Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Aramaic Spoken Here the Language of Jesus Still Lives in Obscure Syrian Villages. THEIR MASTER'S TONGUE

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Aramaic Spoken Here the Language of Jesus Still Lives in Obscure Syrian Villages. THEIR MASTER'S TONGUE

Article excerpt

'ABU nahti bishmo ishkata sheshma." The words are those that Jesus used, speaking in Aramaic 2,000 years ago, as he taught his apostles to say "Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name." They trip off Abu George's tongue as easily as if this village grocer was speaking his native language.

He is. The town of Maaloula, tucked into a cleft in the mountains 40 miles north of Damascus, is among the last places on earth where people conduct their daily lives in the language of Jesus. Despite the intense pride that Abu George and his neighbors show in their heritage, however, encroachment by the modern world is threatening to silence this ancient tongue.

Aramaic was once spoken all across the Middle East, from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean, explains Bishop Abu Mokh, a leader of the Syrian Greek Catholic church and a native of Maaloula himself. Where the language came from, nobody knows, but "family resemblances between Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic show that they all descend from the same origin," the bishop says. "They are all daughters of an original language that has disappeared."

At the time of Jesus, despite the widespread use of Greek, Aramaic was still spoken by the Jews. During their long exile in Mesopotamia, they had forgotten their Hebrew and allowed the language to lapse into disuse except for liturgical purposes.

According to the bishop, early manuscripts written in Aramaic include some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the book of Daniel, and the Gospel according to St. Matthew. "Matthew was writing for the Jews," says Abu Mokh. "It was logical that he should write in the language that they spoke at the time." (According to many Bible scholars, however, the book of Matthew was written in Greek.)

His original gospel has been lost, but scattered words of Aramaic still survive in the New Testament. Jesus' last words on the cross, for example, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" are preserved in their Aramaic form of "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" (Matthew 27:46).

Maaloula and two neighboring villages are home to fewer than 10,000 people, whose seclusion has kept them on the sidelines of history.

Flat-roofed houses cluster tightly together, spilling in a cascade of lavender and pale blue facades down a cliff face dominated by the Greek Catholic monastery of Mar Sarkis.

At the entrance to a narrow gorge - reputedly struck through the mountain in answer to a prayer by Saint Tekla as she fled her Roman persecutors - the village has always been obscure.

"Maaloula is a very isolated place," says the bishop. "It was never on the big caravan routes, so there was very little contact between its inhabitants and the surrounding civilization. With the Muslim invasion of the seventh century, people in the towns began to speak Arabic, but the isolated villages conserved their language."

Since the villagers were largely illiterate, they preserved Aramaic as a spoken, rather than written, language, and the last manuscripts date from the 18th century, when monks wrote out sacred texts in Aramaic. …

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