Aramaic Revival in the Holy Land

Jun 3, 2014 by

Efforts are being made worldwide to stop the tide of language endangerment and extinction. One group that has recently made efforts to return to its linguistic roots is Christian Arabs of the Middle East. A campaign is now underway to revive the Aramaic language by teaching it at elementary schools. Aramaic is a Semitic language, closely related to Hebrew and Phoenician, and more distantly to Arabic. The earliest inscriptions in the language have been dated to the 10th century BCE, and by 9th century BCE its use is well-attested. For millennia, Aramaic has served variously as a language of administration of empires, as a means of divine worship, and as an everyday form of speech. In antiquity, it was the lingua franca of various Middle Eastern groups. In the Second Temple period (516 BCE to 70 CE), it served as the day-to-day language of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah; in the first centuries of the Common Era, Christians spoke it too. It is thought that Jesus Christ spoke Aramaic (hence, its use in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ). It was also an important liturgical and literary language for the Jews: large sections of the biblical books of Daniel and Ezra and most of the Talmud are written in Aramaic. Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer, is composed largely in Aramaic as well, as are some Passover songs (e.g. Chad Gadya); parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in Aramaic too. It should be noted, however, that the long history of Aramaic, coupled the diverse functions that it has served in different societies, has led to the development of numerous varieties, sometimes referred to as dialects and sometimes as distinct languages. Jewish Aramaic, for example, is quite distinctive from the other forms both in lettering and grammar.


With the arrival of Arabic in the 7th century CE, Aramaic gradually began to disappear as a spoken language of everyday communication. Certain forms of it, however, have been retained to this day, largely as the liturgical language of certain Eastern Christian churches; this variety is usually referred to as Syriac. In many cases, Eastern Christianity diffused through the use of Aramaic/Syriac, even into communities that spoke other languages . But while members of those churches can chant their liturgy in Aramaic, few understand the prayers or can speak the language. Modern varieties of Aramaic, also known as neo-Aramaic, are spoken today as a first language by only a few small largely isolated communities scattered across the Middle East. The two most widely spoken forms of neo-Aramaic are Assyrian Neo-Aramaic and Chaldean Neo-Aramaic, spoken in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, and Georgia.


Recently, two Christian Arab communities in the Holy Land—one in the town of Jish in northern Israel and the other in Beit Jala in the West Bank (see map on the left)—started to teach Aramaic in their elementary schools. The Arab Israeli village of Jish is nestled in the Galilean hills near the Lebanese border and is believed to be the hometown of St. Peter’s parents. Some 60% of its 2,800 residents are Maronite Catholic, 35% are Muslim and 5% are Melkite Catholic. Sunday Mass at St. Maron Parish is partially recited in Aramaic, but the adults in the community do not speak the language. About 110 children in grades one through five have been studying Aramaic as a voluntary subject for two hours a week for the past four years. This linguistic preservation project is supported the Israeli Ministry of Education, which recently provided additional funds to extend the classes into the eighth grade. Aramaic language classes have changed the way youngsters experience the weekly liturgy: one nine-year-old student who has been studying Aramaic for two years admits that:

“Before, I used to wonder how I would get through the one-and-a-half hours at church. Sometimes we would even laugh at the how the priest was praying. But now I understand what I am saying. I love it.”

According to the school’s principal, Reem Khatieb-Zuabi, herself a Muslim woman, the classes have proven to be so popular that even some Muslim students have enrolled. Some Aramaic enthusiasts, such as Shadi Khalloul, speak to their children solely in Aramaic and dream of hearing Aramaic conversations in the streets of Jish.

In the West Bank town of Beit Jala, the Mar Afram school, run by the Syrian Orthodox Church, is located just a few miles from Bethlehem’s Church of Nativity. The elders in the community still speak the language, but it has vanished among younger generations. For the past five years, the priests at the Mar Afram school —most of them elderly—have been teaching the Syriac dialect of Aramaic to their 320 pupils.

The reintroduction of Aramaic into the elementary school curriculum, especially in the form of the  Galilee Aramaic dialect taught in Jish, is thought to enhance children’s appreciation of their Christian heritage. The hope is that the pupils will eventually use their forefathers’ language to communicate among themselves. There are signs that this might happen, as students are already using Aramaic  it to pass secret notes to each other in class. But this trick may not work for much longer, as adults too have started to learn Aramaic. In Jish, the first three-month course for adults was offered in 2006; since then a small group of adult students have continued studying on their own. They have also began connecting with other Aramaic communities in Sweden and the Netherlands.

Sweden turns out to be an important source of both learning materials and inspiration for the revival of Aramaic inIsrael and the West Bank. Swedish officials estimate that anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 Aramaic speakers who descended from transplanted Middle Easterners reside in their country. The Swedish Aramaic community has its own soccer team, “Syrianska FC”, from the town of Sodertalje. But more importantly, the community publishes a newspaper called “Bahro Suryoyo”, as well as pamphlets and children’s books translated into Aramaic, including The Little Prince. But what really helps the students learn the language is Soryoyosat, a satellite television station maintained by the Swedish Aramaic community. For some residents of Jish and Beit Jala, watching Aramaic programming from Sweden provided the first opportunity in decades to hear the language spoken outside church. Thus, modern technology helps the revival of Aramaic by making it more accessible and by increasing the learners’ motivation.

Israeli population 2009

Another source of inspiration comes from revival of another ancient language in the area, Hebrew. It too remained for the most part a liturgical and literary language for some 1,800 years before being “revived” in the late 19th century under the aegis of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his Language Committee, who viewed the renaissance of Hebrew as a crucial tool for nation-building. While many similarities can be identified between the two language revitalization projects, there is a crucial difference as well. Hebrew, in its modern form, quickly became an official language of British Palestine (in 1922). Hebrew also served as a medium of education at all levels, extending to the post-secondary level with the establishment of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1925. Aramaic, however, is not likely to gain support outside the Christian Arab community, which constitutes a small minority both in both Israel (see charts on the left) and in the lands of the Palestinian Authority.

The Aramaic revival project also remains contentious in the communities of Jish and Beit Jala themselves. The Muslim minorities in the two towns and the surrounding areas are concerned that it would drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians Arabs. Some Muslims even view the rising popularity of Aramaic classes as a covert attempt to entice their children to Christianity. Some Christian Arabs object on the grounds that the revival of their ancestral language could be used to strip them of their Arab identity. Many Christian Arabs in Israel prefer to be identified by their ethnicity rather than their faith. But tensions between Muslim and Christian Israeli Arabs have intensified in recent decades. Muslims often complain that Christian Arabs receive preferential treatment by the Israeli authorities and employers. For example, when I worked at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem some 20 years ago, all the Arabs who held white-collar jobs such as cashiers were Christians, while Muslim Arabs were assigned more menial tasks. In the West Bank as well, the Christian minority is often at odds with the Muslim Arab majority. For some, the revival of the pre-Arabic heritage is viewed as a form of alignment with Israel and against the Palestinian cause.



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