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Easter Sunday: A Syrian bid to resurrect Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ

Jesus Christ is remembered on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, but the language he spoke is all but forgotten. A controversial new language institute in Syria seeks to save Aramaic.

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The fact that it has survived in Malula today is nothing short of a “miracle,” says Gene Gragg, professor of Near Eastern Languages at the University of Chicago.

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“It would be something of a linguistic tragedy if this splendid survivor were allowed to disappear,” he added.

It would also be a travesty for Syria, says Dr. Taylor.

“Aramaic is a constant reminder of the international importance of Syria in the ancient world, when it was a beacon of learning and culture that had a profound impact worldwide,” he says. “It mirrors the cultural, linguistic and religious diversity that has always been of such great importance in Syria and is key to its long-term success.”

A last remnant of Jesus's language

Modern branches of the language are still spoken across southeast Turkey, northern Iraq, and northwest Iran.

But the dialect spoken by its inhabitants – as well as the residents of two nearby, mostly Muslim, villages – is the only survivor of Western Aramaic, the closest modern descendant to the language spoken by Jesus and his disciples.

It would, in all probability, have been spoken by the Christian martyr St. Thecla, a disciple of St. Paul whose tomb in Malula draws pilgrims from around the world.

“It’s quite extraordinary,” says Annyck Wustyn, a 63-year-old visitor from France. “In our country, where we are mostly Catholic, Aramaic is like a myth. Now I know it is a reality.”

Pushing forward with the program

Undeterred by the move to shut down his Aramaic institute, Rezkallah plans to introduce a new course this summer which, for the first time, will include a textbook using Aramaic to English translations – effectively opening up the institute to non-Arabic speaking students for the first time since it was founded.

According to Rezkallah, the dispute over the Hebrew similarities is still “being discussed,” but the institute has trained an extra nine teachers this year in anticipation of an extension of the program. The new textbook will, however, use Syriac script from the second century BC in lieu of square Aramaic lettering.

For the likes of Atallah Shaib, a young man working in his father’s restaurant overlooking the rickety houses of Malula, the fight to secure his language’s future is as important as ever.

“Aramaic is not a normal language,” says Mr. Shaib, his rolled-up sleeves revealing a series of inky blue Aramaic tattoos on his forearms. “It’s Jesus Christ’s language, and that’s the most important reason why we should keep it alive.”