The Indigenous Origins of
the Arameans of Upper Mesopotamia
Johny Messo (2005)
ancient Arameans have traditionally been viewed as “camel nomads”
who “spread out from the fringes of the Syro-Arabian desert,”
whence a segment of “the Aramean tribes invaded northern Mesopotamia,
and founded there a series of little states.”
view, though, emerged from a broader context about the origins of the
Within this group, the Arameans are generally classified as belonging to
the (North)western branch; the Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians, for
instance, are regarded as East-Semites.
Until fairly recently, these and similar
portrayals of the dawn and the nature of the Arameans have dominated
mainstream scholarship. Even so, in the past decades a new generation of
scholars has renounced this conventional opinion at the expense of an
alternative model. Suffice it here to cite some experts who have
rejected the outdated theories and confirmed the native Mesopotamian
identity of the ancient Arameans, the forbears of the modern ‘Syriacs’.
Obscure toponyms under the name ‘Aram’ as referring to a conjectured
Aramean territory do occur in texts dated as early as the third
millennium B.C. onwards.
Undisputed proof of the appellative ‘Arameans’
derives from the annals of Tiglath-Pileser I (reigned 1114-1076 B.C.).
dating this attestation in the year 1111, divided two initial stages in
the earliest history of the Arameans, viz.
their “Pre-history” (ending in 1111) and their “Proto-History”
(1111-912). 912 B.C. was the year in which
Adad-nārāri II ascended to the Assyrian throne and started to liquidate
the Aramean territorial units in Mesopotamia, which were slowly
incorporated into the growing Neo-Assyrian empire.
Obviously, the first reference to a group of people labeled ‘Arameans’
in about 1111 B.C. does not exclude the fact that ‘Arameans’ did exist
before this period. Indeed, it is recognized that some tribes who were
later defined as ‘Aramean’ in Assyrian texts (e.g., Beth Zamani),
were present in the ancient Near East before the 12th century when they
emerged as a new political entity. “Just as these predecessors [sc.
the Amorites] did,” reasoned the late Dion, “the Aramaeans may have
remained in the obscurity of village life and ‘enclosed’ nomadism for
several centuries before asserting themselves on the political scene of
regard to the false description of “camel nomads,” there exists no
evidence and perhaps it was projected upon the Arameans with the ancient
and modern Arabs (and Bedouins) in mind.
“In point of fact,” Schniedewind noted, “the characterization of the
early Arameans as ‘nomads’ is dubious. Rather, the early Arameans were
pioneering study of Glenn Schwartz discarded the weak invasion or
migration hypothesis, as introduced above, and proposed another
framework for the early history of the Arameans.
After reviewing the nature of the “evidence for the early Arameans” and
their city-states in Syro-Mesopotamia, he criticized the “conventional
interpretation of the Aramaean appearance in the neo-Assyrian records”
(281), thanks to which “[o]ur views tend to be
Assyro-centric” (284). What is more, “the historical and archaeological
evidence for the early Aramaeans is biased in several crucial ways”
(280). Hence, under the present circumstances any attempt to reconstruct
the genesis of the Aramean history will inevitably remain incomplete and
Pitard, too, argued that “the traditional invasion model” is inaccurate
and acknowledged that the early (prejudiced) sources about the Arameans
“give no clear hint that the Arameans were newcomers into Upper
“There is simply no evidence,” he further declared, “that the
populations of Upper Mesopotamia and northeast Syria were displaced by
large groups of Aramean tribes that had been living previously in the
Thus, the alleged Aramean intrusion into these lands is built upon a
faulty assumption and it is far more likely that “they were the West
Semitic-speaking peoples who had lived in that area throughout the
second millennium [B.C.], some as pastoralists and some in villages,
towns, and cities.”
Concerning the area that largely corresponds to modern-day northeast
Syria, Sader concluded: “The pastoralist Aramaeans cannot be seen
anymore as ‘invaders’ bursting out of the Syro-Arabian ‘desert’, but
rather as the pastoral element, an inherent part of Late Bronze Age
[circa 1550-1200 B.C.] Syrian society.”
McClellan, although disagreeing with Sader on a few minor issues, also
concurs that “there is little evidence for [an] outside invasion.”
Arameans of old, who were ubiquitous in the northern regions of Syro-Mesopotamia,
can thus be regarded as the indigenous inhabitants of Upper Mesopotamia
and northeast Syria. From north to south, the major Aramean polities in
northern Mesopotamia were Beth-Zamani, Beth-Bahiani, Beth-Halupe and
the best of my knowledge, there is no specialist who will deny the
Aramean descent of the present-day Aramaic-speaking Christians of these
areas. As a matter of fact, in his book on Tur-‘Abdin,
the Aramaic name of a Christian enclave in Southeast-Turkey, Palmer
rightly deduced from the Neo-Assyrian annals: “Not only are several of
the village names still in use, even these types of farming and the same
skill in metalwork are characteristic of the ancient Aramaic stock of
Christians who are the hereditary inhabitants of the plateau.”
“This confirms,” corroborated another scholar, “a certain continuity, if
not a direct descent, between the Aramaean world, and the Syriac world,
and the Church that would bear that name.”
These past decades have witnessed another reality, namely, that of a
state-sponsored policy which intends to Turkify all the antique Aramaic
names of the towns and the villages.
Consequently, in the near future this process will have obliterated an
essential part of the ancient-old Aramean civilization in Upper
Mesopotamia and thus end its continuity.
For the most recent and
analysis of these early
occurrences, see E. Lipiński, The Aramaeans: Their Ancient
History, Culture, Religion (Peeters, 2000), pp. 26-40.
Paul E. Dion, “Aramaean Tribes and Nations of First-Millennium
Western Asia,” in J.M. Sasson et al. (eds.), Civilizations
of the Ancient Near East Vol. II (Hendrickson, 1995), p. 1281.
G.M. Schwartz, “The Origins of the Aramaeans in Syria and Northern
Mesopotamia: Research Problems and Potential Strategies,” in O.M.C.
Haex et al. (eds.), To the Euphrates and Beyond:
Archaeological Studies in Honour of Maurits N. van Loon
(Rotterdam, 1989), pp. 282f; William M. Schniedewind, “The Rise of
the Aramean States,” in Mark W. Chavalas and K. Lawson Younger, Jr.
(eds.), Mesopotamia and the Bible: Comparative Explorations
(Baker Academic, 2002), p. 280.
W.M. Schniedewind, op. cit.
(n. 10), p. 283.
Andrew N. Palmer, Monk and Mason on the Tigris Frontier: The
Early History of Tur ‘Abdin (Cambridge University Press, 1990),
p. 15. For the same way of life among the pastoralist Arameans in
antiquity, see above.