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Schoolgirls study Aramaic in northern Israel in 2012. Photo by Diaa Hadid/AP Photo/CP Images

The end of Aramaic

Descended from the tongue spoken by Jesus, an ancient language faces extinction as ISIS advances in Iraq and Syria

By Tali Folkins

On a spring afternoon outside Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago, Christians believe, Jesus uttered his last words as he lay dying the agonizing death Romans reserved for criminals of the lowest classes. These words, translated from the rural ancient dialect he spoke, have since etched themselves into the cultural memory of the West. 

Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” he said, according to the Book of Matthew. Or, in the English of the King James Bible, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Now, as the war in Syria drags on and the Islamic State’s occupation of much of northern Iraq marks the end of its first year, worries are mounting about another slow death: that of modern-day Aramaic, a tongue that’s the closest living relative to the language of Jesus.

Although Jesus was a Jew, the language he spoke wasn’t Hebrew. By the time of Christ, Hebrew was spoken only by Jewish priests and perhaps nobles, says Amir Harrak, a professor of Semitic languages at the University of Toronto. As the spoken language of ancient Israel, Hebrew had almost entirely given way to Aramaic. A relative of both Hebrew and Arabic, Aramaic had become the common language of much of the ancient Middle East by around 500 BC; its origins go back at least another 500 years.

Dialects of Aramaic developed even within as small a region as ancient Israel. Thus, according to the Book of Matthew, when Peter, in Jerusalem, denies he is a follower of Jesus, his accusers counter that his coarse-sounding Galilean style of speaking gives him away: “Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech bewrayeth thee.”

Though Arabic replaced it as the region’s language of trade, Aramaic has survived into modern times. It has been the mother tongue of many of Iraq’s Christians and Jews and has also been spoken in corners of Syria, Turkey and Iran. Most of Iraq’s Jews left for Israel after it was founded in 1948, and the country’s Christians began increasingly to emigrate during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. But a significant Aramaic-speaking Christian minority remained in Iraq, with its heartland in the plain of Nineveh. 

That Aramaic is still spoken today — probably by somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 people — sometimes surprises his students, Harrak says with a laugh. “I’m not exaggerating: you have important towns, essentially Christian, and people have spoken that dialect since the first millennium BC.”

At least, until recently. Sectarian strife that broke out after the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq spurred another wave of emigration, and the arrival of the Islamic State in the country’s north seems likely to mean the end of Iraq’s Aramaic-speaking community. Confronted with threats to convert to Islam, an estimated 200,000 Iraqi Christians living in the plain of Nineveh fled eastward to Kurdish-held territory after the Islamic State swept into the area last summer. From there, they have been moving on to more distant places in the Middle East and around the world, including Canada. 

To Harrak, whose own background is Iraqi Christian, this diaspora does not bode well for their language.

“It’s the end of Aramaic, basically,” he says. The descendants of these refugees, he believes, will eventually assimilate to the language and culture of their host countries. “We know that the Germans in the U.S., the descendants of Germans are very much attached to the language, the culture, but by the third generation they are Americans. That’s the danger. And it will happen here. There’s no question about it.”

UNESCO already recognizes Aramaic as a language at risk. Its atlas of the world’s endangered languages groups modern Aramaic into four main families of dialects, all of which fall into concern-eliciting categories ranging from “definitely endangered” to “extinct.”

Geoffrey Khan, a Cambridge linguist, shares UNESCO’s concern. War, ethnic cleansing and other factors have already scattered many of the populations of Aramaic speakers in Turkey, Iran and Syria, says Khan, who has, in his own words, been “running around the world” over the last 20 years recording the language’s remaining vestiges.

“The crucial point is it’s spoken in so many dialects, and so definitely some of those dialects will be lost — some of them already have been lost,” Khan says. Several dozen still exist, he adds, but the outlook for them is very worrying.

“I have actually worked with people I believe to be [their dialect’s] final speakers,” he says. “Some of the dialects I have seen go extinct over the last decade.”

The language’s wondrous antiquity makes its looming demise all the sadder, Khan says. Some modern Aramaic words — many of those dealing with agriculture, for example — originated with the farming civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia.

“My feeling with Aramaic is it’s just a wonderful language, and what’s so tragic about the situation at the moment is that . . . having survived for 2,000 to 3,000 years, these dialects are now being threatened, either through migrations which have taken place over the last few decades or now, immediately, because of political upheaval,” he says. “It’s just a tragic loss to humanity.”

The language of Jesus resounds in Scarborough, Ont., on a Sunday afternoon just after mass, as the congregation of St. Barsaumo Syriac Orthodox Church filters into a little church hall for coffee and pastries. Most of the parishioners come from an Arabic-speaking background, but seated at one table is a small knot of native Aramaic speakers, all of whom left Syria’s northeast for Canada in the 1970s and ’80s. Questions about the fate of their mother tongue seem to stir up a mixture of hope and resignation.

Peter Iskandar says his brothers and sisters speak Aramaic now more than ever after moving to Europe, where there are some particularly high concentrations of Aramaic speakers.

“Aramaic is growing big time in Europe,” adds Issa Chamoun. “Our community in Europe is very, very active.” The Aramaic-speaking community in Lebanon is also thriving, he says.

The challenges of keeping the language alive in Canada, however, seem more acute. In Scarborough, the children of Aramaic parents are surrounded by English both outside the home and inside, through English media. 

“Right now, my kids are speaking the language fluently, but I’m not sure if they will be able to transmit it to their children,” says Hanna Yacoub, father of two school-aged children. 

For Harrak, the possible disappearance of the Aramaic language is only part of a greater calamity: the disappearance of Aramaic culture as a whole.

The Aramaic-speaking Christian tradition now threatened by war in Iraq and Syria, he says, has a unique place in the history of Christianity. This is partly because of its closeness to the religion’s origins — linguistically, geographically and chronologically. (Christianity has been in Iraq since at least the second century AD, and in Syria for even longer.)

Moreover, he says, the Aramaic language and culture already existed for a thousand years before Christ and was the cultural soil out of which Iraqi Christianity grew.

To illustrate this point, Harrak points out a photograph in his office, one of many he took when, more than a decade ago, he travelled to Iraq to photograph inscriptions written in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. 

The photo shows a device that appears above the door of the Mar Behnam Monastery in northern Iraq, a Syriac Catholic monastery dating to the fourth century AD: two intertwined snakes, spitting their venom into a pair of chalices. To anyone outside the Syriac tradition, such a symbol may seem enigmatic — even sinister, given the role of the serpent in Christian tradition.

In fact, Harrak says, the device borrows from a pre-Christian Middle Eastern concept, that snake venom can be used as medicine. It represents the idea that the blood of Christ, which the chalice contains, is also essentially healing medicine.

As northern European Christianity absorbed pagan traditions like mistletoe and possibly the Christmas tree, so Iraqi Christianity took and adapted pre-Christian Aramaic traditions, giving the faith its own distinct character.

Islamic State fighters seized Mar Behnam Monastery last summer, and its monks were expelled. In March, the militants released images that appear to show the site being blasted by explosives. No one outside the area knows the extent of the damage. 

“You know, we talk about genocide,” Harrak says. “But linguists, they have another term — ‘linguicide.’ So we have genocide, linguicide and also culturcide. Because three millennia of culture is going.”

Tali Folkins is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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