The Aramaic of Babylonia within the greater area of the Persian Empire (1 CE to 1000 CE)

Mandaean, Syrian, and Jewish Aramaic, and the foreign languages (Aramaic and Persian) in the Chinese texts

The purpose of this lesson is to understand the background of the Jewish Aramaic language we will be dealing with. Here we are focusing on the three varieties of Aramaic found in the Aramaic speaking province of Bavel of the western Persian empire. While we present sources for all of them in this lesson, our intent is to only focus on Jewish Aramaic. However, it is important to understand our Jewish Aramaic texts in the greater context of the province of Bavel and the Persian Empire.

Yekum Purkan, an Aramaic prayer originating in Bavel, which is recited from the Siddur during the Saturday morning Shabbat service. It prays that divine light may be brought to the Jewish communities in the Lands of Israel and Bavel to all those who are studying the Torah.
An Assyrian Church prayer in Syriac describing praising God before the "throne of glory" and the Bema (elevated altar), together with the khruvaya and serafaya (angels).
The above Syriac Aramaic text transcribed into Hebrew characters. There are 22 Syriac letters, parallel to the 22 Hebrew letters (with similar names and shapes).
Mandaean text describing a messenger from the world of light entering into the human world - the world of darkness, and calling from one end of the world to the other saying that everyone who guards and is watchful of their soul will be saved.
The above Mandaean Aramaic text transcribed into the Hebrew equivalents of the 22 Mandaean letters.
In the Chinese scroll we will be studying in the next lesson, there are three short prayers which are not in the Chinese language, but rather, in non-Chinese languages transribed phonetically using Chinese characters. The original prayers were written in Syriac script. These three prayers are presented here. This first one is in the old Persian language also used by the Zoroastrian religion ("Middle Persian").
Transription of the phonetic Chinese characters of the first prayer into Hebrew characters.
The second prayer alternates Aramaic (Syriac) and Middle Persian. The last one (below) is Middle Persian again.
Transcription of the second prayer into Hebrew characters.

With the exception of the Hebrew characters, all of the Aramaic scripts shown on this page developed within the Persian Empire at about the same time - around the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. The form of the Hebrew letters currently in use actually developed from an earlier version of the Aramaic script, also used throughout Persia, from about 500 BCE, known as "block script" (in contrast to the later Aramaic cursive scripts).

The Persian Empire, with its dualistic religion of Zoroastrianism (which presents the world as a conflict between light and darkness), occupied in this time an area between Israel in the west to China in the east. The Persian empire was divided up into over 20 provinces, one of which was the western province of Bavel (the area of ancient Babylonia), whose language was Aramaic. There were four unique religious developments which were represented in the Aramaic dialects of Bavel:

  1. The Jewish Babylonian Talmud (completed in the 5th century CE), which forms the primary basis for the Jewish religion as practiced in the world today.
  2. The Syriac Aramaic writings of the Assyrian (Christian) Church, based on the writings of Addai (a disciple of the Apostle Thomas) and Mari. Although this is the version of Christianity that was spread throughout the Persian Empire and into China, they were regarded as a heretical schism by the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, and (often derogatorally) referred to as "Nestorian" Christians.
  3. The religion of the Maninaya, also written in Syriac Aramaic. While this religion was very active and spread widely throughout the Persian Empire and beyond, into North Africa and the Roman Empire in the west, and into China in the East, it was eventually severely persecuted in every area it went to, so that only scattered writings remain (such as the Syriac Aramaic text below, and the Chinese texts we will be dealing with in the Advanced Section).
  4. The religion of the Mandaeans, written in Mandaean Aramaic. This baptismal religion, which has been practiced in the southern areas of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers for almost 2000 years (up until the present day), sees as its most important prophet John the Baptist. They regard Abraham, Moses, and Mohammad as false prophets, and Jesus as a "lying Messiah", or a "false Messiah" ("Meshikha Kedaba"), who failed to follow the true teacher (John the Baptist).
All four of these Aramaic religious phenomena were influenced, some more and some less, by the dualistic world view also found in the Zoroastrian religion of the Persian Empire - which described life as a daily struggle between light and darkness, between good and evil. So in the Jewish Talmud, for example, we find the concepts of yetzer ha-ra and yetzer ha-tov - the "good inclination" and the "evil inclination" which both dwell permanently within every person.

Non-Jewish Aramaic (Although we are making available sources here for these non-Jewish Aramaic texts, we will not be studying them on this site.)
The Syriac Aramaic Book of the Kurbana of Mar Addai and Mar Mari (PDF)
Audio (mp3) of the Syriac text

The Syriac Aramaic Book of Mar Mani (PDF)

The Mandaean Aramaic Book of Yahya (PDF)
Audio (mp3) of Mandaean Aramaic being read from the Ginza Raba ("Great Treasure")

Zoroastrian Persian
We also present here an example of the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrian Persian was written in a script derived from the Aramaic script. We are presenting this example in the original Zoroastrian (Avestan) script, and then transcribed into Hebrew letters:

Audio (mp3) of the Ahunwar, the central and most important prayer of the Zoroastrian religion.

PDF of all texts shown on this page.