Arameans Emerge in Syria and Mesopotamia

Aramean groups settled regions throughout Syria-Palestine and Mesopotamia in the wake of the political vacuum of the twelfth century b.c.e.

Summary of Event

The great political vacuum created by the chaotic close of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1200 b.c.e.) in Syria-Palestine allowed smaller states to emerge into the fore of ancient Near Eastern political and economic life. The Arameans were one such group widely attested during this period.

The origin of the Arameans is a topic of debate among scholars. Some scholars view these groups as pastoralists from the fringes of the Syrian Desert who infiltrated the region, initially in Upper Mesopotamia (northern present-day Syria and Iraq), and later swept southwest into Syria and southeast into southern Mesopotamia. One model holds that pastoralists were especially equipped to survive the economic upheavals of the end of the Late Bronze Age. This view holds that the exchanges made by pastoralists were not dependent on the palace economy of the region but on small-scale production that did not wane. This model holds that when the urban centers were depopulated, these pastoralists were the economic successors to the urban elite.

Other scholars prefer to view these groups as descendants from long-attested West Semitic groups based primarily in Syria, the same groups that produced the Amorite kingdoms, including Hammurabi’s Babylonian kingdom, in the second millennium b.c.e. These groups reemerged after the collapse of Hurrians and the Hittites at the end of the Late Bronze Age.

It is not clear what relationship these groups had with one another. The Arameans were not a single ethnic entity. Aside from their language, there is little cultural continuity among these groups. What material culture has been found is clearly influenced strongly by Phoenician or neo-Hittite forms. Scholars are hard-pressed to identify Aramean remains, apart from association with inscriptions.

The first attestation to Arameans is found in the late twelfth century b.c.e. in the annals of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser I (r. c. 1115-1077 b.c.e.) as he faced an Aramean enemy west of the Euphrates. Arameans lived on the fringes of the Assyrian state and were the constant object of military attention. After a century-long dark age, the Arameans had penetrated and settled in Assyria and Babylonia, and they were constantly engaged militarily with the Assyrian armies. Eventually (by the end of the eighth century b.c.e.), most of the Aramaic-speaking world, from Syria to Babylonia, was under the control of the Assyrian Empire.

The eleventh century b.c.e. kings of united Israel encountered Aramean peoples, generally appearing in the Hebrew Bible in the context of armed conflict. Aramaic inscriptions became common in the ninth century b.c.e. and thus shed little light on the Arameans’ period of entry into the land. There may be two Egyptian references to Arameans before 1100 b.c.e. and perhaps an Ugaritic reference before 1200 b.c.e., but all three are at best suspect identifications. The presence of Aramean states occurred in the political vacuum of the events following the advent of the Sea Peoples and the collapse of the major political powers in Syria-Palestine at the beginning of the Iron Age.

The Aramean states that emerged were separate tribal entities, often known by their patronyms. The political structures of the states evolved into monarchies. The bulk of the population was pastoral or agricultural, as indicated by Assyrian booty lists, which normally consist of agricultural products. Political unity never occurred, as there was never anything resembling a single state or empire of the Aramean world. Shifting alliances instead governed political relations, reflected in a number of ninth and eighth century b.c.e. accounts (usually involving Damascus) in the Hebrew Bible.

Little is known about the religion of the Arameans. Religion, like every other aspect of Aramean culture, has been the victim of a comparative lack of interest among former generations of archaeologists. Aside from oaths in treaties and occasional mentions in cuneiform sources or in the Hebrew Bible, little written evidence regarding religion is preserved from this (or for that matter, any other) period.


The most significant contribution of the Arameans was doubtless their language, which became the lingua franca of successive empires for more than one thousand years. The Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians all used the language for official correspondence. The spoken language was dominant in the region from the seventh century b.c.e. until after the advent of the Islamic caliphate, which began in the seventh century c.e. The legacy of the literature of these peoples is not limited to what these individual city-states produced. Rather, through the media of Jewish and Christian religious writings, an enormous corpus of writing exists in a number of dialects of Aramaic.

The presence of the Arameans in the region influenced the theology of the Hebrew Bible. The ancient Israelites perceived a kinship with all Semitic peoples, especially the Arameans (see Genesis 10:22). Abraham is called “a wandering Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5), a reference, perhaps anachronistically, to kin-group ties in the region of Padam-Aram (Genesis 25:20 and 31:20; compare 22:21). The veracity of this claim is the subject of debate. A distant common cultural milieu is theoretically possible, though one distant enough to precede the emergence of Hebrew and Aramaic begs the question of the cultural influence of these peoples on later Israelite society.

Further Reading

  • Dion, Paul. “Aramean Tribes and Nations of the First-Millennium Western Asia.” In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, edited by Jack Sasson. New York: Scribner, 1995. Excellent brief summary of the topic.
  • Greenfield, Jonas. “Aspects of Aramean Religion.” In Ancient Israelite Religion: Essays in Honor of Frank Moore Cross, edited by Paul Hanson, S. Dean McBride, and Patrick Miller. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987. A magisterial work on a neglected topic.
  • Hawkins, J. D. “The Neo-Hittite States in Syria and Anatolia.” In The Cambridge Ancient History. Vol. 31. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. A meticulous essay on the material culture and history of Iron Age Syria.
  • Pitard, Wayne. Ancient Damascus: A Historical Study of the Syrian City-State from Earliest Times Until Its Fall to the Assyrians in 732 b.c.e.
    Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1987. Focuses on the best-documented city-state of the Arameans, with a methodology that is fitting to apply to all other sites.
  • Pitard, Wayne. “The Arameans.” In Peoples of the Old Testament World, edited by Alfred J. Hoerth, Gerald Mattingly, and Edwin Yamauchi. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1994. A good general introduction to Aramean history and culture.

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