HAYIM TADMOR (JERUSALEM)
ON THE ROLE OF ARAMAIC IN THE ASSYRIAN
Contemporary research has thrown increasing
light on a highly significant facet of
culture in the Assyrian Empire: the
symbiosis of Aramaic and Akkadian. A
surprising breakthrough in this respect was
the publication of the bilingual inscription,
cuneiform and alphabetic, from Tell
Fekheriye in Syria, incised on the statue of
a ruler from Gozan, which is written in
archaic style in Akkadian and Aramaic .
We can now state fairly confidently that
bilingualism was current on the Western
periphery of Assyria, the bulk of whose
population consisted of Arameans, at the
very least from the mid ninth century B.C.E.
However, it was only some 120 years later,
when the territories west of the Euphrates
were conquered that this symbiosis was
officially recognized and Aramaic became the
second language of the empire, alongside
1. See: A. L. Oppenheim. Letters from
Mesopotamia. Chicago 1967. pp. 42-48;.J
Muffs. Studies in the Aramaic Legal Papyri
from Elephantine, Leiden 1969. pp. 189-190;
H. Tadmor, The Aramaization of Assyria, in:
J. Nissen & J. Renger, Mesopotamien und
Seine Nachbarn (XXV. Rencontre
Assyriologique Internationale 1978). Berlin.
1982. pp. 449 -469; A. R. Millard. Iraq XLV
(1983) [XXIX Rencontre Assyriologique
Internationale. 1982). pp. 101-107; F.M.
Fales, Aramaic Epigraphs on Clay Tablets of
the New Assyrian period (Studi Semitici.
nuova serie 2). Rome. 1986. pp. 36-47 (henceforth.
2. See: A. Abu-Assaf. P Bourdreuil & A.
R. Millard. La Statue de Tell Fekherye,
Paris. 1982; J.A. Kautman. Maarav III (1982)
pp. 137-175; R. Zadok. Tell Aviv IX (1982).
pp. 117-129; J.C. Greenfield & A. Shaffer.
Iraq XLV (198.w). pp. 109- 116; idem.
Anatolian Studies XXXIII (1983), pp. 123
129; idem. RB XLII (1985). pp. 45-59; F.M.
Fales. Svria XL. (1984). pp. 233-250; idem,
Epigraphs, pp. 40-43.
3. For an early interchange between
Akkadian and Aramaic verbs ”to kill” (daku >
qatalu) in the Assyrian scribal practice of
the tenth century, see my note: Towards the
Early History of qatalu, The Jewish
Quarterly Review LXXVI (1985), pp. 51-54.
4. This may be seen as a reversal of
the practice current in the 2nd millennium
B.C.E in the lands west of the Euphrates.
Then it was a Western Akkadian that was
served as the language of literacy and
lingua franca throughout the whole area,
including Egypt. The cuneiform archives of
the royal chancelleries at el-Amarna,
Urgarit, and Hattusha document this practice.
The literary centers of Canaan (e.g. Hazor,
Aphek), where the alphabetic script was
already incipient use, yielded evidence of
extensive use of Akkadian. For cuneiform
texts from Hazor see:
B. Landsberger & H. Tadmor IEJ
XIV (1954), pp. 201-218; W.W. Hallo & H.
IEJ XXVII (1977), pp. 1-11, H.
Tadmor, ibid, pp. 98-102: For those form
A.F. Rainey, Tel Aviv II
(1975), pp. 125-129; III (1976), pp.
137-140; D.I. Owen
Tel Aviv VIII (1981), pp. 1-17;
Assyrian reliefs beginning from the time of
Tiglath-pileser III  provide nurnerous
portrayals of a scribe writing on a tablet
or a board, side by side with another
scribe writing on papyrus or a parchment
scrolI. Such scribes would record the
loot taken in battle or count the number of
This pictorial rendition undoubtedly
corresponds to the phrases "Assyrian scribe"
(tupsharru Ashuraya) and "Aramaic scribe"
(tupsharru Aramaya) that occur together in
the various documents, referring to
officials in the imperial service. The
"Aramaic scribe" was of particular
importance in the western part of the
empire, where the royal correspondence was
conducted also, or according to some
authorities primarily, in Aramaic. As
the Aramean elements in Assyria
W. Hallo, ibid., pp.. 18-24.
For the early alphabetic ostracon from
'Izbet Sartah, see M. Kochavi,
Tel Aviv IV (1977). pp. 1 13.
A, Demsky, ibid. pp. 14~27.
5. See. eg,. R.D. Barnett & M. Falkner
The scriptures of Tighlath-Pileser Ill,
London. 1962, Pls.
V-VI; G. R. Driver. Semitic Writing.
London, 1948. Pls. 23B 24C; D.J. Wisernan,
(1955), Pl. III, 2.
6. D.J. Wiseman (above. n. 5, pp. 8-13)
has argued convincingly that the rectangular
scribe is holding is not a clay
tablet, but rather an ivory or a wooden
board (in fact. a hinged
diptych). covered with wax.
7. For textual evidence of writing on
papyrus (niyaru and urbanu). see CAD, N, II,
W. von Soden. AHw p. 1428. Writing on
parchment is attested mainly from
Neo-Babylonian documents; see CAD. M. I. p.
31 S.V. magallatu (an Aramaic loanword). In
Neo-Assyrian documents, parchment (KUSH
nayaru. CAD. N, II. p. 201) is rarely
8. I. Madhloorn has suggested that
the person holding a scroll was not a scribe
but an artist, whose
task was to sketch battle
scenes that would later be carved on stone
(Acta Antiqua Academiae
Scientiarium Hungaricaie XXII (1974). p.
I believe however that
conclusive evidence against this thesis may
be furnished by a fresco
from Til Barsip, a major
Assyrian administrative center in the
western part of the Empire
Barsib, Paris. 1936. Pl. pp. 54-55). It
portrays two scribes
(Fig. 1), one writing on a
tablet and the other on a sheet of papyrus.
three courtiers who are facing
the king (only the lower part of his figure
survives, with part
of a crouching lion). Since
this fresco is concerned not with a military
campaign in a
foreign land, but with a
ceremony at the royal court, it stands to
reason that the person
holding the sheet of papyrus,
standing beside the scribe with the tablet,
is, not an artist but
likewise a scribe, recording the
royal instructions in Aramaic.
9. See the evidence collected by J.
Lewy, in Hebrew Union College Annual XXV
185-190. For the list of dignitaries.
K. 4395. in which the tupsharru Ashuraya is
followed by the
tupsharru Ar(a)maya (p. 188 rr.
74), see now MSL, Xllr p. 239 V: 5-6.
10. See: S Parpola, `Assyrian Royal
Inscriptions and Neo-Assyrian Letters`, in
F. M. Fales (ed.),
Assyrian Royal Inscriptions:
New Horizons, Rome, 1981, pp. 122-123. It is
not surprising that the
Neo-Assyrian Empire in the west
needed Aramaic as a kind of lingua franca
for its official
dealings. After all, Assyria
had inherited what had been the kingdom of
Darnascus, with its
existing administrative system;
see B. Mazar. "The Aramean empire and its
relations with Israel`,
BA XXV (1962). pp. 111-112 (now
in his "The Early Biblical Period:
Historical Studies, Jerusalem
1986, pp. 163-165).
gained ascendancy particularly as a result
of mass deportations. scribes in the
capitals of the empire were obliged to
acquire proficiency in both scripts,
cuneiform and alphabetic. Indeed, there are
economic documents dating from the seventh
century written on clay tablets in Akkadian
with annotations [o…….] even summaries in
Ararnaic. To my mind. such documents
were most likely written by a single scribe,
fluent in both languages. The same
pertains also to the oracular queries on
certain state matters, put before the
Sun-God Shamash and the patron of extispicy.
lt is stated there that very often the
tablet of query was
accompanied by a slip of papyrus (niyaru,
urbanu) which carried the name of the
person concerned - the subject of the
query- inscribed, no doubt, in Aramaic.
Through such bilingual scribes Akkadian
absorbed not only Aramaic terms in many
areas such as administration, literacy, and
even warfare,]15] but also spelling
conventions characteristic of alphabetic
script. In Babylonia, during the period
of the Assyrian Empire and particularly
under the Neo-Babylonian kings, there was
even a special term, sepiru, borrowed from
Aramaic. to denote the bilingual scribe.
This term was written sometimes phonetically
(se-pi-ru) and sometime ideographically: (A.
BAL, literally "one who converts,
transposes." i.e. a person who reads a text
in one language and translates it into
another)  A related term is targummanu .
"interpreter." already known in Old Assyrian
and Western Akkadian of the second
millennium B.C.E.; the corresponding
ideogram is EME. BAL "one who converts
speech." This term apparently signifies
a person who translates oral communications,
in contrast to the sepiru, who is concerned
Of special significance in this connection
is the relief of Sargon II from his palace
at Khorsabad which portrays the siege of a
city in a hilly country (Fig. 2)."
11. See: B Obed,. Mass Deportations and
Deportees in the Neo-Assyrian Empire,
12. See: S.J. Lieberrnan. BASOR 192
(1968), pp. 25-31; J. Naveh, The Development
Ararnaic Scripts`, The Israel
Academy of Sciences and Humanities,
Proceedings, V/I (1970),
pp. 16-17, and now in detail,
13. See: `Ararnaization of Assyria`
(above. n 1); p. 453.
14. See. J.A. Knudtzon. Assyrische Gebete
an den Sonnengott. Leipzig, 1983, Nos 50:4.
124:4, 131 r.2.
15. See. `Ararnaization of Assyria`
(above. n. 1), pp. 454-455.
16. See: A. Poebel. Studies in Akkadian
Grammar (Assyriological Studies,
lX),(Chicago 1939. pp. 60-64.
17. Cf. J. Lewy (above, n. 9). pp. 191-199.
18. Ibid, p 196, n. 108.
19. See: I.J. Gelb ‘The Word for Dragoman
in the Ancient Near East’, Glossa II (1968)
20. See: J. lewy (above, n. 9), pp. 196, n.
21. See: P. E. Botta & E. Flandin,
Monuments de Nineve, Paris 1849, II, Pl.
145; IV, Pl. 180: 1-2 M El-Amin, Sumer IX
(1953), p. 219-225.
As the late Y. Yadin observed, an officer,
leaning out of the turret of a siege
Rnachine, holds a scroll in his hands,
apparently appealing to the besieged
ants to surrender (Fig. 3), Yadin
suggested that this scene recalls the
description of Rab-shakeh, the royal
chiefcupbearer, who called upon the people
of Jerusalem to surrender before
Sennacherib. his master. (II Kings 18:
According to the cuneiform epigraph
inscribed across the relief, the city be-
sieged by Sargon was "Pa(?)-za-shi, the
fortified city of Mannea." Hence, the
language used by the officer. who is holding
the scroll and addressing the people
of the city, must have been Mannean. As, to
the best of our knowledge, the
Manneans did not possess any script for
their language, it stands to reason that the
scroll in the officer`s hands was inscribed
in Aramaic, like any other scroll in the
hands of scribes on Assyrian reliefs. Such
an officer might have been an "lnterpreter
of Mannean, targummanu sha Mannaya, a term
attested in a Neo-Assyrian document.
Naturally. a person holding a text in
Aramaic and translating it aloud. would be
Assyrianized Mannean raised in Assyria as a
hostage or a deportee.
By analogy, can one surmise here that
Rab-shakeh too was reading from an
Aramaic scroll when delivering his message
to the besieged population of
Jerusalem? The appeal of the Judean nobles
to Rah-shakeh. “Please, speak to
your servants in Aramaic, for we understand
it; do not speak to us in the language
of Judah in the hearing of the people
(standing) on the wall" (ll Kings 18:26)
indicates that they expected the envoy of
the Assyrian king to address them in
Aramaic, the customary language of
diplomatic negotiations in the West. Rab-
Shake, however, had a surprise in store for
them: he harangued the people on
the ramparts of Jerusalem directly, speaking
in the vernacular.
The remarkable features of the Rab-Shake
narrative in the Bible are not only
the ability of an Assyrian envoy to deliver
an eloquent speech in the Judean
tongue, but also the very appearance of the
kings chief cupbearer as the royal
spokesman in time of war. I know of no other
case of the chief cupbearer par-
ticipating in a military delegation,
together with the Tartan (Tartanu, the
and the Rab-saris (rab-sha-reshi, originally
the chief eunuch. later the commander in
chief). In addition. at that period both
these courtiers outranked Rab-shakeh.
22. The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands
JerusaIern~Ramat-Gan, 1963, , pp. 320 and
23. See: C.B.F. Walker, ‘The Epigraphs` in
P.Albenda, The Palace of Sargon , King of
Paris, 1986, p. 112.
24. See: C.H.W Johns, Assyrian Deeds and
Documents,, ll, Carnbridge, 1901, No. 865:
25. It is regrettable that in the past many
scholars failed to identify properly the
and ‘Rab-saris` in ll Kings I8, both
Akkadian Ioanwords. A common error was that
the title written ideographically LU GALSAG
stands for ‘Rab~shakeh’. Examples of this
may still be found in the standard
collections of Near Eastern texts in
Why then. of the three members of the
Assyrian delegation was the chiefcup
bearer chosen to conduct the negotiations
with King Hezekiahs representatives.
As a possible explanation of this choice, I
would suggest that Rab-shakeh, a [….]
alone of the Assyrian entourage, was fluent
in Judean and capable of delivering a
convincing propaganda speech in that
language. It is inconceivable that the
cupbearer of Sennacherib, who was certainly
not an expert in Semitics.
have acquired this fluency. if he were not a
Westerner in origin: an Israelite,
Moabite or Ammonite. Highly-placed
officials at the Assyrian court, v[…]
names betray an origin west of the
Euphrates. are mentioned in numerous
from the eighth century onward. In a
late Babylonian tradition. Ahikar
the hero of an Aramaic narrative, was ummanu
(i.e. the counselor and scribe of
King Esarhaddon, and Nehemiah, another
Westerner, attained the position
"the kings cupbearer" in the court of
Artaxerxes l (Neh. 1:11). Such ap[…]
ments were surely no exception in the
history of royal courts. Indeed, they were
typical of Assyria. the only one among the
empires of the ancient Near East
which the language of the conquered.
forcefully acculturated, ultimately
vailed over the language of their imperial
there can be no doubt that this title
was pronounced rab-sha-reshi, whereas the
writing for the chief cupbearer
(rab-sha-qe-e), was LU GAL BI.LUL. More in
my discussion about
these two titles in C.L. Meyers and M.
O’Connor (eds.), Eassays in Honor of David
man. Philadelphia. 1983. pp. 279-295.
26. Cf. my comments in the Hebrew
Encyclopaedia Biblica , vol. VII, col. 324,
and a rnore recent […]
Cohen, Israel Oriental Studies IX
(1979), pp. 32-47.
27. As suggested to me by my colleague.
Prof. J. Naveh. `I`he rnain document in
Moabite is st[…]
Mesha monument. For Ammonite see now
K. P. Jackson, The Ammonite Language of the
Age (Harvard Semitic Studies, XXVII).
Cambridge. Mass., 1983.
28. See; Oded (above. n. ll), pp. 105-107.
29 See: J.J A. van Dijk, in Uruk
Vorläufiger Bericht XVIII, Berlin, 1962, pp.
44-45; J. C. Greenfield
in: Hommages a A. Dupont-Sommer.
Paris. 1971, pp. 50-51.
· The same topic is treated in a
paper which appears now in Hebrew (Eretz
Israel XX [….]
249-252). The present English version has
been modified and revised. It is a privilege
it in the Anniversary Volume
for H.I.H. Takahito Mikasa. historian of the
Ancient Near East
and patron of scholarship.