09 September 2009

Zoroastrianism in the Old Levant


Oxford Conference on Zoroastrianism 5-7 July 2010


The Aram Society for Syro-Mesopotamian Studies announces a new series of conferences on the subject of Zoroastrianism. The first, which will be held in Oxford on 5-7 July 2010, aims to study Zoroastrian religion and culture throughout the Levant. The emphasis will be on exploring how Zoroastrianism interacted with Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Gnosticism and ancient Near Eastern non-biblical religions. Cultural interaction is the keynote.

Who is Aram?

Aram takes its name from "Aramaic" -- the Semitic language which was a focal point of ancient Syro-Mesopotamian cultures from the 8th century BC, when it became the official and commercial lingua franca of the Near East,* until the 7th-10th century AD when it was extensively replaced by Arabic following the spread of Islam. Aramaic was influenced at first by Akkadian, then from the 5th century BC by Persian, and from the 3rd century BC onwards by Greek, as well as by Hebrew, especially in Palestine. In the time of Jesus, it was widely spoken (as well as written) throughout the Semitic area and it was, of course, the language of Zenobia and the main tongue of Palmyra. It still survives today (as Syriac and Mandaic), especially for religious rites, in some scattered places.

Aram is not confined solely to Aramaic studies, however, but deals with all the cultures that were influenced by Aramaic civilisation across the greater Syro-Mesopotamian region and the so-called Fertile Crescent -- a great swath of territory over thousands of years.



In fact, as we learn from their website, the Aram Society is building the foundation for the study of continuity between the Aramaic culture and other Syro-Mesopotamian civilisations. Past conferences showed how closely intertwined they are, and that Aramaic civilisation would not have flourished without this intellectual cross-fertilisation. The many connections between the different cultures demonstrate that the Syro-Mesopotamian man** is born out of a process of uninterrupted cultural continuity since the beginning of history.

Zoroastrianism is just one piece of the puzzle along this cultural continuum.

Zenobia and Zoroastrianism

Zenobia has not neglected Zoroastrianism either.

Some background on the tight links between the Sassanian-Persian Zoroastrian religion and the Kings of Kings (Church and state were born of one womb, joined together never to be sundered) is described in Zoroastrian Stuff.

Then, Zenobia told the story of Tansar, the chief 'teaching priest,' and how he restored the true faith after the depredations of Accursed Alexander and his successors, in Zoroastrian Stuff II:
Do not marvel, Tansar says, "at my zeal and ardour for promoting order in the world, that the foundations of the laws of the Faith may be made firm. It is as if I heard the voices [of the spirits of the virtuous dead] uttering praise, and saw the gladness and radiance of their countenances. When we are united we shall speak of what we have done and be glad.
And, finally, in Zoroastrian Stuff III , Zenobia covered the astonishing 'autobiography' written on a rock relief by the Chief Magus-Priest, Kirdir, who boasted of having established orthodoxy and persecuted heretics: From the beginning I, Kirdir, have laboured hard for the sake of the gods, rulers, and my own soul.

Cultural Interaction in Oxford

Scholars are invited to submit papers for the Aram Society's 2010 conference.

All queries should be addressed to the conference secretary Dr Shafiq Abouzayd
at the Aram Society for Syro-Mesopotamian Studies,
The Oriental Institute, Oxford University, Pusey Lane, Oxford OX1 2LE, England.
Tel. ++1865-514041. Fax ++1865-516824. Email: aram@orinst.ox.ac.uk

Dr Abouzayd has kindly confirmed to me that non-specialists interested in the subject will be welcome to attend. I hope to be there.



* Circa 700 BC, the ambassadors of the Assyrian King Sennacherib and the son of the Judaean King Hezekiah negotiated in Aramaic before the walls of Jerusalem when they didn't want to be understood by the population: "Speak, I pray thee, to thy servants in the [Aramaic] Syrian tongue; for we understand it: and talk not with us in the Jews' language in the ears of the people that are on the wall." (2 Kings 18:26). A few hundred years later, it was the language of the people.

** I trust that Aram includes the female sex under the rubric of 'the Syro-Mesopotamian man'.

My note on Aramaic is based on K. Beyer, The Aramaic Language: its distribution and sub-divisions, Göttingen, 1986.

Illustrations

Above: Farashband Fire Tower (Firuzabad, Iran)

Below: Kirdir pictured behind the investiture scene showing Ardashir I, founder of the dynasty, receiving 'Divine Grace' from Hormizd, the highest god. Kirdir salutes both king and god with his right fist and pointed index finger, a sign of respect and obedience. In front of him is a long text, which tells us who he is and something of what he did.



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