Earliest Aramaic Inscription

An extremely important inscription recently (1981) surfaced in Syria and the few prominent scholars who know of it have been buzzing with excitement.

It is an Aramaic inscription dating from the tenth century B.C., consisting of 23 complete and well-preserved lines. Aramaic was the everyday language in Palestine during Jesus’ time. Aramaic spread to Palestine from Babylonia in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. and became the lingua franca of the ancient world.

Until now the earliest substantial Aramaic inscription was the so-called Sefire inscription from the mid-eighth century B.C. While a few small, fragmentary and incomplete lines of Aramaic may date to the ninth century B.C., it is clear that the new Aramaic inscription found in Syria is the earliest extensive Aramaic text ever discovered.

The inscription will provide scholars with valuable new evidence concerning the origins of Aramaic and will carry the story back at least 100 years before what was previously known.
The words in the inscription may also provide clues to the root meaning of puzzling Biblical and other Semitic words. One scholar thinks the new inscription may help unlock the root meaning of Eden. According to this scholar, the root meaning of Eden, as reflected in the new inscription, may be “freshness” or “dewiness.”

The new inscription is especially important because it is bilingual; that is, the text is repeated in two languages, so important information about each can be gleaned from the other. In this case, the second language is Akkadian and is written in wedge-shaped cuneiform characters.
The two texts are contained on a life-size statue of a king. The statue is said to have been uncovered in 1979 by a bulldozer in a field near Tell Fakhariyah in eastern Syria, nearly 200 miles northeast of Hamah. From there it was taken to the Damascus Museum where several scholars have been able to see it.

The Akkadian text is on the front of the statue and the Aramaic text is on the back. The dialect of Akkadian used in the inscription is Assyrian. It is a shock to discover that Assyrian royalty was using Aramaic in the tenth century B.C.

The name of the king is Haddayish‘i, who was unknown prior to this time. The name means, “The God Hadad is my help or salvation.” Hadad is a well-known Mesopotamian god associated with rain storms and fertility. Rain storms are usually regarded as a blessing in the Near East although they can also be destructive.

According to the new bilingual inscription, Haddayish‘i is the king of Guzanu and Sikanu. These two Assyrian city-states had been known from other cuneiform inscriptions and Guzanu is referred to in the Bible as Gozan, a city to which the Assyrians deported the Israelites (see 2 Kings 17-6; 18-11). Guzanu has been identified with Tell Halaf, just across the Habor River from Tell Fakhariyah.
This immediately suggests that ancient Sikanu, over which our new king also ruled, lies buried in the ruins of Tell Fakhariyah. Soundings were taken at Tell Fakhariyah in 1939–40 by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.` On the basis of these limited excavations as well as the geographical location of the site and references to Sikanu in other inscriptions, several scholars had speculated that Tell Fakhariyah was ancient Sikanu. The new bilingual inscription would seem to clinch this identification.

The new inscription states that the king’s statue was placed before Hadad of Sikanu, who is described as a merciful god, who brings fertility and prosperity to the land. According to the inscription, King Haddayish‘i placed his statue before the god Hadad to insure his own long life and well being, as well as that of his family and people. This takes up the first 16 lines of the inscription.
The last seven lines consist of curses against anyone who would remove King Haddayish‘i’s name from furnishings of the Temple of Hadad of Sikanu. The curses which the inscription threatens are drought, famine, blight, and disease. Hadad of Sikanu is also referred to in the inscriptions as Land of the Habor. From another inscription, we know that Sikanu was situated at the source of the Habor River, a branch of the Euphrates.

No other historical information is contained in the text of the inscription.

The tenth century B.C. date for the inscription is based on paleographic grounds. The shape of the letters is clearly archaic and significantly earlier than other known Aramaic inscriptions. Moreover, the Aramaic dialect in which the inscription is written is also archaic. However, a debate is already shaping up as to the precise date of the inscription. Some scholars would put it in the ninth century B.C. But one especially prominent American paleographer, on the basis of a preliminary look, thinks it clearly dates to the end of the 11th century. “The orthography, the content, the treatment of sibilants as well as the paleography all point to a late 11th century date,” he says. “The ayin with a dot inside cannot be found later than the 11th century.”

The Syrians have reportedly assigned publication of the inscription to a Syrian scholar (for the Assyrian text) and to an English scholar (for the Aramaic text). There is no reason to believe that publication will be delayed beyond the normal sluggish, scholarly pace in such cases.

Adam Mikaya, “Earliest Aramaic Inscription Uncovered in Syria,” BAR Jul-Aug 1981.