Introduction to the book

THE HIDDEN PEARL

THE ANCIENT ARAMAIC HERITAGE

 

By dr. Sebastien P. Brock

What language has been in continuous use for at least 3000 years?

 Is witnessed already in Antiquity by inscriptions and documents from an area stretching from western Turkey to Afghanistan, from the Caucasus to southern Egypt?

-          Became a major literary language for three faiths?

-          Had reached southern India and western China by the time of the Arab conquests?

-          Is still spoken today in certain parts of the Middle East by members of four different faiths?

-          And which has in the course of the twentieth century been taken by emigrants to all five continents?

Although a few other languages can lay claim to three millennia of known history, none but Aramaic, in its various dialects, can meet all these conditions. This is an astonishing record, yet the entire span of the known history of Aramaic and of its cultural significance, covering from Antiquity to the present day, has never yet been covered in full. Perhaps because of this, the important role of Aramaic at different periods of its history has often been overlooked. Indeed,  in many cases it will only be because Aramaic happened to be the language spoken by Jesus that some people are even aware of the very existence of Aramaic. The Aramaic heritage, then, is very much like a pearl hidden away in the dust of history, awaiting to be rediscovered. In the case of the earliest witnesses to it, these do literally have to be dug out of the ground, and in the course of the last hundred years or so a large number of Aramaic inscriptions have come to light in this way-and continue to do so, for virtually every year brings some new and unexpected discovery.

 

The main languages of the Middle East, past and present: the three A’s

Over the course of the last four millennia in the Middle East there have been three languages in particular which have served as cultural languages on an international scale - Akkadian, Aramaic and Arabic. Each of these has functioned as the dominant cultural language of the area for at least a millennium. The place of Arabic in the Middle East today, and that of Akkadian in Ancient Mesopotamia, are well known, whereas only a few people are aware of the vital role in the cultural history of the Middle East that has been played by Aramaic, above all during the millennium and a half prior to the Arab conquests and the advent of Islam which led to the widespread replacement of Aramaic by Arabic.

 

The relevance of the Aramaic heritage

The Aramaic heritage is thus an essential – but generally forgotten – part of the general cultural heritage of all who live in the Middle East today, of whatever language and of whatever religion. But it is, of course, of particular significance for those communities which have preserved the use of Aramaic, in one or other of its many dialects, to the present day. The fact that these communities span four different religions – Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Mandaeism  – is a clear indication of the fundamental role played by Aramaic in the course of the past history of the Middle East. Today the Aramaic heritage is best preserved among the various Christian Churches whose traditional liturgical language is Syriac – Syriac being the name of the main Christian dialect of Aramaic. This means that the ancient Aramaic heritage is of especial importance and relevance wherever in the world these Syriac Churches have spread. Whether in the past, across Asia as far as China, or today, when they are present, not only in south India (going back nearly two millennia), but also in the many countries to which their people have emigrated, above all, western Europe, the Americas, and Australia. But it can also be said that the Aramaic heritage has a much wider relevance that touches on human history in general. This aspect has been well brought out by the eminent scholar of Arabic literature, Franz Rosenthal, who started out his career in the field of Aramaic. He writes as follows:

In my view, the history of Aramaic represents the purest triumph of the human spirit as embodied in language (which is the mind’s most direct form of physical expression) over the crude display of material power… Great empires were conquered by the Aramaic language, and when they disappeared and were submerged in the flow of history, that language persisted and continued to live a life of its own. Of course, there were always many speakers of Aramaic in the heartland [of the Near East], but what they had been before, that they remained – powerless entities, in a world controlled by others for power and domination. Yet the language continued to be powerfully active in the promulgation of spiritual matters. It was the main instrument for the formulation of religions ideas in the Near East, which then spread in all directions all over the world. Some, such as the Gnostic systems, dominated the spiritual world view for centuries and then they lost their identities- others the monotheistic groups, continue to live on today with a religious heritage, much of which found fist expression in Aramaic.

And he concludes with these striking words:

The total sweep of Aramaic history thus presents a marvelous and unique picture .It teaches us that the underdog may in fact have the opportunity to play a decisive it to live on even after those who attained them are no longer the masters of the material fortunes of themselves and of those around them, this there seems to be a comforting lesson for our own time. It is a lesson which is plain and inescapable for everyone who has had the good fortune to become acquainted with any segment of the history of Aramaic.

 

Aram, Aramaeans and Aramaic

In both the Bible and in other ancient texts from the Middle East ‘Aram’ may be either a place name or a personal name. The term Aram, referring to a region of the upper Euphrates, is first encountered in an Akkadian inscription of the 23rd century BC, while as a personal name it is found among the Akkadian texts from Mari in the 18th century BC, and in the Ugaritic texts in the 14di century BC. It remains very doubtful whether these have anything to do with die Aramaeans who play such an important role during some four and a half centimes, c. 1150-700 BC, in the annals of the kings of Assyria and in the Bible, in both of which the Aramaeans and their kingdoms feature as formidable enemies. A specific group of people called Aramaeans is first mentioned in Assyrian texts during the reign of Tiglath-pileser I (1114-1076 BC), while the geographical term mat Arimi, ‘land of Aram’, occurs for the first time in the annals of the Assyrian king Asshurbel-kala  (1073-056 BC).C)- Here, and elsewhere in the Assyrian sources, it seems to designate the area to the east of the Euphrates at least as far as the river Khabur (modem eastern Syria), and this corresponds to the biblical term Aram-Naharaim, ‘Aram of the two rivers’. In biblical usage, Aram can also refer to areas to the west of the Euphrates, extending as far south as Damascus.  In the Greek translation of the Septuagint Aram-Naharaim is rendered by ‘Mesopotamia’ at Genesis 24:10 and Deuteronomy 23:5, and in modern usage this term has been extended to include the area between the Khabur and the Tigris (the Jazira, in Arabic), thus identifying the two rivers as the Euphrates and the Tigris.

In the biblical literature we find a number of references to Aram, both as a place and as a name. In Antiquity, genealogies often served as a means of indicating political relationships, and this is reflected in the two different genealogical tables in the Bible in which Aram appears: in the ‘Table of the Nations’ in Genesis 10, where the offspring of Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, are  listed, Aram takes a very prominent place (10:22), featuring among the immediate children of Shem (whose name is the source of  the term ‘Semitic’), along with Asshur (and two others). By contrast, Eber (the supposed ancestor of the Hebrews) is only a grandson of Shem. A different genealogical relation-ship is to be found in Genesis 22:2L where Aram is given as a grandson of Abraham’s brother Nahor. A close relationship between the Patriarchs and Aramaeans is also implied in the ritual declaration that the Israelites are instructed to make before God in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 26:5): ‘My father (i.e. Jacob) was a wandering Aramaean’ (the early translations of the Hebrew Bible, however, interpreted this in a different way). ‘Aramaean’ started out as an ethnic term, and is found as such in texts of the eleventh to eighth centuries BC. During this period Aramaeans are attested over a wide area of the Middle East, covering virtually the entire span of the Fertile Crescent, from the south of modem Syria to the south of Iraq. It is in connection with the area of Babylonia (south Iraq) that the term is found longest, continuing for a while after the Assyrian texts had ceased to use it in connection with the city states in Mesopotamia and Syria, where local dynastic names were used instead. Thus Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 BC) mentions no less than thirty six Aramaean tribes which were settled in south-eastern Babylonia. A later memory of the presence of Aramaeans in Babylonia is the geographical term Beth Aramaye, found in Syriac texts of the first millennium AD for that region.

It is possible that the Aramaeans also feature in Homer’s Iliad. In Book II of the Iliad, lines 782-3 read, “’Zeus thunders and lashes the earth over Typhoeos among the Arimoi where they sav Typhoeos has his couch”. Although the identity of these “Arimoi” remains unclear and many different suggestions have been made, some modem scholars follow the view, already put forward by the Greek scholar Poseidonios (2nd/l st century BC), that they were the Aramaeans.

From about the seventh century BC onwards the available sources do not provide us with sufficient information to enable one in a satisfactory manner to follow the course of a continuing Aramaean ethnic identity over the ensuing centuries. Accordingly, for practical reasons, in these volumes, the thread of continuity down to the present day is essentially provided by the Aramaic language, and those who use it in all its different forms.