Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Some People Still Speak Aramaic

Land tongue-tied to God
Nicolas Rothwell, in Ma'alula, Syria

"ELI, Eli, lama sabachthani," cried out Jesus on the cross, in Aramaic, a language that would have served him fairly well on the winding streets of Ma'alula today.

For this little Syrian town, tucked inside a sharp ravine of the Kalamoun range, just half an hour's drive beyond Damascus, is home to 2000 speakers of the New Testament's vernacular language.

You can still hear locals in the coffee houses and food stores greeting each other in its distinctive, thickly consonantal words: "Och Chob," they say, smiling: "How are you?"

And in the famous monastery here dedicated to St Tecla, first of the female Christian martyrs, services are still routinely held in Aramaic, under the benign eye of Mother Superior Pelagie, a committed fighter for the survival of the language.

"It's a beautiful way to communicate," she says, enthusiastically, demonstrating the harmonies of Aramaic with a few practical sentences.

"In fact, it's the mother of languages. Other languages all originated out of Aramaic. And we feel closer to Christ because we use the same words that he would have spoken. There's a lot of pride about that here."

Aramaic, which linguists classify as close to Hebrew, is a Semitic language. A version of it was used by the Jewish characters in Mel Gibson's recent, elaborately researched and controversial film The Passion of the Christ.

Perhaps 15,000 native speakers with some mastery of Aramaic can be found today in remote reaches of Syria, Iraq and southeastern Turkey, but Ma'alula is by far the largest and the healthiest of those language communities.

Aramaic was able to survive here because of the town's extreme isolation. Before new roads were laid, access to Ma'alula's old houses, many of them carved into the rock of the range-cliffs like loggias in a vast amphitheatre, was by ladder only. For centuries no one in this corner of Syria spoke any Arabic. That changed 60 years ago when two young Ma'alulans were dispatched to Damascus to learn the mysteries of the state language.

Today, unsurprisingly, Arabic, as the language of television and commerce, is on the way to becoming dominant, so much so that Mother Superior Pelagie decided, two years ago, to set up a special school to help keep Aramaic alive. The school is now open, and teaches both written and spoken Aramaic to children and adults.

Mother Superior Pelagie also takes heart from the support of a potent ally: Syria's young President, Bashar Al-Assad, whose portrait hangs among the devotional images of the saints on the wall of her receiving room.

"When President Bashar heard that Aramaic was being taught, he was very encouraging," she says.

"He sent the regional governor to visit us, and he even came to attend a graduation ceremony."

This demonstrative backing from the leader of a briskly secular Arab regime suggests something of the complexity of Syria's political map, and also the place of the Christian minority in the country. But Mother Superior Pelagie believes Aramaic is destined to endure as the natural language of the biblical landscape surrounding her monastery - a landscape of gaunt plains and towering precipices, in which the tombs and refuges of early saints and hermits can still be seen.

"When you speak Aramaic, you feel that it's a very old and deep language, full of emotion, and profound," she says.

"We're very close to the roots of the Christian world here, and the roots of language also. Time has been flowing past this monastery for almost 2000 years."

Indeed, the eventful course of early Christianity even gave the little town its name.

St Tecla, a noblewoman from Anatolia who became one of the first followers of StPaul the Apostle, was fleeing persecution when she reached the austere Kalamoun range: she found her path blocked by sheer rock walls.

But her prayers were answered, and the range was split in two, so creating a gap, or "gate", through which she passed to safety: then, as now, "Ma'alula", in Aramaic.

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