RELIGION

Death of a holy language

ROBIN WRIGHT December 27 1982
RELIGION

Death of a holy language

ROBIN WRIGHT December 27 1982

Death of a holy language

RELIGION

At eight every Sunday morning, Rev. Michel Zaroura says mass in a fourth-century church perched on a craggy mountain in Ma’alula, Syria. The tiny church, called Mar Sarkis, is famous throughout the Christian world for two reasons: it boasts the oldest altar in continuous use—a 1,700-year-old slab of marble, originally used as a pagan sacrificial table—and it is one of the few places in the world where services are conducted in Aramaic, which many scholars believe was the mother tongue of Jesus Christ. And it is from his office in the convent that Father Zaroura is waging a battle to preserve that ancient language.

Dating back to the seventh century BC, Aramaic, which is related to Hebrew and Arabic, was one of the official languages of the Persian Empire and—for a time—replaced Hebrew as the language of the Jews. Indeed, parts of the Book of Daniel were written in Aramaic, and the Lord’s Prayer was probably first spoken in Aramaic. Today, 175,000 Christians and 25,000 Jews in 100 scattered villages from Syria to Israel and Iraq speak Neo-Aramaic, a descendent of the original language. Says Yona Sabar, a professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages at the University of California in Los Angeles and a native speaker: “In all the Aramaic villages, the language is dying out. This is the last generation of Aramaic-speaking peoples.”

The erosion is occurring as a result of the migration of Aramaic-speaking peoples to larger cities and to Europe and the United States. Indeed, Father Zaroura’s biggest enemy is the bus, the

symbol of progress and 20th-century economics that is overrunning the isolated villages of Ma’alula, Bakha and Jubadin. It is this cheap form of public transportation that carries villagers into higher-paying jobs in the Arabicspeaking heartland of Syria.

As well, the major languages of the Middle East—especially Arabic—are overtaking Aramaic as the language of commerce, and the inhabitants are becoming more and more assimilated. Schools in Ma’alula, for example, teach only in Arabic. As a result, the lilting tones of Aramaic can only be heard in homes and in church services of the non-Orthodox Greek Catholics. Father Zaroura rushes around in a black frock and the pillbox hat that signify his sect, eager to show visitors the archeological and religious treasures of his language and culture, as if the rich remnants are proof of the importance and urgency of his campaign. He is often limited to communicating by tape recorder, having organized cassettes in 15 languages, from Czech to Romany—the language of the gypsies—to “talk” to visitors.

Father Zaroura adamantly refuses to accept the fact that the dialect of Jesus Christ may soon become obsolete, pointing out that some 4,000 people still speak Aramaic in the three villages alone, a figure he writes and rewrites on his palm for emphasis. But the busy bus traffic in the village square indicates otherwise. And, despite Father Zaroura’s zeal, it seems doubtful the poverty of the Aramaic villages can be defeated by small contributions from infrequent visitors and postcard sales.

ROBIN WRIGHT in Beirut.