Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


edited by: Marco Moriggi (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems
  • Further information

Together with the Ugaritic and the Canaanite languages, Aramaic is a Northwest Semitic language. It is documented in the Near East from 10th-9th century B.C. Texts written in Aramaic were discovered in a very large area including Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Anatolia, Arabia, Iran and Central Asia. Aramaic is still spoken and written today, both in the Near East and in the countries where Aramaic (Neo-Aramaic) speaking people emigrated in the 20th century.

The huge number of examples of Aramaic has been arranged in groups according to their provenance and/or dating. The chronological arrangement set forth by Fitzmyer has gained wide acceptance in scholarly discussion. It consists of a fivefold division in the history of Aramaic:

- Old Aramaic (925-700 B.C.);

- Official (Imperial) Aramaic (700-200 B.C.);

- Middle Aramaic (200 B.C.-200 A.D.);

- Late Aramaic (200-700 A.D.);

- Modern Aramaic

No sharp separation is meant to exist between the periods of this chronological table.

It must be kept in mind that the documents included in the single periods are not homogeneous as far as both typology and quantity are concerned. This situation may on the one hand lead to single out certain varieties (e.g. Standard Literary Aramaic, proposed by Greenfield) or hinder a thorough linguistic analysis on the other. By virtue of these and other related problems, more nuanced classifications of Aramaic varieties have been proposed, such as the one by Beyer, who deals both with chronology and geography, as well as what can be ascertained as regards language typologies.


Old Aramaic is a label used to group the varieties of Aramaic employed in the documents of a series of kingdoms settled in the area of Northern Syria and South-Eastern Anatolia. These independent monarchies lay in the range of influence of the Assyrian empire (8th-7th centuries B.C.) and their existence was put to an end. The Aramaic-speaking people were thus deported and reached new territories, taking their language with them. This fact led to a broad diffusion of Aramaic and fostered its rise as the lingua franca of the Near East in the Neo-Babylonian empire (7th-6th century). Under the Persian domination (second half of the 6th century-first half of the 4th century B.C.), Aramaic was appointed as the official language of the Achaemenid administration and, for this reason, is largely documented in texts coming from Egypt, Persia, etc. Even if some varieties are still detectable in the textual evidence, the imperial chancery language clearly shapes the Aramaic of this period.


Typological differences are more pronounced in the texts included in the Middle Aramaic period, where one can single out varieties like Nabataean Aramaic, Palmyrene Aramaic and Hatran Aramaic, all linked to the political, economic or religious life of their eponymous cultures.

A clearly distinguishable quantity of geographic variations of Aramaic is found in Late Aramaic texts. These examples are usually divided into two groups: a Western (Syria and Palestine) group and an Eastern (Mesopotamia) group. Eastern Aramaic comprehends Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and Mandaic, while Western Aramaic includes Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, Christian Palestinian Aramaic and Samaritan Aramaic. Even though it is customarily included in the framework of Eastern Aramaic, Syriac is better placed in an intermediate position between East and West, both because of the position of its homeland (Osrhoene) and its linguistic features.


Considerable discrepancies in phonology, morphology and syntax separate Late Aramaic and Modern Aramaic (Neo-Aramaic). Until now, only rare and debated evidence throws light on the transfer from more ancient phases of the language to modern spoken varieties. The latter are usually arranged, according to geographical categories, in Western Neo-Aramaic (spoken in three villages in the Syrian Anti-Lebanon), Central Neo-Aramaic (mainly spoken in the mountains of Tur-Abdin, between South-Eastern Turkey and Northern Iraq) and North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic (NENA, mainly spoken in North-Eastern Iraq and the Urmia Lake district in Iran). A modern form of Mandaic (Neo-Mandaic) has survived in the area of Southern Iraq and South-Western Iran.

As well as for other phases of Aramaic, the most recent scholarly discussion on Neo-Aramaic brought in the idea of a “continuum of dialects”, with nuanced linguistic and geographic boundaries between and within different dialects and dialect-groups.


Aramaic has been handed down from antiquity on a great variety of media: stone, papyrus, parchment, leather, ostraca, etc. Aramaic has come down to us in, among others, sections of the Biblical texts of Ezra and Daniel, the Genesis Apocryphon and other texts from Qumran, the Targumim (Aramaic translations of Biblical text), parts of the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmud, Midrashic literature, the Story and the Proverbs of Ahiqar, a huge amount of Christian religious literature, historical records as well as economic and administrative documentation, religious texts referred to extinct faiths and sects, etc.


Aramaic was in close contact with other Semitic and non-Semitic cultures throughout its history. It is worth stressing the significant traces found in the written and oral records of Aramaic interactions with Semitic languages such as Akkadian, Hebrew and Arabic or non-Semitic languages such as Persian, Greek, Turkish, etc. Like Hebrew and together with Greek, Aramaic held an important position in the history of Near Eastern religions.

Ancient Writing Systems

  1. Aramaic

Further information

  1. Bibliography
  2. Online resources