Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Origins of the Aramaeans and their Emergence in the 12th Century BC

This is a difficult topic which you are unlikely to have come across, but it has implications for biblical studies and the origins of the Hebrew Patriarchs. Though written in 1988 as an essay for my degree in Egyptology and Ancient History, and therefore written from within the Orthodox Chronology, you may see implications for the New Chronology in this little-studied area of historical research. 


It will be my intention to try to show that the historical material on which the theories of the so-called Aramaean movements of c. 1200 to c. 900 BC are based is open to an alternative interpretation. I will attempt to argue that the standard 'invasion' hypothesis is not impartially based on the available evidence but rather on a desire to see the rise to political power of the Aramaean states as part of the general population disturbances and movements thought to have taken place at the end of the Late Bronze Age.[1]

The basis of my argument will be the assumption that the Aramaeans are at least linguistically and probably ethnically related to their precursors in the Levant whom the Egyptians and Hittites called Amurru – the biblical Amorites. Albright makes the clear statement that 'The descendants of the Amorites became Aramaean, a process doubtless facilitated by close dialectal similarities'.[2]

Indeed, I am going to propose that they are basically one and the same peoples, although not absolutely equal in definition. Thus the status of Aramaeans may be in some ways similar to that of the Habiru of the el-Amarna period – that is to say, just as all Habiru were SA.GAZ but not all SA.GAZ were Habiru, so not all Amorites were Aramaeans, for they also consisted of Jebusites, Sutu and other related tribes or groups. Alternatively, 'Aramu' may have gradually evolved into a general term similar to the modern 'Arab' which today represents many very different social and tribal groups under the one banner.

The separate identities of Amorites and Aramaeans, as espoused by the standard works on the subject, have often been blurred. Where the Old Testament refers to king Hadadezer, the contemporary of David, as an Amorite, Albright prefers to call him the 'king of the Aramaeans of Zobah'.[3] Clearly there is little to differentiate the two in the minds of some scholars and perhaps we would be wise to consider the possibility that the Aramaeans were indigenous to the Levant almost from the beginning of the historical period, clad in their earlier Amorite disguise, rather than newcomers arriving in northern Syria and northern Mesopotamia at the beginning of the Iron Age.

Amorite/Aramaean Territorial Geography

In the Old Testament the Amorites are described as principally occupying the highland areas of the Levant. In particular, they are located in the region north of the Sea of Chinnereth and east of the Orontes, as well as to the east of the Jordan and, to a degree, in the mountainous region between the coastal plain and the Jordan Valley. In the lowlands, that is to say the coastal plain and the Jezreel and Jordan Valleys, the principal ethnic population was apparently Canaanite:

The Amalakites dwell in the land of Negeb; the Hittites, the Jebusites and Amorites dwell in the hill country; and the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan. [Numbers 13:29]

In Numbers 21:21-23 Joshua's invasion of Trans-Jordan is against the Amorites, and in Joshua 7:7 the city of Ai appears to be an Amorite possession. Also in Joshua 10:5, the Jebusite king of Jerusalem is named as one of the kings of the Amorites. According to Kenyon:

The Jebusites would seem in other references to be comprised within the Amorites, for the king of Jerusalem, a town specifically Jebusite in Joshua 15:63, is one of the kings of the Amorites who banded against the appeasing Gibeonites as described in Joshua 10:5, ... [4]

A few centuries later, we find the Aramaeans occupying the same regions all but one – the newly conquered land of Israel, south of the Jezreel, which was now occupied by the Hebrews. One extra area is added to their sphere of control and that is the north Syrian region including the Khabur Triangle. However it could be argued that this territory was also occupied by the Amorites in earlier times, but, because of its geographical remoteness from the area of the Conquest, it was not listed amongst the Amorite possessions in Numbers 13. Brinkman agrees that:

By the middle of the eighth century the Aramaeans were dispersed over an area roughly equivalent to that occupied by the Amorites at their height.[5]

Somewhat more emphatically he adds:

Even a superficial glance at the geographical distribution of the Amorites in the early part of the second millennium and a comparison with the areas occupied by the Arameans in the second half of the eighth century will show that they inhabited many of the same regions in Syria, along the middle Euphrates, and in southeastern Babylonia. ... Since there is no substantial evidence for the Arameans coming into this area in the intervening period and since there is no trace of an older Babylonian or Amorite population being displaced, one is led to wonder whether the southeastern Arameans might not be either remote descendants of earlier Amorites or at least a group speaking a related West Semitic language.[6]

Dates of first appearances of the various Aramaean/Amorite groups in the accounts of the major civilizations

Early Biblical References

Some scholars suggest that the mentions of Aramaeans in the Old Testament, in particular in the Pentateuch, are anachronistic. There, for example, Abraham is referred to as 'the wandering Aramaean' [Deuteronomy 26:5]. We also find Amorites occurring in the Mari texts (c.1800) whose nomenclature closely resembles that of the patriarchal period familiar to us from the Old Testament. The term 'Sutu' (see below) is also attested in the Mari archive.

An interesting theory regarding the origins of the Amorites was proposed by Clay in 1919.[7] According to him, the name 'Uru' appears to be associated with the principal early deity of the 'Am-urru';[8] he then goes on to assert that the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur was named after this deity. In Aramaic the name 'Amurru' is written 'Uru' and is identical to the writing of the city name of 'Ur'. The logic of his argument continues with the biblical story of Abraham's links to that city and hence the Amorite origins of the Patriarchs. The name Uru-shalim would also have a satisfactory explanation in the context of an Amorite/Jebusite kingdom in the Judean hills.[9] The early god of Amurru was also, according to Clay, variously called El-Ur/Amar/Mar of which the first gives us another obvious patriarchal link and the last the name of the city of Mari.

Whether or not Clay was near the mark with his hypothesis (without a knowledge of early Amorite religion and language I am unable to take issue with him), it is superficially at least an elegant scheme which appears to add some credence to the Old Testament traditions concerning the origins of the Patriarchs.

Later, in the monarchy period, king David (c. 1000) overthrew Hadadezer king of Zobah when the latter was occupied trying to retrieve land captured presumably by the Assyrians near the Euphrates [2 Samuel 8:3]. This victory led to the absorption of Aram-Zobah into Israelite territory, much of which was then lost again under the rise to power of Rezin king of Aram-Damascus (contemporary of Isaiah). Again I stress that Albright regarded Hadadezer as an Aramaean. We therefore meet the Aramaeans in Palestine at the turn of the 10th century, but their occupation of the area may be extended backwards in time for an undetermined period on the grounds that Hadadezer was in the act of recovering his domains from aggressors in the north when David attacked. Hadadezer was not therefore in the act of arriving in the region for the first time. Thus the beginning of the 10th century must act only as a terminus ad quem for the arrival/appearance of the Aramaeans in Palestine.

Early Mesopotamia

From early Mesopotamian sources we hear of a group of people known as the 'Sutu' who are in later times often associated with the so-called Aramaean movements. Brinkman confirms that:

Their distribution in time and place roughly matches the distribution of the contemporary Arameans, and one is led to suspect that in Babylonian parlance the terms 'Sutian' and 'Aramean' may not always have designated distinguishable groups.[10]

According to O'Callaghan, the Sutu are recorded as being desert nomads in the reign of Rim-Sin of Larsa (c. 1790 BC).[11] Brinkman also notes the first rather puzzling occurrence in this reign of the institution of the nasiku (tribal chieftain) which regularly occurs in association with the much later Aramaeans.[12] The first clear and unequivocal reference to the nasiku is otherwise dated to the reign of Ashurnasirpal II c. 870 BC. One must then ask the question: should these Aramaean associations also be regarded as anachronistic, just as is argued for the early biblical references dated to the same 18th-century period?


In the Egypt of the 18th Dynasty we find the pharaohs in correspondence with a country called Naharaim/Mitanni. The Amenhotep III heart scarabs of Year 10 (c. 1380 BC) commemorate the marriage of the king to a Mitannian princess. One inscription reads:

A marvel brought to his majesty, the daughter of the king of Naharaima, Shutana, the princess Gilukhepa and women of her harim numbering 317.[13]

The terms Naharaim and Mitanni appear to be interchangeable in the Egyptian texts, both names possessing the hill-country/foreign-land determinative. However, 'Mitanni' is primarily used in association with the king of the country or his envoys, whereas 'Naharaim' is predominantly the term used to describe the geographical region across the Euphrates. The term 'Mitanni' probably therefore has a narrower, more political connotation and direct connection with the Indo-European ruling class.

The country of Mitanni and therefore Naharaim was centred on the Khabur Triangle at around 1350 BC, as was the Aramaean kingdom of Aram-Naharaim conventionally dated to 1150 BC. Even though the region was ruled in the earlier period by Indo-European/Hurrian princes, the indigenous population may have been Amorite. In this regard Goetze argues that:

Hurrian knights had then replaced the Amorite princes, taken over the best parts of the land for themselves and their liegemen (mariyannu), and now formed a caste of their own.[14].

If Goetze is right in his understanding of the change in political control of the Khabur region, then it would not be a giant leap of the imagination to suggest that, following the collapse of the Mitannian Dynasty during the 13th century, it was the native Amorite population, now described as Aramaeans by the Assyrians, which again rose to the forefront of the political scene and provided the new bulwark against early Assyrian expansion. This hypothesis transforms the historical picture from the standard view of a new group of Aramaean invaders arriving from the Syrian plains and western Arabian peninsula into something quite different. Instead, with the overthrow of the Indo-European/Hurrian ruling class which had previously dominated the territories to the west of the Assyrian heartland, we see a simple change in adversary for the rising power of Assyria in the form of the re-emerging old Amorite population, dominated in particular by one tribe – the 'Ahlamu Aramaeans'.

That the Sutu were also a force to be reckoned with in the 14th century is surely evident from their appearance in the Golden Horus name of Amenhotep III which is first attested in a stela from Aswan dated to Year 5 of the king. There Amenhotep is called hwi Sttyw 'smiter of the Sutu'.[15] This group were therefore clearly seen by the Egyptians as a major adversary at this time.

Egypt: The el-Amarna Letters

In the el-Amarna correspondence (1360-1335 BC) we come across for the first time in Egyptian sources the group of people called the 'Ahlamu' who apparently occupy parts of Syria. The letters were written in Akkadian, although the provenance was Egypt, and so this name occurs in its non-Egyptian form. These Ahlamu are referred to as 'brigands' [EA 200] and are associated with another group called the Sttyw (the Sutu already mentioned above) who have been holding up the messengers of Pharaoh returning from Mesopotamia [EA 195].

The term Ahlamu or 'hlmw contains the frequently used 'h' of the cuneiform texts, which in Egyptian vocalisation and writing may well have been dropped. The letter 'l' is, of course, interchangeable with 'r' and the 'w' ending represents the plural nominative termination. Thus it is possible to argue with confidence that the terms '(h)lm(w) and 'rm(w) or Aramu belong to the same basic stem and may indeed represent one and the same peoples. There is therefore the possibility of Aramaeans appearing on the scene as early as the end of the 18th Dynasty in Egypt (c. 1350 BC) at about the time that Mitannian control of the North Syria region was starting to wane.

It is universally accepted that Hadadezer, king of Aram Zobah and adversary of king David, was a 10th-century Aramaean ruler. However, in the el-Amarna correspondence of 1350 BC, the name Hadadezer appears in its abbreviated form of 'Aziru' (biblical -ezer), the king of Damascus. Thus an Aramaean king's name is employed by a 14th-century ruler whose territory coincides with the later Aram Zobah of the 10th century. The Hittite king Shuppiluliuma I, in his letters to Pharaoh, calls this same Aziru 'king of the Amorites'.

A more speculative but very interesting linguistic idea suggests that the Aramaeans were known to the Egyptians even as far back as the Middle Kingdom.[16] The so-called 'Execration Texts' of this period refer to a people called '3m. In these texts, the aleph glottal stop is used to represent the Semitic post-vocalic 'l' in the transcriptions of some Levantine place-names and their rulers.[17] It is therefore a possibility that '3m represents 'lm or 'rm and this could be seen as the Egyptian writing of Ahlamu or Aram, though some caution is necessary in view of the initial 'ayin. In spite of the latter, Smith and Smith did in fact assume this view by using the Anglisization 'Alamu for '3m in their translation of the Kamose texts of the late 17th Dynasty.[18] Their translation would put the Ahlamu back into the 16th century and by consequence to at least the 18th century through the '3m of the Execration Texts. This would tie in well with the mentions of Sutu in the Mari archive.


Shuppiluliuma I, as already mentioned, was a contemporary of Amenhotep III c. 1350 BC. He also had a battle near Carchemish in which the Sutu were a part of the enemy confederacy ranged against the Hittite army.

Three generations later, the Ahlamu are again preventing messengers from reaching their destinations - this time the couriers are from Kadashman-Enlil of Babylon on their way to Hattusili III of Hatti (c. 1270 BC).


The Ahlamu/Aramaeans occur unequivocally in Assyrian texts some 220 years after the el-Amarna Period, in Year 4 of Tiglath-pileser I (c. 1110 BC). In his annals for that year the king states that he 'conquered six of their cities at the foot of Mount Beshri'. The use of the word 'city' in association with the Ahlamu clearly suggests a settled population by this time.[19] Tiglath-pileser went on to record 28 campaigns against the Ahlamu during his 38-year reign.[20]

Aramaean tribes also appear settled in Babylonia by the reign of Tiglath-pileser III (c. 740 BC) and it is generally thought that they had gradually infiltrated from the west as part of the overall movements of peoples during the troubled times of the 12th to 10th centuries. Again this group is not perceived as indigenous to the region but as a migrating/invading population. Brinkman, however, acknowledges the weaknesses on which this assumption rests:

... evidence regarding this supposed migration is frustratingly sparse; and, in many instances, one may question whether the prevailing historical reconstructions are satisfactory.[21]

He further adds:

In surveying the evidence available on the Arameans who affected Babylonia between 1150 and 746, we find that we are not in a position to answer even such essential questions as: who were these Arameans and where did they come from, ...?[22]

Thus the Egyptian evidence, its corroboration from Hatti, and indeed that from Tiglath-pileser I's own records combines to cast considerable doubt on the hypothesis of an Aramaean invasion of northern Mesopotamia in the late-12th century BC. The Aramaean population appears to have been settled in northern Syria and probably the Khabur Triangle for at least 150 years prior to this time and most likely for a considerable time longer. This is further suggested by a reference to 'the mountains of the Ahlami' in a campaign text from the reign of Tukulti-Ninurta I (c. 1235 BC). The Ahlamu/Aramaeans cannot therefore be regarded as forming a major part of the widespread population movements which are believed to have taken place at the end of the Late Bronze Age. Their political emergence probably took place around two centuries earlier during the LH IIIB period and may have originally been the rising of an indigenous 'serf' population which brought about the overthrow of their Indo-European/Hurrian overlords – the Mitannian Dynasty. Even if no direct evidence for this uprising is currently available, there is certainly sufficient circumstantial evidence to point to the Aramaean population filling the political vacuum following the sudden and mysterious disappearance of the Mitannian kingdom. Their raids into Assyrian territory may well have been caused by 'land-hunger' brought about by severe famines which, according to ancient sources, appear to have been widespread at this time.


In Lower Mesopotamia we find that a king of Babylon, Adad-apla-iddina (c. 1060 BC), was himself an Aramaean [23] and that the Neo-Babylonian dynasty of later years was of Aramaean stock. Simbar-Shipak (c. 1020 BC) of the Second Sealand Dynasty had to repair the cult centres of Sippar and Nippur following attacks of Sutu and Aramaeans some twenty years earlier [24] and another inscription mentions the throne of Enlil, made in the time of Nebuchadnezzar I (c. 1120 BC), which the Aramaeans had taken away from Babylon [25]. Later, Nabu-apla-iddina (c. 860 BC) defeated the Sutu and set about restoring the shrines that they had destroyed in these earlier times.[26]

Thus the Aramaeans were very active in southern Mesopotamia throughout this long period, during which time they spasmodically gained effective control of much of the region. This, however, does not in my view constitute evidence of population movements or invasions and could equally represent the fluctuating fortunes of an influential settled group living within the multi-racial population of the region. These tribes may have lived in the area for many centuries prior to their rise to power.

The Aramaic Language

Although not absolutely identifiable as the precursor to Aramaic, Amorite seems to have contained many elements that were later to form the basis of Aramaic grammar, including the method of indicating the plural and the verbal structure. The other major influences on early Aramaic were Phoenician and Ugaritic. Later it borrowed further from the Mesopotamian scripts before becoming the lingua franca of the Levant in the Persian period.[27]

Chronological chart showing a selection of Amorite/Aramaean 'events' from 2000 BC to 850 BC


1950      Abraham 'the Aramaean wanderer' leaves Ur.

1850      Possible mention of Alamu in the Execration Texts
              of the Middle Kingdom in Egypt.
              The Sutu appear in the Mari texts as 'plunderers'.

1800      Naram-Sin fights against 'Harshamadki lord of Aram'.

1790      Rim-Sin of Larsa encounters Sutu.

1550      The Kamose texts mention Asiatics called '3mw/Alamu.

1381      Amenhotep III 'the smiter of the Sutu' marries a princess of Naharin.

1350      Ahlamu and Sutu appear in the el-Amarna Letters.
               Aziru of Amurru could be an Aramaean Hadadezer.

1270      More Ahlamu in the reign of Kadashman-Enlil.



1110      First use of the term Aramaeans during the reign of Tiglath-pileser I – they are referred to as dwelling in cities.

1060      Adad-apla-idinna, an Aramaean, becomes king of Babylonia.

1020      Simbar-Shipak repairs shrines damaged by Aramaeans.

1000      David defeats Hadadezer of Aram-Zobah.

860        Nabu-apla-idinna defeats the Sutu.


As far as I have been able to ascertain, none of the inscriptions from the records of the ancient Near East suggest an invasion or major movement of population by the people known as the Aramaeans in around 1200 to 1100 BC. The sudden appearance in Assyrian documents of the name Ahlamu Aramaeans in the reign of Tiglath-pileser I may be explained by the paucity of annals surviving from the century immediately prior to his reign and the ineffectual rule of the Assyrian kings preceding this veteran campaigner.

The Assyrian attacks on the Khabur Triangle are not considered by scholars to be either invasions or population movements because it is tacitly understood that the Assyrians had dwelt in the region between the two Zabs for several centuries prior to their expansion in the 11th century. I see no reason to take a different view in respect of the Amorite/Aramaean peoples. I suggest that, in attacking Assyria, they were doing no more or no less than their neighbours, all of whom were trying to capitalise on the power vacuum created by the collapse of firstly the Mitannian kingdom and then later both the Hittite and Egyptian empires in northern Syria.

Although much of the above argument is based on the phonetic similarities between the names of various groups appearing in the ancient texts, I feel that there is sufficient other supportive evidence to show continuity of occupation in the region by both the Ahlamu and Sutu. Because the phonetic arguments are not therefore applied in isolation I believe there is justification for some speculation on the origins of the Aramaeans using this methodology.

Cook tells us that by the time of the Persian Empire:

Important peoples like the Hittites and Aramaeans, the Philistines, and the Edomites had more or less lost their identity, as the Midianites, Amorites and Amalekites had done earlier'.[28]

One might be entitled to question the assumption that the Amorites had ever really disappeared from the scene. Rather perhaps they had become known by the new name of Aramaeans, adopted from what was originally a smaller branch of the whole Amorite group. This new name was to become synonymous with the general population of the region for many centuries and the language which these people spoke became the lingua franca of the first millennium BC in the Levant.

It is interesting to note that the root 'Aram' may remain to this day in the name most commonly used to describe the people of the Near East – the modern 'rb/Aribi. The lip consonants 'm' and 'b' in Semitic languages have often become interchanged over the passage of time. It is thus likely that the modern word 'Arab' is a direct descendant of the ancient name 'rm/'lm although this must, of course, be considered in the light of a different historical perspective.

Notes and References

1. For the standard view of the widespread population movements and a detailed historical analysis of the dispersion of the Aramaean states c. 1200-700 BC see: J. D. Hawkins: 'The Neo-Hittite States in Syria and Anatolia' in Cambridge Ancient History Volume III, Part 1, (Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 372-441. For a map of the Neo-Hitite/Aramaean city states see p. 374.

2. W. F. Albright: 'Syria, the Philistines, and Phoenicia' in Cambridge Ancient History Volume II, Part 2A, (Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 532.

3. Ibid., p. 533.

4. K. M. Kenyon: Amorites and Canaanites (Oxford University Press, London 1966), p. 3.

5. J. A. Brinkman: A Political History of Post-Kassite Babylonia (Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, Rome 1968), p. 267.

6. Ibid., p. 282.

7. A. T. Clay: The Empire of the Amorites (Yale University Press, Newhaven 1919), Chapter X.

8. Ibid., p. 67.

9. Ibid., p. 71.

10. J. A. Brinkman: op. cit., p. 285.

11. R. T. O'Callaghan: Aram Naharaim: A Contribution to the History of Upper Mesopotamia in the Second Millennium B.C. (Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, Rome 1948), p. 94.

12. J. A. Brinkman: op. cit., p. 274, note 1767.

13. In the Petrie Collection at UCL.

14. A. Goetze: Hethiter, Churriter und Assyrer (Oslo, 1936), p. 1.

15. W. Helk: Urkunden IV, 1663.

16. This idea was developed in discussion with Professor Smith who first brought my attention to the possibility during an Egyptian Language class last term.

17. G. Posener: Princes et Pays d'Asie et de Nubie (Bruxelles, 1940), pp. 41-2.

18. H. S. Smith and A. Smith: 'A Reconstruction of the Kamose Texts' in Zeitschrift fur Agyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde, Vol. 103 (1976), p. 52.

19. A. K. Grayson: Assyrian Royal Inscriptions Volumes 1 & 2, (Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 1976), pp. 13-14.

20. J. B. Pritchard: Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton University Press, New Jersey 1969), p. 275.

21. Brinkman: op. cit., p. 268.

22. Brinkman: op. cit., p. 280.

23. Brinkman: op. cit., p. 279.

24. Brinkman: op. cit., p. 150.

25. Brinkman: op. cit., p. 152.

26. Brinkman: op. cit., p. 189.

27. Albright: op. cit., p. 530.

28. G. A. Cook: North Semitic Inscriptions, p. 175.

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