Syrian conflict targets historic Christian city where Aramaic is still spoken

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 10 2013 7:06 p.m. MDT

In a Wednesday, May 2, 2012 photo Atif Zarka, 64, a volunteer Aramaic teacher's assistant holds a copy of the Gospel of Luke in Aramaic script in the Arab village of Jish, northern Israel. Jish is one of two villages in the Holy Land's tiny Christian community that are teaching Aramaic to their children in an ambitious effort to preserve the language that Jesus spoke, centuries after it all but disappeared from the modern Middle East. (AP Photo/Diaa Hadid)

Associated Press

Over the weekend, news reports indicated Syrian rebels had taken the historic village of Maaloula, forcing many of its Christian residents to flee.

Many reports focused on how the battle over Maaloula and a key road in the region has "thrown a spotlight on the deep-seated fears that many of Syria's religious minorities harbor about the growing role of Islamic extremists on the rebel side in the civil war against President Bashar Assad's regime."

But a few other accounts highlighted the city's historical significance.

"High in the mountains above Damascus lies a town so remote that Syria’s war had passed it by, so untouched by time that its inhabitants still speak the language of Jesus," stated a report in the Washington Post. "The violence ravaging the rest of Syria has finally caught up with Maaloula, renowned as the oldest Christian community in the world — and the last in which the same version of Aramaic that prevailed 2,000 years ago is the native tongue."

The Post reported the few residents who remained city, which is home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria, include a group of Catholic sisters staying in the ancient Mar Takla nunnery.

"The monks had fled from their nearby monastery months ago, and even the last two priests who oversaw the affairs of Maaloula’s ancient Mar Takla nunnery took buses out of town last week, leaving the nuns of Maaloula to fend for themselves as the fighters closed in."

The Associated Press offered a summary of the growth and decline of the Aramaic language through the centuries:

ANCIENT ROOTS: Aramaic is part of the language family that includes Hebrew and was widely used during the time of Roman conquest in the Holy Land and, many scholars believe, likely the main language of Jesus Christ. Some parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls are written in a form of Aramaic, which had many dialects.

DECLINE: Aramaic use began to fall off as other languages — such as Arabic — dominated with the spread of Islam beginning in the 8th century. Aramaic retained a role in the liturgies of some branches of Eastern Christianity.

CURRENT USE: Forms of Aramaic are used in small communities around the Middle East, including Assyrians and Chaldean Christians, but it is considered to be under threat because of emigration and the pressures from dominant languages such as Arabic and Turkish.

Christianity Today compiled a roundup of links reporting on efforts to save the language, including a government-supported program to revive and preserve Aramaic, which began in 2007 so that elders of Maaloula could continue to teach the language to their children.

"Other efforts to revive the ancient Semitic language spoken by Jesus include research by linguists to document and preserve Aramaic, as well as Christians in Israel campaigning for its revival," the website reported.

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @deseretbrown

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