March/April 2000

HIS SPOKEN WORD: Preserving the LORD's language

By Sandro Contenta, Middle East Bureau, The Toronto Star, February 1, 2000

MAALOULA, Syria – If Jesus Christ comes back any time soon, he won't have a problem being understood in this little town.

Maaloula is one of three Syrian communities where the language Jesus used to spread the Gospel 2,000 years ago is still spoken. If he were to ask residents in Aramaic how they're doing (ehkh chohb), or recite the Our Father (Oh-Bokh), he would be welcomed as one of their own.

"I feel closer to Jesus when I speak Aramaic," says Takla Fadel, 65, adding she has made sure her nine children and 15 grandchildren understand the language.

But Fadel's family is an exception. Aramaic is slowly being pushed aside by Arabic as the language of daily use, and residents fear it's only a matter of time before it vanishes.

"I'm afraid that the language will disappear sooner or later, unless the people get help from the government to preserve it," said George Rizkallah, 62, a retired teacher of English and Arabic.

The language, which has never been written down, has been kept alive in Maaloula through an oral tradition – passed on from parents to children. But this chain is being broken.

Over the past three decades, as roads and highways connected the town to the capital Damascus, some 50 kilometres southeast, the isolation that helped preserve the language has disappeared.

Maaloula is a largely Christian town, clinging in layers to a jagged escarpment of the Qalamoun Mountains. The faith of its residents is partly expressed by huge crosses painted on the cliffs.

At the escarpment's summit is the stone Church of St. Sergius, built between 313 and 325 A.D. Its gift shop sells cassette recordings of a liturgy in Aramaic.

Many residents have left their fields to work or study in the capital, and Aramaic has slowly given way to Arabic, Syria's official language that is taught in its schools.

The pull of the big city can be seen in the town's population swings: In the winter, 2,000 people live in its white and pale blue homes. In the summer, the population rises to 6,000 as those who work and live in Damascus return to vacation in their Maaloula homes.

Rizkallah taught in a Damascus school for 25 years, and even his passion for Aramaic wasn't enough to turn his Damascus-raised children into fluent speakers.

"They understand nearly everything, but they cannot speak as I do," he said.

Aramaic is a Semetic language related to Hebrew. It is traced to the Aramaens, a desert people who settled in Syria in the second millennium B.C. By the 7th century B.C. in the Middle East, Aramaic had become the dominant language.

The Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires used Aramaic. Portions of the Bible were written in Aramaic, as were large parts of the Talmud, the authoritative body of Jewish law and traditions.

Jesus and his disciples preached in Aramaic, and their dialect, known as Western Aramaic, survives in Maaloula.

The language slowly yielded to Arabic with the rise of Islam in the 7th century A.D. Today, its dialects are spoken in small communities in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.

The language may be dying, but some scholars believe its influence will remain.

"It was the main instrument for the formulation of religious ideas in the Near East, which then spread in all directions all over the world," writes Aramaic and Arabic scholar, Franz Rosenthal.

"The monotheistic groups continue to live on today with a religious heritage, much of which found first expression in Aramaic," he adds.

The language has made Maaloula – meaning "entrance" in Aramaic – a tourist attraction for Christian pilgrims and classical linguists.

A group of U.S. and Israeli scholars is trying to compile the first comprehensive Aramaic dictionary, which will bring together its dialects.

The only permanent record Maaloula has so far is a cassette of some 40 Aramaic songs and proverbs taped by Rizkallah. He hopes it could be used for a class he and others would like to see set up in town. But for now, the tapes are just being sold to tourists by merchants who have made copies.

Mother Superior Belajia Sayaf, of the St. Takla Greek Orthodox Convent, has asked for money to hire Aramaic teachers for weekend classes. But the government, strapped for cash, has told Sayaf that she'll have to find funds elsewhere.

"We have to find a way to preserve the language. It's a link to Jesus himself," she says.

But she isn't losing hope. Maaloula, she says, is a place of miracles.

The convent is built near the burial site of St. Takla, who died in 85 A.D.

When St. Takla was 18, she was converted to Christianity by St. Paul, a move that enraged her pagan father and her many suitors.

She fled but when she reached Maaloula, her escape was blocked by steep cliffs. She prayed for help, and legend has it that the mountain split into the existing gorge, allowing her to pass.

The residents have faith, but they hope it will take something less dramatic to save the language of the Lord.

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