Assyrian Education Network

The Battle to Save Aramaic

Posted: Monday, October 30, 2000 at 03:47 PM CT

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To the ancient language of Jesus Christ and the Bible, Aramaic. While the language is still spoken in several villages in the Middle East, little effort is being made to preserve or even study it. Scholars say millions of pages of Aramaic script remain untranslated, and without funds or international help, they could soon be lost.


For 2,000 years, Aramaic - the language of Jesus Christ - has survived in the village of Maloula.

Maloula is hidden at the head of this valley in these ancient mountains. The caves and crevices have spared the people of the village from death and conquest by the Greeks, the Romans and the Arabs. This fortified position has also locked them away from any outside influence.

But now it faces its biggest threat, the forces of modernisation, and within a few generations, the language of Christ could die out in Maloula.

DR DAVID TAYLOR, BIRMINGHAM UNIVERSITY: Almost every language in the world is written with a descendant of Aramaic script, so whether it`s Greek, Russian, English, Hebrew or Arabic, or even some of the Indian and South-East Asian languages, they`re all written with things descended from Aramaic.

DR ERICA HUNTER, CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY: Aramaic at the time of Christ was the lingua franca in the Middle East, rather like Latin was right up until the Middle Ages.

REPORTER: Or as English is today?

DR ERICA HUNTER: Exactly. It was the international commecial, diplomatic language until the coming of Islam.

Sunday mass in Maloula in what is thought to be the oldest church in Syria. St Sarkis was built on top of an old pagan temple in the 4th century, and of course, the service is in Aramaic.

FATHER TOUFIC, PARISH PRIEST, ST SARKIS: I saw many people, when they visit this church and we pray together - an example, the Lord`s Prayer in Aramaic - some of them cry. They feel these moments with Jesus, Jesus spoke in this language, so we can have a connection with Jesus.

Much of the Bible was written in Aramaic, and it was the language that spread Christainty all over the Middle East.

FATHER TOUFIC: It`s a sentimental language. This is a language that has to do with life. It`s not a conceptual language, as other languages - it`s the language life.

But the oral tradition passed down from parent to child is in danger of being broken - many of the village young are leaving, never to return.

Rami and Ritta are visitng their great-aunt, who is believed to be the oldest person in the town. Najeba thinks she`s about 95. She doesn`t really know. This has been the family home for 300 years.

NAJEBA, VILLAGE ELDER: It`s still the same village as it was before. Our future is entirely in God`s hands. Whatever God wants.

But in their lifetimes, Rami and Ritta will see this village undergo its greatest change. For a start, most of their friends have left for higher education and jobs in the cities. In Maloula, there is little opportunity.

While Rami and Ritta are both at university in Syria`s capital, Damascus, they are determined to return and keep the language and traditions of Maloula alive.

RAMI: I`d like to tell my friends to come back, to improve the condition of the town. To apply what they`ve learnt here in their town, not somewhere else.

RITTA: Our customs will remain, because they are old customs and we still conform to them right up to today. We hold onto everything we learn from our grandparents.

As the young are leaving, large numbers of tourists from all over the world are arriving.

TOURIST: I heard about the language of Jesus before, so I`d thought I`d come and see what it was like.

SECOND TOURIST: It is a holy place, and I love it.

REPORTER: Why do you love it?

TOURIST: Because it is a holy place.

Many come on a pilgrimage to drink the holy water of Saint Taklar. St Taklar is recognised as the first woman missionary in Christianity. She fled to this cave, escaping the Romans who, according to legend, wanted to feed her to the lions for her belief in Jesus. From here, she converted the villagers to Christianity.

This exposure to tourists is breaking down Maloula`s isolation and changing its unique culture.

VILLAGER: Now in this village, too many buildings. Everybody, they come from...somebody they work in Dubai or Emirates or something - they bring some money and they make building. Too many buildings you can see around this village.

TOURIST: I think more and more tourists are going to come and stay here. My mother, when she came here five years ago, there was absolutely nobody, and now I see many tourists.

Unlike the tourists, some come to stay. Syrian Muslims have already taken over two nearby Aramaic villages, and now they have their sights set on Maloula - this time not in religious conquest, but to enjoy the cooler climate and accommodating lifestyle.

IMAM`S BROTHER: We`re not separate parties to be reunited. We share with our Christian brothers in their festivals and they share with us in ours too. You can`t tell if a group is Christian or Muslim.

This means Aramaic is being replaced by Arabic as the language of Maloula. In just three decades, the Syrian Muslims have come to make up 30% of the population, and according to the brother of the local Muslim preacher - or Imam - that figure is set to increase.

IMAM`S BROTHER: Our parents marry us off at an early age, when we`re 20-25. We like children, we like having many children. We consider them the joy of life.

If Aramaic dies out in Maloula, then the world will lose one of its last strongholds of the language. There are tiny pockets left in Iraq and Turkey, but the extinction of Aramaic appears almost inevitable.

The last significant population to speak Aramaic or its largest surviving dialect, Syriac, were the Assyrians. As a race, they were obliterated early this century, in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, by the Turks, because of their nationalist aspirations. It`s a genocide that`s been forgotten by the world.

PROFESSOR ABDUL MASSIH SAADI, CHICAGO UNIVERSITY: The well-documented place was the place in Asia Minor, in what`s called now southern Turkey. There was around 1 million Christian, Assyrian, Syriac people over there - 1 million, just at the eve of World War I. One-third of their people were massacred. DR ERICA HUNTER: It was truly a horrendous massacre, and the Turks do not have a happy reputation of what they do with their Christian communities, even today.

Father Toufic, the parish priest at St Sarkis, feels the battle to save Aramaic is now at crisis point. What`s worse, he says, is that in Maloula, no effort is being made to preserve or study the language that is a direct link with the past.

FATHER TOUFIC: We have to do something We have to do something, yes. Otherwise, we risk to lose this language - yes, of course.

REPORTER: And what does that mean, if we lose the language?

FATHER TOUFIC: It means this language, this is part of the cultural history of humanity. Not only in Syria, but it`s very important. So we lose something which connects us to Jesus.

But Aramaic and its largest surviving dialect, Syriac, could find its salvation in of all places, Sydney University in Australia.

Here at the third Symposium of Aramaic and Syriac, the world`s scholars have come together to work out ways of saving the language. Through co-ordinated research into the many dialects of Aramaic, they are trying to compile a definitive set of dictionaries. They are also using the most modern technology to preserve this ancient language.

DR GEORGE KIRAZ, SYRIAC INSTITUTE OF NEW JERSEY: With the presence of Syriac now on the web, that makes even things more attractive. Everybody now is accessing Syriac, and hopefully in the future, we will do web-based courses on Syriac. That will make them more attractive than having to track down a professor in some university to teach Syriac, because again, Syriac studies is a very small field. So once we make that accessible on the web, hopefully it will give a better chance for the language to survive in the future.

And the race is on to translate as many as Aramaic texts as possible. The scripts carry some of humanity`s greatest stories, but getting the funding to study them is the problem.

PROF. ABDUL MASSIH SAADI: We have a quarter-million pages of Syriac documents that are uncatalogued, unpublicised, unstudied - quarter million. I`m not talking about everything in hand of individual or the hand of monasteries and others. So actually, we are talking about the whole product of civilisation, of history. And obviously, it is really hard to do significant step based on individual effort. It needs more institutions to support this kind of study.

In the texts lie the potential answers to early history and a greater understanding of our own civilisation. Many Aramaic specialists believe they could make us reassess our whole understanding of Christianity.

DR DAVID TAYLOR: We think we know what Christianity is, and when we think we know what it is, we usually think of a model based on your Protestants, Catholics, sometimes the Orthodox.

But when my ancestors in England were still wandering around naked and small kingdoms fighting against each other, the Syrian Aramaic-speaking Christians had already established monasteries in Peking by the end of the 6th century, 7th century. They had missions in Tibet by second century; large parts of south India already had Aramaic-speaking Christians there.

So you can no longer view Christianity as just a European form when you start seeing these texts. It just changes your whole view of it.

Just as the Dead Sea Scrolls, a third of which are written in Aramaic, have challenged the understanding of the Bible, the unpublished Aramaic scripts, thousands of times the volume of the Dead Sea scrolls, could prove even more controversial.

DR DAVID TAYLOR: In the early Aramaic Syriac Christian texts, the Holy Spirit is female, is feminine. This makes quite a difference to how you see God. If you have a Christian perspective, with God the Father and God the Son, suddenly there`s a female element in there, and that can change things as well.

FFor the experts and the world, it`s crucial that the few remaining places like Maloula survive. These Aramaic-speaking villages give us a window to the past and an opportunity to examine the stories that dominate human civilisation today.

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