Imperial Aramaic
Official/Standard Aramaic
RegionAncient Near East
Erac. 700–300 BC,
evolved into Biblical Aramaic then split into Middle Aramaic (c. 200–1200), or Old Syriac then Classical Syriac
Early form
Aramaic alphabet
Language codes
ISO 639-2arc
ISO 639-3arc

Imperial Aramaic (Aramaic: 𐡀𐡓𐡌𐡉𐡀, romanized: Ārāmāyā) is a linguistic term, coined by modern scholars in order to designate a specific historical variety of Aramaic language. The term is polysemic, with two distinctive meanings, wider (sociolinguistic) and narrower (dialectological). Since most surviving examples of the language have been found in Egypt, the language is also referred to as Egyptian Aramaic.[1]

Some scholars use the term as a designation for a distinctive, socially prominent phase in the history of Aramaic language, that lasted from the middle of the 8th century BCE to the end of the 4th century BCE and was marked by the use of Aramaic as a language of public life and administration in the late Neo-Assyrian Empire and its successor states, the Neo-Babylonian Empire and the Achaemenid Empire, also adding to that some later (Post-Imperial) uses that persisted throughout the early Hellenistic period. Other scholars use the term Imperial Aramaic in a narrower sense, reduced only to the Achaemenid period, basing that reduction on several strictly linguistic distinctions between the previous (Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian) phase and later (more prominent) Achaemenid phase.

Since all of those phases can be semantically labelled as "imperial", some scholars opt for the use of more specific and unambiguous terms, like Neo-Assyrian Aramaic and Neo-Babylonian Aramaic (for the older phases), and Achaemenid Aramaic (for the later phase), thus avoiding the use of the polysemic "imperial" label, and its primarily sociolinguistic implications. Similar issues have arisen in relation to the uses of some alternative terms, like Official Aramaic or Standard Aramaic, that were also criticized as unspecific. All of those terms continue to be used differently by scholars.[2][3][4][5][6][7]

The Elephantine papyri and ostraca, as well as other Egyptian texts, are the largest group of extant records in the language, collected in the standard Textbook of Aramaic Documents from Ancient Egypt.[1] Outside of Egypt, most texts are known from stone or pottery inscriptions spread across a wide geographic area.[1] More recently a group of leather and wooden documents were found in Bactria, known as the Bactria Aramaic documents.[1]

Name and classification

The term "Imperial Aramaic" was first coined by Josef Markwart in 1927, calling the language by the German name Reichsaramäisch.[8][9][10] In 1955, Richard N. Frye noted that no extant edict expressly or ambiguously accorded the status of "official language" to any particular language, causing him to question the classification of Imperial Aramaic. Frye went on to reclassify Imperial Aramaic as the lingua franca used in the territories of the Achaemenid Empire, further suggesting that the language’s use was more prevalent in these areas than initially thought.[11]


The native speakers of Aramaic, the Arameans, settled in great numbers in Babylonia and Upper Mesopotamia during the ages of the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Empires. The massive influx of settlers led to the adoption of Aramaic as the lingua franca of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.[12] After the Achaemenid conquest of Mesopotamia in 539 BC, the Achaemenids continued the use of Aramaic as the language of the region, further extending its prevalence by making it the imperial standard (thus "Imperial" Aramaic) so it may be the "vehicle for written communication between the different regions of the vast empire with its different peoples and languages." The adoption of a single official language for the various regions of the empire has been cited as a reason for the at the time unprecedented success of the Achaemenids in maintaining the expanse of their empire for a period of centuries.[13]


One of the most extensive collections of texts written in Imperial Aramaic is the Fortification Tablets of Persepolis, of which there are about five hundred. Other extant examples of Imperial Aramaic come from Egypt, such as the Elephantine papyri. Egyptian examples also include the Words of Ahikar, a piece of wisdom literature reminiscent of the Book of Proverbs. Scholarly consensus regards the portions of the Book of Daniel (i.e., 2:4b-7:28) written in Aramaic as an example of Imperial Aramaic.[14] In November 2006, an analysis was published of thirty newly discovered Aramaic documents from Bactria which now constitute the Khalili Collection of Aramaic Documents. The leather parchment contains texts written in Imperial Aramaic, reflecting the use of the language for Achaemenid administrative purposes during the fourth century in regions such as Bactria and Sogdia.[15]

Legacy and influence

Expanse of the Achaemenid Empire, showing the regions heavily influenced by Imperial Aramaic.

The evolution of alphabets from the Mediterranean region is commonly split into two major divisions: the Phoenician-derived alphabets of the West, including the Mediterranean region (Anatolia, Greece, and the Italian peninsula), and the Aramaic-derived alphabets of the East, including the Levant, Persia, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. The former Phoenician-derived alphabets arose around the 8th century BC, and the latter Aramaic-derived alphabets evolved from the Imperial Aramaic script around the 6th century BC. After the fall of the Achaemenid Empire, the unity of the Imperial Aramaic script was lost, diversifying into a number of descendant cursives. Aramaic script and, as ideograms, Aramaic vocabulary would survive as the essential characteristics of the Pahlavi scripts, itself developing from the Manichaean alphabet.[16]

The orthography of Imperial Aramaic was based more on its own historical roots than on any spoken dialect, leading to a high standardization of the language across the expanse of the Achaemenid Empire. Of the Imperial Aramaic glyphs extant from its era, there are two main styles: the lapidary form, often inscribed on hard surfaces like stone monuments, and the cursive form. The Achaemenid Empire used both of these styles, but the cursive became much more prominent than the lapidary, causing the latter to eventually disappear by the 3rd century BC.[17] In remote regions, the cursive versions of Aramaic evolved into the creation of the Syriac, Palmyrene and Mandaic alphabets, which themselves formed the basis of many historical Central Asian scripts, such as the Sogdian and Mongolian alphabets.[18] The Brahmi script, of which the entire Brahmic family of scripts derives (including Devanagari), most likely descends from Imperial Aramaic, as the empire of Cyrus the Great brought the borders of the Persian Empire all the way to the edge of the Indian subcontinent, with Alexander the Great and his successors further linking the lands through trade.[19]


The Babylonian captivity ended after Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon.[20] The mass-prevalence of Imperial Aramaic in the region resulted in the eventual use of the Aramaic alphabet for writing Hebrew.[21] Before the adoption of Imperial Aramaic, Hebrew was written in the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, which, along with Aramaic, directly descended from Phoenician. Hebrew and Aramaic heavily influenced one another, with mostly religious Hebrew words (such as ‘ēṣ "wood") transferring into Aramaic and more general Aramaic vocabulary (such as māmmôn "wealth") entering the local Hebrew lexicon.

Late Old Western Aramaic, also known as Jewish Old Palestinian, is a well-attested language used by the communities of Judea, probably originating in the area of Caesarea Philippi. By the 1st century CE, the people of Roman Judaea still used Aramaic as their primary language, along with Koine Greek for commerce and administration. The oldest manuscript of the Book of Enoch (c. 170 BC) is written in the Late Old Western Aramaic dialect.[22]

The New Testament has several non-Greek terms of Aramaic origin,[23] such as:

Nabataean Aramaic

Further information: Nabataean Aramaic

Instead of using their native Arabic, the Nabataeans would use Imperial Aramaic for their written communications, causing the development of Nabataean Aramaic out of Imperial Aramaic.[24] The standardized cursive and Aramaic-derived Nabataean alphabet became the standardized form of writing Arabic for the Arabian peninsula, evolving on its own into the alphabet of Arabic by the time of spread of Islam centuries later. Influences from Arabic were present in the Nabataean Aramaic, such as a few Arabic loanwords and how "l" is often turned into "n". After Nabataea was annexed by the Roman Empire in 106 AD, the influence of Aramaic declined in favor of Koine Greek for written communication.


Further information: Manichaean script

The Manichaean abjad writing system spread from the Near East over into Central Asia, travelling as far as the Tarim Basin in what is now the People's Republic of China. Its presence in Central Asia lead to influence from the Sogdian script, which itself descends from the Syriac branch of Aramaic. The traditions of Manichaeism allege that its founding prophet, Mani, invented the Manichaean script, as well as writing the major Manichaean texts himself. The writing system evolved from the Imperial Aramaic alphabet, which was still in use during the age of Mani, i.e. the early years of the Sassanian Empire. Along with other writing systems, the Manichaean alphabet evolved into the Pahlavi script and was used to write Middle Persian, and other languages which were influenced by Manichaean include: Parthian, Sogdian, Bactrian, and Old Uyghur.[25]


Imperial Aramaic
(32 code points)
ScriptsImperial Aramaic
Major alphabetsAramaic
Assigned31 code points
Unused1 reserved code points
Unicode version history
5.2 (2009)31 (+31)
Unicode documentation
Code chart ∣ Web page
Note: [26][27]

Imperial Aramaic is a Unicode block containing characters for writing Aramaic during the Achaemenid Persian Empires.

Imperial Aramaic[1][2]
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
U+1084x 𐡀 𐡁 𐡂 𐡃 𐡄 𐡅 𐡆 𐡇 𐡈 𐡉 𐡊 𐡋 𐡌 𐡍 𐡎 𐡏
U+1085x 𐡐 𐡑 𐡒 𐡓 𐡔 𐡕 𐡗 𐡘 𐡙 𐡚 𐡛 𐡜 𐡝 𐡞 𐡟
1.^ As of Unicode version 15.1
2.^ Grey area indicates non-assigned code point


  1. ^ a b c d Cook, Edward (2022). Biblical Aramaic and Related Dialects: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press. p. 3-7. ISBN 978-1-108-78788-8. Imperial Aramaic (IA) [Footnote: Other names: Official Aramaic, Reichsaramäisch. Because many of the surviving texts come from Egypt, some scholars speak of "Egyptian Aramaic."]… As noted, the documentation of IA is significantly greater than that of Old Aramaic; the hot and dry climate of Egypt has been particularly favorable to the preservation of antiquities, including Aramaic texts written on soft media such as papyrus or leather. The primary, although not exclusive, source of our knowledge of Persian-period Aramaic is a large number of papyri discovered on the island of Elephantine… All of the Egyptian Aramaic texts have been collected and reedited in the Textbook of Aramaic Documents from Ancient Egypt… This is now the standard text edition… Outside of Egypt, Aramaic texts written primarily on hard media such as stone or pottery have been discovered, including texts from Palestine, Arabia, Asia Minor, Iraq (Babylon), and Iran (Persepolis). A recent discovery, of uncertain provenance, is a relatively large collection of documents, now in a private collection, consisting mainly of the correspondence of the official Akhvamazda of Bactria dating from 354 to 324 BCE (Nave & Shaked 2012). They are similar in some ways to the Arshama archive published by Driver; the find-spot was no doubt Afghanistan.
  2. ^ Beyer 1986, p. 10-11.
  3. ^ Fitzmyer 1997, p. 59.
  4. ^ Folmer 1995, p. 8-13.
  5. ^ Gzella 2012a, p. 574.
  6. ^ Folmer 2012, p. 587-588.
  7. ^ Gzella 2015, p. 54, 105, 155, 158.
  8. ^ Folmer 1995, p. 10.
  9. ^ Gzella 2015, p. 158.
  10. ^ Josef Markwart, “Np. āđīna ‘Freitag’,” Ungarische Jahrbücher 7, 1927, pp. 91: "In der Bedeutung 'bestimmte (kommende, zukünftige) Zeit’ ist das Wort zaman schon ins Reichsaramäische und von da ins aramaisierende Hebräisch und ins Nabatäische und aus diesem später ins Arabische übergegangen. [Footnote: So nenne ich die aramäische Kanzleisprache der Achaimeniden, in welcher die Mehrzahl, wenn nicht alle, aramäischen Inschriften und sämtliche Papyri der Achaimenidenzeit, sowie die aramäischen Stücke in den Büchern 'Ezra und Daniel abgefaßt sind. Daß Kautzsch und noch der Schweizer Karl Marti (Kurzgefaßte Grammatik der biblisch-aramäischen Sprache. Berlin 1896 S. 4) diese Sprache W est aramäisch nennen konnten, war ein grober Salto mortale, der nur dadurch verständlich wird, daß die Verfasser vom aramäischen Sprachgute des uzvärisn, d. h. von den aramäischen Ideogrammen des Mitteliranischen keine Kunde hatten.]"
  11. ^ Frye, Richard N.; Driver, G. R. (1955). "Review of G. R. Driver's "Aramaic Documents of the Fifth Century B. C."". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. 18 (3/4): 456–461. doi:10.2307/2718444. JSTOR 2718444. p. 457.
  12. ^ Richard, Suzanne (2003). Near Eastern Archaeology: A Reader. EISENBRAUNS. ISBN 978-1-57506-083-5.
  13. ^ Shaked, Saul (1987). "Aramaic". Encyclopædia Iranica. Vol. 2. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul. pp. 251–252. Retrieved 10 October 2018.
  14. ^ Collins 1993, p. 710-712.
  15. ^ Naveh, Joseph; Shaked, Shaul (2006). Joseph Naveh (ed.). Ancient Aramaic Documents from Bactria. Studies in the Khalili Collection. Oxford: Khalili Collections. ISBN 978-1874780748.
  16. ^ Geiger, Wilhelm; Kuhn, Ernst (2002). "Grundriss der iranischen Philologie: Band I. Abteilung 1". Boston: Adamant: 249ff. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  17. ^ Greenfield 1985, p. 709–710.
  18. ^ Kara, György (1996). "Aramaic Scripts for Altaic Languages". In Daniels, Peter T.; Bright, William (eds.). The World's Writing Systems. Oxford University Press. pp. 535–558. ISBN 978-0-19-507993-7.
  19. ^ "Brāhmī | writing system". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-05-29.
  20. ^ "Cyrus the Great: History's most merciful conqueror?". Culture. 2019-05-06. Archived from the original on May 13, 2019. Retrieved 2020-09-07.
  21. ^ William M. Schniedewind (2006). Seth L. Sanders (ed.). Aramaic, the Death of Written Hebrew, and Language Shift in the Persian Period (PDF). Margins of Writing, Origins of Cultures. University of Chicago. pp. 137–147. ISBN 1-885923-39-2.[dead link]
  22. ^ The Online Critical Pseudepigrapha Archived 2007-12-31 at the Wayback Machine
  23. ^ Huehnergard, John and Jo Ann Hackett. The Hebrew and Aramaic languages. In The Biblical World (2002), Volume 2 (John Barton, ed.). P.19
  24. ^ Gzella 2015, p. 213.
  25. ^ Durkin-Meisterernst, Desmond (October 14, 2005). "Manichean script". Encyclopedia Iranica.
  26. ^ "Unicode character database". The Unicode Standard. Retrieved 2023-07-26.
  27. ^ "Enumerated Versions of The Unicode Standard". The Unicode Standard. Retrieved 2023-07-26.