Learning to write Imperial Aramaic & Judeo-Aramaic on this page

In this lesson you'll learn to recognize major historical versions of the Aramaic square script. You'll even get a chance to read some Aramaic straight from ancient manuscripts! By now, you already know the basics of the square script, including how to indicate vowels and read & write simple words.

The Aramaic "square script", named for the shape of its letters, has a long history. It stands among the world's longest continuously used writing systems.

Although it's now thoroughly associated with Judaism and the Hebrew language (the script itself is sometimes called "the Hebrew script" or "the Hebrew square script"), it initially developed as a way of writing the Aramaic language, and descended from an earlier Aramaic alphabet. The square script reached a standard form when Aramaic became the dominant language of the ancient Persian Empire. It's gone through a number of phases in the 2500 years since then.

  1. The Imperial (Achaemenid) Script
  2. The Palestinian (Herodian) Script
  3. Later Jewish Aramaic Script

The Imperial Aramaic Script

The script used to write Aramaic during the height of the Persian Empire is highly regular owing to the fact that the script was standardized in ancient times. Pay close attention as I write the letters of the alphabet in the video above. Some letters are quite different from their modern form.

The imperial version of the square script doesn't have the unique "final forms" of letters, nor any vowel pointers. However, alap, het, yud & waw are already used as matres lectionis for long vowels.

Practice Exercise 1

Take a look at the Aramaic manuscript pictured below. Since the top line has faded, just look at lines 2-6. Can you find the following names, words & phrases in the document?

  1. malkā - king (three times!)
  2. u ḥadā u shārīr - both happy and healthy
  3. npaq u 'azal `al malkā - (he) left and went to (the) king
  4. yahū - Yahu
  5. widranga - Vidranga (twice!)
  6. yedanya - Jedaniah
  7. daryawahush - Darius (twice!)
  8. yedanya - Jedaniah
  9. 'Arshāma - Arsames
  10. b-yeb bīrtā - in (the) fortress (of) Jeb / in Jeb Fortress (twice!)

Elephantine Temple papyrus - recto
Elephantine Temple Papyrus or "Petition to Bagoas" - top of the front side (1)

The Palestinian Aramaic Script

As Aramaic writing continued to develop, it began to acquire its characteristic square shape. I write the Herodian version of the script in the video above, which is known from around the time of Jesus. Related versions are found in manuscripts and on stone.

Practice Exercise 2

A mosaic in an ancient synagogue spells out a simple blessing. Where in the text is Yose bar Tanhum bar Buta named?


Mosaic on floor of synagogue at Cana
Mosaic from the floor of an ancient synagogue in Cana, Galilee (2)

Practice Exercise 3

The controversial inscription below comes from an ossuary (ancient bone box). The script matches ancient Palestinian Aramaic square writing, but some think it's a clever forgery. Try to identify the following names & words, then carefully piece the translation together.

  1. bar - son
  2. yōsep
  3. d - of
  4. yeshū`a
  5. 'aḥūy - brother
  6. ya`aqob

James Ossuary inscription
Ossuary inscription (3)

Later Jewish Aramaic Script

From the late ancient era to the present, the Aramaic square script developed alongside the script borrowed to write other Jewish languages. It shares a common heritage with the modern Hebrew script, especially since many essential texts of Judaism were written in and continue to be read in Aramaic. From a modern perspective, the square script has become a single script with a number of variations or "fonts". That single script is used to write multiple Jewish languages, including Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish and Ladino.

Due to this shared history, subsequent variations in the Hebrew script also matter to the Judeo-Aramaic script.

Examples

1. Click to view a medieval manuscript of the Jerusalem Talmud.

2. Click to see a manuscript of the Babylonian Talmud.

3. Click to see a Jewish Aramaic כתובה ketubah (marriage contract).

4. Below you can see the square alphabet in modern Hebrew cursive script. Remember to read from the top right (alef, bet, etc.):

The Hebrew cursive alphabet.

Image sources & references

1. Price, The Monuments and the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Judson, 1925), 396.

2. From a Travelpod blog about Cana of Galilee - Kafr Kanna, Israel.

3. Wikimedia commons image found in Wikipedia's James Ossuary article.