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Writing in Egypt: Aramaic

The writing system and language of the Achaemenid Iranian empire across the Near East. The Aramaic language belongs to one of the two branches of the Northwest-groups of the Semitic language (the other branch is Canaaite and Phoenician, including Hebrew). The Aramaic alphabet is borrowed from the Phoenicians. The earliest Aramaic inscriptions use the same letters as the contemporary Phoenicians. In the eighth century BC distinct forms start to develop. Texts are written from right to left. When the Greeks came to power in the Near East, Aramaic lost its official status. In Egypt it is attested until about 250 BC.

Aramaic is well attested in Late Period and Ptolemaic Egypt. Aramaic writers of documents might be divided in three groups.

A. Non-Aramaic people writing Aramaic. Example: The letter of king Adon (from Askalon or Gaza) asking for help against Babylon. The letter was found in Egypt (Saqqara).

B. Aramaic written by Aramaic (speaking) people. Letters and some literary texts are known from the Achaemenid Period. None dates before that time.

C. Jews writing Aramaic. Many Aramaic written documents were found at Elephantine, where a community of Jewish people lived.

Aramaic labels found at Memphis
Aramaic inscription on a pot sherd.
UC 54913

further reading:

  • Cook 1997 (on Aramaic language and literature; general introduction)
  • Grelot 1972 (translation of Aramaic texts found in Egypt, in French)
  • Shirun 1975 (a general introduction on Aramaic texts in Egypt)


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