The main part of the population of Syria and Mesopotamia was Aramaean -- that is to say, it consisted of Semites from Arabia who spoke Aramaic dialects. But it was exposed to constant attacks from the north, and from time to time passed under the yoke of a northern conqueror. At one time it was the Hittites who poured down the slopes of Mount Taurus and occupied the fertile plains and cities of northern Syria. At another time a kindred people from the highlands of Armenia established a kingdom in Mesopotamia known as that of Mitanni to its own subjects, as that of Aram-Naharaim to the Hebrews.
The northern invaders sundered the Semites of the West from those of the East. The kings of Mitanni held guard over the fords of the Euphrates, and intrigued in Palestine against the Egyptian Pharaohs. But this did not prevent them from marrying into the Pharaoh's family, while their daughters were sent to the harem of the Egyptian king. Towards the end of the Eighteenth dynasty the sacred blood of the Pharaohs became contaminated by these foreign alliances. For two generations in succession the queen-mother was a Mitannian princess, and a king finally sat upon the Pharaohs' throne who attempted to supplant the religion of which he was the official head by a foreign cult, and thereby brought about the fall of his house and empire.
The power of Mitanni or Aram-Naharaim -- Aram of the Two Rivers -- does not seem to have long survived this event. Chushan-rishathaim, we learn from the Book of Judges, held Palestine in subjection for eight years, until he was driven out by the Kenizzite Othniel, and about the same time Ramses III. of Egypt records his victory over the Mesopotamian king. After this we hear no more of a king of Aram-Naharaim in Canaan or on the frontier of Egypt, and when the name of Mitanni is met with a little later in the Assyrian inscriptions it is that of a small and insignificant state.
The Hittites had grown at the expense of Mitanni, but their glory too was of no long duration. In the days of Ramses II., the Pharaoh of the Oppression, their power was at its height. From their southern capital at Kadesh on the Orontes their armies had gone forth to contend on equal terms with the forces of the Nile, and after twenty-one years of warfare, peace was made between the two combatants, neither side having gained an advantage in the long struggle. The text of the treaty is engraved on the walls of Karnak. There we may read how the two rivals swore henceforth to be friends and allies, how the existing boundaries of their respective territories in Syria were to remain unchanged for ever, and how a general amnesty was to be granted to the political fugitives on either side. It was only the criminal to whom the right of asylum in the dominions of the other was denied.
In the war they had waged with Egypt the Hittite princes of Kadesh had summoned their vassal allies from the distant coasts of Asia Minor. Lycians and Dardanians had come from the far west; and were joined by the troops of Aram-Naharaim from the east. The extension of Hittite supremacy to the shores of the AEgean Sea is testified by the monuments it has left behind. Hittite inscriptions have been found near Smyrna engraved on the rocks, as well as the figures of Hittite warriors guarding the westernmost pass of the ancient road. The summer residences of the Hittite princes were on the eastern bank of the Halys. Here the roads of Asia Minor converged, and here we still see the sculptured bas-reliefs of a Hittite palace and long rows of Hittite deities.
The Hittite empire broke up into a multitude of small principalities. Of these Carchemish, now Jerablus, on the Euphrates, was perhaps the most important. It commanded the ford across the river, and the high-road of commerce from east to west. Its merchants grew rich, and "the mina of Carchemish" became a standard of value in the ancient world. Its capture by Sargon destroyed a rival of Assyrian trade, and opened the road to the Mediterranean to the armies of Assyria.
The decay of the Hittite and Mitannian power meant the revival of the older Aramaean population of the country. The foreigner was expelled or absorbed; Syria and Mesopotamia became more and more Semitic. Aramaean kingdoms arose on all sides, and a feeling of common kinship and interests arose among them at the same time. To the north of the Gulf of Antioch, in the very heart of the Hittite territory, German excavators have lately found the earliest known monuments of Aramaean art. The art, as is natural, is based on that of their Hittite predecessors; even the inscriptions in the alphabet of Phoenicia are cut in relief like the older hieroglyphs of the Hittites. But they prove that the triumph of the Aramaean was complete. The foreigner and his works were swept away; no trace has been discovered of a Hittite text, barely even of a Hittite name. The gods are all Semitic -- Hadad the Sun-god and Shahr the Moon-god, the Baal of Harran, and Rekeb-el, "the Chariot of God."
Hittite inscriptions have been found at Hamath on the Orontes. But they must belong to a period earlier than that of David. The rulers of Hamath who made alliance with David bear Semitic names. The crown-prince came himself to Jerusalem, bringing with him costly vessels of gold and silver and bronze. His name was Hadoram, "Hadad is exalted;" but out of compliment to the Israelitish king, the name of Hadad was changed into that of the God of Israel, and he became known to history as Joram. A common enmity united Hamath and Israel. The war with Ammon had brought David into conflict with Zobah, an Aramaic kingdom which under Hadad-ezer was aiming at the conquest of the whole of Syria. In the reign of Saul, Zobah was divided into a number of separate clans or states; these had been welded together by Hadad-ezer, who had added to his empire the smaller Aramaic principalities of central Syria. Geshur, Maachah, Damascus all acknowledged his authority. He had secured the caravan-road which led across the desert, past the future Palmyra, to the Euphrates, and eastward of that river the Aramaean states sent him help in war. Like the Pharaohs of a former generation, he had erected a monument of his victory on the banks of the great river, marking the farthest limit of his dominions.
Hamath was threatened by the growing power of Hadad-ezer, when a new force entered the field. Joab, the commander of the Israelitish army, was a consummate general, and the veterans he led had been trained to conquer. Ammon was easily crushed, and while its capital was closely invested the Israelitish troops fell upon the Aramaeans in campaign after campaign. Victory followed victory; the forces of Zobah and its allies were annihilated, and the Aramaean states as far as Hamath and even the Euphrates became the tributaries of David. Wealth flowed into the royal treasury at Jerusalem; the cities of northern Syria were plundered of their bronze, and the yearly tribute of the subject states, as well as the proceeds of the desert trade, yielded an unfailing revenue to the conqueror. The attempt of Hadad-ezer to found an Aramaean empire had failed.
But the empire of David was hardly longer lived. The murder of Joab, and the unwarlike character and extravagance of Solomon, brought about its downfall. Damascus revolted under Rezon; and though in the war that ensued Solomon succeeded in keeping the cities of Zobah which kept guard over the caravan road, it never returned to Israelitish rule. When the disruption of the Israelitish kingdom came after Solomon's death, the Aramaeans rallied round the successors of Rezon. Damascus increased in strength, and at times laid northern Israel under tribute. Between the two kingdoms there was indeed constant intercourse, sometimes peaceful, sometimes hostile. Syrian merchants had bazaars in Samaria, where they could buy and sell, undisturbed by tolls and exactions, and Israelitish traders had similar quarters assigned to them by treaty in Damascus. "Damask couches" were already famous, and Ahab sent a contingent of 10,000 men and 2000 chariots to the help of Ben-Hadad II. in his war against Assyria. This Ben-Hadad is called Hadad-idri or Hadad-ezer in the Assyrian texts; Ben-Hadad, in fact, was a god, who was worshipped by the Syrians by the side of his father Hadad.
In the struggle with Assyria the Aramaean forces were led by Hamath. Most of the states of western Asia contributed troops; even the "Arabs" took part in the conflict. But the confederates were overthrown with great slaughter at Karkar on the Orontes in B.C.853, and immediately afterwards we find Ahab at war with his late ally. Hadad-idri lived only a few years longer. In B.C.842 he was murdered by Hazael, who seized the throne. But Hazael, like his predecessor, was soon called upon to face an Assyrian army. Year after year the Assyrians invaded the territories of Damascus, and though they never succeeded in capturing the capital, the country was devastated, and a countless amount of booty carried away. The Syrian kingdom was utterly exhausted, and in no condition to resist the attacks of the Israelitish kings Jehoash and Jeroboam II. Jehoash, we are told, gained three victories over his hereditary enemy, while Jeroboam occupied its cities. When an Assyrian army once more appeared at the gates of Damascus in B.C.797, its king Mariha was glad to purchase peace by rich presents and the offer of homage. Gold and silver, bronze and iron in large quantities were yielded up to the conqueror, and Damascus for a while was the vassal of Nineveh.
But a respite was granted it in which to recover its strength. Civil war sapped the strength of the kingdom of Israel, and Assyria fell into decay. Freed from its enemies, Damascus again amassed wealth through the trade across the desert, and was recognised as the head of the smaller Aramaean states. In conjunction with the Israelitish king Pekah, Rezon II. proposed to overthrow Judah and supplant the Davidic dynasty by a Syrian vassal-prince. The fall of Judah would have meant the fall also of Edom and the submission of the Philistines, as well as that of Moab and Ammon. The strength of its capital made Judah the champion and protector of southern Canaan; with Jerusalem in their hands, the confederate rulers of Damascus and Samaria could do as they chose. Ahaz of Judah turned in his despair to the Assyrians, who had once more appeared on the scene. Tiglath-pileser III. had overthrown the older Assyrian dynasty and put new life into the kingdom. In the interests of the merchants of Nineveh he aimed at incorporating the whole of western Asia and its commerce into his empire, and the appeal of Ahaz gave him an excuse for interfering in the affairs of Palestine. Ahaz became his vassal; Pekah was put to death, and an Assyrian nominee made king in his place, while Rezon was shut up in his capital and closely besieged. For two years the siege continued; then Damascus was taken, its last king slain, and its territory placed under an Assyrian satrap.
Hamath had already fallen. A portion of its population had been transported to the north, and their places filled with settlers from Babylonia. Its king had become an Assyrian vassal, who along with the other subject princes of Asia attended the court held by Tiglath-pileser at Damascus after its capture, there to pay homage to the conqueror and swell his triumph. A few years later, on the accession of Sargon, Hamath made a final effort to recover its freedom. But the effort was ruthlessly crushed, and henceforward the last of the Aramaean kingdoms was made an Assyrian province. When an Aramaean tribe again played a part in history it was in the far south, among the rocky cliffs of Petra and the desert fortress of the Nabathean merchants.
In the Book of Genesis, Mesopotamia, the country between the Euphrates and Tigris, is called not only Aram-Naharaim, "Aram of the Two Rivers," but also Padan-Aram, "the acre of Aram." Padan, as we learn from the Assyrian inscriptions, originally signified as much land as a yoke of oxen could plough; then it came to denote the "cultivated land" or "acre" itself. The word still survives in modern Arabic. In the Egypt of to-day land is measured by feddans, the feddan (or paddmi) being the equivalent of our acre. Paddan was used in the same sense in the Babylonia of the age of Abraham. Numerous contracts have been found for the lease or sale of estates in which the "acreage" or number of paddani is carefully stated. The application of the name to the plain of Mesopotamia was doubtless clue to the Babylonians. An early Babylonian king claims rule over the "land of Padan," and elsewhere we are told that it lay in front of the country of the Arman or Aramaeans.
It was in western Padan that the kingdom of Mitanni was established. Its founders, as we have seen, came from the north. From the river Halys in Asia Minor to Lake Urumiyeh, east of Armenia, there was a multitude of tribes, most of whom seem to have belonged to the same race and to have spoken dialects of the same language. The Hittites of Cappadocia and the ranges of the Taurus have already been described. East of them came the Meshech and Tubal of the Bible as well as the kingdom of Comagene, of which we often hear in the Assyrian texts. But of all these northern populations the most important -- at all events in the later Old Testament age -- were the inhabitants of a country called Biainas, but to which its neighbours gave the name of Ararat. Ararat corresponded to southern Armenia, Biainas being the modern Van, and the Mount Ararat of modern geography lying considerably to the north of it. In the ninth century before our era a powerful dynasty arose at Van, which extended its conquests far and wide, and at one time threatened to destroy even the Assyrian empire. It signalised its accession to power by borrowing the cuneiform writing of Nineveh, and numerous inscriptions exist recording the names and victories of its sovereigns, the buildings they erected, and the gods they served. The language of the inscriptions is strange and peculiar; it seems to be distantly related to modern Georgian, and may be akin to the dialects of the Hittites or of Mitanni.
If we may trust the representations of the Assyrian artists, the people of Ararat did not all belong to the same race. Two ethnic types have been handed down to us -- one with beardless faces, resembling that of the Hittites, the other of a people with high fore-heads, curved and pointed noses, thin lips, and well-formed chin. Both, however, wear the same dress. On the head is a crested helmet like that of the Greeks, on the feet the Hittite boot with upturned end; the body is clad in a tunic which reaches to the knee, and a small round target is used in battle.
For many centuries the Semites and the people of the north contended for the possession of the Syrian plains. Horde after horde descended from the northern mountains, capturing the Aramaean cities and setting up kingdoms in their midst. At one time it seemed as if the Semites of the east and west were to be permanently sundered from one another. The decay of Babylonia and Egypt enabled the Mitannians and Hittites to establish themselves in Mesopotamia and Syria, and to gain possession of the fords of the Euphrates and the great lines of trade. But the northerner was not suited by nature for the hot and enervating climate of the south. His force diminished, his numbers lessened, and the subjugated Semite increased in strength. Mitanni perished like the Hittite empire, and with the rise of the second Assyrian empire the intruding nations of the north found themselves compelled to struggle for bare existence. Ararat had become the leader among them, and in the latter days of the older Assyrian dynasty had wrested territory from the Assyrians themselves, and had imposed its dominion from the borders of Cappadocia to the shores of Lake Urumiyeh. But on a sudden all was changed. Tiglath-pileser swept the land of Ararat to the very gates of its capital, destroying and plundering as he went, and a war began between north and south which ended in the triumph of Assyria. Ararat indeed remained, though reduced to its original dimensions in the neighbourhood of Lake Van; but its allies in Comagene and Cappadocia, in Cilicia and among the Hittites, were subjugated and dispersed. The tribes of Meshech and Tubal retreated to the coasts of the Black Sea, and Ararat and its sister-kingdom of Minni were too exhausted to withstand the invasion of a new race from new quarters of the world. The Aryan Kimmerians from Russia poured through them, settling on their way in Minni; while other Aryans from Phrygia made themselves masters of Ararat, which henceforth took the name of Armenia. The Aramaean was avenged: the invaders who in days before the Exodus had already robbed him of his lands were themselves pursued to their northern retreats. The south proved to them a land of decay and destruction; Gog and his host were given, "on the mountains of Israel," to the vulture and the beast of prey.