Easter Sunday: A Syrian Bid to Resurrect Aramaic, the Language of Jesus Christ

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Malula,
Syria

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 of his day: Aramaic.

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

And so it was
that an Aramaic institute joined the cluster of buildings that cling
to a rocky spine in the village of Malula, about 35 miles northwest
of Damascus. But the program ran into trouble recently, when a Syrian
newspaper suggested that the alphabet being used to teach written
Aramaic bore an uncanny resemblance to the Hebrew characters found
in modern-day Israel.

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

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

The origins
of Aramaic

Speaking from
his flat overlooking the village’s higgledy-piggledy hillside
houses, Mr. Rezkallah says that while the two alphabets do have
similarities, it is Aramaic which 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.”

David Taylor,
author of The Hidden Pearl: Aramaic Heritage of the Syrian Orthodox
Church, adds that the Jewish people adopted the square Aramaic
alphabet – which had become the lingua franca of the entire
Middle East from about 700 BC – after they were exiled to Babylon
in 587 BC, before which they had used a Palaeo-Hebrew script.

The fact that
it has survived in Malula today is nothing short of a “miracle,”
says Gene Gragg, 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 would also
be a travesty for Syria, says Dr. Taylor.

Read
the rest of the article

April
14, 2010

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