Apr 032010

While millions will commemorate the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ this Easter Sunday, only a handful of people could discuss his works in the language he spoke: Aramaic.

Nearly all of them live in three Syrian villages, the last outposts in a region largely swept by the Arabic of Islam.

Modern branches of the language are still spoken across southeast Turkey, northern Iraq and northwest Iran. However, the dialect spoken by the inhabitants of Malula, a village about 35 miles northwest of Damascus, as well as by the residents of two nearby, mostly Muslim villages, is the only survivor of Western Aramaic, the closest modern descendant of the language of Jesus and his disciples.

It would, in all probability, also have been spoken by the Christian martyr St. Thecla, a disciple of St. Paul whose tomb in Malula draws pilgrims from around the world.

“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.”

In a bid to preserve its ancient heritage, Syria launched a series of language courses in 2007 to bolster the fading influence of a 3,000-year-old language that once reigned supreme in the Middle East.

So it was that an Aramaic institute joined the cluster of buildings that cling to a rocky spine in Malula. The program ran into trouble recently, however, when a Syrian newspaper suggested that the alphabet being used to teach written Aramaic bore an uncanny resemblance to the Hebrew characters used in modern-day Israel.

Worried that a flagship heritage scheme might in any way be associated with the country’s archenemy, the government-run University of Damascus, which established the institute, quickly froze the Aramaic program.

“There were some people in the press trying to cause trouble,” said George Rezkallah, an elderly villager from Malula who runs the institute. He’s hopeful that classes will be able to resume this summer.

Speaking from his flat overlooking the village’s higgledy-piggledy hillside houses, Rezkallah said that while the two alphabets have similarities, Aramaic first began using square lettering around the 12th century BC. The Hebrew now used in Israel, he said, was formulated 700 years later, after the restoration of the ancient kingdom of the Jews in the 5th century BC.

“The Persians adopted Aramaic. The Babylonians adopted it, and so did the Jews. It then prevailed as the language of the Middle East until 700 AD,” he said.

David Taylor, the author of “The Hidden Pearl: Aramaic Heritage of the Syrian Orthodox Church,” said the Jewish people adopted the Aramaic alphabet, which became the lingua franca of the entire Middle East from about 700 BC, after they were exiled to Babylon in 587 BC, before which they’d used a paleo-Hebrew script.

The fact that it’s survived in Malula today is nothing short of a “miracle,” said Gene Gragg, a professor of Near Eastern Languages at the University of Chicago.

“It would be something of a linguistic tragedy if this splendid survivor were allowed to disappear,” he added.

It also would be a travesty for Syria, said Dr. Taylor.

“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 worldwide,” he said. “It mirrors the cultural, linguistic and religious diversity that has always been of such great importance in Syria and is key to its long-term success.”

Undeterred by the move to shut down his Aramaic institute, Rezkallah plans to introduce a new course this summer that, for the first time, will include a textbook using Aramaic-to-English translations, opening the institute to non-Arabic speaking students for the first time.

Rezkallah said the dispute over the similarities to Hebrew is still “being discussed,” but the institute has trained nine more teachers this year in anticipation of the program’s extension. The new textbook, however, will use Syriac script from the second century BC instead of square Aramaic lettering.

For Atallah Shaib, a young man who works in his father’s restaurant overlooking the rickety houses of Malula, the fight to preserve his language 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.”

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