Aramean Religion

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ARAMEAN RELIGION . When the Arameans first appeared in the ancient Near East is not known. The early attestations of Aram as a place-namein an inscription of Naram-Sin of Akkad at the end of the third millennium bce, in the Mari texts of the eighteenth century bce, and at Ugarit in the fourteenth century bcecannot be taken as a proof of the early existence of an independent ethnic group, even though during the first millennium some of the Aramean kings styled themselves "king of Aram." The Arameans are characterized by their names and their dialects, the novelty of which strikes the historian as he compares them with the preexistent Akkadian names and language used in Mesopotamia.

In the second half of the eleventh century the Arameans are known to have gained control of large areas of the Syrian desert and thus of its caravan routes. They succeeded in forming in northern Syria and around Damascus major confederacies in which dialects of Aramaic were spoken and written. The Aramean states spread over the great bend of the Euphrates, on the upper and lower Habor, and in the northern Syrian hinterland at Samal, Arpad, Aleppo, and Hama. Some information about the Arameans comes from biblical sources, which state that David defeated Hadadezer of Aram-Zobah (near modern Hama), whose political influence had reached as far south as Ammon in Transjordan (2 Sm. 8:3, 10:6), or that the continuous disputes between Judah and Israel helped the rise of Damascus as an Aramean power in Syria (Malamat, 1973, pp. 141144). The Assyrians could not allow a threat to their hegemony in the Near East, however, so Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883859 bce) and Shalmaneser III (r. 858824 bce) subdued the Aramean states in northern Syria, and Tiglathpileser III (r. 744727 bce) reduced Damascus to an Assyrian province.

Yet even defeated, the Arameans maintained the prestige of their language, and the gods they called on in treaties and religious inscriptions became the gods of the whole of Syria and remained so up to the first centuries ce. The massive arrival under the Persians (sixth century bce) and the Greeks (fourth century) of Arab tribes into southern Palestine, the Hauran, Damascus, the Syrian desert, and even northern Syria did not disrupt the traditional ways of living and praying because the newcomers adopted the culture and the language of the Arameans. Any analysis of the Aramean religion must therefore take into consideration all the inscriptions written in Aramaic, from the earliest ones of the ninth century bce down to those of the first three centuries ce (the latter are written in Syriac, a cognate language of Aramaic, and still reflect the influence of the ancient pagan cults of northern Syria).

The Cults of Hadad and Sin

A bilingual inscription (in Akkadian and Aramaic) found in 1979 at Tell Fekhariye, near Tell Halaf, on the border between Syria and Turkey, records the gratitude of Hadadyisi, ruler of Sikanu and Guzanu, to Hadad of Sikanu. Both the script and the historical context date the life-size statue of the ruler on which the text is engraved to the first part of the ninth century bce. This is the earliest, most important text in Aramaic ever found, and the mention of the god Hadad (in Akkadian, Adad) becomes of paramount interest to the history of his cult among the Arameans. Hadad is praised in both languages in a formula that is often used to praise Adad in Akkadian inscriptions from Mesopotamia. The god is styled "the inspector of the waters of heaven and earth"; the one "who pours richness and dispenses pastureland and moisty fields to all countries." Hadad is the one "who provides the gods, his brothers, with quietness and sustenance." He, the great lord of Sikanu, is "a merciful god," a deity whose almighty providence ranks him above other gods and makes him for humans a storm god and a weather god.

Although Adad's minor position in the Mesopotamian pantheon does not compare with his counterpart's preeminence in northern Syria and among the Arameans in general, his name appears as a theophorous element in some Semitic personal names of the pre-Sargonic period; after the reigns of Sargon of Akkad (late third millennium bce) and his grandson Naram-Sin, the first Semitic rulers to establish an empire in the Mesopotamian lands, such theophorous names became very frequent. The element Addu (Adad/Hadad) occurs frequently in personal names from the Syro-Mesopotamian area. Letters from Mari, on the middle Euphrates, reveal the popularity of the god at the beginning of the second millennium bce.

A colossal statue of Hadad was found in 1890 in a village to the northeast of Zinjirli (Turkey). According to the inscription carved on the monument, it had been erected by King Panamu of Yady (Samal, in the Zinjirli region) to acknowledge that his royal power derived from Hadad. Although Panamu was not a Semite, he gave his son a Semitic name, Barsur, and extolled Semitic gods in his inscription: besides Hadad the text lists El, the high god adored at Ugarit and in pre-Israelite Canaan; Reshef, the ancient Syrian god of pestilence and the underworld, but also of well-being (identified with Nergal in Mesopotamia and with Apollo by the Greeks); and Rakib-El, whose name can be interpreted as "charioteer of El," thus becoming a suitable epithet for the moon god, since the crescent of the moon can easily be imagined as a boat navigating across the skies. (The plausibility of this interpretation is heightened by the inscription's mention of Shamash, the sun god, right after Rakif-El, as if the intention was to show that the two celestial bodies formed Hadad's cortege.)

Panamu's dynasty is known from another Aramaic inscription, one written on the statue that King Barrakib erected to his father, Panamu II. The monarch recounted in it his father's political career and how Hadad saved him from the curse that had fallen on his dynastic family. Following the religious traditions of the family, Barrakib invoked Hadad together with Rakib-El, the dynastic god of the kings of Samal, and Shamash. A few years later he had another inscription carved alongside a relief that represented him in Assyrian dress. The monarch asserted that "because of my father's righteousness and my own righteousness, my lord Rakif-El and my lord Tiglathpileser seated me upon my father's throne." On a relief from Harran, in northwestern Mesopotamia, the same ruler proclaimed his faith in the moon god by declaring that his lord is the baal ("lord") of Harran.

At Harran the baal was the moon god known by the name Sin, which is a late development of the Mesopotamian name Suen. The Akkadians seem to have been responsible for introducing the name of the moon god into southern Sumer, where Suen was identified with the moon god Nanna, the city god of Ur (Roberts, 1972, p. 50), from whence the cult probably traveled to Harran with the Aramean nomads. The cult of the moon god attained high prominence at Harran and throughout the Syro-Mesopotamian region. But the Aramaic inscriptions portray the miscellaneous character of religious life in these lands: the funerary stelae of two priests of the moon god recovered in 1891 at Nerab (southeast of Aleppo), dated to the seventh century bce, reveal that the priests bore Akkadian theophorous names of Sin but worshiped the moon god under his West Semitic name, Sahar.

The devotion of the Aramean population to the moon god (under whatever name) became a distinctive feature of the religiosity of northern Syria, especially when the area came under Babylonian rule after the destruction of the Assyrian Empire. At the end of the seventh century, Nabopolassar (r. 625605 bce) and Nebuchadrezzar (r. 604562 bce) settled Babylonians in the various countries they conquered. The cult knew a glorious period under Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon (r. 556539 bce), for he rebuilt Ehulhul, the sanctuary of Sin at Harran, which had been destroyed by the Medes in 610 bce as they crushed the Assyrian remnant of the city (Lambert, 1972, p. 58). In the words of Nabonidus himself and of his mother, the priestess of the god at the sanctuary, Sin was "the king of the gods." Except for the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (r. 668627 bce), who had himself crowned at Harran, and Nabonidus, no Assyro-Babylonian king is known to have given the lord of Harran this epithet, which was usually given to the gods Ashur and Marduk (Levy, 19451946, pp. 417418).

It is likely that there were close religious links between the Arameans of the province of Harran and the Arab tribes of Dedan and Teima in northern Arabia, for one of the sources relating the conquest of the Aramean states by the Assyrian king Adadnirari II (r. 911891 bce) mentions the presence of three Temanite shaykhs in the area. The prolonged and probably religiously motivated stay of Nabonidus at Teima (Lambert, 1972, p. 60) could not but strengthen these links. The Aramaic inscription of the sixth century bce found at Teima attest to this to some extent, for bull heads were frequently recovered with the inscriptions, and this seems to suggest the existence of a cult of the moon among the Aramaic-speaking population of the Arabian desert (Teixidor, 1977, pp. 7175).

Associations of Gods

The very few inscriptions that provide information about the Aramean religion during the eighth, seventh, and sixth centuries bce record only the religious feelings of the ruling class. No indication of what the religious life of the commoners might have been is ever found. In the final analysis the study of the ancient Near Eastern religion comes down to a listing of divine names, with occasional glimpses as to what a given deity must have meant in concrete terms to an individual. Associations of gods of various origins are frequent in the epigraphic texts, but these were probably the result of political confederacies in which different tribes or groups would invoke their respective gods in order to warrant their mutual commitments. In this respect (1) the stele of Zakkur and (2) the treaties concluded by Matiel, an Aramean king of Arpad, deserve special attention.

  1. Zakkur was king of Hamath and Luath in the region of modern-day Hama. Hostilities in this northern part of Syria reached a dramatic point at the beginning of the eighth century. The inscription informs us that Zakkur, a usurper, erected the stele for Ilwer, his god, and to express appreciation for Beelshamen's help in delivering him from his many Aramean enemies. The inscription states that Zakkur lifted his hands to the god Beelshamen, and "Beelshamen spoke to me through seers and messengers, and Beelshamen said to me: Fear not, because it was I who made you king" (Gibson, 1975, pp. 89). If this was so, it is not clear why the stele was erected to Ilwer and not to Beelshamen. The two gods are mentioned a second time together, along with Shamash and Sahar, on the right face of the stele. Ilwer is the Aramaic spelling of the ancient Mesopotamian name Ilmer, a storm god who came to be assimilated into Hadad. Beelshamen (in Phoenician, Baalshamim ), on the other hand, is an epithet, meaning "lord of the heavens," that was used in the ancient Near Eastern inscriptions to name the supreme god of any local pantheon. Prior to Greco-Roman times, however, Hadad and Beelshamen/Baalshamim were worshiped by different ethnic groups: Hadad by the Arameans in the Syrian hinterland, and Baalshamim by the Phoenicians on the Mediterranean coast. In Zakkur's inscription, the association of the Phoenician god of heavens to Ilwer/Hadad could have been intended as a political move in order to gain to Zakkur's side the alliance of some western people.
  2. Treaties concluded by Aramean rulers indirectly point to the active role that the gods played in daily life, since the gods are always invoked to witness the treaties, and their divine curses are called on should there be any violation of the clauses. Matiel, the Aramean king of Beit Gusi (of which Arpad, some nineteen miles north of Aleppo, was the capital), concluded a treaty with Ashurnirari V (r. 754745 bce). To ensure it against possible violations, the Assyrian king summoned the gods to curse Matiel "should he sin against the treaty." Sin and Hadad were called on in a particular manner:

May the great Lord Sin who dwells in Harran, clothe Matiʿilu, his sons, his officials, and the people of his land in leprosy as in a cloak so that they have to roam the open country, and may he have no mercy on them. May Hadad put an end to Matiʿilu, his land and the people of his land through hunger, want, and famine, so that they eat the flesh of their sons and daughters and it taste as good to them as the flesh of spring lambs. May they be deprived of Adad's thunder so that rain be denied to them. Let dust be their food, pitch their ointment, donkey's urine their drink, rushes their clothing, let their sleeping place be in the corners [of walls]. (Reiner, in Pritchard, 1969, p. 533)

Late Aramean Religion

Exposed to Assyro-Babylonian influences and in continuous contact with the Canaanite traditions, the Arameans amalgamated cults and beliefs that were not distinctly their own. The disparateness of the Aramean religion is best observed in the fifth-century-bce texts from Egypt (Memphis, Elephantine, and Aswān), where, beside Jewish and Aramean mercenaries, an Aramaic-speaking populace of deportees, refugees, and merchants settled with their families during the Persian period. This motley community worshiped a host of deities among whom the inscriptions single out the god Nabu and the goddess Banit from Babylon, and the Aramean deities Bethel, Anat-Bethel, and Malkat-Shemen ("queen of heaven"). The god Bethel appears in the names of two other no less popular deities, Eshembethel ("name of Bethel") and Herembethel ("sanctuary of Bethel"; the element herem is related to the Arabic aram, "sacred precinct," the temple thus being deified and made a new hypostasis of Bethel).

In the eclectic society of Egypt under the Persians, when Greeks, Cilicians, Phoenicians, Jews, and Syrians lived together, the religious syncretism cherished by the Asiatics is most manifest in those documents that record oaths sworn by Jews in the name of Egyptian and Aramean gods (in addition to the oaths taken by Yahveh) and in the Aramean personal names that reveal the worship of Bel, Shamash, Nergal, and Atar along with the Egyptian deities. yet nothing is known about the religion of the Arameans living in Egypt. The historian must wait until Greco-Roman times to benefit from the overall picture that Semitic and Greek inscriptions provide for the study of the Syrian religion. In general, religion in the Near East was not subject to the challenge of speculative and critical thought that influenced the daily life in Greece at this time, for the inscriptions do not reflect the impact of new fashions.

Under the Seleucid occupation, in the fourth century bce, the Syro-Phoenician religion seems more coherent, and the cult of the supreme god, whatever its name (Baal, Bel, Hadad, Beelshamen), appears to have been unified, probably after the cult of Zeus was brought in by the new monarchs. From Kafr Yassif, near Ptolemaïs (modern-day Acre), comes a limestone tablet of the second century bce bearing a Greek inscription that reads as follows: "To Hadad and Atargatis, the gods who listen to prayer. Diodotus the son of Neoptolemos, on behalf of himself and Philista, his wife, and the children, has dedicated the altar in fulfillment of a vow." At this time Hadad concealed his identity under different names: at Heliopolis (modern-day Baalbek) he became Jupiter Heliopolitanus; at Dura-Europos, Zeus Kurios. At e-ayyibe, near Palmyra, the title Zeus megistos keraunios, applied to Beelshamen in a Greco-Palmyrene inscription of 134 ce, reveals one of the best-known epithets of Hadad, "the thunderer," a traditional description of the god's mastery over rain and vegetation. This is expressed differently in the Hauran by the title Zeus epikarpios, "the bringer of fruits," to be found on a Greek altar from Bostra.

The acceptance of a god of the heavens led the Syro-Phoenician clergy to couch the belief in this god's supremacy in a new theological notion, that of caelus aeternus ("eternal heavens"). The cosmic deity was supposed to preside over the course of the stars and, accordingly, was represented in the iconography as escorted by two acolytes, the sun and the moon. Palmyra offers a good example of this theological development. In 32 ce, at the same time as a cult was inaugurated at the temple of Bel, who was the national god of that city and the surrounding country, Palmyrene inscriptions present Beelshamen as "lord of the world." The lack of archaeological and epigraphic evidence does not permit a full understanding of these two important cults at Palmyra. It is tempting to stress, however, the importance that liturgical processions like the one held at Babylon on the occasion of the New Year might have had for the unification of the two cults. The presence of the temples of Bel and Beelshamen ought to be taken as a sign that these two cults were the result of the coexistence of two originally independent ethnic groups in the city (Teixidor, 1977, pp. 113114, 136137).

The commercial activity of Palmyra, lying on one of the main routes of the caravan trade, offered a propitious atmosphere for syncretistic cultic forms. At the same time Palmyra's social structures, organized in a tribal manner, imposed patterns on the entire religious life of the city. The importance of the god Yarhibol is illustrative of the role played by his worshipers, who settled in the neighborhood of the spring of Efca about the beginning of the second millennium bce. Yarhibol's authority, exercised by means of oracles, transcended the territory of Efca: the god bore witness for some individuals, attested oaths, and allotted lands to temples and individuals. His civic responsibilities were never diminished throughout the entire history of Palmyra (Teixidor, 1979, pp. 2932). Another tribal group worshiped Aglibol as a moon god, and Malakbel ("angel of Bel") as the sun god. To the Palmyrenes living in Rome, Malakbel was Sol Sanctissimus ("most sacred sun"). At Rome the cult of the sun reached its climax under the Syrian emperor Elagabalus (Heliogabalus). The heliolatry propagated by him succeeded in merging the cult of the emperors with that of Sol Invictus ("invincible sun"), and in 274 ce, under Aurelian, the cult of the sun became a state religion. These religious fashions came into the western Mediterranean from Syria and were transformed by the Roman philosophers; thus the sun became the ever-present image of the intelligible God (Teixidor, 1977, pp. 4851).

Female deities were prominent in the Aramean pantheons, but their role in the religious life is not always clear, for their personal features are often blurred in the iconography. Atargatis was the Aramean goddess par excellence. Nowhere did her cult excel more than at Hierapolis (modern-day Membidj). According to Lucian (De dea Syria 33.4749), statues of Hadad and Atargatis were carried in procession to the sea twice a year. People then came to the holy city from the whole of Syria and Arabia, and even from beyond the Euphrates. In a relief from Dura-Europos, Atargatis and her consort are seated side by side, but Atargatis, flanked by her lions, is larger than Hadad. Hadad's attribute, the bull, is represented in a considerable smaller scale than are the lions. As was the case at Hierapolis, the supremacy of the weather god was overshadowed by the popularity of his female partner. A major representation of the goddess can be seen today at Palmyra on a colossal limestone beam in the temple of Bel. On it Bel is shown in his chariot charging a monster. The combat is witnessed by six deities, one of whom is Atargatis. She is identified by the fish at her feet, an artistic tradition linked to Ascalon, where Atargatis was portrayed as a mermaid (Teixidor, 1979, pp. 73, 74, 76).

During Greco-Roman times the Arab goddess Allat assumed some of the features of other female deities: in Palmyrene iconography she appears both as a Greek Athena and as the Syrian Atargatis. Her sanctuary at Palmyra, excavated in the 1970s, is located in the neighborhood of the temple of Beelshamen, and this fact lends a special character to the city's western quarter, in which Arab tribes settled during the second century bce. A Greek inscription recently found in this area equates Allat with Artemis (Teixidor, 1979, pp. 5362). This multiform presence of Allat underlines the formidable impact of the Arab tribes on the Aramaic-speaking peoples of the Near East. Aramean traditions persisted, however. The region of Edessa (modern-day Urfa), called Osrhoene by the Greeks, was ruled by a dynasty of Arab origin from about 132 bce, but it remained open to cultural influences from Palmyra, Jerusalem, and Adiabene. Notwithstanding the presence of Macedonian colonists and several centuries of commercial activity with the West and the Far East, traditional cults survived. At the beginning of the modern era, Sumatar Harabesi, about twenty-five miles northeast of Harran, became a religious center primarily devoted to the cult of Sin (Drijvers, 1980, pp. 122128).

Presence of the Supernatural

The inspection of the entrails of sacrificial animals for divinatory purposes was much in favor in Mesopotamia, as is emphasized by its omen collections, and this technique of communication with the supernatural forces was certainly spread over Syria and Palestine (Oppenheim, 1977, pp. 213217; cf. 2 Kgs. 16:15). On the other hand, message dreams and oracles must have become an essential feature of Aramean religious life, for in the meager body of Aramaic inscriptions we read about Panamu erecting a statue to Hadad at the god's request and about Zakkur being comforted by Beelshamen through seers and messengers. During Greco-Roman times, occasional texts written in the Aramaic dialects of Palmyra, Hatra (near Mossul), and Sumatar Harabesi (at nearby Urfa, in Turkey) refer too to temples and statues erected by individuals upon the deities' request.


Although the Aramaic texts of all periods mention the names of various deities and occasionally convey the prayers that individuals addressed to them, the epigraphic material rarely supplies any evidence of a belief in an afterlife. Funerary texts do stress the inviolability of the tomb, but this is a universal human concern: the fine epitaph of one of the priests of Nerab in the early seventh century bce is a good example of this concern:

Siʾ-gabbari, priest of Sahar in Nerab. This is his image. Because of my righteousness before him he gave me a good name and prolonged my days. In the day I died my mouth was not bereft of words, and with my eyes I gazed upon the children of the fourth generation: they wept for me and were deeply distraught. They did not lay with me any vessel of silver or bronze: with my shroud they laid me, lest my sarcophagus be plundered in the future. Whoever you are who do wrong and rob me, may Sahar and Nikkal and Nushk cause him to die a miserable death and may his posterity perish! (Teixidor, 1979, pp. 4546)

The royal inscription of Panamu I of Yady that is carved on the statue of Hadad asks the son who should grasp the scepter and sit on Panamu's throne to do sacrifice to Hadad. It says: "May the soul of Panamu eat with thee, and may the soul of Panamu drink with thee." But this text is not characteristic. The Cilician region of which Panamu was king was never a land of Semites, and consequently the Aramaic inscription may express convictions that are not Semitic. Neither the Aramaic texts from Egypt nor the Palmyrene inscriptions disclose their authors' views on death and afterlife. This silence is especially striking at Palmyra, where hundreds of funerary inscriptions give the name of the deceased in a terse, almost stereotyped manner, and the historian is inclined to conclude that the Palmyrenes did not have any concern whatever for the afterlife.

See Also

Adad; Nanna.


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Javier Teixidor (1987)

Revised Bibliography