Aram, Aramaeans

See also Aram

ARAM, ARAMAEANS ăr’ əm, ăr’ ə me’ ənz (אֲרָם, H806)

1. Earliest references. The word “Aram,” as the name of a region or of a state, first appears in the 23rd cent. before Christ, in a cuneiform inscr. of the Akkad. King Naram-Sin. The interpretation of this inscr. is not absolutely certain; however, in the following centuries the term “Aram” appears in various cuneiform tablets.

As early as the third millennium b.c. there is evidence of nomads called Sutû coming from deserts of N Arabia and raiding the civilizations of Mesopotamia. The Sutû are also mentioned in the Amarna letters, along with the Aḫlamû, and make their debut in Assyrian sources at the time of Arikden-ili (1319-1308 b.c.). The Aḫlamû are mentioned in an Amarna letter alluding to the king of Babylon. During this same period their presence is attested in, or near, Assyria, at Nippur and even at Dilmun, and Shalmaneser I (1274-1245 b.c.) defeated the Hurrians and their Hittite and Aḫlamû allies. Tukulti-Ninurta I (1244-1208 b.c.) claims that he conquered Mari, Hana, and Rapiqu on the Euphrates and “the mountains of the Aḫlamû.” There seems to be some connection of the Sutû with the Aramu, Kaldu, and Ahlame but the precise relationship is not yet clear. The terms Aḫlamû and Aramaean are juxtaposed in an inscr. of Tiglath-pileser I (1115-1077 b.c.) in which he recorded his encounter with the Aḫlamû-Aramaeans who came from the desert areas. Like other Semites, the Aramaeans made their first appearance in history as nomads.

2. Aramaean states. The area of Aram never developed into one great empire but rather consisted of several small, independent states in Syria and northern Pal. Some of these are mentioned in the OT (2 Sam 10:6-8), and the most outstanding was Damascus, a state which eventually embraced most of Syria except for the Phoen. coast. This state was conquered by David but won independence before the end of Solomon’s reign, and became, in relation to Israel, the most important kingdom of Aram. It is commonly referred to in the OT simply as Aram.

By the 12th cent. b.c., Aramaeans are mentioned by name among other W Sem. tribes, living W of Assyria, between the western bank of the Euphrates and Palmyra in the Syrian desert. They had apparently established a number of strongholds which suggests they had been there for some time. During the 12th cent. b.c. the Near E underwent significant shifts of power with the result that the Hitt. empire broke up into smaller kingdoms; the Egyp. power and influence in Syria and Canaan declined; and the Mitanni kingdom slowly disintegrated. This situation gave the Aramaeans their opportunity, and they streamed into border areas of the Mesopotamian kingdoms and moved westward to settle throughout northern and southern Syria, where they settled esp. around Tadmor (Palmyra) and Damascus. Tiglath-pileser I (1115-1077) fought a series of campaigns against them, but could not prevent their taking possession of whole areas of his dominion.

By the 11th cent. the Aramaeans had succeeded in establishing small kingdom states, and from the 10th cent. originated the earliest texts in Aram. The Aramaeans attained their highest degree of political importance in the 11th and 10th centuries b.c., thanks to the decline of the Assyrian empire during that period. Adad-apal-iddina (1067-1046 b.c.) was an Aramaean raised to the throne of Babylon by the Assyrians, perhaps in the hope of diverting the Aramaean influx toward southern Iraq. On the other front of Aramaean expansion, to the W, there arose at this time in Cilicia the state Sam’al. Another state was founded around Arpad and Aleppo, at Hama was another state, and to the S other states were formed on the borders of the Heb. kingdoms. Thanks to the OT there is considerable information on two of these (Zobah and Damascus) which were conquered by David, but regained their independence after the kingdom divided.

Despite the force of their expansion, the Aramaeans were never able to organize their conquests, or even, in general, their own states. The Aramaeans never attained an effective political unity, and their divisions into little local kingdoms, which was further determined by the multitude of heterogeneous elements with which they came into contact, was the decisive element of their weakness.

Saul, David and Solomon fought against the Aramaean kingdoms which lay across the northern frontier of Israel: Aram-zobah (Psalm 60, title), Beth-rehob (2 Sam 10:6), Aramnaharaim (Psalm 60, title), Geshur (1 Chron 2:23). The kingdom state which eventually became the most outstanding was Damascus.

3. Aram, Israel, and Assyria. After the decline of Solomon’s empire, hostilities continued between Israel and the Syrians (Aramaeans) some 150 years. In general, Aram-Damascus was able to take advantage of the division between Israel and Judah. The strength of Aram was largely retained by Ben-hadad II of Damascus, who absorbed the satellite kingdoms into a single united Aram-Damascus. He initiated two unsuccessful campaigns against Israel, then reached an agreement with Ahab who joined the anti-Assyrian coalition formed of twelve kingdoms of the area. This alliance, however, needed an imminent threat from Assyria to hold it together. When that danger seemed to have lessened, the Syria-Israel alliance collapsed and Ben-hadad II attacked again and inflicted a decisive defeat on the combined forces of Israel and Judah (852 b.c., at Ramoth-Gilead) (1 Kings 22:1-35).

Assyria attempted to clear the invaders out of Mesopotamia, and during the first half of the 9th cent. the Assyrian kings waged war against the strongholds of Aramaean power in Mesopotamia. Shalmaneser turned his attention to Syria, and after a series of incursions, inflicted in 841 b.c. a severe defeat upon a coalition of Aramaean states, with which the king of Israel had allied himself. The defeated states apparently did not lose their independence for some decades to come.

Adad-Nirari III (810-783 b.c.) launched new campaigns against Aram, and in 802 b.c. the city of Damascus was besieged and the king was forced to pay tribute to the Assyrians, along with Israel. By the time the Assyrians were forced to turn their attention to events nearer home, the back of Aram’s strength was broken and decline followed. Damascus fell an easy prey to Jeroboam II (786-746 b.c.) of Israel and became independent under the new king, Rezin (c. 740-732 b.c.), but he could not restore its old supremacy.

In the 8th cent. b.c., Assyria once more took up the offensive. In 743 b.c. Arpad, which the inscrs. found at Sujin reveal as opposed to Assyria, fell to Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 b.c.). Next it was the turn of Sam’al, where a certain Azriyau had seized power and was raising an anti-Assyrian coalition. This usurper was conquered and put to death in 738 b.c., and the throne was restored to the legitimate king, Panamuwa II, whose son Bar-Rekub records these events in his inscrs. Further S Damascus was reduced to the state of an Assyrian province in 732 b.c. Hana, after a last attempt at rebellion, was overthrown by Sargon II (721-705 b.c.).

For almost two centuries the northern kingdom of Israel, and the Aramaean state of Damascus were in close relationship—for good or evil—but Assyrian power, which for over a half cent. had begun to loom as a threat to Syrian independence, finally overwhelmed both nations. By this time, however, the Aramaeans had won a language victory inasmuch as the Aram. language had become widely spread throughout the Fertile Crescent. Some Assyrian kings employed Aramaean scribes, and during the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib (c. 701 b.c.) Aram. could be used as a diplomatic mode of exchange by non-Aramaeans. Inscriptions in Aram. from this period have been found in widely scattered places.

Many Aram. documents were found in Elephantine in Egypt where a Jewish colony flourished in the 5th and 4th centuries b.c. Beginning with the 4th cent. b.c., Aram. was adopted by some Arabs and evolved into Nabataean, which was used at Petra. Aramaic continued to spread and was widely used throughout the Near E in Rom. times.

4. Significance. The Aramaeans, whether merchants, peasants, shepherds, soldiers or bandits, were originally nomads and contributed nothing really significant to the Near Eastern civilization except their language. It appears from their inscrs. that they worshiped both Sumerian-Akkadian, and Canaanite deities, such as Adad, El, Sin, ’Anat, etc. They apparently lacked originality in the field of arts and simply followed the traditions of the countries where they settled. The kings of Damascus employed Phoen. sculptors and ivory carvers, and Sam’al under its new masters retained all the features of a Neo-Hittite city. Archeological excavations at Tell Halaf-Guzana revealed the palace of an Aramaean ruler who prob. lived at the beginning of the 9th cent. b.c. This palace was a structure decorated with orthostats, perhaps cruder than the contemporary sculptures of northern Syria, and with strange looking almost morbid statues which, on analysis, display a mixture of Mesopotamian, Hittite and Hurrian influences, as would be expected in such an area as this where three cultures converged. A feature of the palace was the colonnaded portico. The entrance gateway was flanked by two great lion figures, and there were many sphinxes. Also found at Tell Halaf were a collection of statues, and pylons carved in relief. Aramaean art, before the Hel. period, had a rough provincial aspect. Although it possessed a few features of its own, it may generally be classified within the artistic tradition of Asia Minor and Mesopotamia. Aramaean art work can be frequently identified by its custom of representing the human face with the beard shaved above and below the lips.

The greatest contribution given by the Aramaeans to the Near E was their language which has had a continuous tradition to the present time.

The significance of the Aramaeans for Biblical research is great when one considers the Aramaean background of the patriarchs as well as the close relations of the northern kingdom of Israel with the Aramaeans of Damascus.

Bibliography R. A. Bowman, “Arameans, Aramaic and the Bible,” JNES, 7(1948), 65-90; R. T. O’Callaghan, Aram Naharaim (1948); A Dupont-Sommer, Les Arameens (1949); M. F. Unger, Israel and the Aramaeans of Damascus (1957); S. Moscati, “The Aramaean Ahlamû,” JSS, 4(1959), 303-307.