1 Introduction to Aram and the role of the Aramaic language
Ancient Syria – not the territory of the modern nation state, but a broader region whose boundaries have always been somewhat unclear – has an extremely complicated history. The name ‘Syria’ (Sūr) almost certainly derives from ‘Assyria’ (Aššūr), because of long periods of political rule of the Assyrian empire over these lands in the 2nd and 1st millennia BCE. Yet the Mesopotamian culture of Assyria did not simply impose itself on the local population. The Mesopotamians regarded it as a distinct region, called Eber-Nari (‘beyond the Euphrates’), and its inhabitants called the land Aram, and themselves Aramaeans.
In the 1st millennium BCE, the language of the Aramaeans (which we now call Aramaic, but the Greeks called Syrian) actually came to gradually replace the indigenous Semitic language of Mesopotamia, Akkadian, first as a spoken idiom and eventually as the medium of imperial bureaucracy. Ironically, then, it is as the language of Mesopotamia, not as the language of Aram, that Aramaic became a regional lingua franca. It served as such not only in the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires, but also under the Persian Achaemenids, who conquered these Mesopotamian states, and whose rule at one point stretched from Egypt to the Punjab.
This complex cultural push and pull can be illustrated by the story of an Aramaic piece of wisdom literature, the Sayings of Aḥiqar. It concerns the life and sayings of a scribe at the Assyrian court, but his name, Aḥiqar, shows him to be Aramaean rather than Assyrian. Although he is probably fictional, he is representative of a real class of Aramaean intellectuals who were proximate to Assyrian power and culture, yet retained a distinct identity. Notably, despite its setting, the text contains no clear influences of Akkadian, but only of Canaanite; as Ingo Kottsieper argues in his study of the its language (Die Sprache der Aḥiqarsprüche), it reflects the dialect of Aram.
Yet the survival of the text, and its eventual translation into many other languages, is due not to its popularity in Aram itself, but to its becoming part of the Mesopotamia-centered “mainstream” of the Aramaic-speaking world. It is by virtue of this (it seems to me) that it was among the texts used by a community of Jewish soldiers stationed in Elephantine, Egypt, during the Achaemenid period (5th century BCE). The only copy of the original Aramaic version of the text was among the papyri recovered from Elephantine in modern times.
Of the versions of the Sayings that have been transmitted in manuscript, the Western branch is overtly monotheistic, perhaps reflecting ongoing Jewish (later Christian) reception. In the Eastern branch, the polytheism was not erased (at least not initially), but apparently changed to be more conformable to Mesopotamian tradition. This version was in classical Syriac, the literary dialect of Aramaic that emerged in late antique Mesopotamia (not in Syria, as the name implies, at least not in the narrower sense).
2 The history of the Aramaeans and their predecessors
While it used to be generally believed in scholarship – as part of the dubious Bronze Age Collapse narrative – that the Aramaeans were nomadic (“bedouin”) invaders coming from the Syro-Arabian desert and settling in Syria only in the 13th century BCE or so, this is no longer accepted. In reality, “there were no great shifts of population” at the time, but a change in social organization: “[l]ocal rural communities together with unstable, possibly but not necessarily nomadic groups,” known to the Assyrians as aḫlamû-Aramaeans, “became the primary components of the political and social fabric, and the tribe replaced the former territorial states as the basic unit of collective organization” (G. Bunnens, quoted in H. Niehr, The Aramaeans in Ancient Syria, 2014, p. 19). It was at this time, then, that groups calling themselves Aramaeans and their language, Aramaic, came to prominence in Syria, but this was only the beginning of a new phase in a longer history, which I will briefly sketch here.
3 Non-Aramaean cultural elements of ancient Syria