Speaking the language of Jesus

maalula1.JPGby Alastair Beach
 Teaching Aramaic was discontinued recently in Maloula, but new efforts are being exerted to revive the program
In a dimly-lit grotto carved out of a cliff face in the foothills of Syria’s Anti-Lebanon Mountain range, scores of pilgrims pay their respects at one of the holiest Christian shrines in the world.
Surrounded by framed religious icons and beneath a low-slung rock ceiling festooned with flickering lanterns, a steady procession of awe-struck worshippers stoop down, made the sign of the cross and then reached through a tiny gap in the stone to try and touch the tomb of St Thecla, one of Christianity’s earliest martyrs.

Her burial place lies in Maloula, a small village which clings like a crab claw to a spine of sand-coloured rock about 55km north-west of the Syrian capital. It is famous for being one of the last places in the world where the inhabitants still speak Aramaic, the language used during the time of Jesus Christ.

“It’s quite extraordinary,” said Annyck Wustyn, a 63-year-old visitor from France. “In our country, where we are mostly Catholic, Aramaic is like a myth. Now I know it is a reality.”

The only way to try and learn the ancient dialect in Maloula itself is at the Aramaic institute that was established in 2007, when the Syrian government decided to launch a series of language courses in a bid to preserve the country’s unique heritage.

The programme has been frozen since last year when an article in Syria-news.com suggested that the alphabet being used to teach written Aramaic bore an uncanny resemblance to the Hebrew characters found in modern-day Israel. But plans are afoot to try and breathe new life into the project this summer.

According to George Rezkallah, a villager from Maloula who now runs the institute, the rejuvenated programme will include a textbook using Aramaic to English translations—effectively opening-up the institute to non-Arabic speaking students for the first time since its foundation.

“Lots of people who live in Maloula don’t know how to read or write Aramaic. It is only now because of the institute that people are beginning to read and write the language. If this could not happen then of course we would lose many original words.”

According to David Taylor, author of “The Hidden Pearl: Aramaic Heritage of the Syrian Orthodox Church,” any threat to the continued survival of the language in Syria should not be taken lightly.

“Aramaic is a constant reminder of the international importance of Syria in the ancient world, when it was a beacon of learning and culture that had a profound impact world-wide,” he said.

The point is put more forcefully by Eleanor Coghill from the North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic Project at Cambridge University.

“We are losing languages in the world at an alarming rate. Aramaic has a very special history. It would be a great shame if it were to die out.”

Maloula is not the only Middle Eastern village which has steadfastly clung to Aramaic over the past three millennia. Modern branches of the language are still spoken across south-east Turkey, northern Iraq and north-west Iran.

But the dialect spoken by its 5,000 inhabitants—as well as the residents of two nearby, mostly Muslim villages—is the only survivor of Western Aramaic, the closest modern descendant to the language spoken by Jesus Christ and his disciples. It would, in all probability, have been spoken by St Thecla herself, the martyr whose tomb now draws so many visitors to the area.

Thecla, a disciple of St Paul, earned a legacy in Christian scriptures after rejecting the advances of a nobleman and fleeing to Maloula in a bid to evade soldiers sent to execute her. According to writings from the 2nd century AD in the New Testament Apocrypha—a collection of works acknowledged by the church but not considered canonical by most mainstream enominations—she managed to escape after a bolt of lightning cleaved open the cliff face she was trapped against.

The new course book being designed by George Rezkallah at the institute will use Syriac script in lieu of square Aramaic lettering—according to Rezkallah the dispute over the Hebrew similarities is still “being discussed”—but the institute has trained an extra nine teachers this year in preparation for an extension of the programme and there are plans to set up a transport link to ferry students between the University of Damascus and Maloula.

For the likes of Atallah Shaib, a 24-year-old working in his father’s restaurant overlooking the rickety, sloping houses of Maloula, the fight to secure his language’s future is as important as ever.

“Aramaic is not a normal language,” said Shaib, his rolled-up sleeves revealing a series of inky blue Aramaic tattoos on his forearms. “It’s Jesus Christ’s language, and that’s the most important reason why we should keep it alive.”