Millennia Long Trajectory of the Global Language
Continuing our interview with Mr.
Gabriel Sengo, Chairman of the Aram Nahrin Organization, we focus on
issues pertaining to the History of Aramaic language, as well as to
Modern Aramaic Literature, and Education in Aramaic.
By Prof. Dr. Muhammad Shamsaddin
More important than Ancient Greek and Latin for the World History,
Aramaic has been the first international language that covered the
entire span between the Atlantic and the Pacific, becoming the basic
vehicle for ideologies, philosophies and religions. Mr. Sengo presents
historical realities, referring to a great number of historical sources
that make proud all Aramaeans either they live in Mesopotamia or in the
Interview with Mr. Gabriel Sengo, Chairman of the
Aram NahrinOrganization – Part II
- Would you give some milestones of the
historical Aramaic literature? When did people start to use Aramaic as a
According to the Aramean Indigenous traditions, Adam and Eve spoke in
Aramaic with the Lord. In an ancient book called “The
cave of treasure”, attributed to the famous Aphrem the
Syrian, we read “And in the days of Peleg all
the tribes and families of the children of Noah gathered together, and
went up from the East. And they found plain in the land of Sên`ar, and
they all sat down there; and from Adam until this time they were all of
one speech and one language. They all spoke this language, that is to
say, Suryoyo (Syrian), which is Oromoyo (Aramean), and this language is
the king of all languages. Now, ancient writers have erred in that they
said that Hebrew was the first [language], and in this matter they have
mingled an ignorant mistake with their writing. For all the languages
there are in the world are derived from Syrian, and all the languages in
books are mingled with it.
The same is repeated by many other Aramean scholars, among them the
East- Aramean bishop Salomon of Basra (13th century). This is also
attested in the Islamic world, for example by the famous scholar Sheikh
Abdel Aziz Al Tabagi who says that “Adam, his wife and his children were
communicating with each other in Aramaic. …. From this language all the
other languages were derived” (probably referring to Hadith).
What language has been in continuous use for at least
What language is witnessed already in Antiquity by
inscriptions and documents from an area stretching from Western Turkey
to Afghanistan, from the Caucasus to southern Egypt?
What language became a major literary language for
What language had reached southern India and Western
China by the end of the Arabic conquest?
What language is still spoken today in certain parts
of the Middle-east by members of four different faiths?
What language over the course of twentieth century has
been taken by émigrés to all five continents?
There are indeed few languages with three thousand years known
history, however only Aramaic meets the above mentioned conditions!
Regarding the Aramaic language, Franz Rozenthal, says, “In my view, the
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 displays 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. …..”
1. 10th - 8th century BC: The Old Aramaic, known
from small inscriptions. (East Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Northwest of Iran).
At the end of 8th century BC, all the Aramean kingdoms were defeated
by the Assyrian Empire. However, at the same time the Assyrians adapted
the Aramaic language in their writing and therefore Aramaic started to
became the language of the Middle-East, thereby replacing Akkadian. This
process has been described as “Aramization of Assyria”. Regarding this
Aramization of Assyria Nicholas Postgate says, “Politically the Assyrian
empire was indeed Assyrian, linguistically it was largely Aramaic, but
culturally and racially it was a complete mixture. In the beginning
there were Hurrians, Assyrians, the descendants of Amorites, Kassites
and Arameans, and by the end of the Empire, it was enriched by Arabs,
Medes and Egyptians, …. “
2. 7th – 4th century BC: Official Aramaic:
Babylonian and Achaemenid Empire
With the fall of Nineveh in 612, the centre of political power moved
to Babylon, where since the 11th century the presence of Arameans was
noticed in what is now southern Iraq. The Importance of the Arameans
presence in southern part of Iraq is reflected by the later Syriac (Aramaic)
name of this region, namely: Beth Aramaye, that is the house/home of
Thus, roughly speaking, as from the 7th century BC- until the 7th
century AD Aramaic became the main vehicle of the written word in the
Middle-East. Some details will be given below:
555- 539 BC: Babylonian king Nabonidus left a lasting
impression on the Aramaic literary tradition.
550-330 BC: The conquest of Babylon in 538 by Cyrus the Great
is considered as the beginning of the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire,
stretching from east of the Tigris to the Mediterranean, and to Egypt.
And which language was suitable to administrate such a vast empire? Well,
the Aramaic language was already in use alongside Akkadian under the
late Assyrian Empire. And thus Aramaic was adapted as the official
written language of the Empire, causing the spread of Aramaic to areas
where it had not penetrated before. This was the Triumph of the Aramaic
3. 3rd century BC- 2nd century AD: Middle - Aramaic
(West Turkey, Afghanistan, Caucasus to Egypt, and Saudi Arabia)
Conquest of Alexander the Great - spread of Greek
The conquest of Alexander the Great, followed by the founding of the
ruling dynasties of the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria
and further east, resulted in the Greek language spreading throughout
the Near east and replacing Aramaic as the language of government.
Palestine: The result of the rise of Greek was that in many places
Aramaic along with Greek was spoken. Indication for this can be found in
inscriptions from this period (3rd century BC) which are written in
Aramaic and Greek.
Mesopotamia: Bilingual inscription in Greek and Aramaic (Ada-Nadin,
1st century BC).
Arabia and the Gulf: Number of inscriptions found in different parts
of South Arabia (Hejaz, Ruwafa, island Failaka, Thai and Al- Qatif,
island Bahrain, Sharlah and elsewhere in United Arab Emirates.
Inscription in Ruwafa is written in Aramaic and Greek (166 AD)).
4. Aramaic at the edges of the Middle-Eastern world:
- Afghanistan: King Asoka’s Decrees (272- 231 BC).
- Turkmenistan: Archives of Parthian Kingdom (late 3rd century BC).
- Armenia: Kingdom of Armenia, 2nd century BC, 9 inscriptions
- Georgia: Small number of Aramaic inscriptions, dating from late
Hellenistic period and early Roman Empire.
5. The Emergence of local Aramaic City Kingdoms and
dialects: Nabataean, Palmyra, Hatra, Edessa
In the first century BC, two major different local Aramaic dialects
came into prominence, the Palmyrene and Nabataean Aramaic. This was
because of the weakening of the Seleucid Empire and the rise of the
- Nabatanen Aramaic, circa 100 BC. The capital city was Hatra
and enjoyed its “golden age” as from 50 BC- 70 AD (situated in south of
modern Jordan). Independent kingdom in the Hellenic period (in 2
Corinthians 11:32, we read about one of the Kings of Petra: Aretas,
finally in 106 BC, the kingdom was annexed by the Roman Empire).
- Palmyrene Aramaic, circa 44 BC. In Aramaic it is called
Tadmor, approximately 200 km south-east of Damascus. When speaking about
Tadmor, queen Zenobia (the widow of Odeinat) comes to mind. In 272 the
kingdom was annexed by emperor Aurelius and Zenobia was captured. There
are around 2000 inscriptions dating from the 1st century BC- 280 AD.
6. Two independent Aramaic enclaves: Hatra (Iraq) and Edessa (Turkey).
- Hatra Aramaic, 400 inscriptions dating from 1st AD–
beginning of the 3rd century AD. It is situated around 150 km South-West
of Mosul (Iraq). The Sasanians conquered the city in 240 AD.
- The Last but not least: The Aramaic Dialect of Edessa, which
would become the centre of Aramaic Christianity and vehicle for the
spread of it. In later Hellenic and early Roman period, Edessa (the
capital city of Osroene) had its own local dynasty, the Abgar and Manus
dynasty. In 213 AD, Edessa was brought under Roman control (with a brief
return of the kingdom in 239-240).
7. 0- 700 AD: Late Antiquity: The Golden Age of the
During 700 years a remarkable flowering of the Aramaic language took
place among five religious communities:
I. Jewish Aramaic: Targums (Babylonian, Palestinian),
Cabalistic literature, Talmuds (Babylonian 8th century AD, Palestianen
5th century BC), Liturgical poetry, Midrash, Zohar (esoteric works),
Synagogue hymns (medieval Europe), etc..
II. Samartian Aramaic: the ten northern tribes of Israel:
Samaritan Targum, Memar Marqah (Prose) and the Defter (liturgical
III. Mandaean Aramaic (2nd century AD): Magical texts,
liturgical texts (rituals, hymns, prayers, Diwans Baptism, Diwan
Pictorial, Diwan of the Rivers), mythological and theological texts,
historiography (The Inner Harran or the Diwan of the Great Revelation,
astrological (The Book of the Zodiac). Their books, The Treasure
mythology, cosmology, morality, critics), The Right Treasure (Prose, 18
books), Liber Adami (the book of Adam), The Left Treasure, The Book of
John, Canonical prayers book, Commentaries ( On the Coronation of the
Great Shishlam, Marriage of the Great Shishlam etc.. ), Secret texts (Thousand
and twelve Questions, Great first world and little first world) etc..
IV. Manichaean Aramaic (Mani: born in 216 AD near Ctesifon):
The writings of Mani: Living Gospel , Treasure of Life, Pragmateia, Book
of Myesteries (Polemic), Book of Giants (myth of the fallen angels),
Epistles. Almost all the Manichaean Aramaic literature is lost. Some
relics of religious texts left such as Hymns, Prayers, Homilies ,
Parables, and Discourse.
V. Christian Palestinian Aramaic - The Aramean royalists (Melkites):
This is the Western Aramaic dialect spoken by the Christians across
the whole of Palestine and Transjordan (=the Aramean Melkites or
Royalists to the Byzantine Emperor) . Most of the survived texts are
religious, such as: Biblical texts (incomplete), Lives of Saints (Sayings
of Desert fathers, Forty martyr of Sinai, Anthony, Anastasia, Hadrian,
Abraham of Qidun etc.. ), Homilies (of Ephrem Graecus, John Chrysostom,
Mar Gregorios, Catechese of St. Cyril of Jerusalem), Liturgical Texts (Various
Daily Prayers, Hymns, Dedication of Church and Ordinations, Blessing of
VI. Aramaic dialect of Edessa, the vehicle for Christianity.
Edessa, the mother of all the cities in Mesopotamia, became the
centre of Aramean Christianity. The Aramaic school of Edessa was
renowned and produced exceptional scholars which enlightened their era
with many disciplines of scholarship.
Edessa, in Turkish called: SanliUfra (Sweat Urfa), the great city of
Bardaisan, the seat of the Aramean kingdom of the Abgar dynasty.
It was the dialect of Edessa which became the lingua franca of
ancient Christianity, the language of great Bardaisan, Afrem the Syrian,
Theodorus of Mapsuestia, Timateus of Arbil, Josef, the Catholicos of the
Church of the East, the great Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, Patriarch Michael the
Great, Jacob Bar Salibi- the star of the 12th century, Jacob of Sarug-
the greatest poet after Afrem, Jacob of Edessa, the great professor Bar
Hebreaus, Job of Edessa etc.. etc .. In short: it is this language that
produced an immense amount of invaluable scientific literature of
various disciplines which for the most part has not been translated and
analysed yet. The Aramaic dialect of Edessa is called Syriac and is the
language of the Arameans of our days which is not only taught in the
Middle-East, but has also moved to the West, due to the Diaspora of
Aramean Christianity. This language is also taught at renowned
Thus: The Aramaic of Edessa, which is called Syriac, is the largest
of the Aramaic literatures that survived; and at the same time, it is
the longest lived in time and the richest in literary quality. A large
amount of it is still unpublished and unknown to the world; it is indeed
a Hidden Pearl which still needs to be picked up and unfolded by
qualified divers. Studying this Hidden Pearl may cause a dramatic shift
in the mentality of the world towards the Arameans and their
contribution to the history and well-being of mankind.
It was this Aramaic dialect of Edessa which served as a vehicle to
Christianize the Middle-East, Caucasus, Central- Asia, China and Tibet.
8. 800 - 13th century AD: Conquest of Islam,
decline of Aramaic. A time of Consolidation.
The conquest of the Middle-East by Islam and the active promotion of
Arabic from the Abbasid time of Abd al- Malik (685-705 AD) caused a
general decline in the use of Aramaic both as a spoken and literary
language, but this process happened very slowly. Therefore, Aramaic
remained an important public language even 500 years after the advent of
Islam. In 1095 a minister of the Sultan of Ikonium (Konya, Turkey) spoke
in Aramaic (Syriac) when demanding the surrender of Melitene (Malatya,
12th - 13th century AD: Revival of Aramaic.
One of the three languages which was used on a trilingual inscription
put above the door of a Caravanserai on the road between Malatya and
Sivas was in Aramaic. It was in this time span that great scholars were
produced, among them: the great Ab ‘l Faraj Bar Ebroyo (or Bar Hebreaus).
Accompanying the literary revival of the twelfth and thirteenth
centuries there was also a flowering of the arts in general. The
majority of the Aramean manuscripts which have survived belong to the
12th and 13th centuries.
9. 14th – 19th centuries: Decline and Recovery
This was a turbulent period in the entire Middle-East, which largely
did not contribute to the Aramaic literature, not only because of the
famines and plagues (for example the Black Dead in this period) but also
because of the general turbulences of this era. Yet, here and there some
prose and verse continued to be produced.
In the 14th and 15th century Tur Abdin suffered severely from the
ravages of the Mongol Timur Leng and his son. In 1393-94 the bishop John
along with 32 monks and 300 lay were killed in the monastery of Mor
Gabriel. In 1413 again the monastery was attacked by the Mongols, with
only a single monk surviving.
However, beside setbacks of various sorts, the writing and
cultivation of Aramaic literature continued to the present-day.
10. 20th century AD: Decline – Diaspora – New
At the end of 19th century a revival of Aramaic took place. One of
the people from this period was the East - Aramean Chaldean bishop of
Urmia, Mgr. Tuma Audo. Mgr. Audo wrote an important Aramaic - Aramaic
dictionary (1897) which already several times has been reprinted. This
revival has been nullified by the massacres of 1896 and 1915 which
affected the Aramean nation severely. These terrifying events, which
decimated the Aramean nation considerably, caused a large-scale
displacement of the population, many of whom immigrated to the West. The
emigration to the West however, also opened new ways for the promotion
and development of Aramaic, because in the Middle-East it has always
been difficult to promote Aramaic freely, where in general it has been
suppressed or allowed scantily only on a religious basis!
It can be said that as from the time of Bar Hebreaus (1286) and
Abdisho (1318 AD) (thus as from the 14th century onwards) not much
literature has been published. One of the reasons has been the continued
persecutions and weakening /fragmentation of church hierarchy/structure
(caused by external factors like for example Western missionaries/colonial
activities) and therefore decrease in growth of new and skilful scholars.
This of course doesn’t mean that writing in Aramaic was stopped, on the
contrary, it continues until present times.
At the beginning of 20th century some writers emerged and those who
survived the massacres of 1914 tried to write Aramaic from another
perspective. Some of them tried to use Aramaic for purely secular topics.
A few of them will be mentioned:
Naum Fayeq (1868-1930), an Aramean nationalist.
In 1908 he had established a journal for this purpose called “The
Star of the East”. He translated some examples of European literature
into Aramaic to make the reader familiar with secular literature.
Paulus Gabriel (1912-1971) and Denho Ghattas Makdesi Elyas (born 1911
and still alive!): Translated Bernardin de Saint Pierre’s romantic novel
Paul et Virginie into Aramaic.
Abrohom Isu (1978) : Translated Racine’s Athalie into Aramaic.
And others like Hanna Salman, Barsauwm Ayyub and Philoxenos Yuhannon
Dolabani (1885- 1967) also translated works in Aramaic. Dolabani, the
bishop of the monastery of Zahfaran in Mardin, was a prolific scholar,
poet, editor and translator of many works from Arabic into Aramaic.
11. Promotion of Aramaic in the schools:
One way to achieve this was to provide anthologies of suitable
samples of texts on secular subjects.
East - Aramean Ya‘qob Avgin (= Eugene) Manna (1867-1928) “Marge
pegrayne d- Aramaye (French translation in 1901: Morceaux choisis de
West - Aramean Yuhanon Qasisho: series of books starting with Part 1…
Part 7 published in the 1950s in Aleppo (Syria). These books are in use
by those teaching Aramaic in the West as well as in the East.
Abdel Massih Numan Karabasi: a brilliant student of the Dayr ul
Zahfaran monastery, eyewitness of the massacres of 1914, wrote a set of
10 schoolbooks for teaching Aramaic. These books are more or less
standard and taught everywhere in the world to acquaint a beginner with
the Aramaic language.
Since the time of emigration, Aramaic has also been used by musicians
making songs and singing secular songs in Aramaic, which were previously
only reserved for Turkish, Arabic or Kurdish. We also have several
magazines with an important part in Aramaic.
12. At the advent of 21st century: Is Aramaic dead?
The answer is simple: No!
At the beginning of this question we quoted Franz Rosenthal who wrote
“…. Great empires were conquered by the Aramaic language……..,
We would like attest to the continued strength of the Aramaic
language, namely the fact that Aramaic is still alive:
- - In spite of countless massacres, deportations and ethnic
- - In spite of the burning of monasteries and churches
- - In spite of pogroms and oppression
- - In spite of deliberate burning of antique manuscripts
- - In spite of destruction of archaeological places
- - In spite of being denied and officially forbidden in some
countries in the Middle-East
- - In spite of horrible colonial spiritual practices
- - In spite of denying the rights of the owners of this sacred