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Land tongue-tied to God

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  • Thomas Daniel
    Land tongue-tied to God Nicolas Rothwell, in Ma alula, Syria October 26, 2004 ELI, Eli, lama sabachthani, cried out Jesus on the cross, in Aramaic, a
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      Land tongue-tied to God
      Nicolas Rothwell, in Ma'alula, Syria
      October 26, 2004

      "ELI, Eli, lama sabachthani," cried out Jesus on the cross, in
      Aramaic, a language that would have served him fairly well on the
      winding streets of Ma'alula today.

      For this little Syrian town, tucked inside a sharp ravine of the
      Kalamoun range, just half an hour's drive beyond Damascus, is home
      to 2000 speakers of the New Testament's vernacular language.

      You can still hear locals in the coffee houses and food stores
      greeting each other in its distinctive, thickly consonantal
      words: "Och Chob," they say, smiling: "How are you?"

      And in the famous monastery here dedicated to St Tecla, first of the
      female Christian martyrs, services are still routinely held in
      Aramaic, under the benign eye of Mother Superior Pelagie, a
      committed fighter for the survival of the language.

      "It's a beautiful way to communicate," she says, enthusiastically,
      demonstrating the harmonies of Aramaic with a few practical

      "In fact, it's the mother of languages. Other languages all
      originated out of Aramaic. And we feel closer to Christ because we
      use the same words that he would have spoken. There's a lot of pride
      about that here."

      Aramaic, which linguists classify as close to Hebrew, is a Semitic
      language. A version of it was used by the Jewish characters in Mel
      Gibson's recent, elaborately researched and controversial film The
      Passion of the Christ.

      Perhaps 15,000 native speakers with some mastery of Aramaic can be
      found today in remote reaches of Syria, Iraq and southeastern
      Turkey, but Ma'alula is by far the largest and the healthiest of
      those language communities.

      Aramaic was able to survive here because of the town's extreme
      isolation. Before new roads were laid, access to Ma'alula's old
      houses, many of them carved into the rock of the range-cliffs like
      loggias in a vast amphitheatre, was by ladder only. For centuries no
      one in this corner of Syria spoke any Arabic. That changed 60 years
      ago when two young Ma'alulans were dispatched to Damascus to learn
      the mysteries of the state language.

      Today, unsurprisingly, Arabic, as the language of television and
      commerce, is on the way to becoming dominant, so much so that Mother
      Superior Pelagie decided, two years ago, to set up a special school
      to help keep Aramaic alive. The school is now open, and teaches both
      written and spoken Aramaic to children and adults.

      Mother Superior Pelagie also takes heart from the support of a
      potent ally: Syria's young President, Bashar Al-Assad, whose
      portrait hangs among the devotional images of the saints on the wall
      of her receiving room.

      "When President Bashar heard that Aramaic was being taught, he was
      encouraging," she says.

      "He sent the regional governor to visit us, and he even came to
      attend a graduation ceremony."

      This demonstrative backing from the leader of a briskly secular Arab
      regime suggests something of the complexity of Syria's political
      map, and also the place of the Christian minority in the country.
      But Mother Superior Pelagie believes Aramaic is destined to endure
      as the natural language of the biblical landscape surrounding her
      monastery – a landscape of gaunt plains and towering precipices, in
      which the tombs and refuges of early saints and hermits can still be

      "When you speak Aramaic, you feel that it's a very old and deep
      language, full of emotion, and profound," she says.

      "We're very close to the roots of the Christian world here, and the
      roots of language also. Time has been flowing past this monastery
      for almost 2000 years."

      Indeed, the eventful course of early Christianity even gave the
      little town its name.

      St Tecla, a noblewoman from Anatolia who became one of the first
      followers of StPaul the Apostle, was fleeing persecution when she
      reached the austere Kalamoun range: she found her path blocked by
      sheer rock walls.

      But her prayers were answered, and the range was split in two, so
      creating a gap, or "gate", through which she passed to safety: then,
      as now, "Ma'alula", in Aramaic.


      Posted by
      Thomas Daniel (Reji)
      St. George Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, Cheppaud
      Alleppy (Dist), Kerala, India.
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