Are the Israeli Christians part of the ancient Aramean people rather than Arabs?
Dr. Mordechai Kedar is a senior lecturer in the Department of Arabic at…
One of the last things Israel’s Interior Minister Gideon Saar did before resigning from the Knesset was to recognize the Israeli Christians as members of the Aramean nation. The decision caused a media uproar, especially in the Arab sector, with most critics saying that there is no Aramaic nation and that the real reason for this step was an attempt to cause a split in the Arab population of Israel so as to “divide and conquer” and gain control of the Arab sector.
This calls for an investigation and an investigation into the veracity of an Aramean nation’s existence must be conducted on two planes: the historic-lingual-religious one and the civilian one.
The Historic-Lingual-Religious Sphere:
Middle Eastern history talks about an Aramean nation from the second half of the second millennium B.C.E., a Semitic people living in the Fertile Crescent of the western and northern Levant in an area that today includes the Land of Israel, northwest Jordan, Lebanon, north and west Syria, northern Iraq and lands along the Euphrates River. In the Bible and later Jewish sources there is mention of Aramean kingdoms, with geographic references: Aram Naharayim, Padan Aram, Aram Tzova, Aram Damascus and more.
The Aramaic language became the lingua franca in these areas, also spoken by other nations such as the Hebrews – even some of the books of the Tanach are written in that language.
During the first century B.C. E., the Assyrian people came onto the world stage, but their physical conquest of the area did not affect a change in language, and Aramaic continued to be the language prevalent in the Fertile Crescent for hundred of years. For example, the Babylonian Talmud that was formulated over the first five hundred years C.E., is replete with Aramaic, as is Jewish writing of the Gaonic period beginning in the ninth century. Jews, a defined religious and ethnic group, continued to use Aramaic as a language for study and prayer and still do.
Under Assyrian rule, there were clearly defined Aramean groups that preserved their lingual and religious heritage and tradition, a central fact in explaining the connection between Aramean people and Assyrians up to the present.
Greeks and Romans, who ruled the area from the fourth century B.C. E. until the fourth century C.E., did not bring about the disappearance of those Aramaic-speaking communities that embraced Christianity as a result of the Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox) takeover as the fourth century C.E. came to a close.
It is important to mention that Arabic originated in the Arabic peninsula, the southern part of the Middle East, whereas the historic languages of the Fertile Crescent are Aramaic, Assyrian, Persian and Hebrew.
The Muslim Arab tribes conquered the area in the seventh century, causing most of the population to convert to Islam and melt into Arab-Islamic culture. The Muslim religion and Arabic language became the norm in the region, replacing the original identity of those groups that Islamised into the Arab-Muslim groups, and thereby lost their unique characteristics.
In contrast, groups that remained loyal to their Christian religious tradition continued to be loyal to the Aramaic language that remained the liturgical language in their churches and was preserved in the written alphabet of their religious writings.
The Syriac-Aramean people are Eastern Orthodox Christians, but over the years they split into several denominations: the Marronite-Syriac, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Assyrian Catholic and the Assyrian Orthodox of Antioch.
The different denominations are the result of geographic distances and alliances with one of the three patriarchates that developed with time – Rome, Constantinople and Antioch. This variety is an indication of the long term presence of the Aramean peoples in the Fertile Crescent.
A unique language and religion preserved these groups – each one on its own – from being absorbed into the Muslim majority, mainly due to the prohibition of marrying out of their religion, similar to that of Druze, Allawites and Jews. That is how Aramaic communities, defined by ethnic, lingual and religious practice were preserved in the Fertile Crescent, as guarding over their culture led to their survival.
That is also why there is no reason not to recognize the existence of these Aramean groups, which have unique linguistic and religious definition as well as their own folklore.
In 1942 Dr. Edmond Mayer wrote a paper on the Lebanese and Assyrian Marronites in which he clearly stated that they were descendants of Syriac-Aramean peoples who lived in the area during the seventh century Muslim conquest. In 2005 Al Azhar University published a research project by Dr. Ahmad Makhmad Ali al Jamal in which he speaks of the Syriac-Aramean people as an existing fact in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
Neighboring countries have Christian communities where the spoken language, and not only the liturgic one, is Aramaic. In Syria, there are Maalula, Bakhia, Hassake, Qamishli. In Turkey, Tur-Abdin, Mardin. In northern Iraq, Qaraqoush, Alqosh, Irbil (the Kurdish capital), Ankawa. There is evidence that until the late 10th century, the towns of Basri, Zarta, and their environs in the high Lebanese mountain area spoke Aramaic.
In an article broadcast on the Russia Today channel in 2008 about the Aramaic community of Maalula, a school for studying Aramaic was seen, and the writing on the blackboard was Assyrian square script, identical to the script introduced to the Jews by Ezra the Scribe in the early days of the Second Temple that replaced the ancient Canaanite script they had used until then.
Spoken Arabic in the Christian communities of the Levant differs from that of the Muslim, Druze and Alawite communities and emphasizes the cultural segregation of the Christian communities wishing to preserve their cultural autonomy as they managed to do throughout the period of Arab-Islamic rule in the region. These cultural attributes have given rise to the name “Syriac-Aramaic” or Syriac for short. The most famous of the Syriac groups are the Maronites, most of whom live in Lebanon. Some of their prayer texts are in Aramaic.
The Civil Sphere in the Fertile Crescent
Syriac-Aramaic communities are to be found today in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel. What they have in common is the combination of the Christian religion and the Aramaic language, the latter used mostly for prayer, and the recognition as an official, definitive group.
The modern states of Iraq and Syria, founded about 70 years ago, tried valiantly to create a sense of united nationhood, Arab-Iraqi in Iraq, Arab-Syrian in Syria. This national consciousness was expected to erase tribal loyalties, ethnic, religious and sectorial loyalties and planting in their stead a modern sense of brotherhood that would result in civic tranquility and regime stability. For this reason, modern ideologies such as nationalism, patriotism, Arab and Baath socialism were copied from European ideologies that filled the intellectual vacuum of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Syrian attempt to erase particularistic identities and turn all the country’s citizens into Arab Syrians who believe in the Baath with all their heart, is described clearly in my doctoral thesis on Syrian media, titled “The Public Poitical Language of the Assad Regime in Syria”, 1998.
For the past three and a half years, from the beginning of the “Arab Tempest” (what was once naively called the “Arab Spring”), the ability to rule as an established modern state in Iraq and Syria declined, and it became obvious to all that the imported European ideologies were not really absorbed by the masses who stayed by and large loyal to their traditional frameworks, the tribe, the ethnic group, the religion and the sector.
Most Muslims define themselves in words that are more and more religious and ethnic, and as a result the Christian minorities have turned into strangers and heretics rather than fellow citizens. Persecution and damage to churches, property and lives have made many of them immigrate to other countries, mainly Europe.
In an attempt to stem the Christian exodus from Iraq, in 2014 the Iraqi Parliament passed a law that gives the Syriac-Aramaic language official status, parallel to that of Arabic, Kurdish, Turkmanic and Armenian. This is important for our thesis as the Iraqi government does not need to find reasons that will distance the various groups in the country from one another, it would rather stress unifying factors in an attempt to create a unified Iraqi national consciousness. With this in mind, the decision to recognize the Syriac-Aramaic language bears witness to the existence of a viable Aramean group.
The terrible conditions under which they live and the persecutions they endure have caused many of the Christian communities of the Middle East to emigrate to the West, where they continue to preserve their culture and language. Aramaic is their language for prayer and spirituality wherever they are on the globe: Sweden, Cyprus, France, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Romania, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, America, Canada, Australia, Western Europe, South Africa and any place with a Syriac-Aramaic community and church, whether Maronite, Orthodox or Catholic, that hails from the Middle East and especially from Syria and Lebanon.
The Situation in Israel
In Israel, there is no unified definitive community of Arabic-speaking Christians and the state sees them as Arabs for the most part, part of the Arab sector. However, as the years passed, the state recognized two groups: the Cherkassians and the Druze. The Cherkassians, who are Muslim, were defined because of their language, ethnic origin and cultural heritage which originated in the Caucasian mountains. The Druze are recognized because of their religion, social norms and marriage customs that serve to isolate them from the Muslims that live in their neighborhoods. A similar situation exists within the Aramean community, where the tendency is to marry only Aramean people,
The Aramean people do not have a unique religion, but are Christians like all other Christians. They are not a specific Christian subgroup or sect either because some are Catholic and others Orthodox. All that is left is their self-defining ethno-lingual characteristic as the communal basis for their collective existence, based on their history and not on the civilian reality in the Fertile Crescent.
They share many similarities with the Jews:
? They are a minority with deep roots in the history and geography of the region
? They are different from the demographic majority of the region in which they live
? They have their own language for liturgical purposes
? They are persecuted for being “different”
? They have the ambition to be recognized as a definitive group
That is why it would be the right thing to do if Israel would recognize the Syriac-Aramean groups as an ethnic group like the Druze and Cherkassians and allow those Christians who belong to Eastern denominations to be recorded in the population registry as Arameans of the Christian religion, if they so wish and if they have the defining characteristics of the Aramean sector:
? Membership in one of the Eastern churches: the Syriac-Maronite (Aramaic), the Greek Orthodox, the Greek-Catholic, the Syriac-Catholic of Antioch, as opposed to the Coptic. Armenian, Ethiopian and Provoslavic churches.
? Identification as “Aramean”, as opposed to other nationalist identities in the area, such as Arab, Palestinian, Cherkassian, Armenian and Druze.