By Kaya Geha
Aramaic, a language that once ruled the Middle East is now facing extinction. The language assumed to have been used by Jesus and his disciples were originally spoken by the ancient Middle Eastern people known as Aramaeans; however, despite common misconceptions, the Neo-Aramaic spoken today, though similar, is no longer identical to the dialect of which Jesus spoke in. Nevertheless, its varieties are now used in small, remote communities scattered across Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Armenia, and Georgia.
Arabic was established as the primary language in the Middle East in the 7th century CE when Muslim armies from Arabia conquered the area. Larger cities started to speak Arabic while the smaller more isolated towns, due to their inaccessibility, continued to speak Aramaic to this day. Maaloula, a Syrian enclave, hosts citizens of which natively speak Aramaic. In this town, the population is predominantly Christian and is one of three surviving villages in Syria where Assyrian (Neo-Aramaic) is spoken. The other two are the nearby villages Jubb’adin and Bakhah.
Aramaic incorporates a wide range of Semitic languages and dialects, but unfortunately, many of them are dead, and the rest, endangered. Researchers estimate that within this minority, the population of native speakers reaches approximately 500,000. Moreover, religious administrators and scholars of the language say that due to the rate at which the ancient tongue is declining, almost nothing can be done to stop its extinction.
There is a substantial similarity between Aramaic and that of the Hebrew language which is ironic given the intense enmity between many Middle Eastern countries and Israel.
Fortunately, some countries in the region are attempting to revive the ancient tongue of Aramaic. One of the countries where we are seeing a resurgence is in Syria. Before President Assad, Aramaic was highly discouraged in schools. But now, the regime is encouraging Syrian students to study the language which has led to a growth in its popularity; however, it is doubtful to have any significant positive long-term impact.