that Aramaic was adopted as one of the languages of the Achaemenian empire is seen as a Semite influence on the Persians. This unfortunate conclusion is also the result of a racial bias amongst may writers who equate linguistics with racial constructs. If we are to believe their extraordinary deductions, then everyone speaking English today would belong to the 'English race', whatever that is, which is a ridiculous proposition but a principle nevertheless used by racial linguists.
The people who engage in these kinds of speculations also base their conclusions on discoveries made so far - an ever changing situation. The explanations for new discoveries then have to be skewed to fit the old constructs which introduces an untenable bias in scholarship. And unfortunately some evidence has been destroyed forever leaving a void that some fill with fanciful theories. Perhaps, it is time for some healthy deconstruction. We will start the process here and disassociate language from the artificial construct of 'race'.
In its regional origins (and not in its language group affiliations and derivatives), Aramaic is not a so-called Semitic language. Aramaic is Aramaic as much as English is English - languages adopted by and spoken by a variety of peoples in order to communicate with as wide an audience as possible.
While the Arameans / Aramaeans never became a regional power, their language was widely used throughout the immediate region, and then, thanks to Darius, came to be used throughout the Persian empire. Since Aramaic gave rise to a family of related languages, the language used by the Aramaeans from ca. 925 to 700 BCE is classified as Old Aramaic.
The Aramaic language employed by the Achaemenian Persians was a derivative of Old Aramaic known by some writers (cf. Joseph Fitzmyer) as Official Aramaic.
|Aramaic document from the island of Elephantine, Egypt, on the upper Nile near the city of|
Aswan and dated 460/459 BCE, i.e. the 6th year of King Artakhshassa (Artaxerxes) I
The image to the right is that of one of the oldest known Aramaic documents found on the island of Elephantine in the upper Nile near the town of Aswan in Egypt. It is dated 460/495 BCE. The documents written in Aramaic on Papyrus include a translated copy of Darius I, the Great's Behistun inscription, and letters.
One of the letters written in Aramaic found at Elehantine was a letter dated November 25, 407 BCE written on behalf of Yedaniah ben Gemariah, the leader of a Jewish colony, and his associates who were priests at Elephantine (see images below). The letter was written to Bagohi, the Persian satrap or governor of Yehud (Judea), as an official petition regarding the restoration of the temple of Yeb (Elephantine in Aramaic). The temple had been destroyed by local Egyptian priests in an anti-Jewish riot. The temple appears to have been reconstructed as shown in the image below.
The very fact that the letter was written in the first place is yet another testament to the regard Persians monarchs showed towards the religious beliefs and practices of their subjects. The freedom that the Persians gave other religious groups to practice their rites and beliefs - and to even support them with funds from the imperial treasury - was not just unusual in those days, it was unique. It may even be rare to find such examples today. The Achaemenian kings also prayed in the temples of the peoples they ruled as did Cyrus the Great in Babylon. Many writers jump to the conclusion that this means that the Achaemenians where either not Zoroastrians or that their Zoroastrianism was diluted in some fashion. They fail to understand that this approach is intrinsic to the Zoroastrian ethic, and further that a lack of respect towards other religious groups was either a deviation from this norm or a response to groups that failed to respect the rights of others.
|Top: Reconstruction sketch of the Jewish Temple on the upper Nile, near the town of Aswan, Egypt, which was the subject of a petition (document in Aramaic shown on the left) to the Persian governor of Judea.|
|left: Letter in Aramaic to Bagohi, the Persian satrap or governor of Judea from the leader of a Jewish colony, Yedaniah bar-Gemariah, petitioning the governor for assistance in the rebuilding of their temple destroyed by Egyptian priests in an anti-Jewish riot. The letter was written on both sides of the papyrus sheet.|
|Tablets uncovered at Persepolis with writing in Aramaic.|
Example of some 700 Achaemenian Aramaic documents
Image credit: The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
By the 8th century BCE, Old Aramaic competed with Akkadian, the language of the Aramaeans' neighbours who inhabited the central Tigris region - both as a language and as the script in which language in written.
Akkadian employed the cuneiform script, and some of the earliest surviving examples of cuneiform have been found in Southern Mesopotamia (today's Southern Iraq). Cuneiform script was developed for writing on soft clay tablets that were later hardened. The writing therefore required a wedged shaped chisel-like tool rather than a pen.
Aramaic script on the other hand, is suited for writing with a brush or pen - on both on rigid and flexible materials such as papyrus and animal skin. Papyrus and skin were considerably lighter materials than stone or clay, and would therefore have been better suited for traders and messages sent over distances. Because the letters are rounded and flow in a cursive manner, Aramaic also had to adapt for chiselling into stone.
Certain reliefs and wall paintings from the time of Assyrian king Tiglath Pileser III (ruled 745-727 BCE), depict a pair of scribes at work - one writing in Aramaic with pen on a sheet (perhaps leather or papyrus), and the other writing in Akkadian with a stylus on a tablet (perhaps clay or a waxed board).
The Aramaic script is said to be based on the Phoenician script (Phoenicia was located in what is roughly Lebanon today. The Phoenician script was also one from which the script for the Greek alphabet was derived). There are few surviving examples of Phoenician writing.
Unfortunately, many flexible materials also lack the endurance of clay and stone, and if the Phoenicians used flexible materials and perishable writing materials such as papyrus and parchment, then we may have lost a lot of their work and can only hope that a cache is waiting to be discovered. While parchment survives well in dry desert-like climates, it decays quickly in the kind of humid climates that are found close to the Mediterranean Sea.
As sea-faring traders with developed trading links throughout the Mediterranean, the Phoenicians would have been natural trading partners with the Aramaeans who appear to have been active in Mesopotamia, and the Aryans whose trade links stretched along the ancient Aryan trade routes from the eastern Mediterranean to China. It is the belief of this author, that the connections, which included language connections, between Ranghaya, the Persian Aryans, the Aramaeans and the Phoenicians was one that developed because of a highly interactive trade between these peoples and regions. The close trading relations would have necessitated the need to communicate both verbally and in writing, using a common trading language as well as a script.
Aramaic Use in Eastern Aryan Lands
|Bilingual inscription of King Ashoka in Greek and Aramaic,|
found in Kandahar (Shahr-e Kuna) in today's Afghanistan.
Image credit: Wikipedia
When the Persian empire was overthrown by Alexander of Macedonia in 330 BCE, he replaced Aramaic with Greek as the official language. However, Greek probably became a court administrative language and at best an a second language for some strata of the local population. The displacement of Aramaic as a shared language used across the realm would have taken time.
The manner in which Aramaic was entrenched amongst the literate is evidenced by a bilingual Greek-Aramaic inscription attributed to the Indian Mauryan emperor Ashoka (r. 269-231 BCE), and which was discovered at Kandahar (presently in Afghanistan). The tablet is dated to the 3rd century BCE, a century after Alexander's invasion and during Macedonian rule over much of the traditional Aryan lands.
In as much as the Macedonians imposed Greek on their subjects, we do not see the Achaemenians having similarly imposed the Old Persian language. The imposing of a completely foreign language and to some extent Greek religion would have been a source of disconnect between the rulers and the ruled.
Aramaic, Sogdian & Parthian
Language scripts related to Aramaic are Sogdian, the language of the people from Sugd and Parthian, also called Arsacid Pahlavi or Pahlavanik. Sogdian is an eastern Aryan language and the earliest surviving written example of the Avestan language is in Sogdian. Parthian was the language employed by the Arsacid rulers of Persia / Iran. The Parthians are commonly thought to be native to Khorasan, a province that is today in the northeast of Iran.
Old Persian Aramaic Script?
Given the close connections of Aramaic first with the Achaemenian, then as the root of the script used for all the Middle Persian / Iranian languages as well as Aramaic being the root of the Avestan script, it is the contention of this writer that there could very well have been an intervening Old Persian script based on Aramaic - an original Persian script based on Aramaic, and one on which Parthian Pahlavi, Sogdian and Avestan scripts were based.
Aramaic in China
|Hsian-Fu monument inscription using Aramaic & Chinese scripts|
celebrating the arrival of Christianity in China in 635 CE.
The images shown here are examples of the use of Aramaic both as a language and as the script for Indo-Iranian (Aryan) based languages such and the languages of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta, as well as Sogdian and Manichean, in China.
|Earliest surviving manuscript of an Avesta segment,|
the Ashem Vohu prayer written in a script derived from
Parthavi-Pahlavi. Found in China.
British Library Or. 8212/84 (Ch.00289)