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Academic on the history of the Arameans

Johny Messo

 

 

 


The Arameans of Aram-naharaim or The Ancient Syrians of Mesopotamia

J. Messo (2004)

 

The Arameans trace their genealogical lines back to the eponymous ancestor Aram, the son of Shem, the son of Noah (Genesis 10:1, 22).[1] In pre-Christian times, notably between 1150-700 B.C., they played a crucial and decisive role in Mesopotamia and ancient Syria.[2] Due to the advanced scholarship of the past decades, we have become pretty familiar now with their Upper Mesopotamian origins as well as with their many kingdoms and principalities, which they established in the fertile area that has been aptly called The Cradle of Civilization.”

The Aramean civilization as such was primarily structured into clans and tribes whose chiefs governed relatively modest kingdoms, states and principalities. Even though they did not lack the potentiality for higher political aspirations (e.g., demographically the Arameans outnumbered many of the surrounding nations and shared an influential common language), they never united themselves into a politically unified empire or kingdom. Thus it is not from their political achievements that they owe their fame in history. Rather they have become renown for the cultural stamp they left behind by means of their language, i.e. Aramaic, which had a significant impact upon the Near Eastern societies, specially in Mesopotamia and northern Syria, as is well portrayed in the often quoted remarks of Prof. F. Rosenthal a few decades ago:

[T]he history of Aramaic represents the purest triumph of the human spirit as embodied in language (which is the mind's most direct form of physical expression) over the crude display of material power. . . Great empires were conquered by the Aramaic language, and when they disappeared and were submerged in the flow of history, that language persisted and continued to live a life of its own ... The language continued to be powerfully active in the promulgation of spiritual matters. It was the main instrument for the formulation of religious ideas in the Near East, which then spread in all directions all over the world ... The monotheistic groups continue to live on today with a religious heritage, much of which found first expression in Aramaic.

Within a few centuries, though, the Aramean nation was about to become subdued politically by closely related Mesopotamians (Assyrians and neo-Babylonians/Chaldeans); from the sixth century B.C. onwards, however, it was subjected by non-Mesopotamian lords (Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans/Turks). Their Aramaic language, which advanced to the status of the lingua franca of the entire Near East (primarily in the Persian era), remained nevertheless centuries thereafter in use in the Middle East as we just have noted, once extending as far as Afghanistan on the one hand and Egypt on the other. And, as scholars further observed, despite their first political suppression by the Assyrians, they conquered their conquerors culturally and linguistically; this is often denoted by popular academic expressions such as the “Aramaization of Assyria(ns)” and the “denationalization of Assyria through the Arameans.
   

In the early days of Christendom the Aramean people converted almost altogether to Christianity when they embraced the Christian Gospel. Quite rapidly, however, the Christian Arameans finally adopted the already existing Greek term ‘Syrians’[3] as a self-designation for reasons unimportant here. The second Patriarchate after Jerusalem, Antioch, was the seat of their Patriarch. It was in this capital of Roman Syria where the appellation “Christians,” as applied to the followers of Jesus Christ, stems from (Acts 11:26). Many missionary projects were initiated from Antioch, notably towards the Mesopotamian region. In this area, the intellectual light of Edessa (Urhoy in Aramaic), famous for its many circulating legends in later centuries and its literary language which evolved from Aramaic (see n.5), saliently shone forth. Considered as the mother of all cities in Mesopotamiaamong early Aramean writers, experts in the field properly called this Blessed Citythe Centre of Aramean Christendomand the Athens of the Aramean world.

In the course of the meantime Christian Aramean history, the unity with the Imperial Church in Byzantium could no longer be maintained in the fifth century. Arameans not only could not consent with the presented definition at Chalcedon (451) regarding the relationship between the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ. Internally, too, they were facing a serious division between Arameans in the West living under Roman domination (Syriac-Orthodox Church of Antioch) and those in the East under Persian control (Church of the East[4]). Due to external missionary pressures, these communities produced in later times Catholics (e.g., Syriac-Catholics) and Protestants; Maronites and Melkites (adherents of the Byzantine malko, ‘king, emperor’ in Aramaic) also share in a common Aramaic heritage.    


Even though the heydays of the Arameans were the fourth till the seventh centuries, when
many prolific writers produced a massive literature in Syriac or Edessene Aramaic[5], from the seventh century onwards they were subjected by the Arab peoples, who rapidly conquered the Mid-East. Due to an unforeseen rapid process of islamization and Arabization, the community declined more and more. Except for a relatively small remnant, Aramaic was quickly superseded by Arabic and many Arameans lost their identity in the increasing ocean of Arabs and Muslims. Noteworthy is further that the ancient Mesopotamian-Greek science (e.g., philosophy, medicine, astronomy) was transmitted to the Arab world primarily by means of the Arameans.[6] However, the masters were finally substituted by their students, whose inherited knowledge was adopted by pre-enlightened Europe. Sadly, this plain fact of Aramean intermediary is still rarely mentioned in most of the modern textbooks.   

The 15th century started for the Arameans as one of the most disastrous episodes in their history. The Mongol Timur Lane looted nearly all their cities and villages and decimated the entire Aramean nation in Asia Minor. Aramean survivors withdrew themselves into already populated but isolated mountainous areas, such as the Tur-‘Abdin, in south-eastern Turkey, being another cradle of Aramean Christendom wherein many Syriac-Orthodox have their ancestral roots. In the following centuries Kurdish and Turkic tribes tried to intrude in these regions, which often caused similar destructive effects upon the already badly injured Aramean communities.

In the 19th century the weakened Syriac flock reappeared in the Western picture and the attraction of proselytizing among the Aramean Christians could not be resisted by Catholics and Protestants alike. However, after having faced yet other severe tragedies – particularly in 1894-1896 and the Genocide years of 1914-15, where among other Christians hundreds of thousands of Arameans were explicit victims of an inhuman process of systematic ethnic cleansing in the Ottoman Empire –, a first emigration wave started to the West. 1933 is furthermore a dark year for the ‘Nestorian’ (a.k.a. Assyrian, see n.4) community when in August of that year a couple of thousand Arameans were innocently slaughtered in Simele, Iraq, by the regime. Further in the 1960s onwards, many Syriac-Orthodox fled the Tur-‘Abdin region, mostly to Europe, due to repeated oppressions of Kurds; whilst the Turkish authorities turned a blind eye towards these atrocities. In the late 1970s Arameans from Syria too, followed by Arameans from Iraq since the first Gulf war (and recently also due to the second one), fled to Western countries.

With regard to the ironical Western missionary enterprises among Christian Arameans in an increased fundamental Muslim environment, one Syriac-Orthodox, writing in the first part of the 20th century, not all too surprising named his book “Whither Christian Missions?” It also has to be noted that in none of the above cases, Western countries have supported the fragile Aramean people in any way whatsoever. Remarkably enough, since its penetration into Mesopotamia (to pursue its own financial interests) and in the brief aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the time of the “Peace Conferences” organized by the League of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations, the ‘Christian’ West (rather European powers) has thus far clearly been more in favor of the Muslims on the expense of the Arameans, the neglected and forgotten indigenous population who at present have lost their homeland living dispersed throughout the world. Since the Allies did make the Aramean people, who finally felt abandoned by them, valuable promises that were never fulfilled, some Aramean writers tried to raise once again the attention of the civilized world to just listen to their heartbreaking stories giving their books (perhaps despaired) titles like “The British Betrayal.”

The past three decades the Arameans have developed themselves pretty well on their own, both on spiritual and cultural and even socio-political level. They have founded numerous churches and monasteries in the Diaspora for which many new clergymen and deacons have been consecrated. Also they have established a great number of unions, foundations, associations, and national confederations all united into one transcending umbrella organization known as the Syriac Universal Alliance (SUA). Since 1983 SUA is a representative secular body of the Aramean people, has established good relations with UNESCO and enjoys since 1999 the NGO Special Consultative status with the Economic and the Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC).

Striking is that although having being subjected by foreign peoples in their very own homeland, the Aramean people have always withstood assimilation and acculturation. Indeed, they have been quite able to preserve their ancient old identity throughout their long history. A self-awareness of their Aramean descent is even clearly present in the early writings of famous writers like Ephrem the Syrian (†373), Jacob of Serugh (†521), Jacob of Edessa (†708), Yeshudad from Haditha (†853), Bar Bahlul from Baghdad (fl. 963), Dionysius Bar Salibi (†1171), Bar ‘Ebroyo (†1286), Michael the Great/Elder (†1199) and many others. This Aramean self-reflection also continued in the writings of the early 20th century nationalists like Naoum Fayeq (†1930), and the late Patriarchs of the Syriac-Orthodox of Antioch Aphrem I Barsaum (1887-1933-1957) and Ya‘qub III (1912-1957-1980) until even the current Patriarch Zakka I Iwas (1932-1980-present). The Muslim milieu in which quite a number of Arameans are still living in since the 7th century A.D., has kept alive the awareness of their distinctive identity; although at present they still endure serious external and internal pressures of Turkification, Arabization and Kurdification attempts.

However, as any other Diaspora community the Arameans, too, suffer from the isolation of their homeland today and from the lack of support from a supportive country in safeguarding as many fragments as possible of their ancient old national heritage. Presently, a nostalgic desire to those ancient heydays is stronger than ever among the current generation of Arameans. Hence a multimedia project like The Hidden Pearl, which was realized through a perfect cooperation between the SUA and the Syriac-Orthodox Church of Antioch, among others, is an excellent response from the community to their longing for a firm identity - surely a unique identity to be proud of. But it is the Aramean youth that should understand its moral obligations to both their forbears and offspring. For it certainly is the prime responsibility of the present generation to polish that excavated pearl, make it shine as never before and to pass this invaluable treasure on to the future generations 


[1] According to the most holy source of the Jewish people, the Tanakh or the Christian ‘Old Testament, the Jews have Aramean ancestry. References to places where both the Jewish Patriarchs and Matriarchs are explicitly called Aramean, can be found in (e.g.) Genesis (24:4, 10;) 25:20; 28:5 (; 29:21) and esp. Deuteronomy 26:5. 

[2] Mesopotamia is the Greek term for the Biblical Hebrew Aram-naharaim, meaning “(the land of) Aram of the two rivers.” Cf. the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was completed in the third century B.C. This first translation of the Old Testament also clearly testifies to the fact that the terms ‘Aram(eans)’ and ‘Aramaic’ were translated with ‘Syria(ns)’ and ‘Syrian’ respectively. Observe furthermore that most of the Western Bible translations have followed this tradition. In Syriac-Aramaic (see n.5, below) Mesopotamia is known as beth-nahrin or Aram-nahrin

The constant changing borders and the etymology of the originally Greek term ‘Syria’, corresponding especially since the Roman conquest (64 B.C.) upon the Seleucids to one of the former prominent kingdoms of the Arameans, i.e. ‘Aram(-Damascus)’, have a long and complex history.

[3] See n.2. Currently, the Arameans reject this designation for obvious reasons: by this name they are frequently (wrongly) associated with Muslim Syrians from the “Syrian Arab Republic.” Either ‘Syriacs, their ancient native name ‘Arameans or the compound ‘Syriac-Arameans is preferred to nowadays in order to avoid confusion and ambiguity.

[4] When members of this denomination, i.e. ‘Nestorians’ (the term itself being a misnomer), officially joined the Roman Catholic Church in ca. 1551-1553, the ‘Chaldean’ church was born. In 1976 the Church of the East formally prefixed the term ‘Assyrian’ to its religious designation (despite the pretentious claims of its nationalists, historically this appellation bears little, if any, justification as regards an implied direct linkage with the ancient Assyrians )

[5] The term ‘Syriac’ finally triumphed as the commonly known name for the Aramaic cultural and literary dialect originating in Edessa (since 1983 Sanliurfa, i.e. “glorious Urfa,” Turkey). Early writers oftentimes juxtaposed Aramaic and ‘Syriac’. Other well known terms, in particular through its usage by Jacob of Edessa (†708), are nahroyo (Meso)potamian and Urhoyo Edessene. Hence the most appropriate name for this dialect would probably be Edesssene Aramaic; cf. (e.g.) Palmyrene Aramaic. Many experts have confirmed that this dialect was comprehensible to people in Palestine and that it was akin to the Aramaic dialect Jesus and His followers had spoken in the first century.    

[6] By the seventh century the Aramean scholars were already well-experienced in translating Greek text into their own language, so they simply continued their industrious activities. Soon, however, the Aramean intelligentsia introduced Arabic as another target language and proceeded to translate copious classical works either indirectly from Aramaic into Arabic or sometimes directly from Greek into Arabic

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