Thousands of Syriacs survived by fleeing to nearby Arab-majority countries, and hundreds made their way to the Holy Land, following routes originally learned through pilgrimage or trade. They found refuge in what would become British-occupied Palestine, and many moved into what became known as the Syriac Quarter. Today, most have moved out of the tiny compound into other neighborhoods of Bethlehem, but the area remains at the heart of community life. Atop a hill just beside the quarter sits the Mother of God Syrian Orthodox Church, the highest in the city, while a social club is located in a cavernous hall in the heart of the area.
Soon after taking up residence as the local priest, Nimeh launched a curriculum at Bethlehem’s Syriac-funded Mar Ephrem School that includes Aramaic classes, a first in community history. For over a decade, under his instruction students have been studying the community’s ancestral tongue, and a new generation of youth enrolled at the school—both Syriac and non-Syriac, Muslim and Christian—are speaking the tongue again.
The word Aramaic originally comes from “Aram,” a historical region in northern Palestine, and it became the official language of administration across the Middle East after the Assyrian Empire conquered the region and deported locals from the area. As a result of the deportation, the language spread far and wide and took root in many far-flung corners of the Empire. It is a point of pride among Syriacs that Aramaic was the lingua franca of the entire Middle East for more than a millennium.
The written language resembles an older, formalistic Arabic script known as Kufi and many letters are deceptively similar in appearance, almost like a cross between Arabic and Hebrew. The relationship actually flows in the opposite direction, however, as the Aramaic alphabet helped birth the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets and the three languages are closely related. The rhythm and sounds of Aramaic strongly resemble Arabic, and while full of cognates easily recognizable by Arabic speakers, the language is somewhat heavier on the “khs” and “shs” in terms of sound. To give an idea of the similarities between the languages, “Our Father who art in Heaven” is rendered “Abouna fi al-Sama” in Arabic and “Aboun da b-Shmaya” in Aramaic.
Although the definitively non-Christian Assyrian Empire originally spread the language across the region, today it is closely associated with the religion given the fact that Jesus spoke a version of it (albeit a completely different dialect). However, despite the central place the language has as a marker of Syriac identity, almost no one in Palestine actually speaks Aramaic. Archbishop Sewerios Malki Murad, the head of the Syrian Orthodox Church in the Holy Land and Jordan, says that today, only perhaps 10 percent of Syriacs in Palestine speak or understand the language. He added that many of the community’s great-grandparents only spoke Arabic as well. The language thus has an almost phantasmic presence in the lives of community members, a potent sign of a historical identity that few can actually parse but all take pride in.
“People are happy to see kids talking and singing in a language that their parents can’t even understand,” Nimeh says.
For Syriacs in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Palestine has become the primary homeland
So far, the language classes fall far short of a general revival, and no one in the community is expecting Syriacs to drop Arabic for Aramaic as a home language any time soon. But the hope is that the language will take on a more personal dimension for members of the community instead of being restricted to church. The use of language in religious services does not necessarily have strong implications for group identity, just as the continued use of Greek in Greek Orthodox churches around the world does not necessarily tie the faithful to that country, or as the use of Latin in Catholic churches did not necessarily engender affection for the Roman Empire.
But Aramaic is different, given that the community sees itself as an ethno-religious group tied primarily by the history of its language. Unlike their Assyrian/Syriac counterparts in northern Iraq or northeastern Syria, for whom their sense of identity is tied to physical territory where the community predominates, for Syriacs in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Palestine has become the primary homeland (even if events facing Syriacs elsewhere are closely followed). Although some have returned on visits to see their ancestors’ homes in what is now Turkey, the connection to those villages has been lost in the intervening century. In this context, language preservation is one of the few ways to hold onto the community’s tenuous history. And given the community’s limited funds, the Aramaic classes function as a crucial symbolic start for a community defined by a linguistic heritage that feels far removed from current realities.