This essay is Part Two of a three-part series by Sam Sweeney, a writer and translator based in the Middle East, who wrote most recently for the Catholic Herald about the village church of Tel Hormiz and the story it tells, of Syrian Christianity in adversity. Part One may be found here. Part Three will explore the history and development of the Aramaic language more closely, and Part Three will look at the challenges facing the people who speak it in the present and heading into the future. — Ed.
Part Two – Aramaic Then and Now
Aramaic was originally the language of the Aramaeans, a people native to what is now Syria and southern Turkey. They were one of many peoples that formed the mosaic of Mesopotamia and the Levant, alongside the Assyrians, Babylonians, Chaldeans, Hittites, Phoenicians, Jews, and many others. The Aramaeans were a menace to Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser I in the time around 1100 B.C, and formed small kingdoms with names like Bit Adini, Bit Assali, and Bit Agusi, as well as an important kingdom at Damascus. The Old Testament books of Kings and Samuel mention the Israeli kings’ battles against the Aramaeans.
Paradoxically, while the Aramaeans were conquered by the Assyrians during the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-609 BC), their language conquered its competitors and became the lingua franca of the Middle East.
The reasons for this are poorly understood, but its efficient alphabet likely helped its spread, as did the displacement of Aramaeans throughout the region. As the Assyrians became the dominant power of the region, they continued to use Aramaic to communicate, though they maintained words from the Akkadian language they used previously, some of which remain today in the Aramaic dialects used in Iraq and Syria. After the defeat of the Assyrian empire, Aramaic continued to be the region’s dominant language under the Babylonians and the Achaemenid Persians after them. Alexander the Great brought Greek culture and language further east, but Aramaic survived these transitions.
When Jesus came down from heaven for us men and for our salvation, he was a part of this larger Aramaic-speaking world. He almost certainly did his preaching in the language. Dying on the cross, he cried out in Aramaic: Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Though they were writing in Greek, the authors of both Matthew and Mark chose to leave this phrase in Aramaic as Jesus spoke it.
Aramaic was originally written in an alphabet that closely resembles the Hebrew alphabet, but by the time of Christ local varieties of the alphabet had begun to emerge in places like Palmyra, the famed city of the Syrian desert that was partly destroyed by ISIS in 2015.
In the city of Edessa – now called Şanlıurfa in southern Turkey – the emergence of a local writing system coincided with the spread of Christianity, leading to the foundation of a religious and cultural tradition that survives today.
The Edessan dialect of Aramaic came to be known as Syriac (suryoyo, in Syriac), and became the liturgical and written language of the Church across the Middle East, overlapping with Greek in the cities of the eastern Mediterranean.
Syriac became the language of the Church in the Aramaic-speaking world. But while this cultural continuum survived, the Syriac-speaking Christian community was divided politically between the Roman Empire in the West and the Persian Empire in the East. The boundaries between these two great powers shifted constantly, but roughly speaking there developed an Eastern Syriac tradition in the Persian Empire, particularly in modern Iraq and Iran, and a Western Syriac tradition in what is now Syria, Lebanon, and southern Turkey.
In the early centuries of Christianity, the Church became divided into five patriarchates: Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. The Syriac-speaking world was largely in the realm of Antioch. In 424 AD, the Syriac-speaking Church of the Persian Empire decided to split from the rest of the Church and become independent of Western control. Their leader took the title of patriarch, and this Church became known as the Church of the East. At its height centuries later, the Church of the East stretched to China and Mongolia, and the Mongolian alphabet today is a modified version of the Syriac alphabet, reflecting just how far the language eventually reached.
The split with the Church of the East came at a particularly contentious time for the Church as a whole. The so-called Christological controversies raged in the halls of monasteries, where scholars battled over the definition of Christ’s nature. Did Christ have one nature, both human and divine? Or did he have two natures, one human and one divine?
In large parts of the East, the position that Christ has one nature prevailed.
While that was only part of the reason for its split, it nonetheless made the Church of the Roman Empire view the Eastern Church as heretical. In the Syriac-speaking portion of the Roman Empire, on the other hand, much of the Syriac-speaking community rejected the middle ground reached by the churches of Rome and Byzantium, insisting that Christ’s one nature was undividedly human and divine.
The dispute led to a split in the Church of Antioch, where a faction within the Church rejected the Council of Chalcedon, held in 451 AD. Eventually those rejecting the council broke away and formed what are sometimes called today the Oriental Orthodox Churches (distinct from the Eastern Orthodox Churches, from whom the Oriental Orthodox separated directly). Though the divide in the dispute was not linguistic, it did happen that most of the Syriac-speaking Church rejected the Council, while the Greek-speaking Church largely supported it. As such, a theological divide became linguistic as well to a large extent.
The internal divisions, however, would soon pale in comparison to the next threat to the Syriac-speaking Church: the rise of Islam, and later the Mongol invasions.
As Syriac became the written language of the Church, local dialects of Aramaic remained numerous and varied. However, the beginning of the language’s decline was the advent of Islam and Arabic, which invaded the Aramaic-speaking world from the Arabian peninsula to the south. Arabic, a distant cousin of Aramaic, became the region’s primary language, and Aramaic and Syriac were resigned to a smaller and narrower piece in the linguistic mosaic of the region. Dialects became isolated from each other, and were spoken among smaller and smaller groups. Much of the Christian community continued to write in Syriac, but especially in urban areas Arabic became the language of Christian thought and life.
The transition happened slowly in some places, with writers in the early Islamic era writing in both Syriac and Arabic, depending on their audience and the topic at hand. There had been Arabic-speaking Christians even before Islam, but after Islam became the dominant religion of the region, so did the Arabic language. In some cases, communities began speaking Arabic but continued to write in Syriac, or to write Arabic in Syriac letters (called Garshuni). Elsewhere, they continued to speak Aramaic but wrote in Arabic, which is the case for most native speakers of the language in Syria and Iraq today.
And so today the Aramaic language lives on.
In places like northeastern Syria, southern Turkey, and northern Iraq, local dialects remain the spoken language of surviving but dwindling communities. In the Syriac-speaking Churches – namely the Syriac Orthodox Church, Syriac Catholic Church, Maronite Catholic Church, Assyrian Church of the East, Ancient Church of the East, and Chaldean Catholic Church – it survives as a liturgical language much like Latin before the Second Vatican Council. In places like the Chaldean Catholic cathedral of St. Joseph in Ankawa, northern Iraq, mass is given in classical Syriac and the homily is given in modern spoken Aramaic, called sureth locally. Only the Gospel is read in Arabic, along with a few hymns. In the Maronite churches of Lebanon, the mass is mostly in Arabic, but Syriac prayers remain scattered throughout the mass, with congregants reciting memorized snippets that almost no one understands.
The Syriac-speaking Church is indeed a diverse mosaic.