“Holy Moly!” you may think. “Is 2famous.TV turning into some sort of a missionary project where their secret agenda of promoting Jesus Christ as the sole savior of the humankind really shining through!?!”
For those of you who got slightly excited about this: I can tell you right away that you’re on the wrong blog! (Though I do appreciate that you’ve been with us through un-Christian phases of pant pooping, pubic hair burning, butthole jokes, and our general genital obsession.)
But, really, what would Jesus have said about what’s going on in Syria today? We know he’d be kicking back with his mates on the streets of the Middle East (much like 2famousTV crew today) and chatting up girls in Aramaic, an ancient language that has almost ceased to exist. Only three small villages in the mountains of Syria managed to keep this linguistic tradition alive. Since we couldn’t ask him personally, we decided to hypothesize from the info we got when we went to chill in one of those villages before all hell broke loose.
The Majestic Mountains of SyriaThe mountains north of Damascus are dry and yellow in the summer, but during the winter they are cold and covered in snow. Up in these mountains hides a little ancient village, Maaloula. Now, thanks to the high quality roads and modern transportation, it only takes an hour to get there from the capital.
Maaloula is one of the three places where they still speak Western Aramaic. It was once the most common language in this part of the world, and the mother tongue of Jesus Christ, the son of God(!). Jubadin and Bakha are the other two villages where they also speak this language, and found in the same ‘hood.
Aramaic sort of sounds like a combination of Arabic and Hebrew with a touch of Flemish – a nice mash-up of the three most difficult languages in the world. That might be one of the reasons why only 15,000 people know how to speak this language today. Another reason might be that most of the literature written in this ancient language has been destroyed for centuries.
The truth is that the oldest scriptures in Aramaic, which is actually a modified version of Phoenician, dates back to 850 B.C., and makes the foundation for both Hebrew and Arabic. The language came from Northern Syria and spread eastbound to Mesopotamia and Babylon where it replaced The Acadian and Sumerian languages at the administrative level.
During the Babylonian empire that stretched from Iran to the Mediterranean coast, Aramaic replaced many of the local languages. The Jews abandoned Hebrew for Aramaic as many as 500 years before Christ, and the Arabs started using it in scripture around the 7th century. It was when Islam expanded that the need for a modern Arabic scripture was first born.
According to George, there are a lot of traces of Aramaic in the dialects of Arabic that they speak in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan today.
“We feel a strong attachment to our local history here in Maaloula, and we share a common soul in these mountains”, our new friend George explained when we tried to figure out why this ancient language has survived in this little village, though what we really wanted to hear was some dirty jokes in the language of Jesus.
It’s usually dead quiet in the streets during daytime, and when night comes the rugged mountain tops blend into the black sky. Hundreds of crosses lit by LED lights decorate every rooftop and complement the star-speckled sky beautifully..
From Empire to Empire
Throughout history Syria has been under the domain of several empires, something that has had a vast influence of the development of the language spoken in this country. Before the Aramaic time, Syria was part of Canaan, and later Phoenicia and Babylon.
“Then the Romans and the Greeks took over, followed by the Arabs and the Turks”, George told us.
Even if our history books claim that the Greeks and Romans never forced their language on the people they occupied, the core of the language’s culture was destroyed at this time as Aramaic was replaced with Greek at the administrative level. This happened during the Byzantine Empire and carved way for Arabic later.
“The paradox is that it was the Christians, not the Muslims, who started the process of destroying the language of Jesus”, George pointed out.
The Church most likely had quite a bit of influence as Christian literature was mostly written in Greek or Latin, though the spoken language never changed much during the time of Byzantine rule. It wasn’t until the year 640, when Syria fell under the first of three Islamic Empires, that the language came under serious threat; With the new religion came the language of God, and Arabic became the only language allowed in the educational institutions.
“Everybody used to speak Aramaic back in the days,” George’s mother told us,“but even here the language is deteriorating fast.” In Maaloula only the old people use it as their first language. The kids only know a few phrases and songs. “There are no jobs for the young people here”, George complained, so most of the younger generation travels to Damascus, or even abroad, for work. “And the young men tend to marry women from outside of the village. Who will teach our children this language if their mother can’t speak it?” he continued.
A few years ago some German academics established a language center in this village so that they could study and re-generate this ancient language, but it was shut down by the government after less than a year. It simply looked too much like Hebrew, the language of the Enemy.
The Last Hope
If Jesus comes back for Doomsday we’ll have to find him a Muslim interpreter.
In Jubadin and Bakha, the other two villages where they still speak Aramaic the situation is slightly different. While the majority of the people living in Maaloula are Christian, the other two villages are primarily Muslim. In these places they are not exposed to tourism (pilgrimage) the same way that they are in Maaloula, and their inhabitants rarely leave the villages. It’s exactly this isolation that has made it possible for them to preserve their language when it was forgotten in the rest of the world more than a thousand years ago.
Sadly enough it seems like Maaloula has seen their last generation of those mastering this tongue twister of a language. This means that if Jesus comes back for Doomsday we’ll have to find him a Muslim interpreter.
But that is not the main problem we are facing today. We’re going to leave it to your imagination as to what Jesus would have said about the situation in Syria these days.
As of right now the refugees settled in Lebanon need your help badly. (See Matias and Adrian’s story from when they went to visit them last week.) So if you’d like to do a good deed for this holiday season, please donate whatever you have of warm clothes and gas heaters for them to be able to make it through this winter. Nasawiya, an organization with a space in Mar Mikhael or Nabaa, makes deliveries in the Bekaa with some of the essential things every week. Contact them if you would like to donate some clothes, etc. (Their website is down at the moment, but contact us if you’d like to get in touch with them.)
If you live outside of Lebanon: monetary donations are also welcome. NRC, Norwegian Refugee Aid, accepts monetary donations on their website.
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