Aramaic as the Official Language of the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550.330 BC)

By: Sebastian Brock and David G.K. Taylor

Aramaic in Turkey

It has already been seen that Aramaic inscriptions in modern Turkey go back to the 8th century BC. when Bar Rakkab put up a series of inscriptions at Zencirli. In the Achaemenid period (538-323 BC) quite a number of short Aramaic inscriptions from the same general area have turned up. One of these, found at Gozne, some 20 kms north of Mersin is a boundary stone, and a curse is invoked on anyone who moves it: “may the great Baal of the Heavens, Sahar and Shemesh (the moon and sun gods), seek out him and his progeny”. Another, found near Tarsus, simply records a picnic during a hunting expedition: “I am Washonesh, son of Apwashi and grandson of Washonesh, my mother being Ashulkerati: while I was hunting here. this was the place I had my meal”. Under the Achaemenid Empire Aramaic was probably the language used in diplomatic relations between the Achaemenid kings and the Greek cities of western Asia Minor. The Greek historian Herodotus recounts how Darius I (BC 522-486), on reaching the Bosporus, set up two stelaes listing the names of all the nations who were serving in his army: one of these, he tells us (Histories. IV.87), was in Greek writing, while the other was in “Assyrian letters [Assyria grammata)’”. Since no one in that region would have been capable of reading a cuneiform inscription (in either Akkadian or Old Persian), it is very likely that Herodotus meant Aramaic, the international language of diplomacy. The same term “Assyrian letters” certainly means Aramaic in another Greek historian, Thucydides (History, IV.50) who records that in BC 425/4 the Athenian general Aristeides arrested a Persian messenger named Artaphernes who was carrying a letter from the Persian king Artaxerxes destined for the Spartans (who were enemies of the Athenians): He was taken to Athens where the letter was translated from “Assyrian letters” into Greek. Since the letter will have been written on leather, the language must have been Aramaic, and cannot possibly have been Akkadian. The slightly later Greek historians, Xenophon and Diodorus, both speak of “Syrian letters (Syria grammata)’’ when they refer to the use of Aramaic in the Achaemenid Empire. The source of this confusing usage, where the terms “Assvrian letters” and “Syrian letters” both mean Aramaic, lies in the fact, noted earlier (in Chapter 2), that the Greeks, like the Egyptians, named all the territory of the former Assyrian Empire as ”Assyria”, even when they were just referring to the western Provinces (that is, Palestine and Syria).

A passage which sheds some interesting sidelight on the ambiguity of the term “Assyrian letters” is to be found in the last Epistle (no. 21) of a Greek collection of correspondence attributed to the famous Athenian politician Themistokles (c.524 -459 BC), in which he asks someone to send him “some gold and silver vessels inscribed with the old Assyrian letters, not those which Darius, the father of Xerxes, recently prescribed to the Persians”. What are these two different kinds of “Assvrian letters”? The more recent ones clearly refer to Old Persian cuneiform, introduced c.520 for royal inscriptions. Since a Greek would not be able to distinguish between Old Persian cuneiform and Akkadian cuneiform script, it is clear that the “old Assyrian letters” will refer, not to Akkadian cuneiform, but to Aramaic script. By good fortune, archaeological finds confirm this conclusion (bv C. Nylander) very nicely, for several inscribed gold and silver cups and bowls from western Iran, dating from the late eighth to the fifth century, are known, and these bear their owners name either in Aramaic script or in Old Persian cuneiform. Gold and silver ware of this kind was much sought after. And the plunder taken by the Greeks after their victory over the Persians at the Battle of Plataea in BC 479 might well have been the source for the vessels that Themistokles was asking for. Essentially, then, for the ancient Greeks the phrase “Assyrian letters” simply meant an “oriental script” –whose identity can only be deduced today from the context in which the term is found. Probably this is why later Greek writers preferred the term “Synan letters”, in order to avoid the ambiguity of the earlier phrase.

A clear indication that Greek and Aramaic functioned alongside one another in at least some of the Greek cities in Asia Minor is provided by a couple of bilingual inscriptions from Lycia (southwest Turkey). One of these is a short funerary inscription commemorating Artimas son of Arsapes. Found in the mid nineteenth century in Limyra, while the second, much longer, was only discovered in 1973, at Xanthos, on the river Koca Cayi. This is in fact a trilingual inscription, written in Aramaic, Greek and Lycian (the local language of the region). The text, which records the institution of a new cult in the city, begins:

In the month Siwan (May/June), in the first year of king Artaxerxes, in the city of Orna, Pixodaros son of Katamnos, the satrap in Caria and Lycia. said: The citizens of Orna have decided to institute a cult to the god Kandawats and his companions, and they have made Simias, son of Koddoris, priest.

The inscription goes on to state that the citizens provided a plot of land for the new god, with funds to ensure that a sheep was sacrificed every new moon and an ox once a year. Though there is some uncertainty which Artaxerxes is meant, probably it is Artaxerxes III, in which case the date will be 358 BC.

 The same uncertainty concerning which Artaxerxes is involved surrounds another important inscription from western Turkey, dated to his tenth year. And found in Sardis; this is a funerary text written in Aramaic and another local language, Lydian. The Aramaic name of Sardis is SPRD, in other words, the same as the biblical Sepharad (Obadiah 20), which later gave rise to the term ‘’Sephardic’’ for Jews from medieval Spain. Although Sardis will almost certainly have had Greeks among its population, the only hint of their presence in this inscription is in the final curse on anyone who damages the tombstone: “May Artemis of Koloe and (Artemis) of the Ephesians scatter and destroy his gateway, his house, his possessions, his soil, his water and everything he has” - for here is the same Greek goddess whose devotees caused the apostle Paul such trouble in Ephesus (Acts of the Apostles 19:28). Another Aramaic funerary monument from the Achaemenid period was discovered in 1965 at Ergili (ancient Daskyleion) on the southern coast of the sea of Marmora, not far from Istanbul:

These depictions are of Elnaph, die son of Ishai; he made them for his funerary monument. I adjure you by Bel and Nabu, anyone who passes this way, do not disturb (me)’

The “depictions” take the form of a scene, immediately above the inscription, of two horses drawing a chariot on which a large object, probably Elnaph’s sarcophagus, is placed, while behind the chariot are two figures walking: in all probability the scene represents Elnaph’s funeral cortege.


The Hidden Pearl Vol. I The Ancient Aramaic Heritage, chapter 6, page 122, Sebastian Brock and David G.K. Taylor

 J.A Fitzmyer and Stephen A Kaufman, An Aramaic Bibliography, part 1, Old, Official and Biblical Aramaic, Baltimore 1992,

J.C.L. Gibson, Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions, 2, Aramaic Inscriptions, Oxford 1975