This essay is Part One 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. Parts Two and 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 One – Jesus’ Native Tongue of Aramaic Survives as a Living Language
When Pope Francis makes his visit to Iraq from 5 to 8 March, it will be a trip of firsts: the first papal visit to the country, which is the ancient homeland of Abraham; the pope’s first trip abroad since the coronavirus pandemic.
While in Iraq, the pope will visit and pray with Christians who still use the Syriac language — a form of the Aramaic that Christ spoke — in their liturgical life. As Iraq’s Christian community gathers to see the Holy Father, many of them will be speaking a dialect of Aramaic amongst each other.
They are heirs of a long linguistic tradition that dates back well before Christ, a tradition whose fate is tied to the fate of the country’s Christian community.
Primarily across northern Iraq, northern Syria, and southern Turkey, pockets of Aramaic speakers remain. Scholars divide the language into smaller subsets, and the name given to the language today depends on who you ask, and in what language. In northeastern Syria, the Aramaic-speaking community is divided into two main communities. In the villages of the Khabur Valley, locals speak a dialect called sureth in the local tongue. This is usually translated to Assyrian in English (ashuri, in Arabic), and the number of speakers of this dialect of Christ’s language has plummeted dramatically in the last ten years of the civil war.
Of an original 15,000 or so residents, fewer than 1000 remain.
Elsewhere in northeastern Syria, another dialect of Aramaic, called surayit and usually translated to Syriac in English (siriyani, in Arabic) remains the primary spoken language for many followers of the Syriac Orthodox and Catholic churches. The two dialects share a common origin – the Aramaic language that was once the main language of the Middle East, only to be replaced by Arabic with the advent of Islam – but speakers of the two normally cannot understand each other. They almost always switch to Arabic when speaking together, though there are some – primarily children of mixed marriages between the groups – who can understand both dialects.
Both communities in Syria can primarily trace their more immediate roots in the area back to the Ottoman persecution of the area’s Christian communities in 1915 and 1916. The Armenian genocide is perhaps more notorious, but the killing targeted the Aramaic-speaking Christian communities as well, not just the Armenians. Called sayfo in Syriac, the incident is referred to as the Assyrian or Syriac genocide.
While the genocide brought the Syriac and Assyrian communities back into northeastern Syria, they are certainly not foreigners to the region, though their presence had slowly dwindled to the Syriac enclave of Tur Abdin and, further east, the Assyrian enclave of Hakkari, both in modern Turkey. The Syriacs did have some presence in the region already, but that was significantly bolstered by those fleeing genocide, and cities of Qamishli, Hassakeh, Qahtaniyah (Qabre Hewore in Syriac), and Derik/al-Malikiyah filled with Syriac Christians.
The modern border between Turkey and Syria was drawn, cutting off the Turkish mountains from the Syrian plains, an unnatural situation for a community used to moving between the two freely.
In Turkey before the genocide, the Syriac community was already divided between Syriac-speaking villages and other villages that had adopted Arabic. After the genocide, those speaking Syriac mostly headed to the city of Qamishli and villages along the Turkish-Syrian border. The Arabic speakers mostly went to Hassakeh, and as such today there remains a divide between the mostly Syriac-speaking Christians of Qamishli and the mostly Arabic-speaking Christians of Hassakeh.
Two decades later, after the Simele massacre of 1933 in neighboring Iraq, Assyrian Christians were settled by the French authorities along the Khabur Valley, creating a vibrant, contiguous community of Aramaic (Assyrian) speakers. While the dialects varied somewhat from village to village, there nonetheless remained a stretch of 35 villages on either side of the river where people were living their day-to-day life in the language of the ancestors and the language of Christ, at least in the abstract. Given the distance in dialect and time, it is unlikely that modern speakers of Aramaic could understand Christ’s Aramaic as he spoke in the Holy Land of the first century, just as we would find it impossible to communicate with speakers of Old English.
Fleeing from Turkey, the Aramaic-speaking communities now found themselves in the newly created state of Syria.
Syrian authorities imposed Arabic for all education, and Arabic remains the primary written language for just about everyone in Syria, regardless of their mother tongue. The two dialects of Aramaic, however, carried on as spoken languages within the community. For reading and writing, most people only learned the basics at church school, and today as people attempt to write something in the language they usually mention memories of wanting to skip summer school at the church and go outside to play instead, and lament that they can only write properly in Arabic. In the rest of Syria outside of the northeast, most Christians only speak Arabic and identify ethnically as Arabs. In neighboring Iraq, the eastern dialect of sureth remains commonplace across the Nineveh plains and elsewhere.
Similarly to Syria, the Iraqi Baath Party looked down on non-Arabic heritage and culture, and the language also remained the spoken language of tightly-knit communities.
More recently in both Syria and Iraq, the situation has changed slightly. Following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Baathist policy of allowing Arabic only was loosened, and the use of Aramaic/Syriac as a written language became more accepted. That did not lead to an immediate shift in the language’s fate, however, as Arabic has remained the primary written language of the community in both the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the rest of Iraq.
It is difficult to revive a dying language, particularly in a country where Arabic and Kurdish, depending on your location, remain the dominant languages of business, government, and entertainment. In the Aramaic/sureth-speaking enclave of Ankawa, a suburb of the Kurdistan Region’s capital of Erbil, shop signs generally include written Syriac alongside Arabic, Kurdish, or English. As a functioning written language, however, it is almost unheard of to get a menu or a receipt in Syriac. It remains a spoken language among those who know it, not a language of business or government.
In neighboring Syria, a change is also underway but has had even less time to show any significant results.
Most Aramaic speakers are in the country’s northeast, and Syria’s Baathist government mostly withdrew from the area in 2012. Shortly thereafter a local administration, called the Autonomous Administration, was set up to run the area, dominated by a Kurdish political party called the PYD. The administration has been controversial among the Christian community for a number of reasons, but several Christian parties and organizations chose to participate in the project and have asserted a right to their Syriac and Assyrian heritage as part of the area’s broader social mosaic. Unlike in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Syriac has not been relegated simply to Christian areas in this new project.
Road signs in areas with no Syriac-speaking residents now often feature towns’ names and other information in Kurdish, Arabic, and Syriac, aligning with the stated ideology of equality among the peoples of the region.
Despite these overtures to the Syriac and Assyrian community, not all have bought into the project. The Churches in particular have been resistant to the change, recognizing instead the authority of the Syrian government over the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration. Attempts to impose a new Syriac-language curriculum have been met with resistance, and for now in some schools a compromise has been reached to teach Syriac-language courses alongside the existing Arabic-language curriculum of the government.
The goal of of a generation growing up with Syriac as their primary written language remains a dream.
Despite the politics surrounding the issue, for most people the language is simply the language in which they live their life, not a political statement or tool. This is also true for many of their neighbors: In the Syrian village of al-Shalhoumiyah, for example, residents are about half Kurdish and half Syriac. When speaking to each other, the Kurds speak Kurdish and the Syriacs respond in Syriac. Likewise, Muslims who grew up in the town of Tel Tamer, once populated mostly by Assyrians but now mixed with Arabs and Kurds as well, often speak at least some Assyrian.
(I was recently quizzed on my Assyrian by a Kurdish official in Tel Tamer, who was disappointed in my lack of progress in the language. Later, sitting in an Assyrian household, he spoke in Assyrian, while the father of the household replied in Kurdish, both trying to prove that they spoke the other’s language proficiently.)
Politics aside, Aramaic in its various forms is a fact of life in the places where its native speakers remain. It has proved remarkably resilient in a tumultuous region, but the challenges facing the language are probably greater than they have ever been.
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