Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Challenging the myth of Aramean Supremacy in the Levant

By Ilias Michail and Elias Antonius

Aramean supremacists have long perpetuated two enduring myths, which strike at the very heart of any rational understanding of Levantine history. The first is that they are the rightful heirs to the title of ‘indigenous’ throughout the region. The second is their relentless portrayal of the Levant as a purely Semitic land. Both of which have made them as adamantly opposed to the concept of a Rûm ethnic identity as Arabists. 

The reality is that neither of these myths could be farther from the truth. The Levant has always been a crossroads of Civilizations. A meeting place of Semitic, Indo-European, and other linguistic and cultural groups. From the Paleolithic to the Neolithic Age, the Levant continuously presents itself as such a place. Home to local cultures such as the Natufian and Halaf, as well as multi-continent cultures, like the Aurignacian, which spread across Europe and the Levant. 

By the dawn of the Bronze Age, the Levant had seen the rise of several different kingdoms. Some Semitic like the Eblaite and Yamhad kingdoms, and others Indo-European like Mitanni and the Hittite Empire. This multi-cultural land was populated by Semitic-speakers like the Amorites, Indo-European speakers like the Luwians, and Alarodian-speakers like the Hurrians. Historical facts, which disprove the claims of Aramean supremacists and their propaganda of a purely Semitic and Aramaic land.

Foreigners, Invaders, and the Indigenous
One argument that Aramean supremacists attempt to use against the very idea of an ethnic Rûm identity, as if they have the right to enforce their beliefs upon another community, is that Greeks are “foreigners” and “invaders” to the Levant. Throughout the region, the need to justify one's culture as ‘indigenous’ is paramount to justifying one's political authority or right to exist. Arab, Israeli, and now also Aramean supremacists all fight for the right to be called ‘indigenous.' However, the reality is that this title belongs to people that have long gone extinct, such as the Canaanites, Luwians, and Amorites. Those who may or may not claim this title today did not emerge as a people or culture until after the infamous Bronze Age Collapse.

It is around this time that the first ethnic Greeks settled the Levant, historically known as the Sea Peoples. Arriving along the coast, this collection of tribes separated, some developing their own civilizations like the Philistines around Gaza, and Kingdom of Palistin in Northern Syria. While others mingled with the local Canaanites to create the great Phoenician Civilization. Meanwhile, at the same time history sees the emergence of both the ancient Israelites and Arameans for the first time. Therefore, blessing all three with the same rights to the title of ‘indigenous’.

The first undisputed reference to the Arameans as a distinct people appears in the inscriptions of the Assyrian King Tiglath Pileser I (c.1100 B.C.). Originating in what is today southern and central Syria. The Arameans displaced the indigenous Amorites from the region, and in the aftermath created several Aramaic-speaking city-states of their own, such as Aram-Damascus. Like the ancient Greeks of the Aegean, the Arameans never had a united ‘state’ but reminded divided between numerous city-states.

It is with this being said that the Aramean argument of Greeks being “foreigners” and “invaders” falls apart. If the Greek is an invader for displacing the original inhabitants of the coast after the Bronze Age Collapse. Then what are the Arameans for doing the very same to the Amorites in central and southern Syria? How can one identity be deemed ‘indigenous’, and the other “foreigner”, when they both arose at the same time?

Hellenization vs. Aramaization
Aramean supremacists have long portrayed the Levant’s Hellenistic period and Hellenization as a form of cultural imperialism. This over-simplistic approach to Levantine history is not just wrong, but blatantly Hellenophobic. To make matters worse, these propagandists conveniently forget that the region also went through a process of Aramaization. Just which, if any, of these two cultural expansion, was truly imperialistic?

Well in the case of Hellenization, it must first be said that it was far more complexed than Arameans will acknowledge. Ethnic Greeks during the Hellenistic period colonized much of Northern Syria, specifically in areas that were sparsely populated at the time, yet had historically been home to previous generations of ethnic Greeks. These new migrates established newly founded Greek cities, which developed into large urban centers, such as the Tetrapolis Seleukis and the Decapolis. Meanwhile, the official policy of the Seleucid Empire did not entail forced assimilation of non-Greek peoples, and instead promoted ethnic segregation and cultural autonomy for native peoples. This allowed non-Greeks to maintain their ethnic traditions and identities. 

In the case of Aramaization, we witness a much more intrusive process of cultural assimilation. Beginning roughly around the fall of the last independent Aramaic city-state of Aram-Damascus in 732 B.C. The Neo-Assyrian Empire began a policy of forced deportations of Arameans into Babylonia, and even Assyria, which resulted in the intermixing of the deportees and the native populations of Mesopotamia. It is at this point that Aramaic culture and language began to spread across the Levant and Mesopotamia, resulting in the adoption of Aramaic as the lingua franca of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the mid-8th century BC by King Tiglath Pileser III. The first people to succumb to Aramaization were the Akkadian-speaking Assyrians and Babylonians, which became Eastern Aramaic-speakers. While in the West, the process of Aramaization in places such as Phoenicia and Palestine did not take hold until after the rise of Christianity between the 1st and 3rd centuries A.D.

Thus, when one looks at the history of Hellenization vs. Aramaization of the Levant, it becomes clear which of the two the true form of Cultural Imperialism was. Hellenization, for the most part, was a purely voluntary process, which never led to the destruction of any native culture or language, and instead resulted in bilingualism. While, Aramaization saw the complete destruction of several cultures and languages, such as but not limited to Akkadian, Phoenician, and for a time even Hebrew.

It’s time for respect and mutual understanding

Just what is the need for Aramean supremacists to forcefully aramaize the indigenous Rûm of the Levant? Why are they so troubled by the prospect of a revival of a Levantine Rûm ethnicity? Does the existence of an independent identity for the Rûm hinder the Aramean cause? No. So why so much hate and Hellenophia?

Unlike Arameans, Rûm advocates have no wish to persecute or enforce their identity upon the Aramean community. All they wish for is the same mutual respect and understanding that they give those Syriac-Christians who wish to self-identify as Arameans. Today, rather than fight over whose identity is “indigenous”, we should be working together to fight a common enemy, Arabism. Both of our communities have the right to claim the title of indigenous. The time has come to end these enduring myths of Aramean Supremacy and move forward towards a day when both the Rûm and Aramean identities can co-exist in the Levant in peace.