Aramaic Documents (353-324 BC)

Among the treasures of the Khalili Collections a special place is occupied by the collection of 48 Aramaic documents from Ancient Bactria. The group are for the main part are letters and accounts connected with the court of the satrap of Bactria, Akhvamazda, and with his governor, Bagavant. What makes them unique is the fact that this is the first time that parts of the internal correspondence of the administration of Bactria and Sogdiana have come to light.

The documents are written in Official Aramaic, a term that describes both the language and the script. They may be placed in or near Balkh, the capital city of Bactria in antiquity, and span a period of less than thirty years, from 353 to 324 BC. This was, however, a period of great turmoil with far reaching consequences for the history of the East, particularly of Central Asia. During this period, which begins with the reign of Artaxerxes III, the Achaemenian Empire came to an end when the kingdom was captured by Alexander the Great. One document is dated to year 7 of his reign.

Another point that makes this group special is the material they are written on. Most other documents that have come down to us from the same period are written on papyrus, stone or clay. However, 30 of the Khalili documents are written on leather, and there is only one other known group on leather, namely the Arshama documents now kept at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. As for the remaining 18, these are tallies inscribed on wooden sticks and this is first time that this system of bookkeeping has been discovered anywhere.

The Documents
The Achaemenian empire, which was established by Cyrus the Great in 559 BC, employed a small number of languages for book-keeping and correspondence; chief among them was Aramaic. It also made use of a very effective postal system, with stations where a change of horses was possible, thus facilitating movement and shortening the time that would otherwise be necessary for transmitting news and giving instructions over large distances. The provincial rulers, or satraps, saw to it that the royal decrees be followed in all the corners of this wide-extending kingdom.

The documents afford a glimpse into the manner by which Achaemenian rulers wielded power and how they saw to it that their orders were carried out. They also show how rulers could be flexible in certain circumstances and achieved a balance between their demand for adherence to their orders and their willingness to accommodate the needs of their subordinates. The documents allude also to the famous Persian rebel, Bessus, who killed the last Persian emperor, Darius III, and claimed the throne for himself, but was killed by the Alexander’s generals.

It is part of the special attraction of these documents that they manage to convey a great historical narrative although they essentially deal with small mundane affairs, such as the delivery of food rations to officials, the construction of fortifications to guard a city from attacks, and the need of soldiers to get leave from their military duty in order to fight locusts that threatened their crops. The place of animals in the economy of the province is quite well represented. The documents mention animals used as meat and beasts of burdens, among them in particular chickens, horses and camels.

The Tallies
The 18 tallies testify to a form of bookkeeping which was quite widespread in antiquity, but of which not many examples have survived. The tallies are short wooden sticks cut in two so as to form two half-sticks with a flat (interior) surface and a convex (outer) surface, from which the bark of the tree is usually cleaned. The inscriptions, normally written on the flat surface, are uniform in style. The standard formula is: ‘With X from Y. In the year 3 of King Darius’. Seventeen are dated to the reign of Darius III (336-330 BC); one is undated. There are no further verbal indications as to the nature of the goods involved and the quantities are not mentioned in writing but appear to be indicated by a series of notches in the long edges of the tallies.

As to how these tallies were used to keep accounts, the supplier and the receiver each kept one of the two matching halves of the stick which had been cut in two. The notches were made, one may take it, on both halves held together, so that each of the parties to this transaction held a record that was identical to the one held by the other. In case of dispute the two halves could be matched and any discrepancy would be evident.

Studied over a period of more than 10 years by the late Professor Joseph Naveh and Professor Shaul Shaked, a catalogue of the entire group, Aramaic Documents from Ancient Bactria (Fourth Century BCE), was published by the Khalili Family Trust in 2012. The information gleaned from these documents will be of great interest to historians of the Achaemenian period, to scholars of Iranian Studies and Aramaic, and in general to people interested in learning how a large empire of antiquity was run and how the Persian rule was ultimately replaced by a Greek administration.

Curatorial Staff

Dror Elkvity
Curator and Chief Co-ordinator


  • All
  • Aramaic Documents


Close To Read Less

© 2021 Khalili Collections. All rights reserved. | Design by Nocturnal Cloud