In remote Syrian village, Aramaic is on verge of extinction

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Apr 7 16:43:24 UTC 2003

>>From the Philadelphia Enquirer, Posted on Sun, Apr. 06, 2003

  In remote Syrian village, language of Christ is on verge of extinction

  By Liz Sly  Knight Ridder News Service

  MAALULA, Syria - In this quaint stone village perched high in the
mountains above Damascus, the language of Jesus Christ has miraculously
endured through the millennia.  Aramaic, which was dominant in the region
when Jesus was alive, died out elsewhere many centuries ago. But in remote
Maalula, time and geography have conspired to keep it alive, and today
this village is the last place on Earth in which the language spoken by
Jesus is still the native tongue.

  Perhaps not for much longer, residents fear. The modern world is
encroaching at a rapid pace, and no longer can Maalula be considered
remote. A paved highway whisks commuters to Damascus in 45 minutes.
Satellite dishes beam programs from around the world - none of them in
Aramaic - into living rooms.  Job opportunities are scarce, and the
younger generation is moving away, to the cities and overseas, taking with
them what may turn out to be the last memories of this ancient language.

  Within a few decades at most, Maalulans believe, Aramaic will have
passed into history.  "In 10 or 20 years, it will be dead. The children
don't speak it anymore, and all the young people are moving to Damascus,"
said Maria Hadi, 30, who grew up speaking Aramaic but moved to the city to
attend high school and has forgotten the language of her childhood.  That
Aramaic, which was introduced from the Persian Gulf region in the ninth
century B.C., has survived at all is remarkable.  Countless foreign
invaders, including Greeks, Romans, Turks and Arabs, have swept across the
region, each seeking to impose their language and culture.

  Historians attribute the survival of Aramaic in this farming community,
clinging to steep mountains 5,000 feet above sea level, to the village's
isolation and harsh climate. Blanketed by snow in winter, residents were
usually cut off from the outside world for half of every year, leaving
them to chatter away in the language passed down by their ancestors.  The
advances of the modern world are proving more powerful, however.  State
schools teach in Arabic, the language spoken throughout Syria, and even
the villages' ancient churches conduct services in Arabic. No written
version of Aramaic survives, not even the Bible, despite the fact that
portions of it were originally written in Aramaic.

  Half a century ago, 15,000 people lived in Maalula, and Aramaic was the
only language spoken in the village. Today, there are just 6,000
residents, and though more than 80 percent still speak Aramaic, barely
2,000 can speak it fluently, according to George Rizkallah, 65, a retired
teacher.  "Maybe it will survive another 50 years, but after that it will
die, unless we do something," said Rizkallah, who has made it his life's
mission to save the language.

  Last year, he started a summer school to teach local children during
vacations. He is composing Aramaic songs in the hope that music will
breathe life into the language. He has researched and revived the Aramaic
alphabet and is working to translate the Bible. So far, he has completed
two gospels.  Although Rizkallah, like most Maalulans, is Christian, he
does not regard his mission as a religious one. A quarter of the village's
population is Muslim, and they too speak Aramaic.

  "This is a pre-Christian dialect that is part of our culture and our
past," he said. "Even the Muslims were Christians before they were
Muslims, and before that, we all were pagans."  Maalula is not the only
place in which this form of Aramaic has survived. An estimated 5,000
people scattered in remote communities in Turkey, Iraq and Iran speak
versions of the language. But those dialects would not be understood in
Maalula today, or at the time of Jesus, who was born barely 200 miles
away.  In Maalula, Rizkallah said, Jesus would easily be able to converse
with the locals.

  "When Jesus said to Lazarus, rise up and walk, he used the same words we
would use today, and the words he spoke on the cross, those were the same
as our words," he said.  The isolation that helped preserve Aramaic in
Maalula is also proving its biggest curse, however. The language has
failed to evolve or adapt, and its limited vocabulary bears little
relevance to those living in the modern world.  "There are lots of words
for things like goat, tree and vineyard, but outside the village, it is
not so useful," Rizkallah said.

  Rizkallah is not optimistic his efforts will succeed.  "I feel a great
responsibility to teach the new generation," he said with a sigh. "But it
is a big and difficult task, and I am alone in this work."

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