Patriarch Zakka on Preserving the Ancient Language of Aramaic in a Modern World
- Courtesy of the Daily Star
2 June 2004
by Yvonne Seng
Damascus. With the recent release of the film, "The Passion of The Christ,"
Aramaic has likely been heard by more people in the past months than in it's
entire history. Once the vernacular, it is now reduced to subtitles, spoken
daily by a few. The man in front of me has a less brutal way of keeping the
Patriarch Zakka sits in a gold encrusted chair in a fading cathedral in the
Old Quarter of Damascus, but the power of this holy man is not contained in
a chair. Or in his extensive title: His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I
Iwas. The power of Pope Zakka rests in words.
Pope Zakka is the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East and the Supreme Head
of the Universal Syriac Orthodox Church, the planet's second oldest church,
founded by the Apostles.
As intriguing as the longevity of the institution, is its charge to keep
alive Aramaic, the language in which Christ spoke. That is, the words in
which The Word spoke.
Words have consequence, but few take words as seriously as Pope Zakka.
We all know one phrase in Aramaic: Abracadabra. Childish magical gibberish
to the rest of us, loosely translated from Aramaic it has a vastly more
serious meaning: "Create what I speak, or, May my words be brought to life."
These are not men who dangle their participles.
The church has come within a breath of extinction at least twice in its long
history, and its survival is a miracle.
In the 6th century, following doctrinal splits in Christology, the church
was down to three tattered bishops hiding underground from persecution.
Empress Theodora, daughter of a Syriac Christian priest and wife of the
Byzantine Justinian, intervened, giving the green light for Jacob (after
whom the church is often mistakenly named) to establish missions and bishops
throughout the East, into Arabia and Ethiopia.
In the early 21st century, the church and the language so intimately linked
to it again struggles to survive. This time it has found an oddly modern
ally; the internet.
"The most important thing is that Aramaic was spoken by Our Lord Jesus
Christ," the Patriarch says. "That's why we love it. It has been the
liturgical language of our church from the beginning of Christianity and, of
course, it was the ancient language of Syria before Islam. That's also why
we love it. And we feel it is our duty and responsibility to keep it alive
because we can't imagine that, one day, the language spoken by our Lord
Jesus Christ will be forgotten. It's something we can't imagine."
Monks and holy scholars have kept the flame alive for almost 2,000 years,
but can they survive the tornado of Western culture?
Syria has been isolated from much of the recent technology and
communications boom and it is yet to be seen what will happen to these
protected enclaves when exposed to global culture and technology.
I asked the Patriarch whether he fears this will be the final demise of The
Word of God?
The internet, with its disrespect for man-made borders, is his ally.
"Technology has always been with the human being," he states. " Those who
believe the world was created by God, they will always be loving God through
Our Lord Jesus Christ."
With the help of technology - and the savvy leadership of the Patriarch -
Aramaic is undergoing revival among members of the Syriac Orthodox Church
connected across the globe and scholars attracted to its cerebral mission.
"We have many scholars here and there," the Patriarch says with enthusiasm.
"And they learn the language and they teach it and, of course, we are proud
of those people, too. And grateful, too. Yes."
Although he admits he doesn't fully understand the new technology, Pope
Zakka visited Los Angeles to bless it.
The Syriac-Orthodox Church of Antioch, formed in the time of the Apostles,
has its own website, with libraries, chatrooms, youth groups and CDs of
liturgical music for sale through Amazon.com.
Pope Zakka has his own page where you can access copies of his encyclicals
and writings. The Syriac-Aramaic language project has a worldwide center
that the peripatetic Apostle Peter, first Bishop of the church, would
definitely approve of.
For the Patriarch also, globalization and technology are positive
When asked about the commercialization of the globe and the loss of
individual identity, he shrugs it off. I'd forgotten that Syrians are
hard-wired as world traders - just check out the chambers of commerce from
Buenos Aires to Brisbane. The first in formation highway was the famed Silk
Route which moved goods and ideas from one side of the known world to the
other and terminated in Syria.
The Patriarch immediately identifies the positive and sellable side of
"We may not have McDonald's here," he says, "But we have much to offer. The
spirit. Nature. This city is a blessing of God. We call it the City of Saint
Paul, of course, because when he came to Damascus, he had the experience of
Apostle Paul is instrumental in explaining the openness of the Syriac
Orthodox Church toward technology and new ideas. The church was grafted from
Jerusalem onto Antioch, the former capital of Eastern Rome (now Antakya in
south-eastern Turkey), by Aramean and Gentile converts among the local Greek
population. A simple and central act of the Antiochians inspired Paul in his
writings on inclusiveness: converted Gentiles and Jews broke a pre-Christian
taboo by eating together at the same table.
The locals coined a new term for these peculiar church members - "Christian"
- and thereby introduced a new word into the planet's lexicon.
Inclusiveness has contributed to the quiet survival of the church and the
preservation of the language. The Patriarch greets the advent of Westernized
culture with the same careful openness.
"We have Coca-Cola here, already," he continues on his discussion of
globalization. He shrugs. "It is the same all over the world. If they don't
have Coca-Cola, for example, they have something similar to that. People
always try to get the best."
He adds, quietly: "I think we don't have our lives in the bread. We have it
in the spirit. That's something very important."
The Patriarch's concerns about the future are larger than fast food and
Western movies, or even about the continued existence of the Syriac Orthodox
Church in Syria. His concern is for the continuation of the church on this
"What does peace look like to you?" I ask the holy man in front of me.
Ceremonially poised until this question, he now slumps. He sighs deeply and
grinds his forehead with the foot of his palm.
"Ayyy. Peace, you ask?" he says, slowly. "Peace is a tired, old man."
His Holiness knows all about being tired. Even the boon of technology cannot
reduce the weight of a long history.
"Let me say," the Patriarch continues after a sigh, "in my opinion, first
there must be peace with God."
According to the Patriarch, peace between God and humankind has already been
given through Christ.
Globalization, advances in science and technology, faster communications,
these we chase after out of novelty and need. They will each impact our
present lives and the future of our planet in ways we are just beginning to
understand, but they will not bring peace. As the Patriarch says: Peace is a
given. It is we humans who don't accept the gift.
[Reproduced from Zinda (http://www.zindamagazine.com/). Yvonne Seng, author
of Men in Black Dresses: Quest for the Future Among Wisdom Makers of the
Middle East, is a cultural historian specializing in the Middle East and
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