Jews and Arabs work separately to preserve Aramaic

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JERUSALEM — What does a remote village in Syria, Sydney, Australia and the Old City of Jerusalem have in common?

The answer: Aramaic, a language, which dominated the ancient world.

Today, groups of Jews, Christians, Arabs and others are trying to preserve the language of our sages and of Jesus.

And they are doing so not only in the Middle East. In Sydney, Christian emigrants from Syria and local academics have joined forces in an effort to preserve the language, which for all intents and purposes is dead.

"There is a real danger that the language will be forgotten, and we shall do everything possible to preserve it," said Archbishop Sewerios Malki Murad, head of the Assyrian Church in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.

By "everything possible" he means even cooperating with the small number of Jews who used to speak the language in their native Kurdistan until they immigrated to Israel several decades ago.

Very few worshipers visit the Assyrian Church in the Old City of Jerusalem, though the Assyrians insist it's the place where Jesus held his Last Supper because of some ancient inscription on the wall, dating to the fifth or sixth century C.E., telling the history of the church — in Aramaic.

However, linguistic experts such as Hezi Mutsafi, 32, an Israeli doctoral student at Tel Aviv University and perhaps one of the most knowledgeable experts on Aramaic in the world, have little hope for the language.

"Prospects are dim, because very few people still speak the language," he says.

The language mostly is used for prayer by the Assyrian Church, which seceded from the main body of Christianity in the fifth century C.E.

A Semitic language like Hebrew and Arabic, Aramaic sounds like a mixture of the two. "Beita," the Aramaic word for house, is similar to "beit" in Arabic and "bayit" in Hebrew. "Kalba" is Aramaic for dog, similar to "kalb" in Arabic and "kelev" in Hebrew.

Mutsafi has spent a few years tracing remnants of Aramaic wherever he can find them. And there are not too many: Some 400,000 Arab Christians — from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Georgia, Turkey and Armenia — dispersed throughout the world, and some 15,000 to 20,000 Jews who came from the Iranian and Iraqi parts of Kurdistan.

Aramaic was born in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) at least 3,500 years ago. It was the language spoken by the patriarch Abraham, and served as a trade language among the various peoples of the ancient Middle East, very much like English does today.

In a phenomenal wave of expansion, Aramaic spread to Israel and Syria and large tracts of Asia and Egypt, replacing many languages, including Akkadian and Hebrew. For about 1,000 years, it served as the official and written language of the Near East, officially beginning with the conquests of the Assyrian Empire, which had adopted Aramaic as its official language.

The earliest known inscriptions in Aramaic date back to the ninth century B.C.E. Parts of the biblical books of Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezra were written in Aramaic, as was the Talmud.

By the time of the later Chaldean and Persian conquests, Aramaic had become the closest thing to an international language. Despite Hellenistic influences that followed the conquests of Alexander the Great, Aramaic remained the vernacular of the conquered peoples in the Holy Land, Syria, Mesopotamia and the adjacent countries. It eventually ceded linguistic supremacy in the region to Arabic in the ninth century C.E.

As a result, the Assyrians boast that this was the spoken language during the times of Jesus.

"Modern" Aramaic is very different from the ancient language. It has a western version and an eastern one.

The western dialect is still used in three villages in Syria, where people use the language not only for prayer but for everyday life. This is the only place in the world where the language is still alive.

The eastern dialect was used in the northeastern corner of Iraq, where it borders Iran, Turkey and Russia; this is the dialect used by Kurdish Jews in Israel.

As is the case with Eastern European Jews and Yiddish, however, very few Kurdish Jews still speak the language. Nissan Aviv of Tel Aviv has organized a theater group in Aramaic, which has followed — successfully — in the footsteps of Israel's Yiddish-language theater groups.

The halls are packed, usually with an elderly audience who once spoke the language at home.

Some 150 years ago, Aviv's grandfather, Yissachar Ben-Hacham Mashiah, wrote an entire book in Aramaic about the customs of Azeri Jews. The worn, handwritten book, protected by Aviv like a vulnerable baby, is falling apart, but Aviv is reluctant to hand it over to a library; the book has become like a part of his family.

In addition, Mordechai Yona of Jerusalem recently completed an Aramaic-Kurdish-Hebrew dictionary.

Still, Jews and Arabs alike fear that the days of Aramaic are numbered. Yona Tzabar, an Israeli who teaches Semitic languages at UCLA, said he did not expect the language to survive more than 30 to 40 years.

"Even when Jewish parents still speak the language, their children no longer do," Tzabar said. "Villages in Kurdistan where the language was spoken were deserted by their inhabitants, who emigrated to the West."

The government of Syria has encouraged the study of Aramaic in the Christian village of Ma'alula to give a boost to the local tourism industry. However, even there, children no longer speak the language.

"This is a world plague," Tzabar said. "Many minority languages die out, particularly those which have no political backing."

So far, Jews and Arabs have not joined forces to preserve the language they used to share; each community works separately in an uphill effort. The most impressive effort is that of the Syrian Christian community in Sydney, which publishes newspapers and books in Aramaic and even operates a radio station in Aramaic.

The scene in Israel is gloomier. Archbishop Murad admitted he was not even aware of the fact that some Jews spoke the language. He said he was interested in closing ranks in defense of the language — but even Murad and his small Jerusalem community switch to Arabic as soon as services at the Assyrian Church in Jerusalem are over.